Culture and Ideas—Gold: “Takumbeng, C’est Quoi?”

by David Torrey Peters

I.) Escravos Rising

Ugborodo, Nigera. July 8th, 2002: In the weak, unsaturated light before daybreak, a husband’s arm flopped over to his wife’s side of the bed and came to rest in the indented space where she should have been. Outside, too early to expect such things, female forms flitted through the underbrush on paths still muddy from the outgoing tide. Farther east, the forms gathered, here two, there four, until they converged en masse, a seething mob of women, on the banks of the Escravos river.

A short time later, an hour, maybe half that, the first of the rough-neck oil workers walked groggily towards the docks to catch the Ginuwe, the ferry that shuttled them daily into Chevron Texaco’s Escravos refinery. A surprise awaited them: hundreds of women. All shapes and sizes, ages and status, octogenarians beside teenagers, mothers alongside mother-in-laws; and the common denominator — anger.

The captain of the Ginuwe, unaware of the danger that awaited him on the far shore, maneuvered the thrusters until the craft slid parallel alongside the dock. Once bow and stern lines had been cleated tight, the women struck. They surged onto the dock, pouring over the sides of the ferry, over-running the boat. The attack came swiftly; by the time the captain might have raised a response on the radio, the women were in control. “He was afraid,” one of the leaders, Mama Ayo, later said, “We told him not to say anything. The guards believed it was the workers coming. Before they knew it, we were inside.”

* * *

Escravos, the heart of Chevron Texaco’s Nigerian oil production, takes its name from the Portuguese word for slaves. The complex is massive, the size of 583 football fields, employing over seven hundred oil-workers to produce three hundred and fifty thousand barrels of Nigerian Crude daily. Ten million five hundred thousand each month.

A little patch of America blossoming on the petroleum-rich soil of the Niger Delta. Behind the concrete wall, beyond the barbed wire, one finds telephones, microwaves, fresh fruit, foam beds, and most importantly for the visiting Texans, air-conditioned climate control. A runway and landing pad provide a means of direct access from Lagos — no dusty trip across the countryside, no contact with poverty, no accusatory local faces.

Just down the shoreline from Escravos, the village of Ugborodo slowly sinks into the sea. To construct Escravos, the folks at Chevron Texaco concluded that the little creek bordering the village would need to be widened and expanded. Foreign workers in John Deere bulldozers and Caterpillar cranes arrived. They excavated the mangrove forests that had long served the villagers as burial grounds; super-sized that creek – the American way. Unfortunately, no one at Chevron Texaco had accounted for the erosion such an expanse of water would cause. The village of Ugborodo began to wash away. High tide submerged whole sections of the village ankle-deep in brackish water. Once clued in to this erosion dilemma, Chevron Texaco came up with a solution: nowadays, facing the little out-houses that dot the Ugborodo side of the river, a concrete barrier wall protects the complex by diverting high-tide floods into the village.

* * *

The women of Ugborodo descended swarm-like from the Ginuwe, infesting every cranny of the Escravos complex. They cordoned off runways, took oil-workers hostage, shut down oil production, played with the microwaves, tested out the foam mattresses, and laughed gleefully when their phone calls went through. They kept roughly seven hundred oil-workers captive outside, while the women themselves basked in the hitherto only-heard-of climate control. A thirty-three year old woman named Roli Ododuh remarked, “The Bible describes Paradise as a beautiful place where there is everything. When we got in there, it was really like Paradise.” An older woman named Anirejotse Esuku put it more succinctly, “I saw America there.”

* * *

The women of Ugborodo were not the first to attempt a take-over of a foreign-owned oil-processing facility in the Niger delta. In the past, local villagers who took it upon themselves to mix it up with Chevron Texaco in Nigeria have not fared well.

May 25th 1998: Unarmed Nigerian youths, roughly two hundred in number, occupied one of Chevron Texaco’s off-shore oil platforms. The youths pledged to hold the platform until Chevron acquiesced to their demands: provide local villages with potable water, electricity, environmental reparations, as well as employment and scholarships for young people.

In phone negotiations, Chevron officials conceded to the demands and promised to send an envoy out on a helicopter to finalize the agreements. Instead, members of the Nigerian paramilitary mobile police force and Nigerian marines boarded the helicopters. James Neku, Chevron’s acting director of security, accompanied the soldiers on the flight out to the platform.

Two activists were shot shortly after the helicopters landed. Although Chevron contends that the youths were killed after they attempted to disarm the Nigerian troops, forensic evidence suggests the two activists were shot in the back.

Chevron Spokesperson Sola Omole in an interview on “Democracy Now with Amy Goodman:”

Q: Who took them in, on Thursday morning, the Mobile Police, the Navy?

Omole: We did. We did. Chevron did. We took them there.

Q: By how?

Omole: Helicopters. Yes, we took them in.

Q: Who authorized the call for the military to come in?

Omole: That’s Chevron’s management.

Afterwards, Chevron declined to provide electricity, water, or any other form of aid to the local villages cited by the Nigerian youth who took over the platform.

