The Ninth of May
Europe celebrates the 8th of May as the end of World War II. In a small town in Cameroon the Batanga tribe celebrates the Ninth of May, the day that marks their return from exile at the end of World War I, more than a hundred years ago.
When World War I began, Kamerun was a German colony. The colony was named after the abundant fresh water shrimp, called camarao by the early Portuguese explorers, to be found in its rivers. The Germans had built a big port at Douala and an administrative capital at Yaoundé. Along the southern coast there was a small town called Kribi with a lighthouse, a church and a prison. The Batanga of Kribi were fishermen, living in villages under the tall coconut trees. They went to sea in dugout canoes and sometimes brought back sharks as big or bigger than their canoes. They were proud people who had converted to Christianity early. Some of them were educated and there was even a pastor who had studied in the United States. They looked down on the neighbouring, “pagan” tribes. They were not interested in working in the German coffee plantations because they could satisfy all their needs by fishing. Finding them difficult to govern, the German authorities had had their traditional chief hanged.
One day two large ships flying British flags anchored outside the port of Kribi. They were too large to dock, but began bombarding the German buildings and were preparing to ferry soldiers to shore. The world war had come to Kribi. The German force was too small to resist and decided to retreat into the interior, towards Ebolowa.
When the British marines landed, they were greeted with open arms by the local population, who saw them as liberators. Unfortunately, the Germans had been able to summon more soldiers and were soon returning to retake the town, considering it too strategic to abandon. Kribi controlled the only road that led into southern Kamerun.
Realizing that they were not numerous enough to hold their position against the German reinforcements, the British decided to retreat. When the Batangas learned that their hated masters were returning there was a general panic. Their chief had already been hanged. Everyone was convinced that the German soldiers would massacre the entire population for having welcomed the British to their town so enthusiastically. They pleaded with the British naval officer, Captain Taylor, to let them board the ships. He agreed to carry them to the western part of Cameroon where they would be safe from German reprisals.
The fishermen had their own canoes and were able to paddle their families out to the British ships. Those who didn’t have a canoe swam. Louis Ngandé was about eleven years old and he told of going to the ship astraddle a broken piece of an old canoe, all he could find. The Batanga were using anything that floated to get them to safety. Today when they tell the story, they sing in English, “Taylor, wait for me.” The tradition is that all the Batangas, men, women and children, re-enact the scene every ninth of May, singing “Taylor, wait for me”, as they wade into the sea. They say that if you bathe in the sea on that day, you will not drown during the year.
There are many oral traditions dating from the day the Batangas left their home and were carried into exile. They tell about the pastor who refused to go with the others who were being herded by the sailors into the hold. “I’m a pastor!” he said indignantly in excellent English. Captain Taylor replied, “Today, even if you were Jesus Christ, you would go into the hold.”
The Batanga refugees were taken to what is now West Cameroon and put into a camp. They were in a strange land, surrounded by people who did not speak their language and there was not enough food. They suffered and some died, far from their homeland.
At the end of the war Kamerun was divided into West Cameroon, which became a British colony, and East Cameroun, which became a French colony. Transportation was organized for the Batangas once the Germans had permanently left the area. On the ninth of May, 1916, they landed on the beach they had been forced to abandon. Ever since they celebrate their homecoming each year with a parade, dances, banquets, festivities and an “opera” where they enact the scenes of their exile, remembering many dialogs that their grandparents or great-grandparents told them about word for word, preserving the event in the memory of new generations.