“Mother of All Women” Celebrates Decade of Leadership in Cameroon’s Oroko Community

Mary Mokube has successfully served as her village’s “nyanga mboka” for 10 years, offering guidance and mediation to women in her community.

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“Mother of All Women” Celebrates Decade of Leadership in Cameroon’s Oroko Community

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MATOH EFONGO, CAMEROON – Calm in words, gentle in movement and friendly by nature, Mary Mokube is a people’s person.

These parts of her nature led her to various leadership roles in the Presbyterian church in Matoh Efongo, a village of the Oroko people, an tribe comprising several clans across Cameroon’s Southwest region. But after a 40-year career, she was tired, needed rest and decided to retire in 1998.

Little did Mokube know that a much bigger role awaited her, this time not leading a church group – but leading the women of her entire community.

In 2003, the traditional ruler of Matoh Efongo summoned her to meet with him and his all-male council of elders, but she had no idea why. In that meeting, they pronounced her the “nyanga mboka,” a role that combines the functions of judge, counselor and chief for all the women of the village, which has a population of 13,000 people. The term translates to “mother of all women” in an Oroko dialect.

“I was shocked at that pronouncement,” Mokube says. “I came out of the council hall and ran directly to my church pastor and cried to him, asking him whether it was right for me to become a nyanga mboka.”

At the time, she associated the nyanga mboka role with witchcraft, she says. She had once heard a woman say she could not become the nyanga mboka because she did not have children to sacrifice during her tenure of office.

Mokube’s pastor told her that if being the nyanga mboka meant being a witch, then the council would not have chosen her, she says. He encouraged her to take up the challenge, saying the community had seen something special in her as someone who puts God first in all that she does.

She could not find anyone to talk her out of accepting the role.

“I consulted several elders and trusted friends on this issue,” she says. “But all of them encouraged me to go in for it.”

Finally, she accepted the offer. Mokube, now in her 60s, has served the women of Matoh Efongo as the nyanga mboka ever since.

Like most villages in Cameroon, Matoh Efongo has a traditional chief – a male ruler who serves the entire population and handles land disputes and legal matters. But unlike most villages, it also has a female leader, the nyanga mboka, a tradition of the Oroko.

The nyanga mboka is the female leader of the community, whose role is to govern the female population by settling disputes, offering counseling on domestic issues, and representing the women in the village council. She is the only woman who attends the village meetings that the traditional ruler and the council of elders conduct. Her term lasts as long as she is able to fulfill the role.

Women of Matoh Efongo say Mokube has been a valuable leader and adviser.

Neris Makane, a 39-year-old local resident, relies on Mokube for guidance. Mokube is like a mother to her, she says, referring to her as “Mami,” a respectful local term for an older woman.

“From time to time, I go seek advice from Mami,” she says. “Whenever I have matrimonial problems, I take it to Mami to get her advice. Mami has always given the best advice that a mother could give to a daughter.”

If not for Mokube, Makane would have left her matrimonial home because of marital issues, she says. But Mokube helped her to find peace with her husband before he died.

Mokube served in the Presbyterian Christian Women’s Fellowship and the Dikome Presbytery for decades before becoming the nyanga mboka.

Because Mokube was a church leader for many years, people know she is a woman with a good heart, Makane says. Women therefore give Mokube the full respect she deserves, and no woman dares to say evil things about her because they believe there is no evil in her.

“Mami Mary is very God-fearing,” Makane says. “As a result, she rules with the fear of God in her.”

Mokube relies on her faith to guide her.

“Serving God as a leader increased my commitment with God,” she says. “I got closer and closer to God as the years passed by.”

John Mbenge Imbia is the chief of Matoh Efongo and the one who appointed Mokube to her role. She is particularly well-suited for the job, he says.

“Mami Mary Mokube is a woman with special abilities,” he says. “She is a woman endowed with the spirit of leadership.”

The community knew Mokube for her wise counsel in settling disputes even before she became the nyanga mboka, and residents’ respect for her has only grown during her tenure, he says.

“Mami Mokube is a woman whose character should be emulated by other women,” he says. “She is a role model to other women. That is why we chose her to become a nyanga mboka in the first place.”

For 10 years, Mokube has been the leader they expected her to be, he says.

But Mokube’s tenure as nyanga mboka has not been easy, she says. She frequently mediates women’s quarrels and misunderstandings, and she tries to help them show responsible behavior and sisterhood.

“It is very difficult to work with women,” she says. “Women, we are problematic by nature, and sometimes it is very difficult to come to a compromise in case there is a misunderstanding between women.”

Mokube also manages a network of subleaders, representing each of Matoh Efongo’s 15 quarters.

If a case or dispute is so intense that the subleaders cannot handle it, they bring the conflict and the people involved to Mokube, who has earned a reputation as a tough judge. When someone tells a woman involved in a dispute that Mokube will hear her case, the woman knows she has really done wrong, she says.

Even though the role can be difficult, Mokube says she values the opportunity to lead. Her husband did not allow her to take up paid employment, which was less common for women to pursue in previous decades. But looking back over her years of service to those around her, she is satisfied with her career.

“The work I have done as a church and now a community leader is more than any paid employment I should have taken up,” she says. “God has been wonderful.”