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Mothers on the MoveReproducing Belonging Between Africa and Europe$

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226389745

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226389912.001.0001

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Cameroonian Predicaments

Cameroonian Predicaments

(p.28) 2 Cameroonian Predicaments
Mothers on the Move

Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Cameroonian predicaments of belonging, reproduction, connection and mobility. Colonial and post-colonial mobilities in the Cameroonian Grassfields region presage later international migration and building of transnational connections. They affect reproduction, kinship, belonging, attachment to the land, political rights, and the emergence of formal and informal forms of place-based association. The complex colonial history of Cameroon has left a legacy of official bilingualism, dual legal and educational systems, and religious heterogeneity, resulting in multilayered distinctions of Cameroonian belonging and identity. Embedded in this complex field of belonging is a sense of reproductive insecurity, tied to a colonial legacy of loss, infertility and disease. In the post-colonial flux of Cameroonian rural-to-urban labor and educational migration, women navigate and leverage lineage and reproduction to establish belonging, ensure fertility, and to reproduce important Cameroonian lifeways. Urban hometown associations afford women the opportunity to formalize their connections to their places of origin, thereby reinforcing place-based identities that anchor women and their children in a mobile world. Mothers on the Move thus places women’s reproductive strategies in Berlin within the context of the history of migration within Cameroon, demonstrating that international migration is less novel than is often portrayed.

Keywords:   colonialism, Grassfields, history, hometown associations, infertility, labor migration, mobility, placed based identity, reproduction, transnationalism, Cameroon

Then we were many, as many as the blades of grass that now grow in the royal compound.

CHE’ELOU, Bangangté, 1986

The sun slanted toward us as Che’elou and I sat together on a small grassy hillock one day in 1986. I was a young American anthropologist, not yet a mother, researching how women expressed their anxieties about social and political change through an idiom of complaints about infertility. Che’elou was one of the many wives of the fon of Bangangté, a prominent Bamiléké paramount chieftaincy in the French-speaking highland Grassfield region of the Republic of Cameroon. A vital elderly woman in her mid-eighties, Che’elou had never managed to bear children but had served as the current fon’s nurse­maid. Che’elou was well respected among her cowives as an intelligent and hard-working farmer, full of wisdom regarding Bamiléké traditions and the most effective ways to resolve personal disputes. Che’elou was also my adopted grandmother—rather, Che’elou had generously adopted me as her granddaugh­ ter. Che’elou had taught me through words and example, and chided me when I asked questions about things that just seemed self-evident to her; often we just sat together, enjoying one another’s presence.

That mournful October day, we were watching Che’elou’s younger cowives dance slowly around a fresh grave, intoning the mourning song “O ne na ya, mama? Where are you going, mama?” Earlier that week, three of Che’elou’s elderly cowives had died, a tragic coincidence of old age and inadequate health care. Che’elou was sad and exhausted after publicly mourning her cowives over the past three days. As she clutched her bamboo staff—a marker of her honored status as a postmenopausal woman—Che’elou quietly lamented the passing not only of a cherished companion but also the more vital palace life of her young adulthood. Married shortly after King (fon) Njiké II had acceded to the throne in 1912, Che’elou had experienced the palace compound as a lively and well-organized village, filled with some 150 royal wives, their (p.29)

Cameroonian Predicaments

Figure 2. 1. Che’elou, an elderly wife of the Fon of Bangangté, on a grassy hillock watching the funeral of a cowife, Bangangté 1986. Her lament, “Then we were many, as many as the blades of grass that now grow in the royal compound,” comments on predicaments of belonging, reproduction, connection, and movement facing Bamiléké and other Grassfields people in Cameroon.

Credit: Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg

(p.30) children, notables, and “servants” of the king. As inhabited, “civilized” space, the palace grounds were always kept clear of grass, with pounded earthen paths and courtyards. The palace grounds of Che’elou’s old age were much less populous, and Che’lou’s thirteen cowives were not nearly as fastidious as she in keeping their yards free of weeds. With only sixteen adults (including me, the resident anthropologist) and twenty-three children living in the palace compound, many of the sites inhabited during Che’elou’s youth were over­ grown with savanna grass or reverting to forest.

Che’elou’s nostalgic lament, “Then we were many, as many as the blades of grass that now grow in the royal compound,” was a poignant indication of an elderly woman’s feelings about the physical and social decline of palace life, and of Bangangté in general. As Che’elou complained about the depopulation of the palace, her fellow Bamiléké reiterated Che’elou’s concerns regarding declining fertility, rural flight, and the difficulties of reproducing a Bamiléké way of life, given the economic and political challenges that Cameroon continued to face (Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 175–77). For their part, young people bemoaned the lack of rural opportunities to make a living, raise the funds to get married and start a family, and put their newfound educations to use. When seeking these opportunities elsewhere in Cameroon, young Bamiléké and their English-speaking Grassfields compatriots faced discrimination as ethnic strangers. Che’elou’s lament reminds us that family-making and belonging have long been challenging for women of Bamiléké and Grassfields origins, and that migration within and beyond Cameroon is part of that challenge.

Predicaments of Belonging: Historical and Political Roots

At the time Che’elou married fon Njike in 1912, Cameroon had been a German colony for nearly thirty years. Neither Njike’s royal retainers nor the local colonial officers anticipated that World War I would soon break out, and that Cameroon would soon fall under a new set of colonial rulers, continuing a long history of dramatic change. Even before the colonial era, the area now comprising the Republic of Cameroon was shaped by over two thousand years of African population movements. Numerous peoples migrated through and sometimes settled in what would become Cameroon, located where the West African coast makes a sharp bend, geographically and culturally at the borderland between West Africa and Central Africa. As a result, Cameroon boasts a rich cultural diversity as well as a long history of shifting ethnic boundaries and loyalties.

Within this culturally diverse context, the highland Grassfields plateau has had a particularly dynamic history. Nestled between dry savanna and Sahel to (p.31) the (now) predominantly Muslim north and rain forest to the (now) predominantly Christian south, the Cameroonian Grassfields stretches across two provinces of contemporary Cameroon—the English-speaking Northwest Region (referred to as “western Grassfields”) and the French-speaking West Region (referred to as “eastern Grassfields”). The Grassfields is one of the most densely populated areas of Cameroon. According to estimates from Cameroon’s National Institute of Statistics, in 2013 Cameroon’s total population was 21,143,237, with an average population density of 45.4 people per square kilometer. In contrast, average population density in the two provinces of the Grassfields region was 134.28/km2 (West Region) and 109.9/km2 (Northwest Region) (Republic of Cameroon 2013, 86–87). People of Grassfields origin—in urban areas as well as rural homelands—make up roughly 40 percent of the total Cameroonian population. Bangangté, where Che’elou spent most of her life, is one of some one hundred Bamiléké kingdoms of the eastern Grassfields.

The earliest Bamiléké kingdoms (also referred to as paramount chieftaincies or fondoms) emerged during the sixteenth century, when population movements in the northern savanna region of Adamoua pushed the “pre-Tikar” Ndobo into the Bamiléké plateau (Notué and Perrois 1984, 10–14). The “hunter-king” founding legends of many Bamiléké dynasties reflect a historical process in which “strangers” employed a combination of conquest, ruse, and forging of new alliances to become the rulers of original, “autochthonous” populations. Succession disputes, the search for new territories to hunt and grow crops, and movements of refugees fleeing interkingdom warfare continued to transform the number and boundaries of Bamiléké kingdoms up through the nineteenth century (Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 43–48). As a result, the very constitution of Bamiléké and similar Grassfields polities (the Bamoun sultanate and the fondoms of the western Grassfields) has long created predicaments of belonging for its populace. Questions of origins, border crossing, and allegiance emerge over and over again in personal biographies.

