Thursday, November 24, 2005

the Wouri cinema

I will now submit to what is becoming a rite of passage for anthropologists by saying a few informal words about going to the movies in/near the field. Last night in Douala, I saw a double feature of American romantic comedies dubbed into French. The First was Sa Mere ou Moi - that one starring Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez - the second - Black/White - starred Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac. These are both films about meeting the parents-in-law for the first time and not getting along.

As I'd been taught to expect, there was much participation from the audience. People yelled out advice to characters, and reacted loud and long to outrageous and unexpected events in the films. My two companions were greatly amused by the fact that the character played by Ashton Kutcher has the same name as me. One of them - among others in attendance - took calls and had conversations on his cell phone during the films. As long as one is not in the mood for formal contemplation of "'high' art", this is a a fun way to watch movies!

The cinema is named after a major river which runs from the Atlantic ocean quite a ways Northwestish through Cameroon and possibly into Nigeria. I wish I'd consulted a map before writing this.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

equity strikes again

It's final now: Liberia's next President will be a woman. Her name's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and she's to be the fist female head of an African state (I think!).

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

more consumption of stuff

No, I hadn't forgotten about my blog; there are just phases of blogworthy action. I was in the city of Bafoussam (pop. ~200,000) recently and went to a supermarket, which a Peace Corps volunteer I know calls a "white-guy store." It had a lot of props and reminders of North American and European shopping. There was imported cheese, for example. Actual cheese is not easily come by around here; all I can usually find is processed. There was also a large selection of Pringle's potato chips. In all, it was a fun, disorienting experience. And I did splurge on the chips and some decent chocolate. I also, in Bafoussam, finally found a bakery selling whole-wheat bread. I had been missing that.

Last week, I started learning a xylophone-like instrument which you find around here. The keys are very large - the biggest ones as long as my arm - but you hit them only on the edge with the mallets. My instructors were very impressed at how quickly I could assimilate the first lessons. I think the similarity to playing the drum-kit helped me. This instrument is featured in a style called ndanji. Just as the reunion I go to regularly focusses on the style mangambu, some reunions focus on ndanji and, in turn, make extra money playing at funerals.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

basic sociolinguistics

As some of you know, I frequent a cafe in Bangangte where I've made friends with other regulars and the staff. Incidentally, it's a chain - the Cameroon version of Second Cup and Starbucks. Anyway, I often go there with my language books and study in the cafe. This has the fortuitous affect of stimulating conversation about language among whoever is present. In other words, it's a great source of public data.

A theme that comes up very often is that of "real Medumba" and its absence. There's considerable negativity among people I know towards the way they speak. I've never heard anyone list themselves among the speakers of "real Medumba". There is much derision of the Medumba spoken daily on the streets of Bangangte. One person went so far as to call it Pidgin English, which, from the perspective of academic linguistics, is way out there!

Several people have told me that "real Medumba" is spoken in one of the nearby smaller towns and villages. But not everyone chooses the same village. Some people just say the villages in general are where you hear "real Medumba." The dialect that was chosen for standardization is one of these village dialects.

For some people, the past is the location of "real Medumba." Many of these derogatory comments about the Medumba you'd hear in Bangangte are accompanied with mini-laments for the loss of things; young people don't really speak "their language"; they're not interested in "traditional" music anymore; Medumba's lexicon is shrinking because people just borrow from French all the time. In other words, there's a language shift project waiting to be done here. In fact, a colleague of mine working in Accra, Ghana who recently visited Cameroon's capitol told me he was struck by how much he heard French. Apparently, in Accra, locals rarely if ever use colonial languages amongst themselves.

A notable absence from these valuation exercises is the crediting of actual people with speaking "real Medumba". It's always places. No one has yet said to me, "such and such individual I can point to speaks 'real Medumba'". Maybe I'm splitting hairs here, but when my friends mention a village, they don't say "people in Bangoulap speak 'real Medumba'". They say "you'll hear 'real Medumba' if you go to Bangoulap." I don't know, but it could be significant. We'll see.

I'm eager to start hearing people's commentary on the Medumba sung during reunion music. Is it "real" or not? Is that opposition inapplicable because reunion music is a different genre, perhaps? Do aspects of context make reunion singing above reproach (i.e., this is "tradition" time, so everything that goes on during reunion is a fortiori positive) despite possible formal similarities with the reviled speech of everyday life?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

sound and savings

After struggling to be patient for some weeks, I've managed to make contact with a musician who's willing to work with me, and with whom I want to work. He's essentially the musical director of what is known in French around here as a "reunion." Reunions are very common across Equatorial Africa, and serve several functions; for one, they are savings and loan clubs. Members show up each week with a sum of money (how it's determined, I don't know) and give it to the treasurer. Then, everyone collectively decides how it should be spent. Very often, one member gets it to help pay for a funeral.

