Author: VOA Contributor

Bamenda: Where politics and music blend

Anyone who views the suffering of the masses as his own is a hero in the eyes of a freedom-loving people. So what causes the pedestrians in my town’s main streets to prick up their ears and redirect their steps is music that is highly critical of dictatorial regimes.

Liberation music is the sound of Bamenda, my city in Cameroon. It’s also called Abakwa town, which means rebellion. Administratively Bamenda is the headquarters of Cameroon’s Northwest Province. But ideologically it is the political melting pot of the country.

Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president, acknowledged this by making Bamenda his first port of call when he took office in 1982. To the pleasant surprise of Bamenda’s inhabitants, he described the town as his “second home”, and he launched his party, the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, there. It was also in Bamenda that the first opposition party was launched on May 26 1990.

Bamenda is where politics and music blend. Up to 20 music warehouses line Commercial Avenue, its most popular street. These shops open and close with music in the air: local makossa stars like Lapiro de Mbanga, Longue Longue and Petit Pays, and reggae stars like Bob Marley, Lucky Dube and Peter Tosh boom and vibrate across the streets.

De Mbanga became famous in the 1990s when he composed a song titled Mimba We (Remember Us) that was highly critical of the Biya regime. In subsequent albums he expressed profound sympathy for Bamenda’s people. When he was dragged to court in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital, all hell broke loose.

Major music warehouses celebrated the life of the artist by playing his songs day and night. But the betrayal of a people’s trust is difficult to forgive. De Mbanga discovered this when he back-pedalled on his role as the voice of the suffering masses. In the 1990 dawn of multiparty politics, the Biya regime implemented “Operation Ghost Towns” — a curfew that led to many losing their lives.

Despite the public outrage, De Mbanga sang in favour of the very regime he’d previously castigated. Bamenda’s rejection of De Mbanga was instantaneous — so much so that he no longer deemed Bamenda safe and was reduced to seeking shelter in Yaounde, Cameroon’s seat of government, where at the apex of his popularity he could not set foot.

His support of the regime hasn’t helped him though. This year he released Constitutional Constipation, a song calling on Cameroonians to resist the legal changes allowing Biya to remain in office beyond 2011.

For this rebellion he received a three-year prison sentence and today his fans listen to the song as a way of showing solidarity with their star.

Another makossa musician, Longue Longue, has a special place in the  hearts of Bamenda’s inhabitants. And he returns the sentiment: when Linda, his unfaithful lover in one of his songs, abandons him her destination is Bamenda. She becomes a prostitute there, but the musician continues to cherish her as if she were the most chaste and most saintly of lovers.

His first song, Ayo Africa, in the late 1990s was a jibe at colonial masters in general. He followed this with another bestseller, Privatisation, which derided the Biya regime’s policymakers for the corrupt and inept manner in which they were handling the privatisation of state-owned entities.

Soon after the album hit the market, rumour — the main source of information in Cameroon — made the rounds that Longue Longue was going to be arrested. Longue Longue had anticipated this reaction: in Privatisation he solicited the protection of none other than the people of Bamenda. He sang that he was “pickin for Bamenda”, which means “son of Bamenda”, and dared anyone to lay hands on him. He ended the song by calling on Bamenda’s people to shield him from the vendetta of the white man (the colonial master).

The song’s success was confirmed by the welcome Longue Longue got in Bamenda in June 2007 on the eve of the parliamentary and municipal elections. He staged a live show, pulling in the poor and the rich alike, much to the chagrin of the authorities and the glee of the opposition.

Brasseries du Cameroun, the country’s largest brewery, was first to see the potential of Longue Longue’s growing popularity in Bamenda. It organised a festival for Mutzig (echoing “music”), one of its popular beer brands. It took place at the Guinness Club in Bamenda and Longue Longue’s presence filled the air as hundreds of us turned out to welcome the “liberator”, shouting: “We are behind you, we want to see who will dare touch you.” The rain was unstoppable that night but we partied and danced with our hero all night long.

The popularity of De Mbanga and Longue Longue on our streets in Bamenda has been a source of profound inspiration for other Cameroonian musicians. Petit-Pays, a makossa music maestro, initially sang only of erotic love. His lyrics contained such obscene words that even the degenerates blushed.

But when the musician began to express frustration with the regime his popularity soared. His song I’d Suffer for My Country became a favourite of the Bamenda people because it was seen as an indictment of Biya. And when Petit-Pays scaled the heights of obscenity by posing naked on the album, his fans in Bamenda saw not pornography but radicalism. They interpreted his nakedness to mean the political nakedness of Cameroon. The song topped the charts twice.

Successful political music can be dangerous, though. Nyamsi Kotto Theodore, popularly called “Kotto Bass”, had a hit with his song Yes Bamenda, which catalogues all the great political figures the Northwest Province has produced. But he never lived to enjoy the fruits of his musical labour. In Bamenda it is widely believed that he was eliminated by the regime for daring to hero-worship the people of Bamenda, whom the regime’s most determined apologists take delight in denigrating.

