Charlotte Walker-Said. Faith, Power and Family: Christianity and Social Change in French Cameroon. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer. xxi + 314 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84701-182-4.
Reviewed by Jeremy M. Rich (Marywood University)
Published on H-Africa (June, 2020)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)
Critics of colonialism often argue that Christian evangelism and colonial conquest in Africa reinforced one another. While there is no question that these two transnational projects shared much in common, particularly the valorizing of European cultural superiority over African colonial subjects, a close evaluation of colonial rule in practice and the growth of African Christianity reveals how the relationship between church and state was fraught with conflict. Faith, Power, and Family is a very valuable contribution to the rich literature examining the intersections of gender, religion, and state policy in colonial Africa. Cameroonians, not missionaries or colonial officials, stand at the center of Walker-Said’s analysis.
Between the French occupation of much of Cameroon during World War I through 1940, Cameroonians joined rival Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in large numbers. Catechists, African clergy, Christian mutual aid movements, and lay people drove this growth rather than the relatively small number of European and US missionaries. Walker-Said deftly explores the mixture of cultural, social, and intellectual aspects of Cameroonian Christianity between the wars. Building on indigenous values of mutual aid and the need for spiritual practices to promote individual and collective well-being, African Christians established numerous organizations. In striking contrast to Cameroon’s southern neighbor of Gabon in the same period, Cameroonian Catholics regularly attended confession. African Christians built churches, promoted Christian doctrine in African languages, and furnished solidarity to relatives and newcomers. The expulsion of German missionaries and the slow arrival of French Catholic and Protestant replacements during and after World War I furthered the Africanization of the church, since Cameroonian Christians maintained missions.
This new social order drew on gender tensions brought on by the alliance between French officials and Cameroonian chiefs. Although some chiefs presented themselves as Christians, chiefs who maintained the political order and economic production for their French colonial superiors ran into opposition from African Christians. Chiefs who enriched themselves through cash-crop production and state power often married many women and sought to keep bridewealth payments high. Christian men opposed to bridewealth on religious and practical grounds rejected the authority of chiefs on many occasions. Women unwilling to enter arranged marriages turned to African Christians and missionaries for protection. French officials considered African religious organizations and leaders to be competitors to the power of state-appointed chiefs. Internal migration led members of ethnic communities to move to different regions of the colony, undermining state-appointed chiefs’ control over people based on ethnic identity.
Walker-Said recognizes that the apparent divide between state and religious institutions shared a common concern over the control of women. Christian leaders and lay people may have had no problem undermining the institutions of polygyny and bridewealth, but they buttressed male authority over women and children in nuclear families. Obviously, some men selectively wove together long-standing polygynous practices with Christianity in creative ways. Albert Tonye, a Cameroonian clerk, wrote letters to Pope Pius XI along with top colonial and Catholic authorities in a bid to bring his wife to his post in the neighboring colony of Moyen Congo. Tonye defended polygyny to his readers and raised missionary concerns about indigenous sexuality to justify why his wife needed to leave Cameroon (possibly against her will). Walker-Said has an impressive variety of sources like the Tonye correspondence that she deftly employs throughout the book, including both interviews and a deep knowledge of state and missionary records. In regard to the reconciliation of Christian and indigenous beliefs, for example, some informants stated to the author that women’s bodies contained separate sections that fell under the authority of husbands and fathers respectively.
The cultural and linguistic diversity of Cameroon makes any national survey a very challenging task. Inevitably, any author will leave some readers disappointed on certain issues as a result. From the viewpoint of a specialist on Gabon, it is remarkable how indigenous spiritual beliefs do not seem to have flourished in interwar Cameroon as rivals to Christianity in the way the Gabonese bwiti movement did in the 1920s and 1930s. I was left wondering if the perceived resistance of Bamileke communities to Christianity might not have been a matter of defending older understandings of spirituality but rather due to changes within Bamileke religious idioms similar to the creativity of Gabonese bwiti practitioners. While there is no doubt Christianity in Cameroon did incorporate various precolonial spiritual beliefs, it is hard to imagine there were not also discontinuities that went beyond gender and status. Walker-Said has relatively little on northern Cameroon, where Islam and indigenous practices tended to dominate despite the existence of a number of Protestant missions. It is surprising that Walker-Said did not consult the very rich archival records of the US Presbyterian Church mission archives dealing with southern Cameroon. Such concerns, however, should not at all detract from recognizing the value of Faith, Power and Family, since no national study of Christianity can cover every possible topic.
Perhaps a more general challenge for any study of colonial Christianity lies in the changing relationship between political and religious institutions after independence. Did the tensions of the interwar period between state and religious authority influence later developments? Individual Catholic leaders raised in the interwar period had mixed relationships with Cameroonian leaders, for example. Archbishop of Yaoundé Jean Zoa tended to endorse state authorities, while Cardinal Christian Tumi long denounced the corruption and legitimacy of Cameroonian strongman Paul Biya. Likewise, Cameroonian political authorities owe a great deal to the methods and ideology of colonial big men. One cannot blame Walker-Said for not tackling these issues outside of the limits of her study, but hopefully others will connect her findings with developments from the 1950s to the present.
This book would work well in upper-division undergraduate and graduate courses on African religious, gender, and cultural history. The author clearly weaves in her contributions to the broader literature on gender and colonialism in Africa. The thesis is clear and the fascinating range of evidence does not detract from following the main arguments of the book. Faith, Power and Family is a valuable and convincing work.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-africa.
Jeremy M. Rich. Review of Walker-Said, Charlotte, Faith, Power and Family: Christianity and Social Change in French Cameroon.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
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