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Jersey, a Gorilla and the Civil War in Cameroon

STOCKHOLM / ROME, Sep 23 2019 (IPS) - A month ago I visited Jersey, one of the few European territories still welcoming refugees, though in the case of Jersey they have to be wealthy and are generally fleeing not from war and misery, but from taxes. Once Jersey and the nearby island of Guernsey harbored one of Europe´s most famous political refugees – Victor Hugo (1802-1885), who after he had been too outspoken in his criticism of the autocrat Louis Napoleon found it more convenient to live on the Channel Islands than in France. In spite of being very close to France and with a population that at the time was mainly French-speaking, these islands were nevertheless British territory.

During the 18 years Hugo spent on the islands he wrote masterpieces like The Miserables, The Man Who Laughs and Toilers of the Sea, the last novel offered captivating visions of the life and landscape of Guernsey. Hugo´s novels were the main reason to why I wanted to visit the Channel Islands, another was that these islands had been part of the British territory occupied by the German army during World War II. Several islanders had been deported to concentration camps and all along the coastline are remains of bunkers and other fortifications built by slave labour, mainly brought from Eastern Europe.

What intrigued me while we drove around Jersey was a wealth of life-seize replicas of gaudily painted statues of gorillas. Why gorillas on this windswept and far from tropical island? It was not until we passed the Jersey Zoo, or as it is officially called – Durrell Wildlife Park, that a distant memory occurred to me. In 1986, Jambo, a silverbacked gorilla male, rescued a five-year-old boy who had fallen into the gorilla enclosure. To keep his conspecifics away Jambo placed himself in a protective posture in front of the boy, while he repeatedly stroked the unconscious child in an attempt to soothe him until human rescuers arrived. The act was caught on video and Jambo became a renown hero, changing a common idea about gorillas as being fierce and aggressive beasts. A bronze statue was eventually erected in Jambo´s honour and it became the prototype for the thirty gorilla effigies that now have been placed along the Jersey coast.

However, I still did not understand the meaning of the gorilla effigies, though on our way back to the french mainland I found at the ferry terminal brochures advertising “gorilla hunting”, apparently meaning that you could visit all sites where a representation of a gorilla could be found and register your visit on your mobile phone. The “hunt” was connected with fundraising to support the gorilla compound at the Jersey Zoo. The quest for gorillas included the downloading of an app and being almost illiterate about such matters that detail would have abstained me from the search. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the fact that the Jersey Zoo had been founded by Gerald Durrell (1925-1995).

As a teenager, I had become an admirer not only of Gerald´s Durrell´s writing but also his brother Lawrence´s Alexandria Quartet. Both authors evoked exotic worlds that I in spite of their great differences found alluring. Lawrence Durrell wrote about intriguing human relations within a sophisticated sphere of a bygone, cosmopolitan metropolis by the Nile delta, while his brother was catching exotic animals in Cameroon and several other fascinating places. What triggered Durrell to trap animals was an urge to save species threatened by extinction, an idea that made him establish the Jersey Zoo.

When we came back from our trip to Normandie and the Channel Islands I reread Durrell´s charming books about Cameroon; The Overloaded Ark from 1953 and The Bafut Beagles from 1954. To my delight, they had lost nothing of their original freshness. Even if Gerald Durell often declared that his only reason for writing was to raise money for his Jersey Zoo he was neverthelss a skillful writer. With ease, an amazing capacity of observation and a cordial wit he described the lush landscape of Cameroon and its inhabitants in such a manner that they became almost tangible.

Furthermore, Durrell´s writing was free from the strains of jingoism that is common to several dated travel books. His books transmit a feel-good atmosphere while he observes both human and animal behaviour with empathetic indulgence. Durrell admits that he is a stranger in an unknown territory but he is nevertheless at perfect ease, particularly since he is protected by relative wealth and British colonial power. However, Durrell is in his writing not at all boastful, but kind, open-minded and enthusiastic.

When I now recall Jambo, the compassionate gorilla, and Durrell´s cheerful descriptions of the harmonious communities and nice people he encountered in western Cameroon it is with a shudder of horror I read about what is actually happening in the area Durell more than sixty years ago described as an earthly Paradise.

