It surprises me that I always seem to find words of gratitude for people only when they are no longer with us; when they have, as we Catholics say, gone ahead of us marked with the sign of faith. It is only then that my heart, mind, and lungs pour out of my trembling lips words soaked in tears and wrapped in long moments of silence, interspersed with sighs and much headshaking. Today, however, I have decided to sing the praises of a man who is still very much alive, and to whom I owe a well-nourished debt of gratitude.
Whenever I take a respite from the hectic and often frenzied life I live in Douala to peer down the winding path I have travelled over the past forty years or more, I see Professor Daniel Noni Lantum, Emeritus Professor of Public Health of the University of Yaounde School of Medicine, also known by his Nso traditional title as Shuufaay wo Bastos, holding up a torchlight to guide my steps, especially in the early years of my adult life. And for that, I want to let him know I’m grateful. He has long retired from active academic life and lives peacefully in his home in the neighbourhood of Bastos in Yaounde, Cameroon’s political capital.
I will let the waves at memory beach wash back to 1976. That was my last year at the University of Yaounde. We had just finished our degree exam and were waiting for the results. For my friends and me, it was a period of uneasy recess in which we loitered about aimlessly, occasionally making forays into neighbourhoods of low repute, with their bulging, rowdy bars where clients in varying stages of drunkenness mingled freely with women of light virtues, clad in see-through dresses, mouthing obscenities and occasionally lifting their skirts to expose their wares to admiring audiences. As they squeezed their propped up bosoms against you in those crowded bars, you would even feel the smart ones skillfully searching your pockets for some cash. That is why it was always prudent to hide your wallet in your socks for it could be snatched out of your back pocket within a twinkle of an eye.
The next day, we would then kill the boredom of waiting by sitting around in groups and comparing notes about the conquests of the previous evening. We were, for the most part, in our mid twenties and constantly in heat, and whorehouses were an irresistible attraction that served as a release valve for the pent up stress of waiting for the results of the exams.
Come to my office
I remember running into Professor Lantum one afternoon as I was leaving the Department of African and Afro-American Studies where Professor Bernard Nsokika Fonlon, of glorious memory, had, for several decades, hoisted the flag of academic excellence that was sticking out like a sore thumb from amidst the chaos of mediocrity that characterized the other departments. After the habitual exchanges of civilities, he asked me about my studies. I told him I had just written my degree exams and was expecting the results any day. He then asked me to come to his office the next day. What time? I asked. Ten o’clock. It’s a deal, I said. His office was located at the then University Center for Health Sciences, more commonly known by its French acronym, CUSS.
Ten o’clock the next day, my trembling hand gave a weak knock on his office door. Without even caring to look up, his secretary grunted: “What do you want?” I told her I had an appointment with the Professor. Could she tell him I was already around, please? I expected her to ask me to identify myself, but she kept her nose buried in her typewriter. Since she did not care to even look at me, I began to scrutinize her. Boy, did she have one hell of a generous bosom! She must have felt my eyes ‘undressing’ her for she suddenly looked up and asked aggressively: “Do you want to take my picture, or what?” I quickly said I was sorry. That Ewondo woman could be trouble; she could start a scene and there would be no end to it. Their reputation for picking quarrels at the drop of a hat follows them like the tail following a dog. But, I still couldn’t get the picture of that well-nourished bosom off my mind. “You better watch it boy,” I said to myself. “You could leave this office with a split skull from that lady’s shoe!”
Show me your talent
Shortly thereafter, Professor Lantum, who was in the neighbouring office, came in, greeted me and ushered me into his office. Walking past his secretary, I couldn’t help taking another quick look at her well endowed chest – what a generous gift from nature!
As soon as we sat down, the Professor picked up a bunch of documents from the shelf behind his desk and handed them to me: “How soon do you think you can translate those for me? I’ve just finished a seminar/workshop on traditional medicine and I want the proceedings in English and French.” Heavens above! Was he really asking me to translate that bunch of documents into English? I hadn’t even suspected why he had called me to his office in the first place. Even though I was in a bilingual degree program and translation was one of my subjects, I hadn’t expected to be so openly challenged to show how skillful I was in fondling our two official languages – English and French -- just a few months shy of a bilingual degree! Had it been a slim document of a few pages, I could’ve told him I would try to get it back to him in a day or two. Here I was, holding a pile of documents that must have weighed a ton, or more, and being asked to give a deadline for translating them! Lord, have mercy! I frankly didn’t know what to say.
Professor Lantum saw my hesitation and embarrassment and decided to come to my rescue. “Listen,” he said, placing a reassuring hand on my trembling shoulder, “take a look at them and get to work immediately. I will be here to help and guide you. I know you’ve never done this type of work before, but you’ve chosen this field and I want you to excel in it. Come with me.” He led the way to his secretariat, where his secretary was now loudly chatting with a friend, who’d dropped in for a visit. “This is your desk. That is a bilingual dictionary over there; I know you’ll need it. Get to work immediately and we’ll see how far you can go before the end of the day. My secretary will give you some paper. Good luck!” And with that, he turned his back on me and went straight back into his office. As I took a seat, I saw the two ladies whispering something to each other and eyeing me from head to toe. I decided to ignore them with a royal disdain.
