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“We are the revolutionary party of buns and butter. We do not have theory. We have lunch, and then tea, and after that supper.”
The Cameroonian writer Yaoundé, originally named Paul Desuétude, was born in 1939 in the coastal town of Kribi. During the fight for independence in French Cameroun he fought with the "buns-and-butter" guerrillas of the UPC. Taking the nom de buerre Yaoundé, he became famous for his call to literary arms: "The pen is mightier than the sword, and the felt-tipped marker is greater than the gun!" In point of fact, at the Battle of Bamileke nearly 3000 Cameroonese wielding El Marko felt-tips were massacred by French troops with carbines.
Yaoundé was plunged into despair when he heard of the killings. "You fool," he shouted at the rebel Commandant, "I meant it allegorically! Like Cardinal Richelieu!" The Commandant smiled knowingly. "Yes, yes, of course," he replied. "But Aligorkéle is far away in Nigeria, and I know of no bird -- whether cardinal, heron, or flycatcher -- named Richelieu."
In 1983 President Biya honored Yaoundé by making him the capital city of Cameroon. Yaoundé tried to decline the offer, sarcastically claiming that there was insufficient room in his body for administrative buildings. He only gave up and consented after Biya promised to rejuvenate Yaoundé's sewer system, which for years had suffered from constipation.
Early Life and Schooling
The son of hoteliers, Paul Desuétude grew up in a quiet old hotel with sky-blue wooden shutters, not too far from the beach. Mimosas shaded a lethargically trickling fountain in the garden and the oxblood-leather sofas and ottomans in the sitting-rooms seemed to be dreaming crankily of the late 1890s. Paul disliked the petit-bourgeoisie lifestyle of his family and preferred to associate with shrimp fishermen on the Kribi waterfront. One day a Congolese pimp with docked ears and a bottle of Bells' whiskey appeared at the Hotel Desuétude and asked if "young fella Paul can play", and that afternoon Paul's parents packed him off to an English boarding-school.
In 1948 the Higher Granuloma School at Runnychancre-on-the-Wold had an international student body. There were hard-bitten London boys, veterans of the Battle of Britain; violent Irish secessionists; sunburned sons of Canadian wheat farmers; and wild colonial boys from Australia, India, Tahiti, and Devonshire. Paul Desuétude, only 9 years old, felt his eyes opening like boiled clams, his mind expanding like a balloon. The headmaster, Sir Chauncey Dedbreath, used selective maiming to keep the boys in line but childish fights were constantly breaking out. The boys fought over the relative merits of Socrates and Plato, over Tolstoy's commitment to socialism, over the philosophical differences between Bertrand Russell and John Dos Passos, and over the existential qualities of Simone de Beauvoir's tits -- the usual boyish hijinks.
Yaoundé later said, "Those were good simple times. I never felt so alive as when I was breaking someone's nose for saying that Einstein's physics was a consequence of Spinoza's deist relativism." Everything that followed after seemed mired in misunderstanding.
Cameroon in 1955 was still split into French Cameroun and British Cameroon, a sub-colony administered from Nigeria. But revolution was in the air; the great struggle for liberation had begun. Paul Desuétude was 18 in '55, and considered himself finished with schooling. He hopped a tramp steamer bound for ports south and made his way home to Kribi. After a brief, stormy stay with his parents at the Hotel Desuétude he trekked into the hinterlands and joined the guerrillas fighting for independence.
The autumn of 1956 found Paul east of Nkongsamba, in the highlands of the Manengouba Mountains. He joined a band led by an overweight strongman named Bubongo. The rebel leader had the pompous, hip-rocking gate of the back half of a hippopotamus, and wore a perpetual sheen of greasy sweat. His piggy eyes peered left and right, constantly on the lookout for a breakfast, lunch, supper, or any other meal which might be momentarily unprotected and vulnerable. When he first joined the rebels Paul quoted Hermann Goering to Bubongo: "'Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.' So too must our movement choose: guns or butter.".
"Non," said the rebel leader. "That is not correct. It should be buns and butter."
"Goering was speaking of the allocation of national industrialized capabilities," Paul explained. "In modern economic theory it represents a choice between civilian- and military-oriented production."
"It is stupid to put butter on guns," replied Bubongo stubbornly.
"No, no! Butter or guns. The theory of militarization or domestic --"
"Shut up!" shouted Bubongo. "We are the revolutionary party of buns and butter! We do not have theory. We have lunch, and then tea, and after that supper. And a snack before bed. Now go and help the cook polish the pots."
Paul stuck it out with Bubongo's cadre for six months, and then moved into a schoolhouse in the foothill town of Ebang. There he discovered a working mimeograph machine left by Jesuits who had abandoned the missionary position. He began to print political leaflets and manifestos.
Up to that time the Union of the Peoples of Cameroon had not been much given to propaganda. About the best they had mustered was "la grenouille doit partir" and "froggy go home". Paul Desuétude set out to bring literacy to the movement.
His first priority was to adopt a pseudonym. The French had outlawed the UPC, and despite their troubles in Algeria found plenty of time to jail uppity Cameroonese. Paul settled on the pen-name Yaoundé, which in the Ghomálá language means either "indominatable" or "gullible". It depends on the context.