These questions of belonging and allegiance were tied to long-distance trade in goods (ivory, palm oil, wood, iron implements) and people (slaves and pawns) that connected Grassfields kingdoms with other African polities and with emerging European powers (Warnier 1985). Mystifying use of “medicines” and deception surrounded the slave trade, especially when heads of households—perhaps overwhelmed by obligations, or searching for wealth and prestige—allegedly sold their young relatives in secret (Argenti 2007; Warnier 1985). Such actions repeated a recurring process of large-scale “forms of violence and mass destabilization that were originally of exogenous origin” (Argenti 2007, 242) and were taken over by smaller-scale betrayals and power plays by local elites (Bayart 1979, 1993). European slave trade, initiated (p.32) after Portuguese traders arrived on the Cameroon coast in 1472, established a cultural legacy of fears regarding external and internal forces that drains the wealth, health, and people of Grassfields kingdoms and the families that populate them. These fears found expression in newly emerging beliefs in anthropophagic witchcraft that sent zombies to work in a parallel world, as well as in analogous discourses of the state, like a sorcerer, “eating” the people (Ardener 1970; Geschiere 1997, 2013; Hours 1985).

During the colonial era, regulations regarding labor recruitment and health care reinforced these fears while establishing new forms of belonging. Cameroon’s colonial period began on July 12, 1884, when coastal Duala kings made a treaty with the German Empire. German colonial officials, traders, and missionaries made their way into the mountainous Grassfields territory by the 1890s. There they found a densely populated and richly cultivated territory, crisscrossed by paths and markers indicating active commercial and interchiefdom diplomatic relations (Hutter 1892; Kaberry 1952; Nkwi 1987; Tardits 1960, 66). Working through local fons, colonial officials began recruiting forced labor to build the roads, railroads, and ports so necessary to the colonial project. Indigenous rulers were rewarded with markers of prestige—e.g., two-story colonial-built stone palaces—and the ability to skim off any taxes collected for the colonial administration. Census-taking established who was registered as a subject of which chiefdom or subchiefdom, attaching people more firmly to a particular place or group than had previously been the case (Kuczynski 1939). Grassfields peoples “belonged” simultaneously to their kingdom and to the colonial government, in a form of nested, double-citizenship.

The German colonial period was short-lived (Rudin 1938). During World War I, between 1914 and 1916, the German colony of Kamerun was gradually conquered by French and British forces. A League of Nations mandate divided the colony between France and Britain, with roughly 80 percent of the territory falling under French rule. The mandates of British Cameroon and French Cameroun, established in 1920, continued as UN Trusteeships following World War II (LeVine and Nye 1974). The boundary between French and British Cameroon ran right through the Grassfields, solidifying a terminological distinction between the Bamiléké (and Bamoun) in the French-dominated eastern Grassfields, and their closely related fondoms—usually termed “Grassfields kingdoms”—in the British-dominated western Grassfields.

This complex colonial history left a legacy of official bilingualism, dual legal and educational systems, and religious heterogeneity. Under French and Brit (p.33) ish mandate, education and health care for indigenous Grassfields populations were largely left to a variety of Christian missionary groups (Ngongo 1982). Indeed, provision of health care became a recruiting tool for new converts (Debarge 1934). Women and noninheriting men, seeking alternative contexts for self-realization, made up the majority of early converts (Basel Mission n.d.). They expressed their sense of belonging to their new religious communities through ritual practice (attending church), dress (wearing tailored cotton-print clothing), patterns of commensality and time discipline (e.g., men, women, and children eating together at set mealtimes around a table using European-style cutlery), and health care choices (attending mission clinics rather than visiting diviners and herbalists).

Colonial-era Grassfields peoples had to manage complex, overlapping belongings as religious converts and subjects simultaneously of a colony and a fondom. We see that the same person may have been recognized and accepted and have found comfort in multiple forms of connection. Their belonging may have been imposed, when census-takers forced Grassfields peoples to assemble at designated points on designated days so they could be listed within a particular jurisdiction (Egerton 1938, 177–79). They may have performed belonging through following protocol toward members of the royal family, or through donning the clothing of a “modern” Christian convert. These performances simultaneously reflected feelings of attachment or loyalty and enabled the person to enact rights, such as participating in feasts or being able to send one’s child to a mission school.

Labor relations added an additional layer to the complexities of belonging in colonial Cameroon. Through forced labor (ending officially in the French territories only in 1946) and in response to an expanding need for cash, young men increasingly migrated to southern commercial centers such as Douala, Nkongsamba, Buea, and Yaoundé (Dongmo 1981). There they worked on colo­nial infrastructure projects, in tea, palm oil, and banana plantations, as truck and taxi drivers, and opened small businesses. They earned cash to participate in an increasingly monetized economy, thus paying taxes, buying consumer items, and paying money and gifts—bridewealth—to future parents-in-law.

Male labor migration left many rural Grassfields women as de facto heads of households, subtly altering women’s relationships with their families of marriage vis-à-vis their families of origin. Visits from natal kin, and temporarily sending children to live with natal kin, were important ways that rural women managed their increasing repertoire of tasks (Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 57). Moral support, exchange of foodstuffs, and circulation of children contributed to rural Grassfields women’s affective circuits in the context of male labor (p.34) migration. Because, during visits home, male labor migrants spread sexually transmitted infections to their wives and lovers in the Grassfields (Retel-Laurentin 1974), women depended on their affective circuits to seek therapies for these infections and the secondary infertility resulting from them.

Over time, rural-to-urban labor migration included ever more women, and Grassfields families began to settle and form diasporic communities in Cameroon’s urban centers. In Yaoundé, for example, the first Bamiléké immigrants arrived in 1918 (Feldman-Savelsberg and Ndonko 2010, 375). In 1923, French colonial housing decrees forcibly removed Bamiléké settlers from Yaoundé’s city center to (then) peripheral neighborhoods (Dongmo 1981, 87), encouraging the formation of “urban villages” (Gans 1962). These ethnic enclaves enabled frequent face-to-face interactions and became the basis for urban Bamiléké social reproduction. By 1957, three years before Cameroon achieved independence, Bamiléké migration to Yaoundé was no longer male-dominated; sex-ratios of Bamiléké migrants showed a slight preponderance of women (Dongmo 1981, 93).

Visits, circular migration, sending remittances, and fostering-in rural nieces and nephews kept urban dwellers connected to their rural kin. Attendance at weddings, funerals, and propitiatory rituals toward ancestors further cemented urban Grassfielders’ ongoing sense of belonging to families, now stretched be­tween their rural home places and urban outposts. In addition, many urban dwellers built houses in the land of their ancestors, simultaneously investments in a possible future retirement home and in a rural economy of social prestige (den Ouden 1987; Ndjio 2009). By forming hometown associations, members of Grassfields “domestic diasporas” (Mercer, Page, and Evans 2008, 12) maintained not only their feelings of belonging toward their hometowns, but also their rights and recognition as citizens of their chiefdoms of origin. In the early twenty-first century, hometown associations continue to maintain both affective and jural connections between urban diasporic populations and their Grassfields homelands.

These firm ties to an ethnic homeland complicate how others (mis)recognize Grassfielders’ belonging as Cameroonians. Struggles over “primary patriotism” (Geschiere and Gugler 1998) have a history in Cameroon that goes beyond mere questions of split loyalties between “particularistic” ethnic identities and more “universal” identification as a citizen of a nation-state. Over a seventeen-year period (1956–1973) spanning Cameroon’s transition from a dual trusteeship to independence (1960) and reunification (1961), a radical nationalist political party waged an armed battle with the colonial and immediate postcolonial government of Cameroon. Beginning as a trade labor (p.35) movement, the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) was outlawed in 1955 and transformed into an armed anticolonial struggle, accompanied by violent state reprisals. Although at its core political, this conflict took on an increasingly ethnic character over time. Popularly termed “les troubles” (the troubles), much of the violence between UPC militants (maquisards, or guerrillas) was concentrated in the Bamiléké highlands, and both government reports and some scholars labeled the insurgency as the “Bamiléké Rebellion (Joseph 1977; Terretta 2013).

