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Cell phones, migration and the ambiguity of borders in Bamenda Western Grassfields (Cameroon).

Introduction: Locating the concept in Global perspective

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), like most parts of the world in the age of re-new globalization is undergoing intensive social transformations. The age of re-new globalization is facilitated by the internet and mobile phones and its offshoot being accelerated by the movement of goods and people. The big theme around the debate of globalization would appear to be the disappearance of borders, although the world has experienced more borders which have challenged the very definition and nature of globalization. There is evidence that physical borders are disappearing through one of its gadgets which is the mobile phone. Taking the Bamenda Grassfields of Cameroon as a case study, the paper examines the family and family histories' mobile itineraries of those who are confronted with new technologies like the cell phones, that has made such mobility quite different. The specificity of the Bamenda Grassfields is that because of its ecology and marginality in developmental terms, the people's lives in the region have been coloured by ever constant migration, although there are some physical border crossings into Nigeria. This article also attempts to examine the dynamics of rural-urban mobility both in colonial and post colonial period. The concept of borders in this paper refers to two sides of the same coin--they facilitate and limit mobility. The main thrust of the paper is that it questions whether the presence of cell phones has potentially led to the negation of borders.

Apart from push factors, like violent conflicts, gross human rights violations, population pressure, degradation of natural resources and poverty, the major part of current migration is due to external pull factors. Notably young people, threatened by unemployment and lack of perspectives in their home country, are eager to try their luck in what may appear to them at first sight as their El Dorado. This includes Western Europe, United States and lately, China and Japan. Many of them struggle to reach it, in utter disregard of the involved risks, by all means, mostly illegally (Alpse, 2011). But let there be no misunderstanding, the extreme African poor do not even dispose of this alternative, as migration to overseas destinations involves considerable cost, which can be covered in many cases only with contributions of the extended family (e. g. 800 to 1,200 [euro] per person for the transit from the Senegalese coast to the Canary Islands (Mambo, 2010).

Most African migrants with overseas destinations live in Europe. According to 2005 estimates of the International Organization on Migration (IOM), there are about 4.6million recorded Africans living in the EU, compared with 890,000 in the USA. The major reasons for this unequal distribution are the comparative advantages with relation to transfer cost, and the established cultural and socio-economic links of African Diasporas to the former colonial powers, England, France, Portugal, Spain, Germany and Italy. According to IOM-census figures about two thirds of Africans in Europe are from Northern Africa (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia). A smaller, but steadily increasing part arrived from Sub-Saharan Africa. The latter overwhelmingly stay in France (274,538) and England (249,720), and, on a smaller scale, in Germany (154,564) and Italy (137,780) (IOM, 2005: 26).

However, these figures are probably grossly underestimated, as they do not take account of the majority of unauthorized Africans living in the EU. According to estimates of the Migration Policy Institute, there are some seven to eight million irregular African immigrants living in the EU, mostly in its Southern parts. The actual number fluctuates in accordance with the regularization programs of member states, notably of France, and more recently of Italy and Spain. Many of the officially recognized migrants fall back into illegality when their limited visas expire or if they fail to meet other conditions for recognizing their legal status (Papademetriou, 2005). West Africans constitute by far the largest share of SSA migrants in Europe. They came mostly from Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal. In general, Francophone Africans likely migrate to France because of its special socio-cultural post-colonial relations with its former colonies and due to the language problem, whereas Anglophone Africans, notably Ghanaians and Nigerians showed more flexibility in selecting their destination (IOM, 2005). This paper is not only about migration. It positions migration and its nexus with one of the ubiquitous concepts in human history-borders and also the cell phone.

Contextual background of the study area

The Bamenda Grassfields, Cameroon is a marginal and remote area when we consider its infrastructure, economic development and geography. This situation was partly responsible for people moving out of the region. The everyday life of many Cameroonians in this area is coloured by migration. This was accentuated by the opening of plantations in the littoral quadrant of Cameroon by the German administration (1884-1914) (Rudin, 1938). After the Second World War the British colonial administration took over these plantations and renamed it the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC) in 1946. What is relevant is that the colonial economy introduced and facilitated internal migrations towards a different orientation. The plantation economy led to important flows of labour migration from the Bamenda Grassfields that became a labour reservoir (Konings, 2001, 1998; Ardener, 1960; Delancey, 1973; Epale, 1985).

