and the Debates on Ethnicity in Africanist Anthropology: Inclusion
in The Third Millennium
C. M. van Santen
Maama Laila, an Islamised Mafa woman explains:
I had several husbands.
The first one had been chosen for me by my father [in the mountains].
It was the father of Daada Laila (her daughter). I got two children with
him, one of them died, and then I left(1). I remarried with somebody else.
We stayed together for twelve years without having children. Then I left
him. People told me that it was my first husband who caused this [her
sterility during this period].
My first husband had said: "She will only get more children if she
returns to me. If not she will never have children any more". So I wanted
to return to my first husband but my father said, "As he lied and raised
the bridewealth, I do not want you to return to him".
So after I left my second husband, I Islamised. They brought me to
the Marabout; I left the house, with the clothes I was wearing at that
time. I would not return again in those clothes. I knew that when the
marabout would wash me, he would take those old clothes and that he would
give me other new clothes. He showed me how I should wash my hands, my
feet, how I should pray and how I should wash my face, how I should put
water into my mouth twice (!) and then start praying...that's all. I Islamised.
I decided to Islamise because I was angry. My second husband had told
me, "As you cannot get any children, it is better that you return to your
first husband who has said that your sterility is caused by him, otherwise
when you get old, you will blame me for the fact that you do not have
any children and that I did not let you go. "But when I left to return
to my first husband, my brother too stopped me. He said: "You cannot go
back to him, because he lied and raised the bridewealth". Then I said:
"All right, if it is like that, I will become Muslim and in that way none
of you will have any say over me any more". If we [women] Islamise men
do not have any influence any more.
in the example that I gave above is one among many Mafa women in North
Cameroon, who exchanged her own religion for Islam.(2) The process of
Islamisation in the mountainous area where the Mafa live, started in the
nineteenth century. The initial nomadic Fulbe have played a dominant role
in this process. Uthman dan Fodio, founder of the large Sokoto Empire
came from this dispersed ethnic group, which can be found throughout West
Africa. He inspired his people to undertake the jihad. From that time
onwards the Fulbe have claimed Islam as their ethnic marker and engendered
many learned Islamic scholars. Islamised groups adopt their interpretation
of Islam, without realizing that some of their new customs were not Islamic
but remnants from pre-Islamic Fulbe culture. Consequently the process
of Islamisation means a radical change of lifestyle. Recently, a process
of purification of Islam has been taking place, whereby Islam gets more
detached from Fulbe values. I call this process ‘Islamism’ (van Santen
l999). In this paper I will first concentrate on the construction of Mafa
ethnic identity in the particular cultural and political context of North
Cameroon. It is a context in which Islamic characteristics were dominant
for nearly two centuries, but in which local ethnic groups now assert
their own identity.
The Twentieth Century saw the ascendancy of European definitions of ethnic
groups, ideas derived from biological notions and ideas about consanguinity.
A mixture of nationalism and ethnic politics gave rise to (violent) claims
that national culture, ethnic groups and territorial boundaries ought
to coincide. The prevailing thought was that the nation-state has the
legitimate right to deny access to all persons who are considered to be
"strangers". Ethnic groups in North Cameroon do not apply this Western
notion of consanguinity to define their own ethnic group (Schilder l994;
van Santen and Schilder l994). Until recently, the Mafa felt that the
introduction of alien cultural practices and/or genetic mixing did not
necessarily affect their ethnic identity. The same applies to the Fulbe.
One may wonder what then did define the boundaries of Mafa identity and
how the notion about their ethnic identity has been changed by the penetration
of Islam and the process of Islamisation that thereafter followed. I will
deal with these topics with a focus on their relation with gender.
Recent literature devotes much attention to changes in identity (Appadurai
1990; l996; van Binsbergen 1994; Hannersz 1996; Featherstone l990; Eade
l997). The relation of gender and Islam is a topic of continual debate
within feminist circles (see e.g: L. Ahmed l991; 1992; Al Hibri 1982;
Kandiyoti l991; Mernissi l991; Sanders 1991), and the position of Muslim
women in the global process does get some attention (Weiss l994; Watson
l994). In general, however the genderedness of ethnicity or the process
of changing identity has been much less discussed. This is rather surprising
since gender identities and relations always infiltrate cultural differences
and social inequalities, as well as the ethnic manifestations of the latter.
Elsewhere (van Santen en Schilder l994: 131), we have acknowledged the
interweaving of gender and ethnicity in connection with different levels
of reproduction. In a patrilinear system, boundaries of social group cohesion
and social differences between the group and 'other ' groups are often
constructed through the women. On the other hand, in a matrilinear system,
these boundaries will hardly ever be established through the men. Religion,
identity, ethnicity and gender are undeniably related, as I will try to
show in this paper. If the reality of (constructed) gender differences
would be taken more seriously in different societies, so I plead, the
study on ethnic identity or/and ethnic clashes in Africa, would enormously
gain insights. Though I take the case of the Mafa as an example to show
how studies on ethnicity in Africa should consider the genderedness of
ethnic constructions, it can generally be applied to other areas as Schilder
has shown for the Mundang (van Santen and Schilder l994(3)).
Before discussing the mentioned themes and relating them to the North
Cameroonian context, I will define gender as I think it should be used
in the context of the discussion of ethnicity.
Gender has become, so it seems, a common concept, accepted and recognised
by many scientists and all too easily applied. A simple definition tells
us that gender is about the cultural consequences of physical, anatomical
and biological differences between female and male human species. Or,
as Scott puts it, feminists have in a more literal and serious vein began
to use gender as a way of referring to the social organisation of the
relationship between the sexes (Scott l991: 13). The flight the concept
has taken in recent years has not always been in the interest of the female
perspective in science. Gender too easily stands for the relation between
women and men, without any analytical implications for reflection upon
the precise content of these relations and its consequences for the identity
of women and men in specific cultural and/or ethnic contexts (see also
van Santen & Willemse l999).
To understand gender relations in the North Cameroonian context, I try
to use the concept in a more analytical sense. I have divided the concept
of gender using Moore (1994), Braidotti (1993), Scott (1991) and Willemse
(forthcoming) as well as Willemse's analytical insights (oral communication)
into three levels (van Santen l997).
