breaking the silence

Cameroon: Hemley Boum scratches scars of colonialism in ‘Days Come and Go’

By Olivia Snaije

Posted on May 5, 2023 11:04

 © Hemley Boum (c) Gallimard
Hemley Boum (c) Gallimard

Paris-based Cameroonian Hemley Boum is a prize-winning author whose fourth novel, ‘Les jours viennent et passent’ (Gallimard, 2019), was translated by Nchanji Njamnsi and published in English – ‘Days Come and Go’. Not only is it unusual for a francophone author from Africa to be published in English, the translator is also from Cameroon as is the publisher, Bakwa Books.

The happy chain of events was engineered by Boum and her agent, Pierre Astier. They are very aware that African authors who write in French and are published in France either don’t see their book made available on the African continent, let alone in their country. If the book becomes available, the price is often unaffordable for most readers.

Bakwa Books, founded by Dzekashu MacViban in Yaoundé in 2019, publishes literary and creative non-fiction in English, and plans to also publish in French from 2025. Following Bakwa Books’ acquisition of English-language rights, the translator’s sample was sent to the US independent publisher Two Lines, which put Days Come and Go onto the shelves in the US.

Days Come and Go, which won the Prix Ahmadou-Kourouma, follows the lives of three generations of Cameroonian women — Anna, her daughter Abi, and the teenager Tina, both in Cameroon and in France.

Boum said the inspiration for the book was the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris for which there was an immediate international outcry. A mere 15 days later, a Boko Haram attack took place in Kolofata in Cameroon, but there was total silence.

Boum wondered about this silence and specifically about the lack of information available in Cameroon. In one section of Days Come and Go, she examines the indoctrination of teenage Cameroonians by extremists.

The deep mark left by colonialism

The author spoke to The Africa Report about this culture of silence, or omertà, as she calls it – primarily about colonialism – in a conversation that began with the books she read as a child.

She is an avid reader. “At school we exclusively read European authors — French classics mostly, and with a few exceptions; [Cameroonian author] Mongo Beti, [Nigerian author] Chinua Achebe, and [Martinican author and politician] Aimé Césaire; but African authors were markedly absent, even in libraries. I discovered [Cameroonian author] Francis Bebey very late, and I read [Guinean author] Camara Laye because my parents gave me his book,” Boum tells us.

The oldest character, Anna, describes her reading habits and says: “I have always shied away from African literature. It contains an injunction that I’m uncomfortable with. Foreign authors talk to an inner ‘me’.”

Explaining Anna’s preference, which used to be hers, Boum says authors such as Chinua Achebe or Aimé Césaire, represent the years of struggle in African literature.

“In a country like Cameroon, it’s very strange. The colonial period was not at all present in my daily life — I didn’t feel ready to come face to face with it. This unconscious rejection is part of the continued silence in my country about colonialism.”

She only plunged into her own country’s history when she wrote her novel, Les Maquisards (The Resistance Fighters, La Cheminante, 2015), a sweeping historical novel about the struggle for independence that Boum set in Cameroon.

“When I worked on Les Maquisards I discovered this history, and how close it was to me, but no one talked about it,” she says.

Women’s status

Where Boum has always felt confident is in her descriptions of women and their daily lives, both intimate and universal.

“I’m often told that my female characters are feminists and that women are given a lot of space in my work. But I think women are in their rightful place in life, and in my life. Men have roles in my books too. It’s just that women have dominant roles in life … what I try to do is to show global and complex women who resemble women we know.”

The great solidarity that women show each other in the novel reflects the reality in Cameroon where men and women’s everyday lives are separate.

A good part of the violence in our societies comes from the colonial period; the forms that it takes — humiliating someone with the pretext of correcting them

“And it’s perfectly acceptable,” she says. “In the West, this separation is considered a problem, but in general, where there’s co-existence, it favours men.”

That said, women’s situations are difficult in Cameroon, and harassment and systemic violence are ever-present says Boum. “But I am hopeful that things will change over time – laws and accountability are needed.”

“This resistance to equality derives from the influence of the church and Napoleonic laws, which come with the idea that the head of the family is the father,” she says, referring to women’s place in society.

In community-based societies, each member is important because they have a role to play.

Today, “a good part of the violence in our societies comes from the colonial period; the forms that it takes — humiliating someone with the pretext of correcting them,” she says, adding that this includes political organisations.

Countries where there is no peace, take instructions from those who live abroad, she maintains, adding that this type of violence needs to be studied to understand the influence it has in society.

Douala of yesterday, and today

In Days Come and Go, Anna is the link to Cameroon’s colonial past, but the reader gets to visit Douala as it is today with her teenage grandson, Max, who grew up in France but often returns to Cameroon.

Boum says: “Douala is one of those African cities that, obsessed with its survival, forgets to embellish itself to attract the foreigners passing through. It’s cosmopolitan, noisy, untidy, full of energy, and hungry for knowledge, culture, and sensations. It’s voracious and insatiable.”

Boum, who was born in Douala, adds that big cities in Africa are unrecognisable after six months, the transformation is so constant.

“Douala and Yaoundé are young, post-colonial cities and the way one lives in them is the opposite of Western cities, which are much older and seem circumscribed.”

Douala is also the partial setting for her new novel, Le Rêve du pêcheur (The Fisherman’s Dream), which Boum says she is putting the finishing touches to. Set in the 1970s to the present, the upcoming novel touches on the subject of intergenerational trauma. Her characters include a Cameroonian couple and a young man who lives between Paris and Douala, unaware of his family history, yet destined to repeat it.

While growing up in Douala her surroundings were francophone, but Boum learned English at school and “the pidgin spoken in Douala uses local, English, and French terms. Languages are not divisive for me, although there is a linguistic barrier with anglophone Cameroon”.

The fact that her book was published in English, making it accessible to Cameroonians and other Africans who don’t read in French, makes Boum very happy, setting into motion “new perspectives – language barriers no longer have to be obstacles”.

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