The need for labour from the Bamenda Grassfields partly explain the fact that Bamenda area was heavily populated in the whole of the Cameroons and also because the coastal peoples whose land the plantations were opened to were not willing to be employed in the plantations. German administration was short lived (1884-1916). After her defeat in the First World War, the territory was partitioned between France and Britain. The Bamenda Grassfields fell under the British administration and its indigenes continued migrating to the coastal plantations. The post colonial period experienced new forms of communication technologies like the motor cars, aeroplanes and most recently the--cell phone.

The evolution and impact of mobile phone communication

The revolution of the mobile phone has been hailed as an important element in present-day developments in countries in the South and is generally considered positive. As point of departure, I follow the line of reasoning already introduced by other scholars researching the mobile phone in societies in the South and elsewhere in the world, but at the same time attempting to see the nexus which exists between it and borders. For instance, Horst & Miller (2006) have shown in their study in Jamaica how the mobile phone is culturally and socially appropriated and, in turn, shapes society. In this process, the social and economic landscape also changes. Similar observations of this process of appropriation have been made by Pertierra (2005) for the Philippines and Smith (2006) for political life in Nigeria. Nyamnjoh (2005) emphasizes the intensification of the cell phone which has helped to link people who are faraway and how this creates new forms of fear and anxiety in society in the Bamenda Grassfields of Cameroon.

In Africa, in particular, the rapid pace of adoption has garnered particular attention from scholars (Souter et al., 2005; Meso, Musa, & Mbarika, 2005; James & Versteeg, 2007; Carmody, 2009). Those who first got the phones were the elites, but later on it became cheaper as pre-paid was accessible to many (Rogers, 2003). Researchers looking beyond adoption have also revealed adaptive uses in rural/urban situations occasioned by men and women. Lacking not only landlines but also constrained in terms of economics and infrastructure, both men and women have developed ingenious, creative and adaptive usage patterns, 'flashing' 'beeping' recipients, sharing handsets, and other ways of 'using without spending'. For instance in Burkina Faso: (Hahn & Kibora, 2008) have carried out work in that direction. Readings suggest that such creative appropriations perhaps started with small businesspeople and whether it was in urban Rwanda or elsewhere (Donner 2006b) or Nigeria (Jagun, Heeks & Whalley, 2008), the situation has not been very different. These users are new actors in complex socio-technical systems (Beijer et al, 1987) helping to shape the very technology they use (Oudshoom & Pinch, 2007).

Category and gender elsewhere has also interacted to configure adoption, attitudes, and significance of technological innovations, including the cell phone (Wajcman, 1991, 2004). Consequently, mobile phone appropriation and benefits are similarly not expected to be gender impartial. The capacity of women users to produce new, advantageous readings of gadgets such as mobile phones is dependent on their broader economic and social circumstances, not living out the individual agency (Wajcman, 2007:294).

Out of Africa, Ling (2004), looking at Norwegian youth, finds mobile use to mirror broader gendered patterns of traditional telephone. While amongst the Israelis, gender roles shape and perceive the role of mobile phones in their lives (Lemish & Cohen, 2005). In India, (Steenson & Donner, 2009) has shown how the perceptions of gender has conflicted with phone ownership and its influence. Green and Singleton (2007) find gender influences perceptions of 'mobile talk' in the Pakistani-British community, devaluing women's conversation as 'gossip'.

Cameroon has benefitted very little from such studies as demonstrated above. In my other publications (Nkwi, 2009: 52-68), I generally handled the history of telephone in Buea, a University City town where women played out their rule in 'call boxes'. Nyamnjoh (2005: 209) opines that "... the cell phone has become like the long arm of the village leadership, capable of reaching even the most distant 'sons and daughters of the soil' trapped in urban spaces...." He further maintains that the cell phone has been creatively used by rural/urban relations to stay in touch with kin and kith. These few studies show the poverty of studies done on cell phone in Cameroon with regards to its relationship with borders and migration. This is a gap which this essay sets out to fill and to contribute to the overall scholarship already existing on the cell phone. The way in which the phone has been integrated into society cannot be separated from the specific culture, economy, politics and history of a society. But, before we embarked on these issues it imperative to handle the concept of migration.


