Getting along in the Grassfields: Interethnic relations and identity politics in North West Cameroon

The Mbororo in North West Cameroon belong to the (agro-)pastoral Fulbe. They moved into and started settling the area called the Grassfields in the early 20th century. Today they form a part of the cultural heritage of the North West Province and are recognised by the Cameroonian government, as well as by the majority of the Grassfields population.

In view of the ethnic, historical, political and socio-economic variety and complexity of the area, two research sites, namely Misaje and Bali-Nyonga, were chosen. The villages belong to the chiefdoms of the Nchaney and Chamba respectively and the majority of the population are small-scale farmers. The Mbororo communities situated in the vicinity of these villages belong to two different sub-groups, the Aku and the Jafun. They differ considerably in their migration backgrounds and agro-pastoral practices. In both research areas the Hausa, a heterogeneous group of people comprising Muslim migrants from Nigeria (except for the Mbororo) and local converts to Islam, form part of the ethnic setting.

The interplay of integration and conflict - one of the department's main themes - characterises interethnic relations in the Grassfields. Since their arrival, the relationship between the Mbororo and the neighbouring communities has been both advantageous and problematic. The competition over limited natural resources, influenced by historical, political, economic and demographic factors, as well as social, cultural and religious differences, has led to a system of mutual complementarity and, at the same time, to serious land disputes and various forms of inequality. In spite of the mediating efforts by the colonial and post-colonial governments, numerous conflicts remain unresolved and appear to have worsened in the national context of economic depression and the democratisation processes that started in the 1990s

Interethnic interaction and communication - one of the main foci of this project - are analysed on two levels. First, public interaction and communication between Mbororo and members of neighbouring communities, including government officials, tend to follow a fixed model based on cultural and ethnic stereotypes. Be it a meeting called by the government authorities concerning cattle theft, the working relationship between employees of an ethnically heterogeneous NGO or the participation in a naming ceremony, each person acts according to common patterns that often do not foster mutual understanding, but rather re-inforce differences and misconceptions. As long as such incidences of public interaction and communication deal with peaceful aspects of the groups' co-habitation, actors feel comfortable with their roles. But whenever problematic issues such as farmer-herder conflicts are addressed, arguments become circular and tend to end in mutual accusations and to support further deterioration of the precarious relationship.

Secondly, on a less formal level, interaction and communication between individual members of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are much more relaxed and often accompanied by friendship. Actors make use of their multiple identities and cross-cutting ties, refer to shared experiences (e.g. in school), stress religious links and converse in languages common to all of them. Cultural stereotypes are joked about and ridiculed and patterns of behaviour are even borrowed from other ethnic groups. A Hausa woman may tease her Mbororo neighbour who is married to a Hausa man because she is producing gari (maniok polenta) for sale, and has thereby become a kaado (non-Mbororo). And young Mbororo husbands can be seen going to the nightclub with their non-Mbororo girl-friends while their wives and children stay behind in their compounds in the bush.

Interethnic relations, like social relations in general, are based on contacts between individuals whose actions are shaped by their personal experiences as well as their social, cultural, religious, political and economic backgrounds. This research project focuses on gender and age-specific aspects of interaction and communication structures and on the respective strategies used by the Mbororo and their neighbours. Themes and questions addressed include:

  • access to resources, farmer-herder relations, and individual and group strategies in the national legal context
  • religious and ethnic conversion
  • the relevance of interethnic friendship relationships and intermarriage for social cohesion
  • socio-cultural diversity in North West Cameroon: a source of conflict or a case of integration through difference?

The methods used include participant observation, interviews, visual anthropological methods (photography and video), role playing as well as archival and library research.

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