“The Grand Bassa of Cameroon must play a leadership role in this regard”
Théodore Mayi-Matip, a Bassa patriarch, once wrote that the Bassa people rooted in the South-West province and/or region of Cameroon are related to Bassa people living in Francophone Cameroon. Although former Indomitable Lion and Canon Yaoundé soccer player Charly Ntamack is well known as a Bassa from English-speaking Cameroon, many Bassa from French-speaking Cameroon oftentimes forget that they’ve got siblings in Anglophone Cameroon, and that they can at times take their cue from them. “Litenlibassa.com” has interviewed Professor Emmanuel Konde, a Bassa from Limbe, so that he might briefly tell all Bassa across the globe the story of Bassa people in the South-West region of Cameroon.
Litenlibassa: Mè `nyéga à ( Greetings), magnán ( Brother) Professor Konde. You´re a Cameroonian of Bassa ethnicity; you´re from Limbe – former Victoria--, Fako division, South-West region. You live in the U.S.A. Your name “Konde” is bassa; it means “add” in English and “ajoute” in French. Can you better introduce yourself to our readers so that they may know more about you?
Professor Konde: I am Emmanuel Konde, a Bassa of contemporary Limbe. Limbe is my hometown, the town that nourished me, formed my being, and made me who I am today. I live in the United States with my immediate family but regularly visit my hometown Limbe. I am an intellectual progeny of Boston University’s History Department and African Studies Center, where I received graduate training in African History, European Diplomatic History, United States Foreign Relations, Comparative Politics, and earned the Ph.D. in History in 1991. I also obtained a Master of Arts degree in History from Boston University (1985); a Master of Arts degree in Political Science from Northeastern University in 1984, specializing in political philosophy and international relations; and, after earning the Bachelor of Arts in Political Economy in 1982 from Hillsdale College in Michigan, I studied Public Administration at the University of Houston from 1982-1983.
I have taught at Tuskegee University (1990-1991), Morris Brown College (1991-1992), Morehouse College (1992-1995), and Clark-Atlanta University (1995-1998). Prior to joining the Faculty of Albany State University in 2003, I served in various teaching and administrative capacities at Knoxville College in Tennessee, where I was first hired as Associate Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Religion, and Philosophy. In 2001 I was appointed Head of the Humanities Division and Dean of the Faculty.
As a 1998-99 teaching and research recipient of the United States Fulbright Scholar award to Sub-Saharan Africa, I was the first native Cameroonian to return to Cameroon and “missionize” as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar at the University of Buea (UB). During my year-long teaching and research appointment at UB, I conducted more research on women and politics and combined my findings with work done for my doctoral dissertation to produce African Women and Politics: Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Male-Dominated Cameroon (Edwin-Melen, 2005). This book (2005) is featured in many major research university libraries around the world and is categorized across disciplines as a work of Anthropology, History, Political Science, Sociology, Sociology of Women, African Studies, and Women’s Studies. My current research-in-progress includes two book-length monographs tentatively titled: “Political Transition in Cameroon: From Ahidjo’s ‘Old Order,’ Biya’s ‘New Deal,’ to Fru Ndi’s ‘Multipartism?’” and “Statecraft and Diplomacy: Talleyrand in French Politics and European Diplomacy.”
litenlibassa : Are most South-West Bassa from Limbe? Are there more areas in the South-West region where other Bassa have taken root?
Professor Konde: The largest number of Bassa people in the South West Province are in Limbe. Other Bassa groups can be found in the creek villages from Bonaberim to Tiko, notably in Missellele and Modoni. There are Bassa ba Buea, Bassa ba Muyuka, Bassa ba Kumba, etc. The Bassa are a migrating people and this is reflected in their settlement of the entire Cameroon coast and the interior forest region.
“All Bassa people in Cameroon have ancestral roots in someplace in Sanaga Maritime”
Is that true that you´ve got some roots in Babimbi, in the Sanaga Maritime division?
Professor Konde: Of course. All Bassa people in Cameroon have ancestral roots in someplace in Sanaga Maritime. I am not completely cut off from my roots in Babimbi. During my childhood and boyhood years, I spent every long holiday with family members in New Bell, Douala. But we never went beyond Douala. I also spent time in Yaounde with family members. I am related to the first native Protestant Pastor in French Cameroun, Pastor Paul Tjeka. I am a descendant of the Log Bassanguen clan, with branches in French and English-speaking Cameroon. I have the genealogy of the entire Log Bassanguen clan, which was passed down to me by my grandfather. The note book travelled all the way to Babimbi, Yaounde, and Douala, where members of my clan inscribed the names of their forebears, with their dap kokoa. I have never been to Nkong Kwalla (Ndom), where I am told my distant ancestors came. The closest I have been to Sanaga Maritime is Songmbengue, where my wife was born.