Scholars have studied migration from many perspectives. For instance, Amin (1974) shows that migrations are not new to Africa. According to him, modern migrations are related to labour problems and he classifies them as: rural-rural, rural-urban, urban-rural, internal and international migrations. Adepoju (1995, 2010, 2008 and 2007) claims that "Africa is a continent of considerable ... migrations and various movements in response to political, social, economic, religious and security situations have been recorded from earliest times". De Bruijn and van Dijk (2003) and Waller (1985), studied population mobility in West Africa with a special focus on the Fulbe pastoralists of Central and South Mali. They came to the conclusion that "mobility was one of the most important responses by the inhabitants of the Sahel to climatic adversity". These scholars have collectively and individually studied mobility in terms of travelling or migratory cultures.

The mobility of people inside Africa has been a major issue for scholars who have studied it in multiple perspectives. But the advent of new ICTs in most societies in Africa has accelerated the migration of people. At the same time, the movement of people across borders has become a daily problem to statesmen and governments. Furthermore, scholars have shown that the factors responsible for these migrations differ but that the outstanding factor since the beginnings of the colonial rule has been labour. For instance, Harris's (1994) work on the migrant labour from Mozambique to the sugarcane plantations, diamond and gold mines of South Africa shows how these migrants arrived in South Africa with different values. But their contacts with other Africans and whites enabled them to forge a new type of culture. Davidson's work on migrant labour in the Gold Coast (Davidson, 1954) and van Onselen's (1984) on Southern Africa show the relationship which existed between labour migration and different forms of communication and labour identity in Southern Rhodesia between 1900 and 1933. What is relevant in the work by Harris, Davidson and van Onselen, apart from labour migration, is the construction of a dynamic culture which was a synthesis or hybrid of the migrant culture and that of South Africa.

The ever migration of people in the Bamenda Grassfields which has coincided with the new ICTs epitomized by the cell phone seems to open a new perspective that has not been adequately treated in the literature on migration in Bamenda Grassfields of Cameroon. Once out of home they started re-creating their culture by staying in touch with their home villages. This is what Appadurai calls 'Translocality'. According to Appadurai (1996: 178), "Translocality is understood as an ambiguous space of experiences and agency, a space that does not exist absolutely but is created by interconnections of mobile people, ideas and objects". In other words, Bamenda Grassfields people were creating a space which resembled their place of origin, Bamenda Grassfields, in terms of cultural practices like traditional dances, dress and festivals. The migration of Bamenda Grassfields people fits into what Gupta and Ferguson (1992: 17) call 'de-territorialisation and territorialisation'. These terms have to do with spatial mobility. They suggest that because of flexible mobility people are not confined to particular places. People can now move and recreate their territory of origin in distant spaces. This appears relevant to Bamenda Grassfields experiences because, as they moved out, they de territorialized Bamenda Grassfields and re-territoritorialized it in distant places.

Another striking insight from migrants from Bamenda is the way the village is viewed from the distance of urban spaces. This has been the characteristic of these people as well as other peoples in Africa. Rural-urban relations are an age-old theme that has been explored in the literature of migration in Africa. Busia (1950: 12) in a social survey of Sekondi-Takoradi, showed that "a person's membership of a lineage binds him forever to his village, its locality and that wherever he may go; however long he/she may be away, he/she belongs to his lineage town or village ..." Gugler (1961), studied Eastern Nigerians in town and concluded that they lived in a dual system in which they are responsible to village development associations while trying to cope with city life. Geschiere and Gugler (1998: 309-319) show how an urbanite might choose to remain in the city but also always remain tied in some way with his or her home. Gugler (2002: 21-41) maintains that research on the urban-rural connection needs to be conducted elsewhere on the continent because of the "wrenching changes its people have experienced over the last generation". Geschiere, Busia and Gugler here are only setting the agenda for scholars to study rural-urban migrations in Africa. The experience of Bamenda Grassfields people is just one contribution to this ongoing works.