Another function is to provide an opportunity to maintain and enjoy "tradition." The debates are carried-out in Medumba (not French), and the music is "traditional" (not guitars and keyboards). However, I don't think all reunions have music like this one does. The funding of funerals is also a big deal, because funerals are another locus of "the traditional," and the people who play music with the reunion also take gigs playing funerals.

I've only been twice to this reunion, so generalizations are tentative, but the ensemble consists of 3 or 4 kalimbas, a pair or 2 of maracas made from tin cans, two think bamboo poles lashed together and played by 1 or 2 people with wooden sticks, and a sometimes a rough wooden pole scraped with a ring. Musicking kicks off the meeting (usually, I think). Almost everyone else dances, and there might be call and response singing. The money-talk is supposed to come after, but the second time I went, they had either done it early, or there was no controversy because everyone left once the music was finished. The first week, I stuck around for a couple of hours of debate (I had an interpreter), and left before it was finished.

The musical director is not there in any other capacity and is not interested in the money stuff, although all the other players are full members. I'll have to explain shortly that, as an anthropologist, I'm interested in the money as social context to the music. Besides, oratory and debate are great for linguistic anthropologists. The members of the reunion have been extremely welcoming, and I don't anticipate a problem with this. Let's hope I make fast progress with my language acquisition, as my Medumba is rudimentary right now.

I'm also impatient - and sometimes discouraged - about languages because lack of Medumba skill has so far prevented me from asking the right questions about music and poetry. While Medumba of course has concepts, categories, and words similar to "poetry," "song," "rhetoric," "music," "dance," and "sound" in English, they aren't organized the same way. This is precisely the sort of phenomenon I came here to look at. So, I'll keep working, but have to wait a while before getting to the heart of the matter.

At this stage, then, it looks like my project will be about sound, money, the concept of "tradition," rhetoric, and possibly multilingualism. Of course, it could change again at any time.

Monday, August 29, 2005

words and "development"

I received the following text message last week: "pour un avenir meilleur, scolarisons tous nos enfants. Message UNICEF/MTN." In English, that's: "for a better future, let's put all our children in school. From UNICEF and MTN [a cell-phone company]." Thought provoking on many levels, no?

My fellow linguistics nerds may care to know that Medumba has what are sometimes called "verbal adjectives." These are words that, based on their semantics, speakers of European languages would expect to be adjectives, but "behave like" verbs; i.e., they head clauses, are inflected for tense and aspect, take nominal complements. An example of this is the word "zi," which in free translation means "big," but in literal translation is closer to "to be big." I don't know why, but I've always found verbal adjectives fun. So far, it seems to me that colours, anyway, are adjectives, but I may have a lot more to learn about adjectives and verbs yet. We'll see.

Monday, August 15, 2005

anthropology of anthropologists

I travelled to Yaounde, Cameroon's capitol, recently to attend the annual conference of the Pan-African Anthropology Association. There were only two other linguistic anthropologists. Coincidentally, there was a Cameroonist there who's a PhD-candidate at the University of Toronto.

One of the panels was composed of chiefs from across the continent speaking on their ideas and strategies for good governance. This panel ended 4 hours late. A big part of the reason for that is that no one is in a position to say to a chief, "your time is up, we have to move on to the next speaker." Culture is everywhere.

While in the city, I splurged on a couple of moderately pricey restaurant meals. For one of them, I had pizza, which was fun. Cheese is really not available in this region except in restaurants.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

small centre

Lately, people whom I don't think I've ever seen before have been coming up to me and coaching me in Medumba. Today, someone asked me if I was "Monsieur Simon." I was then able to overhear her and her friends confirming that I was indeed the white guy who's learning Medumba. I hope this means that Bangangte is a small enough place that word simply gets around quickly. This would make my research easier. Regardless, it's nice that people are so friendly. Not much of blogworthiness has happened lately; I'm just slowly improving my language skills.

The people who are kindly putting me up watch a lot of American movies (dubbed into French) on their VCD player. VCD is like DVD except poorer quality, and lower capacity; feature-length films require two disks. When I left the house this morning, "In Hell" starring Jean-Claude van Damme was on - not exactly my thing. "My Best Friend's Wedding" wasn't so bad, though, and I genuinely enjoyed "The Devil's Advocate" with Charlize Theron, Keanu Reeves, and Al Pacino.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

progress being made

I've (finally) begun the next phase of my language training. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I attend a class in Bangangte with four other students. There's only one other adult, and I think I'm the only one who doesn't speak any African languages. So, I'm sure to be the worst student! I also work one-on-one most weekdays (no set schedule) with one of the senior CEPOM staff. These sessions are supposed to be more academically oriented. To make things "interesting" the class uses a different writing system than the individual tutoring. So far, I'm more comfortable with the tutor's system because it encodes more details about pronunciation, and is closer to the standard transcription system familiar to professional linguists, the International Phonetic Alphabet. The other system, for example, doesn't indicate contrastive tone at all.

