The highly awaited and undisputed upcoming African classic literature ‘BITÉK, He From Whom Death Ran’ by Cameroonian author, Massocki Ma Massocki, and which will be released on the first of September was reviewed and featured on the Daily Info, a magazine of the University of Oxford in England, United Kingdom.
The review titled ‘ A Ballad of Ancestry’ was authored by Natty Mark Samuels, founder of the African School in England, a cultural and educational project that provides education in African studies to the general community, focusing on pre-colonial sub-Saharan societies.
A Ballad of Ancestry
©Natty Mark Samuels, 2021. African School.
When last did you read a book that you couldn’t put down? It happened to me the other day. I began it on the coach to London, continued on the underground, only pausing when I got to my sisters, near the Arsenal stadium. I resumed after the visit; from Holloway tube to Marble Arch, then on the return journey to Oxford, during which I finished the book.
It reads like an elongated folk tale – a ballad of ancestry – because the writer of the book, Massocki Ma Massocki, is a master story teller. He tells the saga of his grandfather, as told to him by his father. And when we talk of Cameroon, we tend to focus on the Bamun, Fulani or Bamileke; Massocki introduces us to the Basaa, who speak of a shrine called Ngog Lituba.
The story of his grandfather begins in 1882, with the sunrise blessing of his birth, by a Mbombog – elder priest – with water from the river, chosen herbs and a kola nut. His grandfather was named ‘Bitek, which means soil, because Bitek will save his village.’ He grows up. During the day, he learns the skills of life, such as hunting; of traps and stealth and around the evening fire, he learns the beauty of heritage. We hear wisdom from the Mbombog, in such sayings as ”Oh, young men. You may walk faster than the old, but you do not know the way;’ and ‘A seated elder sees farther than a standing young man.’
We hear of life as a refugee after colonial intrusion; his time of circumcision, a totem of heritage. At this encounter with the wrestlers, he is told ”We are because our ancestors were; we are the continuity of our ancestors…” and ”Circumcision is also about courage. Courage is not the absence of fear, but its mastery and control. At your birth, Gambi, the oracle, said that you would save the Ndog Mbog village from the hands of its enemies. How can you do that without courage?”
It is as a young man that we encounter the first incident that gives us the subtitle of the book – ‘Bitek: He From Whom Death Ran.’ He escapes death after a necessary exit from the village, after the chief finds out about his love affair with one of his wives, Kindap. She tells him ”I never gave my virginity to any man. The chief took it by force….The chief rules over our land, but you rule over my heart.”
One of the most beautiful passages in the book, is the imminent arrest of Mbombog Som and the passing on of the role to his son. There is a meeting at the grave of his father, in the presence of other elder priests. The blessings of kola nut and palm wine, spewed from the mouth of the father onto the face of the son and from the mouths of the other Mbombogs also. Handing him the bag of ancestral relics, his father says ”From now on, you are Mbombog. This bag is evidence that you are now the custodian of tradition”
Echoing that sentiment, the other nine patriarchs respond with ”There is no objection. Neither ancestors nor the living opposes your enthronement.”
Leaving the village, he begins a wandering life; first reaching Douala, then crossing into Nigeria, living in Port Harcourt. After time on the street, he is employed as a ‘doorman and gardener, ‘ where he meets Amadi, who will become his wife. Through her, we get a little insight into the beliefs of the Igbo people, who have given us such pioneering artists as Uche Okeke and Ben Enwonwu.
She tells Bitek, after giving him a gift of food ” It is pounded yam and egusi soup, my people’s favourite food. For us Igbo people, yam is sacred. It was given to us by Chukwu, our most powerful spirit. Each year, across Igboland, we celebrate Iri Ji Ohuru, the Yam Festival.” It was during a Yam Festival, that a decree of death was passed on Bitek: once again he escaped. With the help of his employer, he takes his family with him, as far as the Nigerian/Cameroonian border.