In Cameroon this kind of rural-urban mobility takes place through associations. These associations of mobile people are home town groupings through which members are called upon to actively participate in home developmental projects. These associations enjoyed the renewed attention of scholars of contemporary Cameroon, particularly in connection with identity studies and politics of belonging since the 1990s (Nyamnjoh and Rowlands, 1998: 320-337; Englund, 2002: 137-154; Gam Nkwi, 2006c: 123-143).


My interest in the inter-relatedness of society, migration and borders and voice technology was first raised when I observed in Buea town, Southwest Cameroon in April 2007 and noted the presence of so many phone booths (in daily parlance 'call boxes') even when there were no visible boxes in the strict sense of the word, on the street. These boxes were used for business purposes and it appeared that young people in particular were involved in this kind of enterprise. I decided to do a survey among the call boxes and systematically went up and down the larger streets making an inventory of them. I also did open-ended interviews with the people in these call boxes, as I were interested in the stories behind them and the changes they have brought about. To better situate this 'booming' call box and mobile phone industry, I tried to understand voice communication as it appeared in Buea in the twentieth century as well as elsewhere particularly in Bamenda Grassfields. This paper follows my observation and interviews of people of the Bamenda Grassfields who are often always on the move and how the cell phone has facilitated them to stay in touch with kin and kith at home irrespective of borders using the cell phone. Using the Buea National Archives, situated on the slopes of Buea Mountain, I understood from colonial reports that the Bamenda Grassfielders have been very mobile in time and space.

To understand the specific form the phone revolution has taken I tried to consider changes in economic and social relations in Cameroonian society. Today the economy is depicted as one of uncertainty (Mbembe 2000); as it is an economy structured around the uncertainties in daily life where people never know what will happen tomorrow and their lives are being shaped around the social and economic insecurities they face (de Bruijn & van Dijk 1995). This specific economic form appeared during the economic downturn in Cameroon in the mid 1990s when the currency was devalued, salaries were slashed three times and the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) aggravated the situation by laying off thousands of civil servants. Consequently thousands of dependents were left to grapple with the awkward socio-economic situation and nobody knew what would happen the next day. People started to live 'without a tomorrow'. To eke out a living, they have had to find ways to survive in times of continuing uncertainty. I question here how the emerging economy of the phone, i.e. a form of appropriation of the mobile phone, can be explained in these dynamics of uncertainty and how the emergence of the cell phone has facilitated migrations and debunk the whole idea of borders.

Telephone communication from independence until the present

The political whirlwind that swept African colonial states south of the Sahara in the 1940s and culminated in independence and the birth of new states both in French and British Africa also hit Cameroon. On 1 January 1960, the French part of Cameroon gained independence and on 1 October 1961 the British Southern Cameroons gained independence by reunification with French Cameroon. The new state was known as the Federal Republic of Cameroon, with Buea falling under the Federal State of West Cameroon and French Cameroon known as the Federal State of East Cameroon. In 1972 the states underwent a political metamorphosis and became known as the United Republic of Cameroon (Ngoh 2004). The telephone land lines were still appropriated by the elite and telephone boxes or booths were unheard of and remained so until the late 1980s.

With the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Plan in Cameroon as a palliative to cure its ailing economy, some of the telecommunication structures were privatized in the late 1980s and later. For instance, in 1998, the Cameroon Telecommunication Company (Camtel) was established by bringing together Intelcam and the Department of Telecommunications at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications. The Cameroon Telecommunication Mobile Company (Camtel Mobile) was set up with the specific task of installing and exploiting mobile phones across the whole country and, according to Nyamnjoh (2005: 209), with this initiative: "... private investors such as Mobilis or (Orange) and MTN-Cameroon have since extended and improved upon the telecommunications services. From a fixed telephone network of around 87,000 subscribers since independence, Cameroon now boasts more than 200,000 cell phone subscribers for MTN Cameroon alone." That was in 2005. As at 2010 any casual observation shows that to any five people in the Bamenda Grassfields, four had a cell phone. The cell phone has become a given and it is difficult to find any family without one.

