Chapter III




AN upland landscape in Bamenda has something of the intimacy and enchantment of parts of the English countryside: hills rise to skies soft and luminous with white cloud in April and May; the young grass is a vivid green after the rains of March; while here and there on the slopes, a darker note is struck where a small grove of kola trees marks the site of a long abandoned compound. Along the valleys there are lush plots of cocoyam, maize and sugar cane which thrive in black alluvial earth; while on the hill sides the soil has oxidized after burning and turned to vermilion, brick-red or tawny orange. The small raised beds give a quilted appearance to the fields, which are separated from one another by deep trenches or slender lines of acacia and other saplings. The colours have a simplicity and clarity of tone that is not often seen in the Tropics.

The sense of an ordered existence which is patterned in the farms on the hill sides and valleys is also present in the villages, with their neat rectangular compounds and groves of plantain and kola. The impression is of long, undisturbed, and secure settlement which contrasts sharply with that given by villages in the forest of Ngie and farther west into Mamfe. Here, away from the main motor roads, small patches of cultivation are almost lost in the tangle of undergrowth, while compounds are isolated in little clearings walled with oil palm. Even in Mbembe, where compounds cluster compactly on narrow ridges, the village seems to maintain but an insecure foothold: to be precariously islanded amid the forests which sweep up to within a few yards of tile huts and the struggling paths, which lead down to the water supply.

Yet whether in the forest, plain, or on the high upland, the principles of determining residence and cultivation of land vary but little. The woman, who has worked on her plot during the day, returns to her hut to prepare some of the food she has harvested and to store the rest. But often a group of women who have been cultivating adjacent plots come home to the same compound or to adjoining compounds. In other words, there is a close relation between, on the one hand, the fragmentation of arable land into small plots; and, on the other, the subdivision of the village into large compounds or groups of small compounds.

In an earlier chapter a brief outline of local organization was given and the structure of the village was analysed in terms of its component kinship units. We saw, first of all, that in the patrilineal tribes the nucleus of a large compound, or sometimes of a group of small compounds, consisted of men and unmarried women who belonged to a patrilineage; and, secondly, that in most tribes, with the exception of Mbembe and some in the Widekum group, lineages of different clans to live together in a village. They are under the political authority of a Village Head, who is usually the descendant of the first settler or of the most senior man of a small band of first settlers in the locality. Where the village is the largest autonomous political unit, he may exercise a titular claim to all land within the village boundaries, but the implications of this are political rather than economic. The right to reside in a village and cultivate its land is contingent on obedience to the Village Head and conformity to custom.. Strangers who wish to settle must, therefore, obtain permission




from him and, if he consents, he will either allocate them vacant plots or direct them to one of the lineage heads. Where villages are knit together into a centralized political system as in Bum, Kom, Nsaw and Bali, it is the Føn who asserts a titular claim to all land in his territory. But it should be stressed that, for an understanding of the functioning of land tenure, titular ownership is of subsidiary importance compared with the de facto control exercised by the heads of kinship groups within any one village. The residuary rights of the paramount authority find expression, as a rule, only in certain circumstances, as for instance when a lineage dies out. Unless political obligations have been flagrantly disregarded, any attempt on the part of a titular owner to reclaim land held for generations by a particular lineage would provoke bitter resentment and opposition, and would be regarded as a breach of moral right and, indeed, of custom. It is under modern conditions that such a contingency is likely to occur when, for example, there is any question of demarcating grazing grounds for Fulani cattle, or of leasing land to a mission or to the Government for a dispensary, a demonstration plot, school, and so on. On the whole, the populace recognizes the value of such "good works"; but if only the paramount authority has been consulted, as has occurred in one or two instances, then the general attitude is that the rights of the de facto occupier have been infringed.


