NOT TO BE MISSED
"Kwata, Makossa et turbulences à Kamanda ou les damnés de Kamanda", a novel by Marion DIBY ZINNANTI
Paris: Editions La Bruyère, 2002. (103p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
As the Government turns a blind eye to the crimes of the police "special forces", two local journalists decide to find out who abducted a small group of teenagers who vanished without trace. As expected, their inquiry makes waves, but death-threats and bogus accusations do not break the investigators' determination to find the truth. Over and above an interesting plot and entertaining depiction of the Cameroonian atmosphere, this novel, published a decade ago, is also a timely reminder of the risk of investigative journalism in 2013.
It all starts in the office of Douala's magazine "Democracy" where two old schoolmates are reunited after a lengthy separation. Ndonga has just been released from prison and his friend Amang, who is now the editor in chief of the magazine, offers him a job. The rumours of the juveniles' disappearance in suspicious circumstances is spreading fast and a surprise visit by Ndonga's old flame, Zeina Domba, requesting his help to find her missing son, gives substance to the rumours. That presents the newly appointed newsman with the ideal subject matter to relaunch his career.
A journalist turned politician, Ndonga had been arrested in the dead of night a few years earlier, condemned to five years imprisonment for "destabilising the republican institutions of the Land" (p.5), incarcerated and eventually pardoned by the President, two years into his sentence. Life inside had been dreadful, not least because he had been deprived of his beloved whisky during his captivity. And upon his release, it is the bottle that soothes his difficult return to the world, making up for his unhappy marriage, disillusionment with "democracy local style" and the lid put on his political activities. Yet, his despair and unending craving for a drink do not foil his desire to pursue his investigation to the bitter end, and to expose the corrupted officials holding their countrymen to ransom.
In contrast, Amang is an outgoing and flamboyant character. A fashionista at heart, he loves attracting people's attention with designer clothes and outlandish outfits, such as his well matched ochre safari suit, boots and pith helmet, that make everyone turn their heads; he loves fashionable gadgetry and prestigious cars. But showing-off does not mean that he has lost touch with reality. On the contrary. True to his family and his friends, he remains an indefatigable champion of justice and freedom of speech. Courageous and yet practical, he has no hesitation in providing his full support to his friend, even when thugs begin to shoot at him and decide to burn his car while the Police are raiding the office of the Journal. And when Ndonga is losing faith under pressure, it is he again who convinces his friend of the irreversible nature of their quest.
The gradual discovery of new clues and the unravelling of the "special forces"' evil deeds make for tantalising reading, but the hustle and bustle of busy streets, the ambience of the city and the overall concerns of the characters also contribute to the success of the book. Above and beyond the detective work of the main characters, readers will enjoy the humdrum of everyday life. The emphasis put by the author on her characters' regular visit to the "maquis" the local popular taverns and the wide range of food they enjoy eating there are definitely good examples of the power of words to nurture readers' appetites and stimulate their senses.
