Divine Fuh: Youth Masculinities and Prestige in Bamenda, Cameroon

PhD thesis, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Basel (2009)

This dissertation attempts to fill in the gaps on young men’s experience of gender and engagement with masculinity in Cameroon. It examines alienated young men’s engagement with the ‘crisis’ that is talked about in Cameroon and discussed in gender studies. I explore the ways in which young men profess their masculinity in the midst of difficult circumstances, thereby examining their struggle to be seen and, how they make themselves visible. One question addressed relates to how urban young men explore the space and resources available to them in a social group (‘meeting’) of men to express their masculinities. Thus, I focus on the strategies used by young men to ‘manage impressions’ and win the respect of other men (especially their peers) and the community. Despite advantages offered by the Grassfields patriarchal system, young men in Bamenda feel undervalued by the loss of old predictabilities and, overburdened by underachievement and the burden to proof masculinity. With little possibility of accumulation and redistribution, young men create myriad spaces to play, negotiate and enhance their masculinities. In what is herein referred to as competing for attention, young men engage in performative acts, seeking each other’s attention and subsequent confirmation as ‘strongmen’ – ‘doing masculinity’. Amongst young men therefore, the need to authenticate manhood provokes dramatic performances that aim to display them as ‘accomplished’ despite having failed or stuck in a transition. Even though they are culturally constructed as ‘empty vessels’, they struggle to represent themselves as social adults with essence. This work argues that the combo of the ‘crisis’ in masculinities, economic, political, religious and social crisis in Cameroon has created more intense competition for attention amongst young men in Bamenda. This competition is engineered by the elongated transition to manhood, which obliges young men to create new replacements for salaried achievement and new opportunities for endorsement as ‘men’. Thus, all male interaction and associational life allow young men to confront the predicament of devaluation, helping them to define ‘being’ in a society where ‘becoming’ is increasingly difficult. Through the performance of masculinity, young men position themselves in relation to each other and, also in relation to other men, as well as other actors in the community. Performance is not only considered as a conscious effort to produce or represent an artificial self, but also a tool or coping mechanism to position the self and deal with uncertainty, loss of opportunity and depletion of masculinity. The terms youth, young men and male cadets or cadets are used interchangeably to refer to the people caught in the transition from adolescence to full adulthood, especially between the ages 18 to 38 and, also those, who might have exceeded this age, but have not fully fulfilled the requirements of accomplishing and attaining social adulthood such as a formal job, marriage, establishment of a family/home, acquisition of property such as land, house or car and redistribution of personal success through assumption of family responsibilities, especially within extended families. My dissertation is based on data collected through observation of interactions and, participation in young men’s social activities in Bamenda during several field visits between July 2006 and March 2008. One finding is that competition is driven by the desire to be ‘strongmen’ wherein one man’s masculinity is another man’s poison.