Bridewealth, Guns and Other Status Symbols: Immigration and Consumption in Colonial Douala

by Lynn Schler
Bridewealth, Guns and Other Status Symbols: Immigration and Consumption in Colonial Douala
Lynn Schler
Journal of African Cultural Studies
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2 Routledge


Volume 16, Number 2, December 2003, pp. 213-234

Bridewealth, guns and other status symbols: immigration and consumption in colonial Douala


(Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

ABSTRACTThe pow of money and goods mediated public life within the urban immigrant community of colonial New Bell, Douala. The exchange of money was a prominent mode of communication between immigrants, as was the consumption and display of certain goods, but both of these practices were largely injuenced and restricted by colonial economic policy and cultural sensibilities. At the same time, the local interpretation of the cultural meaning of colonial money and consu- mer goods in New Bell at times contradicted and confounded colonial intentions, replacing them with local conceptualizations. This investigation into money and consumption in the immigrant quarter reveals that the public space of New Bell was bridged by visual, pe$ormative and passing gestures, all articulated in the street. Money and goods determined the boundaries of the immigrant community, as well as membership and participation in that community, but the controlling hand of the colonial administration over money and imported products reminds us that the immigrant community sprang up in the shadow of colonial hierarchies of power. Immigrants attempted to reinvent, rebuild, and dismantle these hierar- chies through consumption, but as will be seen, these eforts met with limited SUCCeSS.

When asked to identify the most significant difference between city and village life in the colonial period, most oral informants of New Bell, Douala who had immi- grated to the city during the colonial era replied without hesitation, 'money' (Mbita 1998; Loga 1998; Nzekou 1999). The evolution to a monetized economy in Cameroon was felt far earlier in urban areas, and particularly in the city of Douala, the economic capital and centre of the European economy. The identifi- cation of money as the key differentiation between urban and rural lifestyles indi- cates that the move toward European currencies had a deep, transformative effect on African lives in colonial cities. The power of colonial money earned in the city, and particularly its use in consumption, drew many immigrants to Douala. The ownership of certain goods was a prerequisite for turning newcomers into full members of the urban community, and consumption thus played a central role in constructing immigrant identities and the community in New Bell, the Strangers

ISSN 1369-6815 print; 1469-9346 online/03/020213-22 02003 Journal of African Cultural Studies DOI: 10.1080/13696850500075841

Quarter of Douala. This article will focus on the increasing significance of money and consumption in the public spaces of New Bell throughout the interwar years.

The years between the two world wars provide an appropriate time frame to study the growing significance of money and consumption in the evolution of this urban community of immigrants. The German regime (1884-1914) established the economic and political circumstances initiating mass immigration of an African labour force to New Bell. Following World War I, the French presided over Cameroon (1916- 1960), and oversaw the slow but gradual growth of the local economy, with Douala serving as the economic capital and the major port of the colony. Until the Depression, private enterprises expanded, and the growth of the economy during the 1920s has led some historians to describe this as a period of prosperity in Cameroon (Chatap 1976; Etoga Eily 1971). The Depression nearly halted this process of development, and the faltering economy of this period caused many of the immigrants to return to their villages of origin during the years of economic crisis (Gouellain 1975: 219). Following the Depression, the French administration took some important steps toward intensifying the economic exploitation of Cameroon. The 1930s witnessed significant growth of European concessions in the territory, as well as increasing administrative intervention to protect and foster colonial economic interests (Mbembe 1988). As the production of export products increased, so, too, did activity at the port of Douala. The city grew and changed to meet the expanding needs of both the colonial administration, and the European population centred in the city. The population of African immi- grants to Douala grew steadily throughout the 1930s until the outbreak of World War 11. It is during this period of economic and demographic growth that we can examine the impact of monetization and consumption on the evolution of a community of immigrants in the quarter of New Bell.

Without negating the power of money and commodities to rearrange social relations, or to cancel or invent hierarchies of power, the extent to which money led to a complete realignment of allegiances and obligations within the African population requires verification. Did the circulation of money and goods instigate a rupture in the social and cultural lives of Africans, or did it merely give new expression to pre-established alliances, leading to a perpetuation of local custom and culture? By mapping the forces determining the uses and meanings of money and goods in New Bell, we can measure the depth of the colonial imprint on the con- struction of space and community in the quarter. Although a colonial intervention, it will be seen that the meaning and power of money was not determined by the colo- nial administration alone. Colonial currencies circulating in African societies were invested with local assessments of value and meaning by African cultural, social and political structures. As David Harvey has argued, money possesses universal properties, but its social value is deeply tied to 'a wide range of highly decentralized and particularist decision making' (Harvey 1996: 362). Because money has both universal and particular qualities, multiple actors could bestow value and meaning upon colonial currency. Local populations in colonial Cameroon reinter- preted, rejected or affirmed value as determined by the administration and thus derailed colonial intentions with regard to money and its uses.

Thus, the history of the use and meaning of money in colonial Douala informs us of the relations of power between the local population and the administration. In New Bell in particular, an investigation into the use and social value of money among the immigrant population will help us map the extent to which immigrants were able to determine the structure and character of their community, and the limitations placed on their autonomy by colonial policy. The history of material processes in the Strangers Quarter, therefore, serves as a window into the complex dynamics underlying the evolution of this community. The on-going negotiation between colonial and immigrant social visions, and the extent to which various actors succeeded in asserting their cultural agenda, will be seen in this history.

1. The introduction of colonial money in Cameroon

Precolonial economies in Africa functioned on complex systems of multiple and multi-purpose currencies (Beny 1995: 229). During the precolonial era in Cameroon, there were locally produced and controlled currencies, as well as units of exchange used in international dealings whose values were far more ambiguous and negotiated. Austen and Derrick have shown that precolonial trade on the Cameroonian coast between Africans and Europeans was mediated by a currency system but without the widespread use of money (Austen and Derrick 1999: 78-81). The basic unit of currency was the crew, but this was 'not a tangible entity but rather a fictitious measure of value . . .' (Austen and Derrick 1999: 79). Large scale transactions in the import and export of goods were measured in these fictitious units representing equivalent values. On the local level, cowrie shells and iron bars were intermittently used as currency for local transactions, but barter remained the most widespread medium of exchange well into the colonial era (Guyer 1995b: 114). Europeans also participated in this local barter economy, exchanging small amounts of imported goods, referred to in pidgin as 'little tings', for local goods such as eggs, yams, and woven mats (Austen and Derrick 1999: 80). Thus, both local and international transactions of trade in precolonial Douala were based on unstable values, perpetually negotiated and contested by the parties involved.

