The Politics of House Shape: Round versus Rectilinear Domestic Structures in Dela Compounds, Northern Cameroon

By Lyons, Diane | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

The Politics of House Shape: Round versus Rectilinear Domestic Structures in Dela Compounds, Northern Cameroon


Lyons, Diane, Antiquity


Introduction

The transition from round-shaped buildings to rectilinear forms is of interest to archaeologists as an indicator of culture change. In some areas of West and Central Africa, scholars attribute the introduction of rectilinear-shaped buildings to either Islamic or European contact (Denver 1978; Forkl 1985: 85; Prussin 1969; 1986). An ethnoarchaeological study of households in Dela(1) in northern Cameroon indicates that the adoption of rectilinear buildings into domestic contexts is a more complex process than this explanation allows. Dela is a multi-ethnic community of approximately 1100 people located at the foot of an inselberg on the Mora Plain, about 10 km northeast of the Mandara Mountains [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. While the use of rectilinear public buildings in Dela is associated with both Islamic and European influences, the recent incorporation of the form in domestic architecture is one material strategy which local ethnic groups use to negotiate political self-interests in a period of intense social change.

This study examines the processes involved in the shift to rectilinear domestic buildings in Mura,(2) Urza, Wandala and Shuwa compounds in Dela. Relationships between these, the four largest ethnic groups represented in the town, are complex but can be characterized as economically and socially stressful. Hodder (1979; 1982; 1985) suggests that the degree of material-culture distinctiveness at the borders of social groups depends upon the degree of economic and social competition between them and on differences in their internal social strategies. Hodder's study is based on interaction within and between acephalous, lineage-based groups. In the Dela example, kin- and state-based polities interact and the choice of individuals or groups to differentiate themselves stylistically through domestic building shape depends upon their perspective within a local, national and international hierarchy.

The study groups: social and economic interrelations

The recent popularity of rectilinear domestic structures in Dela must be understood in the context of historical relationships between ethnic groups in the region, relations that have resulted in a social and economic hierarchy. Tensions between these groups were aggravated by political decisions affecting the region since the 1960s. Only relevant aspects of this history are provided here. More detailed ethnographic and historic information is available in Boutrais (1973), Forkl (1985; 1988), Hagen-bucher-Sacripanti (1977), Lyons (1992), MacEachern (1990), Mohammadou (1982), Morrissey (1984) and Mouchet (1947). Data on Dela households were collected as part of the Mandara Archaeological Project under the direction of Dr Nicholas David (see David & MacEachern 1988; David & Sterner 1987; 1989).

The Mura are descendants of montagnards whose home territory is Mora Massif, on the northeastern tip of the Mandara Mountains. This acephalous society is organized into descent groups who practise subsistence sorghum farming. In the first half of the 17th century, Mura immigrants settled the inselberg of Wa-Dela (Lyons 1992: 39) - a small mountain immediately northeast of the modern town [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The Mura are the longest-established ethnic group in the local population. This is important in structuring local hierarchies, as both montagnards and Wandala recognize rights in land ownership through a group's seniority and continuity of occupation and in ancestral alliance with local earth spirits.

The Wandala first settled at the foot of the inselberg in the late 17th century (Forkl 1988: 64; 1989: 543). They share a common language and a history closely inter-related with the Mura. The Wandala are descendants of the Wandala state which controlled the plains to the north and east of the Mandara Mountains during the 18th and 19th centuries, with Dela one of their royal capitals. In the early 18th century the Wandala converted to Islam (Forkl 1986), which allowed them to participate in the trans-Saharan trade as a vassal to the state of Borno to the northwest. …

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