Dispatches from home read like material for a great historical fiction manuscript. You easily imagine the Whatsapp voice-notes with either news of military abuse of power, chilling threats from frenzied ‘Amba’ fanatics, or worse, news of yet another kidnapping or murder as something fictional characters in the 1970s would have listened to huddled over the lone radio in the house. Because this can’t be happening in now; in the day of intelligence readily manufactured as AI. It can’t be happening in the age of everything smart; smartphones, smartwatches, smart kitchen utensils, yet senseless humans? How can that be? But your inbox proves that it is, that anomaly is possible and real.
Four weeks ago, you were informed that the military presence in your hometown has moved your old schoolmate (at the ripe old age of 30) to learn French, the language of the men in uniforms. So she now accompanies her 8-year-old daughter to the house of a teacher who now teaches kids on her veranda because schools are a no-go zone. Your cousin laughs as she tells you “Mo imagine o! If we had known, we would have paid attention to Monsieur Flobeh!”
You reply to her statement with laughing Emoji but you think “If we had known, we should have made sure a lot more people paid attention to history lessons.
A week later you receive a message from one of your friends-turned-sister as you arrive at your church for Sunday service. It reads:
“Sis, I hope you’re well. Please pray for me oo! I received a call from a guy threatening me. He says I should support the movement or else they’ll harm my family”
You stand at the doors of the church, immobile but for your fingers readily typing up questions; when, how, why you? She says the call was brief but followed by an SMS of how she should make a deposit to ‘support the struggle’ and she was probably targeted as any other civil servant who people believe have money on the regular. You warn her not to even thinking of making any deposit, lest she is caught and the police arrest her for ‘sponsoring terrorism’. Your mom’s friend is in prison in Yaoundé at the moment on those charges. He had paid ‘Amba boys’ a large sum of money upon receiving threats of kidnapping.
Your friend agrees that paying would be dangerous, she can only run away with her kids. You sigh as you read that, and head to a seat for a sermon you will not remember because you were crying silently through the preaching. To think this is what we have come to.
When you return home later you check on your friend. She tells you that she’d had the idea to reach out to an acquaintance you both know, a young slightly over-zealous Christian ‘brother’ who is known to have participated in some ‘Amba’ activities. She felt he could help verify if the threats were genuine or just a scam from thieves. And if genuine, she thought he could help her get off their targets lists or at the very least, he would see the error in the company he keeps. No expected outcome came to pass. She tells you that upon narrating her experience, our brother-in-Christ told her that he could introduce her to the guys collecting the ‘support funds’ and explain to them that she doesn’t have much so whatever she can give will be okay. “Just give small money for bullets, sis,” he said.
You are shocked. But not for long. You will soon hear that no one can be trusted to be rational now. That irrationality is a norm. You are told that a colleague you didn’t particularly like at your alma mater was attacked recently by ‘Amba boys’, their crime was being from the wrong tribe- Bamileke. Your tribe based on patrilineal traditions which won’t consider other factors of your identity. Suddenly, you feel bad for having disliked this person who is now a victim. You hear that some other colleagues, the educated, the elders at church, the fathers of young children had shrugged at the attack, they saw it as well deserved. After all, Bamilekes are neither here nor there so surely spies. At that moment you determine that Cameroon and its Cameroonians do not warrant your shock. The nation is simply living up to being considered a ‘shit-hole country’.
In the days that follow, your inboxes belch out more:
Black young men are now an at-risk species in the Anglophone regions, just like in the United States. Are you black, of average to tall stature, possibly aged 17- 30? Then you could possibly be an ‘Amba boy’ and the police (with no questions asked- and even if asked, not in English) would profile you, arrest or possibly execute you at the least provocation.
Your neighbor films her daughter, a toddler practicing her hiding technique. Like the fire drills in western schools. Except this is a four-year-old who now recognizes the sound of gunshots and how to hide under the leather sofa even as she has yet to enter a nursery school classroom.
You’re told that one of your former neighbors is now fundraising. Asking all and sundry for help as her husband has been kidnapped. The boys asked for 10 million FCFA and the family negotiated the ransom down to half that price. You picture the bargaining over the phone and shake your head. How does one bargain on the life of one’s spouse?
By last week, the frequency of the messages had increased, but not their content is different. “Mo I’m in Yaoundé now, I’m safe.” Or “Mo pray for us oo! I am hoping to leave to Douala tomorrow”. Their WhatsApp statuses show they’re okay, the proof is in their taking photos on the sides of the road with and there being no sign of military trucks. These ones had made it safely to the ‘other Cameroon’ despite the risk of being packed tightly in buses now carrying everything and everyone away from home.
You wonder where home is for you now. With your mixed identity and you wonder if the reports you get are acts perpetrated by people you call *your* people. You take in all the ‘Pray for Cameroon messages’ even the long ones which literally threaten you to forward or else! You no longer complain about such messages because faith even warped faith is needed at such a time.
Three days ago, you did a makeshift roll-call of all your loved ones. Where will they be between the 30th of September and after Election Day scheduled for the 7th of October? You want to know who will be in the ‘danger zones’; who to worry about.
On the 30th you try to call all those who remained behind. You want to hear their voices, see their faces and laugh. After all, the government may display their foolish cruelty again and cut off internet access as they did last year on the 1st of October after promising they wouldn’t. So you take in the faces and voices of your loved ones and think of Alicia Keys’ singing “Every time you hold me, hold me like it is the last time…” You laugh at your own melodramatic thoughts, you’re exaggerating you think to yourself.
Until 9pm, Cameroon time. Your aunt, one of those who remained behind. Someone you spoke to for an hour between 6 and 7pm, someone who had reassured you that they were safe and will remain safe. Yet she sends you a voice note seven minutes long and when you play it you hear the voices of everyone in the house and you recognize what is being recorded as the family evening devotion. The voices of four boys aged 6-11, a girl blossoming into her teens, your aunt and her husband who would typically be absent merge together in singing ‘we lean on you Jesus, we lean on you’ and then after a few more choruses, a prayer.
You no longer think you were exaggerating. That devotion, that voice note, reminds you of the scene in Hotel Rwanda where the staff members call former guests to dramatically bid farewell.
Except this is not fiction, this is not historical. This is what is happening Cameroon in 2018. And like a comedy relief in the drama that is our present reality, nine men- eight only slightly better than one octogenarian- are campaigning for elections scheduled a week from now.