Ep. 107: A conversation with Jacqueline-Bethel Mougoué on gender, identity, and nationalism in Cameroon

Jacqueline-Bethel Mougoué is an assistant professor of gender and sexuality in African Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her conversation with us, she highlights her work in Cameroon on gender, identity, and nationalism, which has culminated in the publication of a new book, Gender, Separatist Politics, and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon.

As we continue our celebration of Black History Month, we share what we’re paying attention to right now. In addition to a film recommendation in this week’s news wrap, Kim explains what is going on with COVID-19 vaccines in Africa, Rachel explains a case of environmental activism in South Africa, and more.

Listen to the episode below!

Our Guest

Books from the Episode

Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise, and the Rise of American Global Health Science by Johanna Tayloe Crane

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Other Links and Articles

You Will Die at Twenty (Trailer)

Beyond Petrostates: The Burning Need to Cut Oil Dependence in the Energy Transition” by Carbon Tracker

Global Health Officials back AstraZeneca Vaccine after South Africa Study Rings Alarm” by John Revill

South Africa Pauses AstraZeneca Vaccine Rollout after Study Shows it Offers Less Protection against Variant” by Jamie Gumbrecht, Sharif Paget, and Naomi Thomas

Statement on the Efficacy of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 Vaccine (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) against the SARS-CoV-2 Variants” by Africa CDC

South Africa: SLAPP in the Face for Australian Mining Company” by John Yeld

Previous Episodes We Mentioned

Ep. 103: A conversation with Cyril Obi of the African Peacebuilding Network


Kim: Welcome to Ufahamu Africa, a podcast about life and politics on the continent. I’m Kim Yi Dionne, your host, and I’m joined by my co-host, Rachel Beatty Riedl. Hi, Rachel!

Rachel: Hi, Kim! Happy Black History Month! So, this week we have a news wrap talking about films and the Oscars, energy transitions and environmental activism, and COVID.

Kim: Of course…

Rachel: Exactly, and vaccines. Also, in continuing Black History Month, you spoke with Jacqueline Bethel Mougoue, a professor of African Cultural Studies and also affiliated in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she teaches courses like the Politics of Fashion in Africa, Africa through Comics and Graphic Fiction, and Gender and Sexuality in Afrofuturism. Her research focuses on the gendering of identities in Africa, and how the constructions of gender inform the comportment and performances of the body, religious beliefs and political ideologies. Mougoue’s book, Gender, Separatists Politics and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon received the Western Association of Women’s Historians award for the best monograph in the field of history. Her research has also been published in African Studies Review, Gender and History, Feminist Africa and Africa is a country, among other esteemed outlets.

Kim: It was a really fun conversation with her, and I guess I could have predicted that because I really liked her book so much. So yeah, I’m excited for other people to listen to our conversation. Now, for the first time ever, a movie from Sudan is in the running for the Oscars Best International feature film, the film, You Will Die at 20 is also the first feature film made in Sudan in 20 years. Director Amjad Abu Alalal adapted his script from the short story, Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain, which was written by award winning Sudanese writer and journalist Hammour Ziada. I can’t wait to have my chance to see it as the trailer which is available online features powerful scenes, beautiful cinematography, excellent acting, and an enrapturing story about a boy whose sheikh predicts will only live to the age of 20 and sort of follows him in in this life from birth to 20. It looks really beautiful.