Bamiléké women remember the trauma of an extended period of violence through their expressions of reproductive insecurity (Feldman-Savelsberg, Ndonko, and Song 2005) and through the ways they conceptualize “home” as a unit of belonging (Feldman-Savelsberg and Ndonko 2010, 382). Josiane, during an interview in Yaoundé in 2002, recalled a childhood memory:

I was already eleven or twelve years old … It was the guerrillas who destroyed chez nous [in our village], at Bazou. The guerrillas, they burned down the two-story building in our village. It was the palace [that burned], eh eh! My grandmother told me that if she hadn’t fled with a particular uncle, they would have killed her.

On the one hand, this event was one expression of a rebellion of disenfranchised youth against local elites thought to have been coopted by colonial powers. On the other hand, in local political-religious thought, Bamiléké and other Grassfields fons spiritually control the fertility of their territory and its people. Thus, an attack on the palace was simultaneously an attack on women’s ability to bear children and to grow the food that feeds them.

Josiane’s friend Nanette related the violence of the 1950s and 1960s to Bamiléké experiences of exclusion at the turn to the twenty-first century: “When there’s the slightest problem, they say ‘let’s chase away the Bami, let’s chase the Bamiléké.’ They chase us away to seize our goods … [The Bamiléké are] strangers everywhere.” This feeling of painful marginalization, of being treated as strangers in one’s own country, reached a new high when the 1990s brought dramatic political change to Cameroon. An economic recession and structural adjustment programs had been wreaking havoc on Cameroonian families’ incomes since the mid-1980s. Countries of the “global north” cut their foreign aid following the end of the Cold War. In this historic context, Cameroonian politicians—and particularly youth—vociferously called for the establishment of a multiparty democracy. They organized the “ghost town” (Villes Mortes) movement, a general strike lasting more than a year. Participants’ perseverance helped precipitate a national constitutional conference (p.36) and a change of law in December 1990 (Kelodjoue, Libité, and Jazet 2012, 2). During the elections of 1991, multiple political parties were allowed for the first time in what had for decades been a one-party state.

The political and economic crisis of the 1990s sharpened attention to ethnic difference and to the distinction between first-comers or people “of the land” (autochthons) and more recent arrivals (allogènes). This “politics of belonging” (Geschiere and Gugler 1998; Goheen 1996; Nyamnjoh and Rowlands 1998) was expressed in doubts about loyalty, in denigrating comments, and in outright discrimination at the level of organized political parties and statecraft as well as in informal interactions among merchants and clients, among neighbors, and among real estate speculators (Socpa 2010). In the quarter century since the beginning of the Ghost Town movement, Cameroon’s multiple political parties have become increasingly associated with specific ethnic groups and/or regions.

In this political context, individuals have become more self-consciously aware of lineage, ethnic, and regional identities. They sometimes literally wear their ethnic identity on their sleeve, fashioning clothing out of printed cloth combining an imitation of Grassfields blue and white royal display cloth (Feldman-Savelsberg 2005) with a double-bell motif depicting a musical instrument employed in nearly all Grassfields public festivals. In their verbal expressions, during the 1990s and early 2000s Cameroonians became more demonstrative about boundary maintenance. In Yaoundé in 2002, Georgine complained to me that Bamiléké women’s mutual support activities were perceived as evidence of “tribalism” by competing ethnic groups:

People meet according to their tribes. The Bamiléké go have their meetings … which makes things stay within the tribes, and like that, generally, the Bamiléké are always and always badly seen. You feel that perhaps ‘This person is more Cameroonian than me.’ To feel Bamiléké nowadays, they say that in Cameroon there are always those who are more integrated than others. [It’s] a hierarchy among the tribes.

Cameroonian scholar Jacques Kago Lele states that Bamiléké ministers hesitate to be seen together, lest they be suspected of conspiracy against the regime (Kago Lele 1995, 87–88), simultaneously revealing painfully convoluted strategies of inclusion and the emotionally charged perspective of the excluded in the politics of belonging (Feldman-Savelsberg and Ndonko 2010, 384).

In sum, Cameroonian mothers—and indeed all Cameroonians—belong simultaneously to families, to communities, and, as citizens, to the state of the Republic of Cameroon. Each of these nested belongings has the potential to create a haven of secure connections to significant people and places, in other (p.37) words, a feeling of home. Belonging to families, communities, and countries also brings practical and emotional predicaments. These predicaments of belonging are the historical and political roots of Cameroonian mothers’ migration to Europe.

Predicaments of Reproduction: Movement, Marriage, and Maternity

Throughout the Grassfields, including both the French-speaking Bamiléké in the West Region and those from culturally related paramount chieftaincies in the English-speaking Northwest Region, women’s reproduction is tightly intertwined with predicaments of belonging. Well into the beginning of the twenty-first century, many perceived that ethnic-political strife contributes to such physical reproductive challenges as infertility, miscarriage, and inadequate obstetric care. In this line of thought, conflict threatens reproduction through its weakening of the fon’s spiritual authority and by creating jealousies; these jealousies are expressed through witchcraft attacks, direct physical attacks, and armed coercion. In addition, traditional rules regarding land tenure and inheritance create a class of noninheriting men, who must venture away to find new land for their wives to farm or new ways of making a living to make family life possible.

Local marital practices are the basis of regenerating life in a socially and spiritually acceptable manner; they serve as a centrifugal force, propelling young men and women outward, beyond the boundaries of their natal villages. In the past, men sought land to farm and bridewealth to enable them to get married and have rights over the children they hoped to sire. For many still living in rural areas, the groom builds a house and kitchen for his bride upon marriage, thus setting up the conditions to reproduce a family around the symbolic cooking-pot womb. In addition, weddings continue to be embedded within a process of ongoing exchanges. The transfer of bridewealth gifts, sharing of food, and pronouncement of blessings forge ties between the couple’s families. All of this costs money, and the pursuit of money to enable socially acceptable procreation motivates male rural-to-urban migration.

Women, too, have long migrated between rural chiefdoms to bear children in ways that seem proper to them, following the customs of Bamiléké and other Grassfields peoples. Couples must marry people who belong neither to their patrilineage (the group of relatives related to them through their father and paternal grandfather) nor to their matrilineage. Anthropologists call this practice lineage exogamy. At least since the twentieth century, marriage in most rural Grassfields communities has been virilocal with patrilocal (p.38) preference—meaning that a bride joins the groom where he has settled and built her a house (preferably near his father’s and brothers’ households). Thus, rural women almost always move from one village or chiefdom to another when they get married. Because women marry outside their lineage, they sometimes move quite far to reproduce in the “right” way. They may move from village to village, from one fondom to another; since the mid-twentieth century, women have been moving to urban areas as well. When joining their husband in a new place, women must often show fealty to a new fon and master a new language upon marriage.

The men and women who pursue the regeneration of life by participating in this internal migration must adjust to living as ethnic strangers in their own country. In addition to adapting to new climates, languages, and customs, they often face prejudice. Internal migrants soon learn that there is not one “Cameroonian way” to raise a family; they need to work hard and purposefully to rear their children to internalize Bamiléké and Grassfields values.

To understand the predicaments of reproduction, we begin with the context of Grassfields kinship systems and notions of the family within customary law—rules that still pertain for most rural dwellers and for many urbanites as well. Descent, forms of connection created by relation through the generations to a common ancestor, is the core of Grassfields kinship systems. While various Grassfields kingdoms may emphasize either patrilineality (Hurault 1962; Pradelles de Latour 1994), matrilineality (Nkwi 1976; Vubo 2005), or dual descent (Feldman-Savelsberg 1995), lineage remains the core concept governing social belonging, inheritance, obligations toward ancestors, and whom one is allowed to marry. In the Bamiléké kingdom of Bangangté, lineages are referred to as ntun nda, the foundation of the house (Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 50). Bangangté invoke two lineage affiliations in different social settings, what anthropologists call dual descent. Patrilineal descent determines village membership and for male heirs the inheritance of traditional honorific titles, land, houses, and wives. Matrilineal descent determines the inheritance of moral and legal obligation to lineage members, and for female heiresses the inheritance of titles and movable property (e.g., blankets, metal pots, and other household goods). People descended from the same mother, called a pam nto’ or uterine group (Brain 1972, 53–59), may stand in for one another in traditional jurisprudence, including the resolution of witchcraft accusations through divination and poison ordeals. Each lineage head chooses a single heir or heiress who then “becomes” the legal person of their ascendant, taking on their titles in customary associations, their rights and duties toward all dependents (i.e., noninheriting siblings and, for male heirs, the father’s widows), and their custodianship of ancestral skulls.

