LSE’s Jordan Vieira concludes that the book African Modernities and Mobilities is a sound contribution to understanding of Cameroon.
In his first published academic book, Walter Gam Nkwi takes the reader through a richly discussed history of his native Kom in the Bamenda Grasslands of present day Northwest Cameroon. An incarnation of the author’s doctoral thesis, the work is accessible and on the whole a valuable contribution to regional scholarship that, in the author’s belief, had only indirectly discussed similar themes without stitching them into a coherent narrative that fully frames a concept of technology, mobility, and social change in Kom.
The book centres on the emic understanding of kfaang, or ‘newness’, which can also be described as a process and product that involves actively negotiating tradition and modernity. This concept creates a particular, localised conceptualisation of modernity that determines how Kom people perceive, react to, and appropriate technologies to promote social change. Nkwi argues that technology should not be restricted to mean only the internet, cell phones, computers and the like; roads, automobiles, schools, and churches also constitute technology.
The ensuing chapters vividly buttress this notion, illustrating how mobility and technology can rely, or even depend, on each other to facilitate social change. Such changes resulting from this intertwining include social hierarchy (re)configurations and altered gender ideologies. Benedicta Young, one of the book’s many interviewees, exemplifies these notions by not only being one of a few girls to attend school, but also the first Kom woman to buy, own, and drive a car. Her life narrative fits within larger social changes and demonstrates how new forms of identity emerged for women and became accepted through kfaang’s ability to articulate novel concepts and ideologies with previous socio-cultural configurations.
Her story is but one in this work that draws heavily on personal narrative and archival research to cover social changes and mobilisation – meaning both physical movements of material things and embodied ideas, as well as social mobility – within the context of the aforementioned new technologies, in addition to plantation migrant labour (a topic the author feels has not been adequately discussed), letters, and messengers. Doing so has required not only a balancing of documentation with ethnography, but also an integration of interdisciplinary scholarship that on balance seems to ultimately cradle the author’s arguments. That is to say, Nkwi has found commonality among various historians, sociologists, and anthropologists to take generally accepted arguments and apply them to a specific region about which more scholarship was needed. The product is compelling, but the novelty only in as much as the social theory relates to Kom. In that respect, this book is essential for its respective regionalists of all social sciences (excluding perhaps economists), but not convincing as a major advancement to social theory at large.
Credit is still due in this case for those who champion interdisciplinarity, and the integration appears to come from what an influential voice in my own discipline has called ‘getting it right’, or acknowledging that epistemology is relational and contingent upon certain realities (Hastrup 2004). Rather than succumb to a radical postmodern thought that everything is merely literature, we should instead seek out realities in creative ways that might create new insights into “how parts and wholes are constructed and how individual acts and communal images are both mutual preconditions and challenges” ( 469-70).
Nkwi does not acknowledge it, but this is what he is ostensibly doing. That being said, there are two primary areas of discussion that could have benefited from more direct engagement with critical social thinkers. The first is via Marshall McLuhan and reconsidering those social elements Nkwi labels ‘technology’ as instead ‘media’. While ‘technology’ makes sense, such a consideration would have perhaps been a better way of contextualising what Nkwi argues these technologies do. From what I gather, they promote change as a matter of being, independent of any content.
Churches, for example, created new social positions and subsequent hierarchies out of simply being introduced in practice, not just necessarily through the teachings conveyed. Similarly, education did the same thing by producing individuals with access to a particular mode of experiencing the world, not solely because of the specific lessons given. Nkwi implicitly upholds McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ (McLuhan 1994) mantra and would have done well to have addressed this.
Secondly, that these technologies generated power (re)configurations which in turn became productive forces is a reoccurring theme throughout. This along with the extensive use of archival documentation and photographs, or material discourse, compelled me to write ‘Foucault!’ several times in the margins. Whether intentional or not, Foucault’s absence is a bit curious and, along with McLuhan, could have enriched the discussion. Even Jean-Pierre Warmier’s foreword (which I’ll admit to having read afterward) notes Foucault’s nonappearance.
Altogether, I did enjoy this work and believe it to be a sound contribution to our understanding of Cameroon. The created scope is a unique, interdisciplinary one, and the balance of personal narrative with pictures and archival resources solidly portrays a compelling history of mobility, technology, and change in Kom.
African Modernities and Mobilities: An Historical Ethnography of Kom, Cameroon, C. 1800-2008. Dr Walter Gam Nkwi. Langa RPCIG, Cameroon
Jordan Vieira is a research student at LSE.
The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Hastrup, K. (2004). Getting it Right: Knowledge and evidence in anthropology. Anthropological Theory, 4(4), 455-472.
McLuhan, M. (1994). The Medium is the Message. In Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge: MIT Press.