Literature in Cameroon is characterized by the fact that the country is composed of many people groups who have different languages, and of the country’s varied and complicated history.
From oral to written literature
Like many African countries, Cameroon has a rich oral literary tradition that goes far back in time. Also characteristic of Cameroon is that several of the youngest writers want to build on this tradition. This has led to the youngest authors to a greater extent dealing with historical motifs, while the authors in the decades after independence were mainly concerned with issues of the contemporary period.
In the 1950s, Oyono published three novels that were of great importance for the development of literature in the French-speaking part of Africa.
Several literary historians emphasize that Cameroon’s written literary tradition only emerged after the country became independent in 1960. It was at this time that the literature in the country gained a certain scope. By contrast, the first written literature from Cameroon came into being in the early 1900s while the country was still a German colony.
Literature in many languages
Today both French and English are official languages of the country. The written literature is in both languages, but French is most widely used in the literature. During the colonial period there was also some literature in German. There is also literature in Arabic. Most Cameroonian writers write either in French or in English, but some use both languages, and among them there are also some who also use African languages, especially different Bantu languages.
Nationalist attitudes are not very widespread among Cameroonian writers. Several of them are supporters of the pan-African movement; they consider themselves primarily as Africans and not as representatives of a particular African nation. The way sub- Saharan Africa has been divided into nations is largely understood as a result of European colonial politics.
Literature in Cameroon before independence
There is some disagreement about what must be considered the beginning of Cameroon’s written literature. There are some books from before and after 1920 written in German by African writers. Several of these were priests, such as Father Kum’a Nndumé. The most well-known of them was probably Joseph Ekolo, who had traveled around Europe and wrote the book Wie ein Schwartzer das Land der Weiszen (“How a black man views the white land”). Some writers of this time also wrote stories and other types of short prose. None of the German-language writers from Cameroon are particularly well known in posterity, and for example, the authors’ birth and death years are unknown.
As the first novel written by a Cameroonian author, Nnanga Kôn (“The White Ghost”) of 1932 is considered by Jean-Louis Niemba-Médou (1902-1966). This is a life depiction written in the African language bulu. The book achieved great success, and it has appeared in several new and commented editions, including the 1980s.
Political independence and literary renewal
French language plays an important role in Cameroon, and a significant part of the country’s literature is written in French. Admittedly, fiction was hardly written in French before 1950, but immediately before and just after the country’s independence a number of important French-language writers emerged. Two of the most famous figures were Ferdinand Oyono (1929–2010) and Mongo Beti (1932–2001). Both have written satirical and socially critical novels and short stories about the impact of colonialism on African society. Mongo Beti in particular has also written very critically about the dictatorial regime in independent Cameroon.
Another figure born at the same time was Francis Bebey (1929–2001). He was also known internationally as a singer, musician and music scientist. Also mentioned are René Philombe (1930–2001, pseudonym of Philippe Louis Ombédé), Guillaume Oyôno-Mbia (born 1939), Patrice Kayo (born 1942), Rémy-Gilbert Medou Mvomo (probably born 1945), Yodi Karone (born 1954, pseudonym for Alain Ndongo Ndiye) and Werewere Liking Gnepo (born 1950, pseudonym for Eddy Liking).
Authors in opposition
Most writers of this generation have a strongly critical attitude to the political and social development in Cameroon after independence. René Philombe is a convinced Marxist and writes prose, drama and lyric with strong social involvement. His best-known book is the novel Un Sorcier blanc à Zangali (“A White Magician in Zangali”) from 1969.
Patrice Kayo, a late advocate for the literary négritude, has worked in many literary genres and is also known as a literary scholar, editor and publisher. Yodi Karone has written both drama and novels, and he is one of several writers living in exile in Paris. His books are very critical of what he views as the neo-colonialist Cameroon. This is expressed in the allegorical novel Le Bal des caïmans (“The Crocodile’s Ball”) of 1980. À la Recherche du cannibale amour(“In Search of the Cannibal’s Love)” from 1988 shows his international orientation. Here, the title is inspired by Marcel Proust’s great novel. Karone has not published books of significance since 1988.
In Cameroon, several prominent female writers have also emerged. Characteristic of many of them is that they want to develop new literary forms that are better suited to convey women’s world of experience. The first female writer from Cameroon is considered Thérèse Kuoh-Moukouri (born 1938), best known for the debut novel Les rencontres essentielles (“The Decisive Encounters”) from 1969. She has written several novels and short stories as well as a number of articles that show her feminist basic attitude. Rabiatou Njoya (born 1945) has written popular comedies that attack corruption and abuse of power, as well as short stories and poetry collections.
