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  • Marie-Claire Matip and Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury as (In)Visible Pioneers:Early Works by Women Writers and the Struggle for Inclusion in Cameroon's National Educational Program

Cameroon's Marie-Claire Matip and Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury published some of the very first works of Sub-Saharan African women's writing but their achievements are often invisible in their own country, due in part to the omission of these authors' texts from the country's educational program. Along with a brief history and analysis of Matip's novella Ngonda and Kuoh-Moukoury's Rencontres essentielles, this essay discusses the value of these texts today and seeks an understanding of their invisibility in Cameroon despite their indisputable contribution to the African literary canon. The essay also explains the challenges faced in implementing these works into the country's national education program along with some possible signs of and strategies for their eventual inclusion.

In the late 1950s, Cameroonians were looking ahead to independence just as the first published works of literature by women from both the French and British zones emerged to coincide with the birth of this new nation—or in other words, borrowing a phrase from Michael Syrotinski and his book, Singular Performances, these pioneering Cameroonian writers were "attending to the birth of Na(rra)tion" (54). Marie-Claire Matip was seventeen years of age and Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury was just eighteen when they completed the writing of Ngonda and Rencontres essentielles respectively. A voice originating from the small town of Eséka, Matip offers a rather unique 48-page illustrated semi-autobiographical novella, beginning her story with the main character, Ngonda, still in the womb, sharing with her readers traditions and beliefs never expressed before in published form by a Cameroonian woman. Kuoh-Moukoury's Rencontres essentielles is indisputably Sub-Saharan Africa's first francophone novel by a woman writer; it is a work of fiction that depicts both the childhood and the formative years of two friends, one Cameroonian and one French, who meet as children in Cameroon, spend their late adolescence in France, and reconnect once again as young adults in West and Central Africa.

Cameroon is a powerhouse of African literature regardless of how one categorizes its texts; its authors—male or female, francophone or anglophone—have contributed numerous works to the African literary canon. Cameroon's writers past and present—Mongo Beti, Werewere Liking, Bate Besong, Bole Butake, Patrice Nganang, Makuchi, Calixthe Beyala, and Léonora Miano among others—have long been hailed as some of the continent's best writers of poetry, short story, theater, and / or the novel. Besides their obvious literary merit, these works by Matip and Kuoh-Moukoury—both written in French—are of tremendous historical importance alongside those by other early Cameroonian authors such as francophones Louis-Marie Pouka, Mongo Beti, and Ferdinand Oyono, and anglophones Sankie Maimo and Jedida Asheri.

Matip and Kuoh-Moukoury, however, were not only some of the very first African women publishing in French but their texts represent other "firsts" for the African continent. By comparison, literary pioneers from neighboring African countries published their works some nine years after Matip's Ngonda appeared; Nigerian author Mabel Segun's autobiography, My Father's Daughter, appeared in 1965, the same year that Ghanaian author Ama Ata Aidoo also published her [End Page 143] play The Dilemma of a Ghost. The first female novelist of anglophone Cameroon, Jedida Asheri, published Promise in 1969 (Ashuntantang 112), the same year Kuoh-Moukoury had finally found a publisher for Rencontres essentielles after a thirteen-year search—the novel had actually been completed in 1956 and became more visible outside Cameroon and France only after appearing in English translation in 2002. Despite the undeniable history behind these texts by early Cameroonian women writers, however, neither one appears on compulsory national reading lists at any level in the Cameroonian educational system and numerous challenges and obstacles prevent the inclusion of these authors in the country's school curricula today.

Admittedly, access to Matip's Ngonda is limited or even impossible for most; libraries worldwide show no holdings of the actual book and the microfilm or a copy thereof can be found in just three places far from the African continent; the Bibliothèque Nationale (BN) in Paris offers access to the microfilm to specialized researchers, the Reid Library of the University of Western Australia allows the public to consult its microfilm copy onsite, and the Kelvin Smith Library of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio has recently acquired for its collection a bound photocopy of the work through the BN in Paris. Kuoh-Moukoury's novel, conversely, has grown to receive much critical acclaim internationally and is in its third reprint in French with L'Harmattan in Paris. In addition, with the 2002 North American publication of an English translation entitled Essential Encounters and its companion volume in the original French (both in the MLA Texts and Translations Series), Kuoh-Moukoury's novel is conceivably one of the very few literary texts by a Cameroonian woman theoretically accessible to any student in Cameroon—francophone or anglophone.1 One would think that this fact would ensure the novel's place in the national education system, especially in light of the recent escalation in 2016 of the francophone-anglophone conflict that has emphasized how anglophones and francophones continue to inhabit two different worlds within the same country. There has thus been an urgent call by some political figures and ordinary citizens alike to take steps towards building a more unified Cameroon to eliminate the current threat of a civil war and the national education system has a definite role to play in such an effort.

