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Across Literacies: A Study of Gendered Oracies and Literacies in the Cameroonian Parliament


By Lem Lilian Atanga

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (May 2006), pp. 59-69]


I am writing this paper as a literate African woman studying in England. I come from Cameroon, a country with over 270 national languages and two colonial languages: French and English. This country was first colonized by the Germans and later by the French and the English. The country therefore boasts a long-established multicultural and multilingual context. It also boasts citizens who are bilingual or multilingual considering they have to speak their mother-tongue (an African language) and one or two colonial languages (French and/or English). This is also a country where most of the African languages are still in their oral state and the linguistic practices of these languages are not necessarily similar to those of the colonial languages. I am writing therefore as a Cameroonian woman who is ‘literate’ in the two official languages and ‘semi-literate’ in my own mother-tongue. Literacy however does not mean linguistic competence. Considering the multicultural context, I have to be competent in all the languages I speak and the different settings. I transfer knowledge from the different linguistic cultures into each other; from my mother-tongue into English and French and vice versa.

In this study, I look at African men and women in the National Assembly - the Parliament, who are ‘literate’ in the colonial languages, and their linguistic practices in the parliament. I examine the effect of the linguistic practices of the national languages (which are essentially oral and not written). I proceed to investigate using the concept of intertextuality, a concept of Critical Discourse Analysis (Kristeva 1986, Fairclough 1992, 2003, and Titscher et al 2005). In the sections below, I begin by first of all looking at literacy as a social practice, I then look at literacy as a discourse and conclude with a case study of intertextuality in the Cameroonian parliament reflecting the different literacies.

Literacy and Oracy as a social practice

I do not see literacy only as the ability to read and write but as determined by the cultural political, and historical contexts of the society in which it is used. Gray (1956) gives an old but very good functional definition of literacy as follows.
''A person is literate when he [sic] has acquired the essential knowledge and skills which enable him [her] to engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning in his group and community, and whose attainments in reading, writing and arithmetic make it possible for him to continue to use these skills towards his own and the community’s development.'' (Gray 1956:24)

The key to this definition is that literacy is a societal practice which is functional and useful in operating in any specific community. It is a social resource. I consider oracy on the other hand as ‘traditionally’, ‘shared’, ‘unwritten’, and ‘commonsense’ knowledge acquired through interaction within the community. I look at both oracy and literacy as social practices which are enacted and reflected in the Cameroonian parliament. Oracy could be seen to reflect fluency in speaking and listening whereas literacy refers to reading and writing. Literacy however cannot be simply defined using such basic dimensions. Schirato and Yell (2000) note that the notion of literacy doesn’t have to be confined to this narrow meaning; it can be understood in a more general sense. Specifically, they look at literacy as:
• the rules, both official and unofficial, by which various cultural fields operate and
• the genres and discourses that characterize different cultural fields and
• the relationship to cultural capital (p. 35).
Literacy then ‘potentially refer[s] to all fields, genres, discourses and mediums within a culture’ and ‘is not simply understood as a kind of retrieval of rules (for instance, the grammatical rules of language); instead, it refers to a connection between the recognition, production and retrieval of what is constituted as information, on the one hand, and its use or deployment as a communication practice, on the other’ (Schirato and Yell 2000:36).

Looking at the principles of literacy as a social practice, Barton et al (2000) and Lewis (2001) see literacy as a social practice patterned by social institutions and power relationships, and that some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others, and that literacy practices are purposeful and embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices. Literacy is therefore built upon a strong oral tradition and thrives only if a living oral culture sustains it (Olson and Torrance 2001). Literacy thus depends on folk knowledge and learned knowledge combined, bringing the element of intertextuality and interdiscursivity into the literacy practices in the Cameroonian parliament. I look at how the traditional and cultural backgrounds affect the literacy skills and practices of members of parliament. Considering literacy as social practice we can show that:
''the essence of this approach [to] literacy competence…cannot be understood in terms of absolute levels of skill, but…relational concepts, defined by the social and communicative practices with which individuals engage in the various domains of their life world.'' (Hamilton 2000:1)

