African Palm–Wine Joints vs. French Cafes: Public Sphere
Journal Article|| Awasom, F. N. (2012) 'The emergence of public spheres in colonial Cameroon: palm wine drinking joints in Bamenda Township' Africa Development, Vol XXXVII, no. 1, pp69-84
This article is an interesting study that attempts to draw a parallel between Habermas's conception of the public sphere and the African situation. Using the Paris Cafes (1789-1914), Awasom explains how the Palm Wine drinking joints in the Bamenda Township of Cameroon equally served as public spheres.
To the author, the public sphere is any area in social life where people congregate, identify and freely discuss societal problems, where through that discussion political action is influenced. Although Habermas's conception of the public sphere implies the existence of political legitimacy, in whch the state is sensitive to public opinion to the point that it influences government policy or action, Awasom argues otherwise in the case of Africa. He says, 'the political sensitivty of African governments is to issues which might provoke their ouster, and that is where the importance of the public sphere may lie under such circumstances.'
Awasom finds the basic premise of Habermas's public sphere (private people coming together to form a public) 'useful in capturing the scenario in Africa, represented by the periodic congregation of people in various sites to socialise and indulge in discourses, not necessarily orderly discourse, but any interaction whereby the interested members of the public engage themselves while relaxing in various ways, including drinking, playing cards, eating or dancing.'
Features of the Bamenda Palm Wine Joints:
- They were similar to open spaces under the baobab trees in The Gambia where men congregate on a daily basis to discuss and debate for hours
- Similar to the coffee shops of early bourgeois Europe, 'the joints served as places of artistic creation, public opinion moulding, dangerous opposition politics, gossips, sinful behaviour, or the redefinition of public morality'
- The joints specialised in the sale of native liquor, especially palm wine; the day, nightfall and weekends being key periods
- As a public sphere, the palm wine joints developed and functioned as regular meeting and discursive places for men and women -such places became news and rumour generating machines
- The palm-wine-drinking joints were also public spaces for the appropriation and reproduction of modernity through the bottle dance, an alternative form of high life music, and the centre for the discussion of the politics of independence
- These joints were a distinct African model of the public sphere, as little regard was given to social differences or privileges. 'They were sites for the people of all backgrounds'
Features of the French Cafes:
- The Paris Cafes, like the palm wine joints, were privately owned places open to the public for relaxation
- The cafes had a remarkable presence in the political, social, cultural, and intellectual life of eighteenth and nineteenth century Paris
- The Paris cafes were important public spheres in French history owing to their importance as incubators of France's 18th and 19th century revolutions
- During the repression, the cafes were spaces where the working class could express themselves by insulting government officials and police
- The point of parity according to Awasom is that, both the palm wine joints and French cafes shared an equally historical role in impacting public opinion and the political orientation of Cameroon's path to independence.
In the article, Awasom further explains the historical context of the colonial Bamenda township and how modernity and political discourses were reproduced (via the joints) within it. He concludes that 'at the penultimate stage of British Cameroon's independence, when a merger with either Francophone Cameroon or Nigeria was hotly contested, the palm wine joints became the centre stage of politics. However, the changing economic fortunes of Cameroon in the 1970s, reflected in the boom of export products, witnessed the emergence of alternative public spheres with a completely different culture that competed effectively with palm wine drinking joints.
In its most simplistic form, the palm wine joints of the Bamenda Township do share close similarities with Habermas's account of the bourgoise public sphere, and Awasom (2012) has highlighted the characteristics. However, there are also points of disparity which he did not quite explore especially in relation to existing criticisms of the public sphere theory.
The normative ideal in Habermas's account of the public sphere was that everyone could participate, it was open to all and status differentials were to be bracketed or totally forgotten if possible. However, this was not the case. This ideal was not realised. It's been argued that potential members of the public sphere were excluded on account of race, property ownership (plebeian men) and gender (women).
In Awasom's account of Bamenda on the other hand, he reiterates how the palm wine joints were a distinct African model of the public sphere, as little regard was given to social differences or privileges. He says, 'they were sites for the people of all background.'
This is a significant difference between the bourgeois public sphere and that of the Bamenda Township. It is worth investigating further why status differentials were 'succesfully' ignored at the Palm wine joints, even when every participant couldn't have been social equals.
Gender has been hotly debated in public sphere theory. Nancy Fraser (1985, 1990) criticised Habermas's account of the public sphere for his failure to thematise gender in his critical theory. Calhoun buttressed her point where he also mentioned that Habermas's public sphere neglects gender, and even where he does mention it, Habermas 'has difficulty with the notion that the exclusion of women (from the public sphere) raises more basic categorical issues' (1993:274).
In the Bamenda Township on the other hand, something interesting is going on. Women are NOT excluded. Rather, they play the following a number of roles in the African public sphere:
The palm wine joints were places man and WOMEN regularly congregated (2012:81)
'The palm wine leisure joints developed from the private initiative of women who followed the emerging town to cater for the needs of its cosmopolitan population' (2012:74). They were also run exclusively by women (2012:75)
In the 1930s and 1940s, an enterprising woman, Mama Ngum, is credited to have commenced the first palm wine joint in a haphazard manner that paved the way for other women to join the trade (2012:74)
The explanation for the monopoly of the trade by women is the food also had to be provided at the joints, and this was the culturally assigned domain to women. Men restricted themselves to tapping and transporting the palm wine.
On an end note, it would be interesting to further investigate if the women, though present at the joints, did in fact contribute to public discourse. Did they participate/interact in the public sphere, or were expected to be quiet and serve the food & wine?
Another point to note is where Awasom mentions that the changing economic fortunes of the country impacted on the nature of the public sphere, birthing alternative spheres with a different culture that competed effectively with the palm wine sphere. Although this is not directly related to the kind of strucutural transformation that led to the collapse of Habermas's public sphere, it is once again worth identifying the key role of economy and civil society in the existence and development of any public sphere.
This research surely opens up empirical questions about the public sphere theory in relation to Africa, as there are thinkers arguing against the relevance of the theory in Africa, considering its theoretical roots in Western liberal thinking.
I look forward to doing more posts on the public sphere theory in relation to Africa and other related areas.
CALHOUN, C. 1993. Civil Society and the Public Sphere. Public Culture, 5, 267-280
FRASER, N. 1985 What’s critical about critical theory? The case of Habermas and gender. New German Critique, 35, 97-131
FRASER, N. 1990 Rethinking the public sphere: a contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social Text, 25, 56-80
HABERMAS, J. 1962. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeoisie Society, Cambridge, M.I.T Press