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Bole Butake as a flame player: an academic tribute at the moment of his eternal transition

Tuesday 1 November 2016

To avoid post-mortem flattery and praise-singing that have become a way of life with us in Cameroon, this tribute to Bole Butake (RIP 01/10/2016) is limited to what I have written about him before while he was still alive. A tribute to Butake at this moment of his premature death imposes itself on me under several dimensions: he was a personal friend and University colleague, a co-member of the Cameroon Academy of Sciences, a countryman, and an Anglophone whose mindset, attitudes and behavioural comportment towards and in and out of office and power fulfilled my own expectations of what they should be. For Butake’s Festschrift in June 2012, I had prepared a power-point presentation with the title "HE WOULD NOT BE LAPIROED: CAMEROON ACADEMICS IN AND OUT OF THE CORRIDORS OF POWER"; but I did not present it for two reasons: first, there was no power-point projector and second, there were so many of Butake’s students and mentorees scrambling to make their contributions that I thought it wise to leave the stage to them and to listen instead. This tribute is mainly composed of excerpts from the following article of mine: [“Anglophone Theatre in a Francophone City: The Flame Players and other Troupes in Yaoundé”, New Theatre in Francophone and Anglophone Africa (MATATU 20) edited by Anne Fuchs, Amsterdam, Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, pp. 155-168, 1999]. Further elaborations, explanations, clarifications or what otherwise is newly added are enclosed in square brackets.

The Flame Players

I initiated the formation of the Flame Players in Yaounde in 1987 [following my return to Cameroon from the University of Ife, Nigeria, a great cultural centre animated by the likes of Ola Rotimi and Wole Soyinka, where I had frequently been involved in play acting as a hobby].

I had looked around in Yaounde for a mature drama group that was free from politico-administrative controls to join but found none. So I decided to create one. At that time, Jacqueline Leloup was working with the Théâtre Universitaire on one of her well-publicized productions. I watched them rehearsing a number of times and went away with a general impression about Francophone drama and theatre practice that further experience has done nothing to undermine, namely, that they concentrate on choreography, flawless rendition of language and comic humour. The actors and actresses in Leloup’s troupe gave me the impression of people reciting La Fontaine’s poetry. And when I watched a scene of village elders who were choreographed to cough and yawn in unison and shout “oui” or “non” in unison, I was strongly reminded of CPDM parliamentarians of our one-party National Assembly.

 Bole Butake was also at that time working with the Yaounde University Theatre on his own play, Lake God. He had given me a copy of the play which, when I read, left me with the impression of being a trivialization of a human catastrophe, the Lake Nyos gas disaster of 1986 in which nearly 2,000 Cameroonians perished.[1]  I was, however, to witness the progressive radicalization and development of Butake’s drama until today when he is, indisputably, the boldest, most committed, most relevant and most popular dramatist in Cameroon.

 I knew scarcely anybody in Yaounde in 1987 when I started forming the Flame Players. I was still also a stranger to the way the “system worked”. Three people with whom I regularly discussed my ideas and plans and from whose advice I benefited were: Siga Asanga (who had very generously taken me in as one of his dependants); Kitts Mbeboh (whose mastery of the “system” was ever evident in his relaxed and calm confidence); and Hansel Eyoh (who was then Director of Culture in the Ministry of Information and Culture), one of the most spectacularly “successful” Anglophones in the “system” at the time. Eyoh gave me a list of the names of people he believed would be interested in my project and Mbeboh and Asanga provided me with the means to go around on a campaign drive. Of all the people I personally contacted, only the musician, Etubeyang, declined my invitation on the frank ground that he had no time for unsponsored adventurism. All the others received my idea with infectious alacrity.

