Marriage and Family
Marriage: Marriage is exogamous, preventing individuals with patrilineal links up to fourth generation from marring, and preventing marriage with any matrilineal kin. Two forms of exchange govern relations between wife givers and wife receivers. In bride-price marriage, the groom gains reproductive, sexual, and domestic rights by giving gifts of palm oil, goats, blankets, firewood, and money to the family of his bride. In “ta nkap” marriage, no bride price is exchanged between the bride’s father and the groom. The bride’s father retains rights over the marriage and patrilineal identity of his granddaughters, thus becoming their ta nkap (father by money). These rights of ta nkap can be inherited, and are a way of capitalizing on matrimonial rights. Although outlawed by the French 1927 and 1928, the practice continues. In addition to these two traditional marriage options, contemporary Bamileke may choose Christian marriage with or without bride-wealth, marriage by a justice of the peace, elopement, and single parenthood.
Traditional Bamileke marriage is virilocal, and sons attempt to settle near their father if there is enough land. Polygamy is a goal that is increasingly difficult to achieve, especially on a grand scale, because of the inflation of bride-price and changing ideas about conjugal relations. The amount of bride-price, although higher for women with education, seems primarily dependent upon the groom’s ability to pay. The term for marriage (na’a ndah) is “to cook inside,” condensing the symbolism of the married woman’s confinement to her kitchen, where she literally cooks her husband’s meal and figuratively “cooks” (procreates) children.
Domestic unit: A married man is the jure head of a household consisting of his wife or wives and their children. In polygamous compounds, co-wives have separates dwellings. Although sometimes contentious and competitive, relations among co-wives can be warm and compassionate. In royal compounds, older co-wives are assigned to younger cowives as foster mothers. Full siblings feel strong ties of solidarity, whereas half-siblings are often in competition with each other for attention and inheritance.
Inheritance: Land and real estate are inherited patrilineally and impartibly. Titles are inherited according to both matrilineal and patrilineal rules of descent (see “Land Tenure” and “Kin Groups and Descent”.)
Socialization: Social roles are learned through example and through stories told around the mother’s hearth at mealtimes. Bamileke report particularly warm relations among full siblings, and refer to hearthside commensality and storytelling as the source of this solidarity. Although mothers play a primary role in child rearing, small children may be left with older siblings or co-wives while their mothers do other work. After age 6, Bamileke consider child fosterage an appropriate strategy to deal with scarce resources and to help the child learn to interact with a variety of personalities. There are no formal group-initiation ceremonies at puberty. Boys are now usually circumcised soon after birth. In the past, girls whose families could afford it could spend up to six months in seclusion (nja), eating fattening foods and learning about marriage and sexuality from female kin. Elderly Bamileke say that school has replaced this custom.