By Kimeng Hilton Ndukong, 12 July 2012
Cameroon’s ace playwright and actor, Prof. Bole Butake talks on his university teaching career as he prepares to retire at the end of this month.
Bole Butake – And The Playwright Retires
The mention of Bole Butake’s name will most likely ring a bell – especially among those familiar with Cameroon’s literature in English. This is especially true for students who have had occasion to study or perform some of his plays. After more than 40 years of teaching in the then University of Yaounde (now University of Yaounde I), Prof. Butake is retiring at the end of this month a fulfilled man. Beginning as secondary school teacher of English language to Francophone university students, the don – who lost both his parents within a week when he was only four – would later rise through all lecturer ranks, becoming Professor of Performing Arts and African Literature in 2000. He was also Vice Dean for Programming and Academic Affairs and Head of Department of Arts and Archaeology in the same university.
You’re going on retirement at the end of this month after more than three decades of teaching. What has it been like?
I have actually been working for over 40 years. I began in 1972 when I was posted to the university as secondary school teacher to teach English to Francophones. Two years later – in 1974 – I became an Assistant Lecturer. I’ve had an interesting time, rising through all the grades to become a professor.
Would you say you had a fulfilled career?
I feel quite fulfilled with my career because I love teaching – imparting knowledge. I’m also in cinematography. I have done workshops with people in various parts of Cameroon, beginning from Limbe and Muyuka in the South West Region to the North and Far North Regions. So, I have visited nearly all parts of Cameroon, holding workshops with ordinary village people on techniques of theatre for development. I have taught or introduced them to using theatre in human rights activities, women’s rights, early pregnancy and marriages amongst young girls, the education of the girl child, democracy… In short, we have worked in many areas.
You didn’t get involved in partisan issues like some of your colleagues. What prompted such a decision?
I was very interested in teaching at the university, not in doing politics. So, I decided to concentrate on my teaching job. In fact, I was asked a number of times to go and campaign for one party or the other, but I refused because I didn’t want to get involved in political matters. The way politics is done in our society is not really healthy. You have to tell lies, say things that you don’t believe in. I don’t believe in such things.
I decided to steer clear of politics because it was an area I found to be very slippery and dangerous. I need my sleep when I go to bed. To stand in public and promise people something and to face them tomorrow without having done it is what I wanted to avoid. That is why I decided to stay away from what to me is a dangerous game. I don’t envy those who do politics, but I can’t do it.
Did the decision have to do with your integrity?
Yes, definitely because I think a lot about myself, my conscience and I don’t see myself standing in public and making a declaration that people will prove wrong. Generally, when I make promises, I like to keep them. For instance, when I was president of my village development committee, we promised water for the village, galvanised the people and gave them water and they have been expanding on that. I’m waiting for other people to take the baton and provide other facilities for people in the village. At least in my time, I did my best. Apart from the water plant, we also expanded the hospital, got some equipment for secondary schools and other things. Those are the types of things that I like to do and not to make empty promises which cannot be kept.
Is such concern for integrity borne out of your religious upbringing?
Religion … and it can also be genetic. My parents died when I was still four years old. Both of them died within the same week. I cannot say it is the influence of my parents and I don’t have other brothers or sisters. I have a lot of relatives, but they are all cousins, uncles, aunts etc. It is just genetic, I think. Though I am a Catholic, I go to church when I can. I believe in God but I think it is more of genetics than religion.
What, according to you, is the state of theatre in Cameroon today?
It is in a sad state. The problem is not lack of playwrights, actors or training facilities and institutions. The problem is with the people who matter – business people – who do not want to invest in theatre. Can you imagine that a big city like Yaounde does not have a theatre house where people can sit and relax on a daily bases? They have to go to the French Cultural Centre. There is no Cameroonian who has a theatre house. Can you imagine that there is no cinema hall in Yaounde and Douala today?
There was a time that all the major towns in the country had cinema halls. I know that in Bamenda, there were at least two cinema halls. In Yaounde, there was a time there were about nine cinema halls and 11 in Douala. Today, there is nothing. It is a very disturbing situation that theatre is gone down. The 70s and 80s were the golden age of Cameroon theatre.
Since then, churches and supermarkets have taken over the big cinema houses. Maybe, the people were distributing European and not African films. Today, people watch films on cable television and that is why they don’t go to cinema anymore. And we have Nigeria next-door that is producing Nollywood films. With just FCFA 200, you can get a Nigerian home movie.
Though theatre has dropped, I think it is still a worthwhile investment. I will encourage any businessman to build a small hall of even 200 or 300 places maximum. And I challenge that person to give it to me and we will be able to use it well and have plays produced there practically on a daily basis.
Do you really believe such a venture will be viable?
It will be used in a more professional manner. We’ll employ people on permanent basis and pay taxes to government. The day that we are not performing a play, we are showing films or having a musical concert to be busy all round.
Maybe businessmen need to be convinced that it will be financially viable?
How do you convince them when everybody is in import and export? When people talk about business, it is importing and exporting. They import the last grade of second-hand goods that have been dumped. They dump it here in the country, causing pollution instead of creating jobs. I don’t see how you can convince them.
I have gone to television and radio stations and talked about this a number of times. I have even talked to some business people and one had a strategic piece of land near Obili in Yaounde. We drew up the plan for the theatre house and later, he changed his mind, sold the plot and the project collapsed.
What would you say is the state of Anglophone creative writing in Cameroon?
Creative writing is really growing and I like the way it is developing. For instance, there are two publishing houses now – Langaa Press and Miraclaire Publishers. Both of them are based in the United States of America and publish works of Cameroonian Anglophone writers every year. These books are not well known back in Cameroon because they are not properly distributed. Some of them cost between FCFA 10,000 and FCFA 20,000, which is quite exorbitant. I think this year alone, Langaa has published more than 20 books already. And I know that Miraclaire has published about 10. These are mostly works of Cameroonians.
What is the quality of these works?
The quality is very good. I have read many of them and I can tell you that the quality is very good. I trained some of the authors when they started working here in the university (the University of Yaounde I). We created a literary club called ’The Mould.’ We used to meet and discuss our poems and short stories. Many of them have become renowned writers and have recently won prizes. They are doing very well as you won’t be able to win a prize if you don’t write well. I think they can stand their grounds anywhere in the world.
Any advice for young people who want to get into creative writing?
I will give them a lot of encouragement, but I will tell them to prepare. There is one thing with young people; they do not prepare adequately. They do not master the tenets of writing. It happens that in Cameroon you write either in English or in French. There are very few people who can read and write in their mother tongues. So, you have to write in foreign languages and if you don’t master the tenets of the foreign languages, you will be unable to express yourself.
So, the greatest problem young people face is that of language. I was reading the script of one of my students in French. As an Angplophone, I still found mistakes in it, indicating that something is wrong. They should begin by mastering the language and maybe they will improve. When you have good ideas, it is better to express them because it is through communication that readers understand what you are talking about.
How do you see the future of theatre arts in Cameroon?
I think it is promising. I have said that before long, business people will realise that it is viable to invest in the cultural entertainment industry. Just look at Nigeria and see how many people the Nollywood industry is employing. They are the next employer after government. In the United States, the entertainment industry is the biggest employer and people are earning thousands of dollars out of music, dance, film etc. The future is very bright for the local entertainment industry. People who have money should be brave enough to invest in it. They will reap a very good harvest.