 Once I had a handful of people, I immediately selected a play - J.C. de Graft’s Through a Film Darkly – and we started rehearsing thrice weekly in Dr. Siga Asanga’s parlour, [with me directing the play]. Prudential pragmatism soon led me to approach Bole Butake to join the group, especially as he had access to the only proper rehearsal facility known to me at the time [and, because Hansel Eyoh whom I had cast in the lead role of the play proved unable to afford the time required and I had to step into that role and we therefore needed someone to direct the play]. To my pleasant surprise, Butake unhesitatingly accepted to join us. He also brought with him three of the most talented students in the Yaounde University Theatre. The group then drew up a working constitution which stipulated an “afrocentric” policy in the choice of plays and the Flame Players thus came into being.[2]  [The members of the Flame Players, in the order they joined the group by formal/financial registration, were as follows: Godfrey B. Tangwa, Joyce Ashuntangtang, Kumengisa Pius Deghe, Rita Kum Konglim, Tangye Lydia, Vennessa Sona, Benn Bongang, Ma Arrah Bate, Caroline Ngala, Siga Asanga, Bole Butake, David Chuye Bunyui, Ann Rossiter, Kwasen Gwangwaa, Sama Mo Fomuso, Ayang Frederick, Hansel Ndumbe Eyoh, Maimo Mary, Julie Tala, Judith Bi Suh, Pamela Kisob, Agnes Akwo, Emelda Ngufor, Patricia Nkweteyim, Ayuk Susana Ngwa, Bannavti Joseph Kumu, Ernestine Jaja Ngringe, Kehbuma Langmia, Mary Madeka, Emmanuel Tita Tabi, Vitung Francis Atsimbom, Atemkeng Juliet, Balbina Mesue. The sponsors in cash or kind of the Flame Players in the early years were Pa Enoh Tanjong, Mr. Peter Ngufor and Mr. Simon Fobi.]

 The very first production of the Flame Players, J.C. de Graft’s Through a Film Darkly was directed by Bole Butake and premièred at the Centre Culturel Français, Yaoundé, on 27th November, 1987. It was an instant success, not only on account of the rare quality of acting which many people remarked, but also because it dealt with a theme very dear to all Cameroonians: "love", a politically neutral theme with which everyone could feel at ease. Since the mid-1960s, when His (Departed) Excellency, President Alhaji Amadou Ahidjo, imposed a monolithic dictatorship in Cameroon, the only areas within which any Cameroonian could operate freely without fear of being considered “subversive” were: “love” in its sexual dimensions, “eating and drinking,” and “sports”, particularly football. In all these permissible areas, Cameroonians have achieved remarkable results.

 The Flame Players’ maiden production was so successful that it enjoyed a total of nine stage performances in Yaounde, Bamenda, Mbengwi, Buea and Victoria. A TV-film adaptation of it titled Visitor from the Past was later made and became equally popular with television viewers. From there things went on quite well with the Flame Players, with productions of Sankie Maimo’s Succession in Sarkov (1988) [directed by Bole Butake], a screen version of same (1989) [produced by Kwasen Gwangwaa] and Kwasen Gwangwaa’s Our Cousin(1989) [produced by himself], until 1990, when things dramatically changed in Cameroon as the struggle against monolithic dictatorship came into the open against a backdrop of government intimidation, heavy troop deployment and killing of innocent citizens. From then on, all Anglophones and everything Anglophone was looked on with irremediable suspicion [by the Yaounde political authorities].

 The next play attempted by the Flame Players after the 1990 watershed was Sarif Easmon’s The New Patriots, directed by myself. We sought the collaboration of the Centre Culturel Français, Yaoundé, in the project, but they refused to collaborate in the production because the play was in English and they were not here to promote the English language. We were then forced to go and hire the main hall of the Yaoundé Hilton for the première on 24th April 1991. Because of serious political turbulence all over the country (a phenomenon christened “Villes Mortes”) we were able to manage only one more performance of The New Patriots. Our next production, The Dilemma, a workshop educational drama, conceived, scripted and executed by the group with the sponsorship of the German agency GTZ, and performed at the Yaounde Conference Centre on 21st November 1991, helped the troupe to recover somewhat from the failure of its previous production.

 The next production, which is my personal favourite in the Flame Players’ repertoire, was Victor Epie Ngome’s What God has put Asunder, an expertly crafted and powerful metaphor on the Anglophone problem in Cameroon, directed by Kwasen Gwangwa’a and premièred at the historic town of Buea on April 2nd 1993 during the momentous All Anglophone Conference (AAC) which concluded with the Buea Declaration complemented by theBamenda Proclamation exactly a year later.