Gerald Durrell found the town of Bafut and its surroundings to be a bucolic realm under the benevolent rule of the Fon (local chief/king) Achirimbi II. In Durrell´s Bafut Beagles, Achirimbi II, who counted his lineage of powerful kings back to the beginning of the 16th century, appears as an excentric and nice, though slightly alcoholic autocrat, loved and respected by his dependents. However, we do not learn that Achirimbi´s father, Abumbi I, fought an invading German colonial army, which during the so-called Bafut Wars in 1907 burned Bafut to the ground, and that he thus considered the British Empire to be the only power strong enough to protect his son and people from local usurpers and other colonial powers. When western Cameroon in 1961 had to choose between joining the recently independent Cameroon and the likewise recently independent Nigeria, Durrell´s friend Achirimbi II declared it was a choice ”between the fire and the deep sea” and that a new era would eventually destroy his fiefdom.

When Durrell made amusing use of the expressive pidgin-English spoken by his Cameroon hosts he could not have imagined that this means of communication would become part of a colonial heritage causing havoc to an age-old culture. Since September 2017 the so-called Ambazonian War has turned the once tranquil South-Western Cameroon into a battlefield where at least 650 civilians have been killed, 30,000 have been internally displaced and 40,000 have fled into neighbouring Nigeria.

The name Ambazonia is taken from Ambas, the local name of the mouth of the Wouri River, where the English missionary Alfred Saker in 1858 established a settlement of freed slaves, making it a bridgehead for British colonization of Western Cameroon. Eventually, the Germans conquered the territory that now constitutes the Republic of Cameroon, but when they lost World War I they had to cede their colony to England and France.

In 1960, the French-administered part of Cameroon became the independent République du Cameroun and in 1961 the formerly British Cameroons (sic) federated with this newly founded republic. The majority of the population in the former British part of the nation remained English speaking and fiercely opposed to any attempt to turn them into French speakers. In 1972, the federation was abandoned and the English speaking parts of Cameroon were forced to become francophone. People protested against the appointment of francophone judges in anglophone regions and the teaching of French in schools and universities, claiming that Anglophones were marginalized and demanded a return of the former federal-state system that allowed a high degree of independence for the anglophone parts of the nation. Of course, the issue is not limitied to languages but also concerns natural resources of a fertile land, of interest not only to the central government of Cameroon, but of oil-rich Nigeria as well.

In September 2017, separatists in the anglophone territories declared their independence from the Republic of Cameroon, naming their new nation Ambazonia. In November 2017, the central Cameroonian Government violently cracked down on manifestations supporting the foundation of Ambazonia, while strikes paralyzed the southwestern areas of the country. The Liberators of the Southern Cameroon People, a previously unknown group, killed twenty-one Cameroonian soldiers and an unquenchable spiral of ever-increasing violence began, schools were shut down, villages were burned to the ground. As in most civil wars, a plethora of armed groups emerged, more or less official ”freedom fighters”, common bandits and soldiers of fortune, some of them entering from neighbouring Nigeria. The fighting has become endemic and stalemate, so far no peaceful solution is in sight. Like in all guerilla warfare civilians suffer. A Cameroonian general complained:

    They know the terrain. These are youths from local villages. We try to seek them out but we can’t find them. Our men aren’t familiar with the forest. 1

Since it is hard to find an enemy hiding among villagers the Army tend to harass, empty out and destroy entire hamlets. At the same time, guerilla fighters punish negotiations between village elders and the Cameroonian Government, interpreting them as a collaboration with the enemy. Accordingly, are desperate and peace-seeking locals ending up between two fires.

My youthful belief in a utopia, an unsoiled exotic realm inhabited by trustful, nice people, has revealed itself as an enchanted fantasy. What I found in Gerald Durrell´s books does not exist anymore, or maybe it did not even exist seventy years ago. Colonialism had already then laid its serpent´s egg in Durrell´s paradise and we are now witnessing how chauvinist poison is destroying yet another nation. The trustful people who helped Durrell to build his protective zoo in Jersey are now living in fear and misery, while gorillas in small pockets of forests close to the Nigerian border are threatened by extinction. Once again the human species is proving that it is far more fierce and dangerous than gorillas and other members of the animal kingdom who have proved to be protective even of members of other species than their own.

1 L’ Agence France-Presse (2018) Dirty war ravages Cameroon’s anglophone region. 5 May.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

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