Rachel: I can’t wait to see that. And I feel like we should all have an Ufahamu Africa watching party, virtually for the moment. So, we’ll have to, you know, enjoy that film. Now also about Sudan and South Sudan. Both countries were mentioned in a new report out by Carbon Tracker, which highlights how the necessary global transition away from fossil fuels will impact existing petro states. They estimate that fossil fuel reliant countries could see a drop of 51% or more in government oil and gas revenues in a shift to the coming low carbon world over the next two decades. The other countries mentioned among the top five or six were Equatorial Guinea, South Sudan, Angola, Congo, and Nigeria. And in terms of fiscal dependence, which in turn, which is really the amount of government oil and gas revenue as a percentage of total government revenue, these countries stand out as the most vulnerable to this coming fossil fuel transition. And since the decrease is likely to be driven by increasingly lower prices, rather than necessarily lower volumes, the industry is likely to remain in place in these countries but deliver less and less material resource and finance to the population. The parallel is really related to a broader shift that we were discussing with Cyril Obi, in Episode 103, in which he was talking about the ways in which the decline of oil will have very mixed economic consequences across the continent, according to each country’s major export products. So, of course, we are expecting this decreased price of oil, but we’re also seeing a spiked increase in the price of materials that are needed for renewables such as components for batteries and the like. So, check out this report and listen to that episode, if you missed it, to think about the ways in which this broader economic global transition will have incredibly varied impact across the continent.

Kim: Yeah, I learned a lot from that episode, and it’s very future thinking and about, you know, resources and about this shift to carbon neutrality. Now in the news, is really important and a little bit challenging to understand. So, I’m going to try to break this down as best I can. South Africa has paused its COVID-19 vaccination rollout, having decided that it’s not going to use the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. And instead, they’re going to substitute it with Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson vaccines. And, you know, this is a time where they already have Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines in the country, but they’re not going to use them. Now, South African health minister Zweli Mkhize, he said that the switch was because the AstraZeneca vaccine was shown to be less effective against a variant of the COVID-19 virus. And that’s based on a recent unpublished study showing that the vaccine provided only minimum protection against mild and moderate COVID-19 disease from the variant that makes up more than 90% of South African COVID-19 cases. Now, this variant is referred to in the media as either the B1351 variant or the N501YV2 variant. So, you might see either one of those mentioned in the news, it’s the same thing. Now, what’s important, some things I hope folks will take away from this is that none of the COVID-19 vaccines are fully protective. And, and I’ve actually been struggling to find in all of the reporting of South Africa’s decision, and some material that can give us a real head-to-head comparison of all of the different available vaccines and their relative capacity to protect against mild, moderate, and most importantly, severe cases of COVID-19. Those for example, lead to hospitalizations, and deaths. Especially, how these different available vaccines work against the variant that’s widespread in South Africa, right, this B1351 variant. And, frankly, for our listeners, I actually can’t find this, you know, head-to-head comparison. And I’m a bit concerned about the fallout from South Africa’s decision. So, as, I’m sure many of our listeners know, South Africa is an incredibly influential country on the continent. And already in the wake of their announcement, it was announced that neighboring country, Eswatini, would no longer use the AstraZeneca vaccine either. And this is important because the AstraZeneca vaccine was going to make up, you know, a significant portion of the vaccines that were going to be distributed on the continent. And so, it is really important and, for now, I’d like to point our listeners to the Africa CDC’s website, which has released a statement offering guidance for other African countries, following the South African announcement. And the guidelines are quite sensible. You know, for countries that haven’t reported the circulation of this B1351 variant, the CDC is recommending proceeding with the rollout with AstraZeneca. So, they’re also saying that for countries that have reported the circulation of this variant, you know, they’re not telling them not to use the AstraZeneca vaccine, but instead to be prepared to introduce all available COVID-19 vaccines. They’re also encouraging all countries on the continent to expand their genomic surveillance, that means expand their capacity to test the genome sequencing of the variants of COVID-19 that are spreading in their countries. They also are encouraging countries to strengthen the clinical trials research capacity, in order for them to generate locally relevant, reliable data on the safety and efficacy of vaccine candidates in local populations. And this is really important, and it just reminds me of a book I read some years ago by Johanna Tayloe Crane, called Scrambling for Africa. And it’s a book about HIV. But she writes really clearly about how the variants of disease that affect African populations are not necessarily the variants of disease that global pharmaceutical companies are going to make the most money off of. And so there is a strong disconnect between study populations and global markets, and how there are some serious moral and ethical concerns we should be thinking about. But I also think that, you know, there’s some public health issues we should be thinking about, too. So, you know, in the grand scheme of, you know, the world is still unequal. You know, this is the reality that we live in. But I do think that I don’t want people to give up hope on the AstraZeneca vaccine, even as this B1351 variant becomes more prevalent in the world. And I think, like all of us, I’m just hoping for, you know, quicker rollout of multiple vaccines everywhere to really kind of slow the spread of COVID-19 and get the pandemic under control.

