The news of Bernard Fonlon’s death reached me as Cameroon was mourning the more than 1700 deaths of the tragedy of lake Nyos, in his region of origin. He died in far away Canada, unable to be with his countrymen in their hour of sorrow.
Bernard Fonlon of Nso was a worthy son of Cameroon. He was one of the early intellectuals who aspired to shape the destiny of their country and that of the African continent. For a quarter of a century, he served his people in various capacities: several times as minister in the government at critical moments in the history of Cameroon, and later as Professor and Head of the Department of African Literature, where he contributed mightily in shaping young minds for the future of Cameroon. It was during the last two years of his distinguished career that I had the privilege to know him and to work with him. He was a leader. He led by example. For every collective undertaking, he led by formulating ideas and by establishing attainable goals. He listened carefully to his collaborators’ points of view and then charted the course to follow. As he was bored by details, he gave to others the opportunity to implement his ideas.
Though he was in politics, he was not a politician: he was more interested in the res publica, that is, the state as a communal endeavour. In short, Bernard Fonlon was a statesman in the best sense of the word: he believed in public service with selfless dedication and unwavering integrity. Bernard Fonlon of Nso was a learned man. Like a Renaissance man, he sought to know everything there is to know on a given subject. He believed that every intellectual question has its “fundamental principles.” He was educated in the classical mould of Europe, yet he remained close to home in his daily life. On his weekly radio show, “The Classical Hour,” he surprised many a listener by introducing West African Highlife alongside Mozart and Beethoven. Bernard Fonlon of Nso was above all a man of compassion and a man of humility.
He took personal interest in the welfare of others. He took the time to help the helpless and to comfort the bereaved. He eschewed the trappings and pomposity of high office and title to live like the people, to be with the people. He has left behind sons and daughters he never had, brothers and sisters whose lives he touched in countless and untold ways. Bernard Fonlon of Nso: a cultured man, a compassionate man of the people, a friend.
By Professor Aliko Songolo, University of California – Irvine
See online: Bernard Fonlon of Nso : The Pathfinder