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Intergenerational tensions in the digital era in Yaoundé

p.awondo15 October 2020

Juvenile and senile delinquency

In Yaoundé, the dynamics of interactions between different generations are exemplified by the debates that occupy a significant space in public discussion on Facebook and Whatsapp. Within this framework, tensions are at work in two ways. The first is through debates on the monopolisation of economic, political and social resources by “seniors”. The second is through debates around the perceived immorality of the younger generations. To the accusation of “juvenile delinquency” by the older generations who say that young people are “disrespectful and delinquent”, we have seen the concept of “senile delinquency” opposed by young people, who thus underline the irresponsibility of the “elders”. The intergenerational economic, social and cultural debate has transformed into a trial of the elders and is now in line with the convergence of moral and political discourse.

In Yaoundé, the public sphere in this context is first and foremost community-based; it is constructed in various associations and groups, some of which make identity claims. My research participants sometimes reflect these identity and community dynamics.  This intergenerational discussion transits via the smartphone, mainly through Whatsapp and Facebook, which have both emerged in recent years as powerful levers for constructing what the world of social science calls the “digital public space”, i.e. what characterises “that communicative fora (exist) online that give rise to public debates which, at least at times, influence other fora and feed into finding collectively binding decisions.[i]”  The smartphone has indeed been perceived as being part of ‘young’ culture because of its popularity and widespread use among this demographic as well as its association with technology and creativity.

The ‘trial of the elders’

In Yaoundé, an important point to observe is the way in which the smartphone and social networks have freed up speech around one of the greatest contemporary problems in the country – the context of the trial of the elders. This process revolves around several axes and is expressed in different ways: there is, first of all, access to employment and the distribution of resources; then comes the almost systematic denunciation of the manipulation of the younger generations, especially in the political field.

On the other hand, we can evoke the increasing politicisation of the question of generations and the crystallisation around the process of an ageing elite. This second point occupies a lot of space in public debates and is intensified in forums where, taking advantage of anonymity, people can say or relay positions that condemn gerontocratic power.

Fig 1 & 2: Campaign Bus of Nourane Foster (1) during the 2018 legislative elections and slogan and web photo of the 2018 Presidential Candidate (2) and his slogan “the power of experience”.

For example, during the 2018 presidential elections, when the incumbent candidate Paul Biya (who is now 87) used the slogan “the strength of experience” to advertise his campaign, young people launched counter-slogans as the “strength of youth” on discussion forums such as Cameroon Online. This slogan was later used by young candidates in the legislative elections that followed the presidential ones, which were won by Biya. As can be seen in the screenshots above, a young candidate for the post of deputy in one of Cameroon’s coastal regions chose this exact slogan in a direct allusion to the age of the 87-year-old president. To the “strength of experience” slogan, chanted by the “old” president, the young candidate (32 years old) responded with a provocation that paid off, since she has been elected as the deputy of an opposition party at only 32 and will become the youngest member of parliament in the history of the country.

Community debates around the age of leaders and civil servants

To further illustrate this situation, it is important to observe what happens in the private sphere as well, in addition to the conversations happening as public debates. During my fieldwork in Cameroon, I participated in a Sunday leisure sports group that was mainly made up of retired people. Participating in the group at every month, I saw how on the eve of the election, the debates were shifting towards the question of the age of leaders and, more broadly, the people who are senior members of the Cameroonian public service. Even if in general, people tend to avoid political debates so as not to threaten cohesion and friendship in the group, the events around the election forced a more engaged discussion.  The exchange started with the issue of the participation of the youngest in the vote.  One of the group members, a 66-year-old former geography teacher at the Lycée, spoke of the enthusiasm of his first son, who is 32 years old and also a high school teacher. For him, these elections were important because, in his own words: “for once, there may be a candidate who is young and concerned about the situation of young people”.

