Book Review

FOWLER, IAN & DAVID ZEITLYN (eds). African crossroads: intersections between history and anthropology in Cameroon (Camer. Stud. 2). xxxviii, 213 pp., illus., bibliogr. Providence, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1996 £30.00 (cloth), £11.95 (paper)

This collection is the culmination of a project to honour Sally Chilver’s work on Cameroon history and anthropology. It was preceded by two parallel publications, also edited by Fowler and Zeitlyn: special issues of Paideuma (41,1995) and Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford (26:1, 1995) dedicated to Mama for Story , one of Sally Chilver’s many Cameroonian surnames. Her work has become a true Fundgrube of stories, due to its pioneering articulation - through close collaboration with Phyllis Kaberry - of local history and anthropology. It focused on the famous Grassfields of Northwest Cameroon, the highland area with its many chiefs and palaces with which so many colonial officials and researchers fell in love. But the originality of Chilver’s approach - showing how history and anthropology could be combined at a time when the two seemed to be categorically opposed - makes her work of much broader interest.
The work of Chilver and Kaberry stands at the forefront of an ever-richer tradition of Grassfields studies. The volume offers striking examples of the patriotism which makes this region play such a spectacular role in the present-day turmoil of Cameroonian politics, hut which inspires generation after generation of students. After two short prefaces by Shirley Ardener and Fowler and Zeitlyn, the tone is set by the first contribution (Fowler and Zeitlyn), offering an alternative - characteristically announced as a ‘more positive’ - view of Grassfields history. Against Eldridge Mohammadou’s emphasis on the determining role of outside invasions and subsequent ‘fragmentation’, Fowler and Zeitlyn opt for an approach in terms of ‘diversity’: the much debated question of why the royal houses of some chieftaincies emphatically claim outside origins has to be studied in relation to local circumstances, rather than in the context of large scale migratory movements.
The emphasis on local circumstances and the scope for strategic action by middlemen is the leitmotiv. All contributions deal with local history, just prior to or during the first decades of colonial contact. All show, in Chilver’s footsteps, that a combination of written and oral sources can produce histories which transcend the binary oppositions - African v . European initiative, colonial v. African history - that have beset African history.
Richard Fardon discusses the complexity of relations between local history and anthropology, focusing on how the Bali-Nyonga court propagated a tradition of Chamba origin. For him, this is an example of the use of history during transition to modernity - an interpretation satisfied by a challenging (not to say daring) exploration of contracts between West African and European conceptions of personhood, as expressed in different historical narratives. Philip Burnham - a relative outsider who worked in the far east of Cameroon - relates nonetheless directly to the central theme in his contribution on Brazza’s politique musulmane , showing how it was determined by local circumstances during the 1890’s scramble between French and Germans along the East border of what was to become Cameroon. Ralph Austen deals with roughly the same period in Duala, offering insightful analysis of how - in the context of endless skirmishes between Duala chiefs and their German ‘protectors’ - Duala segmentary politics intertwined with German colonial policies and of the mutual myth-making emerging from this intertwinement. Robert O’Neil presents a parallel analysis of the intertwinement of German and Bali-Nyonga politics, interestingly from the ‘subaltern’ viewpoint of the Moghamo, a marginal and exploited group within the Bali chieftaincy.
Verkijika Fanso and Chem-Langhêê deal with a theme running through most contributions: the technology of warfare. Here, Grassfields - or Nso’ - patriotism is in full sway, producing very lively history writing. Jean-Pierre Warnier shows the direct relevance of historical research for analysis of present-day politics, dwelling on the neglected role of the ‘Tapenta-boys’ who terrorized the Grassfields at the time of the German penetration; the role of young men in the Bamileke guerilla of the 1960’s or in present-day outbursts of violence, whether politically inspired or not, is not new. Joseph Lukong Banadzem contrasts Christianism and Nso’ ‘precolonial religious system’ (which - maybe because he starts from this contrast - is portrayed as over-static).
Claude Tardits meanwhile studies local religious dynamics: the ‘pursue to attain’ doctrine launched in 1916 by Njoya, the ‘King’ of Bamum, in a context where erstwhile Islamic allies had been replaced by Christian colonial rulers. The collection has a strong conclusion with Chistraud Geary’s analysis of another experiment of King Njoya: the production of German military uniforms for his bodyguard. Geary shows very well - with the help of striking photographs - how changes in dress styles outline innovative political strategies, in this case Njoya’s efforts to carve out autonomous space under German rule, and German determined interventions to stop this.
The editors can be complemented on this volume, as with the captivating illustrations (through a map might have been helpful). Binary terms like ‘micro’ and ‘macro’, with their simplistic implications, are thankfully totally absent. This volume shows how a coherent series of detailed studies of apparently ‘local’ issues can evoke a broad vision of the crossroads of colonialism and the strategies of African actors.