In a farewell talk to his children he states ‘‘We are like trees and tradition is our roots. You cut your roots and you die….Ancestors are the living dead. One who rejects his tradition blinds himself. Only a fool pierces his eyes.” and ”No one but the historian tells the history and the historian of tradition is no one but the patriarch, Mbombog.”
Amidst a tearful parting, after promising to return, he steps over the border into Cameroon. After nearly twenty years, our hero returns to his village. As one who has escaped death on two occasions, he carries no fear within him. The chief, now an old man, as Bitek is ageing, offers him a kola nut, saying ”Sharing this kola nut with you means that I have forgiven you. No matter how the teeth and tongue fight, they always forgive each other. Because they both know that the mouth is their only home”
He joins a local congregation of the Presbyterian belief, as a way to deflect colonial friction. Once under German control, they are now under the French. The Death Cheater marries a member of the church and they have twelve children together. And this is where the father of the author of this book first appears, for in 1953, Bias gives birth to their last child, named Massocki, meaning ‘the last one.”
We hear of the Independence struggle and a man called Ruben Um Nyobe, as elsewhere we heard of Kwame Nkrumah. And we hear of the maquisards also, as we heard of the maroons of the Caribbean. They buried one of the leaders, Manyanong, as the Blue Mountain residents buried Nanny Maroon. And as with any war, there are murmurings and factions. The colonial forces wanted to know where the rebel leader had been interred, but none would say, so torture and death began. One villager said
”The grave of Manyonong is a symbol of human dignity and resistance against humiliation, oppression, repression, colonialism and neocolonialism….Let them kill us all and at least our children will know what we lived and died for…” Now an old man, Bitek counteracted with ”Alive, we will teach our children about courage better than with bodies.”
Knowing that he would be targeted by the rebels, but intent on stopping the torture and death of his fellow villagers, he tells the French where the leader is buried. The whole village is happy and they eulogized him. He stands strong during the ensuing interrogation by the forest fighters and his life is spared, once again.
Living in poverty, losing his eyesight in his late sixties and blind by the early seventies, the saga ends with a conversation with his son – the father of the author – as he senses death is drawing near. After these words are spoken, he dies in the arms of his son: it is 1978 and he is 96. ”Those who only have eyes to see are the truly blind. Ancestors are the eyes of the living. They reveal themselves to whoever they want and show what they want whenever and in whatever way. Indeed, the soul belongs to ancestors and the body to the world. He who runs in every man perishes his life, just as the soul that runs in all souls perishes its spirit. I return to Ngok Lituba and I do not fear death, as the staff of ancestors guides and protects me.”
Because of this book, I had one of my best ever journeys on public transport: between Oxford and London and the return. Creating a brilliant fusion of narrative, speech and chant, Massocki Ma Massocki celebrates ancient monotheism, ancestral protection and the great tradition of African storytelling.
©Natty Mark Samuels, 2021. African School.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Massocki Ma Massocki is a Cameroonian freelance writer, author, speaker and activist aligned to pan-Africanism.
Massocki writes for digital and print news media and regional and international organizations.
His first book, ‘ The Pride of an African Migrant’ was published in 2020 by Pierced Rock Press.
Massocki currently resides in the Philippines in South East Asia, where he is recognized as a refugee under the United Nations 1951 Geneva Convention.
PIERCED ROCK PRESS TO GIVE AWAY FREE COPIES OF ITS HIGHLY AWAITED BOOK
Independent African publisher Pierced Rock Press is pleased to giveaway 10 copies of its highly anticipated, undisputed upcoming classic African literature ” BITÉK, He From Whom Death Ran” by Massocki Ma Massocki, which will be released on September 1st.
The giveaway will take place on the American social cataloging website (Goodreads.com) from Saturday, July 31 at 12:00 am PT to Monday, August 30 at 11:59pm PT and is exclusively limited to United States Goodreads members.
Winners will be randomly selected by the American social cataloging website.
Lucky winners will receive the book within 10 business days after the giveaway ends.
Good luck to all entrants