Colonialism did not necessarily bring order to the chaos characterizing African precolonial currency systems. The attempts of first the German colonial regime and later the French in Cameroon to stabilize and control the economy through the introduction of European currencies was not fully successful, and the introduction of single, specialized currencies introduced a whole new set of uncertainties and unintended consequences into African social and economic lives.

The establishment of formal colonial rule by Germany in 1884 did not lead to an immediate transition to monetization based on the Reichsmark. In fact, it took several years and considerable struggles on the part of the various colonial administrators to introduce European currency into Cameroon as the universal measure of value for both local and colonial economies. In their monetization efforts, the Germans were motivated by practical considerations, ideological motivations, and the desire to secure greater control over local processes. Private European enterprises manipulated the lack of standardization to freely interpret values to their advantage, and they were in favour of maintaining the system characterized by instability. But for the colonial government, the system posed more difficulties than advantages. The administration frequently paid workers in food, but this system proved increasingly difficult as the number of workers grew along with administrative enterprises. Transporting large quan- tities of food to employees of public works projects in the interior was highly impractical, and the government began advocating the payment of workers' sal- aries with currency, enabling labourers to then buy their own food (Rudin 1968: 154). The absence of a standardized currency also posed difficulties in the col- lection of taxes. Payments were often made in the form of ivory, creating additional transport problems. Those who could not pay in ivory were required to work for European private enterprises, who then paid the administration in currency. These various systems generated tremendous abuses on the part of private businesses and local chiefs, and the administration believed the use of currency would facilitate and regulate a more equitable collection of taxes. The introduction of the mark, then, was deemed an important step in establish- ing standardization and efficiency in the local economy of Cameroon.

The policy was also promoted along ideological lines. For the Germans, as well as other colonial powers in Africa, monetization represented an important aspect of the civilizing mission. The use of money, rather than barter, represented rationality, modernity and progress. As John and Jean Comaroff have shown, missionaries and other colonial agents believed that money could usher in progress to the continent. This conviction can be seen as an outgrowth of the more widespread 'nineteenth century European belief in the power of the coin'. Within this ideology, 'money was uniquely capable of setting free the intrinsic worth of the world to be traded in neutral, standardized terms' (Comaroff and Comaroff 1997: 17 1).

The use of currency rather than local regimes of value was perceived as a poten- tial boost to African morality. In Cameroon, it was believed that the introduction of currency would eradicate the base practice of polygamy, allowing African men to store their wealth in currencies rather than wives (Rudin 1968: 224).

Despite rhetoric espousing the potential of money to introduce morality, neu- trality and standardization to African economic spheres, a close examination of colonial efforts to promote the use of European currencies reveals that both the German and French administrations saw monetization as a way of tightening their hold over local processes and enabling a more efficient economic exploita- tion of colonial territories. While monetization might have put a check on the abusive practices of independent European employers, it provided the colonial administration with greater potential for manipulating local circumstances to promote their own economic agenda, most notably including the expansion of capitalism into the continent, and the participation of Africans in international markets.

2. Money in the French Mandate era: perpetual instabilities

The combined forces of the British and French succeeded in ousting the Germans from Cameroon during World War I, and soon after British General Dobell issued a decree introducing the shilling and franc as legal tender, while at the same time preserving the mark (ANSOM 1927). While the British and French might have preferred to immediately rid the colony of all traces of German influence, it was necessary to keep the mark in circulation in order to enable the continual function- ing of the economy. With few shillings and francs available in the territory, it would have been impossible to collect taxes without marks (Peloux 1978: 5-18). The Allied plan was to slowly substitute the shilling and the franc for the mark, which would be devalued by a fixed exchange rate. This policy of devaluing the mark was eventually adopted by the French administration, officially established in Cameroon in 1916. The French were propelled by nationalist sentiment and a general anti-German feeling, and maintained a continual fear of pro-German atti- tudes among the local population. The circulation of marks was an unwanted reminder of continued German influence but it was not until 1926 when the use of marks was finally outlawed by Governor Marchand (Journal Oficiel 1926).

In substituting francs for the mark, the French administration reaped substantial profits. By fixing exchange rates, the governing body was able to manipulate circumstances to their economic advantage. Thus, when the franc was first intro- duced into the colony as legal tender by General Dobell, the exchange rate between the French and German currencies was set at 1 franc = 1.05 marks. With the pre-war exchange rate set at approximately 1 franc = .80 marks, Dobell's rate represented a depreciation of the German currency. The administration justified the move by claiming that the mark had also been depreciated in neutral markets in Europe during the war (ANSOM 1917). Deep concerns over political and econ- omic instability kept this fixed rate within limits the French administration believed local populations and European merchants in Cameroon could tolerate. Nonetheless, the imposition of the franc signified an important procurement of power for the administration. Moreover, the guarded approach adopted in the early years of fixing exchange rates in Cameroon was ultimately abandoned, and rates set later on reflected a blatant attempt to manipulate value to increase colonial wealth.

