With Lucas Odahara, hn. lyonga and Malte Pieper – Neighbouring Histories in the context of "Die Möglichkeit einer Insel", for the Berlin Art Prize, 2022
Humus Soil, Grass Skirts and Broken Shoe-laces
People have voices - in the remote town of Mutengene in the southwest region of Cameroon, where I was born. Giant, substantial, crooked, soft. Voices so feeble, they break at the utterance of certain words. Children. Lineage. Abode. Dead. They use their voices to sing, holler, declare and commemorate their existence. At every given opportunity, their voices reverberate an unpretentious appreciation for life. And a certain incredulity of not knowing - what follows.
A fondness for the things that make their lives honest: the winds that announce a harvest season, the visiting of a sun ray, the purple in the middle of the night, the swirling sounds of a delicate river bed that beckons its visitors to “put down their burdens and retire for the day to a warm abode and a bowl of Achu soup” or the sound of crickets out for a good time on the corner left, just outside the window that separates a sleeping from a living room. And a disbelief, that when life comes to a close, all we can expect is onyx and vacuousness. That in fact, everything ends on the idea of a yearning or a final kiss.
Things we hope for: to be reunited with all the people we have loved and lost. To populate our minds with things that feel certain and solid enough to rest upon. That, when we exhale our last breath, we do so knowing without a doubt that our lives were not utterly lacking. That, we meant something to ourselves, first and then to someone.
In Mutengene, languages are as varied and lived in as faces in a market square on a Saturday afternoon. There are those that appear familiar and others that refuse to resonate. Whether you found familiarity in them or not, you knew one thing for a fact. That they all exist side by side, living, thriving, and breathing the same hot summer air, shaking and holding hands like lovers from worlds apart. Here, most languages are spoken and not written. Their sounds are doused in things that resemble winged birds, humus soil, and grass skirts. Like skirts, they are passed down from one generation to the next through an oral tradition as old as language itself. From infancy, words are whispered and taught in kitchen stalls, on farmlands, between chores and moments of respite, in bedrooms, on pulpits, shrines, etc.
When someone loves you, they say a prayer in your name. They fortify, hug, feed, and tell you stories. When you are loved, you are taught a language you understand. One, that opens you up to new possibilities. To an unexplored and unexpected past, a present, and a potential future. My great- grandmother taught us that language is as vivid as the sea. (And) That you do not love anyone unless you can speak to them in a language that reminds them of the places they have been. She taught us that language is the act of rallying thoughts and then uttering them. She believed that there is a very precarious responsibility that comes with an opportunity to speak and embody language. To her, language was a coco-yam heap that needed to be pilled back layer after layer until you get to its soft core. And once you did, you were to boil it in salted water - on high heat and devour it with chiseled pineapple slices, pear, salt, palm oil, dried fish, and pepper.
It was a matter of life and death. In Cameroon, language is a matter of life and death. In Cameroon, an invisible line cuts straight through English and French separating its people into two camps. On one side, there is an idea of progress, hope, and security. On the other side, deaths, a refugee crisis, famine.
When I think of language, I think of my granny’s face. Half-lit, half shadowy in the night. The foot of a tree that locates and identifies bodies as either living or dead. And the dazzling lights supplied by a campfire that stands smoldering at a desired center of my grandmother's compound. I see people inaugurated around this fire, passing a seemingly weightless but stout palm wine keg from one hand to the next until it reaches the very last person in the circle - while a story grows, blooms, and becomes - as it festoons and connects everyone present to something, to hope, to a place, and to the people who lived in and with it.
What is language, is not simply that which is written or spoken. It is, at times the things we omit and recall by choice or by coercion. It is a thing, caught in our throats. The things we can’t quite easily swallow or push down. It is when we don’t know where we are - and we need a word that names a place. A word that calls it home.
You see, when you hail from a place torn in halves by language, you grow weary and ambivalent of it. You grow to distrust its intentions. You grow in wonderment. In question of it. You use it as a means to an end. In protest. With intention.
Today, when someone asks; how many languages do you speak?
I hear - show me - tell me just how colonized and divorced you are from yourself. I hear - how willing were you to strip down and take on something else, forsaking everything you were raised to believe and know. I hear - did you know your country and everything it is, is made in the westerner's imagination? I hear - the Portuguese, the Germans, the English, and the French. I hear - your ancestors were once slaves in their own country. And they nestled comfortably. They kept the master's tools.