Human Interest/Society

Civil Marriage Celebrations: Widening the linguistic Divide in Cameroon

The past four years have heightened the language divide in Cameroon, with the gulf between the English-speaking and French-speaking sections of the country significantly amplified.

In addition to the many political arguments provided to explain the feeling of marginalisation expressed by Anglophones for many decades, there are other socio-cultural issues that have also reared their ugly heads. One of the areas that systemic social injustices seem to prevail is the current conduct of civil marriages east of the Mungo.

Many Anglophones who have had the ignominy of conducting their marriage in some parts of Cameroon have a sad story to tell.

A wedding day shattered
That moment when he was asked out of the Yaoundé III council building by the mayor, in the presence of his family members, is the main image that Nkah Rogers holds of the civil marriage ceremony of his brother.

“Everything was in French and the couple themselves were only struggling to understand French, but without success. The legal text about marriage was read entirely in French”

Rogers said.

“At a certain moment, people started grumbling in the hall, that they were not understanding, but the mayor continued as if there was nothing wrong, until the eldest man of the family stood up to tell the mayor that the family were not following the ceremony being conducted in French.

The mayor in a rather cavalier manner told them to make an effort. When I stood up to suggest English language, or that an interpreter be used for English-speaking couples especially when it comes to reading the legal text about marriage, the mayor asked me out of the hall,” Rogers recounted.

The civil marriage ceremony that took place in late July 2020 at the Yaoundé III council went bitter, not only for Roger, but for their parents and family members who braved smoking guns, rampant killings and bad roads, from the enclaved war-torn Anglophone North West Region of Cameroon to be part of the civil union.

They will become frustrated and disappointed by the decision of the civil executive for Yaoundé III council, to conduct the marriage in the French language, in disregard to English which is the first language of the couple and family.

The Anglophone family felt cheated especially as nothing could be understood from the French-speaking municipal executive official.

Qualifying it as social injustice, Rogers, who is teacher in Douala, stood up to the mayor on behalf of the family, to object the choice of French language, which according to him, has left their parents lost in the midst of the ceremony.

His concern unfortunately earned him a chase out of the council ceremonial hall by the mayor who told him that, they were not the first Anglophones to perform their civil marriage rituals at the council. The mayor according to him, said Anglophones have always had their marriages officiated in French there.

Speaking to Mimi Mefo Infos, Rogers imagined a marriage when couples are told what the law says about marriage, in a language they do not understand. He thinks many Anglophones go through that ‘injustice’ on a daily basis in many facets of their lives such that it is almost convinced as ‘normality’.

The case of French-speaking couples in Anglophone regions

To Better understand the legality of the choice of language of the mayor, MMI tried without success to get to him. Speaking to the mayor of the Bamenda III council on what obtains in a similar situation west of the Mungo, when couples are French-speaking, Mayor Fongu Cletus Tanwie says English, as the first official language west of the Mungo, often times takes precedence.

“When you choose to conduct your marriage in Bamenda III for example, what you should keep in mind is the fact that the first language of the municipal executive is English”

Mayor Fongu clarified.

“The use of French in any marriage here is only possible, when the civil magistrate can understand and speaks French” the Mayor reiterated.

To the Mayor, couples should always take into consideration the first official language of the Council executive, while deciding whether to conduct their civil marriages east or west of the Mungo.

The Mayor of Bamenda III however, says his council sometimes make use of interpreters, and/or pidgin language depending on the request of the couple.

What does the law say?

To understand what the Cameroonian law provides for, in this context, MMI sought the opinion of Barrister Richard Tamfu, a member of the Cameroon Bar and of the Nigerian Bar, based in Douala, Cameroon.

To the legal luminary, the law demands mayors to use any of the official languages in Cameroon, French or English in conducting civil marriages.

“The choice of French over English is legally dependent on the municipal official concerned”

Barrister Tamfu added.

The Barrister however regretted that a long-awaited Family Bill which would have clearly addressed all these issues, is still pending tabling, at the National Assembly.

While related concerns of social injustice suffered by English-speaking Cameroonians, is the reason why the Anglophone crisis persists, MMI, found that far from being simply a matter of marginalisation, the issue of dual language presented a challenge that ought to have received more cogent attention. The discomfort of Anglophones with the Francophone dominance in every sphere of life within the country, is probably responsible for the feeling of dissonance expressed by Roger and his family at their ceremony.

Civil law Vs Common law
Placing the common and civil law systems in this conflicting context, Barrister Tamfu says the law regulating marriages in Cameroon, is Ordinance No. 81, which is the harmonisation of both systems since 1981. What this implies is that at the level of the law, efforts have long been made to find middle ground between the two systems, as far as marriage ceremonies are concerned.

However, the experience of Roger’s family and the views expressed by the Mayor of Bamenda III and Barrister Tamfu, confirm that the practical interpretation of the law leaves much to be desired.

Could Misunderstanding be avoided?

Within the prevailing situation, one wonders if a misunderstanding such as what ensued in the Yaoundé III council could have been averted. In the absence of an interpreter, and the inability of the Mayor to speak English, what was the other alternative that could have made the wedding Anglophone entourage feel at home in Yaoundé?

A civil society leader and a prominent Anglophone voice, Dr Nick Ngwanyam says the problem is with the Yaoundé III Council Mayor’s attitude which leads him to conclude that the Mayor “is an uneducated idiot” though literate. Dr Ngwanyam says the mayor lacks emotional intelligence which would have permitted him to better manage the situation.

“Such intelligence warrants an official to understand that the language he has chosen, is not doing effective communication, irrespective of the context or situation” Dr Ngwanyam opines.

Dr Ngwanyam goes on to add that

“the problem is not with the president or the laws, but with these uneducated natives who misuse power at their deferent levels, just like a priest delivering a message and not minding the language in which it is delivered “.

Dr Ngwanyam

Dr Ngwanyam fears that such problems are recurrent in Cameroon and might continue if “uneducated literates” are not educated on how to manage the diverse population that makes up the Cameroonian polity.

Given that the ongoing crisis has forced and continues to necessitate many English-speaking Cameroonians to seek refuge within the French sections of the country, it is the sad reality that many older persons for whom it might be too late in the day to learn French, have very little choice.

While the French-speaking Cameroonians in the Anglophone regions can opt to travel and conduct their marriage in a council where the language is that which they understand and are comfortable with, the same cannot be said of Anglophone families who have been condemned by conflict to stay away from the comfort zones.

For many families such as that of Rogers Nkah, it seems there is currently very little alternative, than to attend their own marriages, where there are ‘strangers’ who are spoken at, without being communicated to.

Mimi Mefo Info