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The shades of menopause In Yaoundé —by Patrick Awondo

Xin Yuan Wang24 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,

Why do Cameroonians have multiple cell phones? By Patrick Awondo

Shireen Walton14 May 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Photo (CC BY Patrick Awondo)

Last week, I was sitting in a kind of popular restaurant here in Yaoundé, known as a “tourne-dos”. The expression means “showing your back”, which describes the particular way people sit in street restaurants near the road, not wanting to be recognized by passers by.

I took my place in one such “tourne-dos” and was preparing to order my food, when I noticed that the two men sat next to me were both holding two phones. Actually, this is not uncommon in Yaoundé, and elsewhere in Cameroon. Although the 19 millions Cameroonians who have a mobile phone tend to have just one phone, a significant number of people own two or three smartphones, and use them simultaneously. In fact, so significant is this phenomenon of multiple phone ownership, that one of my Cameroonian friends living in France, prior to the start of my fieldwork, advised that I should focus on this prominent issue in my research.

Tracing the best network

Indeed, people I have had discussions with – whether young or old, rich or poor – often highlight the fact that they keep two or more phones. Their respective explanations all make sense.

The most widely cited reason for having more than one phone is the variability of access and cost amongst the many different mobile phone operators in the country. Even in cities these differences still hold true. In Yaoundé, some areas are less covered by llrtain networks, while others have good quality almost everywhere, with accurate services.  Two weeks ago, one of my informants told me that the habit of having many cell phones is a practical answer to the weakness of mobile networks companies:

“you see in some neighborhoods you merely find the two mains companies Orange and MTN. You are then obliged to have a third one, which could be Nextel or even Camtel. Some of my friends have two or three simcards. They think this is a good solution”.

Having multiple phones (and sim cards) therefore appears to be something that helps people stay connected everywhere in the city and across the country. Another informant explained how he has created his own hierarchy of mobile phone companies:

“you need to choose the best one to be reachable everywhere. People have their own preferences, depending on who they call and where those people are located. Sometimes you have to call your parents who are in the village far from Yaoundé. There is no MTN or Orange network, but only Nextel or Camtel – you need to have one of those if you want to talk to your people. You have to get a Camtel or Nextel sim and buy a cell phone dedicated to this only.”

Along the necessity of having multiple networks for comprehensive access, there are also other reasons. People mention, for instance, certain economic and strategic arguments.

Coping with the cost of mobile phone services

Some of my informants have stated that having multiple phones and sims is a way of managing the cost of mobile phone services. In Yaoundé, as elsewhere in the country, there are four main mobile operators; the French Orange, the South African MTN, the Korean Nextel and the Cameroonian Camtel. Although there is a regulatory Agency for Telecommunication (ART), the cost of mobile services can vary from one to another operator depending on the city and the kind of call one is making (whether local, international, internet). On October 26th, the ART published an article on its blog entitled “The comparative tariffs for mobile and fixed-line operators in the third quarter of 2016”. The publication illustrates how the cost of international calls can differ greatly among the respective networks:

Camtel CTPhone 70F / Min (7h-20h) and 35F / min (20h-7h) 85F / min N / A

MTN 1.02F / sec 1.5F / sec 3.54F / sec and 5.1F / sec

Nextel 0.9F / sec 1.1F / sec 3F / sec

Orange 1.02F / sec 1.02F / sec 5.1F / sec

In addition to issues of connectivity and cost, for some other of my informants in Yaoundé, having one or more cell phones is a way of following social trends, and participating in contemporary social life. Owning two or more smartphones also signifies that one has money and deserves a kind of respect. Sometimes, people dedicate one smartphone for Internet use only, while keeping others only for calls.

In sum, there are many arguments for explaining why people here have multiple phones  – some reasons are practical, some seem to be more symbolic /aesthetic, as well as professional. Such explanations go a long way in explaining the exceptional boom of the mobile phone industry in Yaoundé.

Photo (CC BY) Patrick Awondo