Thus, the use of colonial money exposed local populations to the whims of the colonial administration, and made Africans economically vulnerable to political processes centred in Europe. The clearest example of this can be seen around the 1925 reimbursement of Africans who had money invested in sequestered German firms. Following the Allied occupation, the French administration seized the assets of German firms in Douala, some of which were holding the investments of wealthy Africans, a group comprised mostly of Duala businessmen and planters (ANC-FF 1925a). After years of appeals made by these Duala, and much delibera- tion on the part of the administration, it was decided to reimburse those Africans who had made investments in the sequestered firms at the above mentioned pre-war exchange rate of 1 franc = .80 marks, or alternatively, 1.227 francs = 1 mark. African investors would also be paid interest on their investments at the rate of five percent. While this seemed like a fair proposition, it resulted in great losses for the investors. This is because the devaluation of both the mark and the franc relative to the dollar in the years following the war led to a 1925 exchange rate of 5 francs = 1 mark. Thus, at pre-war rates, if an African made an investment in 1914 of 500 marks = 625 francs, by 1925, this same 625 francs could only buy 125 marks. Therefore, even with five percent interest paid for the ten years, the sums reimbursement remained considerably below the original value of marks invested. For many, the policy translated into a loss ranging from twenty-five to forty percent of their initial investment (Taylor 2000). Although only a small handful of Africans were affected by this policy, it is significant in demonstrating the direct correlation between a heightened vulnerability of African individuals and groups as they become more entangled in the colonial economy, and as their wealth was increasingly stored in colonial currencies. Thus, while the German and French regimes promoted the introduction of colonial currencies through declarations of rationality and stability, it is clear that the imposition of single, specialized colonial currency as legal tender led to increasing economic volatility and uncertainty for the local population. Yet, despite their increasing vulnerability to the tides of inter- national economics, the local population in Cameroon, and particularly that of Douala, continued to play a role in determining the value of European currencies as they were used locally, at times defying administrative designs with regard to the supply and social value of money.

3. African interpretations of colonial currency values

It was perhaps the long-term historical trend of currency instability making Africans of the colonial era particularly sensitive to fluctuations in value, and sceptical of colonial powers to impose stability. Rather than producing utter dis- couragement, fluctuating values over the longue durie made Africans more adept at responding to the changeability of money, and they approached colonial curren- cies with a lack of absolute faith precisely because long-term uncertainty had 'actu- ally honed their skills at rapid adjustment to maintain the crucial equivalences of social life' (Guyer 1995a: 5). The Hausa of colonial Cameroon had in fact learned to manipulate the fluctuations in values to their advantage, and conducted a lucrative traffic in currencies across the Nigerian border. Keenly attuned to changes in exchange rates, Hausa traders made handsome profits by exchanging francs for shillings along historic caravan trade routes traversing colonial borders. French merchants in the region complained that the currency traffic across the border had succeeded in devaluing the franc by fifty percent by 1925 (ANC-FF 1925b, 1925~).

The French were disturbed by their inability to secure African trust in the colonial currencies. Scepticism among Africans could turn into panic, and the administration feared the disastrous effects the loss of confidence could bring to the economy. But even more troublesome to the administration was its inability to understand local sentiment with regard to money, or uncover the origins of African uneasiness with colonial currency. On several occasions, the gaps of knowledge separating the French administration from local economic sentiment exacerbated colonial efforts to control the value of money. For example, in one 1936 incident, rumours circulated among the indigenous population of Douala con- cerning bills issued by the Banque de L'Afrique Occidentale. African residents of the city began questioning the value of the specialized colonial currency, claiming it was worthless outside the territory. This lack of confidence in the BAO bills led to a rush on the banks, as individuals demanded to convert BAO bills into bills from the Bank of France, or silver (ANC-FF 1936a). Assurances from the administration did little to stop the panic, and French officials worried about the economic and political repercussions of the local rejection of the currency. A police investigation was unsuccessful in uncovering the source of the rumours, and the internal logic of the African population's economic sense remained an enigma to the administration (ANC-FF 1940).

In another instance, the administration was confounded by the aversion demon- strated by the African population toward metal coins. In a circular from 1955, all regional headquarters were asked to investigate the reasons behind the rejection of 1 and 2 franc coins by the local population. According to the notice, the dislike of the small coins was causing prices to rise, as consumers preferred to round off prices to 5 francs and use bills instead of coins. Regional administrators were asked to survey their local populations, and verify if the discontent was rooted in

a simple repugnance for new aluminum coins, which might be too lightweight for their tastes, or if this disdain was the result of a more general sentiment linked to the economic expansion noted in recent years (ANC-FF 1955a).

The administration clearly did not believe that any practical considerations could be behind African economic behaviour, but the responses received to the survey demonstrated otherwise. Africans realized that the coins in small denominations had been greatly devalued over time, and as a result, preferred to avoid them in favour of bills in larger denominations (ANC-FF 1955b, 1957b). The small coins held little purchasing power on their own, and individuals were forced to carry around heavy change purses in order to make purchases. The administration could do little to sway public opinion on this issue, and the coins were taken out of circulation as a result of the local response (ANC-FF 1957a).

4. The social meaning of colonial money in Douala

It clear that the French administration was unable to fully control African uses of money, nor was it able to convince the population that colonial money was a safe, rational medium for storing wealth. African scepticism toward the currency reveals some fractures in colonial hegemony. The inability of the administration to control public opinion and boost confidence led to increased instability in the supply and value of money. But even more difficult to control than the supply of money was the impact colonial money made on the social and cultural life of Africans. It is true that the introduction of colonial money led to a reorganization of economic and social life in colonial Cameroon. But once in circulation, the cultural value and impact of colonial money were largely determined by social relations and hierar- chies of power deeply imbedded in African society. This was most evident at the site where colonial currency had made its greatest intervention, the city of Douala.

European money became the medium of exchange in Douala far earlier than in rural areas of Cameroon. It was not until late in the colonial period when popu- lations outside of Douala conducted economic transactions in cash. In a study of bridewealth payments among the Beti of the colonial era, Jane Guyer wrote, 'One imagines a situation in which cash hardly circulated at all in local communities' (Guyer 1995b: 120). Within rural settings, Guyer wrote, 'the only people who could be wealthy in cash were those who had links to the administration, the chiefs, and their personnel, because of close constraints on expanded production by ordinary farmers'. The supply of money in rural areas was nearly non-existent late into the Mandate period (ANC-FF 1943). Salaries paid to African workers in all regions of the colony outside Douala remained considerably lower than urban salaries throughout the colonial period, and those employed in cash-earning pos- itions had little or no disposable cash after paying taxes and buying food. For example, in the 1929 Annual Report from Abong-Mbang, the French administrator claimed that permanent and temporary manpower recruited in the region earned a monthly salary of 40-50 francs, 'conforming to the necessities of life in the region' (ANC-FF 1929a). Labour recruited in Ebolowa of the same year received between

12.5 to 25 francs per month. At the same time in Douala, monthly salaries ranged from 120 francs for labourers, 200 francs for cooks, and as much as 1000 francs for auto mechanics (Chatap 1976: 51).