Gender symbolism (Scott l991: 18) or the difference between women and
men (Braidotti l993: 20), and female and male identities are constituted
in the process of cultural reproduction (I will come back to this point
later on). Every local environment has a dominant gender ideology. This
consists of ideas about how women and men ought to behave, how they differ,
but also about how female and male are defined as categories. In most
studies, the two poles of the female/male opposition are analysed in an
asymmetrical relationship (van Santen l983; l984; 1991). Accordingly 'woman'
(or the female category) is too easily regarded as the 'other than' category
and not as a self-regulating rational agent, who shapes and constructs
that same society (Braidotti l993: 20). In our context, it means that
we readily assume that women of different ethnic groups adjust to the
patriarchal institutions and representations of their local neighbourhoods
If we translate this analytical level for Mafa society, we ascertain that
the most central ritual is performed for twins, male as well as female.
The father needs to continue this ritual during his entire life and his
first daughter needs to be present, even when she is married. I considered
the associated symbols within this ritual to be the pillar of Mafa symbolic
order; twins are thought to be the ultimate manifestation of the 'double
person' (divine principle) that every human being is oneself and one's
tutelary spirit (Van Santen l993 a). Not only twins but also women as
a category, are associated with the number 'two', with evenness and as
the twins with the primordial past. When the symbols that became evident
from the twin rituals are brought into connection with the bull ritual
– a ritual in the interest of the patriarchal structure the outcome is
striking; it is interspersed with the structuring principle of two. In
other words, a balance between unevenness (masculinity) and evenness (femininity),
a balance between the here-and-now-society and the primordial past, or
male and female categorization, is pursued. Gender structure (Scott l991:
18) or the differences among women and among men (Braidotti l993:23):
This level is concerned with the way rights and duties within a society
are divided between women and men and among women. Further it is concerned
with particular social and economic positions of women and men, the sexual
division of labour, how local communities perceive the differences between
female and male members and the effects of these views in daily life.
At this level, we can situate and try to understand the differences between
women of various ethnic groups and how they identify and shape their female
For example, the Mafa marriage system is strictly clan exogamous and ethnically
endogamous. In their religious life, libations of millet beer in honour
of the local God, Jigilé play an important role. Another eminent
feature of Mafa religion is the personal jar individual children, women
as well as men, possess. It represents the tutelary spirit of every human
being. Men make sacrifices to Jigilé and other minor gods in the
interest and welfare of the community, women only sacrifice to their personal
tutelary spirit. From the analysis of the Mafa religious system, it became
clear that married men perform sacrifices, but the female presence – that
is of his wives; in religious activities is indispensable (van Santen
l993 a: 118 a.f.). Women are, literally, muted attendants. A second (even,
so female numbering) son plays a special role in a father's life, as he
should attend offerings and ceremonial gatherings. The status of an adult
man is derived from having a compound of his own. An adult woman's status
is derived from her children and her ability to work hard. Division of
labour is not very rigid. Men and women work the fields of millet and
peanuts together, though women do cultivate specific crops (beans, melons)
as well as the men (tobacco).
Individual gender (Scott l991: 18) or the difference within each woman
or within each man (Braidotti l993:28): In feminist scientific literature
there has been much debate about difference and equality between women
and between women and men (see also Moore l988; l994). In every cultural
or local context, specific women and men have a certain idea about the
gender roles they are supposed to play. Every individual has her or his
own way of acting out and identifying with these roles. Thus, women and
men are 'actors' with multiple identities, roles and levels of experience,
using different aspects of the gender ideology of the cultural surroundings
they live in. A woman can act out a role as director, as mistress, as
mother or/and as daughter, and according to her individual character.
In each of these roles, she acts out part of a gender role related to
a clear or specific gender ideology.
For example, in Mafa society a basic gender relation is that between father
and daughter. This becomes evident during the bull ritual when the eldest
girl has a special role in the celebration: She dances with a stone in
her hand, symbolizing the particular part of the meat she is entitled
to as her share of her father's bull. Harvest rituals and other festivities
that take place in Mafa society underscore the importance of the patri-lineage
for sons as well as for daughters. The father goes over to his son-in-law
to drink the beer his daughter has prepared. It is a symbolic repetition
of an earlier event: people drank beer when they agreed upon the bridewealth.
It is the daughter's importance that leads to a special relation with
the in-laws in this virilocal society. The husband's clan, gwali, who
is bridetaker, owes respect to the wife's patriclan, called kuyuk, the
bridegivers and needs to be present for all sorts of occasions. For example
during a man's funeral in-laws need to attend as well (van Santen l995
b). Nevertheless, there is a deep distrust towards the members of wives'
clans, and also for the kuyuk in general, which accentuates the fact that
relation between spouses is a far less prominent gender relation. Another
important gender relation (related to the land tenure system), exists
between a mother and a son.
All this made me (1993 a) conclude that in Mafa society relations between
the genders on a symbolic level are fundamentally symmetrical and interdependent.
On a social level, relations between fathers and daughters and mothers
and sons are more important than relations between spouses. On an individual
level a Mafa woman’s identity is composed of her role as a daughter, as
a first or second wife and/or as a mother, and as a sister.
In all societies gender entails more than the relations between adult
women and men as spouses. Gender also includes the relations between brothers
and sisters, between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, and the
relation between male and female as a category. All these levels determine
consciously and unconsciously the boundaries of what is considered to
be female and male behaviour in ethnic contexts (van Santen 1998 b; van
Santen & Willemse l999; van Santen en Schaafsma forthcoming). According
to Scott, the referents for all three meanings (levels) of masculinity
and femininity differ from culture to culture, though within any culture
the three forms of gender are related to each other (Scott l991: 18).
In the North Cameroonian context, it became evident that these meanings
(levels) are also related within different cultural settings. Mafa women
exchange the level of gender symbolism and gender structure after Islamisation
as part of an individual strategy to improve their life, though their
individual level partly remains the same. Hence, these meanings (levels)
can be exchanged among cultures and should never be analysed too rigidly.
Inititally in Mafa society a religious alternative appeared which made
it possible for women to identify themselves with another community hence
another gender identity. In a globalising world, women as acting subjects
can (and do) identify with an increasing range of female identities.
ethnic identity – the cultural explanation
There has been quite some discussions, as has been the case for many other
'ethnic' groups in Africa, on how exactly ethnic boundaries of the Mafa
ought to be defined. (5)
The Mafa could only with difficultly be distinguished on the basis of
criteria like language, religion, production process or an ascribed criteria
like a ‘shared’ culture. These criteria were often used to distinguish
ethnic groups in the colonial context and is briefly referred to as the
‘cultural explanation’ of ethnicity (Geertz l963). In this approach, ethnicity
is directly related to a culture, that is ‘God-given’, meaning ascriptive
and irreversible. For individual members of a particular group it concerns
a tie of primordial attachments (Geertz l963; Horowitz l985).
Neighbouring groups of the Mafa (Mofu, Kapsiki, Daba etc.) have more or
less the same features (Martin l970: 15), but are from this ‘cultural
explanation’ point of view, culturally divided. Podlewski pointed out
a socio-demographic criterion that in our discussion may prove significant.
He mentioned the endogamous marriage system, though within their group,
the Mafa are clan exogamous. He remarked that 95% of the "matrimonial
exchanges" (6) of a group qualified by the same name take place within
the group (Poslewski l966). In spite of this qualification in the distant
and recent past for the Mafa only clan cohesion was essential; clans regularly
fought each other and ethnic Mafa identity only existed outside the area.
However, in the course of the past centuries different clans and groups
did mix on the basis of resettlement, migration and/or immigration; (7)
features that cannot be explained by a ‘cultural explanation’.
ethnic identity, the 'political explanation'
Nowadays people north of the town of Mokolo and around the town of Koza,
claim to be Mafa, and south of Mokolo, they will call themselves Mofuélé
(and not Matakam). They underline and express this identity in song, dance
and other cultural performances within state-organised cultural events
(see also: van Binsbergen l992).
Until the beginning of this century, the different Mafa clans had resisted
Fulbe domination. Their success was due to the inaccessibility of their
mountainous habitat. The initial adjustment to Fulbe cultural elements
came through Mafa people who had been taken into slavery, were Islamised
and returned to their birth place when they were freed after the First
World War (van Santen l993a: 69101; 1995a; 1996a).
After this period, the imbalance of political and cultural power between
Fulbe and an 'autochthonous' group such as the Mafa led to the development
of boundaries. Until recently, the 'cultural order' of the Mafa clans
could only be 'lived' in their own local environment. It had to be produced
and maintained by specific religious practices and a great number of rituals
(van Santen l993a; 1995b). Mafa rituals and religion are unknown outside
their own 'neighbourhood' (Appadurai l996: 184). For example, the Kapsiki,
ethnic group living adjacent to the Mafa, joke about the many jars the
Mafa possess. To the Mafa each one is necessary in order to perform sacrifices
in honour of their ancestors and on behalf of the continuity of the clan.
The Mafa in turn, consider the Kapsiki to be 'bad' husbands, who make
'their' women do all the work on the field, treat them badly and do not
even fetch water.
Due to the political situation, Mafa cultural features came to be regarded
by the Mafa as being unique. This fact is in line with more ‘politically-minded
explanations’ of ethnicity, like those of the so-called ‘Manchester School’(8).
According to these theories, social interactions of ethnic groups cannot
be understood by simply looking at norms and values of societies. Micropolitical
processes should be taken into consideration. Ethnicity is what people
make of it in specific political circumstances and ethnic groups are not
static or ‘God-given’, but situational. They are latent in some situations
and manifest in others(9).
Since the imposition of Fulbe hegemony in North Cameroon, the members
of the diverse non-Islamic communities were not free to choose to either
accept or reject the dominant Fulbe culture. In their societies, relations
with the outside world could only be successful if the members adjusted
to the norms of decency derived from the Fulbe Islamic groups. If they
refused to do so, they were excluded from access to any position of power.
The uninterrupted political pressure forced the Mafa and other groups
to continuously make new strategic choices. They had to keep assessing
to what extent they wanted to identify with the cultural practices and
identities of their 'rulers' or with those of their own local surroundings
(see also Schilder l995). Thus, they always gave much attention to cherishing
and refining what they considered to be their own cultural features.
For the Mafa, Fulbe political domination and the ensuing process of Islamisation
have changed the boundaries of their identity and their definition of
their own ethnic group. When, to use Horton's terminology (1971; 1975)
the boundaries of Mafa microcosm were opened up by the macrocosm of Islamic
ideology, Mafa ethnic identity started to become as important as clan
identity. The various migration movements during this century (van Santen
1995a; 1996a; 1998a; Schaafsma l998; van Santen en Schaafsma forthcoming)
and recent political developments (van Santen l996a) also play a part
in these changing notions. Expanding horizons are increasing their ethnic
consciousness (van Santen l997).
Stories about the first Islamic chief (lamido) of the town of Mokolo and
his gruesome deeds towards the Mafa people are kept alive in the local
community. At the same time, tales of how he and other Fulbe chiefs repressed
the non-Fulbe population are manipulated by national political parties
in order to win votes from the non-Islamic population and to oppose the
UNDP (Union Nationale Pour le Développement et le Progrès).
However, why the Mafa cherished some cultural features and disregarded
others, cannot, on its own, be explained by an instrumental political
model of explanation. As is generally the case, ethnicity in Mafa society
has nothing to do with ‘objective’ cultural differences compared to other
ethnic groups, but with ideas about cultural differences. Eminently present
in these ideas – that are only partly related to a socio-cultural reality
–are notions about gender differences and the roles the genders are supposed
to play. In the paragraphs hereafter, I will mention some anthropological
themes that are supposed to play a role in the construction of ethnicity
and I will relate them to gender differences. I will again use the context
of Mafa society to illustrate the different themes.
kinship and gender
In a patrilinear system, boundaries of social group cohesion and social
differences between the group and 'other' groups are often constructed
through the women.
I mentioned that the Mafa consider their neighbours, the Kapsiki, to be
"women-abusers". Consequently a father is unlikely to accept a Kapsiki
as a son-in-law. However, he will act the same if his daughter wants to
marry someone from a clan he has a disagreement with. Though young people
choose their partners themselves, in dominant Mafa gender ideology fathers
need to agree with their daughter's choice considering her 'first' husband.
In reality, the mother will always support the daughter if the latter
prefers to marry against her father's wish. I found out that below the
surface, the mother has the most important role in the marriage negotiations
(see van Santen l993: 259).
In a matrilinear system, these boundaries will hardly ever be established
through the men though in those systems descent through the female part
of the group is used to make a distinction vis-à-vis other groups.
Islamised Mafa women still claim to be ethnically Mafa, but religiously,
they identify with the Muslim community. They have a ‘multiple identity’
and have individually changed the content of ‘gender relations’. However,
this individual choice has consequences for gender relations on a structural
level, as the clan they belong to (that has such an important role in
Mafa society) looses its importance. As my research showed, the children
of Islamised Mafa will have forgotten the clan's name. I could give many
more details to prove the importance of women for Mafa (clan) group cohesion.
For Mafa men, there are many reasons to object to a daughter's or grand-daughter's
change of religion: A grandfather gets the bridewealth of a man's first
daughter. If she prefers to change husband after a while, this bridewealth
need not to be returned by the father. After Islamisation the bridewealth
system changes. In the Islamic community that a large part of the bridewealth
is for the girl herself (sadaki), conform Islamic ideology. This implies
that after Islamisation a grand-father never knows what to expect from
his future Islamic grand-son-in-law. They may decide to give him a symbolic
gift to keep him quiet. But he may also end up with empty hands.
Part of Mafa bridewealth is the labour of a son-in-law a father is entitled
too. An Islamic man will never work with his own hands on the field of
an "infidel heathen", even if the latter is his father-in-law. As one
"If we have a daughter who marries a Fulbe (he means: so who Islamises),
we just do not mention it. We pretend she is not getting married, we pretend
as if she does not exist anymore. We can curse them and say they will
never set foot in the house anymore. But then perhaps she may come secretly
and curse her father, and then we (he means fathers) might die. So finally
I will come to visit, but only after I have calmed down my anger. But
will an Islamic son-in-law come to help me on my fields, or with other
things?...He is a good-for-nothing..."
As I mentioned
before, fathers also need their daughters for their ritual functions on
several occasions. During the bullfeast, celebrated in the interest of
the continuity of the clan, a daughter's presence is essential. The same
goes for the funeral rites of men.
In patriarchal and patrilinear Mafa society, women often Islamised independently
of their men as the example of Maama Laila in our introductory story showed
us abandoning Mafa religious belief and cultural elements. This reality
of the sudden abundance of elements that are part of an ethnic inheritance,
can only be understood if we consider the gender differences in this society.
Mafa women could leave their ethnic group because as I have argued
elsewhere the sexual division of labour (what we called gender structure)
in religion gave them no responsibilities for the production of 'neighbourhoods'
(Appadurai 1996: 180), or the continuity of the clan. The main responsibilities
in Mafa religion had to be performed by Mafa men. Mafa women were supposed
to be literally mutely present on these occasions. Their role facilitates
an easy departure from local surroundings.
historical identity and gender
Another criterion to explain ethnic construction in the African context
as well as elsewhere in the world, is historical identity. Most ethnic
groups refer to the past to fulfil a need for continuity. A common ancestor
may be projected upon the backdrop of a mythical past to symbolise and
justify the idea of unity. In the founding histories of different Mafa
groups, the Gudur massif, the source of the river Tsanaga, is the epicentre
that is considered sacred. This may create a perspective of an unchangeable
and timeless culture among the members of a specific ethnic group. The
idea that ethnicity is not shaped by 'objective' cultural elements but
by ‘ideas about cultural elements (see Eriksen l993), implies that ethnic
identity can be maintained in times of drastic cultural change. It may
also mean that members of a group can identify with existing traditions
without having to live accordingly.
In Fulbe and Mafa communal history, as in the case of many other groups
in North Cameroon, the past has been defined in terms of descent and origin.
By ascription to patrilinear descent groups, members are inducted into
the collective history of patrilinear descent with clearly defined rules.
It should be kept in mind that people's conception of the past is based
not only on historical facts. The past includes history as perceived by
the members of the group. But there are limits to the manipulation of
the past; otherwise, the past would lose its effectiveness (Peel: 1989:
When the past is reviewed, there is a strong accent on patriarchal relations.
Women are depicted as passive subjects on men's stage, on which the actors
make political alliances with other groups by marrying out 'their' women.
Within most ethnic groups in North Cameroon, women's position does not
benefit from reference to that common history. Therefore, they will probably
choose another version. It should also be kept in mind that this vision
of group history is an idealised view. In no way does it agree with reality
as the example of Mafa society shows us. Mafa women readily leave their
husband's clan to marry into another clan or to Islamise. In the event
of Islamisation, the breach is thorough. Not only does she leave the area
as the process of Islamisation is concomitant with that of urbanisation,
but she also abandons the rituals, the religious duties and the marriage
system and prestations (11).
In a world that offers alternative life styles, there are many ways for
women to escape a patriarchal construction of ethnic identity, as the
case of the Mafa demonstrates (van Santen l993 a & b; l996 b; 1998
a, b; forthcoming).
that local communities or neighbourhoods offer and gender
In the region under consideration, kinship relations form the basis of
many ethnic groups. Ethnicity has become significant in a complex kinship
network. The common idea, as still expressed by Horowitz (1985) was that
individuals may find security in that network, and that it structures
daily activities. This implies that ethnic groups, localities or neighbourhoods
are often perceived as large harmonious families. If so, we are ignoring
the mutual contradictions which may exist between women and men on the
level of ‘gender symbolism’ and ‘gender structure’, between women on the
level of ‘gender structure’, and on the level of the ‘individual gender’,
that is the differences within each woman.
In Mafa society, a newly wedded wife has a different status from that
of her mother-in-law, even though this society is unknown within extended
family structure. A woman without children has a different status from
that of the woman with children. A woman without sons will end up at old
age with no position at all, if she is lucky. If she is unlucky, the surrounding
community may accuse her of being a mide, that is a soul-eater, a potential
threat for every member of society. This proves that feelings of security
in Mafa society will be different for all these women. In the case of
accusation of witchcraft security is totally absent.
The male perspective that is, a perspective that takes the interests of
the male population as a point of departure – in Africanist ethnicity
studies, makes an appeal to 'natural' arguments concerning descent to
legitimise the differences within one's own group and between one's own
group and 'other' groups.
As stated above, social cohesion in Mafa and Fulbe society is mostly structured
by patrilinear descent. Children belong to the clan (Mafa: gwali; Fulfulde:
asngol) of the father. Marriages between members of different ethnic groups
are rare in non-Islamic Mafa environments. As the following example shows,
men may forbid women to leave the ethnic group, while the woman in this
case had nothing to gain by a feeling of ethnic affiliation.
Mary was 15 years old and got pregnant. Though the Mafa have no preoccupation
with virginity before marriage, a daughter should not be pregnant while
still living under the roof of her father or the man who brought her up.
Thereupon, Mary was sent away from the house of her paternal uncle, with
whom she had lived since her father had died. She came to live with an
old lady who lived on her own (her only son had migrated). The two of
them sort of managed, though they lived in very poor conditions. One day
a boy, attending the 'Lycée' in Mokolo but originally from the
South of Cameroon (a total "stranger") came and claimed he was the father
of the child. I was rather glad and exclaimed that all would be settled,
as they could marry and get over and done with her difficult situation
now. Then the whole circle of Mafa people around me started to utter in
disgust that such was impossible, could never be the case, because, as
they said "who is going to give away his daughter to a total stranger?"
I spoke to her uncle later on and he said the same, so she and the child
remained with the old lady, and two years later gave birth to another
child, from another 'stranger'. At the time the girl was too young to
decide to go her own way against an eventual wish of her surroundings.
Contrary to Mafa society, in Fulbe and Islamic environments, mixed marriages
are very common. In non-Fulbe islamic society, being a Muslim becomes
the most important identity. In both societies children belong to the
father's patrilinear descent group.
The saddest aspect of Mary's case was, in the eyes of Mafa community,
not the poor condition in which she had to bring up her children, but
the fact that her children had no patrilinear clan, which made them sort
In a similar example of an islamised Mafa woman who got a child from a
total "stranger", the child was part of the Muslim community, which is
a meaningful identity.
In the course of my research, I found out that Mafa women without sons
often Islamised at a later age, as did Maama Laila. They deliberately
never indicated this fact. Maama Laila said that she decided to Islamise
due to the different appeals the men, namely, first husband, second husband,
father, brother around her made. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the
Muslim community offers her and women in similar situations some security,
based on Islamic ideology, that "traditional" Mafa society could not offer
In general, the security a group may offer, will be totally different
for women and men. Conditions that provide a man's security may imply
terror and violence for a woman. This divergence of interests may be even
wider in the event of migration to distant areas (see van Santen: 1998a;
forthcoming). As Appadurai stated:
Women in particular bear the brunt of this sort of friction, for they
become pawns in the heritage politics of the household and are often subject
to the abuse and violence of men who are themselves torn about the relation
between heritage and opportunity in shifting spatial and political formations
(Appadurai l996: 45).
It may also
be the other way around. In a strong patriarchal society as that of the
Mafa, the male spouse continuously fears he might be bewitched by his
wife or one of his in-laws, an act that will lead to his death. As an
old lady puts it:
"The kuyuk of one's father (so the paternal clan of the mother of a
father) and one's own kuyuk (the clan of one's mother)...well you always
need to be aware of them and fear them. If you do not fear them enough,
they are going to curse you, or they curse the whole gwali (father's clan),
because of your disrespect. It may be just a small thing. For example
if you do not understand a thing, they only say 'hai...' and you are already
cursed. Very simple 'hai'...and you may lose your senses for the rest
of your life. And if they have already cursed you, the only thing they
can do is go to the diviner and ask him what to do. He will mostly tell
you to go and make an offering at the place of the kuyuk under concern."
position of the clan of one's mother is due to the importance of the female
category on a symbolic level – what we called before ‘gender symbolism’.
On the other hand, Mafa society is patrilocal. This implies that the wife
comes to live with a hostile clan and will be considered as a potential
enemy. Thus, wives will probably develop different feelings about group
cohesion than Mafa husbands, who always remain part of the descent group
they were born to. The Fulbe marriage system favours cross-cousin marriages,
which means that women ideally come to live in groups they are related
to. However, Fulbe society has incorporated many female members of other
ethnic groups, who need to find their way in a totally ‘alien’ society.
My research indicated that women who want to islamise in most cases come
to live with Islamised relatives in town, to thereafter find their own
way in the Islamic community. When an islamised Mafa woman marries an
Islamic Fulbe man her children will be ‘ethnic’ Fulbe and her ‘biological
reproductive forces’ are lost for the Mafa community.
of ethnic identity and Gender
Reproduction is a central theme when gender is studied in relation to
ethnicity. Different types of reproduction may be distinguished (Edholm
et al. l977): Biological reproduction (biological procreation of group
members); reproduction of the labour force; and social reproduction (reproduction
of social and cultural relations).
Concerning social reproduction, it is important to take into account the
fact that women and men may take a different perspective on the ethnic
identity of their particular group. The images men and women have of biological
and social reproduction need to be taken into account, when studying changing
worldviews and their consequences on ethnic boundaries and group cohesion.
A conscious and outspoken reason for Maama Laila in our introductory story
to leave her group was the different appeals the men around her made.
However, she was one among many women without sons who Islamised at an
elderly age. The relation between mothers and sons is just as important
as the relation between fathers and daughters. In Mafa society elderly
women come to live with their youngest sons. Women without sons end up
living alone. So we may say that the continued absence of biological offspring
made Maama Laila, as many other childless women or women without sons,
leave her ethnic group and change identity.
In patrilinear groups, the boundaries of social cohesion within the groups
and social differences between the group and the 'other' are often constructed
via women. How women as acting subjects respond to male-constructed boundaries
and whether they identify themselves with the same forms of social cohesion
or have created their own boundaries, are topics that in general still
need much investigation. Maama Laila's decision to leave the group, is
a good example of a woman who in her specific ethnic context acts as a
self-regulating agent whose own interests prevail above group interests.
