Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Civility of Incivility: Grassroots Political Activism, Female Farmers, and the Cameroon State

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The Civility of Incivility: Grassroots Political Activism, Female Farmers, and the Cameroon State

Article excerpt


This essay examines the cultural symbolism underpinning "Takembeng," a contemporary, rural-based social movement of female farmers in the Northwest Province of Cameroon. It argues that the power and success of women's activism, in the context of national opposition party politics and the "new struggles" for democracy, are embedded in an institutional history and culturally legitimate etiquette of moral censure. It also suggests that the highly disruptive but mystically charged nature of these mobilizations makes them effective because they open spaces for popular dissent on the national stage. Understanding the "civility" associated with the apparent incivility of activists is indispensable to understanding the dynamism of grassroots political activism.

Résumé: Cette dissertation examine le symbolisme culturel servant de fondation au Takembeng, un mouvement de société contemporain, principalement rural dans lequel sont engagées des femmes du monde paysan de la province du nord-ouest du Cameroun. On y discute le fait que le pouvoir et le succès de l'activisme féminin, dans le contexte de la politique du parti d'opposition national et les « nouveaux obstacles » auxquels est confrontée la démocratie, font partie intégrante de l'histoire constitutionnelle et de l'étiquette de censure morale légitimée par la culture. L'article suggère aussi que la nature extrêmement dérangeante, mais lourde en mysticisme de ces mouvements les rend efficace car ils permettent d'ouvrir la porte pour la dissension populaire à l'échelle nationale. Il est indispensable de comprendre le « civisme » associé à l'incivisme apparent des activistes si l'on veut comprendre la dynamique de l'activisme politique populaire.

Introduction: The Political Weight of Everyday Life

In 1993 the following excerpts, from two articles and a letter to the editor, appeared in the Anglophone Cameroonian newspaper Cameroon Post.1 Each makes reference to a group of female activists that call themselves "Takembeng."

Whereas the law states that voter registration be opened from January 1 to April 30, each year, the first registers in the province were only opened in the second week of February 1993, so some 700 pro-SDF [Social Democratic Front, the principal national opposition political party] supporters laid siege on the office of the Sub-Prefect for Bamenda Central for two consecutive days. They claimed this was a dubious maneuvering by the government to frustrate potential voters from registering.... The crowd included the self-composed defenders of liberties and freedoms composed of the old women, the "Takembeng", as the old nannies are popularly known. They took up a rear guard behind a truckload of battle-ready police. The DO promised a meeting with members of the commission in charge of registration in the sub-Division.... The crowd broke up but "Takembeng" voluntarily spent the night on the spot to drive home their message of disenchantment and distrust of government's dubiousness over the registration palaver.

"Row over Registration in Bamenda: Demonstrators Besiege D.O.'s Office" (Cameroon Post, March 3-10, 1993, 1, 8)

In Bamenda [the provincial capital of the Northwest Province]... a scene of confrontations between armed gendarmes and non-violent, placard carrying political demonstrators-respecting a call by the "Union for Change" to execute peaceful street demonstrations-marched to the DO's office .... Gendarmes erected several road blocks but some reached the office. A few smart workers in the DO's office bolted when the most senior "MAMI TAKEMBENG" arrived. Others remained trapped in the building for a long time. By the time these old women left the place, hot vapour was rising from pools of human waste deposited around the prefecture. Grass and other objects were thrown into the offices; a symbol of a curse in the Grassfield.

"Undeclared State of Emergency in Bamenda" ( Cameroon Post, March 24-31, 1993, 2)

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