Action movies, bilingual tunes and the exorcism of a family of six: channel hopping in Cameroon

After a cosy night watching Dutch reality TV, daily viewing in western Africa retains all the entertainment and human drama - but the stakes are very different indeed.

I wrote, a few weeks ago, about the joy of discovering the television of a foreign place. Back then I was in Rotterdam, watching a Dutch variation of the popular UK Saturday night dating show, Take Me Out. I was grateful to see if not a familiar face, then a familiar format: something that made sense to me when the language did not.

On a work trip to northwest Cameroon a week ago, I had the reverse: a common language (half the time their official languages are French and English) but largely unknown setups. That is how I came to be watching a pastor on a stage in what looked like a megachurch, delivering a family of witches from the eternal damnation that surely awaited them if they continued down their dangerous and destructive path. The screen was grainy and the sound was poor, but the subtitles and the overly animated gestures of everyone onscreen involved kept me going.

It was no Take Me Out I grant you, but it was entertainment and human drama on a similar level, even if the stakes were very different.

The language when we landed in Yaounde, in central Cameroon, was firmly French: the road signs, the calls of the currency exchange guys outside the terminal, the hotel receptionists. As we moved further into the northwest, the signs began to change – by the time we’d reached Makénéné, the grip of French has loosened and given way completely by the time we ended up in Bamenda. I mentioned the northwest of the country specifically, as it is a firmly Anglophone area: under German colonial rule until their defeat in WWI led the League of Nations to hand it over to the British, who were governing Nigeria next door. In 1961, they joined the already independent République du Cameroun, which is one of the reasons why Cameroon does not have a single Independence Day (interestingly and unnecessarily confusingly, the name ‘Cameroon’ is actually of Portuguese origin). My first two days in Cameroon had been spent in Bamenda, and the hotel television gave a mixed diet: National Geographic, Al-Jazeera, BBC World (obviously) as well as French-speaking channels like TV5Monde Afrique, a Nigerian channel or two (NTA and whatever the aerial could pick up) and a curious Arabic-subtitle movie channel (which is how I came to be watching an uncanny valley Ray Winstone/Sean Bean hybrid utter the immortal “I’ve come to kill your monsta!” in Beowulf one warm night).

In Bamenda, I had managed to watch Live and Let Die, as crisply as the 70s intended, with breakfast, but then we moved further north, going up into the astonishing mountains and vastly more rural regions of Kumbo and Ndu, where television reception was a lot more mercurial. The proximity of Nigeria means a shared cultural identity as well as television one. So there were music channels with Africa-wide music, and a few Nollywood film channels too. And of course, there were the religious channels, featuring bearded men against backdrops of the Ka’aba and the evangelical Christian channels, on one of which I spotted the witches of two generations.

The drama of this particular scene cannot be overstated. There was organ music playing in the background, a constant, tinny sound on the television speakers, and the minister stalked the stage with purpose. The man of the family had his family lined up: two girls, one looked newly out of her teens and the other a few years younger; and two teen-looking boys. He spoke as though in a trance: “That one is my daughter,” he said, pointing at one of the boys. “I recruited the boy for her.” He carried on ‘revealing’ who was who in that dazed-but-sure voice, and each new disclosure brought forth a whimper and a head clasp from his wife, who kept exclaiming “I did not know! I did not know! All these witches in my house, pastor! OH, GOD.” And then when the confessions were over, the minster began casting out the witches. They left via shudders and eye rolls, leaving the bodies they had inhabited without prior permission in convulsive waves and spasms. The minister laid on hands, and compelled them - in the name of Jesus – to leave. And leave they did. The family looked around them, stunned by their deliverance; the congregation’s voice rose as one, marvelling at the awesome sight.

Even for all the time spent in Nigeria growing up, this made for a compelling spectacle. Cameroon – and Africa at large – is broadly made up of religious societies (there’s a reason the Catholic Church sees its diverse population as a ripe growth area) and of course, television reaches far more than the church on the corner can. Onscreen, a rolling tickertape gave addresses for the next gatherings of the faithful in two cities across the continent: in Nairobi, and some 2,000 miles north-west in Lagos. There was a prayer line with a Nigeria country code, and an email address to send prayer requests to. Globalisation is real, and God is a part of it.

Back in Bamenda a couple of days later, the morning I was due to drive back to Yaounde for my flight home, I turned on the telly and came face to face with 80s-era Sylvester Stallone – weird wet-look mullet, rippling muscles, shirtless, dog tags nestled in his tanned cleavage – in Rambo III . All the swearwords had been muted out, so there was no ‘shit’ or ‘bastard’ or even ‘son of a bitch’. But the scenes of torture and killing remained intact, and it wasn’t even noon yet.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster