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Remembering Doctor Moses

Ted Johnson, May 1996

I arrived in Bali-Nyonga in February of 1992 to begin my assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer working with coffee cooperatives. "Doctor" Moses Ndasi Fokong was the first friend that I made. He became an important resource for information on music, culture, and art.

I recently received word of his death from his son Maxwell.

"Dr. Moses N. Fokong died on 12 March and was buried on 13 March 1996," wrote Maxwell*.

"During the burial the Minister of Culture was represented by the Delegate of Culture and a delegation of the North West artists. The delegate had this to say: 'We have lost a friend, a great man, a great artist, one of the fathers of Cameroonian music. His work and songs will always make us remember him, but it is a great loss for the nation.'

"On that day members of the former Cameroon Modern Jazz Orchestra were also around to pay their last respects to their leader."

Moses died from the illness he called "Titani". He was 59 years old.
Dr. Moses
This photograph appeared on a Bali-Nyonga
"who's who" poster published in 1990.

During my first year in Bali-Nyonga, I would meet with Moses nearly every day. He told me about his life and his rise and fall as a composer and performer of popular music. His career was stifled, he said, by a combination of the Titani and a series of personal betrayals against him. I also heard rumors and received warnings that he was not sane.

Being new to the culture, I wasn't familiar with what a "normal" person would act like. I only knew that Moses was articulate, creative, fascinating, and maybe a bit eccentric. I dismissed the stories of insanity as having come from a culture that stigmatized an illness. I reasoned that, since he treated Titani with Phenobarbital, it must be a type of Epilepsy—which is still misunderstood and stigmatized in American society. When I became more assimilated, my perception of his behavior improved. At the same time, the Titani was coming out of remission—affecting his health and lucidity.

The day I received word of Moses' death I was at my home in Arizona. I happened to be eating the first traditional Cameroonian meal I'd had in two years: fufu and njamajama with a bottle of palm wine. The taste of the food and wine reconnected me to many memories and feelings of my life in Cameroon.

As I sat digesting the meal and the news, I began to think of the life of Beethoven; his artistic triumphs as well as his tragic struggle with deafness and madness. I recall that, due to Moses's increasingly erratic behavior, I began to keep him at an arm's length—as did everyone who knew him. It was difficult to have him in your life, but at times extremely rewarding. Like Beethoven, his afflictions and social estrangement did not interfere with his creativity. When he was too weak to play saxophone, he continued composing on the "ndengue", a traditional thumb-piano.

He never stopped creating and dreaming of recovering his health and former fame. His new project was to be called "Nchwankgob: The Distance of the Forest." I helped him record a demo tape of 17 new songs in my house.

He was a very serious Christian and one of the diminishing few who could read from the Bible in Mungaka (the language of Bali-Nyonga) for services in the Presbyterian church he attended. Occasionally he and I would debate on religion. He believed that his dreams were glimpses of heaven—and proof of its existence. Now he dreams no more. Good-bye Doctor.

Ted Johnson
Copyright © 1996 All Rights Reserved

*Per Maxwell's letter of September 27, 1996, I have updated this essay with a corrected date and cause of death, and a confirmed age. Maxwell, it should be noted, is carrying on his father's legacy as a composer, musician, and woodcarver. -TJ

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