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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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What is a smartphone in Yaoundé?

SimonAwondo Awondo6 December 2019

Marina and Angel teaching their grandmother how to use WhatsApp

More than 19 months after the beginning of my fieldwork in Cameroon, I find myself coming back to the questions that I set out to answer when I first arrived at the fieldsite: what is a smartphone and what does it do to middle aged people’s lives as they are experiencing a new socio-cultural and economic dynamic?

The data from the field is rich, and there is a multitude of ideas that jostle in my head. In this blog post, I’ll explore three possible answers:

  • The smartphone is a social object more than it is an individual
  • The smartphone is only smart because applications and their uses make it so.
  • Smartphone use among retired people should be explored in the context of being linked to the inversion of the roles involved in the transmission of knowledge: for the first time, it is older people who are having to learn from younger generations (the so-called ‘digital natives’).

Although these are only provisional conclusions, they may reflect similar findings in other studies looking at smartphone use among retirees and older people.

The smartphone as social object

It may seem surprising to make this observation. The smartphone is considered to be a personal and individual object first and foremost. Debates around the emergence of the first mobile phones (which eventually evolved into smartphones) have tended to emphasise its individualising dimension. With the emergence of social networks, the social dimension of phones and smartphones became more prominent. However, the basic question of why people use phones brings us back to the social and socialising dimension: ‘we need a smartphone because we want to call people, to be in touch, to receive news’, say my research participants. Despite the material dimension of this individual object, it remains above all a social object. My informants get a smartphone at the initiative of a person, a group, or because of aspirations that are situated beyond the individual. The smartphone is thus a ‘community object’, helping to reinforce reconfigurations of kinship (family groups, friend groups and others). This is all the more true in relation to the continuous popularity and increasing influence of social networks. For example, many retirees I spoke to in Yaoundé who were initially reluctant to own a smartphone were eventually offered a device by family members or their loved ones. Sometimes they ended up acquiring a device for themselves in response to pressure from relatives to ‘join the family Whatsapp’ (an expression that has become commonplace in Yaoundé).

Apps make the smartphone

In Yaoundé, the youth we met and talked to seem as ‘obsessed’ with phone brands as anywhere else in the world. Fueled by a flourishing second-hand market on Kennedy Avenue (the centre of digital and smartphone life in the capital), their preferences seemed to reflect the biggest current players on the smartphone market: the Apple-made iPhone, Samsung, and Huawei.

The majority of retirees in the city are disinterested in the race to buy the latest gadget, even if they are more likely to have the means to buy these. Retirees have a more utilitarian vision that often determines their phone choices – a significant number receive phones from relatives without necessarily having a say in what the phone type or brand might be, thus making them dependent on the choices of relatives who sometimes incorrectly anticipate that they don’t need “sophisticated technology”. Although partly true,  older members of the public can get caught up in spending time staring at their smartphone screens just as easily as younger ones. For them, it’s the use of apps that ‘makes’ the smartphone:

What good is a  smartphone if you can’t have WhatsApp, YouTube, Google or listen to BBC Africa or FRI?[1]” is a question I often heard. In Yaoundé, people in their middle age and older often have more than one phone – a ‘simple phone’ for voice calls, and a ‘real phone’ for apps including Whatsapp, playing music, looking up information and ‘another life without relationships’ , as pointed out to me by a 65-year-old mechanical engineer I met in a sport group.

The phrase ‘un vrai téléphone’ (a real phone) has become common in Cameroon and means at least two things: a phone that is truly a branded one, and a phone with the ability to do things. The possibilities offered by apps, such as playing a video or getting in touch with friends are what make a smartphone ‘real’. When talking about smartphones, people in Yaoundé will first ask what the phone’s brand is, as well as what it contains in it in terms of applications and other features. It is also ‘who’s in the phone’ that’s important too.

“Digital native” and historical inversion

Daniel Miller recently pointed out that the emergence of the smartphone and more broadly of the digital, has resulted in a sort of reconfiguration of the relations between social groups. For the first time, older people in Yaoundé are no longer the ultimate repositories of knowledge, its circulation and organisation. Obligated to learn from young “digital natives”, retirees in Yaoundé face a situation of historical inversion. Without necessarily impacting social hierarchy in general, this inversion invites these groups to weave new social links.  Retired people faced with this situation that I spoke to said they were “embarrassed by the dexterity of the youngest”, but “amused by this situation”. A majority of informants believed that the hesitation to join social networks for example is linked to the feeling of not having mastery of this technology.

A 59-year-old high school teacher tells me: “…there is a real need to fill the technological gap between generations. My generation hasn’t even mastered the computer, and now they have to master the smartphone.”

Despite his age, he refers to older people as ‘their generation’, with the implication being that older people have to learn from the youngest, which is a challenge for all of Cameroonian society.

When they weren’t learning how to use technology by themselves, most of my research participants said that the best teachers were their children and grandchildren. There are direct implications for this in terms of intergenerational relations. This current moment of tension between “seniors” and younger generations is also being reinforced by political and moral tensions in the country – thus, the dynamic of the interaction between them when they are learning from each other is interesting in that it reveals something about current Cameroonian society.  Older generations learning from the young means they are in effect forced to adopt collaborative behaviors instead of perpetuating the more traditional hierarchy represented by seniority.

[1]Radio France International

The shades of menopause In Yaoundé —by Patrick Awondo

XinyuanWang24 May 2019

Photo by Swathi Sridharan

Among the remaining taboos of Cameroonian society are some gender and sexuality issues. Menopause is one of them. You hardly find anything in public discourse on this issue. There is no forum dedicated to menopause nor research groups or reports.

Social science researchers, especially anthropologists, have tried to understand menopause in Cameroon. Their view on the issue is binary and culturalist. Apart from Mbarga’s work comparing menopause in Cameroon and Switzerland[1], most of the studies are anachronistic and globally fail on giving a clear understanding of this issue in the contemporary context.

Research by the French anthropologist Jeanne-Francoise Vincent[2] on Beti women in the central region of Cameroon in the 1970s suggests that menopause signifies the end of sexual submission for women in this patriarchal society. The beti culture constructs menopause as the beginning of a period of “initiative and development”. Thus, menopause marks “the beginning of a new period in which women can also exercise their power and their ability to become equal to men” (2003 131). This transformation of the status of the person must be accepted by the husband. ” The arrival of menopause is for women therefore a way to lead their own life.

This change is evident in language which names “the menopausal woman in a rewarding way and designates her as” an important woman, an accomplished woman “nya mininga” (2003 134)). Being menopausal is, according to Vincent, a condition for positions of power, such as becoming a woman leader in the secret societies of the village. This role makes the woman who endorses her an eminent person with strong responsibilities and real power.

On the symbolic side described by ethnologists, menopause implies, on the one hand, a lifting of multiple prohibitions, for example acts and words in public spaces, and, on the other hand, an opening of possibilities among others, access to certain foods, acquiring new roles in the community such as therapist, midwife, leader of rituals etc. These symbolic benefits are still often reported in rural areas, but are not so visible in the city, where a heterogeneous population coexists with great cultural diversity.

In everyday life, however, the women interviewed in Yaoundé point out different experiences for which the reported facts do not overlap with the realities described by some anthropologists. One explanation is obviously the gap between the traditional and rural spaces in which some research has been conducted and the city where traditional values are diluted in more a globalized, westernized and at the same time individualistic environment.

There remains the experience that is often individual in the face of menopause. The women we interviewed had 3 types of interlocutors that illustrate urban social reconfigurations. The first interlocutor for educated women is their gynaecologist. He is the first to answer questions about physiological changes and disruptions. For all that, women point out that they get mixed and unsatisfactory answers. As some research points out, the current discourse on menopause is highly medicalised and ambivalent.

A second type of interlocutor is constituted by friends or professional networks. Finally a third source of information is the internet for those who have access to it. However, knowledge of the menopause and its symptoms remains very low among women interviewed in Yaoundé. This seems to be the case in the rest of Africa. An Ivorian study conducted on 278 women in 2017[3] showed that the symptoms and risks of menopause are unknown by 73.68% of women. However, a test carried out for this purpose shows that the level of knowledge of menopause is related of the level of schooling. This also seems true in Yaoundé where educated women seem to have a better knowledge of menopause in general and are able to search on google for medical information.

Another important point is the use of medicinal plants to treat or prevent symptoms. A majority of women interviewed in Yaoundé used plants purchased from herbalists and other traditional healers. They are either in the form of a concentrated liquid, in powder or simply as fresh or dried barks. Depending on the quality and intensity of the symptoms, some women go to the hospital to see a general practitioner. These women are often discouraged by healthcare professionals who explain that menopause can not be truly treated.

It is known that modern medicine offers menopausal hormone treatments (HRT) to cope with discomfort with the advantage of eliminating many symptoms, the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporotic fractures. However, concerns regarding possible harmful side effects of HRT has impacted on its uptake by women.  Hormone Replacement Therapy is not accessible and available in many African countries, particularly Cameroon.

Today, women are turning more and more to other medicines and plants. This poses a problem in the context where the marketing of medicinal plants remains poorly controlled, despite the willingness of public health services to better regulate the practice of traditional medicine through recognition of the function and quasi-union organization created for these actors.

Reference

[1]Josiane Mbarga, « Regards de Suissesses et de Camerounaises citadines sur la ménopause : dépasser les dichotomies binaires », Anthropologie & Santé [En ligne], 8 | 2014, mis en ligne le 31 mai 2014, consulté le 21 mai 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/anthropologiesante/1396

[2] VINCENT J.-F., 1976. Traditions et transition : Entretiens avec les femmes beti du Sud-Cameroun. Paris, ORSTOM Berger-Levrault ; VINCENT J.-F., 2003. « La ménopause, chemin de la liberté selon les femmes beti du Sud-Cameroun », Journal des africanistes, 73(2) : 121-136.

[3] See Kouamé A, Koffi Y., Piba S.,  et al, 2018, « Niveau de connaissance de la ménopause et habitudes alimentaires et médicinales des femmes en Côte-D’Ivoire », European Scientific Journal, Vol 14 Ju 2018,

The boom of Smartphones and social media in Cameroon – by Patrick Awondo

LauraHaapio-Kirk22 January 2018

According to a French media study published in March 2017, smartphone usage has experienced a marked increase in Cameroon and other African countries in 2016. Quoting from the study, Médiamétrie notes: “in Cameroon, the number of homes with smartphones has increased by 43% to 72.2% just in the second half of 2016” [1]. This gives Cameroon, a central African country of 23 million inhabitants, one of the highest rates of smartphone use in Africa. Médiamétrie, also measured the performance of social networks in Cameroon for the first time in 2016. The results show that 68.2% of individuals aged 15 and over are registered on a social network, including 75.3% among those aged 15-24. Facebook is the most popular network followed by Google+, Instagram and Twitter. Though the survey was limited to the four main cities and may not reflect rural usage.

Another study suggests that in 2016 Cameroon reached internet penetration rate of 21%, a rise in one year from 11% [2]. These results are intriguing but leave open the question as to how the daily life of Cameroonians has been impacted by smartphones and social media. For example, how do smartphones and social media reframe social interactions among families and groups? Another important question concerns differences in the age-related usage of smartphone and social media in this country of a predominantly young population (45% of people are less than 15 years old). How do smartphones, social media, and health apps change the experience of ageing?


These questions are central to my research which aims to understand the way smartphones are changing the experience of mid-life and to consider the implications for mHealth in Cameroon. Working in Yaoundé for the coming 16 months, I will investigate the changing meaning of age and the impact of app culture especially for 40-70 year olds who are often ignored in studies of smartphone use. Studying such a group in a predominantly youthful place will no doubt be challenging, but offers an opportunity to better inform mHealth design from an under-represented perspective.

– Patrick Awondo

[1] http://www.mediametrie.fr/television/communiques/l-audience-de-la-television-de-la-radio-et-l-usage-des-reseaux-sociaux-au-cameroun.php?id=1694

[2] Jumia, GSMA Mobile Report We are Social, 2017