The time of masks: everyone to themselves and Covid-19 for us all

The title of this paper is borrowed from my sister. During a family conversation about Covid-19 in Bamenda, Cameroon, she used the expression to describe the DIY cynical adaptations to the requirement to wear facemasks in Cameroon, which she described as entertainment. There is a scarcity of surgical masks because of border closures and strict directives by certain governments regulating the export of personal protective equipment. This scarcity means that import-dependent countries such as Cameroon have to invent emergency strategies to supply masks to its people, or simply abandon every person to fend for themselves and expose them all to Covid-19.

This “social abandonment” (Joao Biehl 2013) or slow death, exacerbated by structural adjustment, is in the DNA of a system that is accustomed to allowing people to die through dependency and neglect. In the Cameroon Grassfields, masking is part of the repertoires of cultural codes. They are used for special occasions, often sacred. They transform, reveal and conceal in ways that are decoded by people embedded in customs and rituals that give them meaning. That everyone is required to mask is profane. When my sister made these comments, there were questions being asked in Cameroon about the whereabouts and health of the president, who no one had seen since the Corona virus outbreak. Despite this physical absence, he continued to speak to the country through declarations, papers and proxies, that decreed curfews, hand washing and hand sanitizers, social distancing, and wearing masks. This political system thrives on “omnipresence” (Nyamnjoh 1999) and existence by “simultaneous multiplicities” (Mbembe 2001). Mbembe (2001: 103) observes, “In the postcolony, the commandement seeks to institutionalize itself, to achieve legitimation and hegemony (recherche hégémonique), in the form of a fetish.” For over 30 years, Cameroonians domesticated this presidential leadership by proxy, Nyamnjoh (2002) refers to this as “cosmetic democracy”.

My family were discussing the aesthetics of cosmetic face masking during this Covid-19 pandemic. The mask has become the fetish through which the absent state seeks to institutionalize itself and legitimate its hegemony and relevance; especially in a place – Bamenda – that has become distant from the center through marginalization and neglect, and where there is an ongoing struggle for monopoly over violence. Since 2017, the world has looked on as people’s lives are disrupted by rights struggles in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions, as a peaceful protest by teachers and lawyers rapidly degenerated into one of the most catastrophic humanitarian crises. With over 969,000 internally displaced persons, Cameroon currently ranks highly amongst global rates of internally displaced populations. An estimated 459,000 were displaced by the crisis in the North West and South West Regions. It is not surprising that for many people in this region masks are a technology, interface or frontier for mediating and peddling multiple questions.

In Bamenda, Covid-19 unleashed a new fashion trend to adhere and conform to, to mock and to show off being part of the global performance of care and empathy for local peoples’ predicaments. The result is a bifurcation divided between a fear of the un/known and embracing this technology. Fear especially pertains to the trust in government and the international community’s tendency to allow people to die through abandonment, marginalization and the absence of state intervention. However, others have embraced the multiple uses of masks and, like sunglasses, some wore it on their chins or walked around with masks on their foreheads. Others simply placed them under their nostrils to allow them breathing space as the masks were suffocating them. Following a government decree that made masks compulsory, some simply wore them for the police checkpoint. While others carried them handy in their hands, handbags and pockets to be produced if and when they were confronted by state security; whom, some indicated, had been provided with an opportunity to make money through the new fine for not wearing a mask. A large variation of DIY masks emerged, especially from tailors and those who could sew, who found ways to covering Covid-19’s main doorways.

The result was a cacophony of sorts. Masks were masks deployed for generating prestige, to navigate belonging, to lampoon the state and the international community, and ultimately to seek to survive in a context where every country had retreated to themselves, leaving Covid-19 to everyone. The underlying irony of these contradictions is the appearance of false solidarity and the fake politics of care. Masks serve to disguise the underlying structural preconditions that already limit people’s capacities to apply preventative measures and deal with the consequences of the pandemic. Furthermore, it masks the narrow ways in which “small” people, like those in Bamenda and much of the “Global South,” are perplexed by the doctrine to adhere to hygiene practices that already form part of their every survival repertoires/registers. Unfortunately, these long-established survival repertoires are often coded as DIYs, “fake news” or part of preposterous local beliefs. It is not surprising that people use the opportunity to parody the materiality of living with technologies of abandonment. Sadly, this is not read as parody but is instead interpreted and paraded by “experts” as part of the tragedy of incompetence, buffoonery and “waiting to see” inaction associated with continent.