January 4th, 1999: “We were here in the village. At about 2-3 p.m. we saw a Chevron helicopter flying by on the other side of the river, and then flying along the route of the pipeline. By the time it got to us it was flying very low, and then it started firing at us. We didn’t know what to do, and we ran into the bush. After thirty minutes or so the helicopter was gone. Then some of the community members came back and were calling to the others to come back from the bush. We were gathered here on the river side and were discussing what had happened when we saw Chevron boats coming towards us carrying soldiers. Three were Chevron sea trucks (two numbers were 221 and 242), the ones they normally use, and the other one was a military boat with a machine gun mounted on it. They were full of soldiers, maybe more than one hundred in all. We ran into the bush again but as we were running they started firing, it was so intense I can’t describe it, dugu-dugu-dugu-dugu-dugu. As I was running a bullet wounded me on my leg. When we went into the bush we saw fire everywhere in the community, everything burning. Then we heard the boats leaving, so we came back carefully, crawling to see if it was safe and watching who was around. No one was there, so we called to the others in the bush to come back. We saw two people lying dead on the ground, Kekedu Lawuru, and Timi Okuru, a woman. We started crying, and called to the others to come. But some did not come back: fifteen are missing till today. Maybe the bodies are in the river. About twenty were injured, of which ten or so were from bullet wounds, the rest from branches and stones as they ran into the bush. Almost all our houses were destroyed, burnt to the ground. All our property was destroyed. We had a boat that could carry forty or fifty persons which was sunk in the river. All our canoes were destroyed. We have nothing now, no means of livelihood.”

A few days prior, some of the residents of the rural villages Opia and Ikiyan had gotten into a scuffle with members of Chevron’s private security forces; perhaps justifiably, as Chevron had previously unveiled a plan to route a pipeline directly through the center of the villages. The day following the attack, the Nigerian Army sent Chevron a handwritten invoice for $109.25, which Chevron paid, to cover expenses for “services carried out…responding to attacks from Opia village against security agents guarding Searrex.”

* * *

The women of Ugborodo occupied Escravos for ten days. Chevron sent down Jay Pryor, the American head of Chevron Texaco’s Nigerian operations to negotiate. According to both sides it was all very cordial. Pryor, originally an oil engineer from Mississippi, seemed almost enthusiastic about the takeover. “There was an organized effort to try to give us, I would say, what was characterized to me a — a try to give us some feedback, to try and get more attention to their plight.”

On July 17th, the two sides met to sign a memorandum of understanding. The women agreed to leave the Escravos terminal. Pryor guaranteed that Chevron would hook the village electric and water grids directly to Escravos. He pledged to build schools, a community center, and a series of two bedroom houses. Local women who ran fish and poultry farms were awarded contracts to supply the terminal with meat. Chevron agreed to equip and staff a roving hospital-boat, able to move up the river and along the coast. Finally they promised to resume construction on a place called “New Town.” “New Town” was exactly that, a brand-new, uninhabited village of concrete bunkers, to be ready and waiting when Ugborodo finally sank into the ocean.

* * *

Q: How is it that several hundred unarmed women from Ugborodo were able to take over the largest oil processing facility in Africa, capture seven hundred rough-neck oilmen hostage, rebuff (in ascending order of belligerence and brutality) Chevron Texacos’s own private security force, the Nigerian Police, the Nigerian paramilitary mobile police force (the “Kill ‘n’ Go”), and both the Nigerian Army and Navy, not to mention negotiate for the most generous concessions ever granted by Chevron Texaco?

A: They were naked.

II.) Takumbeng

Shortly after winning Cameroon’s 1992 presidential election, Ni John Fru Ndi fled behind the two-story wall that surrounds his compound and hunkered down for a siege. The army commanded by the incumbent president had arrived in Bamenda with orders to arrest and most likely kill him. The well-armed troops marched down the washed out clay road that leads to Fru Ndi’s compound, and there found the outer wall surrounded by a throng of naked old women busy stripping off their clothes. The women belonged to a secret society of post-menopausal women called the Takumbeng, who had not been active in nearly one hundred years. The naked women greeted any soldier to wander within range with screeched curses and water flung from earthenware pots. Presently, some of the troops began to feel ill, others grew uneasy and frightened, until the army turned and retreated.

* * *

I was introduced to Ni John Fru Ndi by Rotcod Gobata , the writer and journalist whose inflammatory stance towards Paul Biya, the then-and-current president of Cameroon, had forced him to write under a pen-name. The titles of his two books;

    The Past Tense of Shit

and

    I Spit on Their Graves

, offer some idea as to his position on the man.

On several occasions, I asked Gobata how the women of the Takumbeng had managed to rebuff a group of heavily armed gendarmes intent on breaching Fru Ndi’s compound. His response was invariably cryptic.

“Some of the soldiers died, so they got scared.”

“Yeah, but I heard the women were unarmed,” I insisted, “So how did the soldiers die?”

“The women were naked.”

“So? What happened to make the army get scared?”

“Some of the soldiers saw the women naked and died.”

“Why did the soldiers die though?”

“They were sick to the stomach.”

“So some soldiers who were sick, saw some women naked and then they died. If they were sick and dying, you’d think they’d be happy that their last sight was a bunch of”

“No, they died because the women were naked.”

“Yeah, but did the women kill them?”

“The women didn’t kill them, they died of stomach sickness.”

And so on.

Finally, said Gobata, irritated, “What if I took you to see Ni John Fru Ndi? You can ask him.”

* * *

Ni John Fru Ndi had been a bookseller in Bamenda in the grasslands of Cameroon before founding the Social Democratic Front (SDF) in 1990. Over the next two years, his party rose to become the only viable opposition to Cameroonian president Paul Biya, who had been in power for over a decade. In 1992, Fru Ndi ran as the SDF candidate against Paul Biya in the first Cameroonian presidential elections monitored by independent international observers.