(p.39) Ancestors act on the fortunes of their descendants, “seizing” them with illness and infertility when angered, or protecting them from misfortune and blessing them with fertility when satisfied. To keep the ancestors in good spirits, descendants perform propitiary rites to the ancestral skull (tu, the head)—talking to them, feeding them sacrifices, and protecting them from the elements. Within a few years after burial, heirs and heiresses exhume the skulls of their ancestors and shelter them in clay pots and/or in specially built tombs. Nonheirs are dependent on their inheriting siblings to keep the ancestors happy, lest they suffer from illness and other misfortunes.

Such was the case at an exhumation that I witnessed in 1986. One of the fon’s wives had designated a granddaughter as her heiress. A couple of years after the royal wife’s death, multiple misfortunes had befallen the family. One person had a car accident, another failed the entrance exam for a civil service job, and yet another found herself unable to bear children. Because the dead woman’s heiress was overseas pursuing her education, one of her matrilineal relatives—an older woman—temporarily took over her job as custodian of the dead queen’s skull. First a diviner was called in to determine the exact location of the grave. Then the matrilineal relative of the heiress arrived with some helpers to dig a pit and search for the dead queen’s skull. Once the skull was located, she carefully freed the skull from the surrounding red laterite soil. The woman spoke normally in a quiet voice, addressing the skull and explaining to it why she was coming in the heiress’s place. She promised to shelter the skull from the cold rains and hot sun, and to feed it with offerings of the new harvest. She begged the skull to leave the family in peace and protect it from all future misfortunes. Finally, she placed the skull in a plastic shopping bag and left for home.

In Grassfields custom, taking good care of the ancestors is an essential part of the regeneration of life and families, because only with ancestral blessing can one bear children. Indeed, fertility is the greatest marker of fortune, and infertility a grave misfortune. In the late twentieth century, Bamiléké men and women explained sex, conception, and gestation through the imagery of cooking. Sex, they said, is hot, and like fire it contains enormous transformative power as well as potential danger. When a man impregnates a woman, he “cooks the woman” (Goldschmidt 1986, 58). Men “tend the fire” and “open the way” to ease childbirth when they have intercourse with their wife during her pregnancy (Nzikam Djomo 1977, 61; Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 84). From a woman’s perspective, cooking and sexual flirtation are closely intertwined. Rural women express love, the desire to have sex, and the hard work of marital duty when they cook a meal for a man (Njiké-Bergeret 1997, 14–45).

(p.40) The Bangangté term for marriage, nâ nda, literally means “to cook inside.” Tamveun, a wise and elderly man who tutored me in the Bangangté language, Medumba, during my rural fieldwork in 1986, explained the deeper meaning of this expression:

Nâ nda is marriage. An unmarried woman cooks on the road, in the open where just anyone can smell the delicious aromas from her cooking pot. A married woman cooks inside, cooks inside her kitchen. Only her husband tastes her food and sniffs the aroma from her cooking pot. Her husband builds her the kitchen. Then she does not have to cook on the road. Later her kitchen is full of children

(Feldman-Savelsberg 1995, 484).

The imagery embodied in the term for marriage reflects the experiences of brides moving from “outside” to “inside” their husbands’ lineage and territory under rules of lineage exogamy. Since the twentieth century (and probably before), women learned that to forge belonging in this new conjugal setting, they needed to bear children within the marital kitchen their husbands had built.

In this marital kitchen, husband and wife “measure” to get the proper balance of male and female ingredients—the husband’s water (semen) and blood mixed with the wife’s water and blood. The sex act mixes these ingredients just as a good cook stirs the sauce thickening and taking form in her cooking pot (her womb), thus procreating or “measuring a person.” Women explain their sensations of swelling or growing during pregnancy as analogous to maize meal expanding when a wife cooks the ubiquitous daily porridge (foofoo). While waiting for her prenatal checkup at the mission-run maternal-child clinic in Bangoua in 1986, Celeste, a mother in her twenties, described biomedical prenatal checks using this same culinary imagery: “Pamé, you can hear noises in your belly. It is like a bubbling pot, and the doctor hears it through his horn [stethoscope]” (Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 86).

In Bangangté during the 1980s, the symbolism of hot sex, maternal hearths, cooking-pot wombs, and procreative ingredients figured prominently in women’s explanations of infertility. Rippling out across several social fields, cooking metaphors give language to reproductive insecurities located in what Scheper-Hughes and Lock have labeled the “three bodies” (1987, 7). The lived experience of the “individual body-self” is evoked in women’s metaphoric descriptions of the bodily sensations of pregnancy. At the analytic level of the “social body” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987, 19), Bangangté women commented about the fon’s physical suffering from liver cirrhosis and complained that his weak governance (that he was a “bad cook”) diminished the fertility of the land and its people. In this way, they used the body as a natural symbol (p.41) (Douglas 1970) to express concerns about social reproduction (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987, 24). The disciplining aspect of the “body politic” (1987, 26) is evident in the ways that women protested strained marital relations in the gendered household economy by cooking tasteless food, thus enacting key culinary symbols such as salt and palm oil. In sum, women’s complaints about infertility comment on their lives, pointing out areas of personal and social unease (Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 100–101).

Birthing children and reproducing Bamiléké lifeways are no easy matter. Hard labor, poor nutrition, and disease all make women’s fertility fragile. Mothers in rural Cameroon commonly clap and then open their hands, palms up, indicating “we have nothing”—not enough children, not enough food or material goods or the conditions to grow healthy families. They use culinary imagery to complain about husbands who do not provide the proper “ingredients,” in other words, husbands who fail to sufficiently provide for their households and who spend long periods away, lessening their wives’ opportunities to get pregnant. In addition to poverty, rural women fear witchcraft attacks resulting from competitive jealousies among cowives in polygynous households. Women speak of witchcraft once again using idioms of cooking and eating. Competitors use occult powers to “steal” ingredients, to make the fetus “stick to the sides of the pot,” thus preventing its proper development (Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 116–19). Witches devour the organs of their victims, selfishly destroying rather than regenerating life. Women’s physical distance often weakens the protection and support emanating from their families of origin, rendering reproduction yet more insecure (Feldman-Savelsberg 2016).

Reproductive insecurity has historical roots in the Grassfields. We have already read that colonial-era labor migration contributed to the spread of sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea, resulting in secondary infertility in the Grassfields region (Farinaud 1944, 79). Draconian measures in the fight against sleeping sickness, led by colonial physician Eugène Jamot in the 1920s, as well as smallpox vaccination campaigns in 1945 (Farinaud 1945, 113) were interpreted by many Bamiléké at the time as simultaneous threats to self-determination and to fertility (Feldman-Savelsberg 1999, 146). At least through the beginning of the twenty-first century, memories of the “time of troubles,” when the UPC engaged in an extended armed conflict with French colonial forces and later with the Cameroonian state, figured prominently in Bamiléké expressions of reproductive insecurity. Through petitions to the UN Trusteeship Council, the women’s wing of the UPC—the Union Démocratique des Femmes Camerounaises (UDEFEC)—enumerated the multiple ways that the colonial powers attacked the fertility of their largely Bamiléké enemies.

(p.42) Female petitioners complained about the lack of obstetric infrastructure on the one hand, as noted in the following petition:

As soon as they built the Dibang dispensaries, they forbade us to have our babies anywhere in the village other than the dispensary. There were cases of still-births. A room of three square metres is used to accommodate ten new mothers. Look at the diseases our newborn babies catch.1

On the other hand, they deeply mistrusted the potentially genocidal aims of health care personnel (Feldman-Savelsberg, Ndonko, and Yang 2005, 13–14).

