Women of Bum, their Lives and Representation.

The information presented in the following document was extracted from the material presented in Working notes on the Bum. Information has been grouped into specific topics concerning different aspects of the lives of the Bum women in the Grassfields of Cameroon. Hyperlinks provide access to the source material and to the Glossary



Amongst the Bum, the husband is considered to be the head of the family. In this chiefdom, polygyny is practised, which means that a man may have more than one wife, and the Fon has many, many wives. Most marriages are arranged by the father of the woman. In the case of princesses, the Nggili society arranges the marriage. Princesses may also be given as a peace offering to neighbouring chiefdoms, this is associated with the women's role as peace makers. Since the independence of Southern Cameroon, in 1961, princesses have been marrying Fons of different polities. [1]

A dowry, Uká, is paid by the husband to the woman's father. The bride price, constituted of muelem teremó, expenses, may amount to £40 or £50. Goats could also be part of the dowry. The payment does not necessarily depend on the status of the wife. In some cases the bride price for 'ordinary' women could be as much as that for princesses. Oil, a valued commodity in this community, may also be given as muelem teremó to the mother of the woman.

If a dowry is not paid for a princess the husband is described as the wife's 'half brother,' and the Fon can claim dowry on the birth of each child. The same is true for princes who pay no dowry on the wives the Fon provides them with.

The Ful receives the dowry for princesses. He then passes this on to the Fon after having received a share of it. The money the Fon receives in dowries is redistributed in the form of cloths and caps, to his Big Five. Some of the bride price oil will be given to the mother's brothers and sisters and also to her father's sisters.

When the Fon has no intention of giving a princess away, providing he agrees she may stay in the palace and choose a sexual partner regardless of his status. Children born from such relationships belong to the Fon. These offspring extend his lineage and provide him with more princesses for which he may receive bride price. Children born from arranged marriages are given the title of waajamtu.

Since it is believed that the Fon could never share a women with another man, queens are not permitted to enjoy sexual liberty outside the marriage. Adultery with the Fon's wife is considered as serious an offence as the murder of a queen. If his wives practice adultery, this major crime is dealt with directly by the Kwifon.[2] Whereas adultery with the wife of an ordinary man is punished by a small fine, sexual indiscretion with a queen is considered to deserve no punishment short of death, both the man and the queen have to die.

Women are seen as the property of men, and the payment of a dowry links the woman to the lineage of her husband. A man may marry his deceased brother's wife in order to keep her in the kinship lineage.

There is a saying in the Bum, "Mother thing of the Earth" which relates to the importance of motherhood in their culture. Children are highly prized and births are celebrated. Women gain higher status in the society if they are able to produce and maintain large families. Thus the high mortality rate of children in the 1940's and 1950's caused great concern to the, British Colonial Administration and the, people of Bum. In 1945 Phyllis Kaberry visited the Grassfields to investigate this phenomenon.

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Domestic Work


Women, including those of the palace, do most of the farming. Some may stay in sleeping huts at the farmlands for a few days while they complete their work. Women are helped by their husbands only with some of the heavy work. However, in order to claim the land for themselves, men will help in clearing forest and planting maize or groundnuts. However, in 1997, Fon John Yai said he "forced men to work with their wives to get a good yield" [3]. When women work together planting large farms they are often referred to as "working bees". Sustenance, of food and drink, for the working women is provided by the husband who's land is being cultivated.

In addition to all their agricultural work, women are expected to prepare the food. They fetch water in pots carried on their heads, and use baskets for carrying produce. Young Children are carried on their mothers' backs while they work, and older children are expected to help with the chores.

It is the women's role also to grind corn, in the past, pestle and mortar were used, but these were replaced in the 1950's with corn-mills. Women collect corn and groundnuts, and produce corn beer which they sell in the market. They give part of the money they receive to their husbands, who will then buy anything necessary for the women, such as clothes. Women may invest the rest of the money in janggis, a pidgin term for saving clubs. These are rotating saving and credit associations, were money may be invested in morally approved projects. The Fon may also give women presents of money as rewards for dancing well.

