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Cameroon: Matrilineal Custom Puts Widows in Limbo
DIKOME BALUE, Cameroon -- James Elangwe, 87, belongs to the Balues, the only clan in which inheritance passes through the female line.
But this doesn't mean that women inherit. Instead, it means that when a man dies, the first son of the man's sister inherits.
Elangwe says matrilineal inheritance puts women at a greater disadvantage than patrilineal inheritance because wealth leaves the immediate family.
Elangwe's wife belongs to a tribe where inheritance passes from father to son in a patrilineal system. Women cannot inherit, but he says at least it stays within the immediate family if there is a son.
He says his wife stands to lose from both ends. Because she comes from a patrilineal society, she won't receive any property from her own lineage. Nor will she inherit from her husband's family because of matrilineal succession.
"This issue of my sister's children inheriting my property after I 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 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. 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."
Various members of the Balue tribe object to this system that moves property out of the nuclear family to the extended family.
While some defenders of the practice say it's tradition, it's actually not legal for extended family members to inherit property before wives and children. Lawyers encourage the Balues to pursue cases in court. Community organizations are also working to reverse this practice.
Proud and Arrogant Son
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 proud and arrogant with property for which he did not even work.
"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 with his cousins and 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 also says matrilineality is the worst tradition that the Balue people have.
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."
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 a 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."
But Roger Ottang, a barrister working with Fraternity Chambers, a law firm, disagrees and says matrilineality 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 adds. 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. Even in the absence of a will, the law requires property to go first to the wife and then the children. 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 (BADO).
"Being an executive member of BADO at the time was very challenging, especially as there were members who were beneficiaries of matrilineality," 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."