The travails and rewards of an international career once gave me the privilege
to live on the bank of the magnificent Congo River, in Mbandaka.
From my little house, I admired the solemnity of men and women on canoes or
floating villages. Some had left Kisangani. Others headed toward Ikela. Some
others would reach areas up or downstream along the mighty river. I became
hypnotized by the sheer power and serenity of the Congo, not as a passing
tourist, but as a resident who shared the life and dreams of locals.
My attraction to the scenery went beyond the superb beauty of the mythical
river. Even though I was a child of "Rio dos Camarões", born on the shores of
the Wouri River in Douala, I shared with the peoples living on both sides of the
Congo the same Bantu cosmogony; I liked the same cuisine based on cassava,
cassava leaves, fish from streams and rivers, meats and more leaves;
I loved and danced to the same music and rhythms; the mysterious but
astonishing beauty of a geography that stretched from Brazzaville to Yaoundé,
from Bangui to Gbadolite, or from Moamba to Lambaréné continued to
reinforce my soul with the necessary dose of fear, respect and passion for our
mighty equatorial forest; and so many other turns and twists of our beautiful
languages and complex history gave to diversity a meaning that challenged
common knowledge, and made unity a most challenging praxis.
All this would have been much simpler if only rivers such as the Congo, the
Wouri or the Sanaga could narrate the history these mighty serpents have been
witnessing and silently swallowing throughout the ages.
But history is never that simple.
Waking up one morning on the bank of the Congo River, I noticed that a
crocodile had sneaked out of the river, crawling around the little house built on
a slope diving straight into the water. Spontaneously, this incident reminded me
of my friend, the great Mozambican painter, sculptor and poet Malangatana
Valente Ngwenya (5 June 1936 - 5 January 2011). Near the village of Matalana,
a crocodile appeared on the river bank where his mother had just gone into
labour. Isolated and lonely, she gave birth to Malangatana, but the mother
and her baby were never harmed by the crocodile. After the boy's delivery, the
crocodile quietly returned underneath the mangrove. A legend was born. The
boy was named Ngwenya by villagers. Ngwenya means crocodile in Shangaan.
It has the same meaning in most Bantu languages from the East Coast to the
West Coast of Africa, even though with different formulations or intonations here
or there. In parts of South Africa, a crocodile is called "ingwenya". In parts of
Cameroon, is it called "ngan" or "ngando".
Years later, I traveled with my wife Jacqueline to Brazzaville. We ventured
deeper along another bent of the Congo, and once again, another crocodile
appeared. This site on the river had something special. It eerily reminded me of
a site on the bank of Cameroon's Sanaga River, precisely in Edea, where with
other school children we would hang on trees and watch crocodiles from a
safe distance. Two locations, two countries, two river cultures, but the food was
the same in both. In the Congo, the scents and taste of fish in maboke were
the same as fish in ndomba in Cameroon. Cassava leaves, whether pondou or
kpem, had the same popular appeal in both countries. Maybe Congo's
chikwanga was heavier than Cameroon's miondo or bobolo, but all three
cassava side dishes tasted and smelled identically. While Joseph Kabasele (Le
Grand Kallé) heralded in the 60s the love or rumba by Africans with
Independance cha cha, a hit in Cameroon and on both sides of the Congo,
Cameroon's Eboa Lottin's music was cherished and has remained very popular
among Congolese fans, thanks to songs such as Matumba Matumba
(Munyengé mwa ngando).
As we visited Brazzaville, we were amazed by the remarkable paintings of the
people of the river. When we met my former schoolmate and friend Nicolas
Bissek in Venice, Italy, he must have been inspired by the spices, the myths and
the history that waterways carry from one continent to the next. He explained to
me and Jacqueline why he was so attracted by the magic of these river artists.
Bissek, from Cameroon, had published two remarkable and very beautiful books
on the subject. After "Les Peintres du Fleuve Congo" (Sepia, 1995), he authored
in 2003 "Les Peintres de l'Estuaire" (Karthala). Dr Édith Lucie Bongo Ondimba (10
March 1964 - 14 March 2009), the First Lady of Gabon as the wife of President
Omar Bongo from 1990 to 2009 who wrote the second book's foreword, thanked
Bissek for having brought to light and exhibited the unique talent of these painters.
The author focused on the paintings of some of the word's most inspiring
and mysterious rivers and estuaries: Congo, Ogoué, Oubangui, Sanaga, Wouri....
The history, myths and rites of these great rivers must be what inspired the
Peintres du Fleuve Congo and the Peintres de l'Estuaire most. The talent of
painters from the School of Painting of Poto-Poto in Brazzaville - Boukou, Dzon
Iloki, Mahoungou, Mangouandza, Mpo, Mayaoulou, Ngaloutsou, Ngampio,
Opou, Sita- is bound, driven and fuelled by the same traditions, beliefs, and
cultural aesthetics that are also shared by painters from Gabon - Félix Benoît
Arsenault, Georges Mbourou, Marcellin Monko Minzé, Walker Onewin, Robert
Oyono, or those painters from Cameroon such as Blaise Mbang, Emati, Nazaire
Kolo, Francis Mbella, Othéo, and Hervé Youmbi. Bissek has shown in his books
that the sacred waters of those rivers run into their creative veins, whether in
Cameroon, Congo or Gabon.
