Unlike prison literature in the United States, South Africa, or Kenya, Cameroon prison literature is yet to be treated as a distinct literary genre. In fact, it is not far-fetched to state that in Cameroonian academic and literary circles, books written by detainees or former detainees about their prison experiences are not considered “literature.”
In 2012, three former high-ranking government officials were sent to jail for a variety of financial crimes and published books about their prison experience. These books also explained their own version of events that landed them in jail, while casting a critical glance at the political system in which they once played pivotal roles.
Prominent among these unlikely authors are two former Secretary-Generals at the Presidency of the Republic, Atangana Mebara and Titus Edzoa, and Nguini Effa, the former Director General of Cameroon Petroleum Depot (SCDP).
These three books, which some have dubbed “literature of the sparrow hawk,” in reference to the anti-corruption campaign that landed Mebara and Nguini Effa in jail, have enriched Cameroon’s burgeoning but generally ignored prison literature which dates back to the days of President Ahmadou Ahidjo.
Here is a preliminary overview of some of the most popular prison literature books from Cameroon, beginning with those written by victims of the Sparrowhawk.
1.Nguini Effa, Jean-Baptiste. 2011. De la tour Elf à la prison centrale de New-Bell: histoire d’une déchéance sociale injuste et réflexions sur la gouvernance au Cameroun. Paris: Harmattan. (From the Elf Tower to the New-Bell Central Prison : The Story of an unjust social fall and thoughts on governance in Cameroon.)
For 15 years, Jean-Baptiste Nguini Effa was the all-powerful (some say untouchable) Director General of the Cameroon Petroleum Depot (SCDP), but in August 2009 his stellar career and opulent lifestyle came to a screeching halt when he was arrested and jailed at the New-Bell prison in Douala which has been described as “hell on earth.” This was just months after the disciplinary council of the Supreme State Control found him guilty of at least 25 counts of managerial and financial impropriety. Nguini Effa has been in « pre-trial detention” since then.
In this autobiographical work, Nguini Effa takes the reader through his once enviable jetset life, his version of events that led to his arrest, and life in jail, all spiced up with personal reflections on governance and justice in Cameroon. He says the idea to write the book came to him after his one-time cellmate, protest singer Lapiro de Mbanga, asked him to review his own prison diaries. “If Lapiro with his primary school education could tell his story, then I also had the duty to tell my part of the truth,” he said in an interview.
2.Atangana-Mebara, Jean-Marie. 2011. Lettres d’ailleurs: dévoilements préliminaires d’une prise de l’Épervier du Cameroun. Paris: l’Harmattan. (Letters from elsewhere: Preliminary revelations of a catch of the Cameroonian Sparrow hawk. With a preface by Cardinal Christian Tumi)
Jailed since August 2008 for embezzling public funds, Mr. Mebara a former Minister of State in the Biya government and former Secretary General at the Presidency, published his own version of the events that led to his detention in the Kondengui Maximum security prison in Yaounde. The book, which is a series of letters to his loved ones – his mother and daughter, friends, and public personalities, also provides an insight into life behind bars and a critique of the Cameroonian justice system
3.Edzoa, Titus. (2012). Méditations de prison (Yaoundé, Cameroun). Echos de mes silences. Paris : Karthala (Meditation from Prison: Echoes of my Silence)
On April 20, 1997, Professor Titus Edzoa, former Minister of Health, former Secretary-General at the Presidency, and President Biya’s one-time personal physician to the President announced his intention to be a candidate in the 1997 presidential elections. Edzoa who had just resigned from his position as Secretary-General was arrested, tried for embezzling state funds, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Although his 15-year sentence is over, Edzoa is still in jail as a new set of embezzlement charges have been brought against him, thereby reinforcing the widespread view that he is in jail primarily for an act of lèse majesté, the president having viewed his intention to run against him an act of War.
Meditations is not a prison diary as such but a book, consisting of prose and poetry, in which the author meditates on a vast array of issues, including of course, his time in prison. In one poem, he describes his prison cell as a cold concrete coffin which has drastically limited his vital space while paradoxically becoming a mirror to his soul and a shield against inopportune intrusions:
« La prison, ma prison,
Ce sont ces murs glacés de cercueil en béton
Qui ont réduit à l’extrême mon espace vital !
