Cooking, swallowing, chewing: ‘culinary semiotics’ and the political economy of witchcraft in the Cameroon Grassfields

Emile Tsékénis

Punctum, 2(2): 85-105, 2016
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2016.0015


In the Cameroon Grassfields, persons are conceived of as the outcome of culinary processes: exchange, cooking and ingestion. Food appears as a gendered medium which, by being exchanged, cooked and ingested by persons has the power to transform others and make them act. The first part of the paper aims at deciphering this culinary idiom, while the second part examines how key terms such as cooking, eating and exchanging (food) easily switch to a lexicon pertaining to political economy, and links this culinary idiom to witchcraft conceptions, arguing that the latter is anti-production, anti-cooking, anti-exchange, and anti-consumption. It will be shown that the key terms of both these languages cover a wide semantic field and that they can be easily substituted for one another. This interchangeability and ‘semantic volatility’ can explain, at least in part, the widely acknowledged ambiguity/ambivalence of witchcraft discourses. This ambiguity/ambivalence, in turn, accounts for the ability of witchcraft discourses to translate abstract/remote/global ideas and forces into local terms and accommodating historical changes. This is what I intend to illustrate in the third and final section of the paper, arguing that witchcraft can be understood not so much as a ‘belief’ but, rather, as a modality of ‘mediating the imagination’. Overall, the paper argues that the exploration of such themes calls for the combination of both discursive (e.g. the culinary metaphors used by people when talking about persons and/or witchcraft) and non-discursive (culinary practices and ritual performance) approaches since, as it will be made clear, knowledge of the self, others and the world emerges to a great extent through culinary imagery and practices.

KEYWORDS: witchcraft, personhood, culinary metaphors and practices, postcolonial Cameroon, Cameroon Grassfields
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