Literacy and Discourse

These diverse yet intersecting fields of thought focus on the sociocultural nature of literacy and language alongside the intersection of discourse and power. Neither explanatory claims of critical discourse analysis nor descriptions of literate behaviours account for the complexity and inequality embedded in everyday interactions with language and literacy in the Cameroonian parliament. Literacy could be seen as learning new discourses, hence a form of social capital (e.g. Bourdieu, 1972; Gee, 1990; Lemke, 1995). Cameroonian MPs find themselves especially participating in new literacy practices, practices that both use the knowledge acquired in modern literacy and knowledge acquired in the oral traditions. This knowledge is discursively constructed in the parliament to forge gendered identities and construct power relations through skills acquired in political discourse. The discursive processes that mediate learning and constitute literacy are largely ‘transparent’ in discussions. The traditional and cultural linguistic practices of the members of parliament and their literacy skills acquired in more formal settings (schools) are viewed in changing participation in social practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and of identity as constituted through discourse (e.g. Gee, 1990; Chouliaraki & Fairclough, 1999). Interdiscursivity and intertextuality will thus be studied in the parliament with regard to both literacy skills and oral skills acquired in the traditional community of the members of parliament.


The data I use for this study was collected between June 2004 and July 2005 in the Cameroonian parliament using ethnographic methods. I participated in parliamentary sessions, recording parliamentary speeches and observing debates. The data constitutes transcripts of recorded speeches by both parliamentarians and ministers of state during plenary sessions in the Cameroonian parliament. These are transcripts of 8 parliamentary sessions in all. Cameroon is a bilingual country with French and English as the official languages, thus the transcripts are both in French and English. In my analysis I translate the portions of the transcript that are in French into English for the purpose of ease of understanding.


In this paper, I use Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough 2001, 2003 and Fairclough and Wodak 1997) to analyse the data. Critical Discourse Analysis (henceforth CDA) looks at the relationship between language and society, and between analyses and the practices analysed. It sees discourse as speech and writing, (literacy and oracy) and as a form of social practice. Looking at discourse in speech and writing and therefore as a social practices brings us to study intertextuality and interdiscursivity within the Cameroonian parliament. Interdiscursivity looks at textual analysis of a particular mix of genres, discourses and styles upon which it draws and at how different genres and discourses or styles are articulated together in the text (Fairclough 2003:37). It mediates between linguistic analysis of texts and social events and practices. Texts could be written or oral and are produced in a discursive event. Interdiscursivity therefore is ‘the constitution of a text from diverse discourses and genres. Discourses are ways of signifying experience from a particular perspective.’ Fairclough (2003:124) sees discourses as ‘ways of representing the aspects of the world’ (my emphasis). Similarly, Sunderland (2004:6) sees them as ‘ways of representing the world’. A study of interdiscursivity necessarily has to look at the different discourses that prevail in the parliament. In studying interdiscursivity, we also have to study the different genres that are evident in the national assembly. Genres are the use of language associated with a particular social activity. The main genre I am dealing with is political discourse. It is not only political discourse but also parliamentary discourse. Embedded in this genre are two sub-genres: Questions and Answers, and Discussions. In both sub-genres there is interaction between members of parliament and ministers of state. In the Question and Answer sub-genre, questions are asked by the Members of Parliament, directed to specific ministers of state, and they respond to these questions in a plenary session. Also the Discussion genre may involve questions and answers, observations and comments on issues being discussed. A study of intertextuality and interdiscursivity therefore ensues from these two sub-genres in the Cameroonian parliament.


