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Fictionalizing Camfranglais: A Review of Moi Taximan by Gabriel Kuitche Fonkou

Saturday 23 March 2013

Peter Wuteh Vakunta

2013-03-13, Issue 621

This book is highly recommended to people who know nothing about Camfranglais and who wish to one day visit Cameroon. It really is a must read.

Fonkou’s Moi Taximan is a fascinating novel to read. This work of fiction is interesting in several aspects but the quality that captures the attention of the reader is the writer’s attempt to Cameroonize the French language as the following sentence shows: ‘Dans l’après midi, je devais rembourser de l’argent dans une tontine des ressortissants de mon village natal.’(7) [1] The word ‘tontine’ is a neologism that describes a ‘thrift society’ where members contribute and borrow money regularly when the need arises. Lexical truncation is a word formative process used adeptly by Fonkou not simply for the purpose of adding local colour and flavour to his narrative but also to translate Cameroonian socio-cultural realities into a European language as seen in the following excerpt: ‘J’avais remarqué dès les premiers jours que certains collègues clandos ne s’arrêtaient pas aux barrières de contrôle, ou que quand ils s’y arrêtaient, c’était pour échanger avec les contrôleurs des plaisanteries puis repartir sans avoir servi ni le café ni la bière.’ (12) [2]

The word ‘clando’ refers to a taxi driven by a driver who does not possess the legal documentation that gives them the right to drive a taxi. It is a truncation of the word ‘clandestine.’ Sometimes, Camanglophones [3] use the word ‘clando’ to describe a private car used to transport passengers illegally. It could also be used to designate a person who does illegal business.

Fonkou resorts to the technique of compounding in an attempt to acquaint his readers with the thought patterns of Cameroonians and the strange ways in which Cameroonians manipulate language in a bid to talk about these things: ‘Les premiers contacts avec les mange-mille et les gendarmes coûtent cher, mais par la suite, tout le monde se connaît et il s’établit comme un contrat tacite.’(12) [4] The compound word ‘mange-mille’ is derived from two words, ‘manger’ (to eat) and ‘mille’ (thousand). It is a derogatory term used by speakers of Camfranglais to describe corrupt police officers in Cameroon(and God knows they are plenty) notorious for taking bribes from taxi drivers, generally in the neighborhood of 1000 CFA francs, though they would take less when drivers are hard. Certain Camfranglais expressions are hard to decipher unless the reader is familiar with the context of usage. As Nstobe et al caution: ‘Il faut absolument connaître la signification de ces mots dans leurs contextes spécifiques.’ (90) [5]

This difficulty stems from the fact that Camfranglophones frequently borrow words from indigenous languages as this proverbial expression shows: ‘L’enfant qui vit près de la chefferie ne craint pas le ‘mekwum.’ (14) [6] The word ‘mekwum’ is an indigenous language word that refers to a masked dancer belonging in a village secret society. The following excerpt is rich in borrowings from vernacular languages spoken in Cameroon: ‘Dès que je me trouvais au milieu de cette foule ce furent d’interminables poignées de mains d’une vigueur à vous déséquilibrer, d’interminable ‘nge pin’, ‘a pon’, ‘a bha’a, toutes les expressions de l’approbation et de la satisfaction.’(93) [7] Oftentimes, Camfranglophones embellish their discourses with ideophones [8] in an attempt to translate the spoken word into writing: ‘C’est pratiquement toutes les personnes présentes qui s’écriaient ‘Oueuh! Oueuh! Oueuh!’ (98) [9] Other than ideophones, Fonkou utilizes the technique of semantic shift in the writing process.

SEMANTIC SHIFT AS A LITERARY DEVICE IN MOI TAXIMAN

Moi Taximan is replete with French words that have undergone semantic transformation: ‘Je ne mangeais chez moi que le soir, sauf les jours où je me faisais aider par un ‘attaquant’…afin de me reposer un peu.’(18) [10] The narrator employs the word ‘attaquant’ to describe a taxi driver who not only works overtime but is often aggressive and prone to road rage. Another example that illustrates Fonkou’s dexterity at word-smithing is the following: ‘On sortait de l’opération avec un plus grand sourire si, en plus, les passagers longue distance avaient ‘proposé’…’ (8) [11] A little further, Fonkou sheds ample light on the meaning of the word ‘proposé’: ‘payer plus cher que le tarif normal’ (8) [12] Some Camfranglais words used in Moi taximan are English words that have undergone transformation to create new words. Such is the case with ‘Massa’: ‘Je tombai sur Massa Yo alors que je venais d’essuyer deux semaines de chômage.’(28) [13] ‘Massa’ is a deformation of the English word ’master’. In this excerpt, the speaker is referring to his boss.

