Matrilineality in Kom - a favorite parlor/chong house game in Kom?

On On Wed, 27 Dec 2000, I (Wanaku) posted questions on the subject on the AFOaKOM Yahoogroups forum. I got feedback from one of the most experienced scholars of Kom Anthropology – Nawain Eugenia Shanklin. I had touched on a subject she knew so well – Matrilineality. This was first posted on website and was viewed over 30,000 times.

Here's Nawain Shanklin’s reply:

Notes on Matrilineality in KOM
by Eugenia Shanklin
Dec 27, 2000

Hello all,
And a very happy new year to everyone.
I can't resist replying to the question about matrilineality, about which many Kom people are not well taught or informed by their teachers (who have often been missionaries and somewhat biased against a system that seems so foreign).

Matrilineality indeed means tracing descent through the maternal line; it also usually involves inheritance in that line, as it does in Kom, with nephew succeeding uncle. (The variant that the eldest nephew succeeds the uncle is not invariable, and any Kom person is already sufficiently familiar with exceptions to the rule.)

What most Kom people seem not to be aware of is that there are several other matrilineal groups in the Grassfields, e.g., Nyos and Mmen, and that there is a "matrilineal belt" across Central Africa.

What most anthropologists seem not to be aware of is that if one were counting peoples, a majority of African groups are matrilineal.

If one is counting heads, however, a majority of the African population is patrilineal. The outstanding and highly populous matrilineal group in West Africa is the Ashante/Asante and I believe most people are familiar with their importance in the region.

Several things are of interest about matrilineality:

the first is that divorce is quite frequent and marriage ties are always quite brittle in such societies, probably because a primary emotional tie is between brother and sister, not husband and wife;

a second is that -- unlike in Kom -- women usually retain the rights to their children following divorce and there is no need for an adjudicated settlement;

a third is that women in matrilineal societies usually have much more authority -- through their brothers and their kin group -- than women in patrilineal societies. They are more influential in matters of succession, of rights in farm land, and such than their patrilineal sisters.

I have several times had the "pleasure" of interviewing a Kom woman in the presence of her husband, then of her brother, and it is as if one is interviewing two different people -- when she is with her husband, anything he says is agreed to, no matter how outrageous or wrong he may be. With her brother, the same woman says what she thinks, corrects him if he misspeaks, and argues for a point of view that one could consider the feminine, matrilineal viewpoint.

There is some debate about what is happening to matrilineal societies across Africa but the consensus now is that people maintain their matrilineality in the face even of modernization. A recent issue of the journal, Critique of Anthropology, (1997) took this up at some length.

There used to be a debate in anthropology about whether matrilineality was doomed to die out because it was the "oldest" form of human social organization and was being replaced by the more modern form, patrilineality. BoChong/Hon. F. Nkwain remembers being told about this by Phyllis Kaberry -- you can all imagine his outraged, eloquent reaction -- and it was the going view for some time in the early years of the 20th century, until people noticed that matrilineality actually wasn't dying out.

Mary Douglas wrote an interesting article in 1969 called "Is Matriliny Doomed?" She had studied the matrilineal Lele of the Kasai (River, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), an interesting matrilineal group that practiced polyandry, among other things -- polyandry is the custom in which a woman is married to more than one man. Douglas concluded that matrilineality was alive and well and not in danger of dying out.

Other scholars have recently agreed with her at some length, for different reasons, and I may include this discussion in an article on Kom kinship that I am trying to revise for this new book on Kom I'm trying to get published. Debating the 'wisdom' of the matrilineal system is a favorite parlor/chong house game in Kom, I know, and I don't want to get into those debates. But I hope this information will place such discussions in their appropriate context -- I couldn't resist adding this because I just wrote an article for Don and April Gordon's reader, Understanding Contemporary Africa, on African systems of kinship and marriage and I mentioned some of the aspects I've referred to here.

Best, NaYamande

The post that generated the above write-up follows:

On Wed, 27 Dec 2000, WANAKU wrote: O o o Kom! ISANGLI BENG IFii! [Happy New Year]

We are waiting for a report from Bobe Chiatoh about preparations for the KOMFEST 2002 [Kom Festival of Arts]. The end of year activities and family obligations must have taken a toll on his time, making us to wait impatiently for further information about this exciting event which will virtually resurrect Kom from its cultural slumber.

While we wait for this, we were wondering if anyone knew of another group/tribe/region in the world that has the same custom of MATRILINEAL SUCCESSION like in Kom. If so, which ones are they? We could also start a discussion of the state of this custom, its advantages, disadvantages and some case histories. The objective is just to have a documentation of discussions on this issue that might serve as a historical reference for future generations.

Please find the meaning of the keyword - matrilineal - below. The word seems to have entered the English language in 1904. The matrilineal custom existed in Kom before this year! Your ideas, opinions, and relevant information on this aspect of our culture will be appreciated. As we wait for KOMFEST updates, let us keep the spirit of the PEOPLE OF THE ROYAL PYTHON alive with intellectual contributions about the state of our culture. Ayongne "KOMFEST 2002 - WAKING UP THE ROYAL PYTHON"

ma.tri.lin.eal [adjective] Date: 1904 : relating to, based on, or tracing descent through the maternal line

"The most primitive matrilineal society surviving today is that of the Nagas of Southern India, where the princesses, though married to child-husbands whom they immediately divorce, bear children to lovers of no particular rank or station; and the same custom survives among the matrilineal Kom tribe in the Cameroons."

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