Several years ago, after I came back from my first field trip to Cameroon, I had a meeting with my two mentors in Anthropology, Alberto and Augusto Cacopardo. I wanted to tell them of a few unexpected features I had been exposed to in NW Cameroon. I found one particularly surprising: there are patrilineal societies and matrilineal societies living one close to the other. Why is this surprising? System of descent is usually thought of as a deep social feature, something that cannot change easily nor quickly in a society. So, finding diversity in this regard in the same region was kind of puzzling, especially because known patterns of migration do not seem to coincide with current distribution of systems of descent.
Even more surprising was the fact that, in many local ethnohistories, there are memories of groups who changes from one system to the other abruptly, voluntarily . The reasons can be many: more control over a group’s resources (amongst which women) or a powerful way to be perceived as distinct from other groups are just the first two that come to my mind.
All Lower Fungom societies are patrilineal (see below) but one: Kung. Outside of Lower Fungom there are big matrilineal groups (like Aghem and Fungom) as well as patrilineal ones (Bum, We).
Both Alberto and Augusto were very skeptical “changes as this one cannot happen in a generation!”. But there are reasons to believe that in this regard, too, Africans behave in a very different way…
What is matrilinearity and what patrilinearity? Descent (and inheritance) from father to son is patrilineal descent. Descent (and inheritance) through mother, that is, from mother’s brother to nephew, is matrilineal descent.
Here is why Ikom, who is Aghem, has inherited a wife (on top of a house and land) from his maternal uncle.
Pierpaolo Di Carlo