Talking about Africa and the Environment: The Contemporary Poetry of Nsah Mala

NSAH MALA – Is a young and prominent multilingual Anglophone Cameroonian poet and
short story writer. Some of his short stories and poems were published on: The Kalahari Review,
Tuck Magazine, Dissident Voice and Anthologies like Best “New” African Poets 2017-2018

  1. ZELIA BORA (ZB): As a Brazilian reader, I want to emphasize that despite the several differences among African Cultures, one can notice in your poetry representations of social and political tensions in the continent and outside it. This is clearly expressed in your first poetry collection Chaining Freedom (2012) through the poem “No One’s Friend”:

Thou biteth like a mad dog

And healeth like essential balm.

Hear thee in Afghanistan: boom, boom, boom…

Boom, boom, boom…in Syria. Boom, boom, boom…

In Tripoli, thou didst dethrone

And in Ngola thou dost enthrone.

Gun the bombs and bomb the guns;

Terror fumbles and tumbles.

Can you comment on this statement in terms of local versus universal values? How does thisassumption characterize your poetical project?

Nsah Mala (NM): This particular poem is about war weapons, specifically guns and bombs. War, or better still these weapons of war, destroys humanity everywhere across the globe, without distinction. Thus, war is simultaneously local and global. We might even say war defies the dichotomous categorization of local versus universal in its destruction. Elsewhere in my poetry, sometimes I explore local, sometimes I explore universal issues. But these issues are often intertwined in one way or the other. And this makes more sense when we remember that the human race is the same, despite some fundamental cultural differences here and there. And also given that in the age of climate change and ecological breakdown we are reminded of the interconnectedness of nature in all its forms.

2.ZB: Regarding the relationship between war and insurrections in Africa, especially in your home country Cameroon, can you tell us how these conflicts have been affecting humanand non-human lives? How is the specific situation of Mbesa, your home village?

NM: In the past, Cameroon was hardly spotlighted as a warring country (at least since my birth in the late eighties), except for some occasional intertribal conflicts often caused by land disputes in the Northwest Region, in the grass-fieldswhere I originate. And sadly enough, I come from the Mbesa community which has fallen victim to aggression from a brotherly village called Oku on many occasions. In these conflicts, there were some losses in human life on both camps, but there was enormous material destruction exclusively in Mbesa given that the aggressors attacked on Mbesa soil. From 2007 to 2008, for instance, Oku aggressors burnt down over three hundred houses in Mbesa as part of the war. Fortunately, between 2016 and 2017 these two brotherly communities decided to bury the land dispute and reconcile to themselves! But suddenly, the longtime simmering Anglophone problem in Cameroon resurfaced through syndical protests organized by Anglophone lawyers and teachers in late 2016 and violent repression from the Francophone dominated central government soon transformed them into a bloody civil war which is currently ravaging the minority Anglophone communities of Cameroon known as the Northwest and Southwest regions, corresponding to the former UN Trust Territory of the British Southern Cameroons. Some Anglophone youth have taken up arms to defend their communities and fight to restore the independence of the former British Southern Cameroons into a new country they call Ambazonia. At the time of this interview, thousands of Anglophones have been abducted by the Francophone dominated regime in Yaoundé and incarcerated in various prisons in the country, more than fifty thousand Anglophone refugees have fled into neighbouring Nigeria, millions of Anglophones have been displaced internally in Cameroon, millions of Anglophone children are out of school, thousands of Anglophone civilians and hundreds of state forces have been killed while over 200 Anglophone villages have been burnt to the ground by state forces. In both the intertribal wars I mentioned earlier and the current deadly civil war in Anglophone Cameroon, human lives have been lost and so much property destroyed. Curiously, the category of human property actually includes many non-human beings such as livestock and plants. Food crops are often cut down while animals such as pigs, goats, fowls and cattle have been butchered or shot dead by angry aggressors, not only by Oku fighters in Mbesa in the past but more alarmingly by state forces in the current senseless civil war in Anglophone Cameroon. Under such circumstances, even projects that had been carrying out nature conservation and environmental protection must have been halted or affected, especially as more attention is now directed towards humanitarian assistance for the war victims. Therefore, whether it is in Mbesa or Cameroon or wherever on earth, war is an enemy of ecology and nature – it destroys both humans and non-humans who make up nature. And we must avoid war at all cost, including, most importantly, the discontinuation of arms production and proliferation throughout the world. The worst hypocrisy on earth is that humans continue to produce and sell weapons but want to live in peace! Absurd, right?

3. ZB: Another important feature of your poetry is the cross relation between identity, memory,and the environment. These trends are found especially in poems such as “The Environment, My Home,” “Aging Climate” and “Friends from the Forests,” all from Chaining Freedom (2012). Can you explain to us how you reconcile these elements aesthetically?

NM: Identity, memory and environment are intricately interconnected. We as humans can only identify or define ourselves in relation to other species and beings with which we share the earth. Our actions on earth are spread along the time axis, thus always providing opportunities to remember, or better still, for introspection. Due to the acknowledged agentic power of nature and the environment today, remembering and memory transcend the human realm to include other forms of beings on earth. It is consequently logical and natural that I engage with these and other issues aesthetically and thematically. Therefore, as I write my poems I strive to achieve aesthetic value not only for language but also for the beings and species written about. Sometimes this reconciliatory effort is challenging, but it is also necessary, even obligatory, today as temperatures keep rising, ice sheets disappear into oceans, and trees are murdered while many animals and insects go extinct. 