In Bamenda, the unofficial center of government opposition, supporters of Fru Ndi’s SDF party made preparations for violence on election day. They expected violence because of threatening documents that emerged, like the one circulated by MP Sammy Najeme, a Biya supporter, that called for:

Our youths, our vanguards, to beat up any stranger who does not vote for President Paul Biya. If you see any [Anglophone or Bamileke ] coming out of the polling booth, accost him and ask him to show his unused ballot papers. If he has not voted for Paul Biya pluck off his eyes.

One of my Bamileke friends confessed that he had gone to the polls in a group of ten, each of them carrying either knives or chains.

On the night after the election, The National Democratic Institute of the United States and Transparency International both declared Fru Ndi the victor. Meanwhile in Yaounde, the capitol of Cameroon, President Biya’s official election tally had Fru Ndi losing with 37 percent of the vote to Biya’s own 39 percent. The Supreme Court of Cameroon, whose members Biya himself had appointed, verified the numbers.

In a few hours, celebrations in Bamenda turned violent. When it became apparent that Biya had maneuvered to steal the election, the SDF supporters were already amassed on the streets with weapons in hand. Pro-SDF mobs swept through the townships, torching the businesses and homes of any known or even suspected Biya ally.

The following morning, Biya declared a state of emergency in Bamenda and moved in with troops. Heavily armed police and soldiers clashed with rioting pro-SDF demonstrators. Despite published photos and news reports to the contrary, the government minister of information insisted that not one civilian had died in clashes between SDF supporters and government troops. However, The U.S. Department of State’s 1993 report on human rights practices concludes that the police and army of Cameroon had engaged in “serious human rights abuses, including political and extrajudicial killings.” Chris Mwunwe of the Cameroon Post went so far as to write of “arms and legs lost in fierce con-frontations with armed troops.” Scars left by pro-Biya soldiers who beat, raped, and tortured Bamenda into submission have yet to fade from the collective psyche of the town.

During the riots, Ni John Fru Ndi holed up in his compound with 145 other SDF supporters. In the chaos of the riots, a mixed force of gendarmes and soldiers were beaten back from his door by the naked women of the Takumbeng. Unable to arrest him, the gendarmes placed Fru Ndi under “house arrest,” a measure that amounted to a two month siege of his compound.

* * *

Initial Meeting with Fru Ndi 7/12/03 11:00 A.M.

Under what appears to be a Chinese-style lou, former president-elect of Cameroon and Chairman of the SDF, Ni John Fru Ndi, enters to greet Rotcod Gobata, the underground journalist. At Gobata’s side is a young American man, with a notebook folded double in his back pocket.

Fru Ndi: Who is this boy you have brought to see Fru Ndi?

Gobata: He is an American friend of mine. He studies at the University in Yaounde, and I was hoping he might be able to ask you a few questions about the Takumbeng and their uh…assistance after the 1992 elections.

American: Good day sir, I appreciate–

Fru Ndi: (Loudly) Is Fru Ndi the Takumbeng? Why would he come here to ask Fru Ndi about the Takumbeng?

Gobata: No, Fru Ndi is Fru Ndi.

Fru Ndi: I know who Fru Ndi is. I was asking the young man.

American: (pause) Uh, what I mean is, sir, I understand the Takumbeng aided Fru Ndi… I mean you… back in the ninety-two election and-

Fru Ndi: I repeat — Is Fru Ndi the Takumbeng?

American: Well, no sir. Fru Ndi is not the Takumbeng?

Fru Ndi: There, he said it. (Suddenly expansive, as if addressing a lecture hall) Fru Ndi is NOT the Takumbeng. Yet he comes to ask Fru Ndi about the Takumbeng. Young man, if you want to know how a doctor cures his patients, you ask the doctor, you don’t get a lesson in surgery from the patient.

American: (Pause) True sir, but in medicine nowadays, the effectiveness of any medical procedure is evaluated by talking to the patient about their symptoms before any treatment, then following up later see if a given treatment or procedure had any success in alleviating those symptoms. Talking with a doctor only tells part of the story.

Fru Ndi: Eh? (To Gobata) Why does he speak in metaphors like that? Clever, but it could get irritating, hmm? Nevermind. Gobata, you may bring the boy to lunch with us. How does two o’clock sound?

Gobata: Um, I sort of had previous… I was just sort of hoping you could talk to the boy, I mean him, rather, David, that is.

Fru Ndi: Who?

Gobata: (points at the American). Him.

Fru Ndi: Does he like hedgehog? If so, by all means, he may join us.

American: Is it like squirrel? I had squirrel once.

(The cell phone holstered on Fru Ndi’s belt rings. Before the ring has fully sounded, Fru Ndi has answered it; his removal of the cell-phone from his belt reminiscent of a quick-draw artist.)

Fru Ndi: (Into cell-phone) Fru Ndi.

Gobata: Lunch sounds wonderful, but you see, I agreed to meet my niece at two o’clock…

Fru Ndi: (Into cell-phone) Fru Ndi! Of course Fru Ndi! Who else would it be? (Covering the cell-phone with his free hand) Excellent, two o’clock it is then. And tell the boy we don’t eat squirrels in Cameroon. (Strides purposefully out of the room, humming into his cell phone)

American: Thank you sir.

