Meeting our New Affiliates: Jacqueline-Bethel Tchouta Mougoué

This feature is courtesy of Katie Vaughn of the UW-Madison College of Letters and Science Communications Team. Professor Mougoué is an African Studies Program affiliate, and we have been so pleased to have her join our team! Here, you can read about her research background, issues of interest, and why she decided to come to UW-Madison.

Title and department: Assistant Professor of African Cultural Studies, Department of African Cultural Studies

Hometown: West Bloomfield, Michigan, and Bafang, Cameroon

Educational/professional background: BA in History from Wayne State University; Graduate Certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Purdue University; MA and Ph.D. in History from Purdue University

How did you get into your field of research?

As a doctoral student, I took a graduate course on African feminisms. I fell instantly in love with the topic matter. As a Cameroon-born woman, I started to understand how feminism is of great importance to African women. My mind was buzzing with excitement after every class. Two texts from the class inspired me: Male Daughters, Female Husbands by Ifi Amadiume and The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses by Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí. The two texts led me to wonder about the history of gender and feminism in Cameroon, a west-central African country, and Africa in general.

Could you please describe your area of focus? 

I focus on how individuals in Africa construct their self-identity through political actions, religious beliefs or bodily practices, such as through clothing. Using a gender lens, I examine materials such as advice columns for women published in Cameroon in the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of the Bahá’í Faith in West Africa at the end of European rule and beauty pageants in the 1960s.

What main issue do you address or problem do you seek to solve in your work? 

I seek to understand the role of gender in how individuals have developed their sense of identity in the past and how this can help us understand modern-day events. For example, my recently published book focuses on the role that gender played in shaping a nationalist movement in the 1960s and early-1970s Cameroon. The book concludes by relating this historic event with modern-day politics and exploring how ideas about gender continue to inform, drive and sustain the modern-day politics of Cameroon.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?

UW-Madison’s strong, and long, history in African Studies attracted me. Teaching students who are excited about African Studies is immensely rewarding. The school’s broad commitment to African Studies means I have the flexibility to teach new and exciting classes such as Gender and Sexuality in Afrofuturism (a class I am currently teaching), Africa through Comics and Graphic Fiction (offered in Spring 2020) and Sports and Culture in Africa (offered in Spring 2021).

I am currently teaching African Popular Culture at 8 a.m. and my students are always there, on time, and eager to learn about Africa. The students in my Afrofuturism class have engaged in deep discussions that apply the concept of Afrofuturism — futuristic and science-fiction themes with elements of black history and culture — to the everyday realities and experiences of ordinary individuals in Africa. To date, much of the conversation about Afrofuturism has been in the diaspora. My students have been looking at African history and cultural activities from Nigeria to Kenya to reexamine and redefine the genre’s meaning for everyday Africans who face different realities than individuals of African descent in the diaspora. These conversations have inspired me in so many ways, and one upshot is that I am guest-editing a special issue on the topic for an academic gender studies journal. It’s been a really exciting semester already!

What was your first visit to campus like?

I felt an immediate connection, warmth, and camaraderie with the faculty members and graduate students in the Department of African Cultural Studies. I loved that my department was interdisciplinary and that no one looked at me strangely when I said I wanted to write and draw my own graphic novel. My colleagues’ research is fascinating, from hip hop in Senegal, to digital citizenship in Ghana, comics culture in Nigeria to gender and language in Tanzania. My meeting with the graduate students was one of the highlights of my visit. Their passion and thirst for African Studies was a tiny taste of the excitement of my Afrofuturism class and I knew right away how happy I’d be at UW-Madison.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?

I want to make the learning experience tangible for my students. I hope that my students understand African cultures and societies through varied sensory experiences, thus complicating the everyday realities of Africans, past and present.

To this end, I focus on:

• Hearing: podcasts, slam poetry

• Visual: reading academic works such as a piece on “Funeral Swag” in Zambia; television shows such as An African City, which is the African version of Sex and the City; museum shows in the form of an exhibition by an Afrofuturist activist at the Chazen Museum of Art, which my Afrofuturism students and I will visit

• Smelling and tasting: cooking and eating an African dish and learning about the history of the recipe

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.

Because of my passion for issues about gender, I regularly volunteer at facilities and nonprofit organizations that emphasize these issues that are very passionate to me. I recently started volunteering at the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA). I have a graduate certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and am well versed in the social contexts that foster sexual violence. Volunteering at WCASA allows me to contribute to a cause that I care about and invest in an organization that strives to end various intersecting axes of oppression (e.g., patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, heterosexism, racism, ableism, ageism and militarism) that lead to environments that foster sexual violence. This work, I believe, works with the Wisconsin Idea in that it helps “to solve problems and improve” the “quality of life” for residents in Wisconsin (Wisconsin Idea).

Also, I’m excited to be curating a Discovery Box focusing on the culture of Cameroon with UW’s African Studies Program. The thematic Discovery Boxes “include objects related to particular activities, topics or cultural contexts for hands-on exploration in the classroom.” The boxes “are free lending resources for educators” around Wisconsin (African Studies Program, Discovery Box). It’s very exciting to be able to share and extend my knowledge of Cameroonian culture with educators throughout Wisconsin.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?

What we know as the banjo in the United States is likely a modified version of the ngoni, a string instrument originally from West Africa, which enslaved individuals brought from Africa. One of my favorite documentaries on the history of the African origins of the banjo is Béla Fleck’s documentary, Throw Down Your Heart (2008)

What are you looking forward to doing or experiencing in Madison? 

Madison is very rich in festivals and outdoor activities. I look forward to immersing myself in festivals such as the annual film festival. I’m excited about hiking. I’m even thinking of getting into bicycling once I lose my fear of getting hit by a car!

Hobbies/other interests:

I love eating food and drinking craft beer, great passions of mine. I’m also really into sports and am a regular runner. When I have a bit of time, I write poetry and short stories. I’m an avid photographer also. I’m the friend or family member who’s always taking pictures while people are midway into putting food in their mouths or accidentally yawning in group photos.