Chapter VI




EARLIER in this book we analysed the claim that lineage heads own the land; but, apart from pointing out that women manage their farms, we left without further comment the categorical statement that "women own the crops or food". We saw that rights over land are never absolute, but are to be defined in terms of social relationship and circumstance. A similar approach is necessary if we are to understand the nature and extent of the control exercised by women over the distribution of foodstuffs: it must, in short, be studied in a range of contexts, such as responsibility for the protection of standing crops, household management, gifts, trade, divorce, and inheritance.


In many parts of Bamenda, fertile land, skill and industry do not necessarily bring the reward of a bumper harvest. Apart from variations in rainfall, losses may also be incurred through the depredations of animals, birds, and human beings. To the first threat reactions vary. The women of the Mbembe forests complained that the birds ate the guinea corn, the wild pigs the cocoyam, and monkeys the maize. Scarecrows, strips of vine or cane stretched across plots, and traps are utilized occasionally; and, in the old days, boys and even the men could be prevailed upon to guard the crops. But, as mentioned earlier, women are finding it increasingly difficult to secure co-operation from the males of the family for this task. Fencing seems an obvious solution for checking some of the pests in those areas where there is plenty of timber; but, on the whole, there is a reluctance to expend the labour and time. In a few of the villages in Mfumte, Nsungli, Ng-wo, and Bafut I noticed that kitchen gardens near compounds were sometimes enclosed to keep out fowls and goats; and in Nsaw some farmers, out of sheer desperation and despite the difficulty of obtaining timber, have fenced in outlying farms to protect them against cattle. Goats are often a serious problem, and in most tribes women have the right to kill with impunity those which are found eating their crops. The owners are then called to remove the bodies! Sometimes a woman warns the owner on the first occasion; or, in some of the tribes of the west, she may catch the goat in the presence of witnesses and sue for compensation in court. Complications arise where the owner is a member of the compound, for, in this case, there is a reluctance to create friction, and the aggrieved women often confine themselves to reporting loss and begging him to keep his goats tethered near the compound, or else to graze them on a hillside reserved for that purpose. In most areas men have no right to kill goats or pigs feeding on farms, the correct procedure being to catch the animal and sue in court. In the records of Ngie, there were several cases where men had in anger killed the animal and were compelled to repay its value, though they were permitted to bring an action for compensation for the crops destroyed.

Destruction by cattle is apt to be on a larger scale and is a relatively recent problem, since the Fulani only began to graze their herds after the advent of British administration. Women sometimes appear as plaintiffs, but often they leave it to their husbands or a lineage head believing that the latter may present the case more forcibly and secure adequate compensation. The disadvantage


is that, even if the cash value of the crops is obtained, the men are apt to keep the money and to expend only a small portion of it on food for the household. Since 1946, most of the Native Authorities have passed Grazing Rules which give them power to issue permits to Fulani, to limit the size of herds, to stipulate the number of herdsmen, and to enforce rotational grazing. This has led to a reduction of cattle cases and has been welcomed by the women, who are primarily concerned with prevention of destruction, rather than with securing a large monetary compensation.

Stealing is not a problem of serious dimensions, except along some of the main motor roads and in a few of the villages with large stranger communities. Children are at an early age taught not to thieve; and, if they do interfere with the property of others, they are beaten by their parents. Needless to say they occasionally pilfer a few pears, mangoes, sticks of sugar cane, groundnuts, and so on from the farms of their mother, but for this they are usually let off with a reprimand. The adult thief is regarded with contempt by the community, including his own kin. If he is caught in the act and given a beating, his own kin do not come to his assistance. In fact, they may pass by and pretend not to know him. I remember one instance in Kimbaw. The man was detected stealing oil in the market and was thrashed until he wept. His relatives, already cognisant of the incident, asked him somewhat maliciously why he had been crying? He replied that he had been cutting firewood and that a chip had struck him in the eye! When I demanded to know why the lineage head and his brothers did not drive him away from the compound, my friend replied that, although they would not protect him from his due mead of punishment, they could not send him away because the ancestors would be angry and inflict misfortune on his relatives. A similar attitude was adopted by the family of a thief in another compound. Both cases threw considerable light on the kinship system. In Nsaw, the lineage is not bound to assume financial or even moral responsibility for the misdeeds of its members; but, on the other hand, it does not disown a thief unless he steals from his own kin. In the old days, a habitual thief would have been sold into slavery by order of the Føn; and the same penalty was at one time in force in many other tribes, including most of the Widekum group.