The dying of cloth is another activity performed by women: designs are created on purchased cloth by over-sewing it with vegetable twine. The prepared cloths are then taken to be dyed in a nearby village. In 1960, this cost £6-£7 for 4 cloths. After dying, the twine is removed, and the cloths are hung up to be sold for £7-£10 each.

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Titles and Status

The people of Bum like giving titles. These generally show a person's status, but sometimes may simply portray a role or personality trait. Titles are given to women as well as men.

One of the very important titles is Aya, this title is given to a princess. She is alone in holding this title. Before the Fon dies, he tells the Aya who is to succeed him. She sits on the Fon's stool, temporarily keeping the throne until the new Fon is installed. Princesses also enjoy the privilege of sharing out the wine, and one acts as a wine-server for the Fon and the other hereditary officers. Princesses may also pour water and ask for blessings when the Fon sacrifices in the Fum.

Other titles may be given to more than one women and all new title holders have to pay goats and wine to those already holding the same title.

Yaa Yu'fwa, Queen mother

The other very honoured and respected title is that of Queen Mother, Yaa. This title means mother of all the Fons. Each chief has a biological Queen Mother but when she dies, she is replaced by two or three others who may not necessarily have any family link to the Fon. The title is also passed down to daughters of the previous queen mothers of the previous Fon, so there may be many, many Queen Mothers! When Phyllis Kaberry was doing field work in the Cameroon, she was awarded the title of Honorary and Perpetual Queen Mother, and named Mother of the Kings of the Forest. The forest is a special area where the cattle graze and the royal graves are found. On one occasion, Phyllis Kaberry was introduced to the Fon's immediate ancestors, and was able to go with the Fon and call down a channel into a grave in the forest. When Phyllis Kaberry died a cry-die celebration was put on, which lasted for three days. In this chiefdom, women are traditionally given a four day cry-die, but Phyllis, being perceived as an honorary man, was given a male three day cry-die.

The title of senior woman is held by rich women who have an instrument called a cóng, a drone played inside a calabash, or gourd, and may also own a calabash rattle and single bell.

Njang, a princess, was given a special title of her own, Nduke-yen-a-alung, meaning 'sit in Bum and see what happens', i.e. don't go away. The Fon says that she has done everything and that she has her own drinking horn in which she can receive wine poured from the Fon's cup. This is a great honour since there is a belief that the Fon should not and cannot share anything.

Although most titles are gender specific, the title of good drummer, Ndanggõ, Nanambang's title, may be given to both men and women.

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Taboos and Associations

Women are not involved in any state or regulatory matters. Even Njang, who is much more politically involved than most Bum woman, is not allowed to join the native court because of her priestly duties. These involve ceremonially washing the Fon in order to cleanse him of 'religious pollution'. Also, women are not supposed to fight in wars.

Women are meant to have as little contact as possible with the Kwifon, the male association. They are also forbidden to see benakwefona, the kwifon lodge, let alone enter it, and 'they are expected to lock themselves in when kwifon is "reddening" (baangha). (That is when it's instruments are being sounded by the men). ... if these gongs were played, it could be for no other reason than to "terrorise" the women and uninitiated.' [4]. Men in the Kwifon are meant to have as little contact as possible with women even outside meetings. The first thing an initiate is warned against is confiding in, and discussing important matters with women. Because of this secrecy women are excluded from political matters. The head of the Kwifon, Babe, is completely 'forbidden from the company of women', and would be 'severely flogged' for disobeying this rule.[5] The Kwifon have a ritual object, Kuok, their 'dog'. As with the kwifon lodge, women are forbidden to enter the Kuok's lodge, ndahkuok. It is said that 'if [a women] eats the kuok food, she would develop a swollen stomach, and might even die as a result.'[6] However it is interesting that 'when the kuok is out of male control, a woman's head pad is used to pacify it. Furthermore, men are forbidden from touching this head pad, so only a woman would be able to calm a kuok. When she has done so she picks kuok up and leads it back to the men. Here again, we see the women's role as pacifiers.