Historians of monetization have disagreed over the extent to which the introduc- tion of money into a new social setting leads to a total reorganization of social life. Sociologists such as George Simmel have portrayed money as an all-powerful agent of disruption, simultaneously destroying deep-rooted social allegiances while 'establishing relationships between elements that otherwise would have no connec- tion whatsoever' (Simmel 1978: 346). Simmel believed that money completely dis- mantled the most fundamental social bonds by 'excluding everything personal and specific' (Simmel 1978: 345). Like Simmel, Marx warned of the transformational powers of money, declaring it the 'radical leveler'. In Grundisse, Marx wrote, 'Where money is not itself the community, it must dissolve the community' (Harvey 1996: 120). Others have been less convinced of the powers of money to transform society. In disagreement with neoclassical theorists, some historians and sociologists have insisted that monetization has not led to a complete corrosion of social relations, but merely given new expression to pre-existing social relation- ships. As Viviana Zelizer has written, 'money used for rational instrumental exchanges is not "free" from social constraints but is another type of socially created currency, subject to particular networks of social relations and its own set of values and norms' (Zelizer 1977: 19). Throughout colonial Africa, it has been shown that monetization did not erase social obligations. Sara Berry has argued,

Allegiances, especially with influential people, remained crucial to the exercise and defense of claims on goods and services, even when these claims were established through monetary transactions. Creating allegiances may no longer have been the primary purpose of holding material wealth, but remained a necessary condition for acquiring and controlling it (Beny 1995: 307).

In colonial Douala, it is possible to identify the transformative powers of money once in circulation. Money undoubtedly opened up doors to new resources and pos- itions of power for the African population. With money, immigrants could accumu- late goods and titles representing influence or authority previously unavailable to them. Sidestepping or avoiding precolonial hierarchies of power, individuals could buy positions of influence with cash. Thus, in 1929, the French administration noted a breakdown in the traditional authority of chiefs as a result of monetization (ANC-FF 1929b). The introduction of colonial-appointed chiefs in New Bell also reflected the power of money to replace local criteria determining access to pos- itions of political power. Individuals with money could simply buy political auth- ority. This could be see in 1946, at which time Ignance Fouda, the chief of the Yaounde in New Bell, was paid 1,200 francs by Gabriel Ekoe in exchange for an appointment as chief of the Yaounde in Japoma (ANC-FF 1946a). Individuals also regularly offered monetary bribes to gain access to bureaucratic or professional positions within the colonial administration (ANC-FF 1946b). The French admin- istration was keen to acknowledge that political and social allegiances could be bought and sold for the right price, and paid handsome sums to indigenous infor- mers for intelligence information regarding the immigrant population (ANC-FF 1937-38). The commodification of knowledge allowed these informers the oppor- tunity to earn large salaries and advance their social positions through the betrayal of social relationships and loyalties.

But, the circulation and accumulation of money did not result in the complete breakdown of social allegiances, or in the diminished significance of social relationships in determining individual status. Social alliances remained of primary significance in the lives of immigrants to the city, and often the impetus behind efforts to accumulate material wealth. This was partially because salaried workers in the colonial economy remained exposed to fluctuations in this economy, and vulnerable to the far-reaching effects of economic crises originating both within and beyond Cameroon. For example, in periods of economic crisis such as the Depression, when wages of African workers in Douala fell nearly fifty percent, immigrants relied on social networks both within and outside the community of New Bell to sustain themselves (Chatap 1976: 56).

Thus, the configuration of social life for urban immigrants remained deeply influenced by both precolonial, non-urban hierarchies of power as well as the colo- nial presence in the city. Local social and cultural institutions played a prominent role in both increasing and limiting the power of money to change an individual's standing. It is thus only with the simultaneous consideration of broad and local pro- cesses, ranging from global politics down to the most intimate household dynamics, that it is possible to understand 'the social meaning of money in New Bell' (Zelizer 1977). This can be seen in the role played by gender in determining immigrant access to and use of money in New Bell. When asked, most oral informants claimed that women did not work, and did not earn money in New Bell. Over and over, informants claimed that only men earned money (Nguidjol 1998; Assama 1998; Aladji Ousseni 1998; Ngobo 1998). Yet, women did in fact make money as beer brewers, prostitutes, and petty merchants, and in many cases, women earned more money than their husbands in these occupations (Ongono 1999). But, a clear distinction existed between cultural perceptions of men and women's money, binding the social value of the individual's earnings to their gen- dered identity. Money earned by men through employment in the official economy was defined as money, and work done by men in the colonial economy was defined as work, while the work and money made by women in the unofficial economy were not. More significantly, men who earned 'money' were free to spend it as they pleased, and most claimed to buy themselves goods such as clothing and shoes initially, and eventually, huts and wives. Women, on the other hand, claimed to contribute their earnings to the family. Thus, women used their earnings to build their families durable homes, an expense their husbands could often not afford with their salaries (Ongono 1999). Single women working as prostitutes claimed to use their earnings to buy clothing, but this was done primarily to attract men, and all hoped to find a husband through their work (Ngono 1999).

By itself, money did not create the gendered borders of the public sphere, but it does serve as a useful instrument in mapping relations of power within the immi- grant community. Yet, once money becomes representative of a larger discourse of power, it begins to play an active role as a tool of that power. As the accumulation of money and material goods became an important source of power for individuals, pre-existing political structures, social relations and cultural dictates created an environment where not all individuals had the same access to the power embedded in money and goods.

5. African consumers in urban public culture

Consumption was an important tool of power within the public culture of New Bell, and as a result, became a significant basis for group identity within the immigrant community. Entering into an arena where money and material goods played an increasingly powerful role in shaping social relations, immigrants to New Bell used commodities to certify their membership into the community of strangers. The key interest groups shaping this public culture based on consumption were colonial economic interests, the Duala bourgeoisie, and immigrants themselves, responding to both cultures of origin and new opportunities within the urban environment.

