Samuel Calvin Gbetnkom

Some times, you discover a book that speaks to something that is so much bigger than what lies in its pages. Such is the case with From The Resilient Shadows, a bi-lingual translation of poetry originally written in Cameroon’s Bamum script by Samuel Calvin Gbetnkom. Though Bamum language is spoken by over 400,000 people, its script has been out of use for nearly a century. This collection of poetry is part of recent efforts to revive the script through archival work, as well as literary production.

Africa has a lot of writing systems. Some are indigenous like Nsibidi and Adinkra. Others were invented relatively recently. The Bamum script falls in the group of recently introduced writing systems. Bamum script was invented in 1896 by Ibrahim Njoya, who was king of Bamum at the time. He worked on the script for many years, believing that a script is important in recording the history of his people. By 1918, the Bamum script was type cast and usable for printing. But following the banning of the script by the French and the King of Bamum’s exile, it fell into disuse.

In recent times, there have been considerable efforts to revive the language. One of the scholars in the forefront of this revival is Gbetnkom, a poet and codicologist from Foumban, Cameroon where the Bamum script was invented. He has extensive knowledge of manuscripts written in Bamum, having worked on the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project.  As stated in the preface of the collection, Gbetnkom had a bigger vision for the script. He saw the creative possibility in using the Bamum script to produce literature. He wasn’t just content to study and archive manuscripts, which is important and necessary work. He also wanted to take the language further, to use it as a tool for creating work that captured diverse aspects of contemporary life.

The collection of poems translated in French and English was published by Athinkra and the Kasahorow Group in June 24, 2022. The editing was done by Andrij Rovenchak, a physicist working from his home in war-torn Lviv, Ukraine, and Charles L. Riley, a catalog librarian at Yale University Library. Also instrumental in the project are the efforts of Jason Glavy and Michael Everson who helped to encode the script into Unicode Standard so that it could be written on a computer.

There are 9 poems in the collection, written both in Bamum script and translations. The poems explore diverse aspects of the human experience, ranging from hope, love, time, and COVID-19. Meditating on the importance of the natural world, the poem “Mother nature” is an ode to all of the different ways the earth takes shape around us. The poem titled “Brotherhood” stresses the importance of our collective humanity. “Coronavirus” is a dirge, lamenting the loss of lives and the disruption brought about by the global pandemic. Notwithstanding, the collection is heart warming. While it addresses difficult experiences, it also ends on a hopeful note. Charles Riley, who co-edited the translation, told Brittle Paper in an email note that that he hopes the poems will inspire “thoughtfulness and concern.”

It is gratifying to see the passion of everyone involved in this project and inspiring to see a forgotten African writing system brought back to life. Gbetnkom’s collection is significant in the ways it enriches both African languages and African literature.

Buy From the Resilient Shadows (Lo’ tù lu lulùre pon ntièn) : Amazon