Patrice Nganang's When the Plums Are Ripe, translated by Amy B. Reid and forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, recounts the story of Cameroon’s forced entry into World War II, and in the process complicates our own understanding of that globe-spanning conflict. After the fall of France in 1940, Cameroon found itself caught between Vichy and the Free French at a time when growing nationalism advised allegiance to neither regime, and was ultimately dragged into fighting throughout North Africa on behalf of the Allies.
Big Things Happen to the Little Guys
Death is fundamentally unjust. The loss of one’s mother is no trivial matter. Still, the chaos unleased in Edéa when our Sita’s cadaver was carried through the town’s courtyards dissipated quite quickly as history marched on. Not long after the burial of the Mother of the Market, the village was shaken up by the noise of a British plane—a Westland Lysander—cutting across the sky. The noise and confusion brought everyone into the streets. This wasn’t the first time they’d seen a plane fly by. But this time, the machine seemed to fly just overhead. The villagers started running right and left, in total chaos, bumping into each other. Some shouted orders, but no one was listening. Panicked mothers cried out for their children, like hens under a scavenger’s shadow. Kids shouted and pointed at the sky. In their excitement they jumped, trampling on the clouds of leaflets that fell like rain at their feet. “We are coming to your defense,” some read, while others announced, “We are coming with supplies for you!” or “Join us and liberate France!” “Cameroon declares its political and economic independence!” “Long live a Free Cameroon!” All were signed by General de Gaulle.
By September 1, 1940, news of General de Gaulle had already arrived in Edéa’s forest, but not because of his military exploits. What we’d heard was that he’d been condemned to death by Pétain, the President of the French Republic, who had allied himself with the Germans. News like that traveled fast. “The whites are attacking each other,” people said, adding, “They’re gonna eat each other alive.” Could you believe it was no longer Um Nyobè who was talking? It was impossible to silence the old folks who’d lived through the era of German colonization, and for whom the score on the French occupation was far from settled. Some, eyes opened wide in horror, cautioned against pro-German sentiment. Others, over the course of years and with the growing record of atrocities committed by the French, had transformed the pain and humiliations of the past into a measure of the grandeur of their former torturers. They had borne witness to Teutonic power, even if it had kicked them in the balls. Many of the youths sympathized with the pro-German point of view, and they really didn’t want to see the French defeat as treason. They had never lived through a war, it must be said, and so had no point of comparison. They had firsthand experience only of French colonization, and they detested it. Passionate hatred bolstered their sarcastic arguments.
“Just imagine,” one young boy said, “imagine giving your sister to the one who killed your brother.”
“Right, your brother’s assassin is balling your sister,” another translated, before concluding: “You just let it happen.”
Everyone burst out laughing—it was so obviously absurd.
“Who could take that?”
“But France gave up the fight.”
“If someone is stronger than you,” one voice piped up, “carry his bag.”
“What bag?” another asked.
“The bag of cowardice!”
For some there, Germany was avenging those who had suffered twenty-five years of French colonization. For others, all that was old news. Their basic argument was that if you had to choose between the French and the Germans, there was no good choice.
“White men’s business, my brother.”
“Might as well choose between piss and poop.”
That was Hebga’s thought.
“But still, if you have to choose…?” someone shouted.
And it was on that question of choice that lines were drawn. Emotions started to rise, buoyed up by healthy shots of arki. Germany for some; France for others. The Second World War was playing out in bars and in family living rooms. There was no need to hide—there was no risk in supporting Germany, especially since the colonial authority in Yaoundé and everywhere else in the French Empire, was now under Pétain’s orders. And right there in Yaoundé, July fourteenth had provided an occasion to introduce the new regime publicly, although Commissioner Brunot’s parade was met by hecklers shouting “Fascist!” and “Nazi!” In short, the Bastille Day celebration in the capital had been pretty much a failure. Still, the ears of many colonists—already ready to don the mantle of paternalistic authoritarianism whatever its source—were receptive to the proclamations of a Leader who was cited as often as possible by the partisans of the new order based in Vichy. Things went differently in Douala, however. With the support of Dio’s soldiers, as of August 29, Leclerc put the administration under his orders, and therefore under those of General de Gaulle. When he was in Yaoundé, Pouka had caught his bosses practicing the Nazi salute. Douala, on the other hand, was turning into Free France’s first victory. In the depths of the forest, the differences between these two cities had consequences that the French perhaps did not imagine.