The power of consumption partially emanated from a reality constructed by the colonial regime which aimed to make all Africans, not just elites, into regular con- sumers of manufactured goods imported from Europe. Colonial economic interests worked to create an environment encouraging and ensuring African enthusiasm for European commodities. As a representative of the Douala Chamber of Commerce wrote in 1932, 'It is certain that Africans can become great consumers for the whole world and for France . . . But they will never become consumers if they do not have the means to buy' (ANSOM 1932). Maintaining a certain level of purchasing power among the African population thus became a priority for the French regime. The administration periodically monitored salaries earned by Africans in order to ensure that spending could take place. To this end, the Banque de L'Afrique Occidentale urged the Minister of Colonies in 1925 to supply bills in low denomi- nations, in particular those between 5-25 francs, so Africans could engage in pur- chases and sales (ANSOM 1925). Efforts were made to protect the supply of these bills in Douala, where the use of money among Africans was most widespread.

The Duala westernized elite also played a role in advancing the significance of consumption within the public culture of the city. The Duala recognized the power of consumption to determine social standing, and in attempting to establish their elite status, and distinguish themselves from other Africans, they were eager to acquire various commodities. Fashionable or innovative products not available in the markets of Douala were ordered by catalogue and delivered by sea (Moume Etia 1999). The proximity of the Duala to European culture and the colonial admin- istration was publicized through European style dress, European style homes, and even European foods. The Duala invested huge resources in these commodities. Perhaps the most striking example is that of clothing. In responding to a 1938 colonial questionnaire on indigenous eating habits, yearly budgets and expenses, respondents from among the Duala claimed to spend anywhere from 890 to 1200 francs per year on clothing. This amount was over ten times higher than that which the average labourer claimed to spend (ISH 1938). As the active participants in the public sphere of the colonial city, Duala men also claimed to spend nearly three times more on clothing than Duala women, who rarely took on public roles. Eating habits also reflected a desire to adopt European ways. Respondents from wealthy families enjoyed imported table wine with meals. Coffee and tea were also consumed on a regular basis, and meals were followed by desserts (ISH 1938). With regard to housing, a Duala respondent claimed that twenty percent of the Duala, the notables and plantations owners, lived in houses of the rich, while the remaining eighty percent, comprised of bureaucrats and fishermen, lived in middle income housing. According to the respondents, none of the Duala lived in houses for the poor. By contrast, a Bassa respondent claimed that ninety- seven percent of the Bassa lived in either middle income or poor housing, while the Hausa respondent claimed that there were no Hausa living in upper class homes (ISH 1938).

The enthusiasm with which the Duala undertook obligations to own certain goods made the colonial regime uneasy. For the French, the desire to preserve and boost African consumption had its limits, and there was great disdain for con- spicuous consumption among wealthy Africans. Once the purchasing power of Africans approached that of Europeans in the colony, there was a fear that the civi- lizing mission had perhaps gone too far. The adoption of European dress and the purchase of inexpensive manufactured goods such as household items or cosmetics were symbolic of progress and enlightenment among Africans. But the purchase of automobiles and expensive clothing, or the building of large European-style houses was a clear threat to French administrators. Colonial uneasiness with Duala accumulation serves as testimony to the power of consumption to determine and legitimate certain claims of identity, and the French viewed Duala spending patterns as a challenge to racial boundaries. As the 1929 Annual Report stated,

On account of their salaries and their profits, the Duala have been able to acquire automobiles, motorcycles, multiple bicycles and spend approximately 300,000 francs per year on the construction of buildings [. . .] They know no constraint. Once their taxes and their duties are paid, they enjoy full freedom. It is only

necessary to see them in the streets and in public places to understand the ease of their pace and the tranquillity which guides them (ANC-FF 1929b).

6. Consumption and public space in New Bell

Immigrants to Douala entered into a public culture largely mediated by consump- tion, with both the colonial regime and Duala elite lurking behind this constructed reality. In adopting colonial or Duala status symbols, immigrants perhaps appeared to consume some of the superficial symbols of colonial urban culture as uncritical receptors. But Appadurai and Breckenridge have argued that the transmission of images or the adoption of an identity through commodities can represent an active participation in cultural debate rather than passive mimicry (Appadurai and Breckenridge 1995: 3) As they wrote, 'consumers of mass-mediated cultural forms are agents and actors, not merely objects and recipients'. Thus, immigrants to New Bell absorbed the cultural messages transmitted by colonial and Duala elites, but reinterpreted these messages in accordance with their own needs, and subsequently reproduced and transmitted local versions of modernity based in the community of immigrants. The culture emerging in New Bell reflected both a dialogue with the colonial centre of the city, and an autonomous community of values and symbols rooted in the quarter.

The emergence of consumption as a prominent discursive tool in the public space of New Bell was partially rooted in the evolution of New Bell as a physical space. While New Bell was somewhat distanced from European and Duala quarters of Douala and excluded from the official municipality, it remained a part of the greater urban environment and developed in the ever-present shadow cast by the colonial centre. This physical relationship between New Bell and the colonial city had great implications for the public culture ultimately emerging in the immi- grant quarter. Equally significant was the internal physical development of New Bell. The particular space of New Bell reflected colonial neglect, diffused and dispersed authority, and immense cultural and social heterogeneity. Lacking the political institutions of the European and Duala quarters which articulated the exclusion and marginalization of many individuals and groups from participation in the public sphere, New Bell's public life was centred on the more inclusive public centred in the outdoors.

The street thus emerged as the centre of public life in New Bell. It was in the street where rules of urban living were broadcast and membership in the urban community was determined. The discourses operating in New Bell's street-centred public space were certainly not literary, and not necessarily verbalized. Much more significant were visual, performative, and impersonal gestures and overtures. The street evolved as the main arena regulating and integrating masses of unfamiliar individuals into shared experience. In this formation of public space, consumption played a crucial role in communal life. Material goods aided individuals in securing and displaying their membership in the community of strangers.

Once consumption became a primary method of participating in public life, immigrant dependence on the street for conveying trends and correcting behaviour grew. Status was deeply tied to a certain 'look', but an institution had to operate in promoting the latest trends. In the absence of advertising organizations such as newspapers, signs, or mass media creating 'structures of meaning' around com- modities, the street became the venue where the public was educated about consu- mer options (Lee 1993: 17). Talking a walk (balader) emerged as a main form of entertainment in New Bell (Biloa 1999). Immigrants learned not only how to dress in the street, but how to carry themselves and behave in an urban way, thus dis- tinguishing themselves from newly-arrived villagers. Oral informants claimed it was easy to distinguish between newcomers and long-term residents simply by the way they walked (Ngobo 1998; Eko 1998). Not all items carried the same status, and the display of certain items could advance an individual's status far more than others. As one informant testified, children would cheer in the streets for someone who passed by on a bicycle in New Bell of the 1920s (Ngobo 1998).

