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OBITUARY: Sam Nuvala Fonkem: A Journalism Hall of Famer

Saturday 10 October 2015

By Boh Herbert

Heaven must have great demand for excellent broadcast journalists. How do I know,you ask?

Well - what else do you want me to say? How does one explain the loss, in rapid succession, of the likes of Epsy Ngum, Ben Berka Njovens, Charles Landze, Akwanka Joe Ndifor, Anne Nkwain Nsang, and more? How do I explain that God has just called back to Him the phenomenally gifted Sam Nuvala Fonkem?

O’Sam, as he was affectionately called, passed into glory in Buea, Cameroon. No medical cause of death has been given. Except, of course, the sweeping cause of death in Cameroon known as "following brief illness" which has been mentioned in every obituary so far. The announcements do not also clarify if O’Sam was in Cameroon on vacation from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where he has now served several years with the United Nations.

Whatever the cause of death, one thing is clear: Cameroon has lost one of its finest journalists - ever.

God forbid that I pretend that O’Sam was my colleague-colleague. It would not be wrong to suggest that he probably had the status of an idol. A long line of junior colleagues, including yours truly, looked to him for help in being a deserving journalist. Long before many of us became journalists, it was an honor to role play the amazing Sam Nuvala Fonkem.

After journalism school, we relied on the likes of O’Sam to learn how to apply academic learning to everyday practice. He never disappointed. He was a senior editor, a big bro, a mentor, and an inspiration... a true master of the art of journalism and a proud son of the Bali Kingdom of the North West Region of Cameroon.

This to admit that I lack the critical biographical and background information to write a professional tribute on O’Sam. However, it feels to me that I would not have buried this big brother if I did not openly confess what an impact he made on me.

Even after many years away from a radio microphone, it is my view that O’Sam dies with his stock as a journalist still soaring. He dies a darling to radio listeners across Cameroon; untainted by the "gombo" world of "two for five francs" journalists that pollute Cameroonian journalism today. He goes to his final resting place as he lived his life: unapologetically disgusted by the propaganda machine that state media was in his days has remained over these many years in Cameroon.

The beautiful baritone voice that has gone silent served a man whose lifetime was dedicated not only to excellence in journalism, but also to the use of journalism to fight corruption, decry misrule, afflict the rich and powerful and defend the interests of the people, notably the welfare of Southern Cameroonians.

O’Sam loved his drink and was, by my estimation, a heavy smoker. Spotting the traditional "danchiki" sleeveless shirt which he loved to wear, and bringing along his best High Life, Bottle Dance or "Banghalum" music on one of those old-time cassettes, O’Sam would help out the bartender whenever the right music was wanting and the ambiance during the happy hours he loved fell to the dull end.

O’Sam never hesitated to tongue lash those who abused the power invested in government. He was never afraid to go after those he called "the bastards, lording it over my people". O’Sam did not hide his disdain for politicians who had their palms greased. He lacked patience and, I would even dare say he lacked respect for those who had no balls to speak up. Those who chickened out when it came to defending the truth, or ensuring that they effectively represent their constituents or rebel against singing the propaganda of the regime. Taking on Members of Parliament for not speaking truth to power, O’Sam lambasted MPs - on "live" radio - describing the parliamentarians accused as nothing but "hand clapping monkeys".

The always grinning, always smiling, always laughing and ebullient O’Sam believed (like one of his former colleagues turned cabinet member, Henri Bandolo), that Cameroon’s government at any given time counted several "idiots". Too many idiots are ministers in this country, Bandolo was quoted as telling fellow journalist while he was still at Radio House. "If these idiots managed to become ministers, what about someone with brains like me?" Bandolo wondered aloud. This was several years before the late Bandolo was invited to join what he considered "the idiot club" in power.

Many who knew not how anyone could muster the courage against a regime with power of life and death over its citizens, simply dismissed O’Sam as crazy. Some even suggested that he had to be stoned each time he dished out those his sharp words on the air.

His admirers could not care less. They loved and cheered his courage. As junior colleagues and students, we were inspired by it. When our turn came to call a spade by name, we largely followed the trail that courageous journalists like O’Sam had blazed. That trail included being suspended from broadcasting for speaking the unpleasant truth. It included going to jail. It included seeing his hair shaved against his will at Komdengui Prison. He served time in that big house; and, of course, he faced injustice at the hand of judges of the dictator’s kangaroo courts.

Speaking of jail, it is my belief that O’Sam married the love of his life: an amazing woman who headed the Female Prison at Mfou (outskirts of Yaounde). Thanks to her, yours truly (then one of the BBC correspondents in Cameroon) got access to the then political prisoner, Barrister Yondo Black. This was shortly before Black was freed from detention in 1990 after being briefly held and tried on charges of trying to form an opposition political party.

If I had my way in a sovereign Southern Cameroons, I would be first to lobby for O’Sam being raised to knighthood for his contribution to the struggle to restore independence to Buea. In one of his last emails to me, he regretted that certain Southern Cameroonians were letting their people down. The regime in Yaounde, he said, seems determined to reject dialogue, electing instead to be nothing except "master, conqueror and despot".

As a journalist, I would like to argue that Sam Nuvala Fonkem is a most deserving candidate for any future Southern Cameroonian Journalism Hall of Fame. O’Sam needs to be recognized and celebrated - not just mourned - for his role and activism; but also for his courage and sacrifice in defense of press freedom and of freedom of expression.

It is not in doubt that O’Sam also had a big heart and a big mouth. He used both of these intelligently to serve the most deserving causes of our time and of our people. O’Sam loved journalism with an intensity rarely seen and practiced it with integrity. He also made mentorship of younger journalists his business. That is why for those of us (struggling to fit into the huge shoes he leaves) O’Sam was not only our oak; he was our rock; our journalism stronghold. Sam Nuvala Fonkem will be sorely missed.

Rest in peace, O’Sam!

Boh Herbert

PS: Our Francophone colleagues should forgive me. O’Sam delivered when the 13H00 newscast in French invited "le condense en Anglais, Sam Nuvala Fonkem". Alas, there is no "condense en Francais".

ENDS