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This new book highlights women’s roles in Cameroon’s separatist politics

Everyday activities nurture cultural distinctiveness — and support separatism

- July 26, 2020

There were reports last week of military raids on villages in western Cameroon and of separatists carrying out high-profile attacks and civilian kidnappings. Since 2016, the violence by both the government and secessionist groups in Cameroon has troubled the lives of Anglophone Cameroonians — citizens who live largely in Cameroon’s western region, which was formerly colonized by the British. (The French colonized the remainder of Cameroon.)

After decades of peace between the majority Francophone and minority Anglophone populations, Cameroon has been on “the brink of war” for almost four years. Consistent with much of the reporting on conflict and war, the reporting on Cameroon’s separatist politics often centers on the stories of men.

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The broader picture, of course, includes women

This week’s installment of the African Politics Reading Spectacular, “Gender, Separatist Politics, and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon,” by historian Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué, fills out a broader picture of separatist politics in Cameroon through its focus on Anglophone Cameroonian women.

Mougoué traces the history of Anglophone Cameroonian nationalism, looking at how it is imagined and embodied by Anglophone women. By embodied nationalism, Mougoué means the type of nationalism that can be demonstrated through performance, emotional expression and visual representation — as seen in examples of food and dress.

The research informing her book drew on varied sources, including oral interviews, published memoirs, radio and television interviews, archival material (newspapers, government correspondence and news releases) and even posts on Twitter and Facebook.

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Mougoué examines the roles of women in nationalist and separatist politics in Cameroon through their collective activities in women’s organizations, the advice they share in regular newspaper columns, and everyday activities and rituals like the food they prepare and the dress they wear.

Here’s an example. While seemingly apolitical, the first Anglophone Cameroonian cookbook, “Auntie Kate’s Cookery Book,” celebrates Anglophone Cameroonian food. But the collection also makes recipes and culinary traditions a means of cultural survival. Cookery is a tool to carve a distinct cultural identity that can advance political, separatist goals.

Mougoué devotes a chapter to women’s dress choices as a form of nationalism and resistance. She amplifies a history of women’s power of dress and undressing as tools of protest. As in her earlier work, she uses the example of the Anlu Rebellion to illustrate how women would strip naked in front of men as one tactic of revolt. During this 1958-1961 rebellion, women in western Cameroon revolted against British colonial officials interfering with agricultural production.

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“Gender, Separatist Politics, and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon” fills an important gap in Anglophone Cameroon’s history by telling the history of “seemingly invisible women.” Mougoué’s book demonstrates ethnic politics and nationalism are not merely the domain of male political elites — the focus of most political histories and analysis. This broader perspective embraces the writings and activities of elite Anglophone Cameroonian women to explore how their subtler form of ethnic politics also emphasized cultural heritage and encouraged unity.

“Gender, Separatist Politics, and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon” is an important book that offers an alternative lens to understand Cameroon’s political history. The concluding chapter in particular gives a concise political history of Cameroon’s separatist politics, for readers interested in putting today’s tensions and conflict in historical perspective.

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