Gobata: (to Fru Ndi’s receding back) Chairman, I really don’t think I can be there because I told…. Chairman?…Damn. (Gobata stands in silence for a moment, before he turns to the American)

Gobata: Squirrels?

* * *

I never met a single member of the Takumbeng. The residents of Bamenda tended to be very suspicious of Americans. Eighteen years earlier, the people of Bamenda had woken up to find the stiff bodies of over 1,800 people lying along the shores of nearby Lake Nyos. Most of the dead appeared to have passed away at nearly the same moment. Their bodies were found exactly where they would have been at nine-o’clock at night. Women lay near extinguished cooking fires, dead men huddled in groups over open beers gone flat. In the hills surrounding the lake, the bodies of white cattle, stiff with rigor mortis, lay in clusters. There were no flies on the bodies. The flies were dead too.

Shortly afterwards, scores of hydrologists, geochemists, pathologists, and limnologists from across the globe inundated the area. They diagnosed the cause of the disaster quickly. Lake Nyos, 683 feet deep, sits directly atop a volcano. Carbon dioxide from magma degassing deep under Lake Nyos had percolated up into the bottom layers of water over a course of years or maybe even centuries. The pent-up gas dissolved in the water had suddenly exploded, releasing a wave of concentrated carbon dioxide. Like its cousin carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide is odorless and colorless. At high concentrations CO2 displaces oxygen. In air that is five percent carbon dioxide, candles will snuff out and car engines will putter to a stop. At ten percent, people begin to hyperventilate, grow dizzy, and eventually lapse into a coma. At thirty percent, people gasp once or twice and fall to the ground dead.

No one disputes that 1,800 people died of carbon dioxide poisoning from a sub-surface gas explosion. The big question is, why did it happen? The Western scientists generally shrugged their shoulders and said it was bound to happen sometime. People in Bamenda often subscribe to another explanation: Paul Biya had hired mercenary foreign scientists to make the lake explode in order to wipe out a hotbed of political dissidents. These mercenaries were either American, or — in a bit of anti-Semitism gone adrift — Israelis.

The case against Americans and Israelis was strengthened when Mount Cameroon erupted in 1999. Again foreigners were seen on the mountain just before the eruption. In The Angry Gods and the Eruption of Cameroon Mountain 1999, a glossy pamphlet written to teach school-children about the disaster, the author Jonas N. Dah writes, “One rumor about the cause of the eruption stated that foreigners went up the mountain and performed medicine in order to win the last mountain race, a practice which was against the will of the gods.” When I briefly met Paramount Chief S.M.L. Endeley of the Bakweri tribe, he affirmed that once again these meddling foreigners were surely either Americans or Israelis.

Given the reputation Americans enjoyed in the Bamenda area, I couldn’t feign surprise that no one wanted to tell me the secret identities of the members of the Takumbeng. The presence of Americans and their purported occult practices leads to natural disasters and dead Cameroonians. A young American was the last person with whom the secrets of the Takumbeng should be entrusted. Consequently, no one who had been outside Ni John Fru Ndi’s compound the night the Takumbeng stood down the Cameroonian army was willing to tell me what they saw. My inquiries were rebuffed with a simple restatement of local belief: any man who sees a member of the Takumbeng naked would have long since died from the accompanying curse. Thus there was no one left to talk to me anyhow.

* * *

True to his word, Fru Ndi served hedgehog for lunch. Although there were only three of us eating, the table was set for fifteen. Dishes of food were placed in front of the empty seats. I thought maybe some of the taciturn young men with clipboards who wandered in and out of the house might join us, but they waited in the living room and watched cartoons while we ate.

Fru Ndi was not a terribly large man, but was clearly accustomed to being listened to; he occupied space with the same easy authority as a man half again his size. I did not get to ask many questions; the few that I did ask, Fru Ndi nimbly turned into pro-SDF diatribes. His craggy face topped a green collared shirt which appeared to be some sort of compromise between African and Western styles. He wore his hair cropped close, more gray than not, unlike the SDF political pictures I had seen, in which he sported a head of rich black hair or a fiercely shaven pate.

I have a hard time trusting the impression I got from Fru Ndi during that lunch. While it’s true that he was all the things that a leader should be — urbane, current, worldly, and able to articulate his convictions – I also glimpsed the beginnings of something cartoonish. If the African leaders caricatured in movies are drunk on power, my impression of Fru Ndi was that he had a little buzz going. He had a suspicious habit of referring to himself in the third person. It was as though he had grown to think of himself as an idea rather than a man. Midway through lunch, he began to use his own name and his party’s acronym interchangeably, i.e. “The Social Democratic Front (SDF) went to make a speech in Maroua last week.”

This little conversational tic might have been an eccentricity, but he shares it with many leaders who have made themselves an icon in a personality cult. Paul Biya’s CPDM party, for example, is essentially synonymous with Biya himself, who has made himself essentially synonymous with Cameroon. In the middle of an economic crisis Biya made a speech in which he said “le Cameroun se porte bien (Cameroon is doing well or Cameroon is healthy)” when perhaps a more accurate assessment would have been “Biya is doing well.” Biya’s cult of personality isn’t as obvious as, say, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who elevated his own mother to mythic proportions by building national monuments to her days as a laundry maid. Still, Cameroon’s symbol is a lion, its champion soccer team is named the Lions, and its president (Paul Biya) goes by the nickname L’homme Lion (The Lion Man) – not coincidentally either. Fru Ndi portrays himself as the anti-Biya, but I spent a good deal of that lunch pondering whether, if he were elected to power, his autonomous “SDF” would morph into “Cameroon.”

