René Philombe’s Acceptance Speech (1992)

[This acceptance speech appeared originally in French in African Literature Association Bulletin 18, 3 (Summer, 1992), pp. 27-32. It has been translated by Ahmed Sheikh Bangura of the University of Alberta- ED.]

We are gathered here today to relive throbbing, painful and warm moments, and to pay a new homage to the memory of the man whom all Cameroonians should rightly consider to be a monument of culture. As I said, these moments are at once throbbing, painful and warm because we are celebrating the memory of a great man whom we will never see again in flesh and blood, but whose memory teaches us so many lessons. Bernard Fonlon is, therefore not dead. He is alive and will always be in our midst.

I would like to thank her Excellency, the Ambassador of Canada, who kindly accepted to grace this intimate and simple award ceremony with her presence. I also want to thank Professor Victor Anomah Ngu, the president of the Fonlon Foundation of which I am a humble member. Professor Victor Anomah Ngu has with remarkable brilliance been able to preserve the endearing image of Fonlon. My thanks also go to Professor Richard Bjornson, who was kind enough to travel all the way from the USA, defying the exhaustion of this journey, in order to personally hand over this important cultural prize.

What an honour for me! What pride and what excitement as well! It is very difficult for me to adequately express these three feelings, which I am going through right now. Allow me. Ladies and gentlemen, as I accept the prize bearing the illustrious name of Bernard Fonlon, to relive a very special memory I have of him.

It was in 1963 that I had the opportunity of meeting Fonlon-Nsokika Bernard. At the time, he belonged to that pleiad of Cameroonian intellectuals who, after completing solid studies abroad, courageously accepted to return to the mother-country to dip their industrious hands into the Cameroonian (African) “potopoto” in order to contribute to the building of the nation. This was a courageous act at the time because, back then, Africa was shaken by violent jolts and unending turbulence: military coups, civil wars, political assassinations, denial of the most basic freedoms and the perversion of justice in all its forms…. All this forced so many worthy intellectuals to flee and led to the horrendous suppression of literature and culture.

The mere presence among us of a man of Fonlon’s stature was reassuring. I personally owe him a lot. He was the first academic to take the membership card of the Association Nationale des Poètes et des Ecrivains Camerounais (APEC) of which I was secretary general for 20 years. His registration boosted our morale because the other academics residing pompously in the ivory towers of their degrees said with a smile of contempt that those without university degrees had no right to talk about literature or culture. However, our scorners failed to admit that some of the best writers in the world did not have university degrees. It is useless to mention their names: the list will be too long.

Fonlon had no problem mixing with ordinary people. I can still recall his several visits to my humble residence in the Nlongkak neighbourhood. Those visits always gave me goose bumps and worried me deeply. A minister in the bedroom of an insignificant outcast! That was enough to scare anyone. He had no hesitation to extend his humility to sitting down on my bed, to having me take a photograph with him. One day when I told him that our relationship will jeopardize his position as a minister, he smiled and said:
“There is no Cameroonian law prohibiting a Cameroonian minister to socialize with a fellow Cameroonian.” This reply touched me deeply. I felt strong feelings of brotherhood for him taking roots in my heart.

The openness of Fonlon could easily lead one to rank him among opponents of the regime. He never hesitated to say what he thought. He felt so strongly about freedom of expression that he rebuked African heads of state who reduced their people to silence. This is what he wrote in an open letter to African students:

Men in power who try more or less to stifle thought no matter how seemingly plausible the excuses they put forward, can deprive the world of great assets, cause irreparable harm and be guilty of unpardonable crimes against humanity. This has already happened and our duty is to prevent it from ever happening again anywhere in the world.

And he added in the same acid tone:

No policy is more myopic, more foolish, indeed, more cruel than the one which reduces those who think to silence, which threatens their lives or threatens to have them perish behind bars. On the other hand, leaders would be demonstrating profound wisdom and clear-sightedness if they considered differences of opinion as a perfectly normal thing, as one of the characteristics of a healthy society.

Fonlon agreed with Mao Tse Toung when the latter exclaimed in one of his fine moments: “Let one hundred flowers bloom and leave one hundred schools of though contend with each other.” But he vehemently opposed the Cultural Revolution started by the same head of state. He implicitly called for the organization of a big forum, a National Conference where all voices will be heard; And he called for this at a time when torture camps in Mantoum, Tchollere and Yoko, euphemistically called civil re-education centres, were fully operational. One has to admire the courage of Fonlon. As a very devout Catholic, Fonlon Bernard deeply regretted not having taken the Orders. His religious commitment did not, however, make him close-minded. On the contrary, he always maintained excellent relations with clerics from different denominations. And one can say that he led a life of a lay priest till his death. As a champion of tolerance, he refused to get too involved in religious arguments. Faith to him was sacred and inviolable. He wished that nations and people could exist within an ecumenical framework both from the religious and cultural points of view. In his journal, Abbia, he gave an excellent example of this spirit by having around him people of all persuasions.