05 Dec Talking Back: a conversation with Divine Fuh
In the third interview in the series, Talking Back, Rama Salla Dieng speaks to Divine Fuh. Divine Fuh talks about his research on the economic, political, religious and social crises in Cameroon and how young men have been forced to create new criteria for endorsement as ‘successful men’ with the collapse of salaried achievement. In a wide-ranging interview he also discusses his work with CODESRIA in Dakar, fathering, feminism, masculinity, Afrophobia and social anthropology.
Rama: Hello Divine, please introduce yourself.
Divine: My name is Divine Fuh. I come from Cameroon. Specifically from the Kingdom of Bafut in what is referred to in the literature as the Cameroon Grassfields, or the Cameroon Grasslands. I am the son of two amazing humans, and the child of many people. That is why after my Mi (coming of age ceremony) at which I became a Bafut noble, I was renamed Abongnela – that is, made by society, the child of community, or the product of people. I am a loyal friend, a husband, a father, a brother, a colleague, and I am sure to some, a spoilt and annoying brat, even though I would say that I am a person who likes to bring a smile to other people.
But I guess, you need me to tell you that I am an anthropologist based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, but currently on secondment at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) where I am the Head of Publications and Dissemination Programme. I studied Journalism and Mass Communication and Political Science at the University of Buea in Cameroon where I obtained a bachelor degrees in 1999, before completing an MA in Development Studies [Sociology] at the University of Botswana in 2004, and then a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Basel in Switzerland in 2009. My long-time research interests are on the politics of suffering and smiling, particularly how young people seek ways and strategies of smiling in the midst of their suffering. I have conducted research in Botswana, Cameroon, South Africa and Senegal. I haven’t really published as I should, but hoping to fulfil that dream in the next several years when I return to the university in 2020 following the end of my first contract here at CODESRIA. But this hasn’t stopped me from being generous with my ideas. Knowledge production is a collective project, and good ideas are borne out of interdependency, openness and genuine collaborations to which I remain committed.
Currently my research interests have gradually shifted to the intersections between knowledge production and Pan-Africanism, especially given the pertinence of the re-current debates about decolonisation. That said, I am a passionate teacher. I teach social anthropology and will end this introduction by saying that I am a feminist ally.
Rama: Okay, as a feminist ally, how do you walk the talk Divine?
Divine: It is not so simple, especially as a man enjoying the many privileges generously distributed to men by patriarchy. I try my best, but perhaps I should leave this assessment to feminists. I was recently considered for the Interim headship of the African Gender Institute at UCT – a thought that haunted me for months until I was informed of a change of heart by the AGI board. I think feminism and being a feminist is something you live rather than talk about. I want to believe that in the midst of my patriarchal privileges, it is something I try everyday to live…
Rama: You mentioned you were also a husband and a father to a daughter I had the pleasure to meet in Dakar. What has been your experience of ‘fathering’ her?
Divine: Fatherhood is amazing and I am addicted to it, even though it is also daunting. After every sleepless night, we wake up to her ensnaring smile. Everyone should be given an opportunity to experience it where possible. When I learned that we were having a boy, I wept, and then when we then learned that it was a girl, I wept again, and then it seems God and the ancestors decided we needed the full joy and challenge, and then they blessed us with both a son and a daughter. It is important to understand the uniqueness of each, but also not treat them as radically enslaved by gender expectations. The greatest gift we try to give both of our kids is the capacity to smile, to sustain that smile, to distribute it to others, and then the importance and power of respect. Fatherhood is a blessing and a unique privilege. My daughter is my buddy. She has grown to be an independent but very intelligent social being with a strong character and sense of humour. I am just a vehicle to accompany her through this beautiful, tough and complicated life journey. She is the first child, like her mother and me, and it comes with responsibilities – of course no pressure. She is fully integrated in the household and encouraged to actively contribute in chores. Her father loves cooking, and happy that she’s found the creative meaning, therapeutic experience and collective interaction that it enables. She is exposed to and meets diverse people. But, I am just one person, and we are just one family. She is made and empowered by people and society, and I believe it is going to be ups and downs. But what we have tried to imbibe in her is resilience and the spirit of moving forward – to keep walking, even after stopping.
In a misogynist and toxic patriarchal world my daughter needs to learn how and when to be generous and selfish, but also to stand up for herself, and especially for others. But, who knows what we are doing? Who knows? Children make us, and I am the father she made of me. She and her brother have further defined love for me – unconditional, selfless, playful, forgiving. Through them, I have learned to be human again – to be playful, to laugh, to miss them, to cry, to say thank you, to say sorry; and you know to notice or pay attention to some of the most minute details in life such as the patterns on this table which we adults ignore, the pores on your skin, etc. It is hard to describe, you have to experience it to know how special it is.
