September 10, 2012
DIKOME BALUE, CAMEROON – James Elangwe, 87, is a native of Dikome Balue. Dikome Balue is one of the 28 villages that make up the Balue tribe in the Ndian division of Cameroon’s Southwestern province.
Of the 10 tribes that make up the Oroko community in Cameroon, the Balue is the only clan that practices matrilineality, the practice whereby inheritance passes through the female line.
But this doesn’t mean that women inherit the property and possessions of the deceased. Rather, when a man dies, the first son of the man’s sister will inherit his property irrespective of whether the man is married and has a family of his own.
Elangwe, who is 100-percent Balue, is married to a woman who is neither a native of Dikome Balue, nor a native of the Balue tribe. Though they both come from the Oroko community, his wife’s tribe practices patrilineality.
In a patrilineal system, property passes through the male line, from father to son. Women are not eligible to inherit property, but it stays within the immediate family if there is a son.
Elangwe says he is fed up with the matrilineal inheritance practice of the Balues, which he says disrespects the immediate family.
“This issue of my sister’s children inheriting my property after I must have died is a worrying issue,” Elangwe says. “I cannot stand to see the fruits of my family labor falling in the hands of some family members who did not contribute in the development of it.”
Elangwe says he feels for his wife, who stands to lose from both ends. Because she comes from a patrilineal society, she won’t receive any property from her own lineage. She also won’t inherit from her immediate family or her husband because of his tribe’s tradition of matrilineal succession. Elangwe says matrilineal inheritance puts women at a greater disadvantage than patrilineal inheritance because wealth leaves the immediate family.
“I am an only son in a family of five,” he says. “I have four sisters who all have sons. As tradition demands, the first son of the first female child born of the family inherits the property of his uncle. As a result, only one boy out of the nine boys born of my four sisters stands to be the sole benefactor, in which case, if he desires, will share to the rest of the family members. It is a sad situation, a very sad one.”
Elangwe says he was supposed to inherit his uncle’s property when he died through the matrilineal system. But he refused the inheritance and passed it over to his cousin, the uncle’s son.
“It takes only a God-fearing heart to refuse matrilineal inheritance,” Elangwe says.
Still, he says this doesn’t mean his sister’s son will do the same for his children when he dies. So Elangwe says he has been doing everything possible to secure his family’s future and lessen the emphasis on property since he won’t be able to pass his on to them.
“I have given all my children the most precious gift in life: education,” he says. “I believe with education, they can better take care of themselves and remove their focus from some insignificant property that I have. My children have had their minds already conditioned that they have nothing to do with family struggle for property, in case there is any.”
Elangwe says he built a house in his wife’s name and bought other property in her name in order to reduce her stress when he dies.
Various members of the Balue tribe say they object to its matrilineal inheritance system, in which property passes from the nuclear family to the extended family. But beneficiaries of the practice say it’s tradition. It is not legal for extended family members to inherit property before wives and children, and lawyers encourage more Balues to pursue cases in court. Community organizations are also working to reverse this practice.
Custodians of culture say there is a reason behind the practice of matrilineality among the Balues.
Edmond Motule, 40, a researcher and writer on the origin of the Oroko people group in Cameroon, says it is believed that hundreds of years ago, there lived a prominent man of Dikome Balue origin. One fateful day, this man was duped into joining a deadly secret cult. While in that cult, he was asked to offer his only son for sacrifice or else he would die.
Because he did not want to lose his life, he decided to seek his wife’s permission to sacrifice their son. His wife refused.
The desperate man confided in his younger sister. Out of the love she had for her brother, she decided to offer her own son to her brother for the sacrifice. She told her brother that she could always have another son, but she could never have another brother.
The man decided to will all his property to his sister in honor of the son who was sacrificed. The Dikome Balue people then decided to start practicing matrilineality.
Since Dikome Balue was the first Balue village that ever existed, the following 27 Balue villages that cropped up out of Dikome Balue assumed the practice of matrilineality as well.
Motule explains that the right of inheritance is given to the first son of the first daughter in a lineage. If there are other daughters in that lineage, their sons may benefit only if the benefactor decides to share the property with them. A greedy first son of the first daughter could keep the entire property while the rest of the family wallows in poverty.
Pauline Bekomba, 60, is a mother of seven children – four boys and three girls. She was the first daughter in a lineage that has only one son. As tradition demands, her first son has the right to inherit his uncle’s property. But she is bitter about how her son manages all the property that he has inherited.
