Helen A. Regis, Boulder: Westview Press, 2002
Reviewed by Hilarie Kelly, California State University, Fullerton
Fulbe Voices: Marriage, Islam, and Medicine in Northern Cameroon is one of a series of books in Westview Case Studies in Anthropology. Series editor Edward Fischer states that the purpose of this series is to “recognize the peoples we study as active agents enmeshed in global as well as local systems of politics, economics, and cultural flows” (xi). Books in the series aim to combine both “rich humanistic and social scientific data borne of the dialectic engagement of fieldwork.”(xi). Regis’ book fulfills these purposes admirably.
The subtitle is a bit misleading. This is a highly contextualized account of identity as it is performed in several overlapping dimensions: individual identity, gender identity, ethnic identity, village and national identity, and the global identity of Islam. These various dimensions of identity are presented through the commentary (voices) of individuals whom the author came to know during her research in one particular Cameroonian village. These voices are well supported by Regis’ detailed discussion of relevant historical, ethnographic, and theoretical material. She peels back layer after layer of local and national discourse to reveal the really interesting contradictions and underlying complexities in the lives of people she encountered. The result is a lively and engaging book.
This is a subversively feminist text. Its breadth and title will likely save it from ghettoization in the Women’s Studies section of the bookstore. Women’s voices are frequently and prominently heard, however. Two chapters (3 and 5) are predominantly about women, and chapters 2 through 6 could almost be a separate book, retitled “Defining Womanhood in a Fulbe Village.” Regis makes it abundantly clear that gender is a central organizing principle in Fulbe life. In fact, based on this book one could say that the three, interlocking pillars of Fulbe society are Fulbe-ness (pulaaku), Islam, and gender. What’s missing is kinship, which Regis touches on briefly in her critical discussion of lineage and ethnicity, but otherwise downplays to a remarkable degree. This lack of emphasis is deliberate. Regis is interested in agency, discourse, and performance, not in structure or other confining reifications. For example, Regis provides a fascinating explanation of how some young Fulbe men circumvent their culture’s strict code of self-restraint by speaking in French when they want to express something disapproved of in that code (85-87). Regis does something similar in her refusal to discuss the principles of patrilineal kinship that we know from other sources has some bearing on Fulbe social organization. By not speaking the language of kinship, Regis circumvents patrifocal discourses of culture that often hijack traditional ethnographies and render women less visible.
The author frequently quotes directly and at length from Fulbe community members of the village where she worked, to which she gives a pseudonym: Domaayo (“Riverside”.) Quotations are clearly indicated in italicized, indented passages. Other italicized passages consist of portions taken from the author’s field notes, including her descriptive observations and reflections. Citing raw field notes has the advantage of letting us see how the author’s understanding evolved, and it elucidates the context within which people “in the field” are offering their comments. Reinforcing the strength of Fulbe voices, the text is full of passages in Fulfulde (the Fulbe language) translated into English. Key words are explained, often in detail, and there is a very useful two-page glossary in the back of the book.
The Fulbe voices presented here are not unmediated. The organization of topics and contextualizing discussion is firmly in the hands of the author. Chapter titles reflect a series of themes she has carefully selected for elaboration. Discussion of key issues within each chapter is helped greatly by the generous use of bold-faced sub-headings. The most delightful chapter is “On Cheap Cloth, Bad Sauce, and the Fragility of Marriage” dealing with the colorful semiotics of “marriage talk” and the somewhat polarized views of men and women. Its themes are echoed in the concluding chapter of the book, where Regis contrasts the anxious preoccupations of a husband and wife, two of her closest field associates. The wife tells a shocking story about commodification, cannibalism, and the corruption of family values, while the husband marries a second wife and gleefully details the many gifts he receives and the items contained in his young bride’s trousseau.
I would have liked to see the length and dates of Regis’ field stay more clearly specified, along with the research methods used and theoretical development of the study. Regis says (xvii), “I had come to the field with my professor…to begin work for a public health project on schistosomiasis (bilharzias).” How did she progress from that project to this complex, politically and historically nuanced discussion of Fulbe performances of personhood?
Some might quibble that the book lacks a certain, comforting coherency. Each of the seven chapters deals with such a distinct theme that it could almost stand on its own. This work does not attempt to be a comprehensive ethnography in the essentialist tradition. The author inserts some coherency, however, by weaving one thread into all the chapters: a discussion of pulaaku (Fulbe-ness), an indigenous concept that all Fulbe seem to embrace and perform in various ways.
The book is extraordinarily rich in ethnographic detail, charmingly presented and clearly explained. What Regis tells us ethnographically is always in relation to the individuals she introduces to us. We thereby receive a highly personalized view of Fulbe life. Regis is moderate about making cross-cultural generalizations. Her citations of ethnographic material drawn from other cultures (e.g. “evil eye” beliefs) are highly qualitative and particularistic. Even her discussion of globalization processes is firmly grounded in the particularities of what she encountered in Domaayo and, more generally, Cameroon.
This book is an excellent choice for any anthropology course on women/gender, the cultural construction of personhood and ethnicity, African culture, Islam or any combination of these. The themes of globalization and medicine are less central to the book than is implied on the book jacket; they are addressed in final chapters dealing with reproductive magic, witchcraft beliefs and spirit possession, and the effects of structural adjustment and other “neoliberal” reforms on access to health care.
The author’s prose is admirably straight-forward and jargon-free. Her postmodernist theoretical leanings are clear, but her many citations and references reflect inspiration from a broad and eclectic range of sources, from E.E. Evans-Pritchard to Lila Abu-Lughod, Marshall Sahlins to Frantz Fanon. The Conceptual Glossary (With References for Further Reading) included at the end (156-158) adds to the book’s value for teaching.
Hilarie Kelly is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton. She did her dissertation research on gender relations in the Muslim Orma community of Kenya, and has more recently been following the fortunes of Somali women immigrants in North America.