Kum’a Ndumbe III: Preserve, Promote, Protect from a Francophone / Linguistic Perspective – The AfricAvenir International Foundation in Cameroon

Paper presented by Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III at the conference "The African Diaspora Heritage Trail Conference (ADHT)", in Halifax, Nova Scotia, September 22-24, 2011.

A person whose memory has been erased cannot find the way home.

It is a great honour for me to take part in the « African Diaspora Heritage Trail Conference » held here in Halifax, Canada. I am happy to have made the trip to meet all these brothers and sisters, hailing from all over the world, whose hearts beat for humankind’s future… for a civilization that took root in the land of mother Africa. During these last five centuries, people of African descent have walked a very unique path. And today we have reached the cusp of a new beginning that will continue to grow during this third millennia, with ADHT’s program being one of the vitalizing components working towards this new African Renaissance.

Since 1985, AfricAvenir International’s main challenge has been to reawaken the erased identities of people of African descent… a people who have been subjected for centuries to self-negation and planned assimilation, adopting secondary values from others. This African awakening has caused oppressing nations to question themselves and their history with African peoples and the rest of the world. It is an awareness that, starting with the African experience, leads our people and those of other continents to seek a new commitment to one shared destiny for humankind.  

Not only did we start with a so called Francophone Africa, but Cameroon’s experience led it from being a German colony in 1884 following bilateral relations with the Portuguese to a simultaneously French and English colony in 1919 following World War I. After gaining independence in 1960 and partially reunifying the two Cameroons – the French and English parts – in 1961, today’s Cameroon is defined as a Francophone and Anglophone country that is both a member of the Francophonie and the Commonwealth. To define and present the Cameroon of 2011 as a Francophone and Anglophone country is to acknowledge the wiping out of memories and the negating of Cameroon’s national identity where citizens use more than 270 languages every day without mutual understanding, even if these languages can be grouped into linguistic categories. However, you will hear daily on the radio, on television, in schools, at parliament, even within our international exchanges, that Cameroon is a bilingual country (French and English), not a multilingual country based primarily on African languages. This is indeed the legacy of having systematically removed local knowledge systems as well as the state of decision-making structures that govern the majority of African nations in the early 21st century. nThe colonial and neo-colonial systems have shaped Africans in such a way as they live in a state of constant contradiction, caught between a heritage spanning thousands of years and today’s legacy. They must try to succeed within a system that accepts them only if they renounce who they truly are and agree to be inserted into structures of dominance imposed by others. Even armed with multiple university diplomas, modern day Africans must distinguish themselves as structurally illiterate when it comes to themselves, their past and their African environments. They must shine within models taken from elsewhere that must presumably serve as solutions to African problems. nThus, today’s modern Africa and my Cameroon are essentially based on the sustained extraverted nature of their political and legal systems, their economic structures, their cultural and religious expressions, not to mention their military defence systems which are entirely dependent on the delivery of imported materials. Despite titanic efforts from some of Africa’s leaders who are aware of this pretence, Africa is still largely managed by the long term concepts, strategies and policies determined off continent. Coveted by others since the 19th century, Africa’s immense wealth continues to grow with new discoveries being made in the African subsoil; however, instead of boosting Africa’s development and expansion, it has instead turned it into a devastating battlefield in 2011, a place of destruction caused by the strategies of others, even if some of our own people, unaware of the issues or just simply greedy or criminal, also play their part in the situation. And this bloody destruction is taking over the continent and we are the ones that are dying, not the others who attack us or who developed these sustainable strategies of domination and of extraversion.
The practice of sustainable extraversion built into the governmental and educational systems requires that modern Africans establish close contacts not between themselves or between themselves and other peoples of African heritage, but rather, if not exclusively, between themselves and their off continent master thinkers and strategists. Europe and North America become mirages and the African elite tries to identify itself within their glorified models touted as successful, its portfolio and agenda not including a major interest in pursuing privileged relationships with nations or governments of African descent in the Diaspora.