Immediately, one of the youngest members of the group, one of only three people under the age of 50, spoke up:

“Everybody is happy to see a person under 40 years of age running for the presidency of the Republic.  It’s good to say that things are moving a little bit, but we’re under no illusions about how it will all end. Even if there are more young people in this country, there is no illusion about the outcome of the elections. It is rather an everyday struggle that we have to fight in this country. A real revolution. Too many old people are in power. It’s worse than in the old days. When you go to the ministries, when you have old people in strategic positions, the people come too late to the responsibilities; it shouldn’t be like that, how can you expect to have a responsible youth”.


One of the older members, a founding member of the association, is quite annoyed at this comment. He is a 68-year-old businessman, who takes the opposite side of the last comment:

“Everyone is talking about old and young people; you want us to do the same with young people in this country. As a trader, I see in the markets how young people refuse to work. They want the easy life, the beautiful things but not the sacrifices that go with it. I am always surprised when people talk like that. A lot of young people are not aware and nobody stops them from doing anything. They have to fight on their own; to conquer things; to get privileges. It happens like that everywhere. I don’t see why here they think that someone has to give them anything.”


The two excerpts are fairly representative of the often passionate exchanges on this topic. The research participants reflect the classic ideological cleavages between young people who aspire to a new social order and “old” people who do not want to give up. There is nothing extraordinary about this, except that some retired people themselves seem to be revolted by the status quo. A majority of research participants stressed the fact that they have to fight to make room for their children in the world of employment, even after retirement. This professional quest by proxy and the time-consuming dimension of this support at a time when they should be resting seems to be a centralising element for the anger of the retired. Research participants thus assured me that they take their “share of responsibility” for the current situation, which is catalysing the frustration of the youngest children. This is all the more so since most of the public debates reflect the exchanges between our research participants and the young adults of whom they are either parents or guardians.

One could say that when it comes to the generational question in Yaoundé, there is a tension in on at least three levels: A first ‘knot’ is the one linked to political expression among the younger generation. Each side is constantly being put on trial by the other, with fighting taking place as if it was between two different species: the young on one side and the retired and elderly on the other. A second knot lies in the contrast between the strong claims about intergenerational relationships that are exacerbated and sensationalised by digital technology and the actual day-to-day work that takes place within extended families and communities. It is not uncommon for retirees to try to integrate young people into the urban fabric through the time devoted to this objective. The final ‘knot’ is in line with this second one and concerns, at the family level, the daily relations which they rebuild in order to practice reciprocity and mutual support. This is particularly the case when young people constantly assist older people in the use of smartphones and, more broadly, in managing the “new urban life”: paying bills with mobile money, transferring funds, updating applications, buying telephone credit. All these are vital and unavoidable actions that some of our research participants in Cameroon are not always very comfortable doing. This last ‘knot’ helps to mitigate the effects of the intergenerational tension because, in reality, there is dependence and complementarity and this is well exemplified by different generations working together on integrating the smartphone into each other’s everyday lives.

[i] Schafer S M (2015) « Digital Public Sphere» in Mazzoleni, Gianpietro et al. (2015, Eds.): The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication. London: Wiley Blackwell. Pp. 322-328.

 

Public health and digital communication in Cameroon in the time of COVID-19

p.awondo11 August 2020

If there’s one thing to remember about the way the Covid-19 global pandemic will affect the world, it’s the unprecedented way it is living and spreading in the digital world. This is such a novel fact that some have called it “a parallel epidemic”. This is characterised as much by an insurmountable number of fake news items as it is by a certain density of scientific information given by experts and commented on by analysts and pseudo-experts through digital platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp or even forums. This density of scientific information, often left to the layman to interpret, has often created confusion; but more than its density, there is also its changing and sometimes contradictory dimension that has fostered confusion and given rise to misinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news. All this is not new. In a way, the history of major epidemics is punctuated by these panics and uncertainties. What is really new is the way in which, through the mediation of social networks and platforms, the pandemic information has circulated, revolutionising, in passing, even the way leaders communicate in contexts where they sometimes resist ‘the digital’ or legislate against it. This is what happened in Cameroon, where the country’s administration has previously been reluctant to adopt digital means of communication, preferring secrecy. The government’s communication around Covid-19 has gone into digital mode in an unprecedented way and has mainly been centred around the use of Twitter to report on the evolution of the disease and inform Cameroonians.

