Yaoundé, Cameroon – Five years ago, Howard Meh-Buh Maximus was preparing a doctorate in microbiology at the University of Buea, the capital of the South West region of Cameroon. Although he always loved writing stories, he only shared them with friends and never really saw himself as a writer.
“We are in Cameroon; you don’t see the young people [studying to] become writers – you only see them [aspiring to] become doctors, ”said the 31-year-old.
But when Maximus heard about a writing competition at the time in the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé, he decided to apply by submitting a 300-word story. The play won him a ticket to the program and became the reason he met Dzekashu MacViban, the founder of Bakwa, who convinced Maximus to start organizing short stories and essays at the language literary publishing house. English.
As Cameroon’s English-speaking crisis erupted in 2016, Maximus began work on a collection of short articles on how the predicament affects the lives of young people in the English-speaking North West and South West regions.
Through tutoring from Bakwa Books, he wrote essays for the American magazine Catapult, The Africa Report and in 2018 was one of 10 writers for Limbe to Lagos: Non-fiction from Cameroon and Nigeria, a collection of short stories from Cameroon and Nigeria. Cameroonian and Nigerian writers.
Last year, Maximus applied to the Miles Morland Fellowship, a charity that funds writing projects from African creators each year, and won a grant of nearly $ 25,000 to produce manuscripts for a book he had proposed.
“[The book] talks about four friends in an acapella group: they come from different backgrounds and have different fights – they meet at school, start singing and suddenly they are caught up in the Anglophone crisis. Instead of focusing on making their dream come true, they are now struggling to survive, ”said Maximus, who is currently writing the book, as well as in the United States through another scholarship for a master’s degree in fine arts. arts (MFA) in the State of Texas. University.
He makes a long list of regular young writers in Bakwa whose works are gaining international recognition. They include Nkiacha Atemnkeng, another MFA student in Texas who also won a Sylt Foundation writing residency in 2018; Clementine Ewokolo Burnley, favorite 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 journals and magazines, including Brittle Paper, New Orleans Review and The Baffler.
“A very crucial part of what we have done in Bakwa is to create a community of writers,” said MacViban, who is currently in Germany in writing residency. “Beyond 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-speaking literary and artistic problem that had vanished earlier that year.
Three years later, MacViban began running workshops and writing contests to identify potential writers.
“There are a lot of writers with raw talent, but it takes a lot of work to turn those talents into fine brands,” he said.
MacViban has also started to bring together young French-speaking writers and has embarked on the translation of the authors’ plays into the two official languages of Cameroon. One example is Hemley Boum’s award-winning Le Jours Venir et Passent, which won the Ahmadou-Kourouma Prize in 2020 in France.
“We are trying to build bridges because when you look at Cameroon, there is so much division and dissatisfaction. We see our role as mediators, ”said MacViban.
The Anglophone conflict began in 2016 when the government used lethal force to quell peaceful rallies of lawyers and teachers protesting the perceived marginalization of the country’s predominantly Francophone government. In response, dozens of armed separatist groups formed to fight for an independent nation they called Ambazonia. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has estimated that more than 700,000 people have been displaced by violence 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 Anglophone crisis. One example is Nkengasong’s Across the Mongolo – published in 2004 – which tells the story of an English-speaking student who struggles to adapt to a French-speaking area.
Cameroon’s literary flair didn’t get much attention globally until 2014, when Imbolo Mbue, a Cameroonian based in the United States, received a $ 1 million advance for her manuscripts. first book, Behold the Dreamers. The volume published in 2016 and selected by Oprah Winfrey in her book club the following year relates two New York families during the 2008 financial crisis: one a Cameroonian immigrant and the other a wealthy American family who employed the first. . Things took a turn for the worse when the two breadwinners lost their sources of income due to the crisis.
Dibussi Tande, political scientist and editor of Bearing Witness: Poems from a Land in Turmoil, a poetic piece recording the horrors of the Anglophone crisis, believes “the growing recognition of emerging talents in Cameroon since the publication of Behold the Dreamers in 2016 seems to indicate that publishers and agents are now seriously considering Cameroonian literary talents hitherto ignored.
“The success of Imbolo Mbue has undoubtedly shone the global spotlight on Cameroonian literature, not only because Imbolo is originally from Cameroon, but because his books are partly set in Cameroon or describe very Cameroonian realities. ”Tande said.
The predecessors of this new generation of writers – imposing authors such as Bate Besong, Ferdinand Oyono, Mungo Beti, Linus T Asong and Mbella Sone Dipoko – have created exemplary works that are studied in Cameroonian schools and other institutions across the country. However, technological constraints and Cameroon’s long linguistic divide meant that they lacked access to publishing platforms and international recognition.
“The new generation is / will be 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 the media. social, ”Tande said.