Rachel: Absolutely Kim, as you say it really the data that we’re missing or not able to compare necessarily is on that question of the efficacy of the vaccine against severe cases. And right, so that question of the reporting on its lack of efficacy, the Astra Zeneca against potentially mild cases, versus those that cause hospitalizations and deaths, right. So, it’s really very complex and unfolding rapidly. So, thank you so much for that explainer. So, in other news relating to South Africa this week, I wanted to bring up a case of environmental activism and a case in which those activists are claiming victory today against an Australian mining company. This case is one that’s been going through court and has ended up in the High Court in South Africa. And the ruling just came down against the Australian mining company’s defamation case, which was launched against six individual South Africans, three of whom were environmental lawyers, two community activists and one social worker. The defendants claim that this ruling, finding them not guilty, was really a victory for free speech, given that the defamation case itself was used by the corporation against these private individuals and community groups as a tool that was really meant to silence them, by bringing these large costs against them. In order to silence them for challenging, powerful corporate interests, interests that are of public concern, and in which the individuals themselves were advancing a social interest. So, the ruling judge claims that generally these exorbitant damages claims are part of a grand strategy to chill public participation, and send a clear message to activists that there are unaffordable financial risks attached to public participation, right? So, we want to go out and make a statement, protest, maybe corporate injustice, as it may be perceived. And we’re slapped as private individuals with these huge fines, right, so there are really big costs to those who go out and participate. The ruling itself was really saying that corporations should not be allowed to weaponize the legal system against ordinary citizens and activists in order to intimidate and silence them. So, one of the defendants in the case, social worker, John Clarke was quoted as saying that judgment is a triumph of collaboration between journalists, lawyers and social workers in support of people who are vulnerable and historically disadvantaged, to show that the Bill of Rights can become more meaningful and that it can triumph over mining rights. So, this victory, I hope can give us some light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to free speech, environmental protections, but also the power of people over corporations.

Kim: I like that hopeful story. Thanks for sharing that, Rachel. That’s all for this week. We’ll have links to things we’ve mentioned here as well, some bonus links on our website. ufahamuafrica.com. Now, stay tuned for my conversation with Jacqueline Mougoue. Thank you very much for joining us on the show Dr. Jacqueline Bethel Mougoue. We are so excited to talk about your book today.

Jacqueline: Thank you for having me.

Kim: So, last year, University of Michigan Press published your book Gender, Separatist Politics and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon. Your book explores the ideal womanhood and how it shaped the Anglophone Cameroonian nationalist movement in the first decade of independence in Cameron. What motivated you to write a book and particularly this book on women’s roles in separatist politics and in creating this national identity in Cameroon?