But the street was not only a school for mimicry. As Timothy Burke has argued, 'The consumption of commodities was also shaped by individual acts of will and imagination, engagement and disinterest' (Burke 1996: 10). The public discourse of consumption conveyed immigrant contestation and resistance to elite discourses and power structures. Residents of New Bell used material goods to breakdown or reject hierarchies of power centred in the villages as well as those established by the colonial administration. The meaning of these goods was reappropriated by the consumers of New Bell, at times enabling them to overcome entrenched hierarchies of power and initiating a certain level of democratization within the local popu- lation. At other times, barriers to obtaining certain goods remained intact, and immigrants could only aspire to the higher status represented in the ownership of a particular item. The dynamic efforts of New Bell residents to explode or widen social structures to enable their personal advancement can be seen in the history of consumption patterns associated with specific commodities such as European clothing, durable houses, wives and guns.

7. European clothing in the public discourse of New Bell

Several historians of colonialism have shown that the adoption of European dress represented an appropriation of power by indigenous populations (Hendrickson 1996; Martin 1995; Tarlo 1996). In examining the history of European clothing in colonial Africa, most have insisted that the use of clothing to ascertain power was a extension, rather than a break, with pre-colonial methods of cultural expression. Throughout their histories, Africans have used and adorned the body surface in the 'authentication of social categories, the legitimation of authority, and the creation of value' (Hendrickson 1996: 8). Thus, the adoption of European clothing during the colonial period represented a perpetuation, and not a transform- ation, of cultural practices relating to the expression of power and identity. Colo- nialism established new environments for this cultural expression, and shifted some of the hierarchies of power to which individuals responded. But in Douala, just as elsewhere in colonial Africa, the exploitation of the body surface as an arena for public debate and critique must be seen as the reinvention of a long-standing cultural motif rather than an innovation brought on by colonialism.

Monetization and the import of European manufactured goods did allow for a wider base of the population to adopt symbols of power previously reserved for the elite. In the city, the early and widespread circulation of money enabled masses of Africans to enthusiastically access the power embedded in clothing. European clothing and shoes nearly reached the status of a uniform for New Bell immigrants, with white tennis shoes earning particular popularity (Loga 1998). Shoes were important markers of status, as many of the newcomers came to the city barefoot. Footwear thus became a stark signifier between urban and rural iden- tities (Loga 1998; Tchope 1998; Ndjock 1998). Evidence of the popularity of shoes among immigrants in Douala can be found in import statistics for the early years of the French Mandate. In 1921, 4,104 kilograms of shoes, valued at 164,515 francs were imported into Cameroon. In 1923, these quantities increased to 9,824 kilo- grams of shoes, valued at 415,066 francs. By 1926, the volume of shoes imported had jumped to 61,766 kilograms, valued at 2,080,676 francs (Rapport Annuel 1921; 1923; 1926). Similarly, European-style clothes were highly sought after, and most oral informants recalled clothing as their first purchase in the city (Tchope 1998; Kapendia 1998).

For immigrants to New Bell, the purchase of European clothing represented an escape from hierarchies of power in rural areas. In villages, where money was scarce, only chiefs had access to resources enabling them to buy European clothing. Imported clothing thus became a symbol of chiefly authority, and separated the ruling class from others (ANSOM 1920). The French strengthened the precolonial link between clothing and status by assigning official uniforms to indigenous chiefs, with distinctions between those on a village level and those with broader regional responsibilities (Journal O@ciel 1933). Upon arrival in the city, immi- grants earned money and immediately bought clothing once reserved for those in power. As Phyllis Martin has shown, the purchase of clothing in the city was state- ment against the economic deprivation facing individuals of the village (Martin 1995). This explains the pride with which immigrants wore their new clothes. In New Bell, it was common practice for those with a new outfit to stroll the streets, making their new status public knowledge (Mbe 1998). The wearing of uni- forms conveyed a strong statement of power, particularly in a highly heterogeneous society of immigrants from over two hundred ethnic groups in Cameroon and from outside the colony, where spoken language was not always a viable option for broadcasting authority and status. Both the colonial administration and Africans believed strongly in the ability of the uniform to command respect and legitimize power. Africans sought out opportunities to seize the power embedded in uniforms and were often attracted to jobs because of uniforms, eager to earn the prestige represented in the official clothing (Ngobo 1998).

The importance of owning clothes is highlighted by an examination of overall consumption patterns among New Bell immigrants. Despite limited resources, it seems that the ownership of at least some European clothes was nearly mandatory. These were often the only possessions individuals called their own, as can be seen in colonial records of immigrants who died in Douala, away from their villages of origin and families. These records provided scant lists of the deceased's possessions, and highlight the importance of the few articles of European clothing which immigrants succeeded in buying. Thus, other than the clothing he was wearing, a deceased railroad worker was reported to own '10 francs, one penknife, one ticket d'impot, a railroad ticket receipt, one handkerchief and one belt'. Another market boy owned one harmonica, one penknife, a packet of letters, a laissez- passer, one train ticket and one franc, other than the clothing he was wearing (ANC-FF 1923-28; 1928-32). As these records reveal, many immigrants owned little but the European clothes on their backs.

8. Luxury goods: durable houses, brides, and guns

Beyond the minimal requirements of membership, there were certain objects of prestige used by immigrants in New Bell to assert their status as members of the immigrant elite. Certain commodities bestowed immediate status upon individuals, but material wealth did not diminish the importance of social relations and obli- gations in communal life. Those who earned money invested it in goods that boosted their status in the eyes of family members and neighbours. Of course, this kind of consumption was only practiced at times of economic prosperity, and in crisis periods, such as the Depression, few could sustain these efforts to boost their social standing through the purchase of luxury items. Conspicuous con- sumption among well-off immigrants was often expressed in family-related expenses such as durable housing or bridewealth, or in items such as guns, guaran- teed to advance one's personal standing in the eyes of others.

