Francophone, Anglophone… Cameroonian? Musih Tedji Xaviere on Telling the Story of Her Country’s Struggles

I’m sitting by the window of my high-rise London flat, a steaming cup of tea cradled in my hands as I gaze out at the city sprawled beneath me. It’s a chilly winter night, and I’m thinking how I hate the cold, missing the warmth of Cameroon, wishing I could go back. But guilt immediately drenches me because deep down I know how lucky I am to have gotten out.

Many writers like myself have sat in filthy jail rooms, night after night with very little hope of rescue, wishing they could be where I am, or at least wishing that they did not have to face persecution in their own country simply for pointing out the cracks in leadership and demanding fair treatment.

I’ve been told to be cautious of what comes out of my mouth since I was in primary school, living in a quaint village nestled behind an A-shaped hill in Njinikom. It started with aunties pulling my ear when I asked why grandma’s second husband had three other wives—Sunday school says a man is supposed to have just one wife, or why we—the grandchildren—were not allowed to enter his quarters or sit on that stone in the middle of the compound or talk under that tree at the entrance—he was a renowned witch doctor—he died a Christian. I was a plethora of whys.

In high school, I asked why the principal wouldn’t sack that male teacher who was rumored to be chasing female students, or why that girl with rich parents never got punished for neglecting school chores. Why couldn’t we have a new president—this one’s old and doesn’t even fix our roads, and why do we always have to follow the English teacher’s boring instructions—I think this essay would read better if I open with the ending and finish with the start. Why can’t we be friends with that girl any more just because she was caught kissing another girl—lesbianism is biology, not demonic, duh. I got caned in school a lot for questioning authority and thinking outside the box and my mates would sometimes say with scorn, “Ms.-I-Know-My-Rights, why can’t you just be like everyone else?

It is this complacency that sabotages our collective peace, that stifles progress and reduces us to puppets, stripped of power and agency.

But I was like everyone else. I wanted to be liked, to have friends, to not have my ears pulled, or my palms caned constantly, so I stopped questioning everything, out loud at least. This is how I found writing. It started with me journaling my unwanted thoughts because I’d realized that in written word form, hidden away in a book, no one would find them. Unexpectedly, I fell in love with writing. It became not just a sanctuary where I could express myself freely, but also a place where I could explore other fantasies.

I wrote a romance novella when I was thirteen, about a king and a poor village girl falling in love. I’m sure I would be greatly embarrassed by the grammar mistakes if I went back and read that book, but it was well received at my school, and I heard it went around from dormitory to dormitory, girls queuing to read or to be read to. I became popular for it, not just that I was also a great Nigerian movie narrator, drawing a crowd on the weekends. I would even go as far as to self-publish a young adult fiction novel, Fabiola, years later.

What I learned from this experience was that people are more comfortable with topics that are widely accepted or encouraged by their culture. If you want to be accepted by society, to be liked, stick to the topics that are not perceived as controversial or sensitive. After I learned this skill, the weight of my fears began to break off and my life became so much easier.

It was in 2016, many years later, when the protests started in Cameroon that I felt my discontent at the world burst free from the cage I’d erected around my mind. Lawyers, teachers and activists were protesting in the streets over what I like to describe as the government’s attempt to assimilate the English-speaking parts of the country into its majority Francophone system. I bet the idea was, “If we appoint Francophone judges to Anglophone courts and send Francophone teachers to teach in Anglophone schools, over time Anglophonism won’t exist in Cameroon anymore and the Anglo-fools or les Bamendas”—as Francophones like to call us—“will be none the wiser about how it happened.”

It was a clever attempt, really, which backfired. The images on social media were gory, stories circulating of police opening fire at unarmed protesters, important structures engulfed in flames, and a memorable photo of three young men using a giant slingshot to supposedly fire rocks at officers. And while all of this was happening, the president kept silent. We waited and waited for him to address the nation, but what he did instead was shut down the internet to keep the world from finding out what was happening in the country. I sometimes think that if he had come out immediately and acknowledged that there was a problem in his country, that the killings could have been avoided, the suffering that ensued—even to this day, with people fleeing from home and villages being set ablaze by soldiers. Silence aggravates people.