In general, the chief sanctions are the attitudes inculcated in childhood and the sentiment of shame. On the outlying farms of Nsaw, baskets of guinea corn and finger millet may be left unprotected for days without their owners incurring loss. But, in the time of scarcity and in an exceptionally bad year, individuals are tempted to pluck cobs of corn or to cut cassava. Accusations of theft are bandied about the village; and an owner publicizes his loss and hopes to induce shame by scattering maize stalks by the roadside, or by heaping up a few cocoyams by a raffia pole. Sugar cane is a temptation to the male passerby, and more than one woman complained that the men were worse offenders than the boys! If the thief is caught he or she may escape with a scolding and loss of reputation, or the farmer may take action in the court.1 But usually detection is difficult, and those who find their crops are being constantly stolen may resort to black magic. In most tribes this is made by a male relative of the woman, but in some cases - e.g. Nsaw, Kont, Mfumte and Ngie - women have their own magical remedies, though these lack the potency of those of male manufacture. The articles used consist of various herbs,

1 Theft from kitchen gardens is rather difficult, since there are normally children about during the day. In some of the Mfumte villages, where there are palm trees, the thief has small hope of privacy since there are often men tapping wine who have an opportunity to survey all that is happening on the earth below. In Nsaw, I was told that the penalty in the old days for a woman or rather a girl caught stealing from the farm of a Føn's wife was compulsion to become a bride of the Fan, even if she were of m'tar status.


inserted into tiny calabashes, cactus leaves, thorn-apples, pods, potsherds painted with red and white clay, land-snail shells, feathers, and so on. The medicine, when placed on the farm, is commanded to seize the thief but not to injure the farmer herself. Different medicines induce different diseases, all of them of an unpleasant nature and ranging from diarrhoea, gonorrhoea, rheumatism, broken ankle, chest pains, deafness, gastric disorders and boils to leprosy. The culprit who has sickened may be cured by confessing to the owner, who treats him or her with a counter-medicine. Usually repentance and a promise not to offend again are all that is required; but if the owner has incurred a heavy expense in obtaining the preventive magic in the first place, sometimes a payment may be demanded. For example, the Føn of Bamungo had some Tiko bananas from the sale of which he augmented his income. He had enlisted the services of a medicine man at an outlay of four fowls, and a thief who wished to be cured had to pay, according to the Føn's information, six goats.

Most women, however, are reluctant to utilize black magic because of the fear that their own relatives may take a little food from the farm and sicken. Christians are of course forbidden to resort to the practice, but do not necessarily disbelieve its efficacy. When I asked one man why he did not protect his crops in this way, he replied that not only would the thief suffer but also any innocent children who partook of the stolen food, and this would be "a bad thing". Sometimes a person resorts in desperation to subterfuge and places a pod or calabash on a tree or on a farm in the hope that it will be mistaken for magic and deter the would-be-thief from stealing. One woman, whom I knew in Kimbaw, was very much amused because her small daughter had on on her own initiative done this to protect a pepper-tree by the path near the house.

Men may also take magical precautions to safeguard property such as storehouses, raffia poles, kola trees, and bundles of firewood or thatching grass. In Nsaw and Nsungli a small area by the roadside may be cleared, and two or three calabashes containing medicine are placed on the ground "to lock it" against thieves. Individuals may then leave their possessions there in safety, and return to collect them at their own convenience. Not least among the threats to crops are witches, and in most tribes either the chief, village head, or perhaps leader of a particular society brews medicine just before the time of planting and scatters it on the roads leading to farms and also on the farms. On the big finger millet farms of the Føn, nobility, and lineage heads of Nsaw, rituals are performed to secure a good harvest and to protect it against the ravages of witches. The ngwirong and nggiri societies of the Tikar tribes may also be enlisted by owners of raffia and kola trees to erect a specially marked pole (mbang nggiri or mbang-ngwirong) in the vicinity. Informants stressed that this was not "magic" (kifu ke shiib) but "law" (nsør). The penalty for theft is not sickness but punishment inflicted by the society - sometimes a fine of several goats. Padlocks on doors are a modern deterrent, but the determined thief may still burrow a hole through the back wall, as happened on two occasions in Kimbaw!

In the preceding discussion we have digressed somewhat from our main theme, - a woman's responsibility for crops on the farm. In general, any woman farmer is justified in taking action to protect them, whether this involve the killing of goats found grazing on a plot, the utilization of black magic, or the sueing of a thief in court. In the case of damage by cattle there is a complicating factor. The monetary compensation may be at least twenty shillings and sometimes as much as £5, and it is the husband who takes it even if he has not appeared as plaintiff, since it is considered unfitting for a woman to handle such a large sum, - a point which also arises in connection with trade. His


action in this respect is to some extent sanctioned by custom, in that it is the husband's duty to buy extra food for the household when the harvest has proved inadequate for its needs.


There is a further crucial question with which we have not yet dealt, namely, a woman's rights to property in the event of divorce or separation. The nature of these rights and the conditions in which they may be exercised will be clearer if we turn for an analogy to our analysis of ownership of land and trees by lineage heads. It will be remembered that if a fai consistently neglects his dependants and misuses lineage resources he may be removed from office and deprived of its privileges. He controls the income derived from the produce of kola and raffia; but, while he may utilize some of it for the fulfilment of obligations to his affines, the dispensing of hospitality on a scale appropriate to his status, and the acquisition of a few luxuries, he should see to it that the needs of his dependants are satisfied. This is his primary duty.