Aaron Kah is editor of Kilum 24 in Cameroon, and former news editor at Abakwa FM media. This post was first published in the M&G.

Accra to Ouagadougou: A long, winding road

We had just settled down to enjoy the journey to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital city. We were over the bumpy part of the road outside Accra and the luxury bus was air conditioned. But it wasn’t the long distance ahead of us that began dampening my spirits. It was the driver.

When he got to a shopping complex near a town called Nsutan – just 50km out of Accra – he slowed down, turned off the road and stopped. I did not know it was common for luxury buses to stop for passengers to refresh themselves during a journey. And even if they had to stop, I felt it was too soon. But the driver and his assistant got down and went into the complex, the passengers following on their heels. Thirty minutes later, the driver came and announced: “Let’s move on.”

I was at the beginning of my journey to Ouagadougou to attend a conference of international journalists, which was starting the next morning. I did not want to be late and we still had more than 720km to go.

After the passengers got back into the bus, the journey continued. Buses like the one I boarded abound everywhere in the West African sub region. They are supposed to be comfortable, slow to break down and quick to get to passengers’ destinations.

But things were not going as they should have. At Kumasi, 200km from Nsutan, the driver drove the bus to a filling station and stopped once again. When I asked why he could not just go on, he snapped: “If you’re so desperate to get to Ouagadougou, why didn’t you take a plane?”

It was clear that this was going to be a tiring journey.

After the driver finished refuelling the bus, we headed for Tamale, a town more than 200km from Kumasi. As the bus crawled on, the driver stopped briefly at Tetina to pick up passengers. I discovered this was normal practice for drivers along their routes. I wanted to ask him whether the money would go into his employer’s coffers but I did not. Like bus drivers everywhere, the driver would oppose anyone who questioned his behaviour.

A few hours after we left Tetina, we encountered another bad piece of road. There were gullies, potholes and loose stones in and on the highway. To cope with them, the driver slowed down.

After two hours on the bad road, the bus got to a transit spot called Sawara in Katanpon, about 96km from Tamale in northern Ghana. The driver, who had been behind the steering wheel for 12 hours, stopped the bus, got down and sneaked into one of the joints in the place. After 30 minutes, he emerged, refreshed. His assistant took his position behind the steering wheel. This too, I discovered, was standard practice.

Now that it seemed we were making progress I felt better disposed to appreciate the buses. A 40-year-old Ghanaian acquaintance told me in Kumasi they had been around since he was a young boy. He told me a luxury bus could make as much as 3 500 cedis (more than $2 000) from an Accra-Ouagadougou return trip.

Our bus was typical of thousands of luxury buses that ply their trade in the region. They provide employment for drivers, ticket issuers, managers, clerks and canvassers, rescuing many young men and women from unemployment in the villages or from perpetrating crime in the cities.

Besides, when the buses stop at transit points, they are besieged by hawkers, who offer passengers all manner of goods for sale. The buses also carry traders and their goods around the region. They provide a reliable, regular service and so boost business.

By 8am we had crossed the border. When we drove into Po, a small town in southern Burkina Faso, the driver slowed down and stopped. He said that armed robbers were fond of attacking buses a few kilometres further up the road. He would not continue unless escorted by policemen through the area.

An hour later policemen escorted us past the trouble spot and we closed in on Ouagadougou, thinking there would be no more problems. But there were – the bus hit an enormous pothole just before a narrow bridge some kilometres from our destination. I hit my head against the window, bruising it. But the driver steadied the bus and crossed the bridge.

He stopped the bus at the Ouagadougou International Bus Station at 12 noon, 29 hours after leaving Accra. I was late for the conference, but I nodded to the driver and he gave a thin smile. As I moved towards a street, I sighed. It was the longest journey of my life.

Adetokunbo Abiola is a prize-winning Nigerian journalist and author. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper. 

Chama: The economic model that’s all the rage in Kenya

The greying man in his early 50s wore an expensive brown leather jacket and a cream cowboy hat that slouched on his head. He looked at me sideways and asked: “Why are you so keen on hanging out with us?”

Everyone at the table sat up, and five pairs of probing eyes turned in my direction. The booming speakers in the background hummed in a monotonous drone as I cleared my throat.

“I’d like to join your group,” I managed as I returned the old man’s stare, “because we are like-minded.”

It might seem like I was trying to join an exclusive golf club, but all I wanted was to join their chama – the economic empowerment train that is all the rage here in Kenya.

Chama is Swahili for a group of people – anywhere between two and more than 100 – with a common interest in coming together. They can be classified into a few categories: self-help groups, merry-go-rounds, or investment groups in which members pay a certain amount of money every week or month. The money is then used by the group to invest, give members loans or pay them monthly dividends from their micro-savings.

To join a chama, each of which has its own protocols, you have to be introduced by a member. The “board” will then vet you before you are eligible to join.