In the early 80s, when I managed the Cameroonian Writers’ Association and co-directed the Central African Writers’ Association, and given my vast experience as a university professor, I recognized that it was very difficult to modify the course of events within the formal structures in a country that calls itself Francophone and Anglophone, while it is in reality multicultural and multilingual. We had to create a space dedicated to experience and freedom, to the rebirth of a solid African standing. That is why the AfricAvenir International Foundation was created in Duala in 1985, 26 years ago.

To preserve

1- Collecting and archiving Cameroonian stories about the birth of Cameroon

When I was the head of the Germanic Studies Department at the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon, I realized that researchers from all disciplines were facing major difficulties while writing on the history of the birth of modern Cameroon. Almost all the documents were written in German, mostly in Gothic script, so the French- or English speaking Cameroonian intellectuals could not access the documents without first getting dicey translations from German students who were unsure of themselves. So in 1982, I set up a multidisciplinary team made up of germanists, historians, economists, legal experts, anthropologists and sociologists to look all over Cameroon for elderly individuals to interview who had either experienced first hand the German colonial period or who had parents who had had lived during that period. Thanks to the project “Memories of the German era in Cameroon”, we were able to record interviews with 120 Cameroonians who witnessed firsthand the German era in Cameroon, hence the birth of modern day Cameroon. Each interviewee was questioned in their own language, in French or in English. We were therefore able to gather how Cameroonians saw and interpreted the birth of modern day Cameroon. We also identified how they experienced the German colonization, and if they resisted it.

2- Translation of key texts on the period of the birth of Cameroon

At the same time as this first project, we initiated a second project primarily with germanist colleagues entitled: “Translation of key texts of the German colonial era”. The intention was to give researchers from different disciplines access to professional and reliable translations on the birth of modern day Cameroon. These two projects, despite tangible results, ended in 1986. However, they should be able to be reinitiated today, if only to make available to the public the information collected at the time and the resulting translations.  
3- Stories and proverbs collected in the Cameroonian languages circa 1880

Our research has brought us to ask ourselves: how can we find documents pertaining to our Cameroonian society before the colonial invasion? Looking through archives in Germany, we found, collected and brought back to the AfricAvenir International Foundation in Duala, more than one hundred stories, collective works and proverbs drafted in Cameroonian languages and translated into German. But most importantly, all these tales and proverbs had been collected in their original languages, in the 1880s, by German missionaries. These tales speak of the social, political and economic contexts of Cameroonian society, before the presence of any outside or colonial influence.   

4- Gathering of texts on Cameroon’s development in Cameroonian languages
Our search for texts written by Cameroonians also brought us to find in both France and Cameroon, texts in the Cameroonian languages, mostly in Duala, by schoolteachers, pastors and royal secretaries from the 1920-1930s on political, legal, economic, religious and cultural issues that were then brought back to the AfricAvenir International Foundation. These texts are especially illuminating on how societies where organised and managed prior to the colonisation.

5-  Cheikh Anta Diop Library

Having noted that students can barely even find books written by their own teaching professors in the libraries of Cameroon’s universities and must use mostly European and sometimes American textbooks, I decided to create the “Cheikh Anta Diop Library” at the Foundation in Duala. Its purpose is to buy and collect books on the birth of modern day Cameroon, the evolution of the African continent, the African Diaspora and African international relations. Another important aspect is the collecting of books written by Cameroonians, Africans and other writers of African descent. There are books written in 81 Cameroonian languages in the library as well as books in other various European languages. Books from other authors, whether they are of European origin or other, are also collected. The library currently has about 7000 volumes. Researchers who use it regularly are from Cameroon and Europe. However, managing the library has become an ongoing financial problem which is why it is only partially open to the public.
6 – Reading and press archives

French colonization restricted the number of media outlets, and this legacy carried on into the post-colonial era. The liberalization of Cameroon’s press did not happen until 1992. Through its reading room, AfricAvenir began making news items available to the public, archiving them once read. Still available in 2011, the reading room’s accessibility has often been interrupted, and on a few occasions restricted to a few titles, because of lack of funds. Collecting continues, but no longer includes all press items. International African press is no longer presented on a regular basis in the reading room. However, these archives were of great service when preparing a presentation on the 50th anniversary of Cameroon’s independence.

