Bole Butake Remembered at 43rd African Literature Association Conference at Yale

Panelists and other Cameroonian professors at the ALA
Panelists and other Cameroonian professors at the ALA

By Joyce Ashuntantang, Friday, June 30, 2017


Cameroon Journal, Connecticut – On October 1, 2016, Cameroon lost a literary colossus and playwright extraordinaire in the person of Professor Bole Butake. He authored nine published plays which have all been performed multiple times on stage and on television in Cameroon and beyond. He was also a Theatre for Development practitioner with more than 25 productions to his name.

The memorial roundtable organized on Friday, June 16th by former students and members of the Yaoundé University/Flame Players confirmed the adage, “a writer never dies”. This round table discussion took place during the 43rd annual African literature Association conference at Yale University, June 14-17.

The members of the round table included:

Joyce Ashuntantang, University of Hartford (Chair)

Joseph Bannavti, Independent Scholar (New Jersey)

Benn Bongang, Savannah State University

Perpetuel Chiangong, Humboldt University

Victor Gomia, Delaware State University *

Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi, North Carolina State University

Paddy Ndole, Independent Scholar (Texas)

 

A Snapshot of the Round Table Discussion:

Draped in memorial scarves from Cameroon, members of the round table kicked off discussions with each one stating their first encounter with Bole Butake. Each encounter showed that Prof. Butake had a generosity of spirit and gave of himself freely, be it as a university professor, director of the

Bannavti and Joyce reading The Survivors
Bannavti and Joyce reading The Survivors

Yaoundé University Theater, director of Flame Players, Anglophone Cameroon elite in Yaoundé or a resourceful indigene from Bui Division.  These personal accounts were followed by a dramatic reading of a scene from Butake’s 3rd published play, The Survivors. This is the scene where Mboysi kills the officer and has a short lived celebration before she is killed. It was quite nostalgic as Bannavti and I entered back into our roles as members of the pioneer cast of The Survivors.

We then moved into a discussion of Bole Butake as a theater director. It was refreshing to hear from Paddy Ndole how he became a lighting technician for the Yaoundé University Theater with encouragement from Bole Butake who gave him 10.000frs CFA to buy materials needed. His narration of  a near fire incident during a performance of The Survivors illuminated some of the technical difficulties Professor Butake encountered working with very little professional help. On his part, Bannavti Joseph explained how Butake’s directorial style allowed actors to be co-creators of the action. We all agreed that this student-centered method definitely built confidence and resourcefulness in the actors.

The discussion then shifted to critical reviews of Bole Butake’s plays and artistic output in general. I explained the fact that while Bole Butake’s plays are revered for their political content, the plays are equally grounded in environmental issues. This is the thrust of my chapter “For Common Corn: Echoing Bole Butake’s concerns in Lake God, The Survivors, and And Palm Wine Will Flow” in Re-greening Africanscapes: Ecology and the African Imagination edited by Ogaga Okuyada.  Prof. Nfah-Abbenyi, the outgoing President of ALA, drawing from her extensive engagement with Butake’s artistic oeuvres,  shared her interview with Prof. Butake  published in the country issue of Tydskrif vir Letterkunde on Cameroon literature. This interview turned out to be his last. We heard Butake in his own words as  prof. Abbenyi read excerpts from the interview where  he decried the rough political climate he was forced to work in. Prof. Abbenyi concluded that what defined Bole Butake was his unyielding courage in the face of daunting and oppressive challenges. At one point Prof. Butake was banned from using any halls on campus and all funding for play productions were suspended because the university authorities considered the plays he directed subversive. This went on for ten long years which saw him shift his focus to theater for development with community groups. Dr. Perpetual Chiangong took a page from her book, Rituals in Cameroon Drama: A Semiological Interpretation of the plays of Gilbert Doho, Bole Butake and Hansel Ndumbe Eyoh as she discussed Prof. Butake’s incredible imagination in The Dance of Vampires, one of his later plays.

Benn Bongang on the other hand took us to Bole Butake’s indigenous roots to prove that  Bole Butake not only depended on his cultural roots for stylistic devices which he infused in his plays, but it was also his source of courage. From Dr. Bongang’s analysis, it was easy to see that Butake’s creation of strong female characters and his political vision may also have roots in his Nso/Noni cultural history. We rounded up our discussions with a reading of the final section of And Palm Will Flow, ending with the sacred words of the Tapper:

 

People of this land

As the sun rises at dawn

So shall we all meet

In the market place

To decide the destiny of this land

No more shall we allow

One person to rule our land for us!

From this moment, palm wine shall no longer flow

In this land of Ewawa.

It shall be used sparingly

In libations to the gods and ancestors

In preparing medicinal herbs for the sick!

Our discussions were enhanced by insightful comments from other scholars in the audience including, Prof. Emmanuel Yewah,(USA/Cameroon) Dr. N. Nkealah (South Africa/Cameroon), Dr. David Tambu (Cameroon) and  Prof. Abioseh Porter (USA/Sierra Leon)  who shared some great memories of his time in Cameroon with Prof. Butake in the early 70’s.

Born in 1947 in Nkor, Noni sub-Division in the North West Province of Cameroon, Butake attended the local primary school. He later gained his secondary education from the prestigious Sacred Heart College, Mankon and the renowned Cameroon College of Arts, Science and Technology, Bambili, Cameroon. He then enrolled at the University of Yaounde where he earned a B.A. in Modern English Letters in 1972 and a Maîtrise (Post Graduate Diploma) in 1973. In 1974 he earned a Masters in English Literature from the University of Leeds, England. In 1983 he was awarded a Ph.D. (Doctorat d’Etat ès Lettres) from the Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences, University of Yaoundé, Cameroon. In 2012 he retired from the University of Yaounde after earning the rank of full professor of Performing Arts and African Literature. Professor Butake was buried in his ancestral village, Nkor-Noni on November 12, 2016. He is survived by Jane Bolle, his wife of 36 years and their six children. May he continue to rest peacefully with his ancestors.


 

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