Sunday, May 16, 2010

Talented artists in Cameroon

When we were living in Cameroon, we often worked with people from the family circle and the neighborhood, but at other times, we also had the pleasure of collaborating with talented people we met by coincidence. 
As architects, we worked on a variety of projects. One of them was the renovation of a university restaurant in West Cameroon, in the Grassland region.  
The original building was from the Soviet-era, in a rather "squarish" architectural style. Epee Ellong, a Cameroonian architect, was able to "Africanize" it by adding mosaic panels on the exterior walls. 
As for the inside, there were large empty walls, so we suggested that a modern artist come and decorate them with frescoes. We thought of Koko Komegne, whom we had met a short time before; he assured us that large-scale frescoes would not pose a problem.
As it turned out--we didn't know this before Koko won the bid--Koko is from the same area the building was located in, so he was especially invested in doing something memorable. And a wonderful job he did--several large-scale frescoes were completed in just 2 weeks! He used his favorite theme: music and jazz.
After that job, which he successfully completed in a short time, Koko started calling me "Maman" (Mom). This may seem strange to a Westerner, but in Cameroon, it was meant as a sign of affection.
I acquired a couple of Koko's paintings myself; his work is joyful, and I still have them. 

The second artist we worked with is Tjap Oum. At first, his business, as he was a trained building technician, was  a small contracting company; he borrowed a small space from our office, and we saw each other every day. However, he had a very interesting voice, in a bit of a Louis Armstrong style. After a couple of years, he launched a singing career, under the name of Tjap's, which went well--he has become a household name in Cameroon. He is currently residing in France, at last news. He usually sings in his native language, Bassa. I found this song online: "Tamboura." It seems to be rather recent--his voice has somewhat changed in all these years, it is hoarser. This is a photo of one of his older CDs, Kunde.

N.B. On another musical note: down memory lane: the 2010 World Soccer Cup song (Shakira) samples Zangelewa, which was incredibly popular about 20 years ago! 

2011: Unfortunately, in the meantime, Tjap has passed away, far too young. 

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Uncle Dibounjé, family celebrity

Uncle Dibounjé was one of the first non-immediate family members my spouse introduced me to upon my first visit to Douala. Uncle Dibounjé was otherwise known as Chief Dibounjé Cain Toukourou, the traditional chief of Bonendalé, a village about 20 km away from Douala over a bumpy road, crossing the bridge towards West Cameroon.
My spouse's relationship to him was through his paternal grandmother. Not exactly close blood ties, but my spouse and Uncle Dibounjé had been close on an intellectual level for many years. At the time, his grandchildren were all very young, but now we are in constant contact with his eldest grandson, who lives in France. When I asked him whether I could write about his grandfather, and use the photo I had available, he answered: "Why are you asking me? Do whatever you want: he's your family too."
Uncle Dibounjé was a local celebrity. In fact, he was one the the subjects of a book written by a French Jesuit priest, Père Eric de Rosny, who still lives in Cameroon.  At Présence Africaine, the publishing house and bookstore located in Paris, we were told that the book is a classic among students in ethnology.
Uncle Dibounjé  was said to possess great spiritual powers. Some went as far as to say he was a "sorcerer," which he refuted because of the evil connotations.
Being a chief doesn't pay the bills, so Uncle Dibounjé had a profession: pirogue (boat) builder, which he then rented out to local fishermen.
When I was taken to visit him, "fresh off the plane," as I was at the time, I was rather intimidated. This was the relative who had advised my spouse not to go abroad for his studies. Now, not only had he gone to France, he had also brought back a "white" wife, to top it all off. Of course, Uncle Dibounjé was charming with me, and offered me breakfast; grilled fish with boiled green plantains (one of my culinary cultural shocks: what, no bread at breakfast?).
In the year thereafterI had returned to the United States for workUncle Dibounjé fell ill. On his deathbed, he asked my spouse to prepare his will, an enormous mark of trust. He passed away soon after.
The house shown is Uncle Dibounjé's old home. 
Dibounjé Cain Toukourou's tomb