I look at the intertextual and interdiscursive relationships between discourses, discourse topics, genres and texts. Julia Kristeva refers to intertextuality as ‘the insertion of history (society) into a text and of this text into history’ (Kristeva 1986:39). She observes that ‘any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another’ (p.37). Fairclough makes a distinction between intertextuality and interdiscursivity. He observes that intertextuality is a mix of genres and discourses within a text. It is the appropriation of broader aspects of other’s discourses in the form of styles, genres and ideological position. Interdiscursivity is however a ‘constitutive intertextuality’ (Fairclough 1992:124) where interdiscursivity is more encompassing than intertextuality. Interdiscursivity therefore allows us to analyse ‘strands’ (Jäger 2001:34) of discourse from different genres that feature in modern political discourses in Cameroon, since I believe that in the parliament, parliamentarians mix both traditional and modern political genres in parliamentary debates to reproduce and maintain sexist and traditional ideologies. A critical discourse analysis, using intertextuality and interdiscursivity will be useful in studying traditional (gendered) discourses, against a background of a modern political system in the Cameroonian parliament. In the analysis below, I will first of all examine traces of traditional discourses, including traditional gendered discourses. Then I later look at the traces of these discourses against a background of modern political discourses in the parliament.

The traditional political set-ups in Cameroon are generally exclusively male. Men sit together to talk and discuss the politics of the village. The tone of such discussions is usually that of challenging each other, displaying knowledge and trying to outmatch each other. This sort of genre is seen in the Cameroonian parliament, especially as the male parliamentarians challenge the ministers and even each other. They are verbose in order to score a point. This can be seen as transference of linguistic skills from their traditional backgrounds. The male parliamentarians especially are more verbose as talking in public is not especially new to them. Their public oral skills are more developed than those of female parliamentarians, not because female parliamentarians can’t talk, but because they have been socialised not to talk in public settings. In the data I collected, female parliamentarians used only 4.81% of the total talk time in the parliament. I would not explain this as being because they are illiterate or dumb and so cannot contribute to the discussions but as a result of different kinds of literacy and oral skills acquired in life. Although these women may be as educated as the men, the community which they come from does not encourage them to participate in public discussions. Therefore traditional discourse practices are brought into a modern set-up where there is a conflict of rules as the parliament is meant for political debates. All members of parliament are supposed to be linguistically active in contributing to the debates in the hall.

We see evidence of intertextuality in the speech of one parliamentarian who makes reference to a western writer and compares him to an African mother.
''That is the background against which they work! Victor Hugo used to spend 14 hours on a page of A4 work for it to be good for people to read. 14 hours, that is history, but how many of us really take time to cook in a way that those who eat the food are satisfied that they have eaten…? I crave the indulgence to listen to us as we take our responsibility, because you are like a mother who has cooked food for the children, and your anxiety Mama, is to see that they eat. But my fear is that some of your children will eat and throw up, so you are better off accepting the situation as it is because when the children say Mama, let us go back to the kitchen, willing to come and work with you, we do not want to eat and go behind and throw up, because some of us may, because some of us may vomit and die. And you will be an unfortunate mother.'' (Tasi Ntang. June 2005)
Ntang is not only literate enough to know of Victor Hugo but even knows about his working habits. I consider this special knowledge which can only be acquired through western education. This intertextual reference gives us a clue as to the literacy level of this parliamentarian. Although he shows he is well educated, he shows to us literacy in western languages and cultures does not take away any indigenous knowledge or belief. He shows this by contrasting the practices of Victor Hugo with those of an African mother who spends as much time to feed her children as Victor Hugo did in writing. As Hugo puts in long hours to write good material, an African woman puts in long hours to prepare good food for her children. He makes use of his two backgrounds. His literacy in the modern knowledge is re-enacted and also that of the culture of his society.

Although this speaker is literate, his education still considers division of labour on gender lines. He invokes the discourse of ‘gender division of labour’ where ‘mother is the cook’. There is another gendered discourse he draws on in his intertextual reference in which he compares a mother as a good and dutiful cook to Hugo as a hardworking man. Given the profile of this particular parliamentarian as:
- a man
- married
- an African
- a member of a traditional African society (speaks an African language and believes in traditional norms like a woman’s duty is to cook for the family)
- literate (higher educational level)
- a member of parliament (which is based on modern western concepts)
we expect this man to display both western notions and traditional African notions. He selects them as they suit him. He chooses to see African women as responsible mothers who cook and take care of their families.