As Amang and Ndonga are partaking of food for enjoyment rather than mere sustenance, local cuisine rewards them at every turn. Countless "maquis" offer not only beverages to everyone's taste, but also a wide range of traditional dishes and an ideal retreat. It is thus no surprise to find Ndonga in a maquis shortly after his release from prison, enjoying "a well earned glass of whisky" (p.5), and listening with emotion to the languid Bitkutsi music aired by an old radio standing on the counter. And from this point, the redolence of fine food and the invigorating atmosphere of the maquis will follow readers throughout the narration as both men take every opportunity to enjoy a good meal. As they are interviewing Mrs Noah, who owned a small maquis in the suburb of Kamanda, the smell coming from the kitchen is too inviting for the two men to leave without asking: "is it still possible to order something to eat?" (p.29). Of course, irrespective of the time, it is never too late to have a bite to eat in a maquis and it is not long before Amang and Ndonga take their place in front of a dish of "sauce feuilles" served with corn couscous by an hostess delighted to see them appreciating her food. Elsewhere, they order a beer and "a dish of peanut sauce served with cassava" (p.48). On another occasion, it is a "chicken DG (DG standing for General Director) and skewered crocodile" (p.60). And when Amang invites his friends to a small party, food is centre-stage: "Dressed to kill, as always, Amang . . . had organised a lavish dinner. Two tables set in the climatised dining room and covered with cloth were to the point of collapse under the weight of the victuals. Corn couscous with "Nkui" sauce, mashed taro in palm oil, "miondos", some kind of cassava bread, braised yam, roasted cocoyam, plantains and sweet bananas, sauce feuilles, goat, mutton, pork and beef meat, braised chicken were among the succulent dishes gently cooked in nicely decorated pots and served with care. While Ndonga was enjoying a "ndolé", a recipe combining vernonia leaves, peanuts, smoked fish and shrimps, Amang was stuffing himself with "Etoki's" biscuits, prepared with "niébé's" beans ", and Mafany was savouring a "mongo Tchobi", a fish topped with a fragrant black sauce enhanced with pendja pepper, garlic vine grated bark and grains of paradise" (p.38). But when Amang offers his friend a mix of roasted termites and crickets prepared by an old Auntie, (p.91) Ndonga declines the offer as those delicacies are not to his taste. As in so many other matters of significance, in Cameroon like everywhere else, food appreciation stands at the intersection of a common heritage and personal taste.
While food plays a critical role in creating efficaciously what Roland Barthes coined an "Effet de réel", social interactions also contribute to bring about an overall atmosphere suggesting a strong nexus between fiction and reality. Against the backdrop of different ethnic traditions and somewhat different attitudes, Bamileke Amang and Beti Ndonga have fond memories of their ancestral village, but they are immune to perennial ethnic rivalry and work well together. Rather then dividing the group, people's different ancestral connections are brought to bear in the presence of confronting or reluctant informers. For example, it is only because the Journal's photographer Mafany recognises the accent of a bad-tempered witness ready to tell them off he introduces himself to the lady as a parent from the village that he manages to turn the tables and have her talk and provide vital information. Officially, family and ethnic solidarity is on the wane, yet it remains a strong undercurrent influencing people's intercourse and society's dos and don'ts.
People's attachment to their village of origin is also important in the novel. Ndonga remembers with nostalgia the traditional dances performed by women of his native land (p.5); the father of one of the vanished teenagers is not home when his son disappeared as "he was attending the funeral of a parent in the interior of the country" (p.26); the son of Mrs Noah takes refuge in his Uncle's village in order to escape the police (p.48); Amang drives all the way to his family village to conceal the sensitive testimony of a witness to the crime of political assassination (p.90); and Zeina Domba, the enterprising woman who has risen to the top of the socio-economic ladder by means of expediency and determination, has also strong ties with the Bamileke country where she grew up.
The enjoyment of food, social mores and a feeling of belonging are all positive attributes soothing somewhat an otherwise dreadful exposition of misery and pain. While the novel gives a positive spin to the life and achievement of its characters, it does not eschew the dire consequences of years of corruption and government failings. Greasing someone's palm is expected for every transaction and service (p.20). Ministers are involved in lucrative arms deals; Police turn a blind eye to gangsters' activities provided they get their cut (p.27); hospitals are at the mercy of racketeers (p.28); roads are dilapidated (p.25) and people infuriated by government neglect, politicians' impotence, insecurity and "special forces"' lack of accountability, begin to take the law in their own hands. Ndonga's assesment of the situation after his release from prison goes to the heart of the issue: "In spite of a steady economic growth over many years, the lot of the average citizen has not improved. And because of the hiatus between discourse hailing economic recovery and the daily reality experienced by the citizens, unease is increasingly noticable in every layer of society" (p.20).
Kwata, Makossa et turbulences à Kamanda is different from the conventional detective novels one would find in every library; it is however, a very good read that not only tells an interesting story, but also finds the right words to capture the drive, aspirations and resilience of a country longing for change. A book very much worth reading.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities