Adventures of an Anthropologist - 30 Years in Cameroon, with Prof. David Zeitlyn

Professor David Zeitlyn - “Z” - talks about his lifelong study of the lives and beliefs of the people of Somié in North West Cameroon

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Somié is a place so remote that Google has only the vaguest idea where it is.

But for 30 years Z has lived in the changing world of the Mambila people of Somié. He has been anointed as a spider diviner and is a master of Mambila medicine. He has also studied the way in which the outside world has impinged on Mambila life, and how the village has adapted, resisted, continued...

The basis of the economy is still peasant farming. The hereditary chief still governs the village. Everyone belongs to church or mosque but Mambila ritual pervades all aspects of everyday life.

Sacrificial oath-taking remains the most common way to settle disputes – often following spider divination.

Central to life are the annual Sua masquerades of fertility. And the biannual Nggwun, a sort of trooping of the colours for the chief, is a focal point. In this ceremony, Professor Z has been given a special role among the ritual chiefs in charge of the sacred medicines which sustain the chief.

But tarmac roads come closer – the nearest is a mere 150 kms away! -- and TV, mobile phones and curriculum schooling have arrived...


Professor David Zeitlyn

Z of Wolfson College Oxford is a social anthropologist who has been doing research in Cameroon since 1985.

Originally working on traditional religions, he has subsequently studied the sociolinguistics of family conversation, and patterns of language loss in the Mambila area.

He has been active in efforts to archive and research the wonderful work of Cameroonian studio photographers who have preserved a great record of changing life in Cameroon. He is an initiate in Sua Due, the male masquerade and is also a qualified spider diviner.

At Oxford, he teaches postgraduate students and indulges himself by continuing fieldwork.

The Ebenezers are particularly pleased to welcome Prof Z back to the Somerset Levels, he is an old friend, and has a particular connection to the Seed Factory: his parents-in-law, Monty and Alison Rayne, much loved and missed by all, owned and ran the factory.

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2015Martin Keeley