Various literary critics in Cameroon have attempted to examine the glaring omission of certain texts from the national education system. Marcelin Vounda Etoa has pointed out that even for books produced locally, it is rare for an anglophone author to be translated into French just like texts originally published by francophone writers are virtually non-existent in English translation (2004, 40). Ambroise Kom has identified exactly why it is so problematic to distribute a novel like Essential Encounters in Cameroon; an English translation produced in the United States or in Europe is sold in Cameroon for at least twice the original price due to importation costs and taxes, this in a country where buying power is thirty to forty times less for a Cameroonian compared to a European or an American (2018). Thus, high pricing renders a foreign edition of a book such as Rencontres essentielles all but unmarketable in Cameroon, despite its literary and historical value. [End Page 144]

Thus, the reasons for the omission of such literary texts from the basic, secondary, and even post-secondary education system are many; some realities are universal and affect the visibility of all women writers everywhere while other factors may be considered more Cameroon-specific. Studies such as Cazenave and Célérier's Contemporary African Francophone Writers and the Burden of Commitment (2011) have pointed out how the African canon is unfortunately influenced by whether or not a book gains critical acclaim in Europe and North America, but there are fewer studies that focus on obstacles that prevent Africans from determining their own canon from within the borders of their countries.

In any given society, male writers tend to get more attention than their female counterparts not only from literary critics but also from the general public and the media—Cameroon offers no exception to this. Historically, the notion that women are second-class citizens has prevailed on some level in every country and thus societies have been conditioned to believe that the words of men carry more value and credibility. To some extent and in virtually all cultures, women are still often silenced politically, socially, and ritually. Such thinking, of course, ultimately affects the visibility and success of female authors because writing is a political act and very much a speaking out. Thus, women who write are sometimes seen as taking liberties that they are not entitled to in their society. Even if today the majority of citizens in a given country believe that women have the right to express themselves, there is still a tendency to privilege the male voice. In Cameroon, for example, female novelists such as Thérèse Kouh-Moukoury were published much later than male authors of the same generation, simply because the overtly political stances of writers such as Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono were deemed more important in the struggle against colonialism than Kuoh-Moukoury's approach of focusing on the everyday lives of women as a way of illustrating the deeper effects of colonization on society.

As for more Cameroon-specific reasons as to why these aforementioned works do not figure into the country's educational programs, taking a closer look at the literary texts themselves in addition to the state of publishing and book sales in Cameroon will aid in this discussion. The purpose of this essay is not to merely convince readers that Ngonda and Rencontres essentielles should be adopted within the national education program because of their historical importance, but also to show how these texts capture authentic elements of Cameroonian society—in all of its diversity—through their examination of a transition from a traditional, rural way of life to a contemporary and increasingly more urban environment. Such pertinent messages are not lost on Cameroonian youth of today. In addition to describing the advantages of including these two pioneering texts in the Cameroonian educational system, however, this essay also seeks to explain some of the challenges and obstacles that prevent such inclusion.

These two texts, Ngonda and Rencontres essentielles, in fact, reveal an underlying matriarchal tradition that empowers women—an approach characteristic of but not exclusive to Cameroonian women's writing, but admittedly, Cameroon's women writers in particular have been transforming bits of matriarchal reality into fiction for over sixty years. Among other things, both texts are significant if one aims for a fuller understanding of subsequent works by [End Page 145] African women writers and the infusion of matriarchy into an otherwise male-dominated Cameroonian literature.

In cities and villages alike, Cameroonians regardless of level of formal education, age, or social class know exactly what is meant by 'matriarchy' and can always provide examples of it from both the past and the present whereas those outside of matriarchal cultures in Africa or elsewhere often remain either relatively unaware of what the term entails or deny entirely that matriarchy exists. Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury has famously explained the concept:

Non-Africans say that matriarchy does not exist because there are too many examples of women who are subservient. But it is the power in matriarchy which seeks to overturn this subservience. Women's power lies not in dominating the current structures as they are today, but rather it is something felt in the long term. But one cannot say that matriarchy does not exist just because we do not have enough cases that show it concretely. It is not always obvious.2

In order to understand what is meant by 'matriarchy' in a Cameroonian context, one must understand how African theorists (and not Westerners) have typically defined it. This concept may be understood in the simplest of terms here as a social construct that has co-existed historically alongside patriarchy in many villages throughout the African continent and elsewhere and at its core is the belief that woman and man are interdependent and the complement of one another. Scholars such as Kamene Okonjo have also described matriarchy as a dual-sex system where men and women manage their own affairs as opposed to a European single-sex system where the political status-bearing roles are predominantly the preserve of men (45). African matriarchy in a traditional sense usually means that daily life is governed by an intricate system of checks and balances applicable to everyone, men and women alike (Amadiume). Within such a structure and under the best of circumstances, women have political power that they often readily delegate to men. Women may reverse the power structure, however, in solidarity with other women. A highly organized network of solidarity among women—a sisterhood as African societies perceive it—is essential to ensuring this balance, both in determining an abuse of power and in correcting it. The entire system is strengthened through 'motherhood' in the broader African sense of the term.3

