Academic journal article Africa

Sharing Home, Food, and Bed: Paths of Grandmotherhood in East Cameroon

Academic journal article Africa

Sharing Home, Food, and Bed: Paths of Grandmotherhood in East Cameroon

Article excerpt


This article focuses on relationships between grandmothers and grandchildren in an urban society in East Cameroon. It argues that despite fluid generational demarcations between grandmothers and mothers, women perform their grandmotherhood differently from their motherhood. As a result of the claims grandmothers often make on their children's children, grandmothers easily replace mothers but they do not rear children in the same way. The sharing of home, food, and bed is central in the performance of grandmotherhood and differs from relationships of sharing in the mother-child bond. The article also argues that grandmotherhood in East Cameroon is not a clearly bounded, unambiguous life stage but that it contains multiple trajectories that do not occur in the same time or in the same order. Multiple trajectories, characterised by both agency and constraint, are explained in terms of differences within and between grandmothers' life courses. The article shows that grandmothers play vital roles in complex practices of marriage and descent and, in contrast to previous studies in the area, that matrilineages are closely linked to patrilineages.


Cet article s'interesse aux relations entre les grands-meres et leurs petitsenfants dans tree societe urbaine du Cameroun oriental. Il montre qu'en depit de demarcations generationnelles fluides entre les grands-meres et les meres, les femmes exercent leur grand-maternite differemment de leur maternitr. En consequence des droits que les grands-meres revendiquent souvent sur les enfants de leurs enfants, les grands-meres remplacent facilement les meres mais ne les elevent pas de la meme maniere. Le partage du domicile, de la nourriture et du lit est un element essentiel de la grand-maternite et differe des relations de partage qui s'exercent dans le lien mere-enfant. L'article montre egalement qu'au Cameroun oriental la grand-maternite n'est pas une etape de vie clairement delimitee et sans equivoque, mais contient des trajectoires multiples qui ne surviennent pas au meme moment ni darts le meme ordre. Ces trajectoires multiples, caracterisees a la fois par l'action et la contrainte, sont expliquees en termes de differences entre les parcours de vie des grands-meres et au sein de ces parcours. L'article montre que les grands-meres jouent des roles essentiels dans les pratiques complexes du mariage et de la descendance et, par contraste avec les etudes precedentes dans ce domaine, que les matrilignages sont etroitement lies aux patrilignages.


Throughout my fieldwork in a provincial town in East Cameroon I followed the life of Marie-Lucie. When I first met her in 1993, she was thirty-three years old and having a sexual relationship with the prospect of having more children. When I met her for the last time in Cameroon in 2000, she was forty years old and calling herself une vieille femme because 'she did not sleep with men any more'. Now, as a 43-year-old woman, she is worrying about her death and the possible futures of her children. (1) Despite her 'advanced age' she leads a dynamic life. She cultivates a field of cassava, peanuts, and vegetables in the vicinity of the kindergarten where she works as a teacher for a low, irregularly paid salary. She needs to do both the agricultural and the wage work since she is responsible for four biological children, on average six foster-children, and two grandchildren. She gives herself to all these children but enthusiastically celebrates the presence of her two grandchildren: a four-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy.

The celebration of these two grandchildren sharply contrasts with the indifference that she displayed towards her last-born biological child during my second fieldwork in 1996. She deliberately neglected this child when he was three months old and fell ill. She did not make any attempt to keep him alive as he reminded her of a badly ended relationship and she felt too old to care for children born from relationships that had already been broken off. …

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