Non sans peine, j’ai fini par les intégrer,
Comme des cloisons vivantes de ma nouvelle demeure.
J’y ai reflété mon âme,
Et les mêmes murs sont devenus mon miroir,
Ma protection, jaloux de toute intrusion intempestive. »
4.Teyou, Bertrand. 2012. L’archipel des pingouins : L’histoire des otages français que Sarkozy refusa de libérer. Paris: A vos pages. (Penguin Archipelago: The story of French hostages whom Sarkozy refused to set free.)
In 2010 Bertrand Teyou was arrested, summarily tried, and jailed in the New Bell prison in Douala for his scathing and very unflattering book about Cameroonian first lady, Chantal Biya, titled La belle de la république bananière: Chantal Biya, de la rue au palais (The belle of the banana republic: Chantal Biya, from the streets to the palace). In prison, he shared his days with prisoners referred to as “penguins,” who’re permanently crouching by the walls of the prison yard, and who eat from makeshift buckets placed on the floor, sleep on filthy rags, and cram into every nook and cranny when it rains – a one-way mirror on the suffering of a people held hostage. While in prison, Teyou had a strange encounter with a former agent of the French special forces who was involved in negotiations to free French citizens held hostage in Arlit in Niger in September 2010.
In this book, Teyou paints a damning picture of prison life in Cameroon, and recounts the improbable story of the lies allegedly told by the Sarkozy government about the French hostages.
5.Mukong, A. W. 2009. Prisoner without a crime: disciplining dissent in Ahidjo’s Cameroon. Mankon, Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa Research and Publishing CIG. [Originally published in 1985]
Doughty human rights crusader, Albert Mukong was incarcerated for six years in some of Cameroon’s worst detention centres under the despotic regime of late President Amadou Ahidjo. This book details his personal account of the discipline and punishment that the Cameroonian state has systematically dished out to dissidents who have dared to stand their ground. Until his death in 2004, Albert Mukong was without doubt, Anglophone Cameroon’s most conspicuous political prisoner, spokesperson and champion human rights advocate. The particular detention he recounts in this book is evidence of how nationalists such as Ruben Um Nyobe, Ernest Ouandie, Bishop Ndongmo and others, have in their struggles sacrificed enormously so that freedom and democracy might see the light of day in their reluctant Cameroon.
6.Herbert, Boh, and Ntemfac Ofege. 1991. Prison Graduate: The Story of Cameroon Calling. [Cameroon]: United News Service.
Boh Herbert and Ntemfac Ofege were the founding crew of the top-rated Cameroon Radio Television, CRTV, program, Cameroon Calling. They served time alongside eight other journalists and three university lecturers at the BMM Kondengui following the May 6, 1990 edition of the program which called for the reinstitution of multiparty politics in Cameroon.
“There is no way the walls of BMM Kondengui can be scaled… They soar beyond 15 metres and at the top stand two lines of coiling barbwire. The inner line prevents escape. The outer one (built for no apparent reason) actually insinuates that someone outside the prison is nuts enough to seek admission without the consent of the landlord…
The inmates wake up to line up behind each other and take turns urinating on the little mountain of faeces in one corner of the cell, chipping it off and scattering the pieces onto the floor. There is something unique about uncomfortable prisons. Sometimes the heat helps detainees forget the prison and sometimes, the prison helps them forget the heat… CAMEROON CALLING saw it all. This book is the story. A TRUE STORY.”
7.Mukong, Albert. 1992. My Stewardship in the Cameroon struggle. S.l: s.n.
While Prisoner Without a Crime was about the six years that Albert Mukong spent as a political prisoner in Ahidjo’s jails, My Stewardship is “another touching account of torture, merciless beatings, derisions, imprisonment without trial, ostracism, and repudiation by friends and relatives.” The first arrest, which culminated in a year in jail occurred in 1988 following a “subversive” interview to the BBC, and the second arrest came a few months later in January 1990 when Mukong was jailed with nine others and tried before the Yaounde Military tribunal in the famous “Yondo Black affair,” considered the catalyst for the return to multiparty politics in Cameroon.