Jacqueline: Thank you, Kim. What really motivated me to write this book was the lack of knowledge that I had about the history of Cameroon, a West Central African country, where I was born. So, I came to the US when I was young. And throughout my primary and secondary school education, the only time Africa was talked about was doing the Transatlantic slave trade. So, I had very little knowledge about my own home country. And the only knowledge I really had was from family members, which was obviously a bit biased and also skewed, because it was based on their own experience and what they have been taught. And so, when I decided to go to graduate school, actually started out wanting to focus on American history, particularly the Civil War. But I got to take in all of these different graduate courses, this whole world opened up to me. It sounds really silly to actually say it, but I remember for example, taking my first Native American history class, and I went to the professor, and I asked her “Are Native Americans still around?” Because the only time I heard about them was only during a particular time period way back in the past. And that’s sort of that attitude sort of reflects how I understood African history, particularly Cameroonian history. I didn’t have that much knowledge about it. So, as I started taking more classes, I quickly within the first semester, switch to doing African history. And really rapidly I started to just think, you know, I don’t know anything, really, about Cameroonian history. And so, I just started reading anything, and everything I could get my hands on. I did want to add that I’m from the French speaking part of Cameroon. So, it was under dual European rule. So, the British and the French though I’m from the French speaking part. So, the history of Cameroon that I was learning rapidly at the time was the French speaking parts of that history. So, it wasn’t until I went to Cameroon to do dissertation field work and was in the French speaking part that I started to slowly realize, okay, Cameroon has a very complicated history and I started to understand why there were Cameroonians in the US that spoke English as their first language. I never really understood why I just thought they spoke English because they had been in the US for so longer. And why they didn’t speak French, I was really confused, but it’s something I didn’t really think about. So, it wasn’t until I went, I went back home. And my family started to introduce me to people who were from the English-speaking areas. And I went there and started doing research, I realized, oh, my goodness, there is a major part of Cameroon’s history that I have no idea about, and I was just so hungry, and so eager to learn anything and everything that I could. And having taken gender studies courses. And having taught in the Gender Studies Program at Purdue, I really wanted to focus on women and gender. I wanted to focus on individuals who reminded me of my aunts, grandmothers, nieces. So, essentially, women’s history. And so that’s what really motivated me to focus particularly on women, and gender. But I really do have to be honest and say that it’s really my oral interviews and the archives that guided the content of my book. Without the oral interviews, and the archives, my book would not be what it was. As I was in the archives in the English-speaking areas, it was just like a mountain of gold to me. There was all of this rich material and sources. And I had access to so much that I just really didn’t know what to do with it. And so, I remember, I spent a good, I think it was about nine months in the archives, just just taking notes every single day for hours upon hours. And it was really the archives that really guided and shaped the book. And then when I would be done with the archives, I will conduct oral interviews. And as I was conducting oral interviews, it was really interesting to see or to hear the women talking about the things that were coming up in the archives and also sometimes, actually not sometimes, a lot of times the women will bring up things that I had not noticed or paid attention to in the archives. For example, you know, women gossiping too much, and women talking and gossiping too much, it’s not good for the nation. It’s not a good ideal gender role for women. I started to then see those conversations happening in the archives. And soon after I had left Cameroon and was looking at like my plethora of sources, I’ve realized the one thing that really connects the oral interviews, and the material that I found in the archives was issues of nationalism. In the archives, in interviews, time and time again, there is this conversation about English speaking people in the country, essentially having their own identity. And this is something that really came up while I was doing oral interviews, because people, like in many African countries, in Cameroon, would hear my last name, and they would ask where I was from, where my parents are from, from which village, which town, and, you know, it became clear to them that I was from the French speaking region. And so, that also shaped my interview experiences. And particularly when I was interviewing men, they were very eager to explain to me the differences between women who were Anglophone or English speaking and women who were Francophone or French speaking, there are all sorts of stereotypes and ideas about who they were, but also who they were very much shaped ideas about this sort of Anglophone national identity, particularly in the 1960s.

Kim: And so, I find this really interesting. So, you didn’t set out to write a dissertation? And then a book on identity and nationalism. It was something that emerged in the course of your research.

Jacqueline: Oh, yes, absolutely. And this is why when I talk to my mentees or to other graduate students, I say, you know, when you go into research on the grounds, you just don’t know what you’re going to find. And for me, I just got lucky in that I found so many things that were very unpredictable. And so, it was just sort of like I was flowing down the river and just sort of flowing along, and just sort of consuming all of the knowledge and the information that I was picking up.