This type of matriarchy in reality is an authentically African brand of feminism. Women might not always enjoy absolute power under such a system but matriarchal social structure can provide a more just system for members of both sexes, in comparison to its patriarchal alternative which seeks to privilege men first and foremost. According to Pius Adesanmi, the fundamental purpose of African feminist scholarship is to "examine how the colonial machine worsened the condition of African women by encoding traditional mechanisms of female agency and imposing Western sexist models" (239). Today, there are traces of matriarchal history in every layer of Cameroonian society, in both urban and rural environments. It is only logical then that examples of this tradition be found even in the earliest works of Cameroonian women's writing which is yet another reason why it is important that such texts be included in the country's educational programs in order to remind youth of the power women have always held [End Page 146] traditionally. The protagonists of Ngonda and Rencontres essentielles convey pertinent messages to the youth who will seek to further modernize Cameroonian society and ideally develop there a true democracy, and these texts are thus especially inspiring for young women and girls whom Cameroon's education system seeks to recruit and retain; many studies have shown that young female students develop a better appreciation of literature and perform better in school when they can see themselves in the characters of the texts they read (Marmoz).

Matip's Ngonda

The 1955–56 academic year marked the beginning of Cameroonian women's writing in Western literary genres when Marie-Claire Matip's teachers entered her novella Ngonda into a writing competition that Air France and Elle magazine sponsored for Cameroonian students to promote literacy in France's colonies. Matip was eventually awarded a trip to France and the publication of her work through now long-defunct small presses—in Paris by the Bibliothèque du Jeune Africain and simultaneously in Cameroon by the Librairie Au Messager. Unfortunately, however, Matip's novella has always been virtually inaccessible to most readers even in her own homeland, having been distributed only briefly in Douala and Yaoundé by the Librairie Au Messager. In spite of its humble origins and poor distribution, however, Ngonda should not be overlooked, and in fact, deserves more exposure than ever as it offers a rare glimpse into preindependence village life in Cameroon as told through the eyes of a young woman. In Matip's native Bassa language, "ngonda" is a name given to all little girls (Toman 2008, 4). The title thus illustrates the universality of the work that speaks to citizens of a multiethnic and diverse Cameroon and beyond.

As an adolescent, Matip was schooled from 1951 until 1955 at the Collège Moderne de Jeunes Filles de New-Bell in Douala and it was during these years that she wrote Ngonda, starting with a simple rédaction for class and developing it over time into the version that earned her accolades in the writing competition in 1956, also the year of the novella's publication. After two short stays in France, Matip returned to Cameroon by 1958, this time to Yaoundé to study for her baccalauréat (Ngonda 3).4 As a small child, Matip had been educated according to Bassa tradition and at times, at the nearby community school. Her father was the chef supérieur of Eséka and Marie-Claire was just one of his nearly fifty children from different wives (Ormerod and Volet 99). While Cameroonian women have a centuries-old tradition of oral storytelling, Matip is perhaps one of the only Cameroonian authors, with the exception of Werewere Liking who is twelve years younger, who has actually published elements of her life in the village pre-independence. With much authority and authenticity, Ngonda documents occurrences and events such as birth rituals, village ceremonies, harvesting festivals, marriage, funeral rites, and the mourning process, illustrating Uche Ogike's idea of a "royaume d'enfance" through which African writers paint the epic glories of traditional society (107).

To say then that Ngonda is merely a semi-autobiographical tale of a reminiscence of youth would be an injustice to the writer who had infused skillfully, although perhaps unconsciously, elements of oral literature and African [End Page 147] tradition into the novella and in doing so, had set a trend for Cameroonian authors for generations to come. One message Ngonda conveys is that from the moment of their birth, Cameroonian children traditionally have symbolic importance and a status in their village and community. Female children still have a rightful place of belonging regardless of the fact that in some instances, society seems to consider daughters less highly than sons.

Matip's narrative approach allows the reader to link Ngonda's infancy and childhood with the development of her fledgling nation and this aspect of the text is most definitely reinforced through sub-chapters such as "Les premiers pas," "Le passé," "Une nouvelle page," and "Il faut se faire une autre conception." Matip's work also reminds us how village life was forever changed not only as a result of colonialism but also through the infiltration of Western ideas. Some of these changes were welcomed while others were not. Through her comparisons between rural and urban life, Matip's text depicts a society in transition that came, in part, with the increasing emphasis on Western-style education that continues to lure young people out of the village in search of a better life in cities or even abroad. Certain insights leave a young Ngonda confused and nostalgic; while she admits that some ideas are revolutionary and stimulate progress and growth, she is far from convinced that everything traditional Africa has taught her is no longer of value (41–42).