As Fairclough (2003:41) observes, speakers make ‘assumptions’ based on what is (current cultural practices), as against what was (traditional practices), and also what should be. The gendered discourses I am going to examine below are produced with the ‘assumption’ of shared knowledge and beliefs of what obtains. These beliefs result from the social practices (include literacy practices) that obtain in this community. These discourses are produced against a background of ‘what is said’ against ‘what is unsaid’ with the assumption that what is unsaid is commonsense knowledge or shared knowledge. This knowledge is oral and unwritten and handed down from generation to generation. Members of parliament and the government draw on this kind of knowledge in the discourses produced in parliament.

Gendered Discourses

I started by look at traditional discourses, that is, discourses that are conservative in nature. These discourses glorify the past and see everything old as good. They resist change and sees change as deviant or moving away from the good things. They see ‘Cameroonian culture’ as good and resist modern ways. However, such discourses are selective of what they think is good and are discriminatory.

The ‘It’s our Culture’ discourse is commonly drawn on in the parliament to legitimate criticism, especially of women’s public behaviour. This is a traditional discourse that sees traditional practices as ‘good’ and ‘fixed’ and opposes change, especially when this change affects the privileges enjoyed by Cameroonian men. It resists change that involves men doing things they do not like. Culture and identity are reflected in the allusions to the traditional practices such as attitudes to women who drink in public places like bars:
''…as soon as the march past was finished, these women went back home except women from Sangmelima who went into bars. They abandoned children in the bars of ‘Equatorial Radio’. This is Women’s Day!!!''
(Honourable Etame François. June 2004). (My translation from French)
This speech was made against a background of women who went out to drink in bars on International Women’s Day on the 8th of March after a demonstration. The speaker does not think it is ‘our culture’ for women to drink in bars or forget children at home to be in bars. It is even worse for women to abandon these children in bars. This discourse is sexist as it looks at bars as male only domains and so considers women should not be there. It also looks at child minding as a woman only chore.
Other references to deviances that are not ‘our culture’ are ‘walking naked in public’ which this parliamentarian refers to.
''With all evidence, it seems to me that the first and only battle that has been won so far by the Cameroonian woman is the right to undress herself, to walk naked in public and the right to drink in public.'' (Honourable Etame François. June 2004). (My translation from French)

By walking naked in public here he means wearing clothes that expose parts of the body and as mentioned above, drinking in public means drinking in bars. It should be noted that this speaker is appealing to the shared knowledge of the other members of parliament and the government that these are not traditional values and that it is not our culture. He concludes his speech with ‘we have lost our culture… we have lost our identity’. So he overtly alludes to the loss of identity and culture. This loss of culture and identity is caused only by women’s ‘deviant’ habits and not by men. It is women who are responsible for this loss. He makes no reference to things that men have done that can lead to further loss of our culture and identity.

Male parliamentarians especially evoke conservative discourses such as the one seen above. Other conservative discourses drawn on by male parliamentarians in the Cameroonian parliament are discourses such as ‘mother as cook’, ‘mother as carer’, ‘maternity discourse’, and ‘women as domestic’. We have seen traces of the ‘mother as cook’ discourse above where Honourable Tasi Ntang (June 2005) refers to mother as cook, who is supposed to cook good food for the children. Conservative discourses are also drawn on by women in the house of assembly. A female minister acknowledges women’s role as mothers and wives. She upholds ‘…their primary role as mothers, wives, primary educators, guardians of values and peace keepers’ (Minister of Women’s Affairs. June 2004). We however see traces of progressive discourses in the speech of this minister as she evokes partnership discourses by calling on both sexes to fight poverty in Cameroon. This discourse is progressive as gender division of labour is minimised if men and women work together in partnership.