A prominent figure among Cameroon’s female writers is Werewere-Liking Gnepo (born 1950). She has also been noted as a theater manager and ethnologist. Her works have a modern feel, but are also heavily indebted to the ancient oral literary tradition that is so important in West Africa.
Several of Cameroon’s most prominent young writers are women. Among them are Calixte Beyala (born 1962) who has won numerous awards for her novels. Her books are also characterized by her oppositional thinking and provocative opinions. She has been accused of plagiarism in several cases, but these allegations have been partially withdrawn.
Many of Cameroon’s youngest writers have chosen to live in France. This applies, among other things, to Léonora Miano (born 1973). She has also attracted attention with her books and received several awards. In 2008, she published five short novels that constitute a unit: Afropean et autres nouvelles (“Afropean and other short stories”). Here she launches a word that in Norwegian could become “Afropeer”. It denotes a person of African ethnicity, but who has grown up in Europe and is therefore also characterized by European attitudes and values. She further believes that in order to convey the perception of reality to such a person, a special literary form of expression must be developed. For Miano, it is natural that this form could be a linguistic imitation of jazz and African music. Another important issue with her is the relationship between the way today’s African women are oppressed and European practices in the 19th century when they took African slaves.
Literature in English
Cameroon also has writers who write in English. Sankie Maimo (1930–2013) is regarded as the first English-language author. He believed that Africans should acquire European values to make social and cultural progress. The most famous of the English-language writers is Mbella Sonne Dipoko (1936–2009). His lyrics and stories are characterized by strong erotic images. He was also an avid defender of the English culture in Cameroon and critical of the dominant role of the French language in the country.
Another important representative of English language in Cameroon was the lyricist and playwright Bate Besong (1954–2007). Among the youngest writers who write in English is Bill F. Ndi (born 1964). He has a large production that encompasses many genres. Among his books is also an essay collection that deals with the relationship between classical poetics and African literature.
Several writers from Cameroon write in both English and French. Bill F. Ndi has published books in French. Both the novelist Médou Mvomo and the playwright Oyôno-Mbia also write in English. In addition, some Cameroon writers have published books in African languages.
Stagnation or renewal?
In the period before and after 1960, when a significant part of the country gained its independence, many important writers emerged in Cameroon. However, it is often said that the time around the turn of the millennium was a period when literary life in the country stagnated. It has been thought that the political development of the country was a major reason for this because very many literary talents chose to move abroad, mainly to France. Several of them more or less entered the literary life of their new homeland. It has also been pointed out that around the turn of the millennium, being a writer or a cultural worker in Cameroon lost much of its prestige. If a young person were to succeed in his or her home country, he or she would rather have to invest in a future in economics or technology.
On the other hand, there are certain signs that this trend is about to reverse. Central figures in Cameroon’s social life have in recent times wanted to emerge as messengers. Since Cameroon does not have scholarship schemes for young writers in line with what one has in most European countries, their efforts are important. For example, they have purchased parts of the editions of books by the youngest authors and given them to schools and libraries. One who has benefited from this scheme is Eric Mendi, a young writer who is still so little known that one does not even know when he was born, but who has nevertheless made great success in Africa lately.
After its debut in 2009, Mendi first won an award for the novel Opération Obama in 2012. This book garnered much attention in parts of the French-speaking world. In 2016 he then released AFANE – forêt equatoréal (“AFANE – equatorial forest”). For this novel he received an even more important award, which he won in front of Tahar Ben Jelloun and other of Africa’s most well-known literary figures. In the book, Mendi depicts the life of a Bantu tribe. They lack most things that can make life easier and that today’s people take for granted, but at the same time, there is a certain balance in this society that makes life bearable for members. However, this condition does not last long when Europeans come to them and initiate their more or less well-intentioned improvements. Mendi does not write quite as aggressively as, for example, René Philombe or Yodi Karone. He ridicules more than he does, and it is said that this makes him a typical representative of the literature of our time.
Publishing and Literature Research
Cameroon has a relatively well-developed publishing system, and books are also published by authors from other African countries. At the universities of the country, especially in the largest city of Yaoundé, there is a high level of literature studies – especially studies by the country’s own authors. On the other hand, there are many practical problems associated with obtaining a doctorate in Cameroon, which is why many young researchers in the country are taking their degree abroad. In recent years, a number of Cameroon literary researchers have been defending their doctorate for the doctorate at the University of Bergen. In this way, the country’s literature has also become better known within the literary science environment in Norway.