Subsistence and Commercial Activities: Rural Bamileke are primarily farmers; they also keep goats and sheep. The staples are maize (the preferred food) and plantains, supplemented by beans and peanuts. Cassava is used primarily to bridge the hungry time between harvests. Tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, and condiments are grown on the ends of rows. Farms are tilled with iron hoes. The major cash crop is coffee. Some Bamileke in lower elevations grow cocoa, and in higher elevations European vegetables such as potatoes, eggplants, and leeks for local and urban markets.
French agricultural policy from 1920 to 1950 favored production of food crops, and many Bamileke kings, fearing a loss of control over the fortunes of their subjects, discouraged the production of coffee. This influence of colonial and indigenous agricultural policy encouraged the small-scale commercialization of women’s food crops, starting in the 1930s, as well as male labor.
Trade: Trade, which has always been important for both women and men, is conducted in local markets organized around and eight-day weekly cycle, as well as in long-distance interethnic exchange. Bamileke traded agricultural goods, game, and small livestock for salt, palm oil, and iron hoes. Weekly local and regional market centers grew during the colonial and postcolonial eras. In these centers, both local and European goods were bought or bartered. One of these market centers, Bafoussam, has grown into a bustling city. Bamileke Immigrants are known as aggressive entrepreneurs. They are active in many sectors and often dominate the taxi and transportation industries of the urban area.
Division of Labor: Since precolonial times, women have been primary producers of food crops (maize, beans, and peanuts). Men have been responsible for tree crops, clearing women’s fields, and building fences. Men’s cash-crop cultivation of coffee and cocoa, shopkeeping, and taxi and truck driving have replaced precolonial involvement in animal husbandry and war. Hunting, once the subject of heroic tales of the founders of the dynasties, is now practiced only occasionally; hunters work at night and must seek the local king’s permission.
Land Tenure: Within each Bamileke kingdom, the king (called fo, fon, or mfen in various Bamileke languages) is the titular owner of the land. Quarter chiefs distribute usufruct rights to male heads of patrilineages. This lineage heads then distributes plots of land to their wives, their noninheriting brothers, and their sisters. Inheritance of usufruct rights is impartible; only one son is heir, often leaving his siblings to seek their fortune in urban centers. With increasing population pressure and increasing privatization of landownership, lineage heads now often fail to award plots of land to their sisters.