My information is most detailed for Nsaw; elsewhere, my visits were of short duration but, from inquiries which I made and from data in the Government Reports, it would seem highly probable that the great majority of tribes in Bamenda possess a system of land tenure which closely resembles that of Nsaw.1 De facto control over land is exercised by the heads of lineages or extended families and, in some cases, this is also extended to oil palm, raffia and kola trees planted by male dependants. A deviation from this system is found among a few of the Widekum tribes, of which Ngie may be regarded as typical. There, de facto control is vested in married males, but the lineage head would appear to have residuary rights in the event of landhoIder dying without male issue or brothers to inherit. Finally, there is a small group which includes Ngwo (Widekum) and some of the Fungom villages where residential land is vested in family heads, but arable land is allocated among lineage heads by the Village Head. Aghem is somewhat anomalous in that it is the Section Head (Batum) who allots arable land to those residing in his section.


We have already described how the Nsaw first settled in Kovifem and its vicinity and how, as their numbers increased, they dispersed over the territory to the south and south-west, where they either found unoccupied land or else earlier settlers from other tribes, from whom they "begged" allotments for compounds and farms. Shisong (two miles from Kimbaw, and now the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Mission in Nsaw) and the land to the south and south-west of it were held by the Fon-Nkar, but much of the land in Kimbaw was claimed by early Nsaw migrants, notably Do, Kilam, Kighøør and, later, Santo and Tsënkinkar. When, after a large-scale attack by the Fulani some 5 generations ago the reigning Føn decided to shift his capital to Kimbaw, he chose for the site of his palace land which, until then, had been held by

1 Vide, C. W. Rowling (Acting Commissioner of Lands, Nigeria), A Study of Land Tenure in the Cameroons Province (mimeographed report), 1948, p. 11, para. 24. Much of Mr. Rowling's material is based on Government Intelligence and Assessment Reports, as well as court records of disputes. But, in the section dealing with Bamenda, some of the material from my own field reports has been incorporated. For a short account of Land Tenure among the Nsaw of the British Cameroons, see my article in Africa, vol. XX, No. 4, 1950.


Fai-O-Kilam, who was reputed to have been a 'son' of the Føn and a blacksmith.1 The Føn's followers - Vibai, Atanto, and other lineage heads - approached the first settlers and were given tracts in Kimbaw and on the surrounding hill tops. Among the most important of the big landowners was Fai-O-Do of the large m'tar clan (Vë-Do) 2, who at the time had rights over the area now known as Veka'akwi and much of the valley extending north-cast towards Ketiwum and Kishi. His descendant, who now lives at Ketiwum, still has de facto over a small section of Veka'akwi and a strip on the north side of the main road. The site of his predecessor's compound in Kimbaw is marked by an abandoned grindstone which cannot be removed without the fai's permission, but the land is farmed by a daughter of the Føn.

After the Føn had conquered Nkar, Ndzerem, and the villages of Nsungli extraction in the north-west and west, he became the overlord of all Nsaw territory; those of his people who, until that time, had enjoyed considerable independence, notably the Fon-Mbiami, were left in possession of their land but held it subject to his over-riding authority. In the past he had the right to dispossess any rebellious or criminal man, and to resume control of any area already allocated to a lineage head should he require it for purposes of his own or for some project of value to the country. In practice this was rarely if ever done; but, under modern conditions, the existence of the residuary rights of the Føn is evident whenever there arises the question of demarcating grazing ground for Fulani cattle or of leasing land to a Mission or the Government. He is under a moral obligation to consult the owners, to obtain their consent, and to secure some compensation for them if they stand to lose financially; but , in the last resort, his authority to carry through the transaction is not to be disputed by the bulk of his people. In general, however, it may be said that the Føn's claim to the overlordship is a titular one, and represents the territorial aspect of his political power. Residence in Nsaw is conditional upon submission to the Føn and adherence to the laws of his country. For this reason strangers must first obtain his permission before they formally approach some lineage head with a request for a house-site and farm plots.3

The Føn also has certain areas reserved for his own needs: the site of the palace, which has already been described, and a water-supply near by, which may only be approached by deputed servants and wives; a hill slope on the other side of the valley where thatching grass for his huts is cut; hunting grounds at Mbokum; and, finally, several plots of arable land near Kimbaw amounting to some 22 acres, which are cultivated in rotation by his wives.4 The best of the grain is removed to his storehouses for his personal use. His wives have separate farms of their own elsewhere, some on land belonging to the lineages of their parents, some demarcated for them by various afai. In addition, there are also tracts near the villages of Bamgam and Waasi (near

1 When the Føn took over his land, Fai-o-Kilam moved to another part of Kimbaw; but he and his successors were restless individuals, and they later went to Vekovi and then to Melim. He was described to me by one fai as "a man who walked with his house in his hand." Fai-o-Santo and Fai-o-Tsenkinkar were also 'sons' of the Føn; while Kiyoor belonged to the m'tar clan of Mbiliee.

