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Remembering Pius: The devastation of his death

Pius Njawé (Le Messager)It’s 7:50 a.m. I’m up early—lots of work to finish today. I check my e-mail. There’s a message from CPJ’s Lauren Wolfe, who I don’t know. The opening line reads: “I’m not sure if you heard that Pius Njawé was killed in a car crash yesterday in VirginiaAnne Nelson told us you worked closely with him when he was chosen for the IPFA in 1991.”

I squint at the screen as if my eyes had deceived me. No, I’m, reading it right. Pius died in a car crash. He was 53.

Flash back to three years ago when I was driving through Cameroon on an assignment for the Rainforest Foundation. The main cross-country highway was lined every few miles with signs that read something like “Driving can kill, slow down.” I asked my co-passengers about the signs. “Oh, have you heard of Pius Njawe? His wife was killed in a car accident and he set up an organization called Justice and rallied the government to get these signs put up.” Yes, I had heard of Pius, the president of the Free Media Group, which publishes Cameroon’s leading independent daily Le Messager. I wrote to him to send my (very belated) condolences and to congratulate him on his action. 

I’m back to my e-mail screen. I try to find my e-mail to him and his response. I can’t. My mind wanders. I am disgusted. His death is just too ironically devastating for words.

I re-focus. I re-read Lauren’s e-mail. I take a deep breath. I repeat Pius’s name in my head. I run downstairs. I have to find that book. Damn, I can’t find it! I’m ashamed then frantic. I know I have it here somewhere. It has traveled three continents. It’s a talisman of sorts. Flashback. It’s 1993. I am leaving CPJ. I write to all my contacts and announce my departure. A few weeks later I receive a package at my home. It’s from Pius. It’s a book called Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness). On the opening page, he thanks me for all the work I did on his behalf. For my compassion. He says he admires the independent, strong women that I am. 

Did I ever thank Pius and tell him how much receiving that book and his words meant to me?

Bonjour Tristesse!  

Kim Brice worked at CPJ from 1988 to 1993. She is a freelance consultant working on media freedom and other political and social rights issues. 

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Comments

Pius stopped by CPJ's office last fall and invited me to attend Le Messager's 30th anniversary this year, something I looked forward to doing. Throughout his life he was a great friend to CPJ, a great defender of press freedom, and a great journalist deeply committed to his country. His death is a terrible loss.

Joel Simon

It's hard to realize that a little over 20 years ago, CPJ didn't have an Africa program officer on its staff, which was under ten people. Kim Brice founded it, and one of her earliest and most valuable sources for research was Pius Njawe. That was why she recommended him to represent Africa in our first round of press freedom awards.

I vividly remember that evening. We gathered in the CPJ offices (then on Fifth Avenue), the staff in evening dress, Pius resplendent in African robes. We went down in the elevator together, aware that together, we were putting press freedom in Africa on the map in a new way.

Pius had so much more to offer the world, and we are all cruelly cheated by his premature death. My heartfelt condolences to his friends, family, and colleagues such as Kim and her successors.

I couldn't be more shocked by the terrible news of the death of Pius Njawe.

Pius embodied human qualities one would want in all our colleagues of the press. He was generous, kind, spontaneous, humorous, both intelligent and clever, and, above all, dedicated with moral and physical courage to truth and justice.

His very presence in a room made those around him want to enter with joy in the fray for press freedom.

He was not afraid to go to jail for his beliefs, and he was not afraid to speak out, even from his prison, against a dictatorial government. I had the honor to translate and distribute statements he smuggled out of his prison in Cameroon.

He was an example for journalists in Africa and everywhere of a man willing literally to risk his all to advance freedom of the press.

My heart goes out to his family.

I will miss a dear friend.

He was a very big man in every sense of the word.

Rony Koven