You´ve written, authored and/or co-edited several books so far, including “African Women and Politics: Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Male – Dominated Cameroon”; “European Invention of African Slavery: Origins of the Atlantic Slave Trade in West Africa and the African Diaspora in the Americas”; “Bassa Antiquity in Contemporary Limbe”. Can you hold forth upon the contents of the third book, “Bassa Antiquity in Contemporary Limbe”?
Professor Konde: Bassa Antiquity in Contemporary Limbe is an historical account of the migration and settlement of Bassa people in pre-colonial, pre-Victoria, Limbe. The Bassa people settled in Limbe in the 1700s, at about the same time that the Duala encountered the Bassa in the Wouri Estuary. I draw on the existing scholarship of African migration and settlement patterns, oral testimonies of elderly Bassa ba Limbe, brief life histories of selected individuals, internet discussion forum debates, and my personal experiences growing up in Limbe. I weave these strands together in my reconstruction of more than 250 years of the history of the Bassa people in Limbe. My argument is simply that for any group of people that have inhabited a location for this long, they cannot and should not be categorized as “settlers” but “ as indigenes”. The Bassa people of Limbe were well established in pre-Victoria, pre-colonial Limbe some seven or eight decades before the arrival of English Baptist missionary Alfred Saker in 1858; the Bassa were in contemporary Limbe before German colonization, and before the independence and re-unification of Cameroon.
Many have misrepresented my book as a veiled attempt to assign Bakweri ancestral lands to the Bassa. This is wrong. My book is not about ancestral lands. I merely use this “tribal” outdated concept as the point of entry into my advocacy for Bassa inclusion into the power structure of Limbe. My work is a challenge to the existing political orientation that assigns or divides up national power and wealth solely on the basis of ethnicity with special ties to ancestral lands as opposed to place of birth. Cameroon is not a country made up of ethnic polities; it is a nation-state in which national citizenship stands above ethnic-citizenship. Above all, I want to persuade the political leaders of Cameroon to rethink and replace the old notion of Cameroonians as belonging to ethnicities with the new notion of their belonging to the nation to which they should direct their allegiances and loyalties. Cameroonians resident anywhere in Cameroon should, after meeting specific and legally binding residency requirements, be allowed to participate fully in the politics of that village, town, or city. The thrust of my book is much larger than the Bassa of Limbe, much larger than any single ethnic group. It is a nationalist treatise that seeks to redefine the thrust of national policy by suggesting new ways of looking at old policies that have outlived their usefulness.
Apparently you clarify, in that scholarly work, the issue and dispute over the early inhabitants of the city of Douala and surroundings(Wouri) and the indigenes of Limbe. Will you please explain the movements of the various ethnicities who were living in those areas or who relocated to those areas in the 18th century?
Professor Konde:I have discussed this in Chapter Two of Bassa Antiquity in Contemporary Limbe. Of the three coastal Cameroonian groups that are featured in my book, the Bassa are universally acknowledged as the first to settle the Atlantic coast of Cameroon. Bassa settlement of the Cameroon coast predates the arrival of all other groups indigenous to contemporary Cameroon. Scholars of diverse persuasions, including Eugene Wonyu, Edwin Ardener, and Robert Cornevin have acknowledged the primacy of Bassa settlement on the Atlantic coast of contemporary Cameroon. Wonyu had noted that the Bassa settled the Wouri Estuary about 900 A.D. Ardener and Cornevin have both asserted that the Douala encountered the Bassa on the Wouri Estuary in the early 1700s. Ardener dates the arrival of the Bakweri in their present locations in Fako Division between 1750 and 1770, and adds that the Bakweri did not feature in the historical literature prior to 1841.
As first settlers of the Cameroon coast, it was natural for the adventurous Bassa of Cameroon who had traversed across the Sahara and much of West Africa to scout their new environment so as to understand what it held for them. Had the Duala not acknowledged that they encountered the Bassa upon arriving at the Wouri Estuary around the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, there would in fact be many skeptics arguing against Bassa primacy in that area. Although it is not recorded, some Bassa may well have navigated the Wouri Estuary all the way to the Ambas Bay section of the Atlantic coastline before the arrival of the Bakweri more than half a century later. Small bands of Bassa migrants had visited and settled in portions of the area it was named Victoria in 1858 by Alfred Saker. By the 1780s, small isolated communities of Bassa people could be found in villages along the Cameroon coast from the Wouri Estuary to Ambas Bay.
This Bassa migration, which probably began much earlier, took a new turn in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteen centuries when the Duala first made their appearance in territory inhabited by the Bassa near the Dibamba River. It is likely that the Bakweri were a splinter group of the newly arrived Duala migrants. After their long trek from somewhere in present-day Gabon, moving in nomadic bands from one locality to another, the Bakweri, like the Duala and other newly arrived migrating Bantu-speaking groups finally began settling in the foothills of the Cameroon Mountain and the surrounding areas. The early histories of these migrations were narrated orally. Similarly were stories of Bassa adventurers passed down orally from generation to generation. Some of these Bassa travelers never returned to their homeland in Sanaga Maritime, while others returned after long years of absence. This was a common pattern of migration among the African groups of Bantu-speakers who would finally settle on the Cameroon coast. Offshoots of the Duala include the Bakweri of Fako Division, the Oroko of Meme and Ndian divisions, and probably the Bafaw and Mbo. It is alo likely that the Bassa migrated and settled among the Bayang of Mamfe Division in the South West Province. I was pleasantly surprised during a research foray in Yaounde in 1989, when visiting one of my contacts, the husband called out to one of their sons: “Njock“. I could not believe my ears. So inquired: did you say “Njock“? And the answer was yes. But that is a Bassa name, I told my host. What does it mean, I inquired? “Elephant“. Njock or Ndjock is elephant in Bassa and Bayang. I am no linguist. But this is suggestive of some degree of culture contact between the two groups and, perhaps, more.
“The great work of these men must be studied carefully by the young…”
Can you talk a little bit about distinguished Bassa from the South-West region who made relevant and significant contributions to the advancement of Cameroon in many fields? Magnán, feel free to apprise all folks around the globe of the great deeds Bassa people have done hitherto in order to build up and develop Cameroon.
Professor Konde:In the Epilogue of Bassa Antiquity, entitled “Migrated, Settled, Contributed, but…” I have attempted to highlight some of the notable contributions of Bassa ba Limbe. Permit me to quote extensively from the text: “A change in attitude among the Bassa of Victoria began during the Second World War and has continued ever since. A new breed of Bassa children, markedly different from their parents and forebears, were born during this period of dramatic change. Within a small area of Victoria, inhabited mostly by Bassa people, their community produced diplomats, a slew of doctors of philosophy, medical doctors, and pharmacists, all in a single generation. Virtually all the male children of this generation, with few exceptions, would rise above the lowly status of their fathers. Among these new breed of Bassa ba Limbe were such luminaries as Messrs Martin Ntamack and John Etame, both first-rate diplomats who served their country with distinction; Dr. Peter Y. Ntamack, Dr. Peter Mase Momha, Dr. Lawrence Francis Biaka and, in Buea, Dr. Martin Z. Njeuma. Peter Ntamack was a professor of law at the University of Yaounde and contributed to the establishment of the Faculty of Law and Economics at Cameroon’s first university. As its first dean, Dr. Ntamack trained some of Cameroon’s leading lawyers and administrators. He served Cameroon throughout his entire career but never rose above the position of dean.
Dr. Momha, an economist, grew up as a neighbor of Dr. Ntamack at Half Mile on the opposite side of Rainbow Chemist. Their fathers’ compounds were separated by the home of the Messi family, whose patriarch was a Beti. Mase returned to Cameroon in the early 1970s after long years of study in the United States. He returned to Cameroon in the 1970s with the intention of establishing Yoho!, a soft-drink brewing company, and other businesses. But his efforts were frustrated by some of his own childhood friends who, out of jealousy, determined to stop him from realizing his dream.
Perhaps the most successful Bassa of Limbe is Dr. Francis Lawrence Biaka. He too was a neighbor of Drs. Ntamack and Mase and grew up in Coconut Highland. His father’s home was about 400 meters away behind the homes of his illustrious contemporaries discussed above. A physician by by training and profession, Dr. Biaka was able to save enough money working in Britain and Cameroon and this enabled him to invest in the construction of one of the finest medical centers in the South West Province—St. Veronica’s Medical Center, with a Nursing School, in the foothills of the Fako Mountain in Buea. Dr. Biaka named his medical center after his mother—Mrs. Veronica Biaka.