“Forget the French,” someone said in Mininga’s Bar. “Germany is colonizing us now, whether we like it or not.”
With those words the big talker, his eyes red with arki, summarized the scale of the changes upending the French colonial world, from Dakar to Brazzaville.
“It’s recolonizing us.”
For Cameroon, that distinction was significant.
“Except it’s also colonizing France.”
That was met with laughter.
“It’s occupying France. Slight difference.”
And the debate was on. And not just at Mininga’s.
“Regardless, we have never been a French colony,” said a man with a bald spot a kilometer wide.
“Cameroon is occupied,” someone interjected. “Let’s be precise.”
“What does that mean: occupied?”
“France has occupied Cameroon since 1916.”
“Being occupied means being colonized.”
“Even if France has always treated us as its colony, my brother, we are a protectorate, not a colony.”
“An occupied territory.”
“Cameroon has never been a French colony.”
Those who claimed that Cameroon was nobody’s colony and that, besides, it had ceased to be a colony in 1915 easily won the war of words. They had passion and youth on their side. They were the ones who wrote—and always will—Cameroon with a K, German-style: Kamerun. Fritz was the most loquacious of that group. And many of the discussions took place in his living room. They were lively evenings, it must be said. Yet no one, not even him, could ignore the revelations being made in Edéa’s forest about Hitler.
The Chiasmatic Enchantments of History
Let’s leave Hitler alone—that’s what everyone there would have said. The one who mattered was Leclerc. Not just because of his name. History books wax eloquently about the captain’s rapid promotion, their amazement certainly heightened by these brief words from General de Gaulle: “As if by enchantment,” Leclerc had himself named colonel upon his arrival in Cameroon, de Gaulle writes in his Mémoires de guerre (on page 324). History books describe this famous ceremony of self-promotion as taking place in a pirogue off the coast near Douala. Pleven, who along with Boislambert had accompanied the captain, tore the buttons off his own shirt to fashion military stripes for him. And thus this bit of “enchantment” was woven into the great legend that is the history of the Resistance and the Free French. Ah, these books so full of words, why do they forget that the status of Cameroon—a territory under mandate—was what de Gaulle found so enchanting? Because it meant there were few French forces there, unlike Senegal, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire, where there were well-established military bases. What’s more, the very long border between Cameroon and Nigeria—1,690 kilometers in all—left the territory open to the British Empire, and created a second, parallel transit route toward Chad.
“Cameroon is the weak link and the heart of the French Empire in Central Africa,” de Gaulle declared, “its Achilles’ heel and its right arm.”
Why, then, do these books forget that it was Staff Captain, then Colonel, soon to become General, and then posthumously Marshal Leclerc who turned Cameroon from a territory under mandate into a French colony when, on August 29, 1940, as if by enchantment, he proclaimed himself governor, taking the place of the high commissioner, which had been until then the title of the head of the French authorities? That, as if by enchantment, Cameroon ceased right then to be a protectorate and, with the same move, was placed under a state of siege? That therefore, as if by enchantment, the country was put under lock and chain on the very day that it sent the first of its sons with Leclerc to liberate France, then on her knees? That, as if by enchantment, we Cameroonians became slaves the day we took up arms to go to the assistance of France in her moment of defeat? Ah, let’s read Colonel Leclerc’s own words, shall we, for they talk about us: “I have seen natives sincerely determined to collaborate with us,” he wrote. “We should allow them to reap all possible benefits of French civilization. I have seen others already more aware of their rights than of their duty; they must be firmly put back in their place. We are not afraid of them.” Words from 1940. But this, clearly, is a chiasmus of history; in time it will be dealt with by Fritz, or maybe Um Nyobè.
Copyright © 2013 by Éditions Philippe Rey. Translation copyright © 2019 by Amy B. Reid. Published 2019 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.