‘Gender Partnership’ Discourse

The discourse of ‘Gender partnership’ expresses a rather different notion from that of western feminists. It does not focus on women’s autonomy. This discourse of ‘gender partnership’ is articulated by the Minister of Women’s Affairs. In drawing on this discourse she shows that women’s problems are also societal problems that involve both men and women and need both men and women to tackle them. Linguistic traces of this discourse are evident in her constant use of words such as ‘partenariat’ (partnership), ‘homme/femme’, (male/female). She calls on men to come together in partnership with women to develop the community and even to fight against the alleged ills referred to by Honourable Etame): such as women’s immodest dressing as seen in (B13).
''Le véritable combat de l’heure … reste bien la lutte contre la pauvreté ; je voudrais dire la pauvreté morale, et la promotion du genre, le partenariat homme/femme,… Je voudrais effectivement rappeler la manifestation de la volonté politique en matière de la promotion de la femme, instituer le problème de l’accoutrement des femmes dans son contexte, et instituer les interventions multisectorielles ou engager dans le cas du partenariat homme/femme'' (B26-30, 44-48).
''The actual fight … remains the fight against poverty; I mean moral poverty, the promotion of gender, male/female partnership…I also wish to recall the political will for the promotion of the woman, to put the problem of dressing habits in its real context, institute multisectorial intervention, or engage in the case of male/female partnership.'' (Minister of Women’s Affairs. June 2004)

The ‘Gender partnership’ discourse is progressive. It shifts the onus from women to everyone, and suggests that women’s gains are gains for everyone. It promotes values that are positive for women but not necessarily traditional. It is a discourse of the ‘literate’ (educated) and enforced by them. This discourse comes out in educated milieus and the parliament is no exception. For example, in the Cameroonian traditional society, there generally is no male/female partnership in accomplishing different societal tasks. There is usually gender division of labour. Men do different things from women. Some tasks are reserved for women and others for men. ‘Gendered division of labour’ is therefore generally the norm and not gender partnership or no-gender specific duties/jobs. The Minister of Women’s Affairs therefore is calling for an end to such ‘unproductive’ divisions of labour (see ‘Women as carers’ discourse) by calling for a ‘gender partnership’ between men and women in a literate community, for the promotion of social and cultural values.

Unlike the antagonistic discourse noted in the speech of Honourable Etame, the Minister of Women’s Affairs discursively closes the gap between males and females by making societal problems issues that concern everybody and not just women; instead of battles being fought (by women against men), she calls for battles to be fought both by men and women against societal ills such as poverty, lack of education and STI/ HIV/AIDS:
''La lutte contre les IST/VIH/SIDA pour la prévention par l’abstinence, la fidélité et le cas d’échéant ou je dis le cas d’échéant, l’utilisation systématique des préservatifs'' (B134-136).
''The fight against STIs/HIV/AIDS, for its prevention through abstinence, fidelity, and the increase in the systematic use of contraceptives.''

The fight against diseases such as those above is an issue for both sexes and not that of women only or men only. This is a move from the traditional societal discourse of men different from women or men against women to discourses of a ‘modern’, ‘literate/educated’ people: from the traditional to the progressive. This sort of discourse ushers in the promotional discourse as seen below.

‘Promotion of Women’ Discourse

Traces of this progressive discourse are again in the speech of the Minister of Women’s Affairs. It contests what might be seen as the ‘demonisation’ of the woman by the Honourable Etame. Lexical cues are the constant references to the word ‘promotion’ (of the Cameroonian woman) in the speech. She sees the promotion of Cameroonian women in terms of ‘education’ and ‘sensitisation’ as crucial and a battle worth fighting. Just as ‘gender partnership’, the discourse of ‘promotion’ of Cameroonian women articulates the fact that it is not only a woman’s issue but also potentially benefits all and requires a joint partnership with men and with other institutions such as governments, non-governmental associations and private institutions. This discourse constructs women not as demons or agents of negative social change but at risk from societal neglect, and in need of education and promotion.


We have seen in the above discussion the relationship between literacy and discourse. We have seen how traditional oral practices affect the discourses of even ‘literate’ people and how these discourses are enacted in the parliamentary debates of both parliamentarians and ministers of government. We have also seen how these people interdiscursively draw on the discourse of the traditional Cameroonian culture and oral traditional practices.

We therefore conclude the paper by affirming that the discourses of ‘literate/educated’ people are drawn from the cultural communities. These traditional oral practices affect the discourse of members of parliament and more so, the gendered practices in these communities are transposed into parliamentary discourses in the Cameroonian parliament.



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