 For choice of a play for our next production, we were divided between two unpublished manuscripts: an English translation of Werewere Liking’s Umand Sankie Maimo’s Retributive Justice. In the end we opted for the latter on the ground that, as a play about human rights abuses in Cameroon, it was more relevant and more committed in our actual situation and that it would be more appealing to Anglophones, our core audience. Directed by Asheri Kilo and myself, it was premièred at the British Council Hall, Yaounde, on 5th June 1993. Excerpts from the play were performed at the Yaounde Conference Centre (Palais des Congrès) before the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Emeka Anyaoku, when he visited Cameroon about that time. Some of the government ministers present on that occasion were said to have been so incensed by the excerpts we performed that they swore: “Jamais encore ces Flame Players!’ In the last production, so far, of the Flame Players, directed by Kumu Bannavti, we used a really hilarious comedy by Durojaiye Adegoke, Grip’am, translated from the Yoruba original into Pidgin English by Ola Rotimi, as a captatio benevolenciae, a veritable sweet coating for the bitter pill that is Bole Butake’s Deutsche Welle Award winning Shoes and Four Men in Arms.[Incidentally but remarkably, Grip’am is the only instance we had seen Butake not as playwright or director but as actor - our cast for the hilarious comedy comprised Butake, Judith Bi Suh and myself].

Anglophone Drama and Francophone Drama

Although the contrasts I am drawing here are about [British] West Cameroonians and [French] East Cameroonians, I have the suspicion that they might also be generally applicable to other African Anglophones and Francophones. Francophones call actors “les comédiens” and it would appear that, for them, all drama is essentially comedy. In general, Francophone drama appears to me as basically comic theatre, characterized by farcical acting, slapstick and licentious jokes and linguistic puns arising from attempts to domesticate the French language, which are really hilarious because the French language does not admit of local variants or else the Académie Française, since 1629 the gendarme of French language purity, established by Cardinal Richelieu, would not still be going strong today. The only exception in this regard known to me is Gilbert Doho who has recently teamed up with Bole Butake to give his own dramatic work more political punch and relevance.

 Their recent joint scripting and production of Zintgraff and the Battle of Mankon is not only a reminder that the German colonizers of Cameroon had met well-organized and politically highly sophisticated kingdoms in the hinterland who matched their military might and were only subdued with the help of other kingdoms with whom the Germans went into alliance, but also makes a few calculated highly caustic comments about the present rulership in Cameroon.

 The collaboration between Doho and Butake has opened a new chapter in Cameroon theatre where Anglophones and Francophones participate in one joint production in which the dialogues are rendered in both English and/or French as well as in Pidgin and some of the indigenous languages. The latest production of this type that I watched was The Courageous Cry, a play on dictatorship and human rights by the Nigerian dramatist, Effiong Ekpeyong, sponsored by the British Council and directed by the author, premièred at the Centre Culturel Français, Yaoundé, and taken on tour to several cities all over Cameroon. The very high popular appeal that these experimental productions have enjoyed is an indication that they certainly have an assured place in the future of theatre in Cameroon.

 By contrast to Francophone drama, Anglophone drama has more political punch and commitment because it seems always to seek for social contention and relevance, on the altar of which art as art, such as choreography and costuming, are readily sacrificed. In Cameroon Anglophone drama is basically the drama of people who see themselves as having been politically deceived and short-changed, marginalized, oppressed, persecuted, enslaved, exploited and brutalized. Anglophone theatre audiences often participate in the spectacle to the point of reading their own political meanings into quite innocent dialogues or actions and sometimes get excited with the dramatic action to the point of jumping onto the stage. Very often people have come to me after a performance and asked why I didn’t say this rather than that or do one thing rather than another. And they never seem to be fully satisfied when I answer that I was not the person who wrote the script but was simply interpreting someone else’s artistic work.

 The differences between Anglophones and Francophones in this regard are clearly an accurate reflection of their respective colonial backgrounds, orientations, upbringing and experiences. With my Nigerian academic background, especially coming from the University of Ife with its well known tradition of freedom, radicalism and unionism both at student and staff levels, I found the unquestioned authoritarianism in Yaounde a very bitter pill to swallow. I saw no reason why anybody should apply for “l’autorisation de spectacle” before performing an ordinary play. I could understand having to pay a fee for the Hall or even a performance tax. But having to submit the playscript and schedule of performances for approval is something that I’ve never been able to get used to.

 Nor is this type of exaggerated censorship limited to theatrical performances. A similar "autorisation” is required even for holding an academic discussion for which it is necessary to submit, in advance, all the details of what is to be said during the discussion. Apart from the Flame Players I was also involved in 1987 in the creation of an intellectual society: the Bernard Fonlon Society (BFS). My experience as one of those who tried to organize lectures, Symposia, Round Tables, and Literary Evenings for the BFS convinced me that, unless there was a change in this regard, scientific research, intellectualism and academic traditions could never take root in Cameroon.