2 In Lamnso, when reference is made to a particular clan or lineage as a unit, the particle -vee- is prefixed to the proper name, and may he translated as " people " or " those of"; e.g. Vee-Do, people of Do; Vee-Djeem, people of Djeem.

3 An exception is made in the case of people from Oku which, although it now forms part of the Ndop N.A., is a sub-tribe of Nsaw. Oku people are referred to as ' brothers ' and are free to settle without asking permission of the Føn-Nsaw.

4 The land in Kimbaw, vested specifically in the Føn, is small compared with that held by some of the afai; but it was explained to me that the first Føn to live in Kimbaw had a smaller compound and fewer wives than his successors.




Jajiri) which, although vested specifically in the Føn, may be regarded as common land in so far as anyone who is unable to obtain sufficient land from kin or friends, is free to cultivate, without asking permission or paying a peppercorn rent of a basket of grain at harvest. Apart from these areas, the rest of Nsaw territory is divided, subject to the ultimate authority of the Føn, among lineage heads some of whom, the sub-chiefs, the more important vibai, and village heads, enjoy an exceptional position in terms of the large tracts which they control.1 But it should be stressed that the Village Head, by virtue of his office, has no titular claim to all the land within his village boundaries. He is the Føn's delegate and, as such, he is responsible for the maintenance of order, the transmission of the Føn's commands and the hearing of minor disputes, including those over land. But, where a case is not settled to the satisfaction of both parties, there is always the right of appeal to the Council of the Føn or, nowadays, the Native Court. However, in addition to being Tantee (Father of the Village), he is also a lineage head and it is by virtue of this position that he administers and allocates among his dependants certain tracts of land in the village and its vicinity, to which his ancestors laid claim in the past and which have been retained for the use of the lineage.2

Although the pattern of existing tenure is intricate the principles determining it are simple enough. In most cases a fai's land does not form one continuous tract. This is partly due to historical circumstances, partly to methods of cultivation. Sometimes a fai moved to another village where he acquired new land without in any way invalidating his rights to land he already held in the ancestral settlement. Again, when the number of dependants of a fai increased, he might find that he required more farm land, particularly if provision were to be made for fallowing. But it sometimes happened that blocks adjacent to his own had already been allocated by himself or his predecessor to other settlers, and he had therefore to search farther afield. Moreover, the Nsaw grow a variety of crops which require different types of soil and different elevations; finger millet and rizga do best on the dry hill tops, while maize and cocoyam thrive in the moist rich soil of the valleys. It is only rarely that a single original holding includes both types of land. I know of only one example in Kimbaw, that of Fai-o-Djem, whose compound is built on the outskirts of the village and who owns the adjacent land, which extends cast up the valley as well as on to the surrounding hill tops. There is sufficient land for all his dependants and only one of these, for particular reasons, has borrowed a plot from a stranger. He is a Christian with a large family of four sons and four daughters. About four years ago he noticed that crops growing near Kingomen (4 miles to the east) were particularly fine and, as there was plenty of uncultivated land nearby, he asked the owner to lend him a plot for guinea corn and finger millet. He told me that he was bearing in mind the needs of his sons in the future. After marriage they would of course have rights to plots on the land of their own lineage; but the amount of good soil is limited and the Kingomen land may well prove a welcome

1 Fai-o-Ndzendzef has large tracts of arable land in Kimbaw, Mba', and Shup which amount to some 7.7 acres. He has others at Mbam (north of Kimbaw) where his ancestor first settled when he came from Nsungli to join the reigning Føn at Kovifem. The original compound has long since disappeared; but the farm land is in the charge of the fai's delegate who is known as the Ta-Ngvën (Father of the Land) and who grants permission to those wishing to cultivate. A gift of grain is made to him at harvest and stored until required by Ndzendzef in the event of a shortage in Kimbaw.

