The Story of my House in Cameroon
Text: Peter Geschiere
Choosing where to live during fieldwork can be a fateful decision, setting the terms for the
research. For me, in 1971 when I started my promotie- onderzoek among the Maka, in the forest of Cameroon, the choice of house where I would be allowed to live turned out to be a hot issue with unsuspected implications. In many respects it prepared me for the further complications of ‘doing field-work’ in a post-colonial situation. It also showed how confused I was at the time by the idea of ‘modernization’ and the clear-cut opposition between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional.’
At the time – now 50 years ago – my firm intention was to become a ‘modern’ anthropologist, which for me meant to keep my distance from what I saw as ‘traditional’ hobby horses of classical anthropology: kinship, witchcraft and so on. In line with the general mood of optimism in Africa in those days – the ‘young states of Africa’ ready to take a shortcut to ‘modernization’ - I wanted to study change. So my topic became post-colonial state formation and how this affected relations at the village level. However, developments on the spot soon made it clear to me that I was not so free in choosing what I wanted to work on and what not. Of course there was the heavy Cameroonian bureaucracy, an impressive hierarchy of officials who made it amply clear that they were going to decide where I would be allowed to live and what I would study. But in practice, the people with whom I was going to live were the ones constantly (re-)directing my focus.
After a long journey along all the levels of the bureaucracy, I had finally obtained a note from the sous-préfet to settle in one of the cantons that fell under his jurisdiction. I thought I had passed the main hurdles. However, when I showed my official note to the chief of the village that was recommended to me as dynamique, his reaction was that he could not decide these things on his own. He would call a village meeting next Sunday afternoon and I had to buy 40 litres of palm-wine to ‘sprinkle’ the meeting. That Sunday, it turned out that, of course, all the palm-wine had to be consumed first, so everybody – men and women - were in
elated spirits when the discussion had to start (especially later in the day palm wine can get quite strong). So, it turned out to be a true discussion, indeed. The villagers wanted to
check all sorts of things – especially how they and the village would profit from me coming to live with them. Would I hire an assistant and a cook and also other people? The man who was proposed as cook insisted right away on hiring an assistant-cook. As usual with meetings among the Maka, it all became quite chaotic and exciting. For some time it seemed that the verdict would turn out to be negative. But then the chief quite bluntly imposed a decision by telling me in which house I should live. This raised again problems: for him it was clear that I should live in the most modern house of the village – a new type of house, propagated at the time by Dutch volunteers. I thought that as an anthropologist (even a ‘modern’ one) I should live in what I thought was a local house: a ‘poto-poto’ construction of mud bricks with a roof of raffia leaves. The chief was shocked: this was an old-fashioned house and my choice intimated that there was no ‘progress’ in his village. The intervention of the catechist of the local Presbyterian church saved me. He said that I could live in the ‘camp America’ where the old American missionaries of his church had lived when they passed through the village. And most of the villagers seemed to agree with him. Thus it was decided for me.
Later on I discovered that my ‘poto-poto’ house was not at all ‘traditional’. ‘Poto-poto’ was a new type of house imposed by the French colonists in the 1940s. I was to experience similar confusion with central topics for my research. In retrospect, I deeply admire the patience of Meke Blaise, my dear assistant who sadly died three years ago (aged 75, we continued to work together for more than 40 years). He must have grown very tired of having to explain to me time and again that for him kinship (bjel) was not at all a ‘traditional’ remainder. Indeed, he was a true master in working with kinship to find new bearings in the outside world - when we were travelling in the area but also when we went to the city of Yaoundé, the country’s capital, 250 km away. Similarly, he never tired of trying to make me
understand that behind politics in the everyday world there was the shadow world, hidden but very dynamic, of the djambe (now translated as sorcellerie/ witchcraft) where the
true decisions were taken. Again, this did seem ‘traditional’ to me, but it turned out that the witches were attributed all sorts of ‘modern’ practices: they had their own planes and landing spaces (invisible, but nonetheless very real) and they used magical objects which they ordered by postorder from France. The title of my best-selling book, The Modernity of Witchcraft, reflects what Meke taught me.
Looking back, two general implications stand out to me that might be relevant for present-day discussions. First, that field-work means taking the time to listen and look. The test is whether all this is crowned by surprise. The present-day focus on the agency of things is a promising opening but it can have problematic effects if this means that shorter periods in the field can suffice (apparently no need to try and learn the local language or to delve in all the complications of the history of the place). For me, good field-work produces surprises but this takes time – a reward for weeks of boredom and apparent stagnation. Secondly, for me field-work has been a telling example that power is always ambiguous: my assistant at first addressed me as patron (as he deemed befitting for a white) but he soon stopped doing that. And indeed, often it seemed that he was in charge of how my research developed. Nowadays, his son, who adopted my complete name and for whom I paid medical studies for, still tells me by email what I should do (his authority now fortified by his medical expertise). In general, it was the villagers who drove home that kinship and witchcraft were not that ‘traditional.’ I cannot help wondering how self- reflexive anthropologists, worrying about power inequalities between researchers and their interlocutors, and about the extractive tendency of our discipline, forget about the humility imposed upon them in the field – not only by post- colonial bureaucracies but also by the people with whom they live and work with. My anthropology has been shaped by the field – and not the other way round.