Kim: Yeah, so shout out to all the graduate students deep in the archives! You know, we know it’s tough, hang in there, the topic will come to you! So, and, you know, your book is, you know, it’s been published it in a very timely moment for Anglophone identity in Cameroon. And this idea of nationalism, right. There’s this you know, movement for separatism among some Anglophones and nationalism right now is, is a really important topic. And I think it’s one of the things I really like about your book is that it puts this idea of nationalism in a historical context. And it also gives us a really good frame of thinking about this from gender stereotypes and gendered experiences. There’s a concept you use in your book called embodied nationalism. And I wondered if you could share for our listeners, what you mean by embodied nationalism and how embodied nationalism helps nations to create and maintain their cultural and national identity.

Jacqueline: Yes. So, when I was in the archives, and when I was conducting oral interviews, there was a lot of conversations, a lot of material about women’s everyday comportment and attitude from the way they spoke, from the way they even walked down the street, from even conversations…I remember reading columns in the women’s advice column papers. They were talking about women who were too shy in public and embarrassment to serve society, and that woman had to learn how to not be shy and how to socialize. But you couldn’t be too outgoing because you might be seen as being sexually loose. So, I had this mountain of material from the archives, and just hours of interviews with women and men, about women’s attitudes and behaviors in the 60s and the early 1970s. And I did not know what to do with this material to be brutally honest, I’m just grappling with it. I remember there was a couple of of papers, I gave it at the African Studies Association Conference, talking about women and embarrassment and being shy, and not knowing how to really speak up. And I was sort of playing around with these different ideas, and I wasn’t really convinced yet that it was useful material. And I became convinced that it was useful material once I started to draw from other disciplines, sort of and put on sort of different disciplinary lenses to analyze this material. And this is when gender studies and political science really became important into understanding and define what embodied nationalism was. And so, I wanted to understand, in the 1960s, in the early 1970s, and in English speaking Cameroon, how did women drive nationalism in a unique way, in a way that was different than a man? How do they access certain spaces particularly political spaces? And this idea about or this sort of my own definition of embodied nationalism started to crystallize. And so, I defined it broadly as a type of nationalism in which identities can be embodied through performance, emotional expression, and visual representations, through for instance, you know, dress, food and suitable conduct. So, that was sort of my general broad understanding of it. And then I took that understanding and put it within the Cameroonian context because I wanted to see what results it would show. So, within the Cameroonian context, this concept allowed me to basically argue or to assert that female educated political leads invoked embodied nationalism, essentially, to bring visual representations, and emotional or affective practices of ideal Anglophone womanhood, particularly within urban settings or regions. And I emphasize that by using or invoking this embodied nationalism. This female educated political elites especially implied that women’s everyday patterns of behavior, and comportment from the clothes that women wore, from the foods that they cooked and also ate, whether or not they gossiped, whether or not they stuck to appropriate marital behavior, such as not challenging their husbands’ male authority, or even chasing or beating their husbands’ mistresses out in the open. All of this might project a suitable or appropriate Anglophone persona, especially in contrast to Francophone Cameroonian woman, like myself and my female family members. And so, looking at women’s participation, and the building of Anglophone nationalism and political identity through this lens open up all of these different doors for me.

Kim: Great. So, it’s so interesting that you mentioned right chasing a mistress out into the street. Yeah, I mean, it’s just a very, you know, subtle example of what a fun read your book is. And I want to focus in particular on chapter three, which is a very interesting and fun part of the book, you focus on ideas about cookery, as a tool to form a distinct West Cameroonian cultural identity and to advance Anglophone separatism in the Francophone dominated Federal Republic. You know, for me, I love this chapter so much, because, you know, I regularly see, you know, maps of my own country, you know, the United States, where you see, you know, what’s the most common food googled, you know, before Thanksgiving, right? And, you know, California where I’m from, you know, a very strong California nationalist, you know, it’s always salad or something really lame, you know, and it’s the one time I feel bad about like California and identity. But it’s interesting, you know, to think about a country and lines are distinctions, according to food. And when does the kitchen become a political space? What is the relationship between food and national identity as you see it in Cameroon?

