Mitzi Goheen

Colonialism to Nationalism: The Articulation of Dominance
The Recent Context: Gender and Accumulation
Marriage Strategies, Resistance and Stratification
Conclusion: Accumulation, Resistance and the Reproduction of Stratification


Seated in smoky kitchens, women of Nso' gather at the end of a long hard day of farming to share gossip and food. At the centre of their talk are allusions to their menfolk, often the subject of derision. Men are frequently referred to as incompetent, unable to care for themselves and too irresponsible to take care of their children. Women chuckle, or ruefully shake their heads and declare, 'Men are like children. What good are they? Who feeds the household? Men are useless somebodies! They only live to drink raffia wine and converse!' In their words we can hear the echoes of women's statements to the British anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry over four decades ago: 'Important things are women. Men are little. The things of women are important. What are the things of men? Men are indeed worthless. Women are indeed God. Men are nothing. Have you not seen?'
At the same time, gathered in mimbo parlours and off-licenses, men philosophize about women. 'Women,' say the men, 'should always listen only to the man.' They cannot 'reason correctly' because 'their hearts get in the way.' This is given as a rationale for keeping women at home, on the farm, and out of positions of public decision-making. Listening to men in Nso' today one is again struck by the similarity of statements made forty years ago: 'Ruling is for the man. If you catch trouble, will you send for a man or a woman? A woman has farm work. You call her the mother of the farm.'
These conversations provide two very different images of women: on the one hand, powerful and in control, and on the other, subservient to men. These may appear as puzzling today as they did to Phyllis Kaberry when, perplexed by these contradictions, she asked the Fon of Nso' why, if women were held in such high esteem, if they were like God and were the mothers of the farm, did they not sit on important political councils? To which the Fon replied, 'Yes, women are like God, and like God they should stay quiet and let men run the country' (Kaberry 1952).
These statements are not as contradictory as they first appear. Access to power through control over symbolic and material resources is different for men and women both individually and as a group. The field of power in Nso' is gendered. Relations of power have taken on new configurations and conditions, boundaries and meaning of categories, including gender and marriage, are becoming contested in new ways. As long as men did not threaten women's control over resources considered to be within the female domain, women have been content to subscribe to the fiction of male dominance.
In this paper, I will examine strategies of power and accumulation in Nso'. In doing so I will trace both the development of male hierarchies of political power and control over female production and reproduction as a facet of male accumulative strategies. Male hierarchies were (and are) based on control over women's production and reproduction. I will trace these themes from pre-colonial Nso' through the colonial period to the present.
Within the Nso' political economy of prestige, symbolic capital remains a primary object of accumulation. Women produce material wealth, which men convert to symbolic capital to gain access to more productive and reproductive labour and thus to more material wealth. Ultimately both symbolic and material capital are turned into power of one form or another. Symbolic capital supported complex strategies by which men gained control over production and reproduction, and over regional and inter-regional alliances and trade networks. Titled men had a number of rights and obligations vis-a-vis their dependents including the right to control access to land and to demand labour from both women and men. Customary tenure rules reflected the social order. While the Fon had titular rights of ownership, actual management of land was in the hands of a number of lineage heads, the ataanggwën or 'the men who own the fields'. All Nso' people were guaranteed access to farmland by right of citizenship as long as they abided by the rules of customary law, meaning the rules of the Fon and the lineage heads.
It was through control of women's reproductive and productive labour, as well as alliances set up by affinal arrangements, that men wielded power. The Fon, for instance, had the right to give away in marriage not only his own daughters and granddaughters, but also the firstborn among his great-granddaughters and great-great-granddaughters. Lineage heads controlled, with few exceptions, the marriage of all female dependents and received the bulk of the services and gifts which husbands were required to give to their affines during the course of their marriage. Title holders thus controlled a variety of practices which confirmed and reproduced their power. They were trustees of lineage land and properties, the disposers of its women in marriage, wife-providers for young men, the principal officiants of its ancestral cult, and members of titled societies in the palace which in turn confirmed them in office.
The division of labour in pre-colonial Nso' was strictly gendered, allocating women's labour to farming and men's to hunting, warfare and trade. Women's productive labour freed men to participate in trading networks; their reproductive labour increased the size of the household and thus the status and the labour force of the male head. Any surplus value women produced was retained by men. Regional trade was not based substantially on sale of food, although cereals were traded for palm oil, but consisted mostly of items controlled by men: kola, small livestock, handicrafts and iron hoes, palm wine, banana and plantain. Success in regional trade gave men access to the more lucrative state-controlled long-distance trade.
Women created a workforce and a surplus. Men invested that surplus in regional trade. The profits from regional trade were invested in symbolic capital. This in turn gave entry into more lucrative forms of trade. The profits from both regional and long-distance trade could be ploughed back into increasing the household size, and thus both the status of the compound head and the surplus available to him. Ultimately, in combination, symbolic and material capital could be transformed into symbolic power, and into supporting the structures of male hierarchy.
Although the hierarchy was clearly gendered, women were not without power. Women's control over the household food supply constantly demonstrated men's day-to-day dependence on women. Women's political power, although not as consistently public as that of men, was not insignificant. A number of women's associations, such as chong, gave them a voice in the public domain. Women could and did assemble to reprove the Fon (Chilver 1989). Women also had important administrative and political roles in the palace. They ran much of its infrastructure deciding who was going to cook for and sleep with the Fon - no small task when the Fon had 300 wives. By making these decisions, they became critical players in politics. They could effectively decide the list of sons from which the next Fon would be chosen (Mzeka 1980).
Wives of the Fon and of important councillors had decision-making powers with regards to organizing work on the Fon's farm. The yeefon, queen mother, was only one of several women in positions of power in the palace. Women married to the Fon brought honour to their families and could expect support from them. The Fon's wives were largely responsible for recruiting girls to the palace as new wives. If the girls were not suited for marriage to the Fon, the wife who recruited her could marry her to an nshiylav - a page either in the palace or in ngwerong, the regulatory society. The issue belonged to the Fon's wife who had recruited the girl. Clearly, women were far more than pawns in a political game of gift exchange between men. The palace was the centre of political intrigue and women were major political actors.

Return to the Paideuma Contents page
Return to the 'Mama for story' page