Matip's narrative had offered Western readers a first glimpse of a woman-defined Africa—one where women are in charge of the fields and are in communion with nature. At the age of seven, Ngonda had already been given her very own piece of land to cultivate, illustrating the power possessed solely by women to give and sustain life through childbearing and farming. This emphasis on women giving life is also communicated through the description of Ngonda's much-awaited arrival and the birthing process aided by her grandmother. There are several women who played essential roles in Ngonda's birth, a symbolic reference to the role of women in nation-building (Ngonda 4).

Indeed the elements of the text that mirror Matip's actual life are some of the same issues found in any society in transition. Of particular importance to Ngonda are concerns about the status of women in the family and in society and how this plays out in the educational system and in the distribution of economic and political power; she explores the notion of becoming "modern" while making every effort to preserve cultural identity. Matip's early interactions as a child with her mother, grandmother, and sister are a form of social education and the writing of her life story accentuates this essential feminine chain, allowing Matip to also communicate with other "daughters" of Cameroon, although such a message is certainly not lost on male students who also study the text.

Matip's story documents Ngonda's life into young adulthood as she gradually adapts to a different value system compared to that of the village. The contradictions between traditional and modern ways of life are evident within Ngonda's own family as it is her father that encourages her to go to school while her mother hesitates: "Une fille est faite pour travailler à la cuisine ou aux champs, mais jamais à l'école" (19). [End Page 148]

After witnessing Ngonda's numerous academic successes, however, her mother not only accepts the idea of her daughter being educated in the French system, but she embraces the idea and the options it offers, albeit with some reservations. As villagers greet a returning Ngonda who has passed her exams, her mother hears them shout: "Ngonda est certifiée! Elle continuera jusqu'en France. Elle sera doctoresse." The mother responds to such ambitious plans stating simply, "Monitrice, institutrice, plutôt" (32).

At times, Ngonda as an adolescent seems nostalgic for her earlier days of childhood when what happened within the confines of the village was her only concern. Matip devotes an entire chapter, "Un Voyage nocturne" to recall a favorite childhood game during which she imagined her bed to be a vehicle for traveling through time and space and longs to have "un tout petit morceau en souvenir de ces magnifiques voyages" (13). As Matip is writing her story at age seventeen, she realizes that she can no longer relive the same elation such a simple childhood game can bring. Her ideas express that the same is true for life in her native village—things will not remain as they are, nor return to a time past: "Aujourd'hui, j'ai dû dire adieu à ces pérégrinations célestes, parmi la lune et les étoiles. Mon lit ne veut plus voyager, peut-être parce que j'ai changé d'âge, ou parce qu'il n'est plus le même que jadis" (14).

This nostalgia for her early childhood is even more evident as Ngonda mourns the death of her grandmother, who was indeed her direct link to the past and to tradition (29). By the end of the narrative circa 1955, Ngonda realizes that she finds herself hopelessly between the traditional and the modern. Whereas Matip's narrative suggests that Western influence has brought both positive and negative aspects to Cameroon, there is a realization that these aspects touch even the smallest villages and that there is no turning back time. Reconciling past and present appears to be the only solution, as Matip expresses: "Je pensais fortement que, nous la future élite africaine, devions obligatoirement avoir raison sur les anciens, pétris de préjugés. Ce n'est que plus tard que je m'aperçus que bien des coutumes avaient du bon et qu'il ne fallait pas les rejeter systématiquement" (46).

Ngonda's understanding of how colonialism has affected her budding nation is complicated even further the day she turns to her elderly uncle for help with her schoolwork, finding that his examples in German (23) revealed yet another colonial presence in Cameroon before the arrival of the French and the British. Up until the end of the novella, Ngonda finds herself embracing as many changes as she rejects, remaining hopeful, yet realistic throughout.

Marie-Claire Matip herself has been out of the public eye for quite some time and little else is known about her private life currently, other than the fact that she still lives in Paris. After earning her bac in 1958, Matip hosted her own radio show and participated in a youth movement addressing Cameroon's pressing issues of the times before returning to France for post-secondary studies (Ngonda 3). While in Paris, she met a fellow Cameroonian who eventually became her husband. The couple settled in Paris where they raised five children, one of whom is the reggae star known as Princess Erika.5 In Ormerod and Volet's interview with Matip from 1994, there is a mention of two manuscripts that Matip had been reworking at the time: Quiproquos and Nyango ou la femme de quarante ans and a new text to [End Page 149] have been titled, À notre avis (100). There is no evidence, however, that these manuscripts were ever published. In that same interview and in other online sources, there is reference to a thesis, Quelques aspects des rôles de la femme en Afrique, that Matip had proposed for her doctoral studies at the Sorbonne but this was never completed. Ngonda thus will most likely remain her crowning achievement as an author but the importance of this text should not be underestimated as it is a key element that unlocks a fuller understanding of African francophone women's writing in general.