Jacqueline: That’s a really great question. I have to begin by talking about one of my favorite sociologists, Nira Yuval-Davis and her work, Gender and Nation. In this work, she talks about how women are often seen to be the authentic representatives of their nation, or of their culture. And essentially one of the main things that Nira Yuval-Davis argues is that women reproduce the nation, culturally and biologically. And we can see this playing out in the kitchen. So, the kitchen becomes the nation writ small, and what women are cooking in the 60s in the early 1970s in English speaking, Cameroon matters. It’s not a mundane act. It’s something that is very political, because there’s lots of conversations about who are we as a people. And I wanted to add that this conversation becomes really important, because the English speaking and the French speaking part of Cameroon, were once ruled separately. And once they get together in 1961, they are a federal republic, but with two autonomous federal states. So, you have the West state, which is English speaking and the East state, which is French speaking, and they have a bit of autonomy. But what you see throughout the 1960s is that you have a looming hegemonic Francophone state that is trying to take over the Anglophone state, and they successfully do that in 1972. So, there is always anxiety, from the early 1960s, to the early 1970s, in the English-speaking part about who are we as a people, how do we maintain our national identity. But Kim, as you already know, this idea about national identity is very fraught. And so, then picking and choosing essentially what the Anglophone nation’s identity is, and it’s one of the spaces in which it is created, is in the kitchen, essentially picking different ingredients, different spices, different crops and saying okay, we put this all together. This is what makes us an Anglophone nation, or this is what creates or creates a recipe of Anglophone cultural identity. And so, what you have in the 1960s is literally women’s organization, female political elites, who literally asked in speeches, and letters to newspapers, what is our national cuisine? Nigeria has one, Ghana has one, all of our neighbors have one, what is ours? But I just want to remind the audience out there when I say, national cuisine, when they’re saying national cuisine, there are specifically saying that Anglophone national cuisine. We’re not imagining the entire federal republic. So, they’re particularly looking at their region of the country. And so, what you have is essentially a competition where people write to newspapers, and they say our national cuisine should be this, it should be called this. And through these various domestic science courses, you have female political leads that come together, and they start to select and choose the different cuisines that they think represent their national cuisine and all of that culminates in a cookbook. But what’s really fascinating in the cookbook, is that this idea about national cuisine, it is created. So, if you look at the recipes, there are drawing from local cuisines, but also cuisines from the French speaking part of the country, from Nigeria and from Great Britain. So, from the local, national and continental level and the putting all of these recipes or ingredients together, essentially to cook the nation’s identity.

Kim: That’s really fascinating, yeah. I mean, there’s so many different ways you can take what you’ve learned from this particular history and expand out from it. It seems so rich, with opportunity for future research, though, you know, for grad students out there thinking about you know, looking for a topic… I have to say, this was a really fun part of the book and I feel like as thorough and complete as it was, I feel like, you know, someone could go even further with it. Absolutely… So, thank you for that! There’s also in the last chapters, you discuss about women who “wear the trousers”, and are portrayed as “power drunk”, and how these women who wore trousers challenged patriarchal norms after fighting with men. And how did the achievements of women during that time shape the women’s movement in today’s Cameroon? More broadly, can you tell our listeners more about African feminisms and how they shaped the continent’s political scene?

