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O N E Introduction COMPETING MORAL ORDERS AND THE GURNA This study arises from experiences of discontinuity. In 1985, as an agricultural trainer in the Far North Province of Cameroon, I spent my weekends attending spectacular death celebration dances, accompanied by high school (lycée) students . We would pick our way to the dance across expansive sorghum fields, crackly dry after the harvest. Soon we would be enveloped by hundreds of spectators crowding around a massive pulsating ring of dancers. Beige dust would rise up from the hundreds of shuffling feet, lightening the dancers’ dark-brown bodies, powdering their eyelashes and brows. The dancers’ torsos were cocked diagonally so they appeared to work the earth, each pumping the air with a long stick clenched, parallel, in the right hand. The young women wore jet-black bras and brightly striped dish towels wound tightly around their hips. The men, some older and pot-bellied from ritual fattening, wore white shorts and fiber cords festooned across their mud-smeared chests. Drummers in the center of this mass of rotating dancers would pound out a low, relentless rhythm that held the entire scene in suspension. This was the gurna dance, the ancestral dance of the Tupuri people, the way the Tupuri released the spirit of the deceased to the world of the ancestors and commemorated the value of a human life well lived. My sense of discontinuity and the roots of this inquiry began when I tried to look at the gurna dance through the eyes of the eighteen-year-old lycée students who were my companions. As some of the few French-speakers in the small town of Doukoula, they were my first refuge in a new place and my guides to the large public dances that marked the Tupuri calendar. Versed in French philosophy and literature and aspiring to become civil servants in the Cameroonian government, they attended lycée without books, computers, or electricity. Twice a day they streamed in front of my house, walking long distances on empty stomachs between their homes and the lycée, which had been constructed out of town in a once-haunted no-man’s-land called Horniwa. The students’powder-blue uniforms cut sharp lines against the earth-brown landscape around them. Before dusk, they paced the bush, their eyes buried in handwritten notebooks in an effort to memorize their teachers’ dictations verbatim. The national exams would determine 2 Journey of Song whether they would become tenured civil servants—prestigious salaried office workers—or whether they would revert to farming like their parents: hot days, hoe in hand, hectares of sorghum, peanuts, and cotton to till. With these stakes in mind, I began to wonder how my companions, the lycée students, viewed the gurna dances we attended together. Although all were quick to admit that the gurna was an important symbol of Tupuri ethnic identity, did they still see this ancestral institution—with its dance society, bush camps, elaborate song tradition, and demanding moral code—to be of value in their lives? Was the network of cross-clan solidarity and prestige promised by the gurna as important to them as it had been for their parents? If so, how would they reform the time-consuming ritual practices in light of their responsibilities as students and salaried workers? How would they interpret the dire warnings of the “modernizing ” Christian churches against such “animist” traditions? These questions seemed especially pertinent as young people began to be forced back to the village as a result of Cameroon’s economic crisis, which began in 1986. Students felt these macrolevel socioeconomic changes more dramatically by the early 1990s, when government scholarships and civil service recruitment were eliminated. Disillusioned and bitter, Cameroonian youth had been moving back from unemployment in the cities to pursuing agricultural work on their families’ farms.1 Upon their reintegration home, how would they “re-vision” the ancestral traditions of their villages? However, when I returned to Tupuriland in 1996 and again in 1997, I discovered , as many have before me, that my research questions seemed to dissolve before my eyes. I had asked How did youth reproduce and revise tradition in light of their school experience? But the category of “youth” proved to be too large and unwieldy. There were many kinds of youth, and therefore the question Which youth? constantly reset the question. Furthermore, the more I discovered about the gurna society, the more complex and all-encompassing it appeared to...


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