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T H R E E “Better than Family, Better than Girls” The Tupuri Gurna Society I have always found the gurna dance magnificent. Approaching the dance ring, I would move with the other spectators streaming along the village paths, pulled by the magnetism of the booming drums in the distance. Their throbbing would strike me deep in the chest; I never failed to feel my heart leap at the communal excitement. At the height of the dry season, a cloud of tawny dust would hang overhead, kicked up by the hundreds of dancers’ shuffling feet. Children would dangle on the branches of the few majestic trees to get a bird’s-eye view. The pounding mass of dancers would circle the dance site tirelessly, the thunder of the drums, the dancers’ low bellow of the song together producing a hypnotic effect. If I had not experienced this gurna dance in rural Tupuriland, I would probably have overlooked the lightly assembled dancers of the Club Kwoı̈ssa in Yaounde ́. There in Cameroon’s capital, a two-day journey to the south, Tupuri civil servants, security guards, and students gathered on Saturday afternoons to reproduce a version of the impressive ritual of their homeland. In the walled compound of the Club Kwoı̈ssa, they constructed a representation of ethnic heritage to showcase to other Cameroonians during state ceremonies. Similarly, if I had not seen gurna in the village, how would I had have known what university students were suggesting when they described the Club Djak Kao at the University of Yaoundé? Club Djak Kao was derived from the jak-kawre, the gurna society camps that dot the Tupuri region and provide the foundation of the gurna dance association. On the edge of their villages, members of the gurna would lounge languidly near their collective cattle corral, imbibing milky porridge, laughing together, and sharing the words of the gurna song. For Tupuri students in the competitive and individualist Francophone school system, the jakkaw was a metonym of male solidarity (barge) and peace (jam) that they recreated in new ways through their club. The Club Kwoı̈ssa and the Club Djak Kao are two examples of the movement of cultural forms from a rural homeland to an urban setting, specifically to ethnicized self-help associations. Since the work introduced by the Manchester School (Gluckman 1963; Mitchell 1956), anthropologists have struggled to ex- 42 Journey of Song plain the relationship between the urban and rural in Africa, particularly the existence of “tribal” markers in modern urban contexts. According to Geschiere and Gugler (1998, 315), current discussion of urban-rural dynamics in Africa is framed neither as “either . . . or” nor as evaluations about whether rural connections have been “maintained or broken.” Instead, the connection is “resilient, highly variable, with dynamics of its own, and not just dependent on personal choice” (ibid.). They and other analysts assert that political liberalization in Cameroon during the early 1990s has resulted in a greater importance for local, ethnically based forms of political organization (309). They go as far as to suggest that “democratisation seems to evoke an obsession with ‘autochthony,’ origin and belonging” (319). These “obsessions” have been mediated through cultural forms, such as homeland burials, elite associations, and chiefly titles. While I would note that the power of these “obsessions” varies by ethnic group and region, they do seem to serve to demarcate insiders and outsiders and shape the distribution of rights and resources. Recent scholarship on Cameroon traces the relationship of national-level politics to ethnically defined bases, with attention given to the cultural forms that act as vehicles or markers of these political dynamics. For example, Geschiere shows how witchcraft operates as a “precarious balance between ‘leveling’ and ‘accumulative’ tendencies” in the modern Cameroonian political-economy and its attendant moral order (1997, 16). In this study, I am similarly interested in the movement of cultural forms across social levels. Here, the gurna is presented not as an archaic throwback or a remaining survival of precolonial times but as a rural, ethnically based form of social organization that has proved resilient and meaningful enough to be mobilized in extremely diverse settings, such as schools and urban neighborhoods. In my analysis, I eschew the notion that emergence of the gurna idiom in urban or modern institutional settings represents an unconscious enactment of a “traditional” mentality. Rather, Tupuri actors have strategically drawn upon and recreated the gurna outside of the Tupuri homeland in an effort to resolve new challenges they...


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