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Food, Cocoa, and the Division of Labour by Sex in Two West African Societies

  • Jane I. Guyer (a1)


This paper is an empirical study of the cultural context and historical development of the division of labour by sex in the farming systems of two peoples of the West African cocoa belt: the Yoruba of Western Nigeria and the Beti of South-Central Cameroun. It examines the way in which cocoa as an export crop has been integrated into two different indigenous economies, one in which farming was predominantly a set of tasks for males in the pre-cocoa era, and the other in which farming was women's work.



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This paper has benefitted from the comments of participants in the African Studies Association Symposium on Women in Comparative Perspective (November 1978) and the Boston University African Studies Center, Working Papers Seminar. I would like to thank them, and especially Virginia DeLancey, Margaret Jean Hay, Pauline Peters, Dan McCall, and Sara Berry. The author carried out field research in Western Nigeria, 1968 to 1969, and in Southern Cameroun 1975 to 1977. Both projects were financially supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.

1 Brown, Judith K., ‘A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex’, American Anthropologist 72 (1970): 1073–78. Quote from p. 1077.

2 Burton, Michael L., Brudner, Lilyan A., and White, Douglas R., ‘A Model of the Sexual Division of Labor’, American Ethnologist 4 (1977): 227–51. Quote from p. 249.

3 Boserup, Ester, Woman's Role in Economic Development (London, 1970); Lancaster, C.S., ‘Women, Horticulture and Society in Sub-Saharan Agriculture’, American Anthropologist 78 (1976): 539–64. Quotes from Lancaster, , pp. 541, 554.

4 Sahlins, Marshall, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago, 1976).

5 Edholm, F., Harris, O., and Young, K., ‘Conceptualising Women,’ Critique of Anthropology, 9 & 10 (1977), 101130. Quote from p. 119, 121.

6 Goody, J. and Buckley, J., ‘Inheritance and Women's Labour in Africa‘, Africa 73 (1973): 108–21. Quote from p. 117.

7 Meillassoux, C., Femmes, greniers et capitaux (Paris, 1975); esp. Part II, ‘L'Exploitation de la communauté domestique: l'impérialisme comme mode de production de la main d'oeuvre bon marche’, pp. 139205.

8 Deere, Carmen, ‘Rural Women's Subsistence Production in the Capitalist Periphery’, The Review of Radical Political Economics 8 (1976): 917; Janvry, Alain de and Garramon, Carlos, ‘The Dynamics of Rural Poverty in Latin America’, Journal of Peasant Studies 4 (1977): 206–16.

9 This method is, however, advocated in programmatic statements. See Tiffany, Sharon W., ‘Models and the Social Anthropology of Women, A Preliminary Assessment’, Man 13 (1978): 3451.

10 There are numerous sources on the agricultural techniques of both Beti and Yoruba. The following are the most readily available: Mabogunje, Akin L. and Gleave, Michael B., ‘Changing Agricultural Landscape in Southern Nigeria: The Example of Egba Division 1850–1950’, Nigerian GeographicalJournal 1 (1964): 115; Morgan, W. B. and Moss, R. P., ‘Savannah and Forest in Western Nigeria’, Africa 35 (1965): 286–93; Binet, J. and Alexandre, P., Boulou-Beti-Fang: Le Group dit Pahouin (Paris, 1958).

11 There seems to me to be no evidence that the Yoruba farming system was necessarily more advanced than the Beti system. Superficially it would seem to fit neatly into evolutionary schemes which assign both male farming and more complex social organisation to more advanced farming techniques, but careful reading of the historical sources on crop types, rotations, and techniques suggests that the clearest difference between the two systems lay in the production of cotton for textiles among the Yoruba. Studies of the current functioning of the two ‘traditional’ field systems cannot resolve the issue because they are bound to reflect fifty years of adjustment to changed conditions.

12 See Berry, Sara S., Cocoa, Custom and Socio-Economic Change in Rural Western Nigeria (Oxford, 1975).

13 See Assoumou, Jean, L'Economie du cacao (Paris, 1977).

14 The major sources consulted are: Galletti, R., Baldwin, K. D. S., and Dina, I. O., Nigerian Cocoa Farmers (Oxford, