No Excuse For Effacing Official Minorities
A negligible number of Kom (people from the larger cultural area that forms part of the Western Cameroon Grassfield tribes) have ever known that adjacent Muteff village communities like Achain, Ajung, and Akeh had their distinct indigenous languages or dialects and that unfortunately with time, some of those beautiful indigenous dialects were gradually forced to disappear. This was due to the overbearing influence of the larger kom language known as ‘itanghi-kom’. Other far-flung language communities like Mbessa, Mejung, Mbueni, Mbenghas, Bum fondoms, etc, etc, have had to fight existential linguistic battles to survive the overwhelming encroachment of the kom language.
The point to be made here is that the surrounding fondoms and communities that have even succeeded in preserving their indigenous languages have been forced to master and communicate with the larger kom community in Itanghi-kom. With the Kom people’s pride and reluctance to master the surrounding communities’ dialects, members of those minority communities have over the years unfortunately, faced untold discrimination and marginalization in business, education, and service delivery.
Some surrounding minority communities have faced more derogatory remarks from the larger kom community members than Anglophones in Cameroon have received from the larger francophone community. This has not been without stiff resistance. Speakers of “mbessa”, a dialect of the Mbessa fondom in Belo Subdivision in the Boyo Division of the North West of Cameroon, more often than not, courageously resist the itanghi-kom influence by insisting on communicating with any kom wo/man exclusively in the “mbessa” dialect. Hence, the beautiful Mbessa defense mechanism: ‘ Ghes neng gheba, ma ghes kwen’, loosely translated to mean, ‘we are dissolvable two cubes of sugar’.
This sometimes creates social conflicts that hardly go overboard especially as it has never been an articulate policy of the kom fondom to assimilate other communities. This fact is demonstrated in triumphant detail by the fact that when Oku fandom in the Bui Division attacked Mbessa fandom in the Boyo Division, the King of Kom mobilized kom warriors to go defend Mbessa; and Oku was forced to retreat.
Worthy of note is the fact that those members of the minority surrounding fondoms who quickly mainstream into the Kom system soon find themselves climbing up the social, cultural, and political ladders of the Kom fondom without any problems. This is unlike what obtained in Cameroon when Yaounde authorities virtually forced RFI authorities to drop Boh Herbert as Yaounde correspondent for RFI on grounds that there can’t be bona fide francophone journalists and an Anglophone is RFI reporter in Yaounde.
Members of the Kom Kingdom may be forgiven for sometimes looking down derogatorily on surrounding minority communities’ dialects and languages. This is because Kom as a kingdom is a non-state actor in international relations. Yet, the same does not hold when a state actor like Cameroon thst since signed up to international charters, systematically looks down on an official linguistic minority like Anglophones in Cameroon.
This situation can perhaps, be captured when we flashback to a revelation made by late Christian Cardinal Tumi, to the effect that while attending a synod meeting in Rome, a French archbishop approached him and enquired whether they have completed the assimilation of Anglophones in Cameroon. The French archbishop had mistaken Cardinal Tumi for a francophone because of the impeccable French he spoke. Only to be disappointed minutes after that he had revealed a secret French plan to an opponent. This plan was more than re-echoed triumphantly during President Paul Biya’s meeting with Moh Ibrahim in France when he confessed that but for the strong attachment of the minority Anglophones to their language and culture, they would have been assimilated long ago.
It is only when one situates the two revelations in the context of what has been going on with the larger francophone community’s treatment of the minority English language that one begin to understand francophones when they insist on derogatorily referring to English in Cameroon as a ‘patois’.
‘Je ne comprends pas votre patois la’; has since independence been the staple menu served on the tables of Anglophones when they come seeking public services from francophone office holders. They say that at times with lots of arrogance and one wonders where in hell they get the guts to say that.