Tweeting the coronavirus statistics

Cameroon, one of the most affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa, officially has 18,042 cases to date, 2,327 of which are still under treatment. 15, 320 people have recovered and there have been 395 deaths.  The Minister of Health, very active from the beginning of the epidemic in Cameroon in March this year, no longer publishes daily figures on his Twitter account, as was long the case.

Before the first cases were declared on Cameroonian soil, the Minister had shown unprecedented proximity to the situation via his Twitter account. The first tweets concerned preventive measures, already taken in February, and also tried to reassure Cameroonians about the measures their government was putting in place when rumours were already circulating about the existence of cases in the country. Towards the end of February, the tweets started focusing on explanations about the occurrence of the disease on Cameroonian soil. Indeed, the Cameroonian minister had inaugurated a new mode of communication through tweets around the epidemic in a country where government administration continues to be done by decree and signed with a stamp as proof. Even if these administrative acts now circulate on Whatsapp, sometimes before being broadcast on national radio or in offices, the priority remains the paper act. The Cameroonian health minister’s investment in tweeting, therefore, appears like a UFO to Cameroon’s high administration.

Figures 1, 2 and 3: Tweets from the minister of Health before the first case of COVID-19 in Cameroon (1), tweets when the first case occurred (2) and tweets sent by the minister after Cameroon already had multiple cases, which aimed to reassure the nation about measures taken by the state (3).

The third series of tweets talks about the measures taken against the pandemic and what the government is doing to curb its spread – at this point, the virus was already on the country’s doorstep. Finally, once Covid had started spreading in the country, the tweets became concerned with the figures relating to the evolution of the pandemic.

This communication through tweets has fostered two rare things in the relationship between citizens and the authorities, especially health authorities, who have been publicly denounced in recent years for the inadequacies of the health system which were exposed by the AIDS pandemic, and especially for the inability to decrease the country’s infant mortality rate, which is considered too high, not to mention the corruption of personnel. The first positive point in relation to the communication coming from the Ministry of Health is proximity. By addressing citizens directly through tweeting, even though Twitter is far from being used by a large majority of Cameroonians, screenshots of the minister’s tweets quickly made a detour via WhatsApp and spread throughout the country. The first tweets were, therefore, ‘welcomed’ by the population via commentators and part of the press.

The second positive point was the dimension linked to the duty to democratise information and the principle of accountability to the people (two core principles of the republic). The idea that it is the minister’s duty to inform Cameroonians about the country’s health situation on a daily basis is banal at first glance, but not so common in the context of Cameroon, so the minister’s action initially made people forget about how hesitant the administration had initially been about closing borders (it was this hesitation that eventually led to the first cases). Subtly, however, some of the minister’s tweets alluded to the “irresponsibility” of travellers arriving into Cameroon and refusing to comply with the isolation measures, thus endangering Cameroonian lives. These tweets, which came at the time when the epidemic exploded, during April and May, rekindled the stigmatisation of travellers, often Cameroonian, who were known as “coro-mbenguists” (people living in Europe and potential corona carriers) in the context.

Tweets, fears and backlash

The minister’s tweets, initially hailed for their clarity and frequency, gradually found themselves at the heart of a controversy. There are three reasons for this. The first is related to the initial focus on the count of tested cases of travellers arriving from Europe. This was considered to be stigmatising because the press was beginning to relay the idea that the diaspora is responsible for the spread of the disease in Cameroon.

