The Exhumation of History: A Dialogue with Massocki Ma Massocki
Massocki Ma Massocki is a Cameroonian freelance writer, author, speaker and activist aligned to Pan-Africanism. He writes for print news media and regional and international organizations.
Massocki has given talks at conferences in Africa, Asia and Europe on pan-Africanism and global issues, and at various institutions including Liverpool John More University in England, and The National Association of Seadogs, popularly known as the Pyrates Confraternity, a confraternity organization in Nigeria that is nominally university-based. One of its founding members is Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In 2010, after having peacefully protested against the killing of an African asylum-seeker named Jimmy Mubenga by the UK Home office, Massocki was arrested in the city of Liverpool in England and detained naked in a freezing cell. After some time, the house in which he was staying was set on fire in an attempt to kill him.
In 2020, independent African publisher, Pierced Rock Press, published Massocki’s first book, titled The Pride of an African Migrant, In Remembrance of Jimmy Mubenga, a political memoir that provides a lens to the panorama of the lives of African migrants in Europe, particularly African asylum seekers in the UK, and outlines the barbaric acts of tortures that African asylum seekers are subjected to in the UK. Massocki’s memoir was reviewed by the University of Birmingham in the UK and was featured by the London-based international publisher and left-wing magazine, New Internationalist, in its November issue no 528.
BY EDITH MAGAK
This conversation took place between Nairobi, Kenya and Manila, Philippines via WhatsApp.
Edith: Many congratulations on your newest book, BITÉK, He From Whom Death Ran. Not only is the title captivating, but the story itself is incredibly fascinating. I must admit, yours is the first book that intrigued me right from its Dedication Page.
The extraordinary narration of your birth was almost surreal and knowing that this is a nonfiction book made me realise I was about to enter a world and a story that was going to blow my mind, and it did. What made you write the fascinating account of your birth in the dedication page and not somewhere in the book itself?
Massocki Ma Massocki: I am very glad that you enjoyed the book. I could have written the story of my birth in the main narrative but I didn’t for two simple reasons: First, the story is not about me. Second, I wanted to express my gratitude to my great grandfather, Mbombog Ndjami, as without his intervention I wouldn’t have existed. The place to thank somebody in the book is in the acknowledgement or dedication page.
Edith: Ah, I see. This book is about the life of Biték, but it transcends him. Because more than his life’s story, we get to witness how the story of an entire community and country unfolds, and even how world politics come into play- we see how Bitek’s life weaves with the Ngok Lituba, with the Germans, French, British & Nigerians, the fight for independence in Cameroon, Christianity and traditional values… We see a universe through him. I found this extremely mesmerizing.
Do you think this holds true for all of our lives? That just like Bitëk, our existence is bigger than we imagine, or was this only specific for Bitëk because of what was prophesied at his birth?
Massocki Ma Massocki: Your question is an existential question therefore there cannot be an absolute answer. I have attempted to answer that question in chapter 15, which in some sense is my conclusion of the book. Your question is about Destiny-life’s purpose, and these questions will always remain an enigma to human existence. With Biték, destiny is a reality, as his ancestors predicted his life journey upon his birth. His destiny transcended his individual life for the benefits of his village. Others will argue that destiny does not exist and we are the ones meant to create our own destiny by giving meaning to our lives. Even in this case, when we truly give our individual life a meaning or we create our own destiny, our lives automatically become bigger than ourselves.
Edith: Indeed! No matter which way we go about it, our lives ‘become bigger than ourselves’ are such powerful words!
And something else that struck me in the book which probably also links to the question of destiny, is how the entire story revolves around human ability to adapt. We first see it when Biték and his community are displaced and they adapt to a new life in the forest, we see it when Biték flees his village after being caught in the act of adultery and adapts to a new life in port Harcourt, and back again to Cameroon to escape being sacrificed, and we also see how the people of Ngok Lituba adapt to Christianity and life under the colonialists. Throughout the book there are major personal and communal changes happening and the resilience of the people shines through, all the way to the end when Massocki finds employment in perceived ‘enemy’ territory and has to navigate life there.
Did you actively pursue this angle when writing the book or is it something that just manifested in the story? And second, I couldn’t help but think of you because of the different places and experiences you’ve had in different countries and how you’ve had to adapt to life in these places. As much as this story is not about you, do you see yourself in the experiences of Biték as death flees from him?