I put my romance/young adult fiction writing aside in those days and I wrote angry articles instead: about how Francophones, some of whom were my colleagues, neighbors and friends, were adamant about maintaining the narrative that there was no Anglophone problem in Cameroon. I wrote about how the president has never addressed the nation in English, even though he can speak the language—there’s a 1986 video of him on YouTube reading a speech in English at the White House. Doesn’t he know that by refusing to speak in English, he’s refusing to acknowledge or represent Anglophone interest? I wrote about how the government was so successful at silencing its citizens that even people from neighboring countries like Nigeria did not know that there was a civil war ravaging Cameroon.

I typed with rage, but I was a coward. I could not click send when it came time to query international journals and magazines. There was a wave of arrests outside my window, of journalists who had reported on the situation in the country. I woke to news of Mimi Mefo’s arrest, for alleging on social media that the military was responsible for the death of an American missionary. Next was Samuel Wazizi, another journalist, who died in jail—his body has still not been returned to his family. Tsi Conrad, filmmaker and photographer, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for sharing footage of violent clashes between police and unarmed protesters. Writer and poet Patrice Nganang was picked up at the Douala airport for “insulting the president” in an article. The list goes on.

Most of these activists are charged with acts of terrorism and national security crimes. It’s been an effective warning to those who dream of following in the footsteps of these brave men and women. And I got the message loud and clear. I deleted my essays and articles on the subject. To stay safe in Cameroon is really simple: don’t say anything. And what I’ve gathered from my French-speaking friends is that they would rather live in complacency than have a disruption of peace. However, it is this complacency that sabotages our collective peace, that stifles progress and reduces us to puppets, stripped of power and agency.

I hope to live my life with a fraction of the bravery demonstrated by Cameroon activists before and during the unrest.

In 2020 when Covid barged into the world, my perspective on life shifted. It was clear to me that the world was ending from the way people were dying left and right. I realized I didn’t care anymore about my fears, the object of my limitations. I didn’t care anymore what the head of state and his oppressive regime thought. I was born to question the world around me.

My debut novel, These Letter End in Tears, was born out of this new mindset of indifference to consequences. This is how I feel, I’m going to write about it, and this time I’m going to be more courageous, I’m going to be brave. I even dared to touch the topic of homosexuality—and if anything is considered worse than criticizing the government in Cameroon, it is homosexuality.

I set my tea cup down on the window pane and stand. I love the way night transforms London. I think of the city at night as a boundless black canvas with thousands of glimmering lights painted on it. The city hums even through double-glazed windows, and I’ve learned to fall asleep to the sound. After my book’s acquisition by the US publisher Catapult in a pre-empt and then in the United Kingdom by Jacaranda Books, I grew worried for my safety upon its release.

On a Zoom call with my agent, Maria Cardona at Pontas Agency, and my publisher, I expressed my concerns. I remember my mentor, JJ Bola (author of The Selfless Act of Breathing) telling me to think carefully about it. He said I had the option to publish under a pseudonym if I feared for my safety. It was a difficult decision for me. I have friends and family I was reluctant to leave behind. I had spent all those years building a life for myself only to pack it all up in two suitcases and restart in a new country. But as much as I love Cameroon, it can feel suffocating, especially for someone like me with the tendency to walk outside the lines. Leaving meant I could finally breathe.

Even now, living in the UK, I still fear for my safety sometimes. My book is out in the world now, it was released on March 12th 2024. I’m an overthinker, and my mind often goes, what if there’s a loophole in the rules that protect people like me? A friend once likened my fear to a trauma response, said it’s been ingrained in me. I hope to live my life with a fraction of the bravery demonstrated by Cameroon activists before and during the unrest, all in the hopes of a free, fair Cameroon.

One thought that comes to my mind often is that Cameroon would be better off without French and English. It’s sad to think that, decades after he got on his ship and sailed off, we are still living by the colonial master’s rules. We’ve been brainwashed into identifying ourselves as Francophones/Anglophones instead of just Cameroonians.

There are over 250 native languages spoken in Cameroon—including my favorite, Duala—one of which could easily become our official language. I know if we washed the colonial master’s vernacular off our tongues we would still find things to fight about, it’s the human way, but at least this time our battles would be of our own choosing.


these letters end in tears

These Letters End in Tears by Musih Tedji Xaviere is available from Catapult Books.

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