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Tribute To Bole Butake, A Literary Luminary 

By Francis Wache

CameroonPostline.com — Growing up in the 50s in the verdant valleys of Noniland, chances were stacked more on the side of Nazarius (a name he dropped) Bole Butake becoming a tapper of frothy palm wine or a farmer a la Achebe’s Okonkwo, levelling the hillocks and mulching the valleys.

He did not choose those paths. Instead, he heard about the Golden Fleece and, because he was highly intelligent, he convinced his uncle to send him to Sacred Heart, a leading Catholic College. He had lost both parents in babyhood. He will later attend the prestigious CCAST Bambili, the lone High School in West Cameroon before moving to the University of Yaounde. On graduation, as one of the “Mbassi Manga Boys” (Mbassi Manga was the all-powerful and influential Dean of the Faculty of Arts), he left for Leeds from where, on his return, he taught at the University of Yaounde until his retirement this June.

More than an academic, Butake distinguished himself as a playwright. His repertoire of plays includes, The Rape of Michelle (1984), Lake God (1986), The Survivors (1989),  And Palm-wine Will Flow (1990), Shoes and Four Men in Arms (1993), Dance of the Vampires (1995), Zintgraff and the Battle of Mankon (2003), Family Saga (2005, Betrothal Without Libation (2005), Cameroon Anthology of Poetry (2010) .

In all his plays, Butake takes sides with the downtrodden, the wretched of the earth, the deprived and the underdogs. His jabs and jibes, aimed at the rulers, are scathing, at times vitriolic.

Butake will be remembered for starting The Mould, a literary magazine considered as a nursery for budding University students with a creative instinct. Although nobody has become a Nobel laureate from that nursery, it undoubtedly contributed enormously in enriching the Anglophone Literature that we have today.

A Fonlonian disciple, Butake insisted that teaching Literature, ultimately, was futile if it did not lead to making the student, herself, a producer and not only a consumer of literary classics. Buoyed by this conviction, Butake, alongside Hanzel Ndumbe Eyoh, created the Flame Players, a drama troupe at UniYao. Over the years, they staged and thrilled Anglophone drama aficionados.

In the 90s, as the nation writhed with the throes of the birth democracy, Butake burst on the political arena when he was appointed to accompany a delegation of CPDM stalwarts to Muanenguba Division in the Southwest Province to drum support against multiparty politics.

Terrified, Butake penned a rebuttal. He would never–NEVER – join the ranks of the oppressors, he argued. He would, he insisted, stay in the amphitheatres and share knowledge with his students.

Up till today, controversy still rages about that act. Some opinion, still peddled, particularly in Noni circles, bears a grudge against Butake for depriving them of a Ministerial portfolio. According to this school, Butake’s trip to Muanenguba was intended to immerse him into the CPDM baptismal waters. He was to emerge from the boiling bowels of the Twin Lakes with the halo of Minister of, guess…, Culture, of course!

That is not true. What happened was a typical CPDM error. Bole, Dr Butake’s first name, is a common Bakossi name. When the CPDM ngomba went into conclave and decided that they should pacify dissident lecturers who were fomenting riots at the University, a CPDM big shot proposed that there was this Bole…Somebody who was writing anti-regime plays and needed to be gagged by, he said, “getting him on our side.”

He tried to capture the elusive name again: “Bole…Bole…Bole…” The other name did not just come. Another inspired comrade chirped in, “Butake.” The speaker glowed: “That’s him!” And that is how, Bole Butake, a blue-blooded Noni notable was almost transmogrified into a Bakossi CPDM rabble-rouser. All in the name of dimabolaing (fighting against) multiparty politics.

Be that as it may, Butake did not join the beleaguered CPDM bandwagon. Instead, he dipped his pen in his inkpot and wrote: “I refuse to be lapiroed”.

Let Butake, himself, tell the tale: “My troubles really began in 1992 when in early February I was appointed, without being consulted, as ‘chargé de mission’ for the ruling CPDM party during the first multi-party legislative elections to some part of the country. I wrote a damning disavowal… A week later I was replaced. A year later I would begin living the consequences of my deed because the new Chancellor of the University banned all theatre performances on campus and unleashed a war of harassment against my person.”

His numerous ordeals notwithstanding, Butake has been an outstanding scholar, a genuine intellectual, a path-finding playwright and a gadfly for an anaesthetised society.

Although he has stopped formal work at the University, a new life opens for him: a supervisor of Doctoral Theses; a farmer, the first job he had as a kid, chasing monkeys and birds from the cornfields. Thankfully, the Prof (Rtd) will not have to mount any podium or climb any rooftop to sing alleluias to any party before getting access to the vast arable ancestral farmlands in his native Noniland.

Naturally, he will continue to write and direct plays. In fact, I would suggest that he should write a play entitled “The Professor Who Almost Became Minister.” You have the Noni people as background.

You have the young Noni gendarme officer who would have become your bodyguard; there is the High School teacher who should have become your Private Secretary; your orphaned house helps (Nya and Bofa) rescued from grinding village poverty; and party visits (especially on 6 November: the date of the coming of the Messiah; and May 20: the day water and oil had an unprecedented mix) and sporadic bags of rice and cartons of soap for the bamboozled electorate, every time an election rolled around. And so on.

And, above all, don’t fail to paint the scene of the Eldorado that you selfishly refused to give the Noni people…Never mind. And, in the background, the bewitching throbs of the njang dance.

Prof. Butake couldn’t have been that kind of Minister because he argues in Home or Exile that: “It is really disgusting how people can abuse their consciences and allow themselves to be manipulated by Machiavellian political leaders because they want to be appointed to high administrative offices where they will be in control of budgets and so can serve themselves generously from the tax-payer’s sweat.” One thing I wish you, though, as you formally depart from the raucous lecture halls, is this: Let the ink continue to flow!

First published in The Post print edition no. 01354


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