Kuoh-Moukoury's Rencontres essentielles

While unfortunately Matip published no other texts besides Ngonda, Kuoh-Moukoury's Rencontres essentielles was merely a starting point in a long literary, intellectual, and journalistic career which have given us texts such as the sociological essay Les Couples dominos (1973) and more recently, the novella "Colors of Tears" (2006), several poems included in Kalu, Nfah-Abbenyi, and Ajayi-Soyinka's Reflections: Anthology of New Work by African Women Poets (2013), and the essay "Douala: ville transculturelle" (2019).

Kuoh-Moukoury, similar to most Cameroonian women writers who followed her, grew up in an urban environment. Being of Duala origin, Kuoh-Moukoury's family had been living in Douala long before it became the sprawling economic capital it is today. One of eight children, Kuoh-Moukoury studied in Cameroon until her father's diplomatic appointment brought her to France at the age of twelve. Kuoh-Moukoury has always cited her grandmother as her most profound inspiration, she who, in nineteenth-century Cameroon, was able to set up the first boarding school for girls in the country. Kuoh-Moukoury also credits her father for her own awareness of women's issues, as he insisted that his sons and daughters take advantage of the same educational and professional opportunities and he believed this should be true for all men and women alike.6 Former president of the Union des Femmes Africaines et Malgaches and advocate for children's rights following her formal training in law in France, Kuoh-Moukoury continues to live between Douala and Paris. In addition to her writing and research, Kuoh-Moukoury has recently founded in Douala the Bito museum, a literary and visual heritage museum of African womanhood with a special focus on the Cameroonian woman.7

Rencontres essentielles is set for the most part in an urban area, with the context implying that the story takes place between 1945 and 1960. The novel's central character is Flo, a young, well-educated, neither rich nor poor Cameroonian who is overwhelmed with the choices and opportunities presented to her as the reader follows her life from early adolescence through adulthood. The main elements of the narrative concentrate on Flo's lifetime friendship with Doris, and her increasingly problematic marriage with her husband, Joël. Doris (who is French) meets Flo in Cameroon when they are still children, as Doris's family had been renting a villa from Flo's father. The two girls become inseparable. Flo and Doris attend elementary school in Cameroon, and later meet up again in Paris as young adults for university studies where their friendship is rekindled and becomes stronger than ever. While still in Paris, Flo meets Joël, a [End Page 150] Cameroonian medical student, and they eventually fall in love and marry. Shortly after, Flo miscarries and finds out she can no longer have children. Joël genuinely feels the couple can be quite happy without children but Flo's obsession with being a mother does not allow her to envision life any other way and it is Flo's chronic depression that eventually sours the marriage. As Joël is incapable of dealing with Flo's obsession and depressive state, he begins to separate himself emotionally and eventually physically from his wife. In an attempt to save her marriage, Flo devises a pseudo-polygamous plan whereby she intends for her best friend, Doris, to initially seduce Joël in order to manipulate him—only to reject him later, sending him back devastated to Flo (43). Much to Flo's dismay, however, Doris and Joël end up falling in love, and Doris thus becomes Flo's unofficial co-wife in this triangle. Doris and Joël have a child together, straining even further the relationships in the novel. In the end, Doris dies in an accident and it is strongly implied that Flo will raise the child her friend has left behind. In an interesting twist, however, there is no indication whatsoever that Joël will necessarily play an important role in Flo's life thereafter. In the final analysis, Flo regrets to a greater extent the loss of her best friend more than her failed marriage to Joël. Flo exhibits this sentiment even before Doris's death: "Je vais jusqu'à souhaiter que Joël ait une maîtresse que je ne connaisse pas, une fille rencontrée dans une boite de nuit, qui puisse se cacher lorsqu'elle me rencontre au marché, au Printania ou dans la rue. Mais pas mon amie, surtout pas mon amie" (50).

In a 1994 interview, Kuoh-Moukoury coined the phrase "matriarcat nouveau" to define what her characters were living in Rencontres essentielles. Matriarcat nouveau is thus for Kuoh-Moukoury the contemporary version of traditional matriarchy. That is, interdependence, solidarity, and motherhood are still fundamental values, but the modern Cameroonian woman must now empower herself through means outside of traditional roles in an effort to reclaim the influence she once had in the context of her village. Rencontres essentielles demonstrates the chaos that results when patriarchal and matriarchal worlds collide, and thus a matriarcat nouveau must be created that is compatible with an ever-changing contemporary world. By encouraging the relationship between Doris and Joël, Flo believed she would be gaining a sister who would be able to assist her in regaining control of her marriage. This notion of African sisterhood often demonstrated among wives in a polygamous marriage is a form of solidarity that has often been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and criticized by Westerners. In the end, Flo comes to realize that empowerment and fulfillment through the sharing of a husband is conceivable neither within a patriarchal society nor in matriarcat nouveau. Flo explains: "Une vie de partage. Quelle bassesse. Personne n'a le meilleur, l'entier, le total, l'essentiel, mais des morceaux de liberté, des parcelles, les restes si vous voulez" (54–55).8