7- African cinema has proven to be a great instructional tool for the university, high schools and colleges, primary schools and different societal groups. nI started experimenting with it in the late 1990s, during my courses at the Free University of Berlin, at the University of Yaoundé I, in the villages of Bonendale near Duala and in the high schools and colleges in the city of Duala. The effect is real and gripping. African cinema has the ability to deliver a message that is passed on to and transforms the viewer. We have collected over 120 African films at the Foundation, which is ridiculous compared to films made by Africans or filmmakers of African descent. However, payment of licensing fees which is crucial to the survival of filmmakers poses a problem for the AfricAvenir Foundation in Duala since it does not have the financial means to do so. Thankfully these films are well distributed through AfricAvenir International chapters in Berlin and in Windhoek where they have the money to pay the broadcasting rights.

8- The collection of Cameroonian music CDs has remained the neglected child of the Foundation. nDespite having started this project five years ago, it has been discontinued before even reaching 80 titles. In 2011, we reached out again to music distributors. We hope to find a solution in 2012.

9 –Teaching and scientific research at the Masters and PhD levels on African renaissance issues nThese teachings have been available since the start of my academic career in 1975; however, coaching supported by the Foundation only dates back to 1992 when the first German students came to Duala for long term internships. Thanks to the scientific support given to researchers as well as the availability of the Foundation’s infrastructures, especially the Cheikh Anta Diop Library, many master and doctoral theses have been developed and defended in Cameroonian, German and French universities.

10 – To safeguard reflections and research results on questions of African heritage and the African renaissance, as well as on balanced international relationships with the African continentnTo this end, we launched a publishing company, Éditions AfricAvenir, in 1985 with the publication of two important books: one by Hubert Mono Ndjana, “Voyage en Corée” and one by Kum’a Ndumbe III, “L’Afrique relève le défi – projet pour un partage communautaire modern”. Because of political upheavals in Cameroon, this initiative was suspended in 1992, but was resumed in 2002 under the label Éditions AfricAvenir/Exchange & Dialogue. To date, books have been published in the languages of colonial Cameroon: in English, in French, in German as well as in the many Cameroonian languages. So far, published authors have all been of Cameroonian, African and European descent, but a first book from a Canadian author will be released in October 2011. All these authors recognize their part to play in committing to one common destiny for humankind.

To promote

If we have created these preservation structures within AfricAvenir International Foundation’s headquarters in Duala, it should be noted that they do not exist in this form at the Berlin, Vienna or Windhoek chapters of the Foundation. These chapters rather archive their promotional works in their respective countries. It should also be noted that despite the diversity of these preservation structures, the AfricAvenir Foundation buildings are not impressive, as their appearance is modest, if not outdated at times.

The job of promoting varies depending on what the national chapters of AfricAvenir International choose as their priorities to be implemented each year in their respective countries.

1 – The 2 websites

The www.africavenir.org website was created in 2002 by my Political Science students at the Free University of Berlin. After several semesters at the university, German students were offended when they heard for the first time what they were learning in my classes and how research findings on the falsification of African histories and of international African relationships should not be limited to university classrooms. They then proposed to me to set up a website to share and spread these ideas. To foster a commitment to one common destiny for humankind and to structure this project in a methodical manner, I offered a course for two semesters at the University of Berlin on how to build a website dedicated to questions on the African renaissance and balanced relationships with Africa. These political students then applied themselves to learn the basics of computer science so they could develop a website. Germany’s Eric van Grasdorff became so enamoured with the project that he wrote his master’s thesis on “African Renaissance and Discourse Ownership in the Information Age. The Internet as a Factor of Domination and Liberation”. He has remained the webmaster of this website on the African renaissance and the work of our various chapters until 2011. 3000 visitors are using daily this homepage, 75000 visitors did it last August.

