By Niyi Osundare (Originally published in Newswatch Magazine, Monday, September 08, 2008)
Joyce Ashuntantang, actress, writer, scholar, and founder of EduArt, organises the first Literary Award Night in Anglophone Cameroon
When, in March this year, Joyce Ashuntantang was telling me about EduArt, her pet project, her voice throbbed with so palpable an enthusiasm that I could feel it on the telephone. EduArt, she went on, is a US-based non-profit organisation whose main objective is the promotion of art as an educational and cultural tool. And this organisation is no respecter of artificial divides, as its ambition and functional trajectory cut across national boundaries, and transcend the highest mountains and widest oceans. EduArt is as involved in organising after-school diversity programmes for elementary school children in the United States as it is in prosecuting book drives for university libraries in Africa.
Its aim is not just the promotion of education, art and culture; its plan is to facilitate that promotion through the identification, recognition, and honouring of those personalities whose lives and labours have enriched our own through their contributions to the battle against ignorance and their persistent striving towards the artistic and cultural refinement of society.
These aspirations may sound idealistic even quixotic in an age of rank materialism and its concomitant philistinism, an age in which our energies in Africa are relentlessly wasted by the ogre of rigged elections, their bloody aftermaths, and opportunistic "power-sharing" arrangements invariably brokered by contesting political juggernauts. But Dr. Ashuntantang’s dream is too potent for petty dampers, too enduring for the whimsical stake of political noises. Perhaps the reason we say it cannot be done, she often muses, is because it has not been done before. But that does not in any way mean that it cannot be done or that it can never be done. When Ashuntantang beholds a barrier, she foresees a lift; when she sees a locked door, she envisions a key. In recognition of this dynamism and mobility, she was recently christened "The Woman on the Go" in a cover story by Summit Magazine, published by Kange Williams Wasaloko, one of Cameroon’s most resourceful journalists.
Without a doubt, there is so much in her background that has prepared her for this can-do, never-say-die philosophy. Coming from a family in which both parents were not only literate but actively and infectiously so, she grew up among siblings who were constantly encouraged to excel, to achieve. The result of this early motivation is evident in the family’s cast of sterling child achievers: a prominent educationist, a medical doctor, an attorney-at-law, a pharmacist, and a writer-scholar-actress. The closeness of these siblings as well as their unstinting support for Joyce Ashuntantang’s artistic and professional endeavours was evident in their prominent roles in the EduArt award ceremony and the various events that led to it.
And what a phenomenon the Literary Awards Night turned out to be; what a remarkable occasion for the celebration of excellence and the recognition of those enduring values that society always seems to be in a hurry to forget! The ambiance was right; the design and decor of the events scene (the terrace of the Capitol Hotel, Buea) was thoughtfully tasteful. It was a night of artists and professionals with diverse inclinations and distinguished accomplishments. This richness and diversity was meticulously amplified by professor Shadrach Ambanasom’s keynote address, an impressively detailed exploration of Anglophone Cameroonian literature across several generations and genres.
The night’s recognition programme came in two phases. First were the Lifetime Achievement Award winners: Sankie Maimo, described in the programme note as "the first Anglophone Cameroon writer"; Buma Kor, whose occupations as author, printer and bookseller are "closely associated with the beginnings of written Anglophone Cameroon literature"; Prudencia He’en Chilla (under the pen-name Asheri Jedida) whose novel, Promise, published in 1969 is widely regarded as the first written work by an Anglophone Cameroonian woman; Comfort Ashu, a noted and persistent author of literature for the young; Francois Misse Ngoh, the sweet-voiced, nimble-footed Cameroonian maestro who has played music for 38 years and authored 38 albums. (There was no winner this year for the Victor Musinga Award for Drama, and Jane & Rufus Blanshard Award for Prose).
Then came the announcement of winners of the Bate Besong Award for Poetry, a prize named after the fearless, highly productive Cameroonian writer who died in an auto accident a year ago. In a keenly contested race decided by a jury headed by Tanure Ojaide, the well-known Nigerian poet, John Ngong Kum carried the day with his collection, Walls of Agony, thus going home with a hefty one thousand dollars. Matthew Takwi and Kamara Kimvala (pen-name for Augustine Ndangam) looked quite contented as first and second runners-up respectively.
The night was not yet done with its celebration of the book. Their Champagne Party Will End, an anthology of poetry and prose in honour of Bate Besong, was up for presentation and auction. The speed at which the copies were snapped up and the good-humouredness with which they exchanged hands spoke volumes about the high regard in which the deceased poet is held, and the (spoken and unspoken) gratitude of the audience to those whose initiative produced the anthology as well as those whose contributions animate its every page.
In this phase of memories and remembrances, the scene shifted from a dearly remembered author to a highly regarded classic as the audience joined the rest of the world in the celebration of Things Fall Apart at 50. The house rose in awe and honour of Chinua Achebe’s immortal gift to Africa, to the world. The pride and joy written on the face of Kenneth Nsor, Nigeria’s consulate-general in charge of Anglophone Cameroon, could be seen from a mile away, while his ‘toast’ to the boundary-breaking power of literature bestowed a sparkle to the wine in the glass.
If the events of July 18 were in honour of women and men of achievement in arts and culture, the most solemn recognition was reserved for teachers, those over-worked, underpaid toilers who made the achievement possible in the first place. Dr. Ashuntantang, the chief hostess who frequently doubled as performer and compere (thus complementing the roles of Emelda Ngufor, Comfort Ojongkpot and Patricia Nkweteyim who emcees the events), made sure that her former teachers (most of whom travelled long distances to honour her invitation) got robust airing and hearing. The roll-call was long and impressive: Bole Butake, (a leading African dramatist and scholar whose plays once afforded her a prominent stage presence), Peter Abety (Chair of the occasion), Babila Mutia, Samson Abangwa, Alobwede D’epie, George Nyamndi, and Joyce Endeley.
To this honourable list must be added Peter Tangyie Suh-Nfor, the amiable actor and educationist who missed the Award Night but still managed to come the following day. It was also a night when the veteran dramatist, Victor Musinga, "taught" and teased with an episode from his hilarious play, Madam Magrano, and the music legend, Misse Ngoh, sent the audience swinging with a performance of some of his old, evergreen favourites.
The literary night in Buea on July 18, 2008 was historic in many ways. It is amazing how Ashuntantang single-handedly initiated a national literary award event that normally takes whole countries or large organisations to pull through. When asked about the secret behind the success of the project, she put it all down to her passion for and commitment to the arts, her dream to give visibility and attention to the literature of a part of Africa whose literary and intellectual richness has never received the recognition it deserves. But how do we ensure that the success of this year’s event does not become a one-off phenomenon? That is a challenge for all lovers of literature and the arts whose duty is to make sure that this noble dream does not die.
EduArt is an Ashuntantang initiative. It is left or us to make it a vital movement and lasting legacy.