Another important discussion that the novel raises relates to the subject of Flo's infertility. Novels written by African women writers tend to embrace motherhood as a source of empowerment for women but what does this leave childless women, if not stigmatization and marginalization? Solidarity among women and the idea that children belong to a community are still very much at the center of matriarcat nouveau and thus, Flo is presented with an alternative [End Page 151] way of becoming a mother in the novel. Rencontres essentielles ends with Joël returning to Flo with his child after Doris's death, and with Flo affirming, "Il me reste encore un espoir" (58). Kuoh-Moukoury infers that this hope is not one of a renewed relationship with Joël, but of a new life with the child, outside the marriage. Through mothering in this manner, Flo empowers herself and shows solidarity with Doris in the end. Doris continues to live symbolically through the child she has left behind, and the friendship between the two women is perpetuated.

Rencontres essentielles is not only useful in the teaching of literature but also of philosophy. Kuoh-Moukoury's introduction of the character of Zimba at the very point when Flo is weak and vulnerable demonstrates this. The chapter featuring Zimba for the first time falls right in the middle of the novel and is quite unexpected and perplexing as it does not mention Flo or any other character familiar to the reader; it begins simply by identifying the young woman as "la fille des dieux" (31–32). Zimba is an obvious reworking of the legend of Mami Wata and a contemporary rewrite of Cameroonian oral literature. It is also mentioned that Zimba is a guardian of fire, a vestal virgin, and the daughter of a high-priest. She is not allowed to marry or to have children, and the reader learns that her family has perished in what is described as "raids terroristes" with no other cultural context given. Zimba is then left to roam from village to village (34). In the following chapter, the novel once again picks up where it left off without any reference to this curious chapter except for the new housekeeper that Flo hires who is named Zimba. It soon becomes clear that Zimba's real function is more important than household chores; Zimba gives advice to Flo and serves as moral support but there is no suggestion of her supernatural powers revealed in the previous chapter. Zimba appears as any other human but her mission is to serve Flo and to change her destiny. Once Zimba's mission is accomplished, she will disappear once again from sight. Most importantly to the reader, however, is that Zimba also represents a positive image of a childless woman, a remedy for Flo's devastation provoked by her inability to produce children. As a childless woman with an alternate lifestyle that is entirely positive and fulfilling, Zimba's existence raises the question: Is childlessness a curse or a formidable, mysterious power? Zimba gives hope to women who are marginalized for their infertility, showing that there are numerous ways to contribute to one's community and society.

One argument for including the novel on the reading list of the Cameroonian educational system is that its inclusion would help fulfill various outcomes put forth in Cameroon's proposed educational reforms, namely to find course materials which ultimately encourage the retention of female students by eliminating from the curriculum "any stereotypical notion concerning roles for men and women" (Marchinda and Kouomegne 88). Demonstrating to Flo that a woman serves a purpose in society regardless of her ability to bear children is Zimba's ultimate mission. This "essential encounter" to which the novel's title alludes is thus not with Joël but rather with Zimba in whom Flo finds the meaning of her existence. [End Page 152]

The Politics of Canon Formation in Cameroon: Challenges, Obstacles, and Avenues for Implementation

In reference to African women writers, Françoise Lionnet speaks of a "silent culture of the other," stating that these authors' works "take their readers on a journey of personal discovery where the silent other of sex, language, and culture is allowed to emerge and is given a voice" (263). These pioneering texts by Matip and Kuoh-Moukoury which are to be considered manifestations of a matriarchal tradition in contemporary literature are perhaps examples of this "silent culture," explaining in part their omission from Cameroon's education program. In a personal interview in 2017, Kuoh-Moukoury stated: "In a culture where literature and writers incite skepticism and disdain for the manner in which they challenge society as we know it, women writers have it twice as hard than men to have their voices heard."9

Africanist scholar Himco Fodjo Flora states that a writer is to be considered "successful" in Cameroon when he or she has captured the attention of both the media and literary critics and participates frequently in various literary events of note. Only then can the writer expect his or her works to be included in the national education program (228). Flora does not underestimate the difficulty for the writer to achieve this, however, taking into account the general Cameroonian population's "growing and even alarming disinterest in literature" (230). But Ambroise Kom exposes the unfortunate fact that books become part of Cameroon's national education program through "manœuvres quasi mafieuses," with "les critères de sélection desdits ouvrages n'obéissant à aucun canon connu" (Kom). In his book, Livre et manuel scolaires au Cameroun, Marcelin Vounda Etoa also cites the "shameless mercantilism" and "despicable bribery" behind textbook selection in Cameroon (2016, 44).

