Chapter X




SO far we have confined our generalizations to the role of women in the economy of Bamenda. There remain, however, a number of issues which are relevant for a comparative survey of the position of women in society. One is the degree to which the importance of their work is overtly recognized by the community and embodied in its value system, more especially in the fields of ritual, kinship and political organization. There is also the problem whether economic indispensability is, in fact, associated with economic independence, and whether the women individually or corporately resort to economic sanctions for the preservation of their rights, the ensuring of good treatment, and the redressing of wrongs. Again, it is necessary to examine the nature of the control exercised by women over forms or property, more particularly the products of their labour and any income which may accrue therefrom. And lastly there is the relation between efficient performance of agricultural role and the assessment of reputation by male and female members of the community, as well as the extent to which differential skill is made the basis of a prestige system among the women and given institutionalized expression in membership and authoritative status in societies, work teams, age-sets and so forth. These questions have been framed in the light of conditions in Bamenda but, with some reformulation, they are relevant for an analysis of the economic and other social concomitants of the division of labour in other societies. They are not exhaustive, but they enable us to survey a wide range of institutions from an economic base-line. They do not start from the assumption that the responsibility shouldered by women for the maintenance of subsistence is invariably an index of low status. Rather the problem is phrased in more positive terms: granted economic indispensability, how far is this reflected in the value system, and how far is it associated with economic and other social advantages.

As the rights of women to the products of their labour have already been discussed in an earlier chapter they require but brief recapitulation here. If a woman is a widow or, if she has been divorced and has taken up residence in the parental compound or with other relatives or friends, she has full control over all that she produces and any profits from trade. On the other hand, if she deserts her husband she forfeits any claim to harvest standing crops on his land or land of his lineage, but she is left in possession of those elsewhere. It is only in Aghem that a husband may continue to claim food for subsistence until marriage payments have been refunded.

A woman living with her husband is mistress of the ménage and has the privilege and responsibility of utilizing and distributing those foodstuffs which she herself has cultivated or received from others in the form of gifts. Her primary duty is to her husband and children, just as he is under an obligation to provide certain necessaries for the home. But she is free to make informal gifts to kin and friends, to contribute to ceremonies, to barter, to reward others for assistance, and to become a member of a woman's society in which it is customary to brew beer and give feasts when food supplies permit.

It is when we examine rights to cash obtained from the sale of foodstuffs or manufactured articles, such as pots and baskets, that we find she is expected to




inform her husband of the extent of her earnings or any purchases which she may have made with them. This is a convention and one largely ignored in practice where only a few pence are involved. The question of rights to money becomes crucial when larger sums are at stake, as may happen nowadays with the expansion of markets and the opportunities afforded to women to trade on a larger scale than formerly. It is this situation which the Bamenda men have in mind when they insist on the husband's rights to cash earnings. The attitudes are complex and needless to say they vary from individual to individual. Implicitly they reveal the large measure of economic independence within reach of the women under the traditional system, and they throw light on the institution of marriage as a balanced relationship of reciprocal rights and duties. In contrast with other parts of Nigeria, more especially the south-east and among the Nupe, trade in Bamenda was largely a male occupation. Women provided food from the farms, men the necessaries requiring a cash outlay. Husband and wife made complementary contributions to the maintenance of the household. The reluctance of the men to countenance the entry of the women into commerce springs in part from conservatism and distrust of the competence of the women to handle large sums of money wisely. But there is also a genuine fear that it may disturb the mutual dependence of husband and wife, and so undermine the stability of marriage and threaten the welfare of children. There is a fear that women will become money-makers rather than home-makers, and that they will skimp their duties and devote their efforts to accumulating savings for the purchase of clothes and other European or costly goods. That there is some foundation for male apprehensiveness on this score should not be overlooked. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that some men see in the dependence of women on their husbands for articles requiring a cash outlay a means of male control, of maintaining dominance in the household, and of setting a limit to economic freedom. There is, in short, a realization that the women are already in a position to support themselves as far as food is concerned, and that they require only a little money to secure the other necessaries and so attain complete economic independence.

I have stressed attitudes still prevailing among the great majority of men in Bamenda, nevertheless it is clear from discussions earlier in this book that not only are more women engaged in trade, but that some of them do so with the consent and approbation of their husbands, especially when the latter are Christians earning an income above the average. It is my impression that male prejudices will gradually weaken and that, furthermore, the additional economic contribution made by the women is likely to affect their status in the home as well as encouraging them to play a more active part in community affairs. In the market-place where men and women mix to some extent on equal terms and have opportunity for discussion of news and views the dichotomy between the sexes, which characterizes so many economic and other social activities, is broken down. In respect to this question of participation of women in trade some of the data from other areas of West Africa are of interest. Among the Ibo of Owerri Province women are responsible for the cultivation of some of the crops and, with a portion of these, are under an obligation to feed the household for a part of the year. But, in the event of a quarrel with her husband, an Ozuitem woman cuts off food supplies.1 According to research

