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Issues At Stake: Cameroon As French Bilingual Country 

By Yerima Kini Nsom

On Friday, February 5, the country’s Basic and Secondary Education officials played to the gallery again. They rolled out the drums in all fanfare to celebrate the so called National Day of Bilingualism.
School children were prepared for days to babble a few words in English and French. The authorities were desperate to make the world believe that Cameroon’s bilingual policy works. But such a campaign, that had no link with the truth, turned out to be an unpardonable bloomer.

Some children and adults, who did not rehearse their phrases well for the piece of “drama”, gaffed. They “assassinated” the Queen’s and Moliere’s languages in cold blood. Their phases were a catalogue of mispronunciations and outright grammatical catastrophes.And this linguistic pogrom was all committed in the name of promoting bilingualism.

But mind you, every Cameroonian is bilingual. If you speak one official language and your native dialect, you are bilingual. But what concerns us here is what quasi-linguistic purists refer to as “official bilingualism”.

Beneath the hilarity of the annual celebration lies a wave of mortal sins committed against official bilingualism. The country’s constitution simply states in its article 1 (3) that Cameroon shall be a bilingual country with English and French as its official languages. Other instruments include the Presidential decree of 1996 which stipulates that all official documents shall be published in French and English.

Despites these instruments, there is still a legal void that makes our bilingualism pseudo. There is no law that compels the authorities to always publish official documents in both languages at the same time. So a Minister who publishes documents only in one language does not violate any law.

From this premise, it has become an unwritten law that almost all the official documents in Cameroon appear only in French. Nobody cares a damn as to the fact that those who speak, read and understand only English are cheated of their right to information. Sign posts of very important buildings across the country are mostly in French.

There are many sign boards even in pure English-speaking areas that are only in French. This is what jerked up the level of adrenalin in Hon. Cyprian Awudu Mbaya, Questor at the National Assembly. One would have mistaken the honorable gentleman for an inmate of a psychiatric asylum that morning as he violently yanked off notices that were only in French at the Ayaba Hotel in Bamenda. Awudu acted as a byword of any irate Anglophone in this country who has had his own share of the national cake of linguistic apartheid.

Many observers were quick to condemn Awudu Mbaya for violating the law. Yet the act of the Ayaba Hotel managers was one of great provocation that undermines the fundamental law of the country. Does it make sense to put notices in a hotel in Bamenda only in French like “piscine, sortie, ascenseur” when you can easily strike the balance with English equivalents of swimming pool, exit and lift? Is this not a segment of the ongoing criminal attempt to adulterate the Anglophone culture? The late Ayuk Augustine Ayuk, AAA of CRTV, called it “linguistic osmosis”. To him, French, (the stronger solution) was drawing English, (the weaker solution).

It is a sacrosanct fact that Government lacks the political will to implement the country’s bilingual policy.

If you want to gainsay me, then, tell me why those who publish official documents only in French have not been called to order? Tell me why the former Defence Minister who declared French the language of the army in the so called bilingual Cameroon is still enjoying impunity today? The mortal sins against this policy are so many that, bilingualism cannot be expected to have any salvation soon. Before it slips off to the dustbin of my memory, let me wonder aloud why Government remained silent when a visiting French Minister humiliated that Magic FM journalist in Yaounde 10 years ago.

The Minister who was granting a press conference warned journalists not to ask him any question in English. When the young journalist, Marie Ayonke, attempted to violate the injunction, she was stopped and pushed into asking her question in a language that only sounded like French. The language could better be described in French as “le Charabia or le Baragouin” meaning unknown jargon.

She was humiliated because there was a roaring laughter over her raping of Moliere’s language. If the bilingual policy were taken seriously, that incident alone would have created a diplomatic row between Cameroon and France. Give me a break, Sir; nothing happened to the former Minister of Justice, Amadou Ali, when he refused to take any question in English when he granted a press conference on the warder’s strike a few years back. Even the highest authorities of this country seem not to have any moral authority to gainsay the violators of her bilingual policy because they have not demonstrated any exemplary behaviour.

Otherwise, how come important documents from the Presidency are published only in French?
The rippling effects of such violations are enormous. Anglophone journalists in Yaounde go the extra mile to exploit documents in French despite the fact that translators abound in the country.

It is at the backdrop of such a situation that I subscribe to the senior translator cum researcher; Soule Saidou’s view that, “Cameroon is a French bilingual country”.
God Save Cameroon!

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