These are discouraging realities that make it seem almost impossible to hope for the addition of the aforementioned texts to Cameroon's national educational program any time soon. The fact that these pioneering works were first published in France and much later, in fact, than those published by Cameroonian male writers of the same generation has always been an obstacle for these particular texts and their authors, preventing them from becoming better known and well-received in their home country. However, other major difficulties that hinder the exposure of these same texts today are admittedly a bit different. First, there is still the problem in general of the prohibitive pricing of books for the average Cameroonian citizen whether such titles are published at home or abroad—the latter is still the case for Rencontres essentielles. Furthermore, the distribution of books continues to be concentrated in Yaoundé and Douala and in fact, booksellers are all but non-existent outside of Cameroon's major cities with those who do operate tending to favor exclusively carrying stock featured in the national education program (Flora 231).

However, a place for Rencontres essentielles in the curriculum is not completely out of reach for the future if certain initiatives and pioneering entrepreneurial ventures continue to expand in Cameroon. Roger Mondoué's essay, "La promotion des auteurs d'Afrique Sub-Saharienne: stratégies de 'glocalisation' avec L'Harmattan Cameroun" specifically points out that [End Page 153] publishers of African literature outside of the continent ignore authors that are popular regionally but by the same token, African-based publishers make minimal efforts to promote their authors globally. In this case, Mondoué claims that it is impossible for local authors to gain international exposure and at the same time, too few are working in Cameroon to attract an audience there for Cameroonian writers of the diaspora (205). Mondoué himself held the directorship of L'Harmattan Cameroun for ten years (from 2006 until 2016) and he cites the African-directed division's policy of "glocalisation" which seeks solutions to these problems in Cameroon (213–14). As Kuoh-Moukoury's Rencontres essentielles is published by L'Harmattan in Paris, the novel could definitely benefit from L'Harmattan Cameroun's glocalisation policy which offers as much as a 70% price reduction in Cameroon as opposed to the novel's pricing in Paris (215). Other established practices by the Cameroon division of L'Harmattan could also promote the title and its authors by taking advantage of local media outlets and regularly organizing promotional events and book signings (214). Furthermore, L'Harmattan Cameroun indeed is one of the providers of texts for the national education system (215). Considering these measures already in place, a title such as Rencontres essentielles seems well positioned to one day be considered for the national educational program.

Obviously, including Marie-Claire Matip's Ngonda in school curricula nationwide in Cameroon presents different challenges since the book has been out of print for decades. However, it is possible to investigate obtaining the rights to publish the original work in a new edition or even in translation. Perhaps this would best be taken on by a female-owned, African-centered publishing house such as La Doxa Éditions headed by Nadia Origo who identifies as an éditeur militant.10 Although La Doxa is located in France, Origo (who is Franco-Gabonese) takes numerous trips per year to countries such as Cameroon, Côted'Ivoire, and Congo where she engages with local publishers and booksellers to increase the international visibility of local writers while bringing diaspora writers to regional events on the African continent.

In the long term, of course, major changes in Cameroon's infrastructure and more support from international organizations—monetary, symbolic, or otherwise—may be needed before one sees increased inclusion of women writers like Matip and Kuoh-Moukoury in the national education program. Ambroise Kom states that Cameroon is still "without a significant network of bookstores and libraries" (Kom). And Kom, Mondoué, and Etoa all call for standards regulating publishing practices in the country to distinguish true publishers from those who are fabricating books with no ISBN numbers or expert review of manuscripts. Mondoué also rightfully points out that international entities like UNESCO warn against the publishing of books for profit first and foremost, since literature must be treated as an essential and undeniable element of national heritage and not as a tool of capitalism (210–11).

One cannot neglect, however, the importance of seemingly smaller steps that have already been implemented which may lead to the eventual inclusion of more texts by Cameroonian women writers in the national educational program. There has been a noticeable increase in recent years in the number of professional [End Page 154] conferences at Cameroonian universities focusing on African women writers. These conferences have yielded excellent volumes of literary criticism where women writers enjoy more exposure. Flora confirms that university research in literature plays a considerable role in creating a Cameroonian literary canon and these named works in turn feed the national education program (233). Moreover, recent hiring in Cameroonian universities of female professors who teach and conduct research on African women writers (such as Cécile Dolisane at the University of Yaoundé I who has done prolific research on Kuoh-Moukoury's writings) may also result in an eventual rethinking of the national literature program to include more Cameroonian women authors. This is exactly what happened in North America where the hiring of female Cameroonian literature scholars such as Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi, to name just one example, helped shaped what American and Canadian university students read in courses in African literature. Finally, the fact that the position of Cameroon's Minister of Basic Education has been filled by women since 200411 may also pave the way to a greater sensitivity to the omission of texts by women authors, resulting in more inclusion of texts by women overall and perhaps even the eventual republication and promotion of Matip's Ngonda, a text that is quite appropriate for students in middle school and beyond.

