90.5 WESA | People from around the world will convene in Pittsburgh this weekend to discuss the history of violence in Cameroon. Members of the Cameroonian community in the United States say they hope to take a look at their past to heal for the future.
The conference will examine conflict in the Central African country during the 1950s and 60s when Cameroon gained independence from Britain and France.
Conflict between rebels seeking independence and the French and Cameroon militaries led to the death of tens of thousands of Bamileke Cameroonians, an ethnic group that was targeted throughout the conflict.
But the conference’s organizers say that number far underestimates the extent of the massacres that occurred. The death toll is still largely debated, ranging from 60,000 to 400,000 people killed between 1959 and 1964 in the country’s western region, where the Bamileke people live.
By gathering Saturday, organizers say they hope to begin unearthing this little-discussed history so that they may take the first steps toward healing and accountability.
Adelaide Madiesse Nguela, one of the event’s coordinators and a descendant of the Bamileke people, grew up in Cameroon before resettling in Maryland. She said during this period of unrest, her grandmother’s older brother was taken.
“One day he was going to church and was arrested and never returned,” Madiesse Nguela recounted.
Although she tried to ask her grandmother about this time on several occasions, Madiesse Nguela said she would not speak about it.
“When mentioned the name, she will shed a tear. She never said anything. I really tried to help. We couldn’t,” Madiesse Nguela recalled. “So I grew up in the genocide of another form: the genocide of silence.”
“We want to speak our truth”
Julia Barnes, an adjunct professor of genocide studies at Chatham University, said historically, genocides are followed by a period of silence that is either externally or internally imposed.
“Either people are forbidden from talking about it or they’re just too traumatized to talk about it. Or in this case, I think it’s really both,” she explained. “But it’s not a huge surprise to hear that there is another colonial genocide that was repressed for this long.”
Barnes said the same thing happened after World War II in 1945; it wasn’t until two decades later that people started taking the stories of Holocaust survivors seriously.
“And in a lot of cases, even people weren’t able to talk to their own families or friends about it. And it was something that was really repressed until the 1980s when we got this huge outpouring of art and literature,” she said.
Barnes said discussing atrocities is a necessary step in moving forward. Otherwise, the generational trauma that stems from them has the ability to dissolve and destroy communities from within.
“As is the case with so many colonial genocides, we know that leads to patterns of cyclical violence, poverty, diaspora,” she continued. “It will destroy that social fabric for a really long time.”
That, Barnes stressed, is why the Bamileke community’s decision to meet and open lines of communication about this history is so important.
In partnership with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, Barnes will moderate a panel of second-generation Holocaust survivors at the conference Saturday.
Madiesse Nguela said she hopes listening to their testimonies may help the Bamileke people find the words for their own.
“We want to speak our truth, but we want to learn from them how to best do that,”
Madiesse Nguela said further down the road, she wants to see international authorities acknowledge what happened to the Bamileke people and make that history known worldwide.
But for now, she hopes forming connections with other Cameroonians will help them start to unpack how that violence has affected generations of Bamileke people.
“I hope to meet other people and talk to them and maybe that way I can start going to a process of healing,” she said.
Members of the Bamileke community will do so through discussions on restorative justice, presentations of Bamileke history, and songs. Organizers say says they expect close to 400 participants, of which close to 250 are from Pittsburgh’s own Cameroonian enclave.
Alain Tamonoche, who immigrated to the United States 20 years ago, now runs an IT business in Wilkinsburg. He said he and many other Bamileke Cameroonians who left the country are not able to go back there due to ongoing conflict, and still face retaliation today.
Since 2016, much of the country has faced high levels of armed violence. According to the UN’s refugee agency, more than 2 million people have been displaced by conflict there.
“And some of the methods that we that were used against us in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s in Cameroon are being used today,” Tamonoche said.
Most of the people who initially brought up the idea of an event to “commemorate” the atrocities committed against the Bamileke people, Tamonoche said, are members of Pittsburgh’s Cameroonian community.
“So we said that it was a good thing to start here, but all Bamileke communities around the world — any of the sons and daughters of Cameroonian descent who would decide to do it next year or two years from now — would be welcome to do it as well.”
Panels will begin inside the Allegheny County Human Services building downtown at 9 a.m.