At the same time as my class, there's one for people who already speak Medumba, but want to become literate in it. It's explicitly aimed at reading the Christian Bible, and uses the same writing system as my class. We learned in class that there's only one other language indigenous to this part of Cameroon which has a translation of the entire thing, Shupamum. A few other languages have a New Testament.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


As some of you know, the cost of living in Cameroon is high relative to the rest of West Africa, and that of West Africa is high relative to most of the world. Because this fact tends to be of great interest to many, I'm going to share the prices of a few things I've bought recently. The figures will be a little high for American dollars, and a little low for Canadian:

- cheap sunglasses: $2-$5
- 0.65l bottle of beer: $1
- meal before drinks at a cheap restaurant: $3
- second-hand blanket: $13
- small cup of brewed coffee: $0.20
- kilogram of coffee beans: $5.60
- 4 AA batteries, made in Cameroon: $0.50
- 4 AA batteries by Duracell: $8
- bus ticket to Douala (4-7 hours): $6
- kilogram (in a tin) of sweetened, condensed milk: $3.50
- a pineapple: $0.20

Friday, July 01, 2005

stops and starts

On Monday, I got back in touch with CEPOM, an organisation which supports and researches the indigenous language I've been learning. (It's called "Medumba" or "Bamileke-Bangangte" or some combination of those three words.) Its representative was very happy to see me again and said he and others would help me with my research by aiding with research design, giving me access to their library, and by finding contacts: this in addition to providing me with more language training.

I was meant to start all this on Tuesday, and then commence an intensive language class on July 11th. Unfortunately, on Monday night, I twisted my ankle and have been bed-ridden with a painful sprain until today.

Still limping, I went to Baffoussam to use the bank, only to have my requests turned down at every turn. So, after resting my foot a few more days, I will return to Douala to use the banks there. Cross your fingers for me! This should get me back to Bangangte in time to enroll in CEPOM's course.

While I'm trying to remain optimistic, I'm upset about how all this delays what I really want to do with these first few months of fieldwork- learn a language and a musical instrument. Institutions have never been my favourite settings, and waiting in line at an unfamiliar bank only to here "no" is difficult. So it goes.

Monday, June 20, 2005

moving on

On Thursday morning, I will be leaving Douala for Bangangte in Cameroon's West Province. The West Province is considered to be the location of "Bamileke Country". As such, my research will be done there, maybe even in Bangangte: we'll see. Other ethnic groups - such as the Bassa - also dominate the West Province. The primary goal for the next 3-4 months is to find a tutor, or better yet, classes in the indigenous language of Bangangte and surrounding villages. It's known variously as Medumba, Bamileke-Bangangte, or Bamileke-Medumba. Bangangte is the home of an organisation whose purpose is to encourage the use of this language. My secondary goal is to find opportunities to make music. The 'telegram' (mentioned in a previous post) and the kalimba, or thumb piano, are the instruments I'd most like to learn. I will be living in Bangangte with the sister of my host in Douala. Also, I'm happy to be leaving behind the heat and polluted air of Douala. I haven't spent very much time in the West Province yet, so most aspects of life there are a question mark to me.

Monday, June 13, 2005

"traditional" music and contacts

Yesterday, I got back into the musical swing of things a bit. A friend of mine, knowing that I like music, especially drumming, took me around to a funeral to listen to the performers. As I approached the circle to give some money to them (as is the custom), I realized that, by chance, the leader of the drummers was the same guy who'd overseen my music lessons two years ago in Douala. He passed me his shakers and I played with the ensemble briefly. They finished shortly, and a different ensemble took over. They played some music I'd never heard before. I was told that these rhythms were very complicated and very old. The slit-gong, or "telegram" (hollowed-out log with carefully placed holes), was particularly captivating, and I might focus on that instrument in further lessons and recordings. The performers during this were all masked and dancers wore shells on their calves which added to the sonic tapestry. A lot of fun and very compelling.

Friday, June 10, 2005


Those of you interested in pop culture in general and music in particular may be interested to know that CDs have completely overtaken cassettes here. This is surprising only because 2 years ago, cassettes were still the preferred medium by most. CDs have become much cheaper all of a sudden. Video cassettes never became popular here, from what I can tell.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Yesterday from the plane, I had a great view of the Sahara. It was incredible. Landing in Douala, I felt a certain happiness to be back despite missing many people in my two homes of Toronto and Ann Arbor. Douala is much as I remember it - crowded and friendly. I'm staying with friends who live up in the hills, so it's a bit cooler in their house, which is nice. Down in the market, it's in the high twenties (celsius) or low thirties at the hottest. The rainy season is setting in so it will cool off a bit over the next 3 months or so.

Monday, May 16, 2005

not gone yet

I leave Toronto for Paris on May 25th. I'll arrive in Douala on June 7th. I might be able to post something as early as May 27th, but I'm not promising anything.