Blog | December 2018

Constructing Livelihoods: Older Cameroonians in Times of Mobility

by Nele Wolter

During my field research for my BA in Cameroon in 2014, I met Angeline, a farmer selling green coffee to the cooperative I was working with. At that time, she was 76 years old, widowed and living on her own in a small village near Bafoussam, the regional capital of francophone West Cameroon. When I asked her why she is still working in the fields despite her age, she told me that her children had moved away to work in Yaoundé and Douala and cultivating and selling coffee and crops was her only opportunity to earn some money in the village to sustain herself. Angeline seemed neither frail nor vulnerable to me, but I was still quite surprised when she told me that she had walked a distance of several kilometers from her house to the central selling spot, where all cooperative members from the surrounding villages met – even carrying some of her coffee in a bag. She continued that although the work was hard and tiring, she was very happy and grateful that she was still in good health and able to work that hard as well as for the chance to grow organic coffee and sell it at a very good price to the German-Cameroonian cooperative. But she was also very worried about what would happen to her when she was too old to live on her own and take care of herself. Maybe then she would move to Douala or Yaoundé to live with one of her daughters …

I am sharing this experience as only one example of the highly diverse working practices and mobility patterns among older people living in Cameroon. Though widely regarded as vulnerable and frail, older people, in Cameroon and throughout the world, demonstrate their many capacities to earn a living for themselves or to support their family networks. Angeline’s case shows the importance of and entanglement with mobility that influences her work and income source: without being mobile, she could not sell her coffee at all or would depend on the goodwill of neighbors or other cooperative members to assist her with the transport.

The research project: Examining work and mobility

My PhD project seeks to explore the various strategies of making a living among older Cameroonians and how these strategies are connected with diverse forms of mobility and migration. Migration and mobility patterns in Africa are becoming increasingly complex (Tacoli, 2001) and Cameroon is no exception to this phenomenon. There is no doubt that an increasing number of Cameroonians migrates to other countries but “current migration flows […] continue to be mostly internal, from the countryside to the cities” (Mberu and Pongou, 2012: 102). And although urbanization accounts for the most part of migratory movements, I consider urban-rural and circular mobilities will be considered in this project as well. One example of urban-rural migration that requires high mobility is that of older persons who leave the cities in the early morning to the peri-urban or rural surroundings in order to work in their fields. In the afternoon or evening, they come back to town and sell their harvested products on markets, or they do so along the road the following day.

As the Cameroonian health and welfare system only provides a pension to former state workers or to those who pay into pension funds voluntarily, many older Cameroonians are required to work as long as their health allows them to. Thus, most of the working practices among the elderly have in common that they take place in the informal sector, a circumstance that confronts them in a particular way with the different socio-economic and political challenges that are very volatile in recent times. Therefore, new modes of transportation as well as mobility patterns offer new forms and prospects for income acquisition in old age.

Angéline’s case is only one example of the working and mobility practices that exist among older Cameroonians. Literature on these realms seems to be rather scarce, particularly when it comes to regional migration in an African context. As Mberu points out, “[w]hat is generally lacking in the focus on internal migration in the region is commensurate studies on migration as part and the livelihood and survival strategy for rural families […]” (2012: 101). Taking up and extending his claim, I will, firstly, focus on internal migration in rural and urban contexts in older age to deconstruct the rural-urban dichotomy. Secondly, I will shed light on the meanings of mobility and migration among and for older Cameroonians and how they act on these meanings. This means exploring how their capabilities are negotiated and how they contribute to constructing their own livelihoods, in contrast to narratives that exclusively depict their inabilities, vulnerabilities and frailties. I am aware of the fact that people’s bodies become fragile and frail during their lifetimes, and that many older individuals need assistance in everyday tasks. But instead of focussing on these issues, I am rather interested in the observation that older people work despite or maybe because of this fact and remain active agents in society.

My study’s aim is to delineate how older people shape their working activities in an environment that is permanently changing and intensely affected by mobility and migration – either their own or those of others. The ethnographic approach shall illuminate the diverse individual life stories of older people who are affected in different ways by different mobility patterns, and how they enact their agency in such circumstances. Some of the questions that I want to answer during a long-term field stay in West Cameroon are, for instance, how do older people conceptualize their work in the context of migration and how do they organize their work in times of changing mobility flows? How do they negotiate the notion of mobility in their everyday life and (how) does this notion change over the life-course? Participant observation, biographical interviews and the use of visual methods such as photography and video will help me to explore the cap-abilities and cop-abilities that older Cameroonians draw on, develop or adjust in order to make themselves and their families a living in times of mobility.


Mberu, Blessing U., and Roland Pongou. 2012. “Crossing Boundaries: Internal, Regional and International Migration in Cameroon.” International Migration 54(1): 100-118.

Tacoli, Cecilia. 2001. “Urbanisation and migration in sub-Saharan Africa: changing patterns and trends.” In M. de Bruijn, R. van Dijk, and D. Foeken, Mobile Africa. Changing Patterns of Movement in Africa and beyond, p. 141-152. Leiden, Boston: Brill.

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