Cazenave and Célérier have pointed out that the African francophone canon has long been determined by the Parisian literary scene with this often affecting literary history in the long term (164) and to some extent, one could say that the choices made by African and Francophone Studies programs in the United States and Canada have also had a similar impact on the canon. In reality, however, Cameroonians are the only ones that can legitimately choose their classics and construct their own canon and these decisions should ideally be reflected in the national education program.

Ironically, one reason which once hindered the visibility of Ngonda and Rencontres essentielles—the fact that they were seen as focusing too much on daily life as opposed to texts by male authors who expounded on broader political issues such as the devastating impact of colonialism—may prove to be the key as to why these works might be more pertinent to students in Cameroon's education system today. Benoît Alima discusses in his book, La réforme éducative au Cameroun, how past teaching methodologies have not always ensured success for Cameroonian students and thus new pedagogies are now putting learners and their interests at the center (20). Studies have shown that students are more receptive to texts in which they can identify directly with the characters and Ngonda and Rencontres essentielles are certainly still timely in the way they relate childhood, adolescent, and young adult experiences to their readers. More than ever, there seems to be an emphasis on Africans creating, developing, and promoting their own textbooks as well as anthologies for the African learner, as opposed to relying solely on texts from France, for example (Origo). This would make another case for reviving the long out-of-print Ngonda. There are, of course, a limited number of works by Cameroonian women that already appear on the national reading lists for both the francophone and anglophone education systems but these titles account for less than 10% of the required readings. This percentage is actually [End Page 155] commendable in comparison to similar findings in neighboring countries with one exception. In Gabon, Cameroon's neighbor to the south, there was once a similar dilemma of trying to equalize the number of male and female authors included on the national education program. However, it was the monumental contributions of Gabonese women writers themselves (many of whom were also teachers and professors) which changed the situation dramatically; Gabonese women writers regularly and tirelessly promote their works and those of other women through social media, through the creation of female-owned bookstores, and through missions to personally distribute books to even the most remote parts of the country.12 These efforts in complement with the promotion of literary works by the media and through university research and teaching have had a noticeable impact in increasing the number of texts by women writers read by students in that country. Such grassroots movements in Cameroon are perhaps not as well documented but they surely exist and publically applauding and encouraging these efforts are yet another way that works by women writers can demonstrate to Cameroonian youth the value of literature and the remarkable contributions made by the country's women.

Cheryl Toman
Case Western Reserve University
Cheryl Toman

Cheryl Toman is a Professor of French, African Studies, and Women's Studies. She is the Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Case Western Reserve University where she also serves as Director of the Women's and Gender Studies Program. Toman's research focuses on women writers from Cameroon, Gabon, and Mali. She is the author of Women Writers of Gabon: Literature and Herstory (Lexington 2016), Contemporary Matriarchies in Cameroonian Francophone Literature (Summa 2008), and translator and editor of Justine Mintsa's Awu's Story (University of Nebraska Press 2018) and Thérèse Kuoh-Moukoury's Essential Encounters (MLA 2002). Her essays appear in journals such as Research in African Literatures, Women's Studies International Forum, Meridians, and Feminist Studies among others and she is the book review editor for Women in French Studies. In 2016, she was named President of the Biennale de la Langue Française. She is also a former Fulbright Scholar and the recipient of a Brown Foundation Fellowship at the Dora Maar House in Ménerbes, France.


1. Rencontres essentielles has never actually been out of print. Although the original Adamawa edition from 1969 and its second edition in 1981 are no longer available, the novel's French version has been continuously in print with L'Harmattan since 1995 and co-exists on the market, in fact, with the MLA Texts and Translations Series French volume of the original text with a critical introduction printed in North America. The MLA Series always publishes the original version in one volume and the English translation in another, both with the same critical introduction and supporting information.

2. Personal interview with Kuoh-Moukoury in Douala, Cameroon on June 5, 2005.

3. For a more detailed African-centered definition and analysis of matriarchy in two contexts, see Amadiume's Re-inventing Africa (1997) and Toman's Contemporary Matriarchies in Cameroonian Francophone Literature (2008).

4. Ngonda begins with a one-page biography of Matip written by an anonymous author.

5. Phone interview with Kuoh-Moukoury in Paris on January 29, 2019.

6. Personal interview with Kuoh-Moukoury in Paris on June 28, 1994.

7. "Bito" means 'woman' in Kuoh-Moukoury's native language, Duala.

8. All quotations of Kuoh-Moukoury's novel come from the French volume in the MLA Texts and Translations Series (2002).

9. Personal interview with Therese Kuoh-Moukoury in Paris on April 27, 2017.

10. The website for La Doxa can be found at

11. Halimatou Haman Adama served as Cameroon's Minister of Basic Education from 2004–2009 followed by Hadidja Alim Youssouf who is the current Minister, as confirmed by the website of the Ministry of Basic Education.

12. For more information on grassroots movements by women to promote reading in Gabon, see Toman's Women Writers of Gabon: Literature and Herstory (2016).

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