KINGDOM ON MOUNT CAMEROON: STUDIES IN THE HISTORY OF THE CAMEROON COAST, 1500-1970. By Edwin Ardener; edited by Shirley Ardener. Cameroon Studies, vol. 1. Providence and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1996. Pp. xx, 380, with illustrations. $49.95.
AFRICAN CROSSROADS, INTERSECTIONS BETWEEN HISTORY AND ANTHROPOLOGY IN CAMEROON. Edited by Ian Fowler and David Zeitlyn. Cameroon Studies, vol. 2. Providence and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1996. Pp. xxvii, 213, with illustrations. $29.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.
Cameroonian studies are alive and well. This ethnically complicated, politically rich country has been the focus for several leading African anthropologists and historians, and the two volume in this new series of Cameroon studies suggests that equally interesting new works are in store.
Ian Fowler at Oxford and David Zeitlyn of the University of Kent have produced an interesting volume of studies dedicated to E. M. Chilver, a leading figure in Cameroonian anthropology, “Mama for Story” as she might be called in Pidgin. Sally Chilver, once a stringer for The Times in London, combined a productive career as civil servant, journalist, academician, university administrator, and social anthropologist-historian. Shirley Ardener, herself a distinguished anthropologist, covers Chilver’s extraordinary career in an introductory essay aptly titled, “The Catalyst: Chilver at the Crossroads,” quoting Chilver’s far too modest description of herself as “an apprentice historian in stout boots.”
African Crossroads contains an amazing set of nine studies by colleagues, friends, or students of Chilver’s. Fowler and Zeitlyn painstakingly review the literature on the Grassfields people of Cameroon and the important Tikar peoples, whose origins and migrations still remain a puzzle despite several major studies. The dean of anthropologists working in Cameroon, Claude Tardits, contributed an important essay on formation of belief among the Bamun, in which he demonstrates how a resourceful sultan combined Islamic beliefs from which he politically profited with Christian ones, a source of intellectual curiosity, to his satisfaction, if not to purists in either camp. This remarkable article contains a summary of Sultan Njoya’s religion, preserved in a thirty-chapter document. Christraud M. Geary has made an exquisite collection of early German photographs of the colonial period and included them in an intriguing essay on “Political Dress.” The Bamum took to German military dress, designing numerous colorful but improbable costumes, as a way of ingratiating themselves to the Germans, but, when an alliance with powerful Islamic neighbors became more important, they abandoned their European-type costumes.
Philip Burnham contributes a thoughtful study on “Political Relations on the Eastern Marches of Adamawa in the late Nineteenth Century.” Burnham paints a far more complex picture of Fulbe-Gbaya-French interactions than is usually pictured. One of the book’s meatiest contributions is Ralph A. Austen’s essay on the Duala of and German colonialism. Austen’s lucid summary of German colonial policy and practice is among the best anywhere. Equally interesting is his description of rivalries among the Duala leaders, Bell and Akwa, and their skills at playing off one another while using the Germans for leverage.
Other well-crafted studies complete this stimulating volume. Taken together, these works show the amazing diversity of emerging Cameroonian studies, and almost all their lineage trees intersect with Chilver’s remarkable life and work.
The Ardener book is of a different sort. Shirley Ardener provides a biographical sketch of her husband, who died in 1987. Edwin Ardener visited Cameroon over a period of seventeen years and was based there for seven years. The initial result was a study of workers’ welfare in plantation camps–how the Bakwere people of West Cameroon experienced the plantation system and its demographic consequences, ending with studies of the Grasslands peoples who provided much of the plantation labor. Appendix C contains a list of his papers on Africa, published between 1952 and 1990. They range from the inclusive and widely circulated “Coastal Bantu of the Cameroons” (1956), a pioneering ethnographic survey, to highly crafted articles on linguistics, labor conditions, kinship terminology, marriage and divorce, witchcraft and economics, and aspects of colonial history.
Many of these articles, as Shirley Ardener notes, were written in the 1950s and 1960s, and are now dated. Notwithstanding, they will provide a point in media res, allowing a new generation of scholars to build on the carefully constructed foundations Ardener patiently laid over several decades. Some of the works in this volume contain the author’s observations on Cameroonian politics, and are among the least successful of his writings. Anthropologists shy away from observations about authoritarian African leaders, corruption, and the give and take of competitive (often ethnically based) party politics. Some take on the protective coloration of the people they write about. Ardener saw Cameroonian political life from the perspective of the West Cameroonians with whom he worked and for whom he had great sympathy, but who gradually and irrevocably lost political power in a unitary state, Such sympath crowds out political reality in his hesitant, convoluted prose.
Shirley Ardener also chronicles her husband’s efforts to build an archive in Buea against considerable odds, assembling valuable papers of the colonial era in one spot, with few financial resources, and with only minimal governmental cooperation. He was given the title of adviser of archives and antiquities. The down side of this venture is that Ardener exercised iron control, limiting access to the archives, and taking the key with him when he went back to Oxford!
My final comment about this series in Cameroon studies is that it shows how much more complicated the history of Cameroon was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than is usually considered the case. African societies were intruding on one another for much of this time, both using the colonial powers and being used by them. Those without guns could still be effective bargainers. It is not safe to posit an us-vs.-them picture of colonial political interactions. One of the many values of the Fowler-Zeitlyn volume is that it opens the road for a new generation of researchers to assemble the data and test the conclusions about who did what to whom in this, one of the most challenging of all West African countries.
Chevy Case, Maryland