There are many other taboos concerning women, fertility and male activities. For example, if a woman sees the masker, the member of the kwifon who wears a mask during rituals, it is believed that she would not bear children again. Masks are very powerful and are said to change the quality of people. Women are at risk from the mask because they are not and cannot be initiated into male associations. Non-members in general are considered to be at risk, however most men are assumed to be part of the association. Sometimes the mere sight of the masker obliges male non-members to join the society and pay membership fee. Another ritual object, the bells of kwifon, is also said to make women infertile if they look on them. These bells are made of iron. The production of iron is based on the procreational symbolism of men engaged in sexual intercourse, by placing the iron ore into the body of the female furnace. At the end of the smelting they deliver the finished iron product which is perceived as the baby. During this process, men must not have any contact with their real wives. Thus the men producing iron could be considered to be stealing women's powers of reproduction. For this reason, the two powers need to be kept separate. If in contact, they will drain each other of their power. For the same type of reasons, the men's Nboeng is dance at night so as not to be seen by women. Prepubescent and post-menopausal women are not affected by male ritual objects.

Furthermore, women are not allowed to cook when they are menstruating as they are perceived to be 'ill'. Lastly, the presence of pregnant women would make the male dancer Ngkó weak at cry-dies.

Women must to bow in the presence of the Fon, and speak to him with their hands on their opposite knees. They must also avert their gaze, avoiding eye contact with him. As the picture illustrates, even his wives bow to him in public, however, their private behaviour has not been observed.

There are also taboos for men concerning the women's association, the Cong. When the Cong are meeting, no men or boys are allowed near. Members of the cong are called na'tum-a-cong, and there is a na'tum-a-cong in every quarter of Bum. The cong plays a role in political affairs and in the defence of women. (see next section) There are two unranked women's associations, Cong and Njang, the dance association. Unlike the kwifon, they are not selective and membership fees are very low, members pay what they can afford. Also, the performances of the cong can be attended by both men and women. (see section on dance) There are also many other women's secret associations.

The women of Bum have a greater autonomy than females in other chiefdoms within the Grassfields. Senior women enjoy rights of entry that they would not have elsewhere. It is unclear as to whether the Bum are simply different from other tribes in this or whether they have retained an older style. There is some evidence that women had greater power and more titles in the past, and that the presence and influence of Europeans and Christians has possibly made women more subservient.

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Political Role

Although generally women do not take part in political matters, in certain circumstances they are asked to do so. There are various accounts of women keeping the throne for the future Fon. One of the most politically involved women in Bum is Njang (sometimes spelt "Njan"). When the Fon, Yunji, died and the Bum wished to install Tam as their new chief, history relates that he ran away, so they made Njang, Yunji's aunt, their chief instead, and called her Njang-a-Yiwi - "held the throne as a woman". After four years, Tam was sent for and Njang vacated the stool for him. Another version of these events states that Njang was put on the throne because Tam was just a child. Nanambang, granddaughter of Njang also held the throne, but only for two months, while the Fon was being recalled from his work. Thus although women are not generally politically involved, both Njang and Nanambang played regency roles, keeping custody of the throne. However women are not eligible to hold the title of Fon.

Njang later became a member of the Tala, a subdivision of the Kwifon, and also became the only women member of the Tse or council. By 1950, the council included two statutory women members, Madam Nanambang, and Mada Nana. The council is now subordinate to the central Wum Federal Council.

The role of peacemaker is seen as a strong political aspect of women. When the Fon does not rule well, the cong will go to him to beg the King for peace. This extract from Sally Chilver's diaries shows that if the Fon 'breaches the law and does not look after people - not only as regards ntul matters - but titled women, na'tum-a-conga, will go and cut nkeng and carry it in their hands... The big men of ntul would send to the "big women of the country", and these go and "cut nkeng" and come with it to the Fon, and "beg the King for peace". They say that they have heard from the big men that he is not ruling well - "So we come to ask why you are not ruling in your father's way." The Fon will know what they have come for and must speak to them gently. Their action means that they have come to punish him, really, but not directly. They show leaves, the leaves of the plant associated with twins, as a sign of peace. On that day the Fon must do what the people want and must apologise to the big men. He will have given the women bags of salt, 1-3 drums of oil, and goats. Then they will go to their husbands (the big men) and say "We have settled everything with the Fon...." the "yaas" and senior wives can also remonstrate with the Fon, but in private.' [7]

The Cong is also a means of recruiting women for direct action. (see Female Collective Action) Neighbouring associations of women have been known to march in groups as big as 7000 women, dressed in rags and leaves, like fighting men. Women's resistance is quite strong, and if one woman is being mistreated, others will go and show their discontent.