1 J. Harris, "The Position of Women in a Nigerian Society", Trans. N. Y. Ac. Sces., Series ii, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1940, p. 4. In theory the Ozuitem woman has no absolute rights to property, but in the event of divorce she takes a number of things with her, including a few head of sheep. In only a few cases does a woman leave with no property (p. 6). The distinction between the nominal rights of the husband and the de facto rights of a wife may also be drawn in other West African societies. Vide, K.L. Little, "The Changing Position of Women in the Sierra Leone Protectorate", Africa, vol. xviii, 1948, pp. 7-8; and also Meyer Fortes, The Web of Kinship, 0.U.P., 1949, pp. 102-104.




in other villages women retain profits from trade and enjoy considerable freedom. Some dispose of small farm surpluses or sell processed foods; many purchase yams, cassava, palm kernels, pots, mats, or even European goods such as cloth, salt, tobacco, soap, matches and so on and retail them in the various markets. Others derive an income from dressmaking, and there are even a few licensed pawnbrokers. In short, many Ibo women combine money-making with home-making. Marriage is, among other things, a business partnership, the husband having an appreciation of his wife's powers and the expectation that she will contribute to the family exchequer. On her side, her own sentiment of self-respect demands that she does so.1

In drawing attention to the considerable measure of economic independence enjoyed by the Ibo women it is also worth noting that, in addition to their councils, courts and clubs, they may on occasion resort to corporate economic sanctions against the men to secure redressal of wrongs. Dr. Harris, in the article already cited,2 gives several examples. In one case the men of a clan were angry because their wives were openly having relations with lovers. They met and passed a resolution that every woman should renounce her lover and present a goat to her husband in token of repentance. At first the older women were excluded from the penalty but they ridiculed the men and so were included! The women held meetings and a little later went to a neighbouring group, leaving all but suckling children behind them. The men had to care for crying children, carry water, bring in firewood, and do the women's work. They endured this for a day and a half, then went to the women and begged them to return. They gave them a goat and apologized formally and informally. The women returned! On another occasion the women repeatedly asked the men to arrange for the men of an age-grade to clean farm paths for them and repair a bridge. The men neglected to do so and the women thereupon refused to cook food for their husbands until the order was carried out.3

In Bamenda I did not witness such organized economic sanctions by the women. Either the Bamenda men are better behaved than the Ibo or, as seems more likely, the women have not yet realized the effectiveness of such joint action. The women told me that if men interfered with the women's societies penalties would be inflicted; and, in general conversation, they were aware of the inconvenience created by the departure of an aggrieved wife from the house. More than one deserted husband complained bitterly to me of the troubles attendant on a wife's absence: the bother of cooking, of fetching firewood, and bringing in water, not to mention arrears in weeding and its possible effects on the size of the harvest. In Ngie it was pointed out by the men that one of the reasons for a husband consulting his wife about his intention to pledge or sell farm land was the fear that if he did so without her approval she would go away.

It is, however, important to draw a clear distinction between, on the one hand, the economic consequences of a wife's desertion and their influence in inducing a husband to make his peace and, on the other hand, a deliberate resort to an economic sanction by the wife herself. The last is particularly difficult to document. In the event of a quarrel her dominant motive is likely to be a desire to remove herself from the scene and to seek the protection and

1 Sylvia Leith-Ross, African Women, Faber and Faber, 1939, Ch. X1X.

2 J. Harris, op. cit. pp. 6-7. The women sometimes employ the sanctions of ridicule or the invoking of a curse of the female ancestors on the men who have wronged them.

3 Among the Tallensi of the Gold Coast if a husband annoys his wife she can make a point of being too busy to attend to some want of his or too tired to cook the evening meal. This, the men say frankly, is one of the strongest arguments in favour of keeping on good terms with one's wife. Vide, M. Fortes, op. cit. p. 105.




sympathy of her kin. It is only later that she may reflect with satisfaction on the dislocation of the ménage which her absence has caused.1

So far we have been examining the nature of women's rights to special forms of property - cash, food and other movable goods - and the way in which these affect marital relationships. There is, however, one further point which is relevant for a consideration of those factors that set limits to the independence which women, as farmers, may achieve, and that is availability of land. In so far as formal titles to land are vested in the men, irrespective of whether descent and inheritance are matrilineal or patrilineal, the men would appear to be in a strategic position to deny the women access to farm plots. I do not propose to summarize here the principles of land tenure already discussed at some length in an earlier chapter, but as we have stressed again and again ownership is inseparable from moral responsibilities. The system of land tenure forms part of a wider network of rights and obligations within the kinship and political organization. It is only in two or three tribes in the south-west of the Province that land is ever sold or pledged. Elsewhere arable tracts are held in trust, administered and allocated by lineage heads (more rarely by ward or village heads) for the benefit of their dependants. Women are not eligible for the headship of kin or political groups, but they nevertheless enjoy rights of usufruct as members of such groups, and in most tribes their needs are not subordinated to those of male dependants.2 It should also be emphasized that once a woman has been allocated a plot by a kinsman she has security of tenure, providing she cultivates it and fulfils obligations. If, for exceptional reasons, she is deprived of the plot she has a moral claim to another in exchange. Finally, we have seen that she decides when and what to plant and the period of grass fallow. In Nsaw and most of the other Tikar groups she is free to lend plots to kin or friends, and she may even have a voice in selecting her successor once she has reached a decision to abandon permanently a tract of farm land.