Jacqueline: Yeah, so just like cuisine and food, clothing becomes this hotly debated area about who are we as a people? And how do women culturally represent us as a people? Well, you have going on to the 1960s, in Cameroon, like you do across the world during this time period, as you have women that are increasingly accessing formal education, and they’re deciding to take control in certain aspects of their lives. They are entering the professional workforce, they are often times deciding who they marry, and where they live. So, they’re escaping this grasp of male authority, but also the grasp of the authority of older women. So, this starts to be this tension about what are they doing? What are they drinking, where are they going and what are they wearing? And so, you start to see this increase a woman wearing slacks or trousers, which by the way, is connected to a larger global trend at this time. And there starts to be sort of this attitude, that first women who wear trousers are trying to be too Westernized, and trying to be too much like British women, French women, women in the US. And second, women who wear trousers are sexually loose, and you start to see urbanites that sort of pinpoint who these women are and where they essentially circulate. So, these women are wearing trousers at bars, they’re buying their own drinks, they’re buying their own Guinness beers, they have their own money, they have their own apartment and they’re buying their own appliances. They’re formally educated, they have nice office jobs. And so, their clothing starts to be associated with them challenging various gender boundaries. And I just wanted to add that when I was writing this chapter, I had a colleague read it, and she said, “Well, you know, in the US, there were similar perspectives about women wearing trousers”, to like church or to work because it was not seen as being feminine or womanly. Because women who wore trousers were seen as challenging as visual image, they were concluded to be too wild. And so, you have a similar perspective going on in 1960s Cameron, during this time period, as well. And so, this idea about or trousers, as a symbolism for challenging male authority filters out within domestic spaces. Oh, women want to wear trousers in the marriage. Now they want to tell their husbands what to do. Now they’re wanting to beat their husbands out in the you know, open highways. Now they want to tell men what to say or what not to say. Now, they want to box men in the ring, literally, women are actually winning, right? And so, there’s this fear that women are essentially stealing male authority through trousers, and now how that’s connected to feminism in Cameroon? It becomes a bit more complex, because I’m very careful in the book to say that the women that I’m looking at is female, political educated elites. They do not identify themselves as feminists. So, I argue that there are engaging in acts of feminism. So, feminist acts, which is something that other gender studies scholars have talked a bit more about. And so, I don’t want to put a label on them that they did not give to themselves. But I say feminist actions, because a lot of what they are doing are upholding what we would see from the outside as being feminist actions. But this is where it gets a little bit blurry or muddy because their understanding of feminist actions or how they engage in feminist actions is different than how it might unfold in the US, or in Europe. What equality means in Cameron during this time period, looks different than what equality or gender equality looks like in other parts of the world. And so, in the book, I’m really careful to emphasize that their engagement in feminist actions was one in which it was very much enveloped or embedded within African context. So, within African ideas about what feminism means, and this very much shapes the political scene in very interesting ways. So, one of the things that I found, that I was surprised by was these feminist actions from the outside look, conservative. So, you have women’s organizations that are oftentimes part of male dominated parties, in their women’s wings of the male dominated party. So, the women support the male endeavors, they show up at rallies, they encourage other women to vote for, so and so. However, what you see is that, because of this overt or public support of these women’s organizations, they get support from the male dominated parties in return. And they get financial support, for example. So, the women’s organizations take this financial support, in order to create different opportunities for women. Educational opportunities, the opportunity to study abroad, in the continent, and also outside of the continent, opportunities to take domestic science classes and start their own restaurant. And so, what I started to see was from the outside is these acts of feminism might look conservative and slow moving. However, they were actually making changes, perhaps not in the way that we would see in the Western world, but they were making changes in ways that make sense and in ways that worked for them.