Because of the group cohesion in patrilinear systems, direct biological
reproduction is very important. From a male point of view, the crucial
issues are with whom may women marry? whose children do they bear? whose
offspring may they give birth to? As a consequence of biological reproductive
capacities and their role in social reproduction, women are quite often
ambivalent creatures in the perspective of men. On the one hand, they
are physically and symbolically appreciated as procreators. An example
of ‘symbolic gender’ in Mafa society:
On a symbolic level, Mafa women are responsible for the harvest, the time,
the seasonal change, etc. As we mentioned before, the female category
is associated with right, with evenness, with life and with the primordial
past. ‘the number two’, ‘even’, ‘doubleness’ lies at the source of 'being'
and are key symbols in Mafa society. ‘Uneven’ is associated with male
and the (patriarchal) organisation of ‘here and now’ society. Even and
uneven need to be in balance. The female category always needs to be taken
On the other hand women are often distrusted and therefore excluded from
certain male activities, as shown in this example in which Mafa society
solves the contradiction between the ‘symbolic gender’ and the ‘structural
Women are excluded from the sacrifice on the mountain on behalf of the
clan in Mafa society. If women would enter this exclusively male environment,
she would loose her reproductive capacities and become sterile. However,
because there needs to be a balance between male and female principles,
she is symbolically represented by a male person. For this sacrifice,
three male persons are present and one male person representing the female
person, which makes four (that is: three, male principle and one (male
principle) makes four, (female principle).
Women may also be controlled because men fear their non-conformism towards
patriarchal institutions of marriage, parenthood and inheritance and the
values and norms that go with these institutions. The fact that women
are absolutely necessary for reproduction and thus for the continuity
of the group adds to the tension between the genders. Biological reproduction
is also related to the reproduction of labour.
For the Mafa, this is visible in the pattern of marriage exchange. By
marriage, the patri clan of the girl is connected with the patri clan
of her (future) husband, though a married woman herself will always remain
part of the clan of her own father. Every household individually produces
food crops, but during the harvest rituals, men of different households
gather in the household of the daughter of one of them to drink the beer
she has prepared. With this ritual drinking, the relation between the
clan of the father and his daughter is emphasised. Through this custom,
economic production, biological reproduction and the reproduction of labour
are interconnected, because the father of the bride can always count on
the labour input of his daughter's husband. By means of the brideprice,
a son-in-law gives part of his labour and his property to the father of
his bride. In return, he obtains rights to the children she hopefully
will give birth to in the future. When daughters decide to Islamise and
thereafter marry men of other ethnic groups, this connection between the
different types of reproduction and production is broken. So it is in
the interest of the fathers that daughters to marry within their own ethnic
ethnic identity and gender in North Cameroon
The Mafa have a caste society, are ethnically endogamous, caste endogamous
and clan exogamous. People from clans of a blacksmith caste and people
from clans of the non-blacksmith caste do not marry each other. People
are not allowed to marry within the clan of the father, or the clan of
the mother up till three generations. Non-Islamic people do not often
marry people from other ethnic groups as the case of Mary has shown us.
This has obvious consequences for the various levels of reproduction I
distinguished. Founded on unilinearity exogamic clan groups come into
being, that need clear marriage rules, in order to keep reproductive capacities
of their own women, again looked at from a male point of view as much
as possible within the group. In a patriarchal society, these rules are
most probably in the interest of maintaining this patriarchy. But as we
know from the case of the Mafa women, women in general never completely
submit themselves. After Islamisation, Mafa women become ethnically exogamous
and ensuingly marry Islamic men of
other ethnic groups.
An important part of ideology concerning ethnic endogamy are the stereotypes
that are used to distinguish the 'own' women and men compared to women
and men of other groups. We already mentioned the view Mafa people have
and maintain vis-à-vis Kapsiki men. Ethnic differences are marked
by referring to the way in which men of other groups treat their women
or the women their men, or the relations between the genders in general.
So gender is not only used as a symbol of 'objective' cultural differences
between ethnic groups, but it also ventilates biases and mythical views
that strengthen these differences.
With the Mafa, ethnic endogamy does apply to women as well as men, but
in Fulbe society endogamy only holds for men. The Fulbe in North Cameroon
still consider other ethnic groups to be inferior (infidels haabe), as
expounded by Islamic ideology. Furthermore, the Fulbe feel that to 'civilise'
is synonymous with to 'Islamise'. Notwithstanding these attitudes adoption
of non-Fulbe children was never a problem nor was concubinage or marriage
between Fulbe men and women of other groups. In former days, they also
married their female slaves, whose children thereafter had the same rights
as other children from the patrilineage. Social reproduction among the
Fulbe took place by incorporation of nonmale members of other ethnic groups.
With reference to Islam, the group considered marriage between Fulbe women
and non-Fulbe men to be out of the question. This 'openness' to non-Fulbe
women and children can be understood as a collective strategy. It has
allowed the politically dominant Fulbe to overcome the obstacle of being
a numerical minority in the North Cameroonian context. Women are not just
passive objects in such a 'strategy'. They use it to strengthen or improve
their own position (see also v.d. Berg l996).
socialisation and gender
In North Cameroon, the borders of ethnic regions are also marked by the
different languages spoken by members of the various groups. Depending
on the ethnic group under consideration, differences may emerge between
women and men. In Fulbe society, women use a different language than men.
In fact the genders are not even supposed to openly communicate with each
other in public. This implies that two women of different ethnic groups
sometimes communicate more easily with each other than a woman and a man
from the same ethnic group. Non-Islamic autochthonous men are not even
considered a threat to the sexual integrity of Fulbe women. Whereas women
cannot speak in public with their own men, they can laugh and joke with
men from 'inferior' ethnic groups, as the latter are not considered to
be 'sexually' plausible marriage partners. Due to the recent waves of
Islamism, this may change. In the cases given, inter-ethnic contact is
based on unilateral ethnic endogamy.
Appadurai emphasised that the trans-generational stability of knowledge
was presupposed in most theories of enculturation (or of socialisation).
He assumes that marriages become the meeting points of historical patterns
of socialisation and new ideas of proper behaviour. However, before even
considering changes in 'habitus' we need to be aware that many traditions
are gender-bound. Customs that are part of the process of socialisation,
and which contribute to the development of ethnic consciousness from early
childhood onwards, are quite different for women and men in most societies.