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Myth and Witchcraft

The Bum have many mythical stories about crater lakes, these are usually about women. Indeed water is strongly associated with life, fertility and women. Many of these stories describe people living under the water, and it is said that if you gaze into the waters at the right time you can see people and houses. The Fon refers to this as signs in the water. One particular story explains the dispersion of the Wimbum tribe who are said to wander by lake Wum and live in the lake. There are also ghost stories about beautiful young girls who come out of Lake Nyos and go to dances were they meet young men who later prepare to receive them, but the girls never come. The Fon says they must be dead people. There is also an origin myth where a first king comes out of a lake, through a hole in the ground, then through water and into the air.

According to the Fon, witchcraft is mainly practised by women because of marital jealousy. He says that a wife may bewitch another if this other is being favoured by the husband. However witchdoctors, diviners, herbalists, avengers, and poison dealers are all males. Emonts noted, in 1913, an old woman obviously blessing or protecting her departing grandsons by drawing a line on their foreheads and breast with spittle and muttering something.

Twin wearing a chequered dress, with Esther.

The woman in the illustration is wearing a black and white chequered dress because she is a twin. This does not necessarily mean a biological twin, but somebody with a specific birth mark or deformity, biological twins are also "twins". Twins are considered very important and are credited with special powers of clairvoyancy. The Bum believe that we are all twins but that most of us do not have our other half with us, whereas twins do. All people, except twins, are perceived as potential witches since their other half can be activated to do evil by frustration or jealousy. Twins are seen as whole beings, with both halves together, therefore have no witchcraft in them and are seen as innocent.

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Dance and Ritual

Dance is an important part of Bum women's lives. Dances may be for a specific ritual, however, most of the ritual dances are led by men. The njang or the cong may dance on special occasion and women also have the honour of dancing to entertain the Fon.

Two Yaas and Esther, sister of the Fon, dancing.

Princesses will often dance together for the Fon, and his wives and Queen Mothers will often also join in. The steps involved are very precise with the women dancing in groups or in rows. The Fon may sometimes reward women for dancing well, and he may even organise a type of competition.

Usually, the Bum dance to music. Instruments, such as drums (single-ended, standing, or elbow drums), horns, open-ended flutes or flutes played into long horns, are played by both men and women. The women may also shrill and there is often a lot of cheering.

Another ritual dance performed by women, involves them brandishing weapons, even though women are not supposed to fight. This may illustrate the story of the Kom women who had to fight when too many of their men had been killed in a war. There are also legends of women who have been left in their villages during war and when attacked they dressed up and fought as men, and do very well! These stories are very common and women tell them about themselves, the story about the Kom women may thus be one of these legends. However the Fon says that this dance is to prepare men for war!

A horsetail beaded switch - sanga-langa - is often used in dances. Traditionally, it is used by princesses and senior wives for the ceremonial sweeping of the path before the Fon or before his bed.

Other rituals concern the respect of ancestors and there is a great fear of angering their spirits. On entering the ntul house, both men and women must strip down to the waist and wear traditional clothes, especially on formal occasions. In general, women are expected to wear little on the top half, and when explorers arrived in the 1930's women were naked, a part from something to cover the pubic area. The influence of British colonial attitudes resulted in women wearing more clothes in the 1960's. There are differences between men and women in burials. The Bum view the body as being divided in two, the right hand side being male, and the left hand side, female. Thus, when a woman is buried, the left arm is upper most, whereas for a men, the right arm is on top. At the death of a person, there is a cry-die ceremony. This lasts 4 days for women and only 3 for men.

Home Page Ethnography of Women by Women Female Collective Action References
The Bum Project Sally Chilver's Field Diary Phyllis Kaberry's Field Notes Glossary

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This page was created by Amber Cripps, last up dated 04/12/98