Rama: I recently read about your fascinating research on ‘the prestige economy’, urban youths and masculinities in Cameroon. What motivated you to concentrate your PhD research on this topic and can you tell us a bit more about your main findings?
Divine: I believe it is a project that has always lived inside me and was somehow realised in the course of my PhD studies at the University of Basel. I often joke that when I began to negotiate my PhD research, one of my advisors was uncomfortable about introducing me at meetings as ‘my colleague who is an expert on sex.’ So, an ethnography of youth and men’s associational life in Cameroon was a good compromise, but also this description just emerged from a preliminary field visit, during which my friend Jude Fokwang introduced me to the group he was researching. The research on the prestige economy bridges the gaps on young men’s experiences of gender and masculinity, particularly in urban Cameroon. It examines alienated and underprivileged young men’s relationship with the crises that is so much talked about in urban studies, and the crisis in masculinities discussed in gender studies. I explore the ways in which young men live their masculinities amid precarity, thus examining their struggles to come of age, to be seen and how they make themselves visible as valuable social adults.
One question addressed relates to how urban young men explore the space and resources available to them in collective encounters and social groups of men to activate and renovate their masculinities. I mean, don’t forget that research demonstrates that while men, particularly African youth, are considered dangerous individually, they are portrayed as even more vicious when in groups or collectives, as we can see in the various depictions of them as gangsters, and fearless immigrants. While this project takes these portrayals seriously, it also attempts to understand other aspects related to their relationship with place, identity and future imaginaries. 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 communities in which they are located. Despite the advantages offered to male youth by the Cameroon Grassfields strong patriarchal context, young men in this region, especially in the city of Bamenda, feel undervalued by the loss of old predictabilities and, overburdened by underachievement provoked by an endless quest to come of age, and the heavy burden to prove respectable masculinity. With little possibility of accumulation and redistribution – two important qualifiers of manhood, young men create myriad spaces to navigate and enhance their positions as men. In what I refer to as competing for attention, young men engage in performative acts, seeking each other’s attention and subsequent confirmation as strongmen, and therefore accomplished adults. Amongst these cadets, the need to authenticate manhood provokes dramatic performances that aim to position them as ‘accomplished’ despite being stuck in a transition to adulthood. This production, circulation and consumption of being is what I refer to as the prestige economy.
You asked about findings. Yes, I mainly argue that the combo of this ‘crisis’ in masculinities, economic, political, religious and social crises in Cameroon has created a more intense competition for attention amongst young men in the cities. This competition is engineered by the elongated transition to manhood, which obliges young men to create new replacements for salaried achievement and new opportunities and criteria for endorsement as ‘successful men’. Thus, all-male or male-only associational life allows young men to confront the predicament of individual and collective devaluation, helping them to re-define ‘being’ in a society where ‘becoming’ is increasingly difficult. Through the prestige economy and performance of masculinities, young men strategically re-position themselves in relation to each other and, also in relation to other men, women and their communities. Performances are not only framed as a conscious effort to produce or represent artificial hybrid selves, but also a tool or coping mechanism to smile through repositioning the self and to effectively deal with uncertainty. The prestige economy offers young people the opportunity to smile in the midst of suffering inflicted by the state and the ongoing process of neoliberal globalisation. God! I cannot believe I have been trying to finish this book forever. I am finishing the book on this, by the way!
Rama: You have lived and worked in Bamenda, Gaborone, Dakar, Basel and Cape Town. What has been your experience in these cities and what can you tell us about the similarities and differences of experiences you know youth(s) face in these cities?
Divine: Lol! My sweet Bamenda. Bamenda is the capital city of the North West Region of Cameroon. There are memories of my childhood and growing up buried in that city, and it is the place where family – friends, aunties, uncles, cousins, siblings, parents, etc – live, and so you can imagine how special it is for me. The sounds of taxis and hawkers mixed, and the jumble of church bells and calls from the mosque. Unfortunately, it is currently the centre of conflict, changing the totality of the experience of that creative, lively and humane space. It has become a place of drama, pain and trauma. That said, Bamenda is a place of cultures.
