Vivid voices unveil prized vitality

Cameroon's Tycoon - Memoirs of a Mbororo - Swedish Ventures in Cameroon 1883-1923
September 12, 2003

In an age of increasing commercialisation, it is unusual to find a publisher prepared to devote time and resources to the presentation of unglamorous background documentation of interest to a niche academic market. All the more credit, then, to Berghahn for continuing its Cameroon studies series with the first two of these volumes that offer scholars important early German and Swedish material on the region in an accessible and well-annotated form.

Max Esser, as portrayed here, was an intriguing figure in his own right. An aspiring merchant banker and future managing director of the Westafrikanische Pflanzungsgesellschaft , he was heavily engaged in the promotion of Germany's belated attempts to form a world empire and his particular obsession was the development of the plantation system in south Cameroon. He was initially imperially honoured for this account of a visit to Cameroon and Angola in 1896. But ethnography was a sterner business in those days than today and allegations questioning the authenticity of his adventures and slyly noting his Jewish ancestry could be met only with a challenge to a duel and his ultimate disgrace in a court of honour.

Such concerns may seem outdated, but these pages ring with the first mention of questions that would become endemic to colonial and even contemporary politics: the problem of local land shortage in the face of plantation encroachment, the reluctance of locals to become labourers, the need to import outsiders, both willing and coerced, and the effect of world prices and networks on local trade. But perhaps the memoir's greatest interest at this stage of knowledge lies in the early ethnographic material it provides on the Bali-Nyonga and nearby peoples, who were simultaneously too worldly wise and too uncorrupted to accept the colonial role assigned to them. All this is enhanced by the excellent scholarship of the editors, and included is an essay on Esser's collection of "fetishes" now in the Linden Museum.

Knut Knutson was a Swedish adventurer and trader whose memoir forms the principal element of Swedish Ventures in Cameroon . It is a document rich in descriptions of the satisfactions and griefs of pre-colonial life at the end of the 19th century. Having established pioneering relationships with the boisterous peoples around Mount Cameroon and explored parts of the hinterland, Knutson and his fellow countrymen are disgusted to find the Germans taking over the area in 1884 with an excess of military zeal and a blatant disregard of existing land rights that included their own.

Henceforth, a lifetime's litigation in the German courts clearly sours and fixes Knutson's views and his contempt for the viciousness of German rule - especially under von Puttkamer (described as "half drunk as usual") - grows alongside his estimation of the local people. Writing long after the event, Knutson sometimes lards his tale with bookish information from extraneous sources, but there remains a core of fresh, personal observation with enough detail of names and places to make this an excellent historical source on everything from religion to elephants and the contemporary German "slave trade" in indentured labour. What emerges is a vivid picture of that absurd and lethal period when Swedes, British and Germans were jostling for possession of the area while desperately seeking to justify that blind covetousness in rational economic terms.

It is not surprising that Knutson's memoir should have been adapted into a novel (Per Waestberg's Bergets Kalla ) since it is infused with the character of its author, and, indeed, all these records of fact are hard to read without the intrusion of moral judgements about their writers and their still-shocking aggressiveness and greed. The last volume, Henri Bocquene's Memoirs of a Mbororo comes, therefore, as something of a welcome relief in this eloquent record of wilful human misunderstanding.

Like many Cameroonian researchers of the 1970s and 1980s, I knew "P re Henri" well and looked forward to seeing him on visits to the city. By then, his own days of wandering the bush in pursuit of nomads were over and he had converted his cell in the Ngaoundere monastery into a sort of recording studio whose walls were lined with tape-recordings of interviews with his beloved Mbororo informants. The fruit of those years of research finally appeared in French in 1986 and became, against all the odds, a minor bestseller even awarded a seal of approval by that most cerebral of French ethnographers, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

It is the life story of Ndudi Umaru, a colourful and slightly louche character, well-known on the Ngoundere scene, whom Pere Henri taught to read and write - not in French but in his native Fulani - in return for participating in that odd conversation that constitutes ethnographic research. But Ndudi's life, for all its rich incidents, provides a mere frame on which to hang a discursive account of Fulani experience so that it contains information on children's games, puberty, cattle-rearing, joking relationships, underage sex and the uses of cattle dung - everything that enters into that complex notion of pulaku , the Mbororo way, that sets them off both from total outsiders and their sedentary Fulani cousins. But the youthful Ndudi, starved and tormented by a wicked stepmother, is also a sort of outsider, driven out by his developing leprosy that forces him to experience the alien world of city life. From here, he falls into the ultimate shame - not begging, stealing or being flung into a Nigerian prison, but the ineradicable disgrace of having to live as a cultivator. Further excitements follow, the Nigerian civil war, a brush with Muslim fundamentalists and sexual adventure while earning his living with a sewing machine. P re Henri has done an excellent job of effacing himself and preserving Ndudi's own voice through these various recensions as it speaks of magic, Islam, folktales, the bullet-proof Hausa and they carry the authentic ring of Ndudi's own ethnic arrogance and cultural blindnesses. It was always said of Pere Henri that he liked the Mbororo far to much to ever bring himself to preach to them. If so, then evangelisation's loss was ethnography's gain.

Nigel Barley is an anthropologist and writer, formerly on the staff of the British Museum.

Cameroon's Tycoon: Max Esser's Expedition and its Consequences

Author - E. M. Chilver and Ute Roeschenthaler
ISBN - 1 57181 988 6 and 310 1
Publisher - Berghahn
Price - £47.00 and £17.00
Pages - 204

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