Mbella Sonne Dipoko

Cameroun Famous People


Mbella Sonne Dipoko


Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:

Mbella Sonne Dipoko, one of the leading first generation Cameroonian writers and, without doubt, the most internationally recognized Anglophone writer.

It was in France that he began making a name for himself as a leading African writer and poet with critically acclaimed poems, short stories and other literary pieces in journals such as Black Orpheus, Transition and Presence Africaine. His plays were also broadcast over the BBC and published in a number of anthologies.

Dipoko died on December 5, 2009 in his hometown of Tiko. His death not only leaves a huge void on the Cameroonian literary landscape, but also marks the end of a most storied and colorful life that began 73 years ago on the banks of the River Mungo and continued through the Southern Cameroons, Nigeria, Europe and then back to the banks of the Mungo.

Dipoko began writing very early on in his life. In 1960, he left for France at age 24, after a brief stint as an accounts clerk with the Cameroon Development Corporation and a news reporter for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.

It was in France that he began making a name for himself as a leading African writer and poet with critically acclaimed poems, short stories and other literary pieces in journals such as Black Orpheus, Transition and Presence Africaine. His plays were also broadcast over the BBC and published in a number of anthologies.

In 1966, he published his first full length novel, “A few Nights and Days” set in Paris. This was followed by “Because of Women” in 1969, set on the banks of the river Mungo, and then Black and White in Love (1970), a collection of poems that chronicled his decade-long “exile”, with the title poem being about "a Bohemian stint of wandering around Europe and Morocco by bike, bus, train and hitchhiking with a girl from San Francisco."(Morsberger, 1973: 814)

Dipoko’s literary portfolio consisted of works that alternated between Afrocentric militancy and an overt and unapologetic sexuality unheard of among African writers of his time – a sexuality which disconcerted, intrigued and even infuriated both Africans and Westerners alike. In fact, Heinemann was initially reluctant to publish A Few Nights and Days in its prestigious African Writers Series because it deemed the novel too erotic and un-African.

Many European and American critics found it difficult to wrap their minds around the novel which departed from the standard African literary fare “about solid tribal wisdom, ghoulish rituals and the inscrutable cruelty of colonialism-not to mention the inclusion of semi-profound proverbs and the utterances of very old men with dry skin and wizened faces“ (Paul Theroux, 1966: 52). As one often quoted passage in Theroux’s review of A few nights and days states :

“No African novel has described copulation in such feminine terms as Mr. Dipoko`s. It is not only a feminine novel written by a man, it is also a novel with a country; that is, France. An African novel about France? No. A French novel about France by a man who writes like a European woman.” (p.52)

Dipoko’s next two books – especially Because of Women with its “scenes of ecstatic love-making“ (Morsberger, 1970: 353) – were alternatively panned and praised for their eroticism. The sexual undertones of Dipoko’s writings largely defined him as a writer and shaped public perception of him for the next four decades – a perception which was not too far from the truth. As he recalled in a May 1990 interview with Cameroon Life:

“I became for many years, what you might call a traveling lover, a dreamer searching for God between the women’s thighs – those days when I was at the height of my intimate powers. You had to see me! I was like an angel stuffing recoilless erections into just where they are most needed – into the fleshy folds of winter! But I did it with rosy summers too.”

Nonetheless, it will be very simplistic and even incorrect to define Mbella Sonne Dipoko solely through the prism of sex and sexuality, for, he was still an engaged writer, even to his last days and to his last poem; one who inspired an entire generation of Cameroonians and Africans with his militant poems. His militancy also came through, among other things, in his legendary disdain for Senghor’s Negritude. As he stated in West Africa magazine in 1971, Negritude was "reactionary, rightwing, irrelevant... [and] absolutely incapable of re-instating the oppressed and exploited Black man in his rightful place in the world" (Dipoko, West Africa 8 Oct. 1971: 1174 cited in Feuser, 1988: 562).

Moesberger 1973: 814-15) does a good job in summing up Dipoko’s literary persona when he points out that: Thus the poet, ‘kissing across the color line,’ brash, hip and embracing the European counterculture, is a paradoxical champion of his African childhood and a foe of Westernization.

Dipoko did not produce any major work after Black and white in Love even though he continued to write poetry, short stories, plays and literary criticism in French and English. His most popular poems also continued to appear in numerous anthologies, the most popular being `Our History (To Precolonial Africa)` which is still widely used in many literature departments in the West.

After a quarter of a century in the West, Mbella Sonne Dipoko returned home in 1985 to his native Misaka in Tiko sub-division in Fako division a different man; the Bohemian who found “God between the women’s thighs” while traveling across Europe, came back as a very spiritual man with a new afro-centric faith called Esimo ya Mboka, of which he was the Chief Priest.

He took up farming and fishing, led an ascetic life and shunned most vestiges of the West which he had so readily embraced in his early life (Wache, 2009). He was always a sight to behold with his overflowing beard, his simple white shirt, and his sanja or traditional loin always matched with either a pair of slippers or sandals.

Cameroonians took a long time getting used to, let alone warming up to Dipoko’s eccentric, or “mystic look” as the government daily, Cameroon Tribune (2009) described it. Some even claimed that Dipoko was insane. “They don’t want the beard. They don’t want my look. They are damned scared. They are just philistines who are afraid of originality. They wish to be caricatures of Europeans,” he lamented in his Cameroon Life interview.

By 1990, Cameroon, like the rest of Africa, was swept by calls for a more liberal political landscape and the reinstitution of multiparty politics. Dipoko, who unlike other Cameroonian writers in exile, had shunned political activism because “it really is not courage when one can only shout invectives from the safe distance of exile,” quickly made his position on the new or emerging political dispensation known. In an article titled “The New Politics” which was serialized in Cameroon Life (it was described by some as his political manifesto), Dipoko condemned the excesses and failures of the Biya regime and warned the public not to be taken in by the unrealistic promises and holier-than-thou attitude of the budding opposition, and insisted that salvation would come only from a new African spirituality.