What connects all the cities where I have lived is a resilient spirit amongst its inhabitants to continuously forge convivial and interdependent spaces in spite of all the odds. The generosity of its peoples, and the wealth of its cultural and intellectual economy. I just love Dakar. It is a special place and it has successfully created a truly and unapologetically cosmopolitan global space. Gaborone took care of my soul and during the time I lived there, had distinguished itself as a Pan-African place of encounters, with people from across the continent and the world. Cape Town is unique. It is Cape Town. It is probably the most beautiful city on earth, and also the most painful to live in. Right now it is one of my homes. But I should add that I lived in Basel, probably longer than any of these other cities, interconnected by their contradictions as places of closures and overtures. While one is assured by the energy, passion and commitment of young people in these cities to imagine alternative futures, it is clear that to be young and to grow up in these cities can also be tough. These cities turn some good youth into beasts. The violence destabilises young people, in fact pushing some to make long and dangerous journeys to find comfort in distant places abroad, especially across the Mediterranean. I have seen young people spend an entire day, sometimes an entire week or many months hawking through streets, markets and other spaces just to sell 50grams of cashew nuts, so they can buy a loaf of bread to eat and drink tea to survive another night to continue the business of hoping in hopelessness. Suffering and smiling, pain and pleasure, crime and safety, beautiful and ugly – I mean, these are the contradictions of being African, living Africa, or perhaps any place. But young people never give up! You cannot keep up with them. They keep walking!
Rama: What does ‘belonging’ mean to you? And what do the recurrent waves of ‘Afrophobia’ (to paraphrase Mbembé) in South Africa evoke to you?
Divine: Belonging? This is basically about recognition as valuable humans deserving of exclusive ethics regimes. It is about the politics of inclusion and exclusion into what Francis Nyamnjoh has referred to as ‘ever-diminishing circles of inclusion.’ Or the privilege to be made part of specific terms of recognition as humans. For me, belonging, each time activated, is exclusively about exclusion, hence its use every time there are struggles over identity resources. Fanon was a key reading for the #RMF [Rhodes Must Fall] movement and the ongoing struggle for decolonisation in South Africa, and we may need to reread his critical and insightful reflections on ‘the pitfalls of national consciousness’ to collectively reflect on and address this nervous condition. Firstly, South Africa as a state and South Africans as a people have travelled a long journey, which continues to appear longer each day for everyone, particularly if you are black. This Afrophobia or phobia for other Africans is perhaps an insight into an impending politics of autochthony [the ‘original inhabitants’] . Of course, the dehumanisation that continuously emerges out of these incidents is gruesome and reminds us of the savage brutality that humans are capable of perpetuating. The ‘Afrophobic’, ‘xenophobic’ or ‘criminal’ incidents in South Africa, is perhaps a reminder that one of our greatest weaknesses is our incapacity or inability to deal with difference. It is important to note that after apartheid, South Africa is at war with itself. This is echoed by politicians and various reports demonstrating the atrocious state of respect for life and human dignity in South Africa, which cannot be understood without the near insurmountable violence of apartheid on South Africans and those who live in it, especially if you are woman. In the same week of the Afrophobia violence, there was savage violence against women, leading to a march to parliament in Cape Town and also to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Cape Town is now ranked one of the most violent cities in the world, a notoriety that used to be held by Johannesburg. In everyday life, the violence is not mainly targeting foreigners, but everyone and anyone who finds themselves in specific situations. But this is not unique to South Africa, and also now seems to overshadow the lived experience of South Africa as a welcoming society.
Though Afrophobia is a global phenomenon. Show me one place on this continent and worldwide where Africans are welcome with open arms? In Libya, we have seen horrific stories about African migrants being violated. Even within countries, look at the violence in Cameroon, Nigeria, Somalia, Burkina Faso, DRC, Chad, Mali, Niger, Libya and others. Each country has a derogatory construct to describe foreigners from other African countries whom they consider to be more savage than wild animals. Often these constructs are used to describe ‘foreigners’ or ‘outsiders’ in a way that makes them worse than the lowest categories – hence, the justification to violate them.
Fanon used the example of similar occurrences across the continent to reinforce the point that Afrophobia is the work of elites in a rapidly evolving post-independence and postcolonial context. Examples include the deportation of Nigerians from Ghana in the 1950s, the Ivorian attacks against Togolese, Dahomians and Nigerians, anti-Sudanese and Mauritanian reprisals in Senegal, anti-Senegalese deportations in Mauritania, and early Congolese retaliation against Senegalese. Remember that infamous 1983 executive order by Nigerian President Shehu Shagari forcing over 2 million mainly West African immigrants to flee the country, immortalised in what we now know today as Ghana Must Go? And Idi Amin’s Uganda and the attacks on Indians? What about Equatorial Guinea’s recent expelling of ‘illegal’ Cameroonians? Francis Nyamnjoh’s seminal work Insiders and Outsiders: Citizenship and Xenophobia in Southern Africa is very instructive in this sense, with examples from Botswana, Zimbabwe and other countries. Look, in Botswana I was demeaned as a Makwerekwere, the same in South Africa, and now in Senegal I am derogated as Niak.
