A Voice Can Travel Anywhere: An Interview with Issa Nyaphaga of Radio Taboo
In the 1990s, Cameroonian “artoonist” and community organizer Issa Nyaphaga was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually forced into exile because of his country’s harsh media laws. Years later, after achieving global citizenship, he founded the community-based organization Hope International for Tikar People, which works to improve the lives of indigenous people in the remote rainforest village where he grew up. His latest project, Radio Taboo, will train citizen journalists to broadcast information to the people who need it most.
Issa spoke to Sampsonia Way about his early life and artistic development, the challenges of building a radio station in the remote Cameroonian rainforest, and how the radio will help break down barriers and empower villagers with vital information.
How did you begin making art in Cameroon?
I came from a tribe called the Tikar. We are a rainforest people, and also farmers. I was born in the city of Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon. At the age of 7, my mother took me to her village so that I could help her farm. In my tribe, in the summer, we paint on the walls with different colored soil using our fingers. In the rainy season we grow crops. That was my first experience as an artist: traditional paintings.
I also grew up with three religions. I was from a Muslim family, going to a Christian school to learn French and receive a Western education. Then my third religion was my indigenous religion, which is connected to art. So I made art as a part of my tribe, but I did not know that it would be my profession when I became a man.
How did art become your profession?
My mother took me to her village because we were living with my father in the city. My father would not allow us to draw, because of his religious beliefs as a Muslim. He believed that when you draw a person, it is blasphemous. To make humanity, God drew the first person he created and turned that drawing into a sculpture, then animated the sculpture, making people. When you do that, you challenge God. So it was forbidden. We were punished all the time, my brothers and I, when my father would find us reading cartoon books or drawing, or even playing soccer. My mother did not want me to live in that environment so she moved me to her village where I could create freely.
Why did you begin drawing political cartoons?
I was not meant to be a political cartoonist, but I grew up expressing myself through any form of art: dancing in the tribe’s village, playing drums and other instruments, building my own toys. After about eight or nine years living in the village, my father asked for me to return to the city to continue my studies. He knew the importance of education, even though he was against visual art. I went back to the city. Because I had a lot of brothers and sisters, my father could not fully pay for my education. I decided that I would do anything to support my education. I was a performer; I was a dancer; I was a comedian; I gardened for the city. I assisted a local artist, who became a mentor for me. He taught me all the Western practices of art. His name was “Viking” Kanyagam André.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. “The wind from the East” impacted the political life of many African societies. Many regimes in Africa were dictatorships, and this opened up freedom of speech for their own communities. My friends and I started a newspaper to distribute information to people who could not read. That’s why I became a cartoonist.
Why are political cartoons important to Cameroonians?
We started that culture of cartoons and comics and graphic novels in the newspaper because it was the only soapbox that artists had to express themselves freely and get paid and also design anything that was new in their society. I became a cartoonist because there was no way out for an artist like me to survive. Painting, putting on an exhibition would take three to six months. That is too long. You can draw a cartoon today and put it in the newspaper tomorrow and get paid.
It was also a duty for democratization. African states have not been democracies for that long. Many African countries had been around for less than 70 years. That’s not a very old culture as a country. So we needed to support that struggle. That’s how I got into cartoons, and also into trouble.
Tell me about the trouble you got into over your political cartoons. Why did the authorities target you?
They targeted me for any kind of thing. The year after we started the newspaper we had something like five million people who could access it. Sixty percent of people in Cameroon could not afford school, because school there is very expensive. Even if it is a public school, the level of corruption is very high.
In the 1990s, my government passed a law to control information, and ban cartoons and comics and graphic novels. Something can be a law but it doesn’t mean that it is fair or just. We had to fight the law. I was one of the first people at the newspaper who was caught or arrested. They wanted me to give away the identities of the people who were signing their work with pen names. I was tortured for two weeks because I would not say their names. I studied journalism, and there is a rule in the profession: you don’t give up your sources. They are in your protection. Giving the name of my colleagues would mean that I worked for the government.
Why were you released from prison?
They had wanted to kill me for very long time, and this was the sixth time that I was in jail. I had gone to jail for many different reasons: for cartoons, for being caught because my newspaper and I called for civil disobedience for demonstrating against the law in front of the Ministry of Information. That particular time, I was going to be in prison for a long time. I got lucky because I had a lawyer who was doing pro bono work. Cameroon is a country with a bad human rights record, and people find themselves in prison without a charge. I don’t know what my life would be if that lawyer had not been at the court the day of my trial.
What was the fate of some of the other cartoonists and journalists who were arrested during this time?
People died. People disappeared at night. Some of them didn’t ever see their family again. It wasn’t only journalists: it was people who published information, people who printed it, people who sold it in the streets, people who owned the shops that sold papers. All of those people were persecuted. Many of them have gone into exile. Some people have continued the profession of journalism, and others have become artists, like me. Many others went through periods of depression, like I did before I found my voice through I what I do today, as a form of therapy.
How did you arrive at the decision to leave Cameroon?
After that case, I was on probation and censored from expressing myself in the newspaper in any form: writing, drawing, or any interview. I was in the shadows for six months. I went back to work, went back to publishing information. One day, somebody called me and warned me that I was going to be arrested, and this time I probably would not escape. My family and friends arranged a trip for me to go to Paris in 1996. I left Cameroon on a Sunday. The idea was that I would go away until my case calmed down, so that I could come back into the country. I didn’t come back because many journalists kept leaving the country, and the situation kept getting worse.
How did you eventually come to return to Cameroon?