Whites came to Cameroon for no other reason than to cheat blacks … The Doctor infects us with all sorts of sicknesses. For us dying is as common as shitting; this is what decreases the population so they can uproot our liberation movement.2

During a period of regime change, when President Ahmadou Ahidjo resigned in 1982 and Paul Biya established his presidential authority in the subsequent years, Bamiléké men and women complained bitterly about government policies that threatened their ability to thrive as Bamiléké. They felt that government control and cooptation of local healers left them vulnerable to witchcraft attack. Actively referring to the time of “the troubles” as a period when those with bad hearts got the taste for blood, Bamiléké women worried that an epidemic of witchcraft threatened their ability to bear children.

Through the imagery of a procreative kitchen plundered by absent hus­bands, jealous wives, an epidemic of witchcraft, and a predatory state, Bami­ léké women tie reproductive insecurity to multiple layers of experience. Paulette’s story illustrates how reproductive insecurity became implicated in one young woman’s migration within Cameroon—from the city to an unhappy marriage in the countryside, and back to the city once again.

An Unfortunate Wife: Paulette’s Story

Paulette, an urban-raised descendant of the royal family, married the fon of Bangangté during a visit “home,” au village, to the town and chiefdom of her ethnic origins. After months of not conceiving, visits to healers and diviners revealed that Paulette was descended from a king of Bangangté several generations back. Because the current fon was part of a direct line of heirs, in strict kinship rules he counted as Paulette’s father. Paulette believed that this unintended classificatory incest had rendered her marriage to the king infertile and (p.43) her life in the palace untenable. Her departure for Douala, Cameroon’s major port city, generated heated discussion among the fon’s wives and their female neighbors.

We know that Bamiléké women’s reproductive careers commonly involve both spatial movement and genealogical examination. If the diviner’s diagnosis of incest was correct, the failure to thoroughly check Paulette’s lineages in Bangangté’s dual-descent system must surely be symptomatic of the breakdown of traditional knowledge systems. Otherwise both Paulette’s parents and the king’s ritual specialists would have examined the betrothed’s lineages several generations back. What a sad indicator, people tsk’ed, of contemporary ignorance and disrespect for the rules of kinship.

But, some asked, was Paulette’s infertility instead caused by witchcraft? “Everyone knew” that during the time of the maquis (guerrilla fighters during the years immediately preceding and following independence), people with “bad hearts” (ntʉ kəbwɔ) got the “taste for blood.” During a historical period when power hierarchies between chiefs and subjects and between seniors and youth were disrupted, many in Bangangté began to explain violence through a witchcraft idiom. They believed that evildoers emerging during the troubles continued their nefarious acts even after the insurgency and its violent repression had subsided, subjecting the vulnerable to increasingly rampant witchcraft attacks.

And if Paulette could adjust neither to rural life as a cultivator nor to the special duties of a fon’s wife, this only shows how hard it is to reproduce a Bangangté way of life among a growing urban “exile” population. Gossip surrounding Paulette’s departure referred to the complicated and uncomfortable incorporation of their fondom into the political and economic structures of the Cameroonian state. People spoke of the kingdom being “eaten” by the state, using a cannibalistic witchcraft idiom to describe political and economic exploitation. More and more young people sought their fortunes, or at least to make ends meet, by migrating to the cities and plantations of southern Cameroon in search of work or commerce. There they learned new orientations, became too “soft” to engage in rigorous agricultural labor, and neglected their duties toward their elders and ancestors. As many a grandmother bemoaned, young people like Paulette were “forgetting where their umbilical cord is buried.”

These emic (insider’s) explanations complemented my own etic (analytic, observer’s) perspective that Paulette departed because most of her network ties in Bangangté were of shallow depth and carried considerable negative affect. Paulette’s kin and acquaintances did not provide her with sufficient emotional support in her status as the fon’s new wife.

(p.44) Predicaments of Connection: Affective Circuits between Village and City

In the same year that Paulette left Bangangté, Hortense—the fon’s niece—was also living in the palace grounds. Staying in a fostering arrangement with the royal wives enabled Hortense to attend school in the nearby town. Hortense had ambition and dreamed of achieving a more comfortable and fulfilling life than that of the impoverished and sickly mother who was unable to raise her. It was never clear to me how much Hortense understood her mother’s perspective, that her mother had drawn upon her affective circuits, mobilizing her ties to her brother and his many wives to build for Hortense the very social connections necessary to create a better life.

Hortense’s story introduces us to the predicaments of maintaining connections that emerge for Cameroonians whose relationships are stretched between the village and the city—and, as is the focus in what follows, beyond to international locales. How do mothers on the move manage the ties that bind them to scattered family members, to significant places, and to the memories that give them a sense of home and belonging?

A Circuitous Path: Hortense’s Story

A diligent lycée student when I first met her in 1986, Hortense subsequently sought the social status, material comfort, and intellectual stimulation of life at the École Normale Supérieure in Yaoundé. A decade later, Hortense had completed her studies and became a lycée teacher. Hortense had gotten married, and after trouble conceiving and repeated miscarriages, finally had a young child of her own. Hortense remained in touch with the cousins she had grown up with in Bangangté, who by now were scattered across Cameroon and Europe. Indeed, during several visits I made to Yaoundé in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and through e-mail exchanges over the ensuing years, Hortense was the one who most frequently kept me apprised of the whereabouts and fates of those I had known as young children. According to her own self-presentation and to the reports of her cousins and her onetime foster mother, Hortense seemed to be the one who had made it to a life combining maternity, career, and the relative ease of urban life.

But Hortense also faced whispered complaints from her colleagues about how she and other Bamiléké were taking over the civil service and buying up land from the capital’s rightful owners, the autochthons. Currency devaluations and irregular disbursement of pay meant that Hortense and her small family were barely squeaking by financially, squeezed into a high-rise public housing project at Cité Verte in Yaoundé. At our last meeting in 2002, Hor­ (p.45)

Cameroonian Predicaments

Figure 2. 2. Hortense as a lycée student, posing with one of the fon’s wives on the palace grounds in Bangangté, 1986.

Credit: Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg

tense arrived with her face and arm bandaged. She had been mugged two days before in a Yaoundé taxi. This mugging deeply disturbed Hortense’s sense of security. She began applying for teaching jobs overseas, even involving me in her quest to find private schools that would take on a native speaker of French and specialist in language pedagogy and the high school French literature curriculum. It seems that Hortense may have caught the bushfalling bug, an intense desire to seek an easier, more adventurous life overseas (Alpes 2011; Graw and Schielke 2012). Although she did not confide to me, Hortense may have already been searching for a European partner on international dating sites, strategizing to create new affective circuits that could lead to marriage migration and a more comfortable family life (Johnson-Hanks 2007).

As sometimes happens, the affective circuit between us—of memories and updates exchanged in letters and e-mail messages, of visits and phone calls, and of small gifts that expressed fondness—thinned over the years. After a six-year hiatus, I got back in touch with Hortense in 2011. I learned that twenty years after Paulette left the fon’s palace hoping for a better future, in 2006 the once-dreamy schoolgirl Hortense left her husband and only child to marry a Frenchman and move to Europe. Hortense did not tell me many details about her own life or her long-distance parenting, only that she was living in Paris and that her daughter was already in a secondary school in (p.46) Yaoundé. As Hortense draws upon the repertoire of child fostering that she had herself experienced as a child, I can only imagine how hard she must work to support her daughter emotionally and financially across international borders.

Paulette and Hortense’s stories illustrate that it is hard becoming and being a mother in the Grassfields Bamiléké fondoms and in Yaoundé. They hint at the predicaments of connection faced by women in the urban “domestic diaspora.” We experience how Paulette and Hortense manage the difficulties of belonging and of reproductive insecurity through the social ties they maintain—and break—between their village “homes” and their urban places of residence. Hortense’s story in particular reveals how biography and history intersect in the way one young woman creates and breaks social ties, reconnecting in new ways as her circumstances change.