“When my brother died, all his property was given to Jonas, my son, including beds, pots and plates,” she says. “He has three cocoa farms to manage. Behold, I am an old wretched and poor woman. I go without body lotion, but my son is controlling millions he got from my brother’s property.”
Her voice cracks when she talks.
Bekomba says her son has become so proud and arrogant with property for which he did not even work. She says she wishes that the inheritance tradition would come to an end because it only generates tension and hatred among family members.
“My sisters, too, have sons, but my son has sat on all the property he inherited,” Bekomba says. “I am not on talking terms with my sisters, and that alone is killing me because I know my son is the cause. He is supposed to share the property to his cousins and to us, the mothers, but he is not. After all, it is his decision to decide who gets what.”
Bekomba asks the Balue village chiefs and council of elders to come together to review this practice.
Comfort Motale, 34, is a native of Bafaka Balue, another Balue village. She says matrilineality is the worst tradition that the Balue people have.
“When I think about matrilineality, I get sick,” Motale says.
Motale says she didn’t advance to secondary school because her father died during her final year of primary school. The son of her aunt, her father’s sister, inherited all her father’s property, leaving her family with nothing.
“We all dropped out of school,” she says of her siblings. “Me, my mother and my younger brothers and sisters all relocated to my grandfather’s house, my mother’s father. That is where we grew up, and that is where my mother is still living for the past 22 years.”
Motale says the situation forced her to become pregnant in seventh grade because she needed a man who could give her money in order to eat. She says she and her two sisters all became mothers in their teens, adding to the number of mouths to feed.
“I regret being a part of such a nasty tradition,” she says.
She doesn’t plan to continue it.
“I can never get married to a Balue man, believe me,” Motale says. “I want to cut myself off [from] this traumatizing tradition.”
Jane Mbange, 39, a native of Dikome Balue, says she believes that the matrilineal inheritance system even led to her brother’s death.
“My brother was supposed to inherit [from] my uncle,” Mbange says. “Just at the point when it was getting closer for him to inherit, he died mysteriously. My brother went to bed quite all right and did not get up in the morning.”
Mbange says that her extended family members also wanted the property and performed witchcraft on her brother so that they could inherit it over him.
“I am telling you, I hate matrilineality,” says Mbange, visibly stressed. “It should be abolished.”
Thomas Nanje, 47, is a beneficiary of matrilineality. He ended his education in sixth grade when he inherited property from one of his uncles. His mother had two brothers, and as the first son of his mother, he is the next of kin to his two uncles.
He says that Balues can’t abolish a tradition their people have practiced for generations. He is proud to have inherited from his two uncles, and he decides how to redistribute it to the rest of the family members.
“Matrilineality is a tradition that was handed down to us from our forefathers,” Nanje says. “They had a reason for instituting such custom. Every village has its customs and practices that they hold tight unto. The Balues, too, have matrilineality as their heritage, and it should not be abolished.”
Some lawyers say matrilineality is against the law.
Roger Ottang, a barrister working with Fraternity Chambers, a law firm, says matrilineality is “repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.” He says it should be abolished.
He says that the father, mother and children are all contributors to the development of a nuclear family. As such, property of a family belongs to the family as a unit – not to extended family members.
Though customary law exists, there is no justification for bad cultures, Ottang says. All cultural practices should pass the legal test for them to be considered good customs.
He says matrilineality backs women, especially widows, into a tight corner. By law, extended family members do not have the right to take property from a family, even in cases in which the deceased did not leave a will.
“The Noncontentious Probate Rule rules that in the event of the death of a man,” he says, “in the absence of a will, property must first of all go [to] the wife and then the children, and then family members follow later.”
He says that some men and women bring matrilineal inheritance cases to court, but it is rare. He encourages more families to do so.
“I will advise any woman faced with the problem of loss of property as a result of matrilineality to seek the assistance of a lawyer or go to the court,” he says.
Elangwe says that he and others have been fighting to abolish matrilineality since the 1970s through an organization called Balue Development Organisation. He says one of its missions is to invalidate matrilineality so that families can benefit from the fruits of their labor.
“Being an executive member of BADO at the time was very challenging, especially as there were members who were beneficiaries of matrilineaity,” he says. “This helped to slow down the process of wiping out matrilineality. But I believe as more and more Balue children get education, the fight will get stronger, and some day they will see a reason to abolish matrilineality.”
Motule says that abolishing matrilineality was on the agenda of the organization’s last meeting.
“It’s not going to be an easy ride towards abolition, but we are going to take it one step at a time until we get there,” he says.
Community members say they prefer patrilineality because the property would stay in the immediate family.