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The Intestines of the State

Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields

The Intestines of the State

Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields

The young people of the Cameroon Grassfields have been subject to a long history of violence and political marginalization. For centuries the main victims of the slave trade, they became prime targets for forced labor campaigns under a series of colonial rulers. Today’s youth remain at the bottom of the fiercely hierarchical and polarized societies of the Grassfields, and it is their response to centuries of exploitation that Nicolas Argenti takes up in this absorbing and original book.

Beginning his study with a political analysis of youth in the Grassfields from the eighteenth century to the present, Argenti pays special attention to the repeated violent revolts staged by young victims of political oppression. He then combines this history with extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the Oku chiefdom, discovering that the specter of past violence lives on in the masked dance performances that have earned intense devotion from today’s youth. Argenti contends that by evoking the imagery of past cataclysmic events, these masquerades allow young Oku men and women to address the inequities they face in their relations with elders and state authorities today.

352 pages | 34 halftones, 2 maps, 1 figure, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2007

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History

Sociology: Individual, State and Society


“In this enthralling history of youth in the Cameroon Grassfields, Argenti shows how centuries of inequity have made young people the brunt of unspeakable exploitation and violence. Such abiding trauma finds little voice in modern, monolithic narratives of state. But youth are still marginal in the postcolonial present, embodying most acutely the ghosts of catastrophes past. And it is they who have taken charge of the means of counter-memory, the performances of dance and masquerade most capable of engaging the dark ’history of the unsaid.’ Argenti’s account offers stunning insight into pasts too horrific to be fixed in discourse, pasts ever ready to take unsettling hold of the here and now.”

Jean Comaroff, Bernard E. & Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, University of Chicago

“Argenti succeeds in doing justice to the uncanny tension evoked by the masquerades of Oku and their haunting performances by the chiefdom’s youth. He vividly shows how the masks’ unsettling combination of discipline and subversion expresses horrors from the past that remain unspeakable: the abduction and sale of young men and women by their eldersduring the long centuries of the slave trade, followed by similar practices in (post)colonial times. In his seminal treatment, the dances of the village youth effectively question the linear history the palace tries to impose. This book offers challenging contributions to the study of dance, the indeterminacy of memory, and the actuality of the slave trade in Africa.”

Peter Geschiere, University of Amsterdam

“Argenti’s book is a veritable tour de force. No study on the Cameroon Grassfields has ever delved so deeply and with such accurate historical insight and firsthand knowledge of contemporary performative cultures as this outstanding work.”

Filip de Boeck, Africa Research Centre, Catholic University of Leuven

"The book provides a convincing case that political oppression in modern, postcolonial Cameroon is inseparable from the unspoken histories of slavery and colonial violence."


"Argenti describes in fascinating detail how, through witnessing, remembering, and performing ’re-enactments’ of violence, the youth of Oku have become a political force. . . . The most compelling idea of this book is that it is precisely these unspoken histories of violence and slavery that have prompted a nondiscursive embodied practice--masquerading--which, Argenti argues, is itself the lived practice of remembering."

Priya G. Nalkur | Ethos

"The analysis is multilayered, the interpretations are often truly brilliant, and the ethnographic data on the performances are rich and nuanced. Argenti underemines linear historical narratives and suggests that the meaning of the past is literally created and revealed through dance and masking. . . . The painstaking detail of the material and the clarity of Argenti’s writing make the book and its claims highly compelling."

Daniel Jordan Smith | African Studies Review

"A compelling account of masking traditions in the ’Grassfields of Cameroon,’ and of the ways in which both history and modern social relations are reflected, subverted, and obscured when masks are used in community performances."

Scott MacEachern | H-Net Review

"In this compelling work Nicolas Argenti shows with great sophistication how in the course of elaborate masquerades a myriad of masks ’unmasks’ the complex and ambiguous discourses of domination, violence and subjection exercised by the elites. . . . A fascinating book, written with sophistication, in-depth and accurate historical and ethnographic insights that would appeal to a wider audience of scholars working on youth, state formation, memory and performance in Africa and beyond."

Mattia Fumanrti | Anthropological Notebooks

"This is a welcome addition to Argenti’s earlier work on youth in Africa and it represents a major challenge to Grassfield ethnographers in its focus on subaltern experiences of palatine repression."

Ian Fowler | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Table of Contents

Note on OrthographyPreface

1. Centuries of Youth: Remembering, Incorporation, and the Reclamation of History
2. Kings, Slaves, and Floating Populations: Discourses of Centrality and Marginality in the Precolonial Era
3. Masks of Terror and the Subjection of Cadets
4. Aurora colonialis: German Imperialism and the Modernity of Slavery
5. Embodied Histories: Royal Investiture, Masking, and Remembering
6. From Slaves to Free Boys: Cadets’ Resistance to Gerontocratic, Colonial, and Postcolonial Authority
7. The Death of Tears: Mortuary Rites and the Indeterminacy of Dance
8. Dancing Death: Memorial Celebrations, the Politics of Ritual Laughter, and the Embodied Memories of Youth
9. Histories of the Present, Histories of the Future

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