Kim: That’s really powerful. Now, I’m curious to know, and I’m always hesitant to ask, when someone’s book has just come out, you know, what’s your next book, what are you working on next? But I’m curious to know what in your research is exciting you these days, you know, what things are you reading and looking into? And poking around at?  Oh, yeah. My second book continues to look at issues of identity, but really across transnational boundaries. I think it might be useful to just really briefly within a few seconds, talk about the connection between the first book and the second project. From the outside, it looks like there’s no connections at all. But what connects them is what I found in the archives. As I had mentioned earlier, I spent a really long time just taking lots and lots of notes, and archives looking for sources. And as a result of that, I really didn’t get a chance to look at my sources, until I came back to the US. And when I came back to the US, I was really looking at particular parts of my archival sources. And it wasn’t until I had time several years later and had the funding to hire a research assistant that my second book project started to crystallize. So, my research assistant, started to transcribe all of my sources from the archives, thousands of them, and I was looking through them and I started to find things about the Baha’i faith. So, a religion that originated in 19th century Iran, and I asked him, “Why is there’s so much stuff on the Baha’i faith?” And he said, “I don’t know, you’re the one who took all of these notes.” And so, I started poking around and just wondering why there is this Baha’i movement going on in Cameroon in the 50s 60s, and 70s. And what I found was this fascinating story that has just continued to just really surprise me. And so, my second book project is a transnational history in which I’m following the movement of ideas, cultures, and people across national borders. And I look at the Baha’i faith movement or the expansion of it as a nice case study for understanding larger transnational histories. And Cameroon plays a significant role in this process, because it becomes one of the countries where the Baha’i faith becomes the most successful. I mean, in the 50s, and 60s, there were whole towns that were where people have become Baha’i. And what I see is that they start to travel outside of Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Latin America, the South Pacific and traveling there for years at a time in order to spread the faith. So, I’m looking at these transnational connections that they are making, with people of African descent in Latin America, and also with indigenous communities in the South Pacific. And by making these transnational connections, one of the things that I have found is they’re essentially developing their own unique idea of a transnational, global Black identity between the 1950s and 1970s. So, it’s been a really fun project that has continued to surprise me.  This is so exciting. I didn’t know that there was a significant Baha’i population in Cameroon.

Jacqueline: Yes, I too, did not. And so, it’s been a really fun project. And I’m really lucky in that the first two people that converted to becoming Baha’i was a couple, and their son is my research assistant. And I’ve just been really lucky with the project, because when I first met him, I said, you know, it’s just so sad that a lot of the first people that became Baha’i have now passed, and he said, “Well, I interviewed all of them.” And so, he pulled out all of these oral interviews, and he shared them. So, he’s been really generous and really kind. And that really pushed my project for to be able to have interviews from a hundred people who first became Baha’i in the late 1950s.

Kim: Well, that is a great advertisement for all of us to collect oral histories of our families, because you never know, you know what beautiful transnational project awaits? Finally, before we go, we always like to ask our guests what they’ve read recently. Is there anything that you’ve read in the last year or so that you would recommend to our listeners?

Jacqueline: I recently read a book by Imbolo Mbue, titled, Behold the Dreamers. It’s a really nice novel, and I really connected to it as someone who came to the US when I was young, and really grappled with my identity, and my experience, and some of the experiences were really bad, some were really good, but I loved the novel, because it really allowed me to connect in this fictional world, which seems very real to an immigrant family’s experience. And there’s something else in the book that I really connected with that I don’t want to say because it would be ruining the end of the book, but it just really emphasizes this connection to one’s home country that I absolutely love. Highly recommend!

Kim: I read that book not long after it came out. And you know, it was at this time where here in the United States, you know, we’ve had the last four years at least have been highly punitive toward immigrants and to read that book… And even though it’s a work of fiction, it really does share with you the experiences of immigrants in this country and the kinds of work that they’re doing and how important that work is. And then just the personal travails. It puts these punitive policies into a different light. And that, you know, people’s actual lives are deeply affected by these policies.

Jacqueline: Yes, yes. Absolutely.

Kim: And it’s beautifully told, you know, and for anyone who’s interested in understanding more about, I guess, East Coast life, it gives you some insights into different walks of life. Yeah, really, really fascinating. Well, thank you so much for your time.

Jacqueline: Thank you for having me. It was such a pleasure talking to you, Kim.

Kim: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Ufahamu Africa to find any of the articles, books or links we talked about on today’s episode, head to ufahamuafrica.com. We are also available on Spotify, Apple podcast, SoundCloud, and Stitcher. This podcast is produced by Megan DeMint, with help from production assistant Fulya Felicity Turkmen. We are generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and receive research assistance from Cornell University and the University of California Riverside. Our music is courtesy of Kevin Mcload. Until next week, safari salama!

2 thoughts on “Ep. 107: A conversation with Jacqueline-Bethel Mougoué on gender, identity, and nationalism in Cameroon

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