Tag Archives: Cameroon

Mandela, Cameroon, and me

sd-prince copyWhen I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon on September 15, 1994 for a scholarship year, His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had been President for four months. As South Africa’s first black President, Mandela finally possessed a political power on a national stage to match his outsized moral authority.

I was grappling with how to fit in a completely different culture. My French was pretty good, but there was a lot of Cameroonian slang. I’d jump in a taxi, tell the taximan “Poste Centrale,” pay my 100 CFA (18 cents), and then amble through downtown Yaoundé. I was the only white person for thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Everywhere I walked, children stared. Adults took note.

It was a shock.

Meanwhile, everybody wanted to talk about Mandela. Cameroonians had followed his story as much or more than we Americans. After 27 years in prison, would he choose vengeance and spite? Or would he work for hope, reconciliation, and nation-building?

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After a month of trying to find my feet, I felt really at home in Cameroon. I started dreaming in French. I had new friends at the University, and was taking lessons on a traditional instrument, the “mvet,” from a local master, Noah Ondongo Generaud. I was forging what would become a life-long friendship with my housemate, Jean Paul Fosso.

As minorities go, I was privileged. My US passport gave me a freedom few people around me had. My bank account distinguished me from the masses. Even the color of my skin got me invitations to parties, and seats up front, near Ambassadors and the elite.

But there was a flip side. It’s strange not to be in the majority—to be a token, different, stared at for something so superficial as the color of your skin. The psycho-social effects of being a minority left a residue.

Today when I think of Mandela, I think of my year in Cameroon. The two are linked for me. I think of how Mandela influenced a continent even as he set an example for the world.

I think of life in Cameroon, my friends, and their lives there. Their enduring challenges are like those people face in the townships of South Africa.

I think of injustice and how people confront it: how people battle for progress on issues they care deeply about . . . climate change, gun safety, and gender equality.

I think my friend Vincent Pan, who today is in his 11th day of fasting for Immigration Reform. I think of Americans like him, who work in the spirit of Mandela. I think of how much I admire them.

I think of my democracy, which is slowly failing. Can Mandela’s example inspire Congress to pass laws that will give as many people as possible a leg up?

I think of my work as a filmmaker and how I might contribute better. I set out as a documentary filmmaker not only to try and entertain people, but also to change the world for the better. Looking back, Mandela took office 20 years ago. Looking forward, I’ll be 60 years old in 20 years . . . what can I do in that timeframe to make a difference?

Most of all, I think of Mandela himself—and the echoes of MLK and Gandhi. Had he chosen vengeance, we all would have understood. But he redefined justice. He elevated a people, and inspired the world. And me.

Volcanic Sprint on iTunes tomorrow!

Volc Sprint crew

Seven years ago last month, with both legs dangling out of an old African military helicopter, I trained my film camera down at small dots of racers during the world’s most extreme running race. The participants in the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope still had 25 miles and 10,000 vertical feet to go to reach the roof of West Africa. We screamed up the main drag from Molyko Stadium, spitting up red dirt above thatched-roof huts to Upper Farms with its thousands of joyous fans.

It was my first time directing a documentary. I had no cash. So I put everything on credit cards, hired a knowledgeable DP to head up filming, and then Dan Evans left Washington, DC to fly to Buea, Cameroon. Little did I know that it would go on to do well in film festivals, get distribution around the world, and remain to this day the only documentary that chronicles this extreme running race.

If you like documentary films or running, or appreciate projects that are really a wing-and-a-prayer, then spread the word about Volcanic Sprint.

Tomorrow, Volcanic Sprint goes live online, with its premiere on iTunes!

If you like documentary films or running, or appreciate projects that are really a wing-and-a-prayer, then spread the word about Volcanic Sprint. How can you help? Share the FB post that accompanies this blog post. Rate Volcanic Sprint on IMDB (we don’t have many ratings, and a few boneheads gave us 1 out of 10 ratings, so you can help counteract that . . . if you want!).

Watch the trailer here:

Check out the Volcanic Sprint website, where US endurance running legend Scott Jurek says: “Insurmountable challenges, true courage, a triumph of the human spirit. Inspiration for runner and non-runner alike!” US marathon record-holder Deena Kastor says, “This movie captures the competitiveness, danger, and heroism of the world’s most difficult marathon.” And 2009 NYC marathon champion Meb Keflezighi calls Volcanic Sprint “A wonderful movie that is uplifting and inspirational!”

 

Why is Africa Singing Scotland’s Praises?

I was in a color-correction session today for my first documentary feature, Volcanic Sprint, about Africa’s most grueling mountain race. And I noticed something. Before the race begins, the “Queen of the Mountain,” who is the defending female champion, is at risk of being disqualified. Amid rumors of a conspiracy, the Mayor of Buea speaks up: “Her supporters may interpret it as a kind of injustice done to her.” His words are calculated, yet visceral, and it’s clear he’s a fan as well. The scene helps establish the Queen as more than a sports star. An entire town is leaning on her. Then I noticed the Mayor’s baseball cap, which read: “Bank of Scotland.”

Why Scotland in Africa? Forest Whitaker truly deserved his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, a rough-hewn, focused story infused with documentary style. It is more enduring than the entertaining Blood Diamond. But why did Whitaker’s character, dictator Idi Amin grant himself the title “King of Scotland?” I thought I knew part of the answer. Colonized by the Brits, Uganda and Scotland share a common history. Then I encountered My Brutal Muse, a fascinating article by novelist Giles Foden who wrote the book upon which the movie was based. Foden called the mental roots of Amin’s behavior, “the psychological byproduct of his Oedipal relationship with the former colonial power.” When the Brits turned their backs on Amin, he “could sing Scotland’s praises and support its self-determination, while hating and hoping to split the UK.” So in quirky, and sometimes entertaining fashion, Amin was simply following the old adage of realpolitik: “My Enemy’s Enemy is My Friend” (which also happens to be the name of a forthcoming documentary film by the The Last King of Scotland’s director, Kevin MacDonald.

Now, back to Volcanic Sprint and the Mayor of Buea (located in the Southwest Province of Cameroon, also colonized by the British.) His “Bank of Scotland” hat. Was it an accident of overlapping cultures or political commentary? Or simply a stylish protection from the equatorial sun? I think not: in singing Scotland’s praises, one African mayor is doing more than just associating himself with a prosperous foreign bank. After a fashion, like Whitaker’s Amin, he’s invoking the swagger of Braveheart.