Stanley, Livingstone, Mungo, Nachtigal
First to explore Cameroon, the Carthaginians in the 5th Century BC were initially
mesmerized by the extraordinary geography. Having perceived from the Gulf of
Guinea the active volcano of Mount Cameroon and its shape, they called the
country "The Chariot of the Gods". Many centuries later, Portuguese sailors called
it "Rio dos Camarões" or the River of the Shrimps, having been swamped by
abundant Lepidophthalmus turneranus, a variety of shrimp in the Wouri River.
The same places, history, epic stories, myths, wealth, beauty, inspiration, gravitas,
mystery must have similarly left a great impact on those individuals who were
not artists themselves, but strived to achieve other goals. Many were explorers,
travelers, envoys, adventure seeking men, wealth hungry sailors, soldiers, civil
servants, preachers, servants of God, kings or chiefs. They came to the Gulf of
Guinea or Congo Basin from far away lands. Some came from other regions
of Africa. Some were locals facing a fast changing world. These historic figures
would travel across the rivers and deep in the forests of the region.
Children, counties, cities, rivers, falls, treaties and capitals were given their
names. Those names would indeed fill history books: Mungo Park, Henri Morton
Stanley, David Livingstone, Major Hans Dominik, Gustav Nachtigal, King Douala
Manga Bell, Makoko Iloo Ier, Omgba Bissogo, King Leopold II, Paul Du Chaillu,
Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza....
These personalities, no matter how epic, and human beings nonetheless, would
have had their souls affected one way or the other by other human beings, orby
mighty mountains, great rivers, thunderous falls and mysterious forests in ways
they least expected. Europeans, Americans or Africans, German, French, Italian,
or British, Teke, Baham, Duala, Ewondo, or Baka, Fang, Myene, Punu, Nzebi or
Mpongwe, their deep fibers must have yielded to or at least echoed the spirits
that come alive in the painting that was born from a dream. The artists of the
School of Painting of Poto-Poto managed to beautifully translate it into a unique
and lively painting. It now proudly hangs -almost as if it was a subliminal treaty
between those who feature therein, on the walls of its permanent resting home,
the National Museum of Cameroon, itself a building that results from the travails
Brazza, Makoko, Chariots...
The painting is the sum of the contributions from individual human beings from
diverse cultural backgrounds. The painting, its making, its donation and its deep
meaning ends up unifying dreams and fates from different horizons, in a way
that is subtle, positive and aesthetically universal. Here, unity is no longer an
elusive goal. It is the very discourse that transcends the warm colors, creative
and spiritual shapes in the magnificent painting.
The painting also tells us that Makoko Iloo may well have seen in Savorgnan de
Brazza, much more than a white explorer. Brazza must have been appreciated
first and foremost as a human being, the humanist he were, a brother maybe.
The same could be said of the Italian. He must have seen something great in
Makoko Iloo, something greater than an African king, probably a honest,
dignified human being. The explorer's entourage that included Ballay, Chavannes,
and Attilio Pecile witnessed and lived through a truly unique historic experience.
Their first take on the event was not to underline the geo-strategic losses or gains.
Jacques de Brazza, the explorer's younger brother, who was present, narrated
the scene: "The place was crowded. The reception was held in the royal
precinct, tents were set up for shade, but there were too many people, so with
their rifles mouth down and open butts, Mpoco N’taba men propped brass forks
atop large red wool carpets shaped like a roof. That’s where I enjoyed one of
the most beautiful scenery, it was a picture in its own right, from which Fortuni
would have removed one of his many bright coloured, limpid scenes. All this
black crowd, dressed in multicoloured loincloth each covered with their own
fetishes: antelope horns, lion teeth, cock feathers, was amazing”.
One can sense comparison, excitement, surprise, respect, amazement, and a
genuine recognition of another culture's values, organization, and greatness.
Why was this possible? It could simply be that the profound impact of the natural
environment and humanity on hearts and souls had liquefied individual, ethnic,
racial, national and cultural differences into a timeless and ever evolving river
made of history, geography, and diversity. It is precisely this spirit that brings
Cameroonian together, in spite of their diversity. The value they see in these
differences encourages Cameroonians, whose blessed country includes all
shades of Africa and the continent’s geography, to further cherish their diversity
and promote unity. From Mount Cameroon to the Kapsiki, from Nachtigal to the
spectacular Lobé falls near Kribi, from Buea to Bafia, from Ndo Missomba to the
Petpenoun, from the legend of Afo-a-Kom to the legendary Manu Dibango,
from ndomba to mintumba dishes, from miondo to bobolo, from makossa to
mangabeu, and from Eboa Lottin to Messi me Nkonda, from Mora to
Nguelemendouka, from Mount Manengouba to the Adamawa Plateau, one
would hope that the positive spirits that stay awake day and night in this painting
will continue to allow the Chariot of the Gods to firmly ride the path of unity.
After all, the timeliness of unique human beings, the majesty of sacred mountains,
the power of mighty rivers, the cement of friendship that one finds in a shared meal
and treaty, the epic dimension of the crocodile, and the myths immortalized by travelers,
story tellers and artists are far superior to the politics of greed, division or abject materialism.