Meeting traditional healers
As I browsed through those piles of mainly hand-written scripts, it became clear to me that I was about to face my baptism of fire in the field of translation. In later years, I would spend lonely moments in Madrid, Paris, Washington DC, and Edmonton, Canada, in hot pursuit of excellence in that field. Today, nearly forty years later, I still remember vividly that it all began that first day in Professor Lantum’s office. I cannot count how many documents I have since translated; documents of varying lengths and complexity, from nine months poring over boring government bla! bla! bla! at the Economic and Social Council in Yaounde, to well over twenty years wallowing in the overwhelmingly intricate world of the oil industry in an American oil company in Douala; not to mention tons of religious documents that have passed through my fingers during all these years I have collaborated closely with His Eminence Christian Cardinal Tumi, the Archbishop Emeritus of the Douala Archdiocese. You name them, I have pored over them. I have also facilitated understanding in conferences from the interpreter’s booth around the globe, but I’ve never forgotten that it all began in Professor Lantum’s office in Yaounde in June or July of the year of our Lord 1976.
The fascinating world of ngambe men
Professor Lantum introduced me to the fascinating world of traditional medicine, which is what all those documents were about. Through his persistent effort, the Ministry of Public Health began a census of traditional healers in Cameroon, under his leadership. I met many of them in the Professor’s office from every corner of the Republic. The list of the diseases each of them claimed to treat ran into several dozens. A few of them were from my part of the country. One of them, in particular, was from my village and listed nearly forty diseases he claimed he could cure, the majority of them being sex-related. Had HIV-AIDS been in the news in those days, I’m sure he would’ve had it on his list as well. He probably does now for he is said to be still going strong in that field.
On minister’s payroll
This traditional healer once told me a fascinating story, hard to verify, about someone who was then a minister in the Ahidjo government, whom, he claimed, had put him on his payroll. Why? “Don’t you know that the man’s wife had abandoned him?” That was news to me. And why would she do that to the poor man? I inquired. “You know women. That man’s enemies had rendered his weewee a mere stunted growth between his legs, good only for passing out water. When he consulted me, I merely touched it with this stick,” he showed me a short wooden stick entirely covered with animal skin. “Yes, when this stick touched his baabaa, it immediately stood at attention and the man had to rush to Briqueterie where as many as three women joined forces to help him quell it down. From that day, I’ve become his worker. He pays me whenever I ask him for money. Don’t you know that he now has a new wife, young and plumb? It’s thanks to me!” he said, smiling proudly. You talk of the violation of medical ethics! How could a man who claimed to be a medical doctor so openly discuss his patient’s medical record? I wondered. Luckily for me, I didn’t need any assistance in that domain. He would perhaps have tried his magic stick on me too.
I heard all kinds of stories from those traditional healers, one as fascinating as the other. Be they men or women, they all claimed to perform miracles, especially in below-the-navel activities. I recall an encounter I had with one of them in the Professor’s office. He said he was from Ebolowa. He came trailing behind him a relatively young and nice-looking girl carrying a bag I assumed contained some medicinal herbs. I asked him what his specialty was. He looked around to make sure no one was looking and then made a gesture with his right hand which carried the weight of obscenity. He then leaned towards me and asked to know the last time I had gone with a woman. Without even waiting for an answer, he beckoned his companion to give him the bag she was carrying. Opening it, he pulled out a small bottle with a white powdery substance in it. “All you need to do is sprinkle this in the direction of the woman you want, and she’ll follow you like a sheep,” he said with a knowing wink. I took the bottle from him, scrutinized it for a minute and then turned round to look at his companion. He looked up in surprise, rightly guessing what I had in mind, and quickly seized the bottle from me, screaming with laughter and shaking his head disapprovingly: “No, no, not with her! You’re a dangerous man. If you buy it from me, you have to go to someone else, not her!” With that, he led his companion out of the office, and I could hear him telling her how dangerous the young men in the capital city are. I never saw him again.
My confidence swells
A few days into my translation work with Professor Lantum, my confidence started to swell and bubble over. What I had at first thought I couldn’t do, I was now doing well, and loving it. In fact, I began to churn out several pages of hand-written translation that the Professor’s secretary could not handle, complaining that my translation was making her neglect the office work for which she was employed. If I remember well, the Professor had to hire the services of a temporary secretary with whom I worked well.
My first salary
The most memorable part of the work I did for Professor Lantum was the pay I received at the end of the month. A month after I had been working for him, he called me into his office and handed me an envelope. When he saw how confused I was, he said: “That’s your pay. You’ve done commendable work for me and I’m glad I hired you.” I wondered if he saw how much my hands trembled as I held onto that envelope. I didn’t frankly know what to say or do. He and I hadn’t even discussed how much he was to pay me and if he had given me anything I would still have been happy. But for him to give me 50.000 francs was simply unbelievable. 50.000 francs in 1976 must be worth 500.000 francs today!
That was my first salary ever and I think I’ll remember the effect it had on me till I die. I have since earned good sums of money as salary. When I worked for the oil industry, my salary hit seven digits, not counting the bonuses we received for one thing or another, but no amount I’ve earned has had as much an effect on me as my first salary from Professor Lantum. I think I did shed a tear and my voice broke as I thanked him.
I remember clutching that envelope in my trembling hands and heading for Melen where my brother, Kenjo, and his family lived. I showed it to him and told him Professor Lantum had paid me for the work I’d been doing for him. My brother shared my joy and said he had always known Dr. Dan to be a good man. He always called Professor Lantum, Doctor Dan, as did, and still do, many people who are close to him.
In Part Two, I will talk about my departure for Madrid, Spain.