“In the literary world, great African writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka, just to name a few, have started that exhumation. To reverse the damage of colonialism, we must first know our own history, because if we don’t know where we come from we will never know where we are going. Without knowledge of our history, we are condemned to repeat our past.“
Massocki Ma Massocki: When you write a fictional story, you can do so with a particular angle. You can arrange your characters so the story unfolds the way you want it. BITÉK is not a fictional work, it is a biography meaning the actual life story of somebody. You must empty your mind and detach yourself from the story as much as possible when writing someone’s life story. If you write a biography with a particular angle in mind, that will be biased and you will not do justice to the memory of the person you are writing about. There are some aspects of Biték’s life that I didn’t like and yet wrote them because I wanted to be fair and ethical to Biték and to myself. So, I did not seek any angle. I just transcribed the life story of Biték as narrated by my father.
I agree with you in terms of similarities between Biték’s life and mine. One thing we have in common for sure is that we are both under the protection and guidance of our ancestors.
Edith: I certainly appreciate the objectivity; that you did not sanitize Biték but wrote about both the good and what I also perceived as his flaws. reading about his affair with a married woman, and then how he left his first wife and children behind in Nigeria. I remember reading and thinking ‘Wow, why is he doing this?’ but this made me also think about my life’s choices. I am not a saint, I make wrong calls. To see that in Biték was a moment of comradeship if I can call it that.
You’ve mentioned separating yourself from the story, and I know the difficulty of it, because when we write personal essays, they are almost an extension of ourselves. How did you feel listening to your father narrate the story of Biték and knowing this is your grandfather, your flesh and blood, but again trying to detach and come at this from a place of neutrality? What was archiving this story like for you? And even as you answer that, can you tell me what initially drew you to write about him? What was that moment that made you say, “you know what, I’m going to write a book about Biték.”
Massocki Ma Massocki: I would like to quickly say that, when I was done writing the first draft, my grandfather Biték appeared to me. He was thrilled and was smiling a lot. From that moment, I realized he did not mind me at all telling his flaws, which even encouraged me to detach myself from the story.
The book is fascinating only because the orator is great. My father is one of the greatest orators I have ever come across. I don’t say that just because he is my father, anyone who had an encounter with my father can confirm this. That is why he is always requested to speak at traditional gatherings. Back in the days, there was no TV and internet, so the favorite pastime for the youth was gathering around burning firewood to listen to fables and tales from elders. This is the era in which my father was born and raised. So, he was naturally endowed with the art of telling stories. Listening to my father telling the story of my grandfather was amazing. I did not want him to stop. My father transported me back in time. He made the story live.
Archiving the story was easy. I actually wrote the first draft within a week. There was no effort from me at all, I just transcribed what I was told. The only difficulty was ensuring that the book remains centered on Biték as much as possible. As you mentioned in the beginning, the book transcends Biték’s life and covers many other topics. I tried my best not to go in depth into these topics, otherwise that might shadow Biték. And at the same time, I had to cover those topics by giving at least background information so that the readers may understand. For instance, Biték was born within a culture and we are shaped and conditioned by our cultures, so it was impossible for me to write his story without giving at least background information in terms of his culture so that the readers understand the motives of Biték. To understand the way people act, we should understand the culture that they were born into.
Biték witnessed colonization and the liberation struggle of Cameroon. These events also influenced his life. So again, it would have been impossible to write his story without at least mentioning events that impacted his life.
As mentioned in the Author’s Note, ‘ While escaping from Nigeria in 1933, my grandfather left his two sons and he never saw them again. Through this book, my family and I hope to connect with our relatives in Nigeria who we have yet to meet’. This was mainly what compelled me to write the book. Also, I was puzzled by the prophecy at Biték’s birth. What really intrigued me is that the prophecy was accomplished 78 years later. So, by writing the book, this was a way for me to question our preconceived answers on concepts such as Destiny, life after death and so on.
Edith: There’s quite a lot of insight in your answer. So many nuggets of knowledge, thank you.
And the rich culture that surrounded Biték’s life comes out so vividly in the book. You paint it so clearly that I contrasted it with today’s culture. For example, I couldn’t help but think about the communal naming ceremony of Biték by Mbombog Som and even his circumcision. This reminded of the practice of baby dedication in the bible and even the Abrahamic circumcision of Jewish boys. Even before Christianity came to Africa, we were already practicing this religion, and so to read Mbombog’s speech where he says “a universal God means he is also in our tradition” was definitely illuminating.