A second reason is related to the fear and psychosis created by the daily count of the minister’s tweets. With the number of positive cases increasing at an exponential rate, making the figures public has created, according to some analysts, significant stress among the population, who do not know what to expect in the coming days, especially since the executive decreed partial containment measures taken in mid-March were received in a mixed manner by a population with low incomes and dependent on the informal sector and therefore dependent on being present in the streets. These daily figures, which the citizens helplessly see going up by the day, echoed those in Europe, particularly in Italy and France, whose chaotic management of the pandemic mirrored the idea of an almost certain death for a large number of people. Beyond the nationalist rhetoric that I mentioned in a recent blog, the conversations on Whatsapp groups were marked by panic and a kind of inevitability of fate that can be summed up in the phrase “if Europeans, with the tools and powerful medicine die so much; what will happen to us? ». These reactions contrast with the analyses of public commentators who, faced with the slow spread of the virus on the continent, show a courageous and imperturbable Africa in the face of the pandemic. In reality, on the streets of Yaoundé, WhatsApp groups are overcome by anguish and fear. This panicked fear is reflected in certain recurring expressions in the discussions. In Yaoundé, in the face of the implacability of an event, people say: “we are waiting, what else can we do » (on attend on va faire comment).

The tone of anguish and panic, exacerbated by the macabre daily death count in Europe and circulating through social networks, with news items coming out of Italy and France, which were under lockdown and where life had stopped, forced the Minister of Health to change his communication strategy:

Fig 4 tweet about the decision to change the Ministry of Health’s communication strategy and stop declaring the number of new cases and deaths (7th April 2020).

On the 9th of April, the online press reported that, after giving in to constant requests from numerous followers (there are 71,000 of them), the Minister would no longer tweet the same way as before,  announcing the following: “Very sensitive to the new direction you wanted to give to our communication, I will therefore From now on, I will endeavour to publish only information on the development of our strategy, serious cases, cured cases, deaths, and barrier measures”.

Although the Minister kept his commitment for a few days, he eventually returned to his more usual tweets, giving his followers the number of new cases and deaths. A third point to note as a backlash to the tweets is that the Minister of Health became popular at the beginning of the epidemic because of the novelty of reporting to the population. However, this popularity is not appreciated by all, and Cameroonians who are not used to government transparency will demand it to the end, especially with regards to the management of the special Covid fund, endowed with tens of billions of CFA francs (Cameroon’s currency) by the country’s Head of State. This turning point is materialised in the tweets where the minister highlights the government’s “achievements” such as measures taken to improve patient care or boost preventive measures.

But the card of transparency played by the minister does not really seem to bear fruit, because to date, he is under the cloud of accusations of misappropriation of public funds allocated for the pandemic, rumours of which pervade the entire Cameroonian web.

In the end, two observations can be made: the first concerns the innovative dimension of digital crisis communication in a context where opaqueness is the norm. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionised the links that institutional health actors can have with their populations because information (both good and bad) circulates through social networks so much, that leaders have to provide clarity if they do not want to be overwhelmed by the circulation of misinformation, fake news and rumours of a conspiracy involving them. One such conspiratorial rumour is, of course, that international pharmaceutical companies and the local government are plotting to spread the fear of the pandemic in order to aid the vaccine business.  From an information democratisation perspective, there has thus been an advance in propagating the values of the republic in the Cameroonian context, with the government playing its part for once. A second observation illustrates at least one limit to this advance, namely that even if the government’s management of information puts the public’s interests first and tries to do so in a way that reaches as many people as possible, this does not guarantee that tensions and anxieties related to the socio-economic and epidemiological context will be minimised. On the contrary, in the face of the epidemic, uncertainties are growing. At the same time, Cameroonian citizens have rarely had the opportunity to hold their public health authorities to account in this way. This has made the COVID-19 pandemic not only a test for democracy but also the laboratory in which it is made.

Fig 5 & 6: tweets on governmental actions with regards to practicalities and capacity building in the fight against Covid 19 (5) and public statement after a controversy over the misappropriation of a rice donation by a private economic operator (6)