Academic journal article Africa

Islam, Gender and Urbanisation among the Mafa of North Cameroon: The Differing Commitment to `Home' among Muslims and Non-Muslims

Academic journal article Africa

Islam, Gender and Urbanisation among the Mafa of North Cameroon: The Differing Commitment to `Home' among Muslims and Non-Muslims

Article excerpt

In his seminal article on urbanisation in eastern Nigeria, Joseph Gugler concludes that Igbo urbanites are `living in a dual system', since they continue to maintain close links with their villages of origin (Gugler, 1971, 1991). Their commitment to the village remains crucial to them, though they live in the city. In this article I will discuss such commitments in the case of the Mafa, who live in the extreme north of Cameroon. In that area a special pattern of urbanisation has developed, owing to the religious division between people who have converted to Islam and those who remain non-Muslims. My main argument will be that Gugler's model of a `dual system' is difficult to sustain when applied to Islamic frontiers. For the Mafa, urbanisation has often coincided with. Islamisation. In consequence, moving to town means a profound change of identity.

As elsewhere in West Africa, the spread of Islam has encouraged migration to the towns, because only there can one fully practise the Muslim way of life (Levtzion and Fisher, 1987). Muslim culture has a strong urban tenor, because Muslim institutions evolved in the towns, through the collaboration of the ulama with the mercantile classes (Levtzion, 1987: 1-20).(1) The history of Mokolo as a town is, indeed, deeply marked by Islamisation. However, there were also phases where non-Islamic factors played a role in the urbanisation process. In order to understand the varying implications of these differences for the links people maintained with their place of origin, certain transitions in Mafa history during this century are of crucial importance.

Gender differences play a crucial role too in this context. For Muslims, as well as for non-Muslims, the move to town was especially related to changes in access to land. For men, this depended on the order of their descent from their mother; for women, on their relation to their (successive) husband(s). We shall see that Islamisation had different implications for men and for women.

I will also consider migration to cities outside the Mafa region. People who move farther away, women as well as men, in most cases migrate first to the nearby town of Mokolo and then on to other regions. The question is, again, what this further migration has meant to their relations with their place of birth.

The interest of the Mafa case is that it shows so clearly the intricate relation between urbanisation, Islamisation and gender differences. It is clear also that these intricacies and their changing implications for migrants' attachment to the `village' can be understood only in historical perspective.


The Mandara mountains in the extreme north of Cameroon, near the Nigerian border, are inhabited by many different ethnic groups (Podlewski, 1966), the Mafa being one. In the literature they are considered to be a relatively homogeneous group.

The Mafa use all the space there is: they live on the plateaux, at the foot of the mountains, on the inaccessible massifs, and even on the highest parts of the mountains they have settled. This is due to the fact that the area has a very high population density. In certain places it is as high as 400 people per square kilometre. For that reason, Iyebi-Mandjek (1199.3: 3) calls the area overpopulated. Indeed, it exhibits all the phenomena that justify the use of such a term: peasants without land; constant danger of famine; precarious participation in the exchange economy; and hardly any surplus production to be sold in order to pay taxes.

The Mafa live not in `villages' but in compounds scattered over the countryside.(2) The mountainsides are lined with contour terraces, on which the population grow their main crop, millet. They are remarkable cultivators. They know their land and its potential for agriculture perfectly. It has been remarked that they have reached the ultimate point of technical perfection; the terraces on which they cultivate offer maximum protection against erosion (Sauter, 1. …

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