To follow cattle or the sheikh? Socio-religious change among the pastoralists in Cameroon

Researcher: Tea Virtanen

Project established at NAI in February 2010.

One central consequence of the global process of political liberalization of the 1990s has been the takeover of public sphere from the state by non-governmental groups – political parties, ethnic associations, religious movements etc. – in different parts of the world. Numerous localities in sub-Saharan Africa have witnessed the heyday of a variety of earlier banned political, cultural and religious practices, as people have made good use of the enhanced opportunities to form groups and gather together for manifold collective purposes. To understand people’s preferences in these new “associational markets”, it is important to take into account the specific context in which individual choices are made as these choices are always related to, and motivated and by, the local cultural and political realities.

In religious sphere, liberalization and democratization processes have empowered both Islam and Christianity to significantly increase their public visibility in Africa. Within Islam, reformist (Wahhabiyya) movements have shown the strongest public presence, but many places have also witnessed a new bloom of traditional, more mystically oriented Sufi brotherhoods. Both of these groups search actively for more followers, and can be considered vital agents of the recent Islamic revivalism in Africa, which has also increased the diversification of religious ideas and practices at the local level.

The research project inquires into this theme by looking at how the religious diversification takes place at the local level, i.e. among rural Muslims in the Adamaoua Region, Cameroon. This is done through a case study of a recent intra-religious mass conversion of the Mbororo Fulani, traditionally known as pastoral people, to Tijaniyya, an Islamic Sufi order that has spread into the studied area from Senegal through Nigeria. The study investigates the reasons and consequences of the striking popularity Tijaniyya has recently gained among the culturally and politically marginalised pastoralists by probing into such features as the distinctive worship practices in the studied group, the particular appeal of Tijaniyya for younger generations, as well as its overall position in the local “market of religious conversion” where religion and its evolving ethnicised forms are closely connected to rural sociopolitical hierarchies. In addressing the macro level changes the study points up that a deeper understanding of how these changes affect people’s lives needs a careful analysis of the encounters where global flow of ideas, national political processes, local power structures, and individual actors with their cultural conceptions and practices are involved.

The study forms a part of a larger comparative research project Pastoral Sufis and Indigenous City Muslims:  Diversification of Islamic Religiosity in Cameroon.


Islamic revivalism
Religious groups
Tea Virtanen
West Africa
ethnic associations
non-governmental groups
political liberalization
political parties
power structures
public sphere
religious conversion
religious movements
socio-religious change
sociopolitical hierarchies
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