“Eat some more. You aren’t eating at all.” Fru Ndi had said mid-way through lunch, handing me another gallon-sized plastic bag of homemade corn fufu. “If I were you I would be embarrassed. When I was a guest with your Bill Clinton, I ate everything in sight.”

I opened the bag and spooned a fist-sized chunk down my throat. Despite all the young people lounging about the house, Fru Ndi’s wife, Rose, had prepared all the food. The hedgehog meat and huckleberry were very good, but I had some difficulty stuffing down the gallons of corn starch that were a staple of Bamenda cuisine.

“Gobata,” Fru Ndi said, placing his elbows on the table and folding his hands together, “About these 2004 elections. You will be covering them?”

Gobata looked as full as I was. He stared despondently at the huge pile of huckleberry leaves on his plate. “No sir. I no longer write my column.”

“Nonsense Gobata. You will write next election, we need good coverage. The CRTV is not adequate. Already, all the opposition parties are consolidating. If Biya again rigs the elections, there will be no peace in Cameroon.” He nodded meaningfully at Gobata. I felt like I was missing some sort of subtext.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Fru Ndi looked at me sharply. He unfolded his hands and held them out over his plate. Then he formed two guns with his thumbs and forefingers, like a little kid, and made gunshot sounds. “The young men of this country, they come to me and they want change. Although I perhaps could, I myself choose not to expose Cameroonians — who have already been devastated by AIDS and poverty — to civil war. But I also won’t stop them if they decide to evict Biya by force.” He made two more gun-shot noises and holstered his fingers.

If I had been a more important person, or somehow influential, I don’t think Fru Ndi would have referred to the outbreak of Cameroonian civil war by making shooting noises with his fingers. Fifteen years as a political force must have taught him how to tend to his image when he thought it mattered. But Fru Ndi had pegged me right from the start; he felt no compunction to guard his words (or apparently, his pistol-fingers) around some American kid with a poorly-knotted tie. I have always heard about the odd detachment that men in power privately display towards the serious tasks of ruling or war. Maybe Saddam Hussein turned his hands into air-planes and made bombing noises after he dropped Botulinum toxin on Iraqi Kurds.

Fru Ndi went one better later in the lunch, when he made comparisons between himself and Charles Taylor, ex-president of Liberia. Dispatches from Liberia under Charles Taylor reported the situation to be a very close approximation of hell — complete with limb-amputating, amphetamine-fueled soldiers clad in wedding dresses and child-soldiers who held up candy-stores with RPGs.

At the time of our meeting Taylor was considering going into exile in Nigeria. Gobata began to say that he felt exile for Taylor would be a good thing, but Fru Ndi cut him off with a dismissive hand wave. “If he leaves Liberia, what happens to all his followers? I have said it before, and I will say it again; no good shepherd can abandon his sheep. That is why I can’t go into exile.”

I nearly blew chunks of hedgehog out my nose. How should one interpret it when the guy who everyone considers Cameroon’s brightest political light makes a benign comparison between himself and a man who made a career of mass murder?

A few days after lunch with Fru Ndi, I mentioned to Gobata how much Fru Ndi struck me as a caricature. A strange expression passed over his face, a look reserved for someone who has embarrassed himself and doesn’t know it. He raised his shoulders in a non-committal gesture and looked away, mumbling something like, “Well, you know, these powerful men….” I have dwelled upon that look, to the point that I have developed an alternate interpretation of the conversation that took place over that lunch. I think it is possible that Fru Ndi acted out a caricature because he did care what I think, not because I was so insignificant that he could let down his guard. Did he understand the opinion I was forming of him? And in turn, did he meet me and see a young arrogant American, ready and culturally-predisposed to see all African leaders through a pat Coming to America lens? Maybe by meeting my expectations, he off-handedly mocked me; the way I used to poke fun at Frenchmen by telling them how much I loved McDonald’s hamburgers. Whether he was playing me or not, I’ll never know – but note his skill as a politician: I never once pinned him down on a question about the Takumbeng.

* * *

Nwga Mary-Anne Ngengang was a teenager when the Cameroonian army moved into Bamenda. Although the identities of the Takumbeng members were purportedly unknown, the nights when Mary-Anne’s mother wasn’t home to prepare dinner corresponded nicely with appearances of the Takumbeng. Mary-Anne Ngengang grew up with the Takumbeng; their secrets formed her childhood. It was only natural that, seven years later, Ngengang found the Takumbeng and their incantations and songs to be the perfect subject for her 1999 Master’s thesis.

Ngengang got a B on her thesis, and at the time I lived in Cameroon, worked as a school teacher in a small village near the Nigerian border. Her thesis advisor, Babila Mutia, a professor of African Religion at the Ecole Normale of the University of Yaounde, owned one of the three extant copies of Ngengang’s thesis. “Here,” he said, pulling it off the shelf of his office, “You might want to take a look at this one as well, although she relies a bit heavily on her own experience and doesn’t touch on the wider discourse at all.” I photocopied the thesis, took the photocopies home, and didn’t realize what I had until almost three months later. Her 160-page thesis reads like an exposé written by someone who didn’t realize there was anything to expose. Imagine a memoir by Princess Diana’s maid or butler – a list of what lingerie the Princess had worn for which lover written as one might describe which teacups she had chosen for what meal.