With the exception of Ngie (and even there the women have certain safeguards), the indigeneous system of land tenure in Bamenda does not, then, place the women at an economic disadvantage. If a woman quarrels with one landholder she has, as a rule, no difficulty in securing plots from someone else. But, if pressure on land were to increase to the extent of creating shortage or if rental and sale of land were introduced then, in my opinion, the tradition that women cannot 'own' land might well constitute a threat to their economic welfare. In such circumstances there would be a strong case for making provision for women to acquire plots on equal terms with the men.

We have indicated what appears to be a series of correlations between economic role, rights to property, and economic independence in Bamenda. There remains the important question of attitudes to the women's work and the extent to which skilled performance confers prestige or provides the means for the attainment of prestige.

In Nsaw and probably elsewhere in the Province the industrious and expert farmer receives the encomiums of members of her own sex and also of the men. On certain occasions, such as the preparation of rizga plots or the clearing of

1 When the Føn of Nsaw closed the market to women there was a considerable amount of criticism and grumbling. But when I asked why they did not down tools and refuse to do any work they said that they feared the Fan, and that in any case they doubted whether all women would co-operate. But their main argument was that the children might suffer. They did not mention the men!

2 In Ozuitem in Owerri Province Ibo women likewise have no rights to ' own ' land but, as is the case among the Nsaw, they have considerable freedom in practice. If a woman requires extra plots she is usually able to buy or receive them in pledge through a male proxy-husband, kinsman or lover. Vide, J. Harris, op. cit. p. 5.




land for a bride, an adolescent girl who is generally acknowledged to be a keen worker is selected to make the first cut with her hoe and lead the others. Apart, however, from such informal ranking in relation to skill, prestige is enhanced and indeed validated when associated with a generous dispersal of gifts to kin and friends and lavish contributions to ceremonies. Finally, women's societies in addition to their other functions constitute a prestige system among the women for the measurement of status. A woman with a surplus of grain and root vegetables may provide a feast to become a member or, if she has already achieved this, she may do so to strengthen her claims to leadership and eligibility for the rank of "Mother". As such she attains to a position of respect and authority among the women, settling their minor disputes and organizing the activities of the society.

Unfortunately my visit to the Widekum group, where women's societies do not occur, was too brief for me to investigate the existence of any informal ranking in relation to economic productivity, although 1 was told in Esimbi that ' important women ' were those who distributed plenty of food. But it is highly probable that contributions to ceremonies connected with childbirth, puberty, and possibly marriage and even death provide opportunities for display and enhancement of reputation. The problem of the way in which women utilize those resources over which they exercise some control for "maximizing" their own personal satisfactions, and the nature of those satisfactions, has to some extent been neglected in anthropological studies both in Africa, Oceania, and other parts of the world. There is obviously scope for a comparative survey along such lines in those communities where women play an important part in food gathering, horticulture, fishing, trade or the manufacture of certain handicrafts. Where voluntary associations are not a feature of the social life any surplus of goods may be absorbed in the fulfilment of kinship obligations, ceremonial distribution, and in exchanges associated with prestige rather than utilitarian values. In some cases a woman may act as an independent agent, as the co-partner of some male kinsman or spouse, as a member of kinship or local group, or as economic entrepreneur of projects in which the men have a major concern.1 In stressing the need to examine those social mechanisms by which women secure some recognition of their own importance it should not be assumed, however, that they are always intent on pressing their economic advantage or capitalizing their assets for enhancement of their reputation. A sense of responsibility for the welfare of husband, children and other kin, the sharing of common interests, and the merging of personal ambitions with those of others all enter as factors in the complex relationships between men and women.

Our discussion of the prestige linked with skill in agriculture has already revealed something of the attitude of the women towards their work. The question may be raised how far the men regard agricultural activities as indispensabIe but menial, or as important and worthy of respect. The traditional division of labour between the sexes is still a matter about which the people of Bamenda tend to be conservative for it is associated with certain fundamental values in connection with marriage and parenthood. But the reluctance of the men to wield a hoe in most parts of Bamenda should not automatically be interpreted as contempt for the occupation when it is engaged in by women. A parallel might be sought in our own community where, until recently, home management and the care and rearing of children were considered a sphere in which women might most effectively exercise their abilities. These were

1 It lies outside the compass of this book to make a comparative survey of the role of women in transactions involving the distribution of goods, and the prestige deriving therefrom, but it is worthwhile drawing attention to the material already collected in connection with such different economies as those in N.W. Australia, New Guinea and Malaya.




prev. | next