The irreverent attitude of Camfranglais speakers toward grammatical norms has caused some linguistic theorists to describe the advent of this new Cameroonian slang as a transgression of the grammatical canons of the French language. Ntsobe et al, for instance, perceive Camfranglais as linguistic invasion. As they put it: ‘Il faut admettre, il s’agit bien d’une invasion, d’une dictature de mots et de termes venus d’ailleurs et qui diminuent quotidiennement l‘occurrence d’utilisation d’un vocabulaire proprement français’ (Ntsobe et al., 9) [14] To put this differently, Camfranglais speakers attempt to dismantle the grammatical conventions of the French language. Like Kourouma, Fonkou takes the liberty of toying with ‘une langue classique trop rigide pour que ma pensée s’y meuve’ (38) [15]A sizeable number of Camfranglais words are created through affixation as seen in the excerpt below: ‘Vous n’aviez qu’à ‘tchouquer…’ (29) [You only had to fire]. The word ‘tchouquer’ derives from the noun ‘tchoucage,’ and translates the act of starting a car by having people push it. It also has sexual innuendoes. Young Cameroonians tend to use ‘tchouquer’ to describe sexual intercourse. Some Camfranglais speakers use the word ‘appuyer’ in making allusion to sexual intercourse.

The technique of indigenization of the French language enables Camfranglais speakers to create words suitable for discussions relating to love affairs. The rationale is to conceal the meaning of certain taboo words from adults and kids for the sake of propriety as this example shows: ‘Tout venant d’elle constituait un irrésistible ‘tobo a ssi’ dont j’étais une victime joyeuse.’(105) [16] ‘Tobo a ssi’ is a vernacular-language term that describes a love potion used by Cameroonian women to charm men with whom they want to fall in love or who are in love with men they fear may be lured away by other women. Indigenization of the French language in the following sentence is evident: ‘Justine était généralement vêtue d’un ‘kabba’ par-dessus duquel elle avait noué un pagne.’(130) [17] ‘Kabba’ is a loanword from Duala, one of the vernacular languages spoken in Cameroon.

These examples bear testimony to the fact that Moi Taximan is a novel in which native tongue words and expressions jostle for space with standard French lexes. Neology enables Fonkou to find words that convey the mindset and worldview of his characters as the example shows: ‘Entre deux clients, Justine et sa mère participaient activement à l’entretien de la chaude ambiance du secteur des ‘bayam sellam’: potins, querelles simulées, plaisanteries et fausses confidences bruyantes y provoquaient de gros éclats de rire.’ (131) [18] ‘Bayam sellam’, is a compound noun derived from Cameroonian Pidgin English. Literally, it means “buy” and “sell.” It is used in this novel to describe market women whom the protagonist describes as ‘des revendeuses, cette catégorie de commerçantes aggressives sans les lesquelles nos marchés perdraient leur âme.’(130) [19] ‘Bayam sellam’ trade consists precisely of buying and selling foodstuff bought wholesale at the lowest possible prices in the rural areas (farms and plantations in the villages) to resell by retail in the urban areas (Bafoussam, Douala, Nkongsamba, Yaoundé, etc.) ‘Bayam sellam’ trade is a growing informal economic sector born out of dire need (the struggle to improve the livelihood of individuals and families.)

The title of Fonkou’s novel—Moi Taximan—calls for a comment. The first half of the title ‘Moi’ is a tonic pronoun. Tonic pronouns are used for the purpose of emphasis. Thus, when Fonkou says ‘Moi’, he draws attention to himself, an invitation extended to the reader to listen to his story. The second part of the title is a compound noun derived from two words—‘taxi’ and ‘man.’ ‘Taximan’ is a compound word used by Camanglophones in reference to a cab driver. The slang spoken by Fonkou’s characters is a third code fabricated by youths ‘désireux de s’exprimer entre eux de telle sorte qu’ils ne soient compréhensibles que par les locuteurs…capables de décoder les termes empruntés à l’anglais, au pidgin English ou aux langues camerounaises’ (Ntsobe et al, 2008, p. 9) [20] Put differently, some lexical items employed by Fonkou are loans from Cameroonian Creole (pidgin English) as this example shows: ‘Au bout de la journée le plus souvent chacun de nous affichait un sourire de contentement et nous nous quittions à la nuit tombante sur de vigoureuses poignées de mains prolongées par un ‘toss’…’(13). [21] Fonkou’s protagonist describes the word ‘toss’ as ‘salut du bout des pouces et des majeurs entrecroisés puis séparés dans un vif frottement sonore.’(13) [22] Pidgin has enriched the Camfranglais that Fonkou uses in Moi taximan.