In Anglophone Cameroon in general and Bamenda Grassfields in particular, owning a mobile phone has become a given and people take their cell phones wherever they go, attached to their belts, in their hands and or in their handbag. It is indeed a paradox that when structural adjustment was introduced and many people were rendered poor, citizens could still on the whole afford to purchase mobile phones. As if that was not enough, they displayed them prominently so everybody could see they had one. Mobile phones have led to the birth of call boxes that have changed the urban landscape of most towns. Within ten years or so of the introduction of the mobile phone in this region and just seven years after the first telephone box was opened, Bamenda now boasts at least more 1.3 million subscribers.

Discussion and results

The Berlin West African Conference (1884-1885) apparently signalled the creeping European economic and political dominance in Africa and accelerated its shift from informal to formal involvement in African politics. This led to the drawing up of artificial boundaries, which more or less authenticated various territorial claims by European powers, but, which also divided historically homogenous, contiguous and closely related, sometimes kinship communities. According to Asiwaju (1985:63), boundaries indicate the sharp edges of the territorial limits within which the states exercise their distinct jurisdictions'. They are therefore, the lines of contact, more often for conflict than for harmony, between rival systems of governmental control. A boundary could also be the line of delimitation or demarcation between administrative units or between geographical regions of various types. Three fundamental concepts underline the establishment of international boundaries. These are: the definition state, the delimitation and the demarcation stage. (Boggs, 1940; Anene and Brown, 1966; Fanso, 1989). The borders, as I have employed the concept in this work, is quite ambiguous. It is not limited to physical borders and it denotes the fact that these borders could be fluid and most of the time circumvented through the use of cell phones.

While the state imposes physical borders and visas which are aimed to keep the migration of people in check either emigrating or immigrating the cell phone appears to make nonsense of such borders as it respects no boundary set out by the state. While chatting with the doyen of border and boundary studies in Africa, Professor Emeritus Anthony Asiwaju in Rabat, during the 4th Global Conference on Migration, he was quite flexible on this issue. According to him, it is not only the cell phone but even the anti-ballistic missiles have long shown that borders were only an issue of the state. Yet he also felt and opined that the cell phone is and has been one of the greatest inventions of globalisation which has ignore the borders.

Thus while the Bamenda Grassfielders migrate far and wide to Europe, America and other Diaspora places they stay in touch with love ones, parents, in-laws, sisters and brothers through the cell phone. It is not an overstatement to contend that the cell phone has compressed distance and time and mileage has been reduced to infinitesimal proportions. A case in point was Mary. Mary was born in Bamenda, the capital of Northwest Region of Cameroon. Her parents were both teachers and in a family of six she finally travelled to Holland from Kumba which is far away from the Grassfields. From Kumba she worked as a part time teacher before finally taking the decision to travel to Europe for greener pastures. The mother leaves in Buea and the rest of the brothers and sisters leave around major Cameroonian cities. According to the mother of Mary she does not miss Mary a lot because she calls twice a week. The case of Mary is only representative of more than thousands Bamenda Grassfielders who are living and working in distant Diaspora spaces. What is relevant is that it is difficult if not impossible to talk about the border when the cell phone is concern.

Another case was Lucas who was born in 1931 at Njinikom, polity found in the Bamenda Grassfields. He attended St. Anthony's Primary School, Njinikom, from 1942 to 1948 when he obtained his Standard Six Certificate. He proceeded to St. Joseph College, Sasse, where he graduated with the West African School Certificate, Grade I in 1956. He proceeded to Ilosogun, Nigeria, where he was introduced to elementary teaching. He then proceeded to a prison's training course in Lagos where he graduated in 1960. He worked briefly in Buea and then left for further training at Walefield, United Kingdom in 1964, because he had pressed interest in the treatment of young offenders in prisons. Returning from the UK he was again sent to Buea. He succeeded in enrolling at the University College, Swansea, which was part of the University of Wales, to follow a diploma course. He was there for two years. By virtue of his performance he was granted a scholarship by the Cameroon government to proceed to a Degree course. He returned to Cameroon in 1974. While in Cameroon he worked in Yaounde, Maroua and Bamenda. He went on retirement in 1985. He has six children. Four of them are in the United States of America and two in Cameroon.