Various institutions on which group cohesion is predicated may have different
meanings for women and men. Patrilinear and matrilinear kinship systems
are not the only institutions to be considered. Patterns of settlement
or inheritance may also put a slant on the way ethnic consciousness is
constructed. Maama Laila considered the Fulbe inheritance system, which
entitles women to inherit property, one of the advantages of Islamisation.
She formulated it as follows:
"Me, Daada Reinout (mother of Reinout, my son), I like to trade to find
some money. I will buy my own piece of land [Mafa women traditionally
do not own land] and I will build my own house there. And then I also
like to have a person beside me with whom I can talk [So to have a husband
is always nice, she means]. And if one day I will no longer be alive,
my daugher, the mother of Laila, can take it together with my trade, and
then if one day she no longer gets along with her husband, she can live
in that house..."
Fulbe hegemony and new ethnic consciousness
In Mafa society, a transnational change took place as Islamisation coincided
with colonisation, urbanisation and 'civilisation'. Due to the fact that
Islam in these areas is very much a town religion, until recently many
local rural surroundings in the mountainous area remained relatively unaffected
by Islamic values. However, due to overpopulation, many inhabitants needed
to make a living elsewhere. These migrants were mainly male (women tend
to stay behind). Not only were they confronted with a rapidly changing
world, but they also brought elements of this world back home (van Santen:
1998a; Schaafsma and Zuiderwijk: 1997; Schaafsma: 1998; van Santen and
Schaafsma: forthcoming). Thus the outside world, and all the influences
that pervade it, not only find their ways to the once inaccessible rocky
slopes that characterise the Mafa habitat, but also strengthen their feelings
of ethnic identity.
So, nowadays, two streams of non-local influences more or less compete
with each other: One is the transnational influence of Islam, which predominated
until recently. The other is the more Western-oriented flow of ideas that
non-Islamic migrants bring when they come back from the cities.
Since my initial fieldwork in the area (1986-1988), the political context
has altered; the dominant position of the Fulbe is crumbling. Mokolo,
the town once founded by the Fulbe people, until recently had a mainly
Islamic character though non-Muslim quarters existed. Now Mokolo has become
an urban centre for Mafa people(12). The migrants in particular have developed
an ethnic consciousness. During my stay in Mokolo town in 1992, 1995 and
1998, I found to my great surprise that Mafa had replaced Fulfulde as
the lingua franca, even in the market place. This new ethnic consciousness
is also evident in other areas in North Cameroon (see Schilder 1994 and
v.d.Berg 1996). It may reflect differences in formal education. The South
still considers the North ‘backwarded’ compared to the rest of Cameroon
in the area of education, as strangely enough Islamic education never
counted in the statistics – and for a long time the Fulbe were mainly
interested in religious education. Non-Islamic groups started to attend
secular schools much sooner than the Islamic population. For example,
the percentage of Mafa who finished secondary school seems to be higher
than the percentage for the Fulbe. The new self-awareness of non-Islamic
ethnic groups also comes up in political events(13) (van Santen and Schilder
l994; van Santen l996a; van Santen 1998: a,b van Santen: forthcoming).
However, new developments change the scene. The process of Islamism may
lead to a situation whereby ethnic boundaries count less (which may be
an advantage in a world where ethnic clashes become ever more violent),
but Islamic ideology becomes more prominent. Not surprisingly in this
ideology rules concerning proper behaviour and conduct of women and men
are prominent. If we continue to exclude gender relations from our analyses,
we will loose track of society’s reality.
I have argued that in Africa, contrary to the European situation, ethnic
groups do not apply to a notion of consanguinity to define their own ethnic
group. The case of the Mafa, an ethnic group in North Cameroon, shows
that neither ‘cultural explanations’ nor ‘political explanations’ as used
in the ethnicity debate, could elucidate what exactly defines the boundaries
of ethnic identity. For the Mafa, ethnic ‘Mafa’ identity is only a phenomenon
of importance since Islamisation and migration on a large scale started
to occur. Until recently clan-descendancy was more important.
Studies on ethnicity have hardly included gender relations within different
ethnic groups. If in the future they will finally regard gender relations,
these should not just be taken for granted as meaning the relations between
women and men without any analytical implications, but for the sake of
analyses, should be divided. I acknowledged a symbolic structure, by which
I meant the difference between female and male identities which are constituted
in the process of cultural reproduction and ‘ideas’ about how women and
men ought to behave. Further, a structural gender level, that is the way
rights and duties within a society are divided between women and men.
Finally, an individual gender level that is concerned with the ideas women
and men in specific cultural or local (ethnic) contexts have about the
gender roles they ought to fulfil and the way they should actually fulfil
them. In addition, gender does not just stand for the relation between
women and men as spouses, but relations between mothers and sons, fathers
and daughters, brothers and sisters, uncles and nieces etc. ought to be
In this paper, I looked at the way ethnic identity is constructed in patrilinear
and virilocal societies like those of the Mafa and Fulbe, and I showed
that in an ethnic endogamic and clan exogamic society like that of the
Mafa, differences between one ethnic group and the ‘other’ are constructed
through the women. In Fulbe society, ethnic endogamy only holds for men,
and marriage with women from other ethnic groups was in the past a collective
strategy that allowed the Fulbe who were politically but not numerically
dominant, to overcome the obstacle of being a numerical minority in the
North Cameroonian context.
Ethnic differences are also marked by referring to the way in which men
of other groups treat their women or the women their men, or the relations
between the genders in general. So gender ventilates biases and mythical
views that strengthen ethnic differences.
Gender relations are often essential to understand how ‘ethnicity’ is
constructed and maintained. Though in Mafa society relations between father-daughter,
mother – son, brothers and sisters are more important, men – like elsewhere
need to have a sexual relation with women in order to physically reproduce
their society, their ethnic group. They not only need ‘their’ women for
biological reproduction, but also for the social reproduction and the
reproduction of labour force. However, women are no passive agents in
these ‘needs of men’. The examples of Mafa society have shown that women
have all sort of strategies to play their role in the construction of
ethnic groups and boundaries. In Mafa society a common strategy was to
Islamise and marry Islamic men from other ethnic groups. Taking into consideration
the ‘structural’ gender relations in Mafa society, it is easy to see that
Mafa women do not have an active role within religious activities and
this facilitates an easy departure and change of religious identity.
Another criterion that shapes ethnic identity is historical identity.