RECOURSE TO PIDGIN ENGLISH AS A MODE OF EXPRESSION

Pidgin is used for good purpose in the novel as seen in the following statement: ‘La journée d’hier a été djidja.’(19) [23] ‘Djidja’, a loanword from Pidgin English, derives from the English word ‘ginger.’ Camanglais speakers use this culinary term to describe an untoward situation, comparable to the standard French expression ‘une à boire’ (uphill task).Oftentimes, Fonkou makes the reader aware of the technique of elision as a word formative paradigm as seen in this example: ‘En même temps, ses bras se livraient à des gestes qu’il voulait impérieux, pour m’intimer de m’arrêter illico.’(21) [24] The word ‘illico’ is an abbreviation of ‘illegal’, used in this context to translate the notion of imprudent attitude. Fonkou seems to have a predilection for the elision of terminal syllables: ‘Je ne sais rien, espèce de Bami.’(24) [25] The word ‘Bami’ is an abbreviation of ‘Bamileke’, one of the ethnic groups in Cameroon loathed by other Cameroonians for their ruthless money-mongering and unbridled resourcefulness. Used the way Fonkou does here, the word conveys derogatory undertones. As these examples illustrate, neology is a technique constantly exploited by Fonkou to create new words that portray the prism through which his characters perceive social reality. This is a book I highly recommend to people who know nothing about Camfranglais and who are desirous of one day visiting the Republic of Cameroon. It really is a must read.

CONCLUSION

It is tempting to conclude that Fonkou’s novel is an excellent example of fiction in which the ex-colonized underscores the fallacy of the unassailable position of European languages in indigenous literatures. Moi taximan does more than just capture in print the oral discourses of Cameroonians; it is a reflection of the discomfort felt by African writers in their attempt to discuss African realities using languages that were not meant to convey these realities in the first place. Fonkou makes abundant use of the technique of linguistic innovation to portray both the socio-cultural realities of Cameroon and the significant influence of literary indigenization on postcolonial fictional writing.

Moi Taximan by Gabriel Kuitche Fonkou, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2001, 192 pp. Paperback, $43.23. ISBN 97827475526678

* Dr. Peter Wuteh Vakunta teaches at the United States Defense Language Institute in California. He is an Africanologist and specialist in Postcolonial Francophone Literatures. He blogs at http://vakunta.blogspot.com

END NOTES

1. In the afternoon, I had to pay back money I had borrowed from members of a thrift society of people from my village.

2. I had noticed from the onset that some clando colleagues never stopped at the police checkpoint, or only stopped to crack jokes with the controllers and leave without serving coffee or beer.

3. Speakers of Camfranglais

4. The first encounters with the mange-mille and gendarmes often cost much, but with time, people get to know one another and a sort of tacit contract is established.

5. You absolutely have to know the meanings and contextual usage of these words.

6. The child who lives near the palace does not fear the ‘mekwum.’

7. As soon as I found myself in this crowd, we shook hands incessantly and so vigorously that one could lose one’s equilibrium, endless ‘nge pin’, ‘a pon’, ‘a bha’a, expressions of approbation and satisfaction.

8. Ideophones are words that evoke a vivid impression of certain sensations or sensory perceptions, e.g. sound, movement, color, shape, or action. They are found in many of the world’s languages, though they are relatively uncommon in Western languages (Nuckolls 2004).

9. Literally, everyone present shouted ‘Oueuh! Oueuh! Oueuh!’

10. I only ate at home in the evenings, except on days when I had asked an ‘attacker’ to replace me so that I could have some rest.

11. At the end of the day, we returned home with a big smile if, in addition to the normal fare, long-distance commuters had proposed.

12. Pay more than the required fare.

13. I ran into Massa Yo after having spent two weeks without a job.

14. We must admit that this is a case of linguistic invasion, a sort of dictatorship of words and expressions originating from elsewhere that impact negatively on the use of standard French vocabulary.

15. [xv] A language too rigid to enable my thought to flow freely

16. Everything coming from her was like some irresistible ‘tobo a ssi’ whose happy victim I was.

17. Justine was always dressed in a ‘kabba’ over which she tied a loincloth.

18. Between two customers, Justine and her mother participated in the hot discussions that animated the ‘bayam sellam’ section of the martket: gossip, fake quarrels, jokes and noisy false pretenses that caused outbursts of laughter.

19. would lose their luster.

20. Interested in conversing with one another in such a manner that what they say is only intelligible to initiates…capable of decoding the meanings of terms culled from English, Pidgin and indigenous Cameroonian languages.

21. More often than not, at the end of the day, each one of us wore a smile of satisfaction; we parted at nightfall after vigorously shaking hands and saying ‘toss.’

22. Form of handshake with the tips of the thumb and middle-fingers intertwined, followed by a quick separation and loud sound.

23. Yesterday was djidja.

24. At the same time, he made majestic arm gestures as if to stop me right away.

25. I have no idea, you Bami.

See online: Fictionalizing Camfranglais: A Review of Moi Taximan by Gabriel Kuitche Fonkou