Investments in housing were an investment in social relations, and as a result, providing a durable house for a family was a high priority for immigrants. Records from 1925 to 1928 show that only a small fraction of immigrants were able to afford the renovations needed for converting huts into a durable house, and those who were able to do so spoke with pride about their accomplishment (ANC-FF 1925-28; Biloa 1999). With a house, an immigrant was able to become a host to newcomers, and this boasted their prestige and power (Ndjock 1998). Single men claimed they needed houses to attract potential wives (Loga 1998).

As in the village, men in the city also earned and saved money for bridewealth. Marriage remained a key institution in the accumulation of power among the local population of New Bell, but some changes in the custom reflected the shift to an urban lifestyle. While living in the city, many immigrants converted to Christianity and began to adopt the practice of monogamy. This shift was not of great conse- quent because meagre urban salaries would not enable most men to afford more than one wife. The introduction of monogamy only presented a problem to those who had the financial means to invest in more than one wife, but were prevented by Christian custom from acquiring this added status and prestige. As an alterna- tive, wealthy young men in New Bell began to use bridewealth as a form of con- spicuous consumption, paying highly inflated sums for their wives in an attempt to make an impression on her family and the entire community (Ongono 1998; Zang 1999; Ngono 1999). Bridewealth thus became a luxury item for some during times of prosperity. While Duala men complained of the unreasonably high prices demanded by their fiancke's family, residents of New Bell claimed to have voluntarily paid more than the asking price. This was often because families of immigrants in rural areas were not aware of the high Douala rates. Women who lived in New Bell during the 1930s proudly claimed their husbands paid up to 1,500 francs for their bridewealth in the city, while village rates for the same period fluc- tuated between 400 and 1,000 francs (Guyer 1995b: 120). Archival records report some payments to have reached astronomical heights of 3,000 to 10,000 francs in Douala (ANC-FF 1927; 1934a). The trend of inflated bridewealth became a source of stress for the young men of New Bell seeking to attract women and impress their families (Nouhou 1999). But for those who succeeded, the benefits were potentially far-reaching and constituted a challenge to rural male elites traditionally control- ling bridewealth.

While the purchase of guns was not a direct investment in social relationships such as durable housing or bridewealth, the desire to own a gun was linked to an individual's drive for recognition and respect within the community, and an effort to secure status once reserved for chiefs and other members of the rural hier- archies of power. Guns had long been a symbol of power, both in the eyes Africans and colonial conquerors. Of course, this was a status symbol culturally reserved for men, and despite a certain breakdown in hierarchies of power resulting from the purchase of guns by immigrants in New Bell, gendered hierarchies of power remained in tact with regard to an individual's ability to advance their social stand- ing through the ownership of European-manufactured weapons. But as the colonial period advanced, it became increasingly difficult for even African men to obtain European arms, as the colonial administration became concerned about the pro- liferation of arms among the local population. This only increased the prestige associated with guns in the eyes of Africans, and inspired local efforts to overcome restrictions standing in the way of individuals and the power embedded in the ownership of European weapons.

From the very beginning of German rule in Cameroon, the colonial government found itself in conflict with European capitalist interests over the sales of arms to the native population. For centuries, European traders in African had been exchan- ging guns with local chiefs and traders in exchange for export goods. The colonial government sought to control the supply and distribution of guns. Yet, each policy aimed at controlling the sale of arms to Africans was objected to by European business interests who feared a slow down in the local trade without guns. The pro- tests of traders forced ongoing modifications in legislative policies (Rudin 1968: 313). Traders made several claims, often outlandish, in protest of regulations, arguing that Africans would be afraid to go out into the bush without a gun, and this would hinder the collection of wild rubber. Or, it was claimed that without guns, the supply of meat would diminish and Africans would be forced to resort to cannibalism (Rudin 1968: 314). Despite the opposition of traders, from 1908 onwards, the possession of arms by whites was closely regulated in Cameroon, and the sale of guns to natives was strictly prohibited. This did not put an end to trade in weapons, as weapons were smuggled across borders, and Africans continued to obtain guns until the end of the German period.

The French Mandate began with concern over the possession of arms among natives. Like the Germans, the French wanted to control the trade, but settled for strict regulation rather than complete prohibition of sales. The first decree issued by the French in 1916 suspended the issuing of permits to Africans, and demanded that all those already in possession of guns report to their local administration in order to obtain a permit (Journal Oficiel 1916). This early decree was finally revised in 1920 to permit the purchase of guns to Africans with plantations in need of protection from wild animals, or simply those who had earned a 'good repu- tation' (Journal Oficiel 1920). Africans submitted requests for permits to the administration, outlining how they met either one or both of these criteria. As a result, certain Africans were granted permits to own guns, many of these members of the Duala elite. While the use of arms by either Africans or Europeans was strictly forbidden in the city of Douala, many of the Duala had plantations in other regions and were thus granted permission to own guns (Journal Oficiel1916; ANC-FF 1932).

It was also acknowledged that Africans were not being sold the most dangerous weapons and many of the guns permitted for Africans were only minimally threa- tening to European security (ANC-FF 1917). Already in the German era, traders argued that only ineffective, outmoded guns were exported for sale to Africans, and they posed less threat to Europeans than the poisonous bows and arrows used locally (Rudin 1968: 31 1). During the Mandate period, permits to Africans were largely restricted to hunting rifles, while Europeans could have more dangerous and efficient weapons such as automatic revolvers (ANC-FF 1932).

Thus, guns sold to Africans were intended to provide minimal protection to trustworthy subjects while limiting the security threat facing the colonial adminis- tration. Yet, guns were to serve an additional purpose. According to Governor Marchand, gun permits given to Africans were a sign of benevolence between the administration and individual subjects (ANSOM 1928). Those Africans who had served the administration well, and proved themselves upright and worthy citi- zens, were granted permission to own guns. Marchand complained, however, that the situation had gotten out of control by 1928. It seemed that too many Africans, particularly those employed in bureaucratic positions within the administration, had been granted permits. Scores of Ccrivain-interprets, nurses and monitors had been issued permits, and the whole system had lost its value as a form of deserved compensation. Marchand noted that a certain class of Africans had begun to see the arms permit as a right rather than a privilege, and he demanded an immediate change in policy (ANSOM 1928). From that point on, regulations would be strictly enforced, and all demands which could not be fully justified would be rejected, even those made by influential merchants and notables within the local population.