When Hortense moved from Bangangté to Yaoundé, she joined a Bamiléké urban diaspora that was several generations deep. This internal or domestic (as opposed to international) diaspora maintained ties to their home places of origin. Their connections to a home place were based on a shared identity contingent on larger political, economic, and social contexts (Mitchell 1969; 1987; Schildkrout 1978; Shack and Skinner 1979; Trager 1998, 2001). Thus, they changed over time and exhibited marked variation by gender and social class (Feldman-Savelsberg and Ndonko 2010, 1). While urban male elites used hometown ties mainly as a resource to build a business or support a political career, at the turn to the twenty-first century, hometown identification also posed a liability for rural-to-urban migrants like Hortense. The whispered resentments Hortense faced at her workplace reveal a climate of “increasing obsession with autochthony” (Geschiere and Gugler 1998, 309). On the one hand, the emotional, practical, and even spiritual exchanges among kin between rural homelands and new rural residences were essential elements of both physical and social reproduction. How else could a woman become a mother and raise her children to belong to a family, a lineage, or a people? On the other hand, expressing this sense of belonging and obligation for mutual support through organizing into hometown associations underscored ethnic difference and provided fodder to the resentments other urban residents felt toward ethnic “strangers” from Cameroon’s Grassfields region.

Among Bamiléké living in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, hometown associations are an essential part of urban social organization, supplementing kinship as an important basis for trust, mutual aid, and access to housing and employment (see also Barkan et al. 1991; Englund 2001; Little 1965; Woods 1994). Most Bamiléké hometown associations in Yaoundé are sex-segregated (p.47) as well as differentiated by elite and nonelite designations. Between 1997 and 2002, Cameroonian anthropologist Flavien Ndonko and I undertook a study of the social networks formed among Bamiléké women in six hometown associations, investigating ways that mutual support, ideas about reproductive practices, and collective memories of ethnically-based violence flowed within these networks (Feldman-Savelsberg and Ndonko 2010). We found that Bamiléké reproduction, including cultural survival as well as aid at vital conjunctures (birth, death), is a major focus of women’s hometown associations. While economically and educationally elite women frame their relation to the hometown differently than less privileged women,3 social reproduction broadly conceived was the raison-d’être of formalizing common ties to a home place via the hometown association.

Bamiléké women’s urban hometown associations build on a rich history—for men and for women, in the precolonial past to the present—of associational life originating in rural areas, including royal title associations, chiefdom-based youth associations, and work groups providing mutual aid in agricultural tasks (Tardits 1960; Hurault 1962; Njiké-Bergeret 2000). Perhaps most important in rural Bamiléké women’s extra-kinship associational life is the tontine (ncüα‎ in Bangangté), or rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA) (Ardener and Burman 1995; Niger-Thomas 1995; Rowlands 1995). As I learned through my membership in a rotating savings and credit association in Bangangté, rural Bamiléké women’s tontines meet regularly; each week one tontine member receives the pot of weekly cash contributions. Women’s household responsibilities usually obligate them to spend the pot on school fees, health care, food, and clothing rather than investing their savings in a small business venture, even though many yearn to use the pot as start-up capital (Rowlands 1995).

Once Bamiléké began arriving in Yaoundé, beginning in 1918 (Dongmo 1981, 87), they organized mutual aid associations based on the tontines of their hometowns. These hometown associations allowed them to bypass discriminatory practices of colonial banks, and personalized the savings and credit system; default was rare, because it was an offense against social relationships of trust among a network of women who regularly met face-to-face. Hometown associations provide a point of entry and welcome for visiting kin, trading partners, and colleagues in other parts of Cameroon. For many of the women we interviewed, hometown associations had played a helpful role for their parents fleeing the troubles during the 1950s and 1960s, and had facilitated their own education, courtship, and migrant itineraries toward Yaoundé (Feldman-Savelsberg and Ndonko 2010, 377). Thus, in addition to helping urban dwellers (p.48) to get by economically, Bamiléké hometown associations in Yaoundé reinforce and even produce place-based identities. They are an important element in urban women’s efforts to seek and perform belonging, to provide themselves and their children with anchors in a mobile world.

Thus, hometown associations help rural-to-urban migrant women from the Grassfields create a malleable structure of ties that overlap with and supplement ties based on kinship. Ghislaine’s story illustrates the way urban Bamiléké women, including new arrivals, draw upon their hometown associations for help in three main concerns: economic survival, reproductive health, and funerals. Each of these three areas involves the circulation of ideas about the proper way to comport oneself, the exchange of material goods, and emotions of mutual obligation, gratitude, and occasionally resentment. Through Ghislaine’s story we thus see the role hometown associations play in the construction and maintenance of affective circuits.

Hometown Support after Tragedy: Ghislaine’s Story

Ghislaine grew up in the Bamiléké diaspora in the Moungo Valley, near the city of Nkongsamba. Bamiléké first came to the Moungo valley a century ago, through forced labor on infrastructure projects and as laborers and petty merchants in search of cash to pay taxes and bridewealth. Originally migrating to the Moungo valley as plantation and railroad workers, Bamiléké helped found Nkongsamba. Located at the end of the railway built between the port city of Douala and the plantation-rich hinterland of the Littoral Region, Nkongsamba became an important commercial hub. Later, during the political violence associated with decolonization and repression of the UPC, many Bamiléké fled the troubles in their homeland, settling in the Moungo valley to farm or start small businesses in and around Nkongsamba. Thus, Ghislaine grew up in a Bamiléké-majority milieu, but outside the geographic Bamiléké homeland. In this milieu, Ghislaine had learned that membership in a hometown association was an expected part of being Bamiléké, and indeed of being a properly socially embedded person.

Ghislaine moved to Yaoundé as an eighteen-year-old schoolgirl. Following the pattern of urban dwellers fostering-in the children of their rural kin, Ghislaine moved in with an older cousin so that she could attend secondary school in the nation’s capital. They lived in the Yaoundé neighborhood called Mokolo, since 1923 a largely Bamiléké working-class enclave (Dongmo 1981, 87). There Ghislaine met her future husband; within a year she became pregnant. Not yet married, Ghislaine returned to her parents’ home to give birth.

(p.49) I returned home to my parents to give birth. [My husband] then came there to join me. We performed those customary things, a traditional marriage, and then [got married] at the registry office.

After remaining with her parents for a year, Ghislaine and her husband returned to Yaoundé. With their baby son, they settled in the same Bamiléké-dominated, economically impoverished Yaoundé neighborhood of Mokolo, where they had first met.

Ghislaine’s move back to Yaoundé is a story of hopes dashed by reproductive tragedy, and of loneliness mitigated by the support of her hometown association. Upon her return to Yaoundé, Ghislaine joined the Femmes Bangangté de Mokolo, one of the hometown associations that Flavien Ndonko and I studied. Newly married and with no friends in the neighborhood, Ghislaine suffered two devastating losses. First, her delicate and sickly infant son died of malaria.

He regularly fell ill. Even before dying, he was not very, very suffering [seriously ill]. He had a light case of malaria, and then it was death [he died]. When I took him to the hospital, he was [already] dead.

Soon thereafter Ghislaine miscarried her next pregnancy. Remembering these events a decade later, Ghislaine recounted the support she received from her neighborhood hometown association members.

At this time, being new in the neighborhood, I did not yet have any friends. When you arrive in a neighborhood, you are new, you don’t have friends. In any case, the neighborhood meeting [association] helped me morally and even financially. Among us, when a member loses her child, the association stays with her throughout the evening. Only when the corpse departs for the village [to be buried], do they [the association members] return home.

Ghislaine’s emotional pain, evident in her telling of the double tragedy ten years later, was all the more difficult because she lived geographically distant from her closest relatives. Her pain was partially mitigated by the support of new ties she had built through her hometown association. In addition, her husband, brother-in-law, and mother-in-law rallied around her when Ghislaine suffered her miscarriage, forming a spontaneous therapy-management group (Janzen 1987). Ghislaine described discovering spotting on her panties one afternoon and frantically running to her husband’s workplace to tell him. Her husband then took Ghislaine to the nearby urban hospital, where she was put on bed rest. But his mother and older brother were concerned about repeated misfortunes, and wanted her to be treated in a trusted mission hospital (p.50) near their home in the Bamiléké city of Bafoussam. There, she would not only be cared for in a renowned mission hospital, but would also be near diviners who could investigate possible spiritual causes of her repeated misfortune.