In her thesis on the Takumbeng, Ngengang carefully transcribes all the incantations and rites that would reputedly kill a man should he ever hear them. She even translated them into English, so that they might be understood by those who don’t speak the local dialect. The rituals never to be seen by an outsider were described in the direct prose of someone for whom English was a second language. Her thesis could be the definitive how-to manual for performing most of the rites that have been guarded in absolute secrecy by generations of Bamenda women.

Mary-Anne Ngengang defined the Takumbeng as “a secret society of women, similar to the Anlu of Kom, that can only appear when the deities themselves have called the women together. They represent a potential force before which even eminent men must bow.” Ngengang expends a good deal of text reiterating that the Takumbeng is not a secret society or a club but rather a physical manifestation of a higher power. When Mary-Anne Ngengang’s mother went out with the Takumbeng, she ceased to be Mrs. Ngengang and became an instrument of the deities.

Made up entirely of older women, the Takumbeng was charged with preserving moral order. Most frequently the women of the Takumbeng appear in order to avenge “an insult to womanhood;” a euphemism that means punishing men who torture their wives. Ngengang outlines “punishments” exacted on abusive husbands that range from a small fine (for excessive beatings) to banishment and death (“in a situation where femininity is mutilated or destroyed” ). Prior to 1992, the last time the Takumbeng had intervened in a political affair was sometime between 1895 and 1901. Members of the Takumbeng aided a popular uprising against German colonialists that came as a response to incursions into the hinterland.

Strangely, Ngengang describes the appearance of the Takumbeng as if it were a performance, although she admits that there is never an audience because “their presence in society usually sends people running in search of safety.” She then takes the reader through a “performance,” a drama of justice exacted upon a man accused of mutilating his wife.

On the appointed night, the women gather in the main street leading to the culprit’s compound. The women are naked, or clad in rags that expose aged breasts and genitals. Bahama grass is knotted around their heads and the younger women press blades of ijken grass between their lips to represent a “sealed oath.” At the first news that the Takumbeng has appeared, the streets clear out. Windows are shuttered tight. The plastic chairs usually occupied by hard-drinking men are abandoned. Any man who gazes on the naked bodies of the Takumbeng, even by accident, runs the risk of death. Ngengang writes that just a quick glance, a peek from the corner of the eye, can “render the man impotent.”

When the Takumbeng has fully gathered, individual women coalesced into a whole, they begin to “dance naked, singing songs about their mystical abilities. People who hear their songs are left with an eerie feeling. They sing with tense, wrinkled, sullen faces which create a very solemn atmosphere.” The younger women (still in their fifties) let loose with high-pitched ululations. Ngengang goes on, “the voices of the Takumbeng take on a guttural nature, because by this stage, they are no longer human.” From the back, as the ululations reach a fury pitch, some of the women bring out earthenware pots filled with water. With their legs spread over the pots, the women bring cupfuls of water up to their vaginas, washing their genitals and letting the run-off water fall back into the pots to be used later.

With vaginas washed and run-off collected, the women set out for the culprit’s house growing “more frenzied with rage as they approach.” In their hands they hold long sticks of gnarled wood with which they beat out rhythms on the ground. Ngengang tells us that “anyone with eyes to see knows that the sticks are the legs of their ancestors.” At the culprit’s house, the younger women rush inside and drag the unfortunate man outside. The stronger ones bludgeon him down and keep him pinned to the ground. A mob of women surround the prone man and those closest to him list his crimes one by one. At each crime the other women shake, shriek in dismay and horror, or mock him for his wantonness. As the main body of the Takumbeng thrash and wail, a single old crone begins to recite incantations over the prone man. The oldest women come forth lugging the earthenware pots brimming with run-off water. One by one, they hoist the pots in the air above the unhappy man and with a final shriek dump the contents over his head.

The performance ends. The women go home in silence. That night the man will get sick. By week’s end, he will be dead.

* * *

Ngengang claims that every Takumbeng performance is the same. A protest march is the same as a death ceremony; the only elements that change from performance to performance are the incantations the women recite. In Ngengang’s thesis, she transcribed the words of a member of the Takumbeng, Ma Tabita Lum, age 60:

Ni John Fru Ndi did not call us. We came out to protect him because he aired our grievances. He spoke the truth and still speaks the truth. We stand for the truth. When the state of Emergency was declared, we had to come out and protect our son from the Lion’s fangs . Bamenda was crowded with military men armed to the teeth. My daughter, we had to be vigilant because the Lake Nyos disaster is still fresh in our minds.

The inhabitants of Bamenda have a running inside joke: the question “Takumbeng c’est quoi?!” A rough translation of the way this is used might be, “What the hell is this Takumbeng?” This was the general response of the Francophone troops from the deep south of the country when confronted by the Takumbeng outside the walls of Ni John Fru Ndi’s compound. In Bamenda, the commonly-held interpretation of this event was that the soldiers had dismissively asked “What the hell is this Takumbeng?” out of an arrogant assurance that they would be more than a match for a rabble of unarmed old women.

Of course, there is another interpretation. The soldiers sent against Ni John Fru Ndi were French-speaking troops from the tropical south, where the Takumbeng was not part of their local tradition. These soldiers were sent up North to with the simple orders to arrest yet another Anglophone man. They had made hundreds of similar arrests before — occasionally someone shot at them, but that the extent of the trouble for which they had been prepared.