Owning a gun became an important marker of status within the upper class of Africans. The power behind the gun emanated from its symbolic value associated with prestige and the achievement of a bourgeois lifestyle. This was reflected in the permit request made by one Duala man when he wrote, 'I am interested in shooting for sportsman as well as educational purposes, and this gun will allow me to occupy my leisure time during my vacation days' (ANC-FF 1931a). Unlike European clothing, guns were not physically displayed by their owners in the streets of Douala. However, those who had guns were careful to make it known publicly. According to one Bassa informant,

guns were guarded carefully. Most owners stored them neatly under beds, taking them out only periodically for cleaning. But, when you had a gun, you made it known. It was an object for boasting. With a gun, you could surpass others (Mbody 1998).

Thus, although the visual image of the owner with the gun was not publicized in the streets of the city, the utility of gun ownership was only realized when it was made public knowledge.

For immigrants to New Bell, ownership of a gun was the ultimate symbol of economic and social status in the city. In rural villages, chiefs and other members of the political elite were the usual proprietors of guns, having a mon- opoly on access to resources with which to obtain European arms. In the city, the barriers to elite status were less rigid, and the social and cultural power of the gun could be purchased in New Bell by those who had acquired an upper class lifestyle. Unlike the Duala, most immigrants to New Bell did not have planta- tions, and could therefore not justify the desire for a gun permit by the need for crop protection. For immigrant bureaucrats or merchants, the request for a gun was usually made solely on the grounds of personal merit.

A review of permit requests made by immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s reveals the social and cultural value of guns in New Bell, and highlights how consumption had become a primary signifier of social status within the strangers' quarter. Immi- grants submitted requests for gun permits only after serving the colonial adminis- tration for many years, believing they had earned the privileges of the elite through hard work and loyalty, rather than birthright. As one Bamoun man wrote in his request in 1934, 'Originating from Bamoun, I have been living in Douala since the Allied occupation of 1914- 1916. From this time, I have been working as a cook for the French military'. Similarly, a Yaounde man wrote, 'I would like a 12 calibre hunting rifle. I have been working for the railroad for 18 years, living in the Yaounde quarter of New Bell' (ANC-FF 1934c; 1934d). Most of the permit requests made by immigrants in New Bell were rejected by the colonial administration, but this did not prevent them from attempting, again and again, to get authorization. The high volume of requests, and the frequency with which many immigrants continued to apply, despite the ongoing rejection of their appli- cations, are significant indicators of the sense of entitlement immigrants acquired in the city. There was a belief among applicants that status symbols once reserved for important notables were accessible to them. Thus, some of the applicants gave little or no justification for wanting a gun at first. Tobias Bia wrote in his first request in 1931 'as a nurse and the father of three children', he wanted a hunting rifle with fifty cartridges (ANC-FF 1931b). After being rejected the first time, Bia applied four more times in the upcoming years, each time providing a more elaborate justification for his request. The second time he wrote, 'This reward will help me to conveniently feed my family and serve as a souvenir for sixteen years of

service which I have already given the French administration' (ANC-FF 1934b). Bia's third request, submitted in 1936, mentioned five children in need of feeding (ANC-FF 1936b). For his final request, made in 1938, Bia claimed to have a planta- tion in the Yaounde area, where his crops were being devastated by savage animals (ANC-FF 1938). From these requests, it can be seen that Bia, as well as other immi- grants, believed that status once reserved for important notables could be claimed by ordinary individuals.

But, the widespread failure of New Bell residents to secure gun permits reminds us of their ultimate inability to undermine hierarchies of power constructing the social reality. In the final analysis of consumption in the community of New Bell, we must be cautious not to "cheerfully equate 'active' with 'powerful"'(Lee 1993: 54). Desire alone could not dismantle the cultural boundaries established around certain commodities, guarding their power for a privileged few. An exami- nation of immigrant longings to own certain things, and the extent to which they succeeded in fulfilling these longings, help us map the forces shaping identity, community and public space in New Bell.

The ultimate indicator of immigrant consumers' vulnerability in the face of pol- itical and economic forces beyond their control was revealed in the period during and after World War I1 in the quarter. This period was marked by serious shortages in basic essential goods as well as imported luxury items. Although powerless to reverse shortages set in motion by the war, the harsh response of the stranger com- munity to the scarcity is an important indication of the extent to which the initial longings for certain goods had evolved into an entrenched notion of entitlement within the immigrant community toward the end of the colonial period. Widespread riots in New Bell in September 1945 have been credited with the ushering in of the nationalist movement in post-war era, but these riots were grounded in immigrant discontent following economic despair (Joseph 1974). Thus, while the purchasing power of immigrants throughout the colonial period was largely determined by powers situated above the community of strangers, the immigrant desire to purchase, deeply grounded in the public space of New Bell, earned an historic influence reaching far beyond the confines of Douala's community of strangers.

LYNNSCHLERcan be contacted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, HaEshel 7 Nof Yam, Herzliya 46621 Israel; email:


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(c) Interviews

Assama, Jean: New Bell, Douala, March 1999. Biloa, Augustine: New Bell, Douala, March 1999.

Eko Flobert, John: New Bell, Douala, December 1998. Kapendia, Samuel: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Loga, Rigobert: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Mbe, Getrude: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Mbita, Marie Claire: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Mbody, Konrad: Bassa, Douala, December 1998.

Moume Etia, Ltopold: Deido, Douala, December 1998 and March 1999.

Ndjock, Michel: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Ngobo, Marie: New Bell, Douala, December 1998 and March 1999.

Ngoko, ZCphirin Benjamin: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Ngono, Pauline: Nkil Zok, Sangmelina Province, March 1999.

Nguidjol, Pie: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Nouhou, Ousman: New Bell, Douala, March 1998.

Nzekou, Sebastian: New Bell, Douala, March 1999.

Ongono, Anasthasie: New Bell, Douala, March 1999.

Ousseni, Le Chef Aladji: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Tchope Tassi, Barthelemy: New Bell, Douala, December 1998.

Zang, Lydie: Ekombitii, Sangmelima Province, March 1999.

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