Flipping the Script of the Disaster Flick

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For Cameroonians faced with the realities and stereotypes of their country’s armed conflict, watching COVID-19 hit New York City before Yaoundé is cinematic catharsis. 

The WhatsApp messages started to arrive in March: 

            Hey, how are you coping with Covid-19 crisis? 

            How are you there Elizabeth???

            Hallooo Elizabeth, please be careful there, I heard some news about corona virus in New York city. Give me you guys news sometime! 

            Hey, Elizabeth, how are you doing? Hope you guys are really safe cause we’re hearing on the news that things are really bad in the US

            Hey, Elizabeth, hope you’re fine. Hearing that things are getting worse in the US with COVID. Really, really hope you’re safe 

The messages came from interlocutors and friends in Cameroon, where I had wrapped up dissertation fieldwork shortly before COVID-19 became globally visible. I had started my PhD in 2015, a year before Cameroon’s colonial fault lines bore their most recent and ongoing iteration, an armed conflict widely known as the “Anglophone Crisis.” While this clash features many actors, it has unfolded most starkly between — on one side — Anglophone secessionists in Northwest and Southwest Cameroon, and — on the other — the heavily Francophone government headquartered in Yaoundé. The conflict thus colored my fieldwork on wellbeing in Yaoundé, especially since I was based at a public psychiatric hospital that increasingly dealt with internally displaced peoples and survivors of political violence. After long days on the ward, I would drive home past soldiers and, on occasion, their machine-gun trucks emblazoned with “Law and Order,” feeling at times like my fieldwork had escaped my already-limited control and morphed into the very kind of Hollywood-esque, Africa-as-disaster narrative I had hoped to avoid. How did I end up on this movie set? 

Transnational media coverage of the Anglophone Crisis has never been robust, but it started to arrive more and more during my 21 months of dissertation fieldwork in 2018 and 2019:

            Africa’s next civil war could be in Cameroon (Washington Post, May 30, 2018)

            Cameroon on brink of civil war as English speakers recount ‘unbearable’ horrors (New York Times, October 6, 2018)

            War of words: Cameroon being torn apart by deadly language division (Independent, February 27, 2019)

            How to stop Cameroon collapsing into a full-fledged civil war (Economist, November 7, 2019)

Sensationalist headlines are easy to critique — my favorite is the assumption of inevitability embedded in the “next” — even and especially if the situation behind the headline is undeniably serious. That goes for both situations here, Anglophone Crisis and COVID-19 alike. The latter in particular is already reinforcing, in terms of both visibility and mortality, existing inequities in healthcare structures around the world, including the hospital that hosted my fieldwork. So to be clear: even if the imagery that surrounds each is cinematically surreal, death by bullet and death by virus are both very real, and unglamorous in that reality. Yet I kept thinking back to those headlines as the WhatsApp messages flooded in this spring, as I sat at home and watched as my fellow Americans became masked figures rushed into hospitals by other, sometimes (and only sometimes) better-masked figures — as New York City became on live TV an empty epicenter of contagion. How did I end up on this movie set? 

The WhatsApp messages were personal and sincere. I am grateful that many people at my fieldsite worried about me even though I was no longer there, in much the same way that I had worried, and continue to worry, about them. But in those messages, I detected, if not quite schadenfreude, Cameroonians’ curiosity and even eagerness for a glimpse of a world in which the conventional scripts of sensationalism were inverted, if only for a moment, before COVID-19 threatened to engulf Cameroon as well. The pandemic had gripped the imaginations of the people I knew in a way that few other tragedies in the United States, save for perhaps 9/11, had managed to do. As one friend joked over WhatsApp, after I had reassured her I was okay:

            For once, the disaster is over there!   

Elizabeth Durham is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Princeton University. Her research examines how psychiatric patients in Yaoundé, Cameroon, learn to relate the management of time to the pursuit of mental health, and to navigate upon discharge competing frameworks of time and wellness in clinical, religious, and political venues across the city. 

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