Dr. Martin Njeuma was the maternal grandson of Chief Kuva Likenya of Buea, the warrior king who waged two wars with the Germans and lost his life defending his territory against German colonial encroachment. Dr. Njeuma played a leading role in the establishment of the faculties of arts at both the University of Yaounde and the University of Buea, serving both institutions as dean of the faculty of arts. Although he was recognized as one of the finest historians in the country, Dr. Njeuma, like Dr. Ntamack, could only rise to the position dean and no higher. A common denominator linked these outstanding professors: both were Anglophone Bassa and thus were deemed as outsiders and denied the opportunity to serve their country with the best of their abilities.
Two other prominent Bassa ba Victoria who excelled in business were Mr. Camillus Hongla and Mr. James Mahop. Both of these men were very close friends, born and bred in Victoria, and received their training at Ombe Technical College in Cameroon and the Yaba Institute of Technology in Nigeria. Upon completion of their studies in Nigeria, they returned to Cameroon and jointly established a Radio repair shop along Church Street in Victioria. They were also contracted by Powercam, the local state-owned electricity company, to do some installation work. Their joint enterprise did exceptionally well but they eventually separated. Mahop established Mahop Electrical Company and Hongla Pan Electric Enterprises, Ltd. Both businesses grew to be very lucrative. Most of the electricians in English-speaking Cameroon were apprenticed to and received their training from Mahop Electrical Company and Pan Electric Enterprises. The electrification of West Cameroon, from Victoria Division on the coast to the remote hinterlands of Nkambe Division, was executed by Pan Electric and Mahop Electrical. Although the Bassa ba Victoria discussed above were few in number, they constituted what can aptly be termed as trailblazers in their respective fields of endeavor. Undoubtedly, these men not only paved the way by example for the younger generations of Bassa ba Limbe, but left indelible marks on the trail of time. Their accomplishments were staggering and their names, forever etched in the memory of those who know and knew them, are spoken with great pride and wonderment. The great work of these men must be studied carefully by the young so that even if they decide not to walk in the footsteps and the path that the successful who came before them had trodden, at least the lessons learned would lead them to creating equally significant pathways for later generations.“
“Few people know that our grandparents and parents were disfranchised during the 1961 Plebiscite”
What are the aspirations of Bassa rooted in the South-West region of Cameroon?
Professor Konde: The aspirations of the Bassa in the South West Province are no different from the aspirations of the Bassa anywhere in Cameroon. They merely want to be given the opportunity to serve their country with the best of their abilities. The Bassa of the South West Province and/or detest the political discrimination that they have been made to suffer in English-speaking Cameroon. Few people know that our grandparents and parents were disfranchised during the 1961 Plebiscite. They were denied the vote by the political leaders of Southern Cameroons. That was wrong. It should never happen again, especially to Bassa ba Limbe.
Bassas are getting together so as to better and systematically do their bit to the improvement of the living conditions of many in Cameroon. Are Bassas from the South-West region ready to join their brethren from French-speaking Cameroon? How?
Professor Konde:I cannot speak for all the Bassa of the South West Province. But I know that the Bassa of Limbe are willing to work cooperatively with their French-speaking brethren. One way to start building this cooperative relationship is to construct historic monuments such as schools and museums. The schools will serve as centers of learning in which all Cameroonians will be instructed about our culture-history; the museums will feature the relics of our diverse cultures drawn from across the land that emphasize the “unifying” elements among all Cameroonians. We must craft or invent a national political culture and ideology that emphasizes “Cameroonian-ness” as opposed to ethnicities. The Grand Bassa of Cameroon must play a leadership role in this regard.
Do you have a message you want to convey to all people of Bassa ethnicity all over the world?
Professor Konde:The Bassa should play a pivotal role in forging unity among not just themselves but also between them and other Cameroonian groups. We need to develop a true sense of love of country and dedicated service to the Fatherland.
Many thanks, brother Professor Konde for devoting a portion of your precious time to sharing your knowledge of your ethnicity with your siblings world-wide.
Professor Konde:The pleasure was mine. Thank you!
This interview was conducted by Mathias Victorien Ntep