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The Humanities Conference 2003

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African Women Eliminating Borders

Cheryl Toman.

Nigeria and Cameroon both experienced a colonial past and the borders of both nations were drawn by European powers who ignored the customs and traditions of the ethnic groups that they were dividing. Even after achieving independence, Nigeria and Cameroon still remapped their common border twice more. Although women along this boder are technically living in two separate and independent nations today, the Igbo women of Nigeria and the Kom women of Cameroon have lost faith in "official" political systems and there is a tendency on their part to ignore the recognized borders, favoring instead a governance of their villages according to an embedded matriarchal system which is common to their history since precolonial times. In both of these ethnic groups, the women ultimately hold more authority in the power structure than men, although there is an intricate system of checks and balances applicable to both communities. Essentially, women, in solidarity, hold political power which they delegate to men. The women overturn men's political power however if there is an abuse that will negatively impact the entire community. In this case, women will appropriate power which is announced by various rituals until order can be reestablished and social ills corrected. Nigerian feminist scholar Ifi Amadiume profiles these communities in her book, Reinventing Africa: Matriarchy, Religion, and Culture, and this work along with other anthropological and sociological texts will be used in the analysis of a political structure that is so highly organized that both women and men have scoffed at the idea of state government both in words and action. There have been documented cases where recognized government have had to concede to this matriarchal structure in order to achieve their goals. This study will focus on the Igbo and the Kom in particular and on their customs and rituals that transcend national boundaries, creating perhaps a more preferable option than a nation for these two ethnic groups.


Cheryl Toman  (United States)
Professor in French Studies
Department of Modern Languages
Millikin University

Specialist in French, Women's Studies and African Studies. Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at Millikin University. Author of numerous publications and conference presentations in the U.S. and abroad.

  • Africa
  • Matriarchy
  • Women
  • Igbo
  • Kom
  • Nation

(30 min Conference Paper, English)