Having been excessively assimilated over the years and having been made to understand that they were French, francophones in Cameroon, especially those who studied in France before returning to join the administration, copied the bad example of French authorities (especially Parisians), who gave the impression to surrounding minority communities in France that the only way to be seen as cultured was to speak French. French authorities made everyone in France see the languages and dialects of surrounding minority communities as ‘patois’ (the language of the lower people) and the French language as the language of the superior people.
Used in political life and education in France then to devalue all local languages within the French Republic, ‘patois’ became the factor that enabled French to become the language of reference in the territory of the French Republic. That’s how in the construction of their French overseas territories in Africa in general and Cameroon in particular, French authorities tacitly encouraged the francophone leadership in Cameroon to consider English as ‘le patois’, to ensure the dominance of French in the new Republic. And they have done this over the years with reckless abandon, even though unlike other ‘patois’, English is supposed to be an official language of equal status in Cameroon.
Although the term ‘patois’ continues to be used in Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and France, to refer interchangeably to any minority language or local dialect; and in certain contexts with a derogatory connotation, it is rarely used in Canada, where the minority French community enjoys the same rights like the majority Anglophone Canadians.
After years of lip service in promoting and protecting the rights of the official linguistic minority in Cameroon; the government was forced to sit up. This was in response to 2016 All Anglophone Teachers Trade Unions and Common Law lawyers uprising that later resulted in the ongoing deadly armed conflict. Although the 1996 Cameroon constitution protected the English language as an official language in Cameroon, nothing beyond that showed any real political will. Today, with the National Commission on Bilingualism and Multiculturalism-inspired law on official languages in Cameroon, as well as the 2019 Decentralization Code, added to the penal code; individual Cameroonians and minority groups can effectively charge government officials and institutions to court for not discharging government business in the two official languages.
It was against this backdrop that the UN Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa, UNHR-CA, organized a two-day workshop for some 30 journalists in Douala-Cameroon, with the sole objective of updating their skills on how to dig out and report issues of linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples.
The training that took place last October 26, 2022, walked the media practitioners through relevant international, regional, and local instruments that support and strengthen the rights of linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples; as well as how they can seek redress at local, regional, and international courts.
During the training, one of the facilitators, Dr. Hilaire Kamga, Country Administrator of the African Research and Training Center for Democracy, Development, and Peace, ARTDP; disclosed that citizens can easily crumble a government by constantly bringing it to international arenas to pay reparations for rights violations. The famous Albert Mukong case (as well as hundreds of others), where the government was brought to its knees and where hundreds of millions were paid in reparations for unjustly imprisoning him, was brought back to the forefront of public consciousness.
While Anglophones who have ever been denied access to any public service in Cameroon based on their language are encouraged to demand reparations through existing and enforceable instruments; surrounding minority communities along the Muteff corridor in the Kom kingdom, (as well as other indigenous communities elsewhere); need to be actively assisted in reviving their rich mother-tongues. Fortunately for them, the UN’s educational and cultural agency, UNESCO, has since taken up the resolve to defend linguistic and cultural diversity. What with new technologies capable of enabling such communities to begin documenting and preserving for future generations, such rich cultural heritages likely disappeared with the indigenous languages of Achain, Ajung, and others.
With journalists today being drilled on how to factor in such critical minority views and sensitivities, and with indigenous people bracing up to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Indigenous peoples come December 12, 2022; Cameroon authorities would do a better job of understanding that cultural and linguistic diversity is of utmost importance in building a sustainable society.
That’s why other facilitators of the Douala training like Tricia Oben, Joseph Fajong, and Zoe did well to stress the central role journalists can play in turning around the situation. That’s why Cameroon’s very own expert on minority rights, George Ngwane, did well to skillfully design the modules to bring minorities a better understanding of others rather than conflict with them.
That’s why facilitators during the training did well to point out nuances between linguistic minorities’ rights and the rights of minorities, given that even in societies with homogeneous languages minority issues still exist. That’s why although kom is a homogeneous language community, people from Njinikom at times ignorantly assign derogatory labels to Abassakom and Belo people.