Massocki Ma Massocki: Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are just plagia and deformation of Biték’s ancestral tradition. That is why the Vatican has captured Ngok Lituba, the holy sanctuary of the Basaa people in Cameroon, and they don’t want to let go. The ancestral land of Biték’s ancestors is Egypt, which is the mother of all civilizations. Ancient Egyptians were black people. Even French historian Volney, an Egyptologist, confirmed that western civilization derived from black civilization. When Volney arrived in Egypt, he said; “This race of black men, our slaves, subject of our contempt and mockery, is to whom we owe our sciences, religions, and even the use of speech.” Akhenathon who was a Basaa Pharaoh in Egypt, is the father of Monotheism, which is the belief in one universal God. Even the word bible itself is a Basaa word.
BITÉK is a biography and not an essay about the Basaa origin of Abrahamic religions. This is why I said earlier that the only difficulty writing the book was to make sure that the book remains centered on Biték as much as possible. Because, as you mentioned in the beginning, the book transcends Biték’s life and covers many other topics. I tried my best not to go in depth into these topics, otherwise that might shadow Biték. The book had to focus on Biték’s life. I am planning to write another book on the Basaa origin of Abrahamic religions.
Edith: I’ll definitely be looking forward to the book you intend to write on Basaa origin because I found all this intriguing, and it’s definitely an interesting subject since African Christians are at times accused of practicing second hand religion (imposed on them from the West) so to discover that our forefathers practiced all this before the missionaries came, is liberating.
I also noticed that their culture was misogynistic. The few times women are mentioned, it’s regarding their sexuality: that is Kindap and Amadi only appear when Biték is seducing them, Biték’s cousin is portrayed purely as sexual vixen. And Bias is only mentioned in passing as Biték’s second wife. At Bitéks funeral, the Koo woman’s testimony is only excerpted to when she praises Biték for how he slept with many women in the village. What did you make of all this?
Massocki Ma Massocki: Many who read BITÉK fail to recognize that in the book the highest divinity that can be considered as God to some extent and venerated by the Basaa people is a woman. Also in that culture, to marry a woman you have to pay a bride price which shows a high appreciation of women. In western society there is no bride price because they don’t value women as much as us in Africa. Back in the days, women were not supposed to go to work, their duty was to stay at home and educate children. The duty of men was to look for the daily bread. With the invasion of western culture, things have changed. They talk about gender equality, and women now have to work from 9am to 5pm and have to endure stress and pressure that comes with that. In The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Engels, we understand that integrating women in the workforce is not about gender equality, but the enslavement of women in order to maximize profits.
At least feminist movements were not born in Africa but in Europe because this is where women were persecuted. Only in Africa God is a woman. The persecution of women in Africa results from Arab and European invasion. You just have to read the Bible, Koran and Torah. Based on these books, God did not even plan to create a woman, he ended up creating a woman just to keep company with man as he was bored. And the worst is that based on these books, God created woman from the rib of man. This is misogynistic.
Edith: This book BITÉK is less than 150 pages and yet there’s so much to unpack in it. And while I’ve underlined in my copy a lot of sentences that spoke to me, the one I double underlined is when Mbombog Som is speaking to Djami and tells him ‘Language Is a fundamental guardian of tradition; it carries the knowledge of the universe’ that line reminds me of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s book, Decolonizing the Mind, where he talks about how the colonizers forced us to speak English/French and by doing so aimed to eradicate our cultures or make them appear barbaric.
Do you think there’s hope for the future in preservation of our traditions seeing as we give priority to the colonizers’ languages in schools, business transactions, and even in government?
Massocki Ma Massocki: I feel very honored as you can find similarities between my work and that of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Ngũgĩ is a conscience of the African cultural heritage as far as literature is concerned. By writing in native African languages, Ngũgĩ debunks the western racist thesis that insults our native language by qualifying them as patois and dialects. Ngũgĩ has shown that our mother tongues are languages in the same way as French and English. Ngũgĩ’s initiative has to be encouraged and followed.
We, the Basaa people of Cameroon, have a very popular saying: “Tradition is like a chimpanzee. A hundred times a chimpanzee falls, a hundred times it springs back to its feet.” So, no matter how long it might take, I am certain that our culture buried by colonialism will be exhumed as a chimpanzee that springs back to its feet.
