Academic journal article Africa

Islam or Christianity? the Choices of the Wawa and the Kwanja of Cameroon

Academic journal article Africa

Islam or Christianity? the Choices of the Wawa and the Kwanja of Cameroon

Article excerpt

The speed with which Islam and Christianity have spread in sub-Saharan Africa since colonisation is remarkable and has raised several kinds of question. The first is why groups converted when and where they did. In Adamawa, Cameroon, rural populations converted to Islam or Christianity mainly during the 1950s and 1960s. Such was the case with the Wawa and the Kwanja, two neighbouring groups living in Banyo District (See Fig. 1) and numbering about 4,000 and 9,000 people respectively. Although the Wawa chose Islam while most Kwanja preferred Christianity, the conversions happened during the same period of time, and it is reasonable to assume that the two groups converted for the same reasons, that is, for the similar attractions of Islam and Christianity. I argue that those Wawa and Kwanja who converted to Islam and Christianity at around the time when Cameroon gained independence in the 1960s intended primarily to adopt a religious identity which was seen as modern and supportive of their new national identity.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The second kind of question is why some people chose Islam and others Christianity. Adamawa is an ideal region in which to study such questions, since it straddles `the Christian southern Cameroon' and `the Muslim northern Cameroon'. Within Adamawa the Wawa and Kwanja illustrate the issues nicely, because, although they are closely related neighbours,(1) the former are Muslims while most of the latter are Christians. I argue in the second part of this article that choices made by the Wawa and the Kwanja were strongly influenced by the way in which each interacted with, and defined their identities in relation to, the Fulbe, a pastoral group who brought Islam when they conquered Adamawa in the nineteenth century.

When the Fulbe arrived in the Banyo area the Wawa helped them to conquer the sultanate of Banyo, which prevented them from being enslaved. The Kwanja, on the contrary, resisted the Fulbe strongly and fled on to the Tikar plain to escape the Fulbe raids (Gausset, 1998a; Mohammadou, 1978, 1991). Although the official purpose of the Fulbe conquest was to convert the local populations to Islam, the real reasons were political and economic. The `paganism' of the local people was an excuse to raid and enslave them (Froelich, 1966: 165; Hurault, 1975: 428; Levtzion, 1985: 162). Although the raids were halted by the German colonisation, the local populations continued to provide the sultan with many servants.(2) They were often nominally Muslim, but were prevented from studying the Qur'an. When this system of servitude was abolished at the end of the 1950s, many servants, especially Kwanja and Mambila, returned to their village of origin without having been completely Islamicised. They had ambivalent feelings towards Islam (seen as both a more prestigious religion and the religion of the despised conquerors) and they did not actively seek to spread Islam in their villages. Even the Wawa and the Bute, who were allied to the Fulbe and could not be taken or sold as slaves, were prevented from converting to Islam, arguably in order to preserve the ethnic boundaries of the Fulbe, which were partly defined by that religion (Gausset, 1998a).

In the village of Oumiari the first Wawa who became a marabout (malam, or Muslim scholar) studied the Qur'an in secret in the bush while keeping cattle with a Fulbe. Only after he had completed his studies, in 1955, did he dare to present himself before the sultan, who was obliged to recognise him as a Muslim. Those who had been willing to convert before that time but had been prevented from doing so could now openly turn to Islam. The first converts were mostly young men aged between 20 and 30. They built mosques, opened Qur'anic schools, and many of them persuaded their friends, kin and spouses to follow them and convert to Islam. A major turning point in the conversion process was the masquerade organised for the funeral of a deceased chief in 1969. …

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