Imagine their bewilderment upon arriving Fru Ndi’s compound: In front of a Chinese-style mansion at the end of a twisting dirt path, they come upon a rabble of naked old women. The woman wail, shriek, and beat rhythms on the ground with sticks that they call legs. They women utter deep guttural noises. The soldiers don’t speak English, but they are pretty sure English doesn’t sound like that, in fact those noises barely sound human. The soldiers had been ordered arrest someone in that Chinese-looking compound, but not fight a mob of frenzied old ladies. Weird — some of the woman appear to be washing out their vaginas over clay pots. Mais, qu’est-ce qu’elles font, eh? A few soldiers break ranks and approach the women to demand an explanation. These brave few are greeted with a collective shriek, just before the oldest of the crones douse them with douche-water.

“Takumbeng c’est quoi?”

Exactly.

* * *

Fru Ndi seemed impatient with the whole subject of the Takumbeng. Despite concerns that all I cared about was a sensationalized story of Africa, he nonetheless granted me a ten-minute interview in which I could ask whatever I pleased – as a favor to Gobata. We met in his living room, a capacious room at the end of a hallway decorated with photo spreads depicting failed assassination attempts on Fru-Ndi’s life. Two of my allotted ten minutes were used up waiting for one of the ubiquitous men with clip-boards to bring him a Sprite.

Q: The night that the Takumbeng appeared, did you know that either the Takumbeng or the soldiers were coming?

FN: This house is also the headquarters of the SDF. All my staff was here because I had won the election and there was business to be done. We knew the soldiers would come, but no one can call upon the Takumbeng. They do what they please.

Q: Did you or anyone of your staff see what transpired between the soldiers and the Takumbeng?

FN: Young man, if you had done any research at all, you would know that if I looked at the Takumbeng, a curse would apply to me as well.

Q: Yes, I had read that, but I also read that there were 145 people in here, roughly a third of whom were women, and as I understand it, a curse would not apply in the same way to women. Regardless, is it so unlikely that a few of those 145 people might have seen something?

FN: As you have said, there were 145 people in here. I had just had a presidential election stolen from me and a warrant for my arrest had been issued over the radio. As you might presume, I was not concerned with interviewing each and every one of my staff about what they might or might not have seen throughout the course of the evening. But, as far as I know, the answer is no, no one saw anything. Look, those were soldiers out there. I don’t work with people who are willing to risk catching a bullet in the head just to peek outside.

Q: Okay. But how about the next day? Rumor has it that a number of soldiers were found dead in the fields around your house.

FN. Yes. I know the rumors.

Q: Did you see any dead soldiers then?

FN: I myself did not. Remember that I was under house arrest for two months. I was not in a position to go looking for dead soldiers. The house arrest was more like a siege. They cut off my water and electricity. People had to use buckets for toilets. We didn’t have much food. You want to know about the Takumbeng? What I most remember about the Takumbeng, and what I consider one of their bravest acts, was that they were the ones to smuggle us food and water during those first heated days. As for the rumors about the dead soldiers, I heard one of my neighbors found one. But it was not until a few months later that he was able to tell me that.

Q: Did the army react to these dead soldiers?

FN: Again, I didn’t see any dead soldiers. I can’t confirm anything one way or another. My guess is that the army was preoccupied with other things.

Q: What do you think about the discrepancy between what people like your neighbor say and the official stance which is that nothing happened?

FN: Oh my. You ought to know that the discrepancy between the official stance and public rumor is always huge. When the SDF was launched in 1990, 80,000 people came to Bamenda to support Fru Ndi and the SDF. The official number was 20,000. Then the army killed six people, whose identities are common knowledge, and our friend, Augustine Kontchou Kouomengni, reported zero mort – none dead. Meanwhile, people were coming to me, and saying that gendarmes had cut off their uncle’s arm or raped their sister. I don’t claim to know where the truth lies, but it is not with official numbers. The Biya and his conspirators are caught in a web of lies that they have spun to stay in power. Even now, I have heard government officials claim that Fru Ndi is working with ELF. But if I am working for ELF , why is it that I am welcomed as a guest in every country of the world except France?

Q: Is that a rhetorical question?

FN: Not if you don’t want it to be.

Q: Well, no then? Wait…let me ask if you…do you feel that in some way you were not arrested that night because the Takumbeng was there to protect you? And if so, would you say they are responsible for changing Cameroon’s history and placing you where you are today?

FN: The assumption in that question is that an arrest would mean the end of my political career. I do not so easily abandon my post. I have been arrested before and come away stronger and more committed than when I went in. My success depends, and has always depended, on support from a number of different sources. The bravery of those women is one such source.

III.) Hysteron Proteron

Before September 11, fifteen percent of America’s oil came from sub-Saharan Africa. Post 9-11, the Bush administration has sought to expand Africa’s share to twenty-five percent during the next decade. Accordingly, Chevron shifted their business plans in order to pump more and more oil in places where – as CEO David J. O’Reilly put it – “people live on less than one dollar a day.”

* * *

The women who took over Escravos had a simple demand – development. “They achieved something from this community for forty years,” said Mama Ayo, one of the women’s leaders. “Can’t they help us achieve something?”

But what exactly do they want achieved? George Packer, a New Yorker staff writer who lived in Togo in the early 1980s, remarked that across Africa, the word development, “echoed…like a mysterious fetish incantation.” Development became a concept, an ideal, ripped from its logistical girders. If development means they want a few toilets and a barely serviceable electrical grid, fine, that’s probably achievable. But normally the demand for development carries a request for something more ineffable – a better standard of living, infrastructure, and opportunities for the next generation — stepping-stones to a first-world lifestyle. Perhaps it is easy to blame a lack of such things, and demand them as one’s due, from the suited caucasoids of the geo-political cabal, but Chevron delivers oil, not hopes.