4. ZB: In your second collection Bites of Insanity (2015), to me, your profile as a successful ecocritic poet is already predictable. Charles NgiewihTeke(from the University of Munich – 2014) saysthat your book “is a brilliantly written collection of fifty-seven poems which represent a psycho-somatic, psycho-social and ecological degradation characteristic of the poet’ssociety.” Could you comment on the critical reception of your poetry in Europe and let us know what are the difficulties for young poets to overcome the boundaries of culture andsociety outside European and North American intellectual circles? And, how does oneachieve the balance between local and universal? How favorable is ecocriticism as a method in providing this advantage to your artistic project? Your fourth poetry collection is entitled Constimocrazy:Malafricanizing Democracy (2017). How can you describe this collection? How are the local and the universal introduced init? Do you have any ongoing project in mind? How is it to observe Africa from a distance?What message do you have for readers in Latin America and especially in Brazil?

NM: I’m happy to hear from a literary scholar like you that I am becoming a “successful” eco-poet! Next, it is worth noting that Charles NgiewihTeke, PhD, actually hails from Anglophone Cameroon where he is currently Associate Professor and Vice Dean in charge of Academic Affairs at the University of Buea. At the time he wrote the preface for Bites of Insanity, he was a Marie Curie Visiting Researcher at the University of Munich in Germany. That said, the critical reception of my poetry in the world at large is quite encouraging, at least to me, given how difficult it is to make an impact or a name through poetry. Starting from my native Cameroon, some of my poetry collections have been the subject of postgraduate research in reputable national institutions such as the University of Yaoundé and École Normale Supérieure de Yaoundé – both of them my alma maters. In Europe, there has been some research on Chaining Freedom at the University of Munich and I am glad to notice that most of my collections have been acquired by European institutions such as Leiden University in the Netherlands and the University of St Andrews in the UK, to name but these. So many North American universities have my collections in their catalogues, though I cannot say how much research is being conducted on them. That’s true for libraries even in Asia. Some scholars in the United States such as Oscar Labang, PhD, and Irmagard A. Langmia, both of Cameroonian origins, have also published on my poetry.On the point about about difficulties for young poets outside Europe and North America, access to good publishing channels comes topmost, at least to me. In the global North, there are countless, reputed publishers with sufficient resources for wider distribution. This is not often the case in the global South. But young writers in the latter region can leverage on technological innovations, especially the internet, to promote their writings globally and break the boundaries of culture and society which you just mentioned. With the internet, alternative modes of publication and dissemination are on the rise. Moreover, young writers, especially those from the global South, can build strong online presences which might help some of them to find publishers anywhere in the world. So, they must remain hopeful and continue to write! 

Regarding how to achieve the balance between the local and the universal, I think I have already spoken to that in earlier replies. That notwithstanding, I should add that once you perceive yourself not in isolation but in connection to other beings on planet earth you can effortlessly address both local and universal issues as a writer. Sometimes consciously.Sometimes unknowingly. Moreover, there are instances where the local has to be emphasized, especially in situations where one perceives some forms of marginalization of local practices and systems. Such is the case when it comes to the valorization of some African, Cameroonian, and Mbesa cultural practices and indigenous knowledge systems in my works, especially environmental protection. This is where ecocriticism steps in as a method, theory, concept and even movement which addresses local and universal issues. 

My forth collection, Constimocrazy: Malafricanising Democracy (2017), like my other collections, engages with many issues, with a special focus on abuses of democracy in Africa. Specifically, it decries the increasing mutilations, or call them chronic modifications, of constitutions by sterile dictators to hang on to power on the African continent. But it also addresses issues such as corruption, war, violent extremism, and respect for nature. Coming back to democracy, this is a phenomenon which is both local and universal in its application. And I must clarify this point. Democracy is local in the sense that it can and should be adapted to local or specific-country realities, but it is universal in the sense that it has some universally accepted principles such as effective representation of the people, real division of power, and room for power to change hands transparently and peacefully. It is especially on the last principle – the transparent and pacific transfer of power – that many African countries are increasingly becoming a mess! Once term limits are scrapped off from constitutions for unproductive dictators to hang on to and die in power, there can be no peaceful and transparent transfer of power, except through coup d’états!African countrieswhich remove constitutional term limits therefore shift from practicing democracy to imposing a new system which I have called constimocrazy – constitutional modification democracy!

Yes, as I have said elsewhere, writers are like guinea pigs – always pregnant with the next project. My first poetry collection in French, Les Pleurs du mal, was released by Spears Media Press in September 2019. It took my poetry collections up to five in number, in English and French. Two other collections, one in English and another in French,are under way.And I am currently co-editing an international bilingual (English-French) collection on the War in Anglophone Cameroon. Meanwhile, I have also started writing picture books for children. And I’m still looking for publishers.

Observing one’s home of origin, not only Africa, from a distance is a very interesting exercise which often goes with nostalgia and discovery. I would like to explain the discovery part. The more I observe Africa from a distance, the more I discover her treasures, riches and potentials which are messed around by incompetent rulers, by sterile dictators and their sycophants. The more I feel an urge for Pan-Africanism and to contribute, through my writing and any other appropriate means, to ameliorate the situation of the continent where my navel breathes under banana trees!

To my Latin American and Brazilian readers, I would first say thank you in advance for reading my poetry and other writings. Besides the African heritage that I share with many of you, we also share this planet earth together. For this reason, I would like to plead as follows: As we struggle to preserve the Congo Basin in Africa, you should keep on with the good fight to preserve the Amazon Basin in Latin America. As Han de Groot has stated on Scientific America, “the best technology for fighting climate change isn’t a technology.” It’s our forests, and I should add, with our wonderful friends from forests – trees!

5. ZB: Any final remarks?

NM: Thank you very much, Zelia Bora, for interviewing me as a poet. Thank you for promoting my writing in Latin America and in Brazil. May poetry cool off this heating earth! May poetry heal the earth for all beings co-habiting on it!


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