2 Character and not seniority in age is the main criterion for eligibility to any position of authority in Nsaw, though usually a married man has a better claim than one who is single. In the choice of a Tantee, an office vested in the lineage of the first settlers, the opinion of members of the lineage is given particular weight; but, in additio
n, that of senior lineage heads in the village would also be taken into account, and in any case the Føn must ratify their decision.




addition unless, in the meantime, the landholder decides to reclaim it for his own group. However, as I have already pointed out, the position of Fai-o-Djem is exceptional. The wives of men who have recently settled in Kimbaw (including those of a newly appointed kibai)1 must beg land from strangers, or else obtain plots from the heads of their lineages who may live several miles away in other villages.

Usually the transfer of a tract of land from one fai to another involved also the transfer of the privilege and duty of performing sacrifices to the god of the earth (nyooiy) at a stone altar, either near the compound or in an outlying field; but, in some cases, the original holder continued to carry them out himself. Opinions varied on the subject of whether there was one god or many. Some people said there was only one god (nyooiy) and his blessing might be invoked on specific localities by the performance of sacrifices at local altars. 0thers suggested there were many gods and pointed to the existence of a plural for the term for god (anyooiy); but they were in agreement that one of the gods, though unnamed like the rest, was supreme. This god created the first human beings and is associated with the earth (nsaiy) and its fertility. Reference is made to him in such phrases as "God knows (ki nyooiy)"; or "God forbids (sheem nyooiy)"; or "a thing of God (kifa ke nyooiy)"; or in the term for twins who are called "children of God (wøng nyooiy)".

Once a year, at the end of December when the Føn has given permission to his people to harvest their finger millet, he makes the journey along the route, which once linked Kovifem. with the royal raffia plantations at Mba', south of Kimbaw. Minor rituals are carried out at altars along the path, which has been cleared in preparation by the women beforehand. But it is at Kovifem that the Føn with the Yewøng, Tawøng and Ndzendzef, performs the major sacrifice to his ancestors and to nyooiy to ensure the fertility of all Nsaw land and Nsaw women.2 He is accompanied by many of his followers, and usually takes the opportunity to visit the more northern villages where there is feasting and rejoicing in his honour. The tie between nyooiy, the earth, and the people who live on and cultivate the earth, is a close one and is expressed in moral and ritual terms. The rituals carried out at Kovifem, and in other localities in Nsaw by lineage heads, who have de facto control of tracts of land, are an expression of dependence on the supernatural, of gratitude for a plentiful harvest, and also of peace among the people. This last is important since, without it, the efficacy of the rituals may be endangered. Quarrels affect the growth of the crops; and therefore harmonious relations with the source of the earth's fertility, nyooiy, may only be restored by a settlement of the dispute and atonement by sacrifice.3

No land may be pledged or sold in Nsaw, though the same does not apply to raffia and kola trees. But it should be noted that ownership, that is de facto

1 The Yelaa of a kibai who had decided to reside in Kimbaw, had to go far afield. She had some plots 6 miles away in Tabessob, her father's village; and other plots, "begged" from strangers, at Kingomen and Meluf.

2 Unfortunately, I did not see this ritual as it would have involved my being absent from Kimbaw during the period when the women were harvesting millet. But, on several occasions, 1 was present when lineage heads offered sacrifices to nyooiy after the harvest of millet, or just prior to it in the case of one kibai. Incidentally, one way of discovering the original owner of an area is to inquire who formerly sacrificed for the land (tshu ngvën). But the answer may require checking since a fai is sometimes reluctant to admit that his ancestor "begged" (løn) the land from someone else. This is partly, a matter of prestige; but also partly due, under present unsettled conditions, to the fear that he may be deprived of it.

3 In some cases, an outburst of bitter quarrelling in a compound may be attributed by the diviner to the fact that nyooiy requires a sacrifice. One kibai, whom I knew, was having trouble with bickering among his wives, and called upon the former landholder to perform the rite. Peace was restored!


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