David O’Reilly correctly noted, “The major responsibility [for development] is with the government. We can’t take the place of the government. It’s unrealistic; it’s not our role.”

When Chevron buys oil rights in Nigeria, the contracts stipulate that the Nigerian government keeps sixty percent of the oil revenue. Chevron keeps forty percent of the revenues, but that forty percent is again taxed by the Nigerians, cutting it in half. The Nigerian government nets eighty percent of the profit, Chevron twenty. Then, before any actual petroleum extraction can get underway, Chevron faces an obstacle course of Kafkan bureaucratic hoops; each application, license, waiver, certificate and rubber stamp carries a fee. For argument’s sake, one can figure that depending on the specific contract, the Nigerian government gets eighty-two to eighty-five percent of Chevron’s total oil revenues. With the remaining fifteen to seventeen percent, Chevron has to build off-shore pumping platforms, construct huge terminals, pay for tankers, and train skilled workers from the local population. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., shareholders clamor for profits. Ugborodo may be sinking — but it’s not Chevron’s job to make Nigeria a nice place to live. That responsibility falls on the Nigerian government – so what happened to its eighty-something percent of those oil revenues?

The answer to that query is the subject matter of hundreds of books, but here is a fun fact: the Nigerian dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, who died in office in 1998, managed, during his half-decade in power, to amass a personal fortune of around three billion dollars. Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire – possibly one of the roughest dictators of Our Bloody Century, who ruled over what might be the most resource-rich region in all sub-Saharan Africa – took thirty years to amass that same amount.

Meanwhile, even before the Escravos takeover, Chevron had spent 36 million dollars to foster community development in the Niger Delta over the prior decade. Much of the money was stolen by contractors and dubious ‘development’ organizations. In response, Chevron hired and funded ‘community liaison’ officers from the local populations to police the contractors. The ‘community liaison’ officers all bought cars. Chevron brought in American employees to oversee the ‘community liaison’ officers, but nobody wanted to be told what to do by some white man. In 1992, frustrated and hoping to evince some measure of good-will, Chevron officials ordered an eighteen-bed hospital to be built and staffed in Ugborodo at their expense. The villagers burned it down in ethnic riots seven years later.

* * *

From an anonymously circulated e-mail, provenance unknown:

At a U2 concert in Ireland, Bono asks the audience for some quiet. Then in the silence, he starts to slowly clap his hands. As the audience watches, he says into the microphone…”Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies.”

A voice from near the front of the hall pierces the silence…

“Fookin’ stop doin’ it, then!”

Although I am generally on-board for the skewering of celebrity bombast, hysteron proteron, and Irish wit, I enjoy the joke for yet another, probably unintended, reason. Given the staggering failure rate of development initiatives in Africa, perhaps a request that Bono stop clapping could save as many of those children as anything else. Want potable water? Maybe Bono, that celebrity savior of Africa, can do a rain-dance.

Yet, in a contrast to that kind of cynicism, the naked women of Ugborodo and the Takumbeng offer a rare and hopeful glimpse at a potential future for Nigeria and Cameroon. The biggest challenges facing foreign NGOs hoping to work in Africa are 1) creating a native organizational infrastructure, and 2) imbuing the organization with the moral credibility necessary to evade the corruption and theft that cripple the average initiative. If NGOs were willing to work with and incorporate women in traditional organizations like the Takumbeng, they would begin with those two challenges already met. Yes, Westerners may have a hard time swallowing the notion that the Takumbeng and the women of Ugborodo represent a metaphysical manifestation of a higher power – but they also represent an indigenous grass-roots movement that navigates the bed-rock societal pathways long buried beneath the facades erected by proselytization, colonialism, the nation-state, etc., in order to face current political and economic conflicts with an approach adapted to modernity.

Whether their success derives from a supernatural source, or a collective belief in a supernatural source (as in: whether you have a gun or not, if I believe you do, you get my wallet) doesn’t really matter. They have power. They have exercised that power. Other, seemingly more powerful forces — geo-political corporations, national leaders — have backed down before them. The women of Ugborodo and the Takumbeng represent the power of indigenous beliefs in Cameroon, and through those beliefs the voice of the average resident. More than forty years have passed since Nigeria and Cameroon gained independence, and here, finally, is an opening for the average resident to speak in the conversations that shape her life.

* * *

Maybe you want to say something here. You want to point out an obvious hole in the argument. These women don’t have any real supernatural powers, and once everyone sees this, their power will dissipate. The idea of their power is predicated on an anomaly, just another moment that will fade into history… Could be — but success is power. And these women have already succeeded. Or maybe you, the unbeliever, are mistaken. Take note:

On July 20th, 2002, three days after the women left Escravos, Chevron Texaco appeared to renege on part of their deal. That night, a bolt of lightning struck the Escravos terminal and set ablaze a reservoir holding 180,000 barrels of oil. Liquid fire spilled through the complex. Oil production had to be halted for nearly three weeks – the exact amount of time it took Chevron officials to sign a hard copy of the verbal agreements. Jay Pryor, American head of Chevron’s Nigerian operations, called the lightning “an act of God.”


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