Tales from Cameroon

November 18, 2005

IT’S a rare treat to hear someone from far-off Cameroon tell stories from that slice of the world pie. Cameroon is a long way off, and, for most of us, not well known. Tucked away between Nigeria and Chad, at the bottom of the bulge on Africa’s Atlantic coast, it’s not the easiest place to find on a world map.Thirteen million people live in this republic, which is slightly larger than the U.S. state of California. The country’s capital is Yaounde. Cameroon became independent once again in 1960 after being bounced around as a colony of Portugal, Germany, France and Great Britain for four centuries.Cameroon is the home of Boniface Ofogo Nkama, an international storytelling star who is participating in the International Storytelling Festival in Alajuela, northwest of San José, Nov. 19-27.Boni, as he is called, says he was “practically born telling stories.” “I grew up in a small village, Omasa, in the middle of Cameroon,” he said. “We had no electricity, and at night it was the custom to build a bonfire in the yard and tell stories. Siblings, grandparents, cousins… we’d sit for hours listening and telling stories. Sometimes relatives came from other villages, so stories were exchanged in that manner.“The oral tradition is very much alive in Cameroon, especially in rural areas where the ‘word’ is sacred, as when the council of elders speaks or village justice is pronounced.” STORIES may entertain and pass on messages, but all stories transmit something, according to Ofogo, who, not surprisingly, is a linguist by profession. “Our traditional stories, as in all traditional cultures, tell more than tales,” he said. “We ought to stop for five minutes after a story and think about what it said.” Ofogo tells his stories dressed in brightly colored kitenge suits of matching pants, a long, flared shirt and a round brimless hat. And, always, a mischievous smile on his face.His stories are based on West African tales, many about animals of the jungle, such as the tale of Kandinga, the selfish lion that lures a rabbit into snaring other animals for dinner. When the lion refuses to share his snare, the rabbit tricks the lion into sticking his paw into a bee hive for a dessert of honey; but first, the rabbit calls on Nandú, the most poisonous snake ever known, to slide inside the hive, because snakes like honey, too. Thus the lion gets bitten by the snake and learns his lesson the hard way. IN time, Ofogo left his linguistic career and became a professional storyteller to share his stories from Cameroon all over the world. He has participated in festivals in Europe, South America and Africa, at universities and on stages. He now lives in Spain.Ofogo says it still amazes him that he can make a living telling stories. Back in Cameroon, nobody would even buy him a beer for telling a story, he claims.“Storytelling is so much a part of our culture, it’s like breathing,” he said. “Nobody pays you to breathe.” He confides that his father is scandalized that in Europe he gets paid to tell stories. “Are white people crazy that they pay you to tell stories?” he asks.But, Ofogo says, storytelling is important in all societies. Who else is going to pass on the stories? What other profession makes children so happy?According to Ofogo, storytellers never retire.“Even when we get old, there will be grandchildren to tell stories to,” he said. We’ll be able to hear Ofogo’s stories for free, by traveling to Alajuela for the International Storytellers Festival Nov. 19-27. For more about the storyteller from Cameroon, visit www.boniofogo.com.

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