There is a fundamental reflection that we need to do collectively about this nervous condition that seems to underpin our everyday lives. I mean, to borrow an expression from Mbembe, we need to ‘come out of this great darkness’ (‘sortir de la grande nuit’), or ‘come out of the great harm’ (‘sortir de la grande nuire’). Think about it – in 2019, close to sixty years after ‘independence’ we are still discussing visas, and borders on this continent. In 2019, it is still legal to be persecuted and prosecuted for crossing borders. Speechless! Shame on us all.
Rama: Thanks so much for these profound thoughts. You have recently discussed your experience of opportunities that have become ‘toxic’ due to restrictions to fundamental individual rights, including to mobility as discussed in this report and this one. You have described living this unsettling experience while trying to build sustainable partnerships as ‘bending over backwards’ in a special issue on ethical partnerships: What are in your opinion are the main challenges of building sustainable and equitable partnerships across continents?
Divine: Two days ago, I held a meeting with a northern publisher who ‘was in town’ and decided it was important to meet with us to discuss partnership. In the generosity of spirit that we have, I scheduled an appointment for the said day at 11:00am. At 9.45am I received a call from their driver informing me that they were on their way to CODESRIA for the 10.00am meeting. I protested, but they then used the next 30 minutes to force me to provide live directions to our building located on the main Cheikh Anta Diop avenue. They ended up arriving at 11.50am, no calls to inform us they were running late. This person came straight into my office, sat and delved into what looked like an interrogation, and thereafter, a lecture on the standards of knowledge production, publishing and distribution in Africa. Then the person insistence that it would be beneficial for us to to distribute their books and co-publish with them. All this, after this person indicated that they know nothing about my organisation [CODESRIA], and have never read, and did not care to read after insisting they had come to discuss collaboration.
This wasn’t the first time a potential partner walked into our offices discussing partnership, without knowing or reading anything about us. Of course, I acknowledge the challenges with our website, but at least read the mission statement and the Charter, to be sure that there is convergence for partnership.
The key challenges to ethical partnerships? Respect, Respect and Respect. Simple. It is respect that makes you take time to understand the other person. It is respect that allows two parties, even when unequal to find ways of speaking to each other in ways that acknowledges the existence of each other. It is respect that prevents us from imposing abstract agendas and projects on others. It is respect that stops us from just seeking signatories so as to fulfil the requirement of simply adding an African into a project. But unfortunately, being African is an affliction, and a kind of affliction that transforms the body it occupies into an undignified aberration.
Rama: What acts of radical self-care do you practice to keep going as the busy Head of Publications at the continent’s most famous Pan-African research organisation?
Divine: Hehehe. Radical? Invest in smiling as a political act and a commitment to keep walking. But you need a good heart and a lot of patience, and a high capacity to not take things personally. The knowledge production environment is a highly political playing field. The best medicine: laughter! When you have a backlog of 1000 manuscripts to clear, you try to have a plan but also tell yourself that you are not a Messiah. Someone called Jesus already sacrificed himself for others, and I am not planning to be the new Messiah. Secondly, the workplace is not my mother’s or father’s house. Learn to say thank you. Each time you receive a criticism, say thank you. Most times, even the person who contributed the criticism doesn’t understand why you are thanking them. In the end, you all learn. Remember that you work to earn a salary to support yourself and your family, rather than building a family to support work. Family first! Every researcher believes they have made a breakthrough and every author thinks their article just won the Nobel Prize. Be transparent, try not to please people and remain true to yourself. The world is already full of secrets, and I am sure you have many of your personal secrets to deal with.
Divine Fuh is Head of the Publications and Dissemination Programme at CODESRIA in Dakar, Senegal. He joined CODESRIA in February 2017 from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. His research questions relate to youth, urbanity and uncertainty, especially with respect to how people seek ways of ‘smiling’ in the midst of ‘suffering’.
Interview is by Rama Salla Dieng who is a Senegalese writer, academic and activist. She is currently a Lecturer in African and International Development at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh. Rama is the editor of the Talking Back series on roape.net and a member of ROAPE’s editorial working group.