VOLUME 39, 1998


African Crossroads: Intersections between History and Anthropology in Cameroon
(Cameroon Studies, Vol. 2). Edited by IAN FOWLER & DAVID ZEITLYN. Providence and
Oxford: Bergahn Books, 1996. Pp.xxvii + 213. £20 (ISBN 1-57181-859-5), £10.95
paperback (ISBN 1-57181-926-6).

In this volume, editors Ian Fowler and David Zeitlyn have brought together
Cameroonian and Cameroonist anthropologists and historians to celebrate the
contributions of ethnographer-historian Elizabeth Chilver. In her own
interdisciplinary work and in her collaborations with Phyllis Kaberry from the
1940’s, Chilver mined missionaries’, administrators’ and traders’ documents long
before it was fashionable to do so. Chilver integrated this material with
ethnographic evidence to shed light on pre-colonial political hierarchies and
religion, and to reconstruct the historical processes by which Africans and
Europeans negotiated colonial rule in the Cameroonian Grassfields. She also
helped to facilitate a lively dialogue between Cameroonian and Cameroonist
scholars and to incorporate the concerns of non-academic Africans into scholarly
debates about Cameroon’s past (pp.xii-xv).

This volume confronts two ‘crossroads’ : the ‘proto-colonial’ period of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when German and French explorers,
traders and administrators and African kings, chiefs and seniors struggled to
control dense, specialized networks of exchange and political authority; and the
theoretical and methodological intersections of anthropology and history, which
Chilver’s work exemplified.

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In its confrontation with the former crossroad, the volume will appeal primarily
to scholars working in Cameroon and contiguous regions. Chilver’s diverse
concerns about the Grassfield’s pre-colonial and colonial history, ethnography
and religion thread together most of the essays, though two (Burnham, Austen)
address themes related to Chilver’s work but focus on regions outside of the
Grassfields. Several essays counter older interpretations of the fragmenting
political authority, language and culture in the Grasslands during the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. Instead, contributors embrace the historical cultural,
political, economic and social ‘diversity’ that Chilver and Kaberry
characterized, though as Fowler and Zeitlyn also remind the reader, ‘Grassfields
polities resemble no one as much as either other’ (p.xxiv).

These tensions between diversity and broader commonalities are implicit as one
reads several of the essays addressing consolidation on different scales.
Jean-Pierre Warnier, for instance, highlights the significance of young unmarried
men’s rebellion from the 1890’s throughout the Grassfield kingdoms, when these
cadets capitalized on pre-existing tensions to escape their elders’ control.
Robert O’Neil focuses on a more local cohesion taking place among Moghamo people
in the late nineteenth century. A German alliance with the Fon (king) of
Bali-Nyonga disrupted these consolidating efforts, facilitating two imperialisms
(German and Bali-Nyonga) over the Moghamo. This history has fed continued
Moghamo resentment of Bali-Nyonga land appropriations in the twentieth century
and has shaped their distinct ethnic identities. In a similar vein, Verkijika G.
Fanso and Bongfen Chem-Langhee trace changing forms of military organization and
warfare within the Nso’ kingdom after 1825, underscoring the integration of
villages with the Nso’ state. Most of the papers focus on specific kingdoms and
peoples to elucidate processes of political and ethnic consolidation. Only
Fowler and Zeitlyn, Warnier, Philip Burnham, and Richard Fardon explicitly
confront questions about broader Grassfields, equatorial and West African
identities. Other contributors could productively have interrogated this
tension, questioning more consistently the specific processes and questions
linking their studies to those of the Grassfields, Cameroon and West and
equatorial Africa.

The volume’s second ‘crossroads’, that of history and anthropology, should engage
general readers of African history. Contributors explore diverse inter-relations
between historical and anthropological theory, method and evidence, though with
varying degrees of success as these concerns remain implicit in most of the
essays. Several contributors could have articulated more explicitly how they
conceived these interrelations and tackled the challenges of ‘doing’ history and
anthropology. Nevertheless, those who confront this issue do so in illuminating
ways. In the volume’s most theoretically challenging contribution, Richard
Fardon takes apart the interrelationships between categories of personhood,
ethnicity and identity in West Africa. Fardon argues that ‘traditional’ and
‘modern’ categories of the person, ethnicity and identity
appear to be discrete, but are in fact historically connected by ‘what seems “not
to fit” in the two cases.’ (p.18)

In his analysis of the historical production of Chamba identity in Bali-Nyonga,
Fardon finds that local historians and anthropologists have put history to
different uses. European professional anthropologists ‘construe what fails to
fit as indicative of a preceding situation’ whereas ‘the local historian has to
interpret it as precursive of modernity, and a possible future.’ (p.40) For
Fardon, history’s place in articulating identity ultimately depends upon who is
writing for whom.

Other contributions adopt different approaches to history and anthropology.
Burnham and Warnier employ the disciplines’ methodological tools and evidence

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to illuminate alternative interpretations of the past. Burnham draws on
linguistic, ethnographic and oral evidence to revise older interpretations of
French encroachment into the Sangha basin before formal colonization. He
therefore employs ethnography to correct oversimplified documentary historical
analysis. Interestingly, Warnier reverses Burnham’s process. Recounting how
disciplinary blinders led him to disregard particular ethnographic evidence in
the early 1970’s, Warnier examines explorers’ and travellers’ accounts and
colonial publications to underscore young males’ resistance to elder control in
the Bamileke kingdom and the Grassfields.

Geary’s, Banadzem’s and Tardits’s chapters bridge history a anthropology not to
correct previous interpretations of past change, but to explain it through
indigenous categories. Geary’s piece on late nineteenth-century Bamam
appropriations of German-style military attire mine ethnographic, material,
photographic and archival evidence to elucidate past perceptions, motivations and
categories of her subjects. Bamum adoption of German-style military dress
demonstrated to Bamum enemies their access to wealth and power gained by allying
with the Germans; their subsequent abandonment of this attire revealed a desire
to distance themselves from the colonial administration.

Fowler and Zeitlyn’s preface and introduction make illuminating and laudable
efforts to unify these diverse essays. At times, however, their efforts are
undercut by the failure of contributors explicitly to address the volume’s major
concerns. In order to bring greater unity to this volume, the editors could have
exercised a bit more editorial discipline over individual contributions.
Nevertheless, for specialists working in the broader region, this collection
demonstrates how subsequent generations of scholars have built productively on
Chilver’s contributions. And for general readers willing to dig for diverse ways
of working historically and anthropologically, the volume provides absorbing

University of Virginia TAMARA GILES-VERNICK

This review from JAH is Copyright CUP, and appears with permission.