February 23, 2015
February 23, 2015
Felicitas Ntang, one of the rare Cameroonian women who took up arms against the French, would like the government to honor her for the four years she battled for independence.
BABESSI, CAMEROON – Half a century ago, Felicitas Ntang took up arms and spent four years of her youth fighting for her nation’s independence. She lived in forests for months at a time, repeatedly battling French colonial troops. At times, she and her comrades took cover from enemy fire behind decomposing corpses.
Ntang had no contact with her family throughout her active service in the Maquis, the military arm of Cameroon’s first political party, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (“Union of the Peoples of Cameroon”). Politically and militarily, the UPC and the Maquis fought to drive out the French in the 1950s.
“Working as a Maquis exposed me to the most horrifying experiences, but it was worth it,” says Ntang, 74. “It was for the good of my country.”
Sitting in front of the light red secretariat she built for the local UPC on the outskirts of Babessi, a village in Cameroon’s Northwest region, Ntang says independence was worth her struggles and sacrifices. Ntang, who endured years of scorn and rejection when she returned from battle, just wishes her government would acknowledge her service.
Ntang joined the Maquis in 1958, when she left Babessi, an Anglophone village, at 19 to visit an uncle in the French-administered Ngoketunjia division. Her uncle introduced her to the region’s 3,000-member UPC party and persuaded her to fight for the country’s independence as a Maquisard, a member of the Cameroonian movement named for the French fighters who had battled occupying German forces in World War II.
Cameroon was then jointly controlled by the French and the British.
“My uncle told me that it would be honorable to die in the name of my country,” Ntang says.
Although the armed groups suffered grave losses, Ntang says she and her comrades kept the pressure on colonial troops.
“We started fighting with spears and cutlasses, and then later on we were given guns,” she says. “We fired and killed many French soldiers, but we were hardly killed.”
Fighters were indebted to sorcerers who lived with them in the forest, Ntang says. The sorcerers performed rituals and rubbed medicine on their bodies, assuring the fighters they would be protected if they refrained from sex. The guerillas believed the medicine helped them dodge the French army’s bullets.
“I could hear bullets passing all around me, but none entered my body,” Ntang says, laughing.
More than five decades after Cameroon gained independence, the government still has not recognized the years Ntang dedicated to the country’s liberation, she says. Furthermore, it has not honored her as one of the few women who battled French colonialists. She has petitioned the government to hear her plea.
Although she feels unappreciated for her military service, Ntang continues her political advocacy with the UPC. She strives to foster unity between Anglophone and Francophone Cameroonians.
After World War II, Britain and France administered separate parts of Cameroon as a UN trusteeship. Cameroon then became a two-language country dominated by Francophones.
Formed in 1948, the UPC demanded independence and the reunification of French-controlled Cameroon with regions under British rule, says Agnes Ngum, a history teacher at Government Bilingual High School, Mambu-Bafut.
After French colonial forces killed UPC leader Ruben Um Nyobé in 1958, the party formed a military unit that recruited more than 80,000 Cameroonians to fight the French, Ngum says. Only a few women fought in the militia.
The armed struggle continued even after Cameroon gained independence in 1960, Ngum says. The colonialists still occupied some areas, and Cameroonians wanted full independence.
Thousands of Maquis died in battle. Because colonial forces targeted whole villages deemed strongholds of the armed groups, an estimated 61,000 to 76,000 civilians also died in the struggle, according to a 2007 study by Meredith Terretta published in the Vienna Journal for African Studies.
French colonialists sought to undermine support for the Maquis by portraying members as heartless warriors bent on eliminating their enemies in any way possible, Ntang says. So, when Ntang returned to Babessi from the UPC camp, the sight of her terrified her family and fellow villagers.
“People used to see me and run away,” she says, a tear running down her cheek. “Children looked at me and cried. Men feared to approach me for marriage. Community members pointed fingers at me from a distance. I became a lonely woman in a community of many people.”
Ntang finally wed at 30, after her late husband obtained a sorcerer’s assurance that it was safe to marry her.