It was an old friend, with whom I was once in the same chama, who recently tried to convince me to join his new group. During the introductory meeting I was advised that I would be the one who would settle the bills.

I was buying rounds of beer as questions were fired off by the board members.

“How old are you?”

“What do you do?”

“Why should we trust you?”

I made my pitch and my friend backed me up. After the initial scepticism, things were looking good.

In my former chama each of the six members paid R100 every fortnight. At the end of the month, one member went home with R1 200 he had collected from the group. This group was a merry-go-round affair but it broke up because of serial pay defaulters. It’s the reason why new members of any chama always have to be thoroughly vetted: membership is built on mutual trust and understanding.

When our merry-go-round group collapsed my friend held on to a few members from the former group and injected new blood into it. They transformed the old chama into an investment group. The monthly payments shot up to R400, more members were recruited and a constitution with rules and regulations was created. The new chama bought a nightclub and was planning to build a gas station on a plot it owned.

The modern-day chamas have come a long way. They began as groups our mothers formed as away to collect funds to improve our homes. Most people dismissed them as an excuse for our mothers to gossip and drink tea, their favourite brew.

It was in the 1990s – when there was high inflation, savings were wiped out, jobs were lost and the prices of basics like food and rent quadrupled – that these tea parties started to gain some respect. After all, it was money from the chamas that put food on the table and got rent and school fees paid.

The basic premise of our mothers’ chamas was this: never wholly trust banks because they will give you the proverbial umbrella when the sun shines and take it back when it rains.

But a chama is not just an informal bank, it’s family.

If there is a job opening, members will tell other members about it. If you are sick, bereaved or getting married, they will be with you through times good or bad. If you need professional guidance, the wealth of experience of people in different careers helps – and the advice is free.

The evolved, modern chama also has many diff erent versions. There’s a girl I know whose chama exists simply for bonding with friends. The five members pay R30 each and meet at the weekend to gossip and catch up. The host uses the R150 raised to pay for food and refreshments.

Then there is a chama for single professional ladies. Its single purpose is to help pay for the members’ wedding day, if and when it comes.

I even know a guy in a beer chama. He and his four mates used to have one for the road every day after work. Then they did some maths and decided they were spending too much money. Now each member contributes R100 a week, which has reduced their beer intake but increased their savings; every month one member walks home with R1 600.

The most famous investment chama is the Trans-Century group, which was established by 27 leading Kenyan professionals and investors.

The membership fee was between R50 000 and R100 000 – and 11 years later the infrastructure investment company is worth hundreds of millions of rands.

After making my successful pitch to the board, I sat admiring the expansive nightclub my soon-to-be “family” had bought. I was given the rules and regulations.

As a new member I would first have to pay a one-off fee of R8 000 and timely monthly contributions of R400. If I defaulted I would be fined the equivalent of three months’ contributions.

Meetings would be held twice a month and I had to pay R50 for the purchase of refreshments.

Coming to chama meetings with a woman would get me fined a goat or cash in kind, while being drunk and disorderly in front of members was a serious offence. And I would not be able to touch any of my contribution money for the next five years unless it was an emergency situation, in which case I would get a soft loan.

I sat mulling over whether to join, wondering whether it wouldn’t be simpler to join a mutual fund. Then again, joining a chama is not just about the money – it’s about friends.

Munene Kilongi is a freelance writer and videographer based in Nairobi. This post was published in the M&G newspaper.

Juba: An old Jo’burg

Juba, on a Monday morning, spews diesel from thousands of Toyota Land Cruisers, their logos testimony to the baffling phalanx of aid organisations nudging the world’s newest nation into being. Flying over the city brings to mind images of Johannesburg in 1890 – a flung-together, hodge-podge camp made almost entirely of canvas, corrugated iron and mud.

But on closer inspection, Juba is less unformed than it appears. We have never seen an aid orgy like this one – not in Kabul, not in eastern DRC, nowhere. A lengthy Sunday stroll reveals a city in various stages of development: hotels taking shape, shanty towns sprawling over a graveyard, superbly tarred roads petering out into muddy tracts. Spend Saturday night at the Logali House Hotel and the neighbouring nightclubs, and you learn that money is flowing in from everywhere, and dangerous little rivalries are forming between locals and the international moneymen. Sometimes, knives get pulled. Like we said, Johannesburg in the 1890s.

But we’d be lying if we pretended that our Sunday flaneuring was not a pleasant experience. The air is sultry, the Jubans are relaxed, and the Land Cruisers, after a while, become a bitter, gallows-humour punch line. This, for now, is how life appears in the capital of the world’s youngest country, South Sudan.

Water containers for a town without infrastructure. (Pic: Richard Poplak)
Boda-boda boys in Juba. (Pic: Richard Poplak)

This post is part of Africa 3.0, a series by Richard Poplak and Kevin Bloom in which they highlight aspects of their travels and investigations on the continent. Visit for more, and engage with them on Facebook and Twitter.