At the hospital, they prescribed bed rest. In the meantime, my brother-in-law from Bafoussam left [the West Region] with my mother-in-law. They came to find me [in Yaoundé, to take me with them]. Thus, I don’t know if it was the long distance there that made it that this child [was miscarried], I don’t know. Since bed rest means really laying down resting, because with that long journey, yeah, the bumpy ride in the car … When I arrived in the West [Region] … the next day, I went to the hospital, in the morning with my sister-in-law … Well, there, they weren’t able to do anything … It [the fetus] had already left.

Ghislaine’s story shows how fragile fertility can be, part of the pathology of poverty and of power (Farmer 2003). Because the combination of colonial labor regimes and a brutal anti-colonial insurgency pushed families like Ghislaine’s out of their home areas, many Bamiléké found themselves creating diasporic ethnic enclaves in others parts of Cameroon. Long-standing mistrust of the Bamiléké combined with a patronage system that sent resources to the home areas of powerful government actors meant that young people like Ghislaine had to travel to larger cities to attend secondary school. This type of internal migration fostered affective circuits among kin scattered across multiple Cameroonian locales, but it also made immediate physical support in times of medical emergency impossible. Networks of nonkin, such as hometown association members, could provide limited moral and financial support, but not the level of care provided by close family members. In quest of healing reproductive problems in a manner combining biomedical and local modalities of diagnosis and treatment, women like Ghislaine and the kin caring for them traveled under dangerous conditions over poorly paved roads. Such conditions increased the likelihood of medically and emotionally tragic outcomes.

Ghislaine’s husband’s family took care of her as best they could, fulfilling through great effort their sense of obligation toward vulnerable kin. Reproductive mishaps such as neonatal deaths and repeated miscarriages often involve protracted searches for the cause of misfortune. The deaths of newborns and the not-yet-born constitute an “unnatural and horrifying event” in Cameroon (Njikam Savage 1996, 95). In the village, miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death thus create great unease among a woman’s extended kin. They consult diviners to diagnose the source of these reproductive disruptions and implore the ancestors to bless and protect the rest of the family. Families may also subject the unfortunate mother to purification rites, and consult healers to “shield” her from future spiritual attacks through rubbing herbal concoctions into (p.51) scratches made on her arms, wrist, and by her temples (Feldman-Savelsberg, Ndonko, and Yang 2006, 21).

Because reproductive difficulties are stigmatized, and because diagnosis and treatment for repeated reproductive mishaps are so protracted, not all women I met in Yaoundé sought out their relatives’ help. While there is no explicit prohibition against talking about miscarriage, stillbirth, or neonatal death, many Bamiléké women at the turn to the twenty-first century feared being seen as possible victims of witchcraft, the focus of ancestral wrath for their own or another’s wrongdoing, or even as witches themselves for “eating” their babies. These fears contributed to many women’s wish to keep their loss to themselves. Furthermore, many urban women preferred to rely exclusively on biomedical treatment, stating that “rather than the herbs of the past, we now need the hospital” (Feldman-Savelsberg, Ndonko, and Yang 2006, 22). They thus avoided telling relatives—or at least certain relatives—about their reproductive tragedies. Urban Bamiléké women I spoke with expressed being caught between contradictory emotions—a wish for privacy regarding their reproductive mishaps, combined with intense feelings of loneliness and abandonment (Feldman-Savelsberg, Ndonko, and Yang 2006, 22). The emotional force of their responses underscores that this is more than an illustration of the stop-and-start nature of affective circuits. Rather, cases such as Ghislaine’s remind us that Bamiléké and other Grassfields women in urban diasporas within Cameroon face predicaments regarding which social connections they wish to foster, when, and how.

Predicaments of Movement: Migrant Pathways within Cameroon and Beyond

Cameroonian women’s predicaments of belonging, reproduction, and connection occur in a context of migration. We have seen that multiple histories of movement have created the conditions for current-day predicaments of belonging facing Cameroonians from the greater Grassfields area. Precolonial movements of peoples and colonial-era labor migration have contributed to complex and temporally unstable ethnic formations. Postcolonial struggles for livelihoods and power have charged both group and individual ethnic and place-based belongings with political and emotional force (M. Rosaldo 1980; R. Rosaldo 1989).

Emotion and politics also infuse histories of movement related to marriage and social regeneration—actors’ efforts to “reproduce, contest, and transform their social relations and cultural norms” (Cole and Groes 2016, 7; Cole and Durham 2007, 17). Grassfields women move from one local political unit (e.g., (p.52) a village or chiefdom) to another, not only to join their male spouses, but also to forge alliances among families. Women’s marriage migration within the Cameroon Grassfields combines gender politics with diplomacy among lineages, villages, subchiefdoms, and kingdoms. These women move again, away from local Grassfields kingdoms to the cities and industrialized plantation areas of southern Cameroon. There they forge connections with other rural-to-urban migrants by organizing hometown associations, prominent loci in which women reproduce a sense of belonging. With the help of these associations, Grassfields women access specifically urban conditions in which they can bear and rear children safely, prosper, and achieve valued markers of modern personhood.

Being “someone” among the Bamiléké and other Grassfields peoples is linked to a long tradition of “dynamism” and achievement orientation, often linked to movement (e.g., Dongmo 1981; Wakam 1994). Historically expressed through the pursuit of traditional titles and advancement in title societies (Notué and Perrois 1984), in the twentieth century Bamiléké achievement orientation became increasingly evident in the accumulation of wealth (Tardits 1960). One way Bamiléké men pursued wealth was to practice ta nkap marriage, whereby instead of receiving bridewealth for his daughter, a patriarch would retain rights over the marriage and patrilineal identity of his daughter’s daughters. In becoming his granddaughters’ ta nkap—literally, “father by money”—the patriarch could later capitalize on these matrimonial rights, controlling marriages and receiving bridewealth for large numbers of grand-daughters. Although the practice was outlawed by the French in 1927 and 1928, throughout the colonial period it continued to stoke colonial concerns about concentration of wealth among the colonized (Rolland 1951; Tardits 1960, 22). Through ta nkap marriage, one form of Bamiléké achievement orientation was closely tied to senior men’s control over younger women’s movement, marriage, and reproduction.

For the majority of Bamiléké, especially noninheriting young men (and later women), the pursuit of economic achievement meant migrating south in search of wage labor. Migration in search of economic well-being began in the early twentieth century, parallel to more coercive forms of movement (Argenti 2007). By midcentury, once French colonial agricultural policy loosened, men began planting coffee and, to a lesser extent, cocoa. Women expanded their food crop production to provision growing urban centers (Guyer 1987). The search for agricultural land for these new forms of wealth accumulation pushed many to migrate to the Moungo valley, near the end of the railroad line in Nkongsamba, as was the case for Ghislaine’s kin. And the search for the accumulation of wealth via commerce, transportation, and (p.53) salaried employment engendered migration to commercial and administrative centers in the southern part of Cameroon. Urban living allowed Bamiléké and other Grassfielders to acquire consumer items. These commodities not only made daily living more comfortable; they also became forms of symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1983), signaling success and modernity through what Rowlands (1996) has described as a shiny, luminous aesthetic.

Increasingly, being a successful, modern person entails seeking the skills and credentials of higher education. Much more than a means to wealth and the symbolic display of a “modern” aesthetic, technical skill and intellectual prowess are sources of pride. During my fieldwork in Yaoundé, Bamiléké characterized themselves as intelligent, hard-working, and eager for education. They complained bitterly about how their access to higher education in Cameroon is limited by an ethnic quota system. Most Cameroonian universities are public institutions, controlled by the central government. The ethnic quota system in public university admissions has the purported aim of ensuring that representatives of all ethnic groups have access to university admission, part of a national policy of “regional balance” (Nkwi and Nyamnjoh 2011). But, because it is formulated without regard to Cameroon’s demographic structure, the ethnic quota system serves to limit university access for Bamiléké students as well as for English-speaking students (Kom 2011; Zambo Belinga 2011). The regional balance or ethnic quota system contributes to the loss of transitional pathways and paucity of future perspectives plaguing Anglophone and Bamiléké youth (Jua 2003). Foreign education thus gains allure not only for its symbolic prestige but also because it seems to offer a solution to the problem of feeling “blocked” in Cameroon.

