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War and Environment: Lebialem’s Deserted Hometowns, Receding Frontiers of Civilization
Category :- Editorial Author :- By Awung Mbecha Editorial 
Posted on August 1, 2019, 3:09 pm
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It is not the position of LeGideon to militate for or against school resumption. However, as observers of the drama unfolding before our very eyes, we feel that it is our responsibility to offer an appraisal of the geographical environment that is expected to host the school children and their parents.  

Most anti-school resumption campaigns have focused on the absence of security guarantees and a bad curriculum while pro-school resumption advocates are looking only at the impending illiteracy that prolonged school closure can potentially breed among children who do not have the means to escape to the Francophone regions for education. The arm wrestling that the separatists and the Cameroon government are now locked in is all a matter of who can prove that they are in control of the Southern Cameroons.

Every infrastructure in the Southern Cameroons is in ruins. Even the geographical environment itself is no better. Besides the destroyed infrastructures, most of the formerly vibrant educational hubs have become deserted villages. They are now homes to wild animals as vegetation is rapidly reclaiming decades, if not centuries, of human attempts at taming Mother Nature.

In June 2018, the BBC ran a special documentary on the situation in the North West and South West Regions in which it focused on the torching of villages and human rights abuses in the regions. Featured villages included Muyenge in Fako Division, Kuke Mbomo in Meme Division, and Azi the traditional capital of the Lebang clan of Lebialem also known as Fontem. Using hi-tech forensic tools and satellite imaging to corroborate the evidence in amateur video footage, the documentary lay the blame of the arsons on Cameroon’s elite military unit known as Brigade d’Intervention Rapide (BIR). What is the Cameroon state doing to bring back the inhabitants of these villages destroyed, deserted, and overtaken by nature? It is not enough to ask people who have run away to safety to return to their homes and send their children to school.

Azi in Fontem merits a UNESCO World Heritage site status. It has been continually inhabited for at least five hundred years by its present ethnic group. The iconic palace of the Fon of Fontem was constructed between 1922 and 1936 as part of the modernization efforts of Fontem Asonganyi, the long-reigning monarch who had fought against the Germans for nine years before being sent on exile to Banyo. Upon his return from exile after the German defeat in the First World War, the Fon set his eyes on modernizing his kingship and kingdom. He built the central storey building that has stood the test of time for eighty years. To celebrate the official opening of the palace, Asonganyi bought the iconic brass band in 1936 that has mesmerised onlookers every time it has performed over the eight decades of its existence.

The palace is rich in artefacts that include several ancestral artworks, precolonial intertribal war memorabilia, the skulls of fallen German soldiers, captured colonial-era riffles, a copy of the British Union Jack awarded to Fontem Asonganyi in 1936 by the colonial administration and lots of royal paraphernalia. Many of these have allegedly been carted away by the soldiers who have occupied the village since March 2018. One day, some of these objects shall appear on international auction shows like the ancestral statue known as the Bangwa Queen that was stolen away by German invaders in the 1890s. The statue is now worth millions of USA dollars. The central palace structure was not torched. However, two of the adjourning buildings that served as the Fon’s private quarters were burnt down. Only God alone knows what valuables have been left to the caprices of nature since the roofs of the buildings were destroyed. It is possible that lots of valuables were stolen and taken away.

Besides the cultural and historical importance of the Azi palace, it is also an ancestral shrine by its very nature and because of the heirloom of ancestral skulls and the sacred forest or Mbin Lefem situated at the entrance to the palace. This forest was desecrated by the invading soldiers as well. Consequently, the destruction of Azi goes beyond the material and geographical environments. It touches on the soul of Lebang people since it is from here that spiritual, political, and cultural identity radiates. Indeed, it is a central pillar of the people’s essence.

An Educational Hub Overtaken by Nature

A few days ago, high-resolution photos of the abandoned and grass invaded town centre of Azi, the palace, and parts of Menji, the Divisional headquarters, shocked Lebialem internet users. Besides being the traditional headquarters of Lebang, Azi is host to the Government High School Fontem, a nursery school, Government Primary School (at the nearby hamlet of Njeh), and the GTTC (situated about one kilometre away on the Campus of the Government School Njenbeti). Also, the Fontem District hospital is located at Azi.

Away from Azi, Menji the administrative headquarters hosts GTHS Fontem, GBHS Fontem, and four primary schools and a government hospital. Seat of Wisdom College Fontem and the Mary Health of Africa Hospital of Fontem are also situated in Nveh, a neighbourhood of Menji.

In March last year (2018) when the Red Dragons announced their emergence with the high profile kidnapping of the Chairman of the GCE Board, Professor Tambo, the military moved in to quell the insurgency. As had become their trademark in other places, the BIR somehow believed that they could use a strong show of force to quickly bring peace to the land. Thus they torched down buildings, fired heavy artillery guns that sent the local population scuttling for safety in the hills. Those who had farmlands far away from home retreated there. The majority of the population escaped out of Lebialem and have since been living in different towns in the Francophone regions.

The Red Dragons remain unbeatable, having retreated into more inaccessible areas. And so, Mother Nature stepped in and started reclaiming what had been taken away from her to build human habitats, construct roads and other service institutions. One WhatsApp user sadly captured the atmosphere thus: “The houses are now level playing grounds for rats or snakes.” It is amazing how Azi, Nveh, and Menji (the major hub of economic and social life in Fontem Subdivision) have quickly turned into what one may call a wasteland.

What is perplexing to observers is the fact that the six-kilometre axis from Azi to Menji through Nveh is under the control of the Cameroon military, yet human activity has been reduced to almost zero. The town of Menji which is supposed to host the Lebialem Divisional and Fontem Subdivisional administrations, the Menji Rural Council, and countless government services is no better than Azi. The Focolare Movement that runs the Mary Health Hospital has cut down their presence to the barest minimum of local staff. The absence of meaningful human presence has turned these places into semi-forest lands.

Thus, the critical question is: With the current state of infrastructural dilapidation and near inhabitable nature of these main educational and administrative hubs who would dare send their children to go and wade through the forest in the name of education? If most of the administrative officials who are supposed to be working in the enclaves controlled by government forces have abandoned their posts and gone away for fear of the very government soldiers then how can mere school children be sure of their safety?

For a long time now, most of the students of Seat of Wisdom College Fontem are not local children. They are children of Lebialem elites in the big cities and even Francophzones who have taken a very big interest in Anglophone education. Are we sure that if the college opened its doors these elites would send their children back into that campus that is now a jungle?

I have focused this reflection mainly on Azi and Menji. Yet, it would not be an overstatement to say that Lebialem as a whole is on the receding frontiers of civilization. The story of the other two subdivisions of Lebialem (Alou and Wabane) are in no way better. Not a single Fon is in any of the seventeen palaces that make up the paramount chiefdoms of Lebialem division. Not a single school has functioned since 2017. What is being done to render the geographical environment habitable and favorable for education?

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