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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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