Yaounde, Cameroon – Five years ago, Howard Meh-Buh studied Maximus for a PhD in microbiology at the University of Buea, the capital of the southwestern region of Cameroon. While he always enjoyed writing stories, he only shared them with friends and never really became a writer.
‘We are in Cameroon; you do not see young people [studying to] become writers – you just see it [aspiring to] become doctors, ”said the 31-year-old.
But when Maximus heard about a writing contest in the Cameroonian capital, Yaounde, he decided to apply by submitting a 300-word story. The piece got him a ticket to the program and was the reason he met Dzekashu MacViban, the founder of Bakwa, who convinced Maximus to compile short stories and essays in the English-speaking literary publishing house.
With the outbreak of the English-speaking crisis in Cameroon in 2016, Maximus begins work on a collection of short pieces on how the difficulty is affecting young people’s lives in the English-speaking North West and South West regions.
Through the teaching of Bakwa Books, he wrote essays for the American magazine Catapult, The Africa Report, and in 2018 he was one of the ten authors from Limbe to Lagos: non-fiction from Cameroon and Nigeria, a collection of short stories by Cameroonian and Nigerian authors.
Last year, Maximus applied to the Miles Morland Scholarship, a charity that annually funds writing projects of Afrikaans creative programs, and won a nearly $ 25,000 grant to produce manuscripts for a book he proposed.
“[The book] is about four friends in an acapella group: they are from different backgrounds and have different struggles – they meet each other at school, start singing and suddenly they are caught up in the English-speaking crisis. Instead of focusing on making it big in their dream, they are now struggling to survive, ”says Maximus, who is currently writing the book, and also in the United States about another scholarship he is studying for Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) at Texas State University.
He makes a long list of young regular writers in Bakwa whose works are gaining international recognition. These include Nkiacha Atemnkeng, another MFA student in Texas who also won a Sylt Foundation Writing Residency in 2018; Clementine Ewokolo Burnley, a forerunner of the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Amsterdam Open Book Prize; and Nana Nkweti, a 2019 Caine Prize finalist who has written for several American magazines and journals, including Brittle Paper, New Orleans Review and The Baffler.
” A very important part of what we did at Bakwa is to build a community for writers, ” says MacViban, who is currently writing in Germany. “Besides having a place where they can publish their work, they need a community.”
MacViban started Bakwa in 2011 in response to the closure of Pala Pala, the only English-language literature and arts issue that folded earlier that year.
Three years later, MacViban started workshops and writing contests to identify potential writers.
“There are a lot of writers with raw talents, but it takes a lot of work to turn these talents into refined brands,” he said.
MacViban also started collecting young Francophone writers and started translating pieces of the writers into both official languages of Cameroon. An example of this is Hemley Boum’s award-winning Les Jours Viennent et Passent, which won the Prix Ahmadou-Kourouma in 2020 in France.
“We are trying to build bridges, because if you look at Cameroon, there is so much division and dissatisfaction. We consider our role as mediators, ”said MacViban.
The Anglophone conflict began in 2016 when the government used deadly force to protest peaceful rallies by lawyers and teachers protesting against alleged marginalization by the country’s majority Francophone government. In response, dozens of armed separatist groups formed to fight for an independent nation they called Ambazonia. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated that more than 700,000 people have been displaced by force, and that at least 4,000 civilian casualties have been recorded.
In recent years, writers such as John Nkemgngong Nkengasong and Bole Butake have used their work to shed light on the English-speaking crisis. An example of this is Nkengasong’s Across the Mongolo – published in 2004 – which describes the life of an English-African student struggling to adapt in a Francophone area.
Cameroon’s literary style did not receive much worldwide attention until 2014, when Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian in the US, received a $ 1 million advance for the manuscripts of her debut book, Behold the Dreamers. The volume, published in 2016 and selected by Oprah Winfrey in her book club the following year, describes two families in New York during the 2008 financial crisis: one an immigrant from Cameroon and the other an affluent American family who former job. Things soured when both breadwinners in the families lost their sources of income due to the crisis.
Dibussi Tande, a political scientist and editor of Bearing Witness: Poems from a Land in Turmoil, a poetic piece addressing the horrors of the Anglophone crisis, believes “the growing recognition of emerging Cameroonian talent since the publication of Behold the Dreamers in 2016 This suggests that publishers and agents are now seriously considering the hitherto ignored Cameroonian literary talents.
“The success of Imbolo Mbue has undoubtedly put the global spotlight on Cameroonian literature, not only because Imbolo is originally from Cameroon, but because her books are partly set in Cameroon or describe many Cameroonian realities,” Tande said.
The predecessors of this new generation of writers – senior writers such as Bate Besong, Ferdinand Oyono, Mungo Beti, Linus T Asong and Mbella Sone Dipoko – have created exemplary works that are being studied in Cameroonian schools and other institutions in the country. However, the technological constraints and the long-standing language difference of Cameroon mean that they did not have access to publishing platforms and international recognition.
“The new generation is more successful than the first and second generation Cameroonian writers, not necessarily because they are more talented, but because this generation has more opportunities and exposure thanks to the internet and social media,” Tande said.