Earlier in the book I quoted a statement which was frequently made to me: "a woman owns the crops " (wiiy keer vifa ve yi). But one of her primary duties as wife and "mother of the house" (yelaf) is to grow food. In the performance of this task and in the management of the harvest she has a free hand; it is a "woman's business" and one in which the men do not feel competent to intervene. She is, however, expected to show judgment, to place the needs of her husband and children first, and to ensure that there is sufficient food for them. Granted this, she may give some food away to friends and kin, and sell any small surplus to buy extra delicacies for the house, sweetmeats and trinkets for herself and perhaps for her daughter. But she has not the right to sell the whole crop, any more than a fai has the moral right to sell or pledge all the kola trees and raffia which are in his care. In Nsaw this applies particularly to crops grown on plots, which belong to her husband's lineage and which have been allocated to a woman so that she may provide food for her household. If she decides to leave her lawful husband then she forfeits the standing crops, though she has full control over those on land allotted to her by strangers or the head of her own lineage.1 On the other hand, if she is not a wiiy-o-nøøne ( a woman given away in marriage by her fai), but has been living for many years as a wiiy-o-tsheemin, her "husband" has no rights to the standing crops which she has cultivated on land of his lineage. She harvests them, but of course would not return to plant the following season.

In Aghem, a woman's duty to feed her husband may be enforced by legal sanctions, as the following cases illustrate. If she leaves him and he has not received a return of the marriage payment from her father or new spouse, he may sue her for the value of the food with which she should have fed him, though the fine may be less if she has not retained the hoe which he bought for her. I found several instances of this principle in the court records. A man brought an action in April 1947 against a wife, who had left him six years previously and who had failed to give him food during the interim. He had presented his mother-in-law with two goats in the hope that she would be able to bring pressure on her daughter to return to him, but in vain. He somewhat optimistically claimed £6 in compensation, but the woman in defence said she had no farm in her husband's section of the village, and that she had returned his hoe to him. The court judgment was that she should pay only

1 When I was in Mbembe, the Village Head of Mbandi told me that he had recently received £2 in compensation for the crops which a runaway wife had taken with her to her new home in another village. In Bamessi a divorced woman has no rights to standing crops on her husband's land, and it is probable that this rule obtains among most Tikar peoples in Bamenda.




ten shillings since she had not kept the hoe.1 I was told in Kom that, as long as a divorced woman was not using her husband's hoe, she could not be sued for failing to provide him with food; and the same custom obtained in one of the Fungom villages (Mme) and possibly in other villages of that area, though unfortunately I neglected to make inquiries.


It is perhaps consistent with the general practice described above that, when a woman dies, her standing crops are inherited by her daughters or, failing them, by her husband. Some men in Bali pointed out in justification that they owned the land and had helped to clear it; in Bentshan (Fungom N.A.) they said they had given marriage payment; in Esimbi that they had provided the seed; while in Fungom Village one of the senior women, a Natum, explained that her husband would have the right because, as she phrased it, "He married me; he suffered for me!" Tribes which do not follow this rule are few in number, namely, Ngie, Kom, Aghem, Beba, Ngwo and, finally, some villages of the Fungom N.A. - Koshin, Fang and Zhoaw. But it was stressed that, if the deceased had left any children, her mother, mother's sister, or sister would assume responsibility for feeding them. Some of these groups have matrilineal descent, but the rest are patrilineal. Among the matrilineal Aghem, one Nalum explained that the mother of the dead woman has a claim to the crops because of the care she had lavished on her in childhood, and even during marriage. When I continued to press for reasons, she answered vigorously and with some heat that, if the dead woman's mother were not permitted to take the crops, it meant that the daughter had been divorced and that relations with the husband were strained.


In most parts of Bamenda, a woman's store is her castle; neither her children, nor other relatives, nor co-wives may enter it to take food without permission. As we pointed out earlier, in some tribes grain is not brought to the compound until November; while in others it is carried immediately to the house, and placed in the loft until dry enough to be transferred to raffia bins. Root crops in the east and centre of the Province are dug out as required for meals; but in Ngie and the rest of the Widekum. group, where cocoyam and yams are important staples, these may be harvested in large quantities and placed in small storehuts in the compound. With one or two exceptions, which I shall discuss in a moment, it is left to the Bamenda housewife to decide what food stuffs and what quantities are to be used for a meal; and it is she who presides over the cooking pot, serves the family, and takes into account individual preferences in the way of kinds of relish and amounts of salt, pepper and oil. Though most pagan women seem to favour polygamy, partly because it ensures assistance in providing food for the husband, and also care for children in case of sickness, in most tribes the great majority would resent having to share a hut with co-wife. They explained that there would be quarrels over food supplies and the use of the hearth, and in this argument the men themselves concurred. If, however, two or three wives live together in one hut, as so often happens in Nsaw, and also elsewhere in the case of those wives belonging to chiefs, village heads and important lineage heads, they either

1 In another case of April 1947, the plaintiff demanded £4 from his wife because she had not been giving him food for two years. The defendant said that, two years previously, her husband had sent her back to her father because she had not had children. He had then gone to prison, and, on his release, she offered to return the hoe which he had given her. He refused to take it so she kept it at home, and only used on the farm a hoe presented to her by her father. The Court pointed out that, as she still had the hoe, she must pay 30s.; but one member of the Court explained that the ex-husband had been motivated by spite, so eventually judgment was given for 20s. She appealed for a review.




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