"The independence of the people of Cameroon must come," Yaoundé wrote, "and whether it takes five years or fifty it will not be denied." And he wrote, "The cow in the pen, the goat in the yard, have their place in servitude and are grateful for it. But we are not cows; we are not goats. And the French cannot keep us forever in the pen."
The Regional Commandant visited him, several of Yaoundé's pamphlets in hand. "These are helpful," he said. "The one about the cows and goats is quite good. It impresses the poor people. They wish immédiatement to liberate the livestock of the colonialist swine."
"Well, actually, I meant our people to identify with the cows and goats," Yaoundé said. "With their servitude."
"Yes, yes, of course. So we will possess all the French cows soon enough," said the Commandant. His smile was secretive and sly. "And just as you write, we will wait fifty years to be denied." The Commandant and the writer shared a lunch of melons and cheese, and then the Commandant vanished back into the shadows of revolutionary secrecy which it seemed he could enter at will.
Yaoundé's propaganda began to lean toward fiction.
- "The hands of the prawn fisherman are black in the lamp-light; there are sores between his fingers.
- The lamp hangs over the stern of the rowboat to attract shrimp, and the fisherman -- whose name is Aoubab --
- waits with his old net spread. There are the stars above, and across the water there are lights on the hill.
- When he sees the prawns dimpling the surface of the water he flings the net and draws it in. The cords
- re-open the wounds between his fingers but he pulls without pause. He lifts the bunched net into the boat.
- Blood glistens on the net's cords. Aoubab empties the shrimp into the box and spreads the net
- on his knees. His hands are bleeding. He dangles them in the seawater and waits for the prawns to
- come once again to the light."
- "On the hill, in the villa whose lights shine across the water, Jean-Paul Reynard is eating supper. His
- cook has prepared crevettes a la Grec. The prawns are fresh and succulent, and he has a good
- Sauvignon Blanc from France to drink. He has eaten too much, although he is already very fat; there are
- plenty of shrimp. His servant bought them very cheaply in the Kribi market, haggling to the last centime
- with the fishermen. The fishermen have no one else to sell to, for it is forbidden for the colonials to
- export except through a French dealer. Jean-Paul takes another prawn, a prawn the size and shape
- of a man's half-curled finger, and bites into the succulent flesh."
- "Out on the sea Aoubab waits for the prawns. His fingers trail in the water, curled slightly, the
- flesh still sluggishly oozing blood, fingers the size and shape of a half-curled prawn."
A month later the Regional Commandant returned to Ebang and visited Yaoundé. It was midnight; the Commandant had a warrant out for his arrest and had to travel after dark. "This last piece," he said, "is a bit overcooked, n'est-ce pas? We are running an insurrection, not a literary journal."
"But it is revolutionary in perspective," countered Yaoundé. "It has a point to it."
"Yes, yes, obviously. I see that," said the Commandant, puffing his Che Guevara brand cigar."And rest assured, when we are victorious we will make sure that foreign cuisine is stifled. No more crevettes a la Grec. We will serve only Cameroonian dishes."
"It's not the food," said Yaoundé, "it's the contrast between the rich French overlord and the poor fisherman."
"Yes, yes, of course," said the Commandant. "Our cuisine must be our own. That is the point you make. And we will also ban French wines, I think. That is a logical step. But next time, write something short and plain. Something inspiring." And the Commandant summoned his bodyguards -- two lean men with faces like donkeys -- and disappeared into the moonless night.
The next pamphlet Yaoundé wrote was an oblique answer to the Commandant's criticism. In it he wrote that the fundamental issues must be addressed in writing; guerrilla raids and militant insurrection were worthless without a solid basis in revolutionary dialectics. "History shows that effective action requires purpose," Yaoundé wrote. "The most powerful tool of revolution is the manifesto and not the bomb. The pen is mightier than the sword, and the felt-tip marker is greater than the gun."
It was then that the Commandant armed his Bamileke cadre with El Marko felt-tips, and they were massacred. For Yaoundé it was the last staw. He repudiated the UPC.
The Révolution Irrésolue Populaire
And so in 1958 Yaoundé a one-man political movement. It began in a crab-and-coconut bar in Limbe. He was sitting with a jaundiced Belgian diamond prospector, an English professor from Duoala, and a whore of surpassing beauty and flexibility. "How do you fancy the chances of the UPC?" the professor asked. He was of course a government informant; everyone knew it.
"RIP," said Yaoundé.
"Zat is a new party political to me, I zink," said the Belgian.
"Can you explain?" asked the professor. The whore lit a cigarette and crossed her legs behind her head. Politics bored her.
"The RIP is the Révolution Irrésolue Populaire," Yaoundé said.
"Ha. Ha. I see," said the professor. He turned to the Belgian. "RIP means of course rest in peace. In English."
"Meaning kaputt," said the Belgian, who was no one's fool. (Ironically, he himself would die of hepatitis two months later.) "So, Yaoundé, you zink the revolution is dead?"
"Intellectually, yes," said Yaoundé. "But of course the will win on the ground. Who are they fighting? Frenchmen! And la belle France already has Algeria and Indochine to worry about. Not to mention the national obsession with truffles. The French are finished. We will have our revolutionary leaders, and they will be know-nothings."