In the book, Mukong also gives an account of the role he played in the formation of Cameroon’s leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Front SDF, and argues that the federal system is the most appropriate state structure for Cameroon.
In a classic case of six degrees of separation, Denis Ekani, who occupies a prominent place in Mukong’s book as President Biya’s sympathetic but helpless Secretary of State for Internal Security who orders Mukong’s arrest after the 1988 BBC interview, also features prominently in Atangana Mebara’s prison memoirs as his favorite uncle and trusted lawyer determined to fight the inhumane and unfair Cameroonian justice system…
8.Bityeki, Emmanuel. 1992. Tchollire: The Mount of birds. Cameroon: s.n. [Translated from French by Zesseu Tankwa, and Aatsa Atogho. Originally published as Tcholliré la colline aux oiseaux.]
Emmanuel Bityeki is an engineer from the Ecole Centrale de Paris. Soon after he returned to Cameroon, he was arrested and whisked off to Tchollire, the most notorious political prison in the country , where he pined for a long time. Even though this is a work of fiction, it is based primarily on Bityeki’s experiences, and many of the characters will be identifiable to Cameroonians familiar with that period in the country’s history.
Tchollire is the Peuhl word derived from “Tcholli” and “Re”.Tcholli is the plural form of the word in Sondou designating a bird. “Re” means spot, place or mountain. Tchollire is thus translated as “The Mount of Birds”. Although the term Tchollire sounds quite poetic, it epitomizes the most (in)famous and terrifying prison in Cameroon.
9.Daïssala, Dakolé. 1993. Libre derrière les barreaux. Paris: Editions du jaguar. (Free behind bars)
From 1973 to 1984, Dakolé Daïssala worked at the Cameroon Urban Transport Authority (SOTUC), from 1973 to 1975, first as Deputy Director-General, then as Director-General. During the failed April 6, 1984 coup against President Biya, Daïssala was arrested and jailed for seven years without ever being tried or even charged. He was released in 1991 and went on to hold several ministerial portfolios in the Biya government. In 1993, he published his prison experience in a book titled Libre derrière les barreaux (Free Behind Bars) which also dwelt extensively on the politics in Northern Cameroon, particularly the plight of the Kirdis.
10.Njawé, Pius. 1998. Bloc-notes du bagnard: prison de New Bell, Douala, Cameroun. Paris: Ed. Mille et une nuits.(The Convict’s Notebook)
Puis Njawe, publisher of Le Messager newspaper and arguably the most celebrated Cameroonian journalist, was arrested in 1997 after publishing a story that Biya had collapsed while watching the national football finals. He was charged with “spreading false news” and sentenced to two years in prison. He was released on October 12, 1998 following a presidential pardon.
During his time behind bars, he published his prison experience in a bi-weekly column which appeared in Le Messager titled Le Bloc-notes du bagnard (The Convict’s Notebook) which were subsequently published in book form.
11.Wakai, Nyo’, and Christine Wakai. 2000. Inside the fence: Reminiscences as a detainee. Bamenda, Cameroon: Patron Pub. House.
In this book, retired Supreme Court judge Nyo’ Wakai tells the story of his arrest during the State of Emergency declared in the Northwest province following the controversial October 1992 presidential election. Justice Wakai provides harrowing details of his violent arrest at his home in the early morning of October 28, 1992 and relives “the indignity and mental torture and inhuman condition” which detainees were subjected to at the Brigade Mixte Mobile (BMM) in Bamenda where they were held:
We were treated like common criminals. I witnessed young men beaten and degraded beyond any human imagination. Passing one through the balançoire and beating of the soles of the feet were common features for the treatment meted out to the detainees.
Inside the fence also tells the story of Nyo’ Wakai and 172 Others vs. the State of Cameroon, the case that precipitated the end of the state of emergency in the Northwest province after the Bamenda High court freed 37 of the detainees and granted bail to the others – an action which infuriated the Biya regime which then secretly and illegally transported the detainees to the Kondengui prison in Yaounde, where they were brought before the State Security court, but released on their own recognizance following a popular revolt in Bamenda.
