Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué’s first book, Gender, Separatist Politics and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon, is forthcoming with the University of Michigan Press in 2019. Mougoué’s book examines the gendering of political identity and separatist movements in the period of the Federal Republic of Cameroon, 1961 to 1972. This early post-independence period followed simultaneous control of areas of Cameroon by Britain and France; the residents of the regions that were autonomous states in the federal period continue to identify with these separate legacies even today. The book underscores the importance of formally educated women in maintaining political power in West Cameroon, the politically weaker Anglophone state. Women’s advice columnists and politically elite women urged educated women to maintain Christian morality and traditional gender norms as a means of claiming superiority over their Francophone neighbors, tempering any sense that their increasing entrance in the formal workforce might undermine West Cameroon’s reputation as a moral and paternal nation on the world stage. The book examines issues related to cookery and women’s political organizations, as well as policing of such behavior as gossip, slacks-wearing, drinking Guinness, and defying men’s authority in domestic spaces. Drawing on oral interviews and archival sources such as women’s newspaper advice columns, Cameroon’s first cookbook, and the first novel published by an Anglophone Cameroonian woman, the book examines how women’s everyday actions became key to shaping the Anglophone Cameroonian nationalist movement in the predominantly Francophone country during the federal period.
The book uses the concept of embodied nationalism to illustrate how political elites and formally educated urbanites implied that women’s everyday patterns of behavior and comportment—the clothes they wore, the foods they cooked, their abstention from gossip, and their adherence to appropriate marital behavior in public spaces—might visually project a suitable Anglophone Cameroonian persona on local, national and global stages. These everyday tangible markers of Anglophone identity filtrated through an urban setting, shaping a conservative urban ideal womanhood. In interviews, women and men who were young adults in the federal period contrasted their ideal of Anglophone womanhood with their understanding of Francophone women as well as European women. In doing so, they highlighted similarities among Anglophone persons and ignored social, cultural, and political similarities with their Francophone counterparts. For instance, by imagining Anglophone women as being more devout Christians, more likely to don African attire, and more sexually reserved than their Francophone counterparts, Anglophone women elites actively (re)defined Cameroonian cultural identities. In a time of looming Francophone threat to Anglophone political sovereignty, elite Anglophones drew from various political ideologies and actions to form a colorful jigsaw puzzle of Anglophone national identity, an assemblage of diverse interlocking pieces drawn from local, national, and global ideas about gender as well as their British colonial heritage. They began to see preserving ideal cultural values and political identity as the lynchpin of Anglophone unity and sovereignty. This dynamic explains condemnations of women perceived as defying the ideal of Anglophone womanhood in their everyday patterns of behavior and comportment that appeared in newspapers and the speeches of female political elites. Drawing upon history, gender studies, and feminist epistemologies, Mougoué underlines the gendered legacies of dual European rule and its influence on contesting gendered ideas about nationalism and political identity in a West/Central African country.
Mougoué’s work on separatist movements and embodied nationalism extends beyond Cameroon and even beyond Africa, resonating on a broader scale. Academic narratives rarely consider women’s active participation in secessionist and separatist movements, portraying them as passive victims of male actions. In highlighting the strategies women used to navigate a turbulent political setting, Mougoué’s work provides a useful background to the long-standing Anglophone separatist/secessionist movement specifically and useful entrée to understanding women’s roles in separatist and secessionist projects across the world, such as in Spain (Catalan), Canada (Quebec), United States (Puerto Rico) and China (Hong Kong). Mougoué’s work likewise demonstrates how embodied nationalism often emerges as a conduit for tangible markers of national and cultural identity in political, social, or religious movements against various establishments around the world, whether that be state apparatus or churches. Through embodied nationalism, individuals endeavor to reclaim and preserve authority and agency not just in Cameroon or Africa, but across the entire world.
Mougoué’s current research, like the first book, highlights gender history. Religious Masculinities, Social Calamities, and the Baha’i Faith Movement in Cameroon traces the history of the Bahá’í Faith in English-Speaking Cameroon and focuses on masculine identities between 1957 and 1985. The Basel Mission Society, a Christian missionary society that originated in 1815 in Germany, was highly influential in West Cameroon from 1886 until the late 1950s. It successfully established Christian church affiliation as a component of Anglophone Cameroonian men’s masculinity, along with the financial security to marry and establish an independent household, but its Anglophone mission collapsed in the late 1950s, causing a social and religious crisis mainly affecting young men of low social and economic positioning. For these young men, Christian church membership fees were onerous, and they had no access to even the lower leadership positions that the mission made available to some African men. Many converted to Bahá’í; over 90% of Bahá’í converts were young men the Basel Mission Society had Christianized. Converts forcibly occupied Basel Mission churches and converted them to Bahá’í Houses of Worship. Mougoué will examine this spectacular reversal between 1953 and 1985, a process by which marginalized young men claimed social and religious authority in their communities.
As Mougoué’s exploration of archival sources in Cameroon and the United States and oral sources from informants who experienced mass conversions to Bahá’í reveals, cross-cultural and cross-national connections bolstered the religious, economic and social authority young men sought through conversion. These men, who could not readily access masculine ideals supported by Christianity, found an alternative in Bahá’í conversion that not only rid them of the cost of church membership but offered a source of income if they became Bahá’í missionaries. Many journeyed to Ghana and British Togoland to teach the Bahá’í Faith after their conversion in an act they called pioneering. Beyond evangelizing individuals, they supported the religious transformation of entire societies and towns in Cameroon and throughout West Africa. Their encounters and experiences include: Iranians and black American women Bahá’ís, Cameroonian men who converted a king and his people to the Bahá’í faith while proselyting the faith in Benin, men who travelled with their families and encountered xenophobic experiences in rural Ghana and confronted accusations of witchcraft while trying to spread the faith, and men who travelled to the U.S. states of Washington and California to speak to American Bahá’ís about their Bahá’ís evangelist efforts in West Africa. As missionaries converting Africans throughout the continent they could (re)claim economic power, social positioning, and ultimately, a masculine ideal that was informed by their Bahá’í religious authority. 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 1970s studio portraits of Bahá’í converts.
Although significant scholarship addresses how Europeans and North Americans, such as black Americans and black West Indians, served on Christian missions in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, examination of how black Africans themselves have traversed national boundaries in aims of influencing religious ideologies and actions throughout Africa has gained less attention. Highlighting the history of the Baha’i Faith Movement in Cameroon illustrates how the religious and social landscape of Anglophone Cameroon—and some parts of West Africa—shifted profoundly, and how young men drove this change in a way that Africanist scholarship has not previously acknowledged.