Bole Butake and His Theatre of Conscientization

I have been closely associated with Bole Butake since 1987 and I have witnessed a transformation in Bole Butake as a dramatic artist. I have already remarked above about what I thought of his Lake God when it was first published. Shortly after Butake joined the Flame Players in 1987, I suggested to him that we should produce Bate Besong’s The Most Cruel Death of a Talkative Zombie, a play that satirized Ahidjo and Muna quite unmistakably. But Butake told me: “I am not looking for accommodation in Kondengui. If you want to go there, you can go alone.”

 And yet by 1991, Butake produced Bate Besong’s Beasts of No Nationwith the Yaoundé University Theatre on the occasion of World Theatre Day, March 27th. Bate Besong’s Beasts of No Nation was infinitely more radical than The Most Cruel Death of a Talkative Zombie in that it satirized not their ex-Excellencies as the latter did, but their incumbent Excellencies. The official government spy who watched the performance of this play in Yaoundé University’s Amphi 700, fled from the hall before the end of the play and later wrote a lengthy report which was widely circulated among all the repressive arms of the administration. But Butake was not perturbed. In 1994, Butake wrote:
It is an established fact that in most African countries, as soon as people manoeuvre themselves into political and administrative offices, their previous promises of service to the people are relegated to the background and their major concern becomes how to perpetuate themselves in office and how to amass wealth for themselves. In order to achieve this through the semblance of legitimacy, they rush legislation through parliament (but more fashionably through presidential decrees) and reinforce the police and military whose mission is now disorientated towards the protection of this minority against the majority. Furthermore, total control of the affairs of the country and its citizens is achieved by confiscating the media, especially radio and television, and placing injunctions on any private initiative in the area of communication and information. Through empty political propaganda and sloganeering, with the full backing of the forces of repression, the bourgeoisie can now settle down to raping the nation with impunity.

In my opinion, it is these elites, these rapists, who need to be conscientized. Otherwise, what explanation can one give for the large-scale prevalence of poverty and disease in most African countries while the majority of the political and bureaucratic leadership are operating fabulous bank accounts in Swiss and other European and American banks?

In the Cameroonian situation, for example, things have been further compounded by the manipulation of ethnic and linguistic divergences for the maintenance of a stranglehold on the entire country by a handful of absolutely myopic and ruthless self-seekers. In a country with a population of barely twelve million people, constituting over two hundred and fifty ethnic groupings, in addition to two foreign cultural heritages – English and French – imposed by colonialism, the exploitation of ethnic and linguistico-cultural rivalry for selfish, political ends can be very effective at the cost only of the nation.

It is within the context of this landscape that I launched myself in the desperate attempt to re-educate or conscientize the urbano-politico-bureaucratic bourgeoisie through the writing and directing of plays.[3]

  There is a clearly discernible progressive radicalization, commitment and tendency towards bluntness in Butake’s art, from Lake God (1986) through The Survivors (1989) through And Palm Wine will Flow (1990) and culminating in Shoes and Four Men in Arms (1994). The irreversible breakthrough came with an incident that, in fact, had nothing to do with drama or art. In February 1992, without any prior consultation or warning, Butake’s name was read over the radio as having been appointed by His Excellency the President of the Republic to join the campaign team of the ruling party, the CPDM, as Chargé de mission, at Kumba in the South West Province. In Cameroon, if you are a civil or public servant, if you hold a public office or, otherwise, do anything for which you are paid through the public treasury, it is taken for granted that you must be a militant of the ruling party. This situation, more than anything else, has greatly prevented the advent of genuine democracy in Cameroon. Butake, however, in an epoch-making precedent, publicly rejected the presidential nomination (an effrontery quite inconceivable to Francophones) in writing with a short piece entitled “I Refuse to be Lapiroed” which he circulated by hand and also had published in the newspapers. The title of Butake’s “bombshell,” for those who know the story of the Francophone musician, Roger Lambo Sandjo, alias Lapiro de Mbanga, alias Ndinga Man, which led newspaper columnists such as Cameroon Post’s Rotcod Gobata of No Trifling Matter fame to coin the verb “to lapiro,” clearly implied that Butake was refusing to be blackmailed, bribed and corrupted.