In the case of the Mafa and the Fulbe, the past is defined in terms of
patrilinear descent and origin. However, the past also includes history
as perceived by the members of the group. When the past is reviewed with
a strong accent on patriarchal relations, this mostly does not benefit
women’s position, so they will probably choose another version. I argued
that in a world that offers alternative lifestyles – in the case of the
Mafa, changing religious identity means a change of identity altogether
– there are many ways for women to escape a patriarchal construction of
It is also argued that membership of an ethnic community offers its members
security. This may differ for women and men. Mafa men do not like to see
‘their’ women marry men from other groups, and this attitude may have
serious repercussions (sometimes violent) on women. An important gender
relation within their society is those between mothers and especially
her youngest son, with whom she will live at old age. If she does not
have sons, Mafa society offers little security at old age. Many elderly
Mafa women who Islamised did so, because in those cases the Islamic community
offers them a security, based on Islamic ideology. Also the virilocal
settlement pattern and clan exogamic marriage pattern means that a Mafa
woman may marry into a rather hostile clan and for her security, she depends
on her own clan via her father and or brothers. This lack of security
in daily life may be at the base of a woman’s decision to leave the group,
so to have her own interest prevail above group interests. With my contribution
I wanted to indicate the necessity to include gender as an analytical
concept in the study of ethnicity. Gender is not just about ‘adding women’.
Gender relations are not just ‘men’s’ private affairs. Gender as an analytical
scientific concept is essential to understand ethnic processes of inclusion
and exclusion all over the world, also in Africa. Hopefully it will be
included in the new millennium.
the former husband, the new husband and the father of the woman needed
to negotiate which part of the bridewealth ought to be returned to the
(2) Elsewhere, I extensively described the process of Islamisation in
the once inaccessible area of the Mandara mountains (Van Santen l993;
l994; l995; l996). That is, the historical context and the cultural features
that produced - what Appadurai refers to as - the actors,
...who properly belong to the situated community of kin, neighbors, friends
and enemies...(Appadurai l996: 179), who in the course of this century
came to be known as the Mafa. I analysed the changes that conversion to
Islam brought about in the relations between the genders. I depicted how
Mafa women integrated the cultural features of the Fulbe people in their
new lifestyle - and especially what this meant for women's position, and
drew some conclusions concerning Mafa women's strategies in general
(van Santen l993 a & b; l995a; l996 a & b; 1998b; van Santen en
(3) Many ideas used in this paper were worked out in cooperation with
Kees Schilder, and some of them were used in an article written
by us in Dutch (1994).
(4). Besides, as Braidotti stated, the notion of Woman refers to
a female sexed subject that is constituted through a process of identification
with culturally available positions organised in the dichotomy of gender
(5) It is not clear when people invaded the mountains. The area has probably
been inhabited since neolithic times, as tools from this period have been
found. Despite this evidence we cannot speculate on the autochtonous character
of the inhabitants (Martin l970: 25). Many migration movements took place
before Fulbe hegemony. Martin considers that in the seventeenth century,
the different ethnic groups [the French distinguished: like the Tschede,
Fali, Daba, Guidar, Guisiga, Kapsiki, Mofu and Matakam] probably lived
in juxtaposition without hegemony of one specific group. In the founding
history of various groups within Mafa society as well as within other
ethnic groups, the Gudur massif, lying south-east of Mokolo (in present
day, what is called, Mofu-territory) at the limits of the Diamaré
plains, is the epicentre and is considered sacred. It is the source of
the river Tsanaga (Boisseau and Soula l974).
In the literature the Mafa were referred to as Matakam (Lavergne l949;
Martin l970; Podlewski l966; Name used in Colonial archives and censuses).
Lavergne mentioned (1949; 1990) that the term Matakam came from the Fulbe,
who les ait traitées de Mettayamen, pluriel de Mettayamjo, terme
méprisant réservé aux êtres que la nature n'a
pas favorisés, l'absence de vêtements étant pour les
Peulhs un signe évident de pauvreté, de manque de dignité
et d'inferiorité. Cela se passe vers 1850. (Lavergne l949;
l990; also Martin l970: 16).
Mettayam became Mettakam or Matakam and with that name one first
indicated the mountains and afterwards also the 'tribes' that inhabited
those mountains. The Mafa themselves loathe the term and consider it more
and more as an insult.
(6) In the light of our discussion, I use inverted commas for this term.
The underlying idea is that women are"exchanged" as passive subjects.
During my research, it became clear that they never have been (van Santen
l993: 257 ff.: Mafa marriage negotiations: the mother's voice and the
girl's desire). Also in the course of this paper, it will become evident
that women have their own strategies to escape patriarchal constructions.
Of course, patriarchally raised anthropologists did not realise this and
often are still unaware of their male bias.
(7) Lavergne (and Martin) distinguish within, what they call the Matakam,
the group called Boulahay ( a regrouping Mafa and Mofu people after the
latter had been chased from the massif named Gudur), in the South
and around Mokolo; the Mabass around the village with the same name; the
Mafa clans like Hide, Ndare and Gélébda, intermarried with
Marghi immigrants who came from around Madagali (nowadays Nigeria) and
settled near Tourou; the Mineo who intermarried with the Mafa around
Roua in the West; and the Mafa, as the most important group in the centre
around Roua and Soulédé (regrouped between the compromised
massifs of the valleys of Tsanaga, Kerawa and the Madagali plateau after
a triple pression from the south, west and east in the former century)
(Lavergne l949; 1990: 8 ff.).
(8) For example J.C.Mitchell (1956) or Epstein 1958.
(9) Theorists denying the essentialist character of ethnicity are f.ex.
Uchendu (1965), Kasfir (1976)
(10) The UNDP is considered to be the political party of the Islamic population
(van Santen l996).
(11) In the Muslim community women's attitude is not very much different.
Islamised women leave just as easily and few Fulbe women in North Cameroon
remain with one husband for a lifetime.
(12) The Mafa clans never lived in centralised villages, but in settlements
scattered throughout the mountains.
(13) Whereas the local Mafa lamido (chief) in town used to be a Muslim,
in the l991 elections also non-Muslim Mafa men were candidates for this
position (van Santen l996a).
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The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.
Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cette article sont
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et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.