During our discussions about the cell phone he revealed that it has played a very important role in keeping him in constant contact with his sons and daughters found in the United States. He said:
      I have four children in the US--Charles, Emmanuel, Irene and
   Emmanuella, Despite the distance we are always in touch through the
   phone. Initially when the cell phone had not been introduced, we
   used to send letters but these letters took us long, A letter from
   Bamenda to Washington for example will take a month and two weeks.
   There were landlines but very expensive. With the introduction of
   the cell phone we discuss at least once a week and with three
   hundred francs (50 cents), I can call any one of them and deliver
   the message.

Lucas's speech is well taken, but needs further explanation. From all indications, the cell phone had replaced both land lines and letters and above all it is quite fast. It has also enabled him to stay in touch with his children. Although he never made mention of borders it is implicit that no matter the distance and borders found, he can still call his children at any one time that he wishes to do so.

The introduction of cell phone has brought, in a limited way, the circumvention of borders although physical boundaries have remained effervescently difficult to do away with in an age that has been dubbed as renewed globalisation. Nyamnjoh (2005:209) did not make an error. He said: inter alia: "... the cell phone has become like the long arm of the village leadership, capable of reaching even the most distant 'sons and daughters of the soil' trapped in urban spaces...." He further maintains that "the cell phone has been creatively used by rural/urban relations to stay in touch with kin and kith" .

What he was insinuating was that it was possible for Bamenda Grassfielders to migrate to distant spaces but that it was impossible for them to stay without getting in touch with kin and kith, because of the cell phone. Of course people migrate because there are possibilities for staying in touch with relatives in their areas of origin. In the case of the Bamenda Grassfielders, and many other examples in Africa, the cell phone has come to replace letter writers which were the only popular form of communication between migrants and their relatives. In the Bamenda Grassfields, the Fan and Nkwifon are the village leaders in both political and traditional sense of the word. They are sacrosanct and 'eyes' of the village. They are the village monarchs. As their subjects migrate into the wider world these village leaders can possibly stretch their arms to trap down their subjects no matter where they are irrespective of borders by using the cell phone.

Even those who have migrated into the cities are not spared by the village headship to be trapped through the cell phone. Rural-Urban migration has been widely noticed and researched in Africa since the 1950s. Readings on rural-urban migration suggests that once out of home they started re-creating their culture by staying in touch with their home villages. This is what Appadurai calls 'Translocality'. According to Appadurai (1996: 178), "Translocality is understood as an ambiguous space of experiences and agency, a space that does not exist absolutely but is created by interconnections of mobile people, ideas and objects". In other words, the Bamenda Grassfields' people were creating a space which resembled their place of origin, and they have been doing so in terms of cultural practices like traditional dances, dress and festivals. The geographical mobility of these people appeared to have been what Gupta and Ferguson (1992: 17) call 'de-territorialisation and territorialisation'. These terms suggest that because of flexible mobility people are not confined to particular places. People can now move and recreate their territory of origin in distant spaces. This appears relevant to the experiences of Bamenda Grassfielders because, as they moved out they de-territorialized and re-territoritorialised it in distant places, thus ignoring any idea about borders and boundaries.

Concluding remarks

Migration is as old as man and the African continent is not an exception. Barely two decades after the introduction of the cell phone in Africa, it has affected the social scape of the people as well as the continent itself. One of the myriad ways in which this has happened very recently is the relationship this globalization gadget on one hand and migration as well as borders on the other hand has in common. Taking the Bamenda Grassfields as a case study, this paper has contended that migrants from this region use the cell phone in distant spaces irrespective of the much talk about borders. No doubt the physical borders as set out by the state and visa to govern peoples migration appears to have been down played with the introduction of the cell phone. On the other hand, social borders do exist which also help us to knock at borders. Although this has not been explicitly handled in the paper in more parts of Africa the type of phone which one possesses indicates that he/she has negotiated a social border and therefore joins a different social category.

This paper has acted as a preliminary observation and promises further in-depth research. Much empirical evidence is still to be conducted in this region and much too in the same direction could be conducted elsewhere in Africa. One thing is certain in the paper--the nexus between cell phone, migration and the ambiguity of borders. The interviews which have been presented in the article represent the society.


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Author:Nkwi, Walter Gam
Publication:Annals of the University of Bucharest, Economic and Administrative Series
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Date:Jan 1, 2014
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