 As I remarked at the time, Butake had, with his “I refuse to be Lapiroed,” said simply, directly and most effectively what for years he had been struggling to say through his drama. I believe that drama and theatre are highly over-rated by people in power. What good reason is there really to be so afraid of theatre and drama that they are censored and controlled and proscribed etc.? A play is simply a play, make-believe, a work of the imagination, and is known to be such by all. Drama could, perhaps, sensitize or conscientize people. I don’t really know. But I don’t also know where or when drama or art in general have ever on their own changed political reality. Those who desire political change would do better to engage in direct political action. Direct political action is indispensable for political change.

[In 1996, while on a Fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany, I arranged for the Flame Players to be invited to a youth theatre festival "Sprachspiele Internationales Theaterfestival für Schüler und Studenten" at Leverkussen. We chose Shoes and Four Men Arms which meanwhile had been translated by Eckhard Breitinger into German. Butake led the all female troupe (four actors and one stage manager) to Germany and we had memorable performances at Leverkussen and Bayreuth.

When it was time to return home, one of the young ladies in the group disappeared into thin air. Luckily for us one of the others had an inkling about her plans to "fall bush", so we did not strain looking for her or going to report to the police. Finally, it is bush falling more than death (Hansel Eyoh, Siga Asanga, Kwasen Gwangwa’a, Sankie Maimo, and now Bole Butake) that grounded the Flame Players at the very moment it should have been soaring to stardom. Shortly after the Leverkussen Festival I had attended a conference on "the Voice in Theatre and Acting" in Cardiff, the UK. A Theatre troupe I met there were very keen on going into immediate partnership with the Flame Players for joint film productions. To mount our dossier for this proposal, I communicated with one of our members back home who was best placed to get for me in a timely manner some required information. She, surprisingly, was unresponsive. As it turned out, she was at the time seriously preparing to "fall bush". Had things worked out otherwise, the Flame Players might today be rubbing shoulders with Nollywood. The Flame Players had also drafted a 52 episode serial called ASHIA, which Kwasen Gwangwa’a was in the process of translating into screen play when untimely death took him, in the company of Bate Bissong and Hilarious Ambe, in a ghastly motor accident on the notorious Douala-Yaounde road. We do hear talk about the Cameroon Film Industry but, frankly, there is no such thing as yet. There is a Nigerian Film Industry, for sure, and Cameroonians have been so fascinated with it that they imagine a Cameroon equivalent could emerge through collaboration and imitation. Radical originality is necessary for a Cameroon film whatever to develop. Films which mimic Nollywood films or use its star actors/actresses are footnotes/part and parcel of the Nigerian film industry, demonstrating its power and influence. A genuine and authentic Cameroon film industry with English as the vehicle of communication will need to acknowledge and build on the humble foundations laid by the likes of Victor Musinga, Sankie Maimo, Bole Butake, The Yaounde University Theatre and the Flame Players. The Flame Bush Fallers who might have moved things forward, were they at home, include Joyce Ashuntangtang, Vennessa Sona, Benn Bongang, Kumengisa Pius Deghe, Ma Arrah Bate, Maimo Mary, Pamela Kisob, Bannavti Joe Kumu, Kehbuma Langmia].

[Bole Butake was a Cameroonian with a pristine Anglophone mind-set and orientation, modest, true to himself and his conscience, true to all those he had to deal with at all levels. Given his indisputable patriotism and his teaching and mentorship of numerous young Cameroonians, he certainly deserves some national recognition which, we hope, His Excellency the President of the country, in one of those rare but brilliant actions he occasionally takes to the delight of all, will confer on him, on behalf of us all. But should that fall on the not to be side of reality, let us all with Butake accept reality with calm equanimity for, if he was so courageous in life, it is not in death that he would become a plaintive coward. On our part, the Flame Players attest that he accomplished all his tasks with distinction and left nothing undone that he needed to have done, and we wish him a well deserved eternal rest.]

[1]  For a review of the play see Godfrey B. Tangwa: “Bole Butake’s Lake God:A Philosophical Review”. African Theatre Review 1:3 (April 1987).
[2]  For a fuller account, see Godfrey B. Tangwa: “Who are the Flame Players and How did they Originate?” The Flame Players’ Production Magazine of Retributive Justice by Sankie Maimo (1993).
[3]  Bole Butake: “The Dramatist at Work: My Theatre Work is Aimed at the Urbano-Politico-Bureaucratic Elite in Cameroon.” Theatre and Performance in Africa, ed. Eckhard Breitinger. [Bayreuth African Studies; 31], 1994, pp. 101-102.

See online: Bole Butake as a flame player: an academic tribute at the moment of his eternal transition