Having reintegrated into the village, Ntang has reflected on her life and wishes for acknowledgement.
“I don’t want anything big from the government,” she says. “All I want is a medal of recognition as one of the women who fought for Cameroon’s independence.”
Ntang has repeatedly made her request of the government for 10 years, she says. She doesn’t know of other Marquis who have received this kind of award.
Idrisuh Mendah, a 64-year-old man who has lived all his life in Babessi, understands the reception Ntang received upon her return to the village.
“Like other people, I used to take to my heels whenever I saw her coming my way,” he says. “I was convinced she could kill anybody at any time without mercy. I knew blood meant nothing to her.”
Only after Ntang had lived in the community for many years without committing a crime did Mendah begin to look at her differently. He even joined the village’s 32-member UPC unit, which Ntang heads.
“Felicitas Ntang is a very good woman with a wonderful heart,” he says. “She usually sacrifices her personal pleasures to support others.”
He thinks Ntang deserves the honor she has requested.
“Ntang is not only a freedom fighter, she is also a woman,” he says. “It is for this reason that she should be recognized as a woman who went to the battlefield with other men for the good of Cameroon.”
Today, Ntang advocates unity between Cameroon’s Anglophone and Francophone regions, which have yet to fully integrate since the French-British colonial period ended.
Ntang regularly talks to the community and UPC members about the importance of a united Cameroon.
Ntang, an Anglophone, has rebuffed invitations to join Anglophone secessionist groups.
“I fought for Cameroon to become one independent country,” she says. “We were all brothers and sisters before the UN divided us between France and Britain. We fought to become one and independent again. Why would people fight to separate Cameroon?”
Dialogue should be the watchword in Cameroon, Ntang says.
“If you are not happy about the present state of Cameroon, bring your problem to the table so that it can be solved,” she says. “The Anglophone problem can be solved if we start to look at ourselves as brothers and sisters, rather than as Francophones and Anglophones.”
Ntang’s words of unity are inspiring, says Chantal Neng, who works for the Ngoketunjia divisional delegation of the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family. Ntang’s village is in the Ngoketunjia division of the Northwest region.
“She is a very patriotic Cameroonian, and she would encourage everyone she meets to love Cameroon the way she does,” Neng says.
As the only veteran female Maquis living in the Northwest region, Ntang deserves special respect, Neng says.
Not everyone supports special honors for Maquis veterans.
“Seriously?” asks Roland Mujang, 63, a businessman who trades clothing in Bamenda. “Would a member of the deadly Maquisard movement ask for recognition? Does she want to be recognized for killing people or for causing scare during that period?”
Mujang objects to glorifying war.
“Except I am getting something wrong – which I don’t think I am – war, violence, killing has never been a good thing,” he says. “Those who perpetrate all those should not be encouraged, else we lose the essence of peace itself.”
Mujang says he believes in resolving conflict through peaceful negotiations rather than violence.
Ntang’s petition has official backing, however.
Judy Ngweh, the Northwest regional delegate of the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, documented Ntang’s story in September 2014 and forwarded it to the ministry’s head in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, with her recommendation that Ntang receive a formal award.
“For several years, I have heard Ntang’s story about her contribution towards Cameroon’s independence, and I think she deserves recognition,” Ngweh says.
This is the first time Ngweh has proposed an award of this kind for a woman.
“Madam Felicitas Ntang’s award may have taken too long to come, but it must surely come,” Ngweh says.
GPJ asked the ministry to comment on the request, but it did not respond in time for publication.
If the ministry chooses not to recognize Ntang, life will go on, she says. She will remain loyal to the UPC and continue to run the party’s Babessi activities using her meager income.
But recognition would be a lot better.
“I contributed in the struggle for Cameroon’s independence, and I think I should be recognized for that,” she says. “I am not forcing the government to give me an award. I am only pleading with them to recognize me before I die.”
Nakinti Nofuru, GPJ, translated one interview from pidgin English.