Gender, Separatist Politics, and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently argued in the New York Times, the consequences of Cameroon’s dual colonial legacies reveal the “muddled sludge of colonial history” in greater detail than any other nation’s history. Today’s strife has its roots in the period Gender, Separatist Politics, and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon examines—the period of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, 1961 to 1972. This book illuminates how issues of ideal womanhood shaped the Anglophone Cameroonian nationalist movement in the first decade of independence and the consequences for the movement as Francophone Cameroon prepared to dismantle the federal republic and the West Cameroon State’s autonomy. The book defines and uses the concept of embodied nationalism to illustrate the importance of women’s everyday behavior—the clothes they wore, the foods they cooked, whether they gossiped, and their deference to their husbands—in the project of demonstrating that West Cameroon, which comprised of English-Speaking regions, was a modern nation. Drawing upon history, political science, gender studies, and feminist epistemologies, this text complicates traditional Africanist scholarship by underlining the gendered legacies of European rule in the early independence era, 1961 to 1972. The sources include oral interviews and archival sources such as women’s newspaper advice columns, Cameroon’s first cooking book, and the first novel published by an Anglophone Cameroonian woman.

The case of Anglophone Cameroonian embodied nationalism is not isolated. In highlighting the strategies women used to navigate a turbulent political setting, Mougoué’s work provides insights into women’s roles in separatist and secessionist projects across the world, such as in Quebec, Puerto Rico, and Tibet. Tibet, for example, holds a Miss Tibet competition in India that has become a space to debate proper comportment and the embodiment of Tibet and separatist ideologies. Such examples suggest that embodied nationalism often emerges as a channel for tangible markers of national and cultural identity in political, social, or religious movements, where individuals seek to claim and preserve authority and agency across time and space.

Anna Foncha wearing the West Cameroon women’s national costume, March 14, 1964. Source: Cameroon Times, Cameroon National Archive in Buea.

Manhood, Religion and Transcontinental Networks in Africa

Mougoué’s current research, like the first book, highlights gender history.  The project traces the history of the Bahá’í Faith in English-Speaking Cameroon.  It examines how religious identities, and extensive networks, shaped the performance of manhood from the 1950s to the 1980s when men converted to Bahá’í— a religion founded in Iran that teaches the essential worth of all religions, that believe in one God. Young men who could not find jobs after attending Christian mission schools, found conversion to Bahá’í an appealing alternative. Through it they found jobs as Bahá’í missionaries, converting Africans throughout the continent, including a king in Benin in the 1970s. Further, they forged extensive social and economic transcontinental networks that would eventually extend to Israel, and lead to marriages that spanned national and racial lines. Through Bahá’í, young men found new ways to (re)claim economic power, social standing, and ultimately, masculine ideals that informed the respect they gained as Bahá’í missionaries. The book draws from a wide array of sources to analyze and visually represent the interplay of ideas about proper codes of conduct for men and constructions of religious authority: birthday cards from the 1950s, oral interviews with men who converted in the 1950s and 1960s, and studio portraits of Bahá’í converts.

Images from here, here, and here.