Since the start of this pandemic, the African continent has demonstrated outstanding leadership in activating early warning systems established since the experience with Ebola and working with continental structures such as the Africa CDC and other international institutions. The continent currently accounts for roughly 1% of global infections and casualties. This should not simply be interpreted as the product of weak institutions, its inability to carry out accurate mass testing or an act of faith. Such pathologizing merely masks a brutal kind of racism that is frequently deployed to obscure any efforts by the continent to confront its challenges, and fails to appreciate the complexity of the continent as a living organism, rather than an imagination. Over the past few months, many parts of the continent have produced hand sanitizers to cater for local need and people are currently producing stylish facemasks. In countries such as Senegal, Ghana and Kenya, teams of researchers are conceptualizing and trying out rapid tests and ventilators. In Madagascar and several other countries, both local remedies and other treatment are being experimented. It is clear that the continent took advantage of the knowledge accumulated from years of experience with pandemics and other disasters to strategically respond to Covid-19. Yet the discourse of pathology and buffoonery continues to be pandered about the African continent.

In the early weeks of WHO naming the virus and declaring it a pandemic, Tanzanian president John Magafuli was mocked for his recommendation that people resort to foot greeting as a social distancing measure in lieu of the traditional handshake. Pictures, videos and stories of him executing the “footshake” with opposition leader Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad were paraded globally as another example of the irrationality and foolishness that the continent, its peoples and its leaders are associated with. Apart from Zimbabwe defense minister Oppah Muchinguri’s claim during the early days of the virus that it was God’s punishment on Europe and America for imposing sanctions on the country, Africa has not displayed the kind of outlandish buffoonery that certain world leaders continue to demonstrate. US President Donald Trump’s supposition that “we hit the body with a tremendous ultraviolet or just very powerful light” and that we inject the body with a disinfectant, which “knocks it out in a minute. One minute… almost a cleaning. It gets in the lungs and does a tremendous number on the lungs” is just one example of this absurdity.

Over the past weeks a video of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa struggling to wear a mask went viral across the world. Friends, family colleagues and collaborators from across the world forwarded it to me, across all social media, with the comments “see your president” accompanied by a laughing out loud emoji. Dressed in a beautiful black suit worn over a white shirt and red tie, he is standing behind a rostrum carrying the official seal/code of arms. He is struggling to wear a mask, locally made from African cloth. He struggles in vain to strap the mask that is covering his eyes on both ears, but they keep falling off. On the left of the screen, the sign language interpreter appears to look in bemusement. The South African rainbow flag is standing calmly on the President’s right, under which is written (on the screen) the words “South Africa: Inspiring new ways.” The short clip is hilarious, the irony unmistakable.

No one could produce or photoshop such ludicrous performance. Yet, there is one grave problem with the video. It is a mask. There is neither voice nor context, or the time to ask when it happened, how it happened, what happened before or after, whether he successfully wore the mask, or the opportunity to sympathize or empathize with his struggle. What remains is the ostensible, the apparent buffoonery and incompetence of this great African leader’s inability to do a simple preventive measure which he himself recommended – to wear a mask. Yet, the incident occurred on Thursday April 24 when the president addressed the nation to assess the effectiveness of the lockdown measures so far, and as well announce the measures to systematically and gradually re-open the economy. He was struggling to put on and encourage people to wear masks, produced by the local textile industry that was moving in to contain the global strategy to protect themselves and their citizens, and abandon everyone else to their constraints. But, as is frequently the case, Africa is imagined as an abstruse monstrosity with being African framed as an affliction (Fuh 2019). As Mbembe (2001: 1) posits “speaking rationally about Africa is not something that has ever come naturally.” The complex ways in which people interact with the pandemic and its technologies/techniques of prevention are masked by our collective tendency to treat Africa as a pathology. Everyone to themselves and Corona for us all. My sister is right: it is the time of masks.


Biehl, J., 2013. Vita: Life in a zone of social abandonment. Univ of California Press.

Fuh, D., 2019. Bending over backwards: dismantling toxic ‘opportunities’. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 31(3), pp.264-267.

Mbembe, A., 2001. On the postcolony (Vol. 41). Univ of California Press.

Nyamnjoh, F.B., 1999. Cameroon: a country united by ethnic ambition and difference. African Affairs, 98(390), pp.101-118.

Nyamnjoh, F.B., 2002. Cameroon: Over twelve years of cosmetic democracy. News from the Nordic Africa Institute, 3, pp.5-8.

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