The pursuit of higher education looms large in Cameroonians’ migration rationales. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, young people in Yaoundé told me that personal ties to powerful actors had become more important than merit in securing admission to coveted courses of study, such as medicine, within the Cameroonian university system. A decade later, Cameroonians in Berlin described this situation as a central motive for migrating to Europe. Bamiléké migrants use migration as a means to avoid Cameroon’s discriminatory quotas for university admission. Similarly, many Anglophones migrate because of the paucity of options for higher education in English in a country that is officially bilingual but whose institutions are dominated by the French-speaking majority.

Since the mid-1980s, targeted scholarships have led Cameroonian university students to both the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) (GTZ 2007, 7). When they returned to Cameroon from preunification Germany, beginning in the (p.54) late 1980s and early 1990s, these educational migrants brought the possibility of migration onto the horizon—the imagined possible future—of ever more young people (Johnson-Hanks 2006). Return migrants also established practical networks for later chain migration to expanded opportunities in postunification Germany. With its nearly-free university education, and the distant colonial connection that created an early, if thin, migratory path, Germany has become a particularly popular destination among Cameroon’s emerging middle class (Fleischer 2012).

Like many African migrants, Cameroonians also seek economic opportunity in Europe’s economic powerhouse. Through conversations, news reports, and some return visitors’ exaggerated displays of good fortune, Cameroonian youth develop expectations for readily available work and an easier life in Europe (Graw and Schielke 2012). The combination of educational, economic, and refugee movement out of Cameroon results in Cameroon’s net migration rate of-0.5 (per thousand population), compared to Germany’s 1.3 and the United States’ 3.1 net migration rate (United Nations 2012). Because German immigration law makes legal labor migration nearly impossible, Cameroonians use multiple, largely class-and status-based strategies in their search for economic opportunity. A select few of the highly educated with saleable skills manage to get work permits. Others are “bushfallers,” adventurers who seek their luck in the distant, mysterious European “bush,” often falling in and out of regularized immigration status (Alpes 2011; Fleischer 2012; Nyamnjoh 2011).

Bushfallers draw upon knowledge circulated among their acquaintances to gain access to migration brokers—doki men—in Cameroon (Alpes 2011) to aid their quest to migrate. Once arriving, they also mobilize what social connections they have to learn about how to get along and secure their residency in a new place (Fleischer 2012). As we shall see below, less advantaged Cameroonian migrants’ legal and social vulnerability plays out in struggles to found and raise families—in new reproductive insecurities engendered by the conditions of migration.

Family reunification and educational migration remain the most frequent forms of legal migration from Cameroon to Germany. Of approximately two thousand Cameroonians who migrated to Germany in 2012, 1,044 arrived with temporary residence permits following the new residency law.4 Of these, 636 came as students, 250 via family reunification, 219 as asylum seekers, and only 53 with work permits. Over six thousand Cameroonian students were registered in Germany in 2012, representing 27.2 percent of all students from sub-Saharan Africa (Rühl 2014). Consistent with these figures, many Cameroonian migrant mothers arrive as students or come to join a student spouse.

(p.55) Indeed, periods of transnational educational migration loomed large in reproductive life histories and stories of family formation among Bamiléké women living in Yaoundé at the turn to the twenty-first century. Among the emerging educated elite, mothers described preparing for their overseas studies by taking language courses at the Goethe Institut and the British Council. They used the Internet to become familiar with courses of study open to foreign students. And French-speaking mothers increasingly sent their children to English-speaking schools, cultivating skills to make their children “emigratable.”

Migration was also a conjugal strategy among the emerging educated elite. Couples’ coordination of various life-course events—including pursuing an education, starting a career, getting married, and bearing children—was complicated by spouses taking turns seeking education and professional experience abroad (Johnson-Hanks 2006). This coordination work became evident in an initially surprising manner, through a comparison of elite and nonelite women’s abortion practices in Yaoundé’s Bamiléké diaspora.

Although elite women of the urban Grassfields diaspora have more means and greater knowledge of new contraceptive technologies, they make frequent use of abortion. Urban elite women are able to seek abortions in medically safe conditions and have less to fear from the consequences of abortion (Feldman-Savelsberg and Schuster n.d., 20). Elite women have immediate access to professional abortion services because their immediate social networks include gynecologists and other medical specialists. Abortions performed in well-equipped private clinics, run by physicians whom the women consider trustworthy because of their Grassfields origin, afford elite women both medical safety and protection from socially and legally risky public exposure.

Elite women distinguished themselves from less economically advantaged women in Yaoundé, however, because they made their abortion decisions as part of a conjugal strategy coordinating family formation, education, and work. In contrast, nonelite women decided for abortion covertly, most frequently at the beginning and end of their reproductive careers, to avoid teen pregnancy or to “retire” from childbearing.5 Both childbearing and abortion were part of elite couples’ planning toward educational and career advancement, fulfilling their vision of the ideal modern family. Because they were scrutinized by mothers-in-law and other kin and acquaintances, elite couples established marital legitimacy by having two or three children; they could then pursue advanced training abroad and complete desired family size after reuniting in Cameroon. But what if a woman became pregnant when her husband was abroad? Consistently, elite women who participated in our study (p.56) of Bamiléké social networks and reproductive health, when faced with an unwanted pregnancy, turned to abortion during the gap before the fourth child. For example, one mother of three became pregnant just before her husband left for higher education overseas, after she herself had recently secured admission to Yaoundé’s renowned École Normale Supérieure. Her husband encouraged her to seek an abortion, drawing upon the advice and discretion of physicians within their friendship circle. The couple then conceived their fourth child after completing their degrees and reuniting in Yaoundé. They thus achieved what most elite women considered the “perfect modern family.”

Increasingly, though, Cameroonian migrants are choosing to stay and settle in Germany, founding and raising their families in a new, European setting. Because so many women enter Germany with student visas or through family reunification regulations, the Cameroonian migrant population in Germany is young, relatively well educated, and of childbearing age. Many arrive with spouses, and occasionally with young children. Others start new relationships, finding spouses within the growing Cameroonian diaspora. These young couples welcome new babies into their midst. The nearly nine thousand births registered in Germany by Cameroonian mothers between 2005 and 2012 are one indicator of Cameroonian family formation in the diaspora (Rühl 2014). In this new setting, mothers care for their infants, engaging with German health care providers and state bureaucracies. Busy with their educational pursuits and various forms of employment, they place their children in state-subsidized day care. Eager to provide the best opportunities possible, mothers inform themselves about a variety of neighborhood, bilingual, international, and gifted/talented schools in Berlin. And worried about the loss of cultural identification, mothers also bring their children along to Cameroonian community events. The following chapters detail the variety of ways that Cameroonian mothers manage the predicaments of belonging, reproduction, and connection once they have settled in Germany.


(1.) Petition from the Société des femmes Bomp, UPC Local Committee to the Visiting Mission, received June 25, 1956, TIPET.51894 Section 11 (cited in Terretta 2000, 99 ff.). See also Terretta 2013.

(2.) Marie-Anne Nsoga to UDEFEC meeting held at the home of Mbok Souzanne, December 6, 1956, Babimbi (cited in Terretta 2000, 101).

(3.) Highly educated and economically well-placed women of the two self-identified “elite” associations we studied frame their engagement as bringing “development” from the city to their home villages. In contrast, members of hometown associations created by women from impoverished or economically mixed neighborhoods in Yaoundé staged often-nostalgic festivals to bring the warmth and tastes of the village to the city (Feldman-Savelsberg and Ndonko 2010, 387–89).

(4.) 2,010, according to records of the Federal Statistical Office, and 2,080 in the Ausländerzentralregister 2012 (Rühl 2014; Dick 2014).

(5.) On West African women’s moral and social considerations in “retiring” from childbearing, see Bledsoe 2002.