“Il faut travailler ton Francais”, I recall my mum saying. “You need to work on your French.”
It was a regular summer afternoon, and as regular summer afternoons went, I was working on exercises from the next year’s curriculum under my mum’s supervision. This was when I was still in primary school, say grade 3 or 4. The subject I was studying this time was French. The next day, it would have been Mathematics, or English. Out of those three, French was by far the hardest subject. By that time, I had been speaking French for my entire life, so you would think it should have been the easiest. My first words were “Maman” [Mum]. My first favourite cartoon was “Peppa Cochon” [Peppa Pig], and my first favorite song was “Ma meilleure amie” [My best friend] by Lorie, the French Britney Spears of the early 2000s. My first name, Marquise, chosen by my dad, is a French noble title just like Duke or Duchess.
Growing up in the Francophone part of Cameroon, your typical upbringing was a sauce of Cameroonian culture with a generous serving of French influence inherited from our colonial past. Among some socioeconomic circles, the amount of French influence was considered proportional to your level of education and consequent financial prosperity. As such, looking back at that summer afternoon, the severity with which my mum pointed out the mistakes I made in my written French must have been rooted with the intention of equipping me with the tools to fit into these socioeconomic circles. French was a difficult language though. Having learned both French and English in an academic setting, I found English grammar rules to be a bit more loose and straightforward than French’s eight tenses. I mean, just the past tense comprises of imperfect, past anterior, compound past, simple past and past perfect with wildly different verb forms. Good luck determining which tenses to use in a fill in the blank essay.
My experience does not paint the experience of every Cameroonian though. I had a childhood friend, called Alicia, who spoke fluent Badjoun. Her mum and dad were from Badjoun and they often spoke Badjoun to each other for as long as she can remember. My situation was a bit different; my mum spoke Bapa whereas my dad spoke Fotouni, which is phonetically quite different. Hence, my dad decided they would speak to us kids only in French so as not to confuse us. This was fine by me but felt weird when my “Meme” [Grandma] would visit and try to speak Bapa to me and I could only return a smile and a nod. My friend Alicia exclusively spoke Bapa with her grandma and they bonded that way. My grandma once scolded my mum on the fact that me and my siblings should have been taught the dialect, but her rationale was a bit weird.
“Si on doit parler de nos choses et on ne veut pas que les autres nous ecoutent, on va parler quoi?” [So what are we supposed to speak in public if we don’t want nearby people to understand] said my grandma. This seemed a bit silly to me at the time, but I had been practicing skillful whispering to my best friends at parties for as long as I could remember with near perfect efficiency. And in the rare times when whispering did not work out, texting each other did wonders. I guess what I am trying to say is, I always questioned its utility. When guests arrived at home, they spoke French. When we went to public offices or shops, they spoke French. When I went to school, my friends spoke French, so why learn anything else? This only came back to bite me when my dad managed to drag us to his village, which usually happened every two years or so. In the village, maybe two people spoke French. Everyone else spoke only Fotouni. My siblings and I spoke fluent “smile and nod.”
By Form 4, my best friend was Embelle. She came from an Anglophone family from the Bakweri region and spoke English exclusively at home. We were in an Anglophone secondary school, so it made sense that there were a number of Anglophone students. Once, I went home with her after school so my mum could pick me up at her place. To my surprise, her entire family also spoke fluent French. Knowing that my English was struggling at the time, they always spoke French to me to accommodate me. This made me think, if Embelle were to come over to my place, my parents would not have been able to speak English to her, as most Francophones were exclusively Francophones. But living in Douala, I guess even Anglophones had to comply to French, as it was the standard. Looking back, it obviously shouldn’t have been the case and is quite ironic, since we’re a supposedly bilingual country. The irony gets better when you listen to Paul Biya, our everlasting President, make announcements on TV, exclusively in French.
As the years went by, my spoken English got better. I was able to score all 8s at IELTS and got admitted to McMaster University in Canada. The switch was brutal, from speaking French 24/7 to near never unless my parents called. French became the escape I needed when campus or Canada as a whole became overwhelming and I needed a reminder of who I was and where I came from. This was a bit troubling because when people realized I spoke French they would ask, are you French [As in from France] but I was not. I would correct them and say I am Camerounian, but would not necessarily find a differentiator to prove that I was Camerounian and not French, other than my obvious skin color, which by itself was not strong enough since Black French people are just as common these days in France. I would do more and more research on my “real” culture and origin and try to learn and assimilate as much as I could just so I could strengthen my Camerounian identity. But the void neocolonialism had left at the time was so deep, filling it up completely would have taken years of unlearning and relearning, a chunk of time I simply did not have as I was working on my undergraduate degree. I eventually settled with the alternative, making peace with that void.
I decided to be Camerounian in my own way, a reflection on my upbringing, its period in time, my parents and my friends. I decided to fill this void with whatever resonated with my soul, whether it be South African Zulu (because those rhythms are straight fire) or Salatiel’s Camerounian French R&B (because that boy can sing)! Or then again, Arafat’s Coupe Decale—because God knows those songs exhilarated our club nights and house parties all through the 2000s—all while scouring Netlflix for French shows because they remind me of growing up with TF1 [No1 French Channel] in the background. There is a lot of responsibility being in a foreign country, having to represent your background while staying true to your identity. I would encourage everyone to do that in whichever way makes them happy and brings them peace.