Forthcoming Prison Books
Lapiro de Mbanga. Cabale politico-judiciaire ou la mort programmée d’un combattant de la liberté (Politico-judicial cabal or the scheduled death of a freedom fighter), forthcoming.
In September 2008, Cameroonian protest singer Lapiro de Mbanga was sentenced to three years for his “complicity in the looting, destruction of property, arson, obstructing streets, degrading the public or classified property and forming illegal gatherings”. This stemmed from Lapiro’s alleged role in the February 2008 nationwide riots against the high cost of living and a planned constitutional amendment to eliminate presidential term limits. Prior to the riots, Lapiro had composed a song titled “Constitution Constipeé,” which became the unofficial anthem of the riots. His supporters claimed that he was being persecuted for his anti regime stance.
In his forthcoming prison memoir, Lapiro argues that the Biya regime uses the justice system as a tool to silence and eliminate its real and perceived adversaries. He also paints a grim picture of life in prison. As he said in an interview after his release on April 9, 2011:
“I tell people that if I hadn’t gone to prison I wouldn’t be a whole man. Going to prison gave me a chance to see the misery of my fellow men. Of course some people go to prison for blameworthy acts, but that doesn’t stop them from having rights. And those rights are ignored. You might not believe it, but in a prison like Douala, you don’t get enough to eat. You don’t have a place to sleep if you don’t pay a warden to sleep in a cell. And so you sleep right on the ground, out in the courtyard, under the rain. If you don’t have money, you can’t get treatment in hospital. So then what happens? You die from lack of care. I went there, I saw it, I brushed death with my finger.”
Kameni, Joe La Conscience. La longue marche pour la paix de Loum-Yaounde via Kondengui (The Long March for Peace from Loum to Yaounde via Kondengui) forthcoming.
In February 2008, political singer Joe La Conscience (whose real name is Kameni Joe de Vinci) embarked on a 320-kilometre “long march for peace” from his native town of Loum to Yaounde, to protest against the planned constitutional amendment to eliminate presidential term limits in Cameroon. Kameni was arrested outside US embassy in Yaounde, summarily tried, and sentenced to six months in jail for organizing “illegal meetings and demonstrations.”
La longue marche pour la paix…is the story of Joe’s long march from Loum to Yaounde, and his stay in Kondengui.
This brief review of Cameroon prison literature demonstrates, if need be, that this is an emerging and important literary genre which needs further study to fully grasp its significance and locate its place among the various strands of modern Cameroon literature. For now, it is primarily a literary genre which provides an insight not only into little known, forgotten and/or often ignored parts of our history (e.g., Mukong, Dakolle), but also sheds light on the merciless politics of power at the helm of the Cameroonian state (Mebara, Edzoa), and exposes from the inside, Cameroon’s justice system which is at the beck and call of the executive branch, and the country’s inhumane carceral system.
Unlike prison literature in the United States, South Africa, or Kenya, Cameroon prison literature is yet to be treated as a distinct literary genre. In fact, it is not far-fetched to state that in Cameroonian academic and literary circles, books written by detainees or former detainees about their prison experiences are not considered “literature.” However, as Arnold Erickson points out:
Prison has been a fertile setting for artists, musicians, and writers alike. Prisoners have produced hundreds of works that have encompassed a wide range of literature. Works by prisoners, such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, are counted among the great classics of literature. Books describing the prison experience, including the Autobiography of Malcolm X, inspired an audience far outside the prison walls.
Hopefully, Cameroon prison literature will sooner rather than later leave the margins to become part of the country’s literary mainstream because, to quote Cameroonian writer Patrice Nganang, « La littérature Camerounaise s’écrit désormais en prison » (Cameroonian literature is henceforth being written in prison). This will become even more so when that literature ceases to be the Chasse Gardée or preserve of political dissidents, prominent artists and writers, and high ranking government officials who have fallen out of favor, to include the experiences of the man-in-the street who ends up in jail, far from media and national scrutiny, for real or imagined crimes.
NOTE: If you know of a book written by a Cameroonian about his or her prison experiences which is not on this list, please leave a note in the comments section with the book title and name of the author. Thanks!
Originally published in Scribbles from the Den