No Effacing Official Minorities: A Call for Change
By Colbert Gwain
A small number of individuals from the Kom community in Western Cameroon have grown up unaware that neighboring Muteff village communities like Achain, Ajung, and Akeh have their distinct indigenous languages or dialects. Unfortunately, over time, some of these beautiful indigenous dialects have been gradually forced to disappear due to the dominant influence of the Kom language known as ‘itanghi-Kom’. Other distant language communities such as Mbessa, Mejung, Mbueni, Mbenghas, and Bum fondoms have had to struggle to preserve their languages against the encroachment of the Kom language.
It is important to highlight that the surrounding fondoms and communities that have managed to preserve their indigenous languages are still compelled to master and communicate with the larger Kom community in Itanghi-kom. The pride and reluctance of the Kom people to learn the dialects of these minority communities have unfortunately resulted in discrimination and marginalization in various aspects of life, including business, education, and service delivery.
In some cases, derogatory remarks from members of the larger Kom community towards the surrounding minority communities’ dialects and languages surpass the discrimination faced by Anglophones from the Francophone majority in Cameroon. However, there have been acts of resistance. Speakers of “mbessa,” a dialect of the Mbessa fondom in Belo Subdivision in the Boyo Division of the North West region, often courageously resist the influence of itanghi-kom by insisting on communicating exclusively in the “mbessa” dialect with any Kom person. This exemplifies the Mbessa defense mechanism: ‘Ghes neng gheba, ma ghes kwen,’ which loosely translates to ‘we are undissolvable two cubes of sugar.’
This resistance sometimes leads to social conflicts, but they rarely escalate beyond control, particularly because the Kom Fondom does not have an articulated policy of assimilating other communities. A clear example of this can be seen in the fact that when Oku Fondom in the Bui Division attacked Mbessa Fondom in the Boyo Division, the King of Kom mobilized Kom warriors to defend Mbessa, forcing Oku to retreat.
It is worth noting that members of minority surrounding fondoms who assimilate into the Kom system quickly find themselves climbing the social, cultural, and political ladder of the Kom fondom without any issues.
While members of the Kom Kingdom may sometimes look down derogatorily on the dialects and languages of surrounding minority communities, it is crucial to recognize that the Kom Kingdom is a non-state actor in international relations. However, this is not the case when it comes to a state actor like Cameroon, which systematically looks down on an official linguistic minority like Anglophones in the country.
To understand this situation, one can recall a revelation made by the late Christian Cardinal Tumi. While attending a synod meeting in Rome, a French archbishop approached him and inquired whether they had completed the assimilation of Anglophones in Cameroon. The French archbishop had mistaken Cardinal Tumi for a Francophone due to his impeccable French. However, he inadvertently revealed a secret French plan to an opponent. This plan was later triumphantly echoed during President Paul Biya’s meeting with Moh Ibrahim in France, where he confessed that if not for the strong attachment of the Anglophone minority to their language and culture, they would have been assimilated long ago.
When considering these revelations alongside the treatment of the Anglophone minority by the larger Francophone community, one begins to understand why Francophones derogatorily refer to English in Cameroon as a ‘patois’.
“‘Je ne comprends pas votre patois la'” has been a common phrase used by Francophone office holders to denigrate Anglophones when seeking public services in Cameroon. They often say it with arrogance, leaving one to wonder where they find the audacity to do so.
Having been excessively assimilated over the years and made to believe they were French, Francophones in Cameroon, especially those who studied in France before returning to join the administration, emulated the bad example set by French authorities (especially Parisians). French authorities gave the impression to surrounding minority communities in France that speaking French was the only way to be considered cultured. They labeled the languages and dialects of these minority communities as ‘patois’ (the language of the lower people), while promoting French as the language of the superior people. This devaluation of local languages within the French Republic extended to political life and education, enabling French to become the dominant language within the territory.
In constructing their French overseas territories in Africa, including Cameroon, French authorities tacitly encouraged the Francophone leadership to consider English as ‘le patois’ in order to ensure the dominance of French in the new Republic. This attitude has been perpetuated over the years, despite English being an official language of equal status in Cameroon.
While the term ‘patois’ is still used in Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, and France to refer to minority languages or local dialects, often with a derogatory connotation, it is rarely used in Canada. In Canada, the minority French-speaking community enjoys the same rights as the majority Anglophone Canadians.
After years of paying lip service to promoting and protecting the rights of linguistic minorities in Cameroon, the government was compelled to take action in response to the 2016 uprising by the All-Anglophone Teachers Trade Unions and Common Law lawyers, which ultimately led to the ongoing armed conflict. Although the 1996 Cameroon constitution theoretically guarantees protection for English as an official language, there has been little political will beyond that. 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 have the means to take government officials and institutions to court for not conducting official business in the two official languages.
In light of these developments, the UN Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa (UNHR-CA) has been training journalists and media practitioners from across Cameroon on how to uncover and report issues affecting linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. These training sessions educate media practitioners on relevant international, regional, and local instruments that support and strengthen the rights of linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples. They also highlight the avenues available for seeking redress at local, regional, and international courts.
Dr. Hilaire Kamga, Country Administrator of the African Research and Training Center for Democracy, Development, and Peace (ARTDP), has emphasized that citizens can effectively hold governments accountable by consistently bringing them before international courts to seek reparations for human rights violations. The well-known Albert Mukong case, among many others, serves as a reminder of how the government can be held accountable and forced to pay reparations for unjust imprisonment. Anglophones who have been denied access to public services based on their language are encouraged to demand reparations through existing and enforceable instruments.
Furthermore, it is crucial to actively support the revival of rich mother tongues in surrounding minority communities along the Muteff corridor in the Kom Kingdom, as well as in other indigenous communities elsewhere. Fortunately, UNESCO, the UN’s educational and cultural agency, has taken up the task of defending linguistic and cultural diversity. With new technologies available, these communities can begin documenting and preserving their rich cultural heritage for future generations, thereby preventing them from disappearing like the indigenous languages of Achain, Ajung, and others.
With journalists now equipped to consider critical minority perspectives and sensitivities, and with indigenous peoples preparing to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples in December 2023, Cameroon’s authorities should better understand the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity in building a sustainable society.
The training in Douala, led by facilitators such as Tricia Oben, Joseph Fajong, and Zoe, highlighted the central role that journalists can play in bringing about positive change. George Ngwane, Cameroon’s expert on minority rights, skillfully designed the modules to foster a better understanding of others among minority communities, rather than fueling conflict.
During the training, facilitators also emphasized the distinction between the rights of linguistic minorities and the rights of minorities in general. They acknowledged that even in societies with homogeneous languages, minority issues persist. Despite Kom being a homogeneous language community, people from Njinikom sometimes ignorantly assign derogatory labels to Abassakom and Belo people.