In the literary world, great African writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka, just to name a few, have started that exhumation. To reverse the damage of colonialism, we must first know our own history, because if we don’t know where we come from we will never know where we are going. Without knowledge of our history, we are condemned to repeat our past. History in the words of Prof Babatunde fafunwa is ” to a people what memory is to the individual. A people with no knowledge of their past would suffer from collective amnesia, groping blindly into the future without the guide post of precedence to shape their course.”
Second, the knowledge of our history will enable us to decolonize our mind. Finally, we must have nationalist governments. Only a government can shape the education of its people by setting a proper educational system which includes adopting a relevant curriculum that promotes self love, our values, history and cultures. You will agree with me that the educational system of African countries is the heritage of colonialism. As such, our educational system was never set to educate us as Africans but to serve the interest of the colonisers.
Edith: I’m currently reading The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Woodson and what you say about our education systems are in line with his thoughts. He writes that proper education should inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better, but the instruction so far given to Negroes has worked to the contrary, and keeps Black people in the ghetto. It’s a shame that almost 90 years after this book was published, the same ills he mentions still plague our education systems.
It’s also interesting that you mention the important role of nationalist governments because in the book we see the opposite of that. It comes out clearly that Cameroon has never been independent but is being ruled by “French Puppets” till date. And I guess that also reflects on the unending conflict.
I found it rather heartbreaking that from the beginning of the book, in 1896 when the Germans displaced Biték and his family from Mbandi forest, Um Nyobe’s assassination in 1958, to the end of Bitéks life in 1978 and even now in 2021, that the much desired wholesome peace is still elusive in Cameroon. How much or how little do you think has changed from when Manyanog was killed in Bitéks village in 1960 to today?
Massocki Ma Massocki: I am very sad to say nothing has really changed from the death of Manyanog in 1960. Things have worsened. Misery, oppression, repression, civil wars, terrorism, lack of potable drinking water and electricity, unemployment, unaffordable education and health care, embezzlement, corruption, nepotism and political assassination just to name a few are characteristics of the Cameroonian daily life.
In his book, Cameroon: The Haunted Heart of Africa, Janvier Tchouteu asks
“What is the way forward in dismantling the anachronistic system managed in Cameroon by the puppets of France’s political mafia in Africa called FrancAfrique, a political establishment of marionettes of foreign interests acting as looters and mercenaries in the country of their birth?”
Edith: Throughout this conversation, my familiarity to the things you speak of has constantly amazed me, and even the themes in the book BITÉK. Because as much as this is grounded in Cameroon, the issues are familiar to me as a Kenyan. The traditions of the Basaa people, colonization and subsequent displacement, neocolonialism, harmful traditions and even supernatural powers against gunshots by our freedom fighters, are also stories of my people. The story of BITÉK is not just about Biték but it’s the narrative of the entire African continent. It’s a Pan-African story, if I can call it that.
And so even as we draw to a close I must ask this; What is that one thing that you would wish for readers to see in, or take from this book. I know every reader will interpret it differently, but if there was just one thing, or theme, or one line, or one page, what would it be for you?
Massocki Ma Massocki: Once again I am very grateful for the opportunity to discuss this book that is so dear to me with Africa in Dialogue and with you particularly.
I did not want this conversation to end, as I enjoyed every moment. It was very delightful to discuss the book with you. I like the passion and energy you have for the book.
I did not write the book with a particular aim other than to narrate my grandfather’s life story. So there were no preconceived ideas, no bias in writing, therefore there is nothing particular I would like readers to retain from the book. Instead, I would like readers to form their own view and draw their own conclusion of the book. The most I can say to readers is to ask them to meditate on Biték’s last word: ” He who runs in every man perishes his life, just as the soul that runs in all souls perishes its spirit”.
Finally, I hope readers will enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it. I wish all of them an enjoyable reading experience.
Edith: Biték’s last words are certainly powerful. The book BITÉK will be officially released on 1st September, right? Where can our readers purchase it- both physical and e-copies?
Massocki Ma Massocki: Indeed, the publication date of the book is September 1st. The book is available in 3 formats: ebook, paperback and hardcover. The book is available on Amazon and many other online retailers. Bookstores, libraries and wholesalers can order the book on IngramSpark for a 40% discount with a return policy.
Edith: Thank you so much for this conversation. It was eye-opening and enlightening.
Edith Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Jalada Africa, Meeting of Minds UK, Jellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight