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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.

 

What is a smartphone in Yaoundé?

p.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