The publishing house website www.exchange-dialogue.com launched by Eric Van Grasdorff in 2005 has been restructured at the Foundation’s headquarters in Duala in 2011 and is currently being managed from Cameroon. It covers publications from our publishing house as well as relations with national and international media on our activities.

2- Dialog forums and African palavers

Dialog forums and African palavers on many subjects are mostly organised by the headquarters in Duala and by the German chapter in Berlin. AfricAvenir Berlin, thanks to the high commitment of its members and to sources of financial subsidies, has become a champion over these last few years in organising regular forums, inviting Africans from their native countries to come to Germany and join in debates. The goal of these forums is to gather individuals around a table who are struggling to meet because of different political, ideological and religious barriers and to encourage them to listen and learn from each other. Forums are held in either English or French in Cameroon and in German in Germany. These same themes are presented and debated in Cameroonian neighbourhoods and villages in the language used by the community. All this happens in the spirit of an African palaver; we do not look at the time; we look for consensus.

3 – Tourism, travel and dialogue meetings

The desire to create meeting places between people from different cultures and of different origins brought us to offer the following trips between 2001 and 2009: “Discovering African spirituality”, “Understanding African care and healing”, “Reconciling modernity and tradition”, “Witnessing an African king’s enthronement”, “Preventing conflicts in Cameroon”. Trips were two weeks in length, meant for European tourists and under the supervision of the various structures existing within the Duala Foundation at the time of the trips. The effect of these trips has been extraordinary because it has changed in sustainable manner the way those Europeans see Africa. Visitors become African ambassadors within their country, not to mention that each individual brings back something that was very essential for himself or herself.   

4 – Academic internships

Academic internships offered to students last between three and nine months. European students have been taking part in this program since 1992 and our first young Canadian student arrived to us in 2011. These internships allow students and young graduates from Cameroon, Europe or elsewhere to leave the university or school structure and to take part in a mixture of theoretical and practical research. For example, a German student specializing in road construction will be made responsible for the screening of African films and for debates in a Cameroonian village for a month, with frequent power cuts, before being assigned elsewhere. These young people come out of these experiences stronger than ever and excel for the most part at their studies once they return to their country.

5 – Public readings

Public readings with authors can promote our publishing house’s books on structuring and preserving the idea of an African renaissance and our commitment to one common destiny for humankind in different languages: French, English, German and Cameroonian languages. The Berlin chapter broke new ground by introducing theatrical readings by professional actors who read excerpts from works by African authors or authors of African descent. Up until now, these readings are mostly held in Cameroon, in Germany and Austria.

6 – Storytelling, dance, theatre and concert evenings

Evenings dedicated to storytelling, dance, theatre and sometimes music and presented in various languages have been organised at the Foundation’s headquarters in Duala. In 2007, we organised a native languages competition over a three month period that involved the participation of 1500 students from 15 different secondary schools. Each student entered the contest using their native language. It is surprising to follow a story from beginning to end in a language that we do not know, only having been given a summary to follow at the beginning. These shows are also organised by the Berlin chapter who often invites African musicians to large concerts. In 2010/2011, a play was introduced with great success in Vienna by Austrian students from BRG Marchettigasse secondary school, thanks to the support of the Vienna chapter of AfricAvenir and the Austrian Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture.

7 – Book fairs

Participation in book fairs is essential to the dissemination of our books, to our ability to share with other editors, to meeting new authors and to contacting film companies capable of bring our books to the big screen. That is why Éditions AfricAvenir/Exchange & Dialogue regularly attends the Frankfurt Book Fair since 2006. We will also be participating in Paris and London book fairs in 2012.