After leaving Cameroon, I was put in a protection program for people who are persecuted through the Geneva Convention. The agreement was that you do not return to the country where you were endangered. I spent ten years in France. On June 16, 2001, I gave a speech at the UN for the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Convention at the UN. That put me on the path to become a global citizen: I can live in any country without fear of anything. Because I was stuck in France under the protection program, I decided to go to the US.
After arriving in France, I was depressed for a long time because I had ran away from a struggle that people had died for. I was not raised to give up. One day, a friend of mine told me that maybe the reason I had left the struggle was so that I could be the voice for the struggle. I could not return to Cameroon through France, so I needed to find another way to tell my story to a bigger audience. I came to the States. From there, I worked very hard, exhibiting and doing any kind of art project in many communities; I went to North Carolina, to the DC area, to Maryland, to New York, telling my story. An Italian filmmaker, Nicoletta Fagiolo, made a documentary about me called A Pen in Exile. I took the movie to lectures in schools and university. The US decided to give me a residence, and I was able to return to Cameroon to see my mother again. I had gone into exile without saying goodbye to my own parents.
From there, I created a nonprofit in Cameroon that I can go to every summer. We have done amazing things, and caused amazing changes in the lives of the people.
How did Radio Taboo begin?
Radio Taboo is a community radio station for one million people; it will broadcast in eight languages. As we are speaking, a 150-foot radio tower is already in the country. Before we did Radio Taboo, I created an organization called Hope International for Tikar People. In the last five years, we have donated 500 wheelchairs, books, and we have completed a project that provided fresh water for 20,000 people. Radio Taboo is one of our latest projects.
What information will Radio Taboo provide?
We are going to provide the community with broken down information. It is not something political, but all community radio, with all community involvement. In Cameroon, there is a high rate of sexual mutilation for girls. There is something called “breast ironing,” where mothers are ironing their daughters’ breasts so they will not be raped. They are hurting their own children. There has also been a lot of attacks against gay people. People think that are doing witchcraft, or black magic. So there are mob attacks. HIV/AIDS is not well understood in the country, either. So this radio station is going to talk about subjects that people do not often discuss: topics that are taboo. It will open up discussion.
The radio is very powerful because the voice can travel anywhere. In rural Africa, people have to do something as they walk to the farms, so they buy a radio or a cellphone. So we don’t even have to provide radios to the people, we just have to build the structure, the studio, train the team of villagers. There will be a team on the ground. We are only waiting on funding so that we can put the radio transmitter up.
What is the benefit of using citizen journalists, rather than professionally trained journalists?
With citizen journalists, we get information that is coming from the community and by the community. The strategy is to take professional radio technicians and professional radio journalists and send them to rural areas to do the training. We are investing in local business, so that people we find in the cities with skills to create rural communities go with us. In the documentary about Radio Taboo you can see me meeting with these guys in the city.
I believe that education and information is power. Power is not only having a lot of money or having a gun in your hand, or that you can sit in any institution designed to marginalize people. That is a very superficial power. Power is to be able to give education and information to people so that they can be empowered.
What other challenges have you encountered in implementing Radio Taboo, and how have you find a way around them?
There is a big cellphone issue in the region. Even though they have cellphones, people have to use a very sporadic signal in the center of the village. To stay on the line, they have to put their phone on a little stick to pick up the network signal and then they have to talk to the stick. That’s how they access the network.
Isolation is a big issue. There is no road to access the village. So that is something the radio and the network can do: call the city anytime the people need help.
We have another project called the mobile clinic. A doctor that we partner with in the country comes and delivers surgery one weekend a year. After he has done all of these surgeries and given medication to people, we need to be in touch with him after he goes back to the city because he only stays for two days. We need call him in the city and tell him, “These patients had these complications, what can we do?” That’s how the radio can help us.
Right now, if someone isn’t feeling well, we shoot a video of the patient who had surgery. Then we drive by motorcycle for 100 kilometers on a dirt road, and then go an additional three kilometers on a paved road to go show the video to a doctor in the city. Then the doctor might say, “Oh, this patient is developing gangrene!” Then we have to run back to the village again to go deliver that treatment.
How are people in Cameroon reacting to the radio and the training they are receiving?
As a person who grew up as an indigenous person, even though I live in the West today, what I am trying to avoid is the colonization that has influenced the stories of African nations. By living in the West today, I have to be careful each time I do something so that I am not identified as the guy who brings colonization home again.
For the decade and a half that I have been working on this project, we have been using international development strategies: community mapping and assessment of needs. We count the villages to know how many there are in the community we are serving, and if there is water, and what is the distance to water. We send surveys to the villages and ask them what kind of help they need. All the needs come from them.
We are not imposing the project. That’s the sustainable part of it. We are not bringing something because we have a lot of money or because we are from the West. No, that’s not why. I am also a member of the tribe, and so I hold conversations with them in my language and I explain the strategies that we are using.
Ninety-four percent of the board members of my organization are based in the villages. Six percent are based in the city, and have cellphones and computers and can go to cybercafés to send me all of the video information for the donors to see that the project has been completed each time. With the radio, we are doing the same thing.
Anybody who has donated any penny is allowed to come with us. We send invitation letters for visas and host them and take them to the village so that they can learn about a different culture and also see what they are supporting.
What do you hope Radio Taboo will look like in 10 years?
In ten years, I hope that Radio Taboo won’t be something I will be bringing funds to or feeding. I think that it will be something independent. I really don’t believe in 100 percent free services. If you give something freely to people, you aren’t empowering them. International development is a culture. So in the domain in which I work, I am not doing charity. We don’t feed people who are hungry. We just empower communities that have resources but do not know how to use them well, so that they can empower their children and then the next generation.
The radio will run independently from any structure. It will have a team that will look for funding, for advertisement, so that the radio can be independent.