8 – African cinema

In Cameroon, all theatres were gradually closed for various reasons, most having been transformed into Pentecostal or Revival churches. And, even when these cinemas were open, mostly Hollywood, kung-fu and second rate movies were shown. African movies were rarely shown in cinemas. That is how the idea was born in the early 90s to project African films in the Foundation’s large hall in Duala. These screenings are also planned in villages, neighbourhoods, universities, secondary schools and colleges and are accompanied by discussions. And, the Berlin and Windhoek chapters, who both have excellent programs, also regularly invite African filmmakers, directors and actors to take part in debates held in Germany and Namibia. In Namibia, AfricAvenir helped organise a Namibian movie database, “Namibian Movie Collection At The FNCC”, with the collaboration of “Joe-Vision Production” and Namibian filmmakers. As for the Berlin Chapter, it contributed to creating a website for the African filmmakers’ guild.

9 – Artists’ exhibitions

Artists’ exhibitions popped up spontaneously in 1992 and were managed by the artists themselves who had transformed one of the Foundation’s rooms into a gallery. But, given the political instability at the time, the experience was short lived. It was revived after 2005 with the guest artists in residence of Goddy Leye’s Art Bakery in Bonendale. Currently, meetings with artists from different disciplines take place at the Foundation and the gallery has been renovated. In Berlin, major exhibitions have been organised on the abolition of slavery and the participation of Africa and third world countries during the Second World War.  

10 – The “African Ingenuity– books-music-art” initiative

In a few weeks, the “African Ingenuity” initiative will be inaugurated at the AfricAvenir International Foundation headquarters in Duala. A bookstore offering publications from Africans and peoples of African descent had been opened in 1991 but did not survive the “years of fire”. Currently, a new space has been created with a variety of books by African and non-African authors on Africa, international relations and other subjects. Cameroonian music is well represented by original CDs as we are awaiting the extension to other musicians from Africa and the Diaspora. Wood, bronze and fabric craftsman also spread their wares in this space which has already proven to be too small even before the official opening.

11 – The return to Africa of treasures looted during the colonisation

The AfricAvenir International Foundation, in association with 75 German organisations, has lobbied for the return of king Kum’a Mbape (Lock Priso)’s Tangué to Cameroon, looted by the German governor Maximilian Bucher as spoils of war on December 22, 1884 in Duala and which currently sits in the Munich Museum of Ethnology in Germany. AfricAvenir also contributed to bringing to light the movement to have returned the skulls of Namibian heroes assassinated during the Herero and Nama genocide during the scramble for German South-West Africa in 1904-1908. The skulls that needed to be prepared by the widows of those assassinated before being brought to Germany as war trophies and were deposited at Berlin’s Charity Hospital should be returned to Namibia in the fall of 2011 thanks to the request of the Namibian government and to a collective mobilization effort.

12 – Renaming street names dedicated to slave traders, colonial references and war criminals.

AfricAvenir International, in association with 75 German organisations, has participated in the large movement that led to the removal of the name of the slaver Otto Friedrich von der Gröben (1657-1728) who operated in Ghana from a pier in Berlin. On August 29, 2011, the pier was renamed “Mai Ayim Ufer”, in honour of an African-German woman activist and poet (1960-1996) from Ghana who fought for the equality of people of African descent.

To protect

How can we protect this initiative, make it more visible and more sustainable and have it last beyond its already 26 years? As we did in the beginning, we must rely now more than ever on our own human, material and financial resources within the AfricAvenir International Foundation because it has been the formula that has allowed us to survive up until now. We should expand the international circle with more members, more volunteers. The magnitude of the task, however, has become such that for the project to be visible, professional and efficient and be able to reach greater numbers, a strong management framework based on an international network is needed. A link with similar structures in other African nations, with structures of the African Diaspora and with structures in different countries that work towards one common destiny for mankind without domination… this is the link that must be established with secure funding. Sharing experiences with others is crucial to our ability to remedy our approach at the AfricAvenir International Foundation. We need your experience, your know-how, your logistical, scientific, managerial and financial support if we are to enrich our journey. We would welcome the opportunity to share with you our modest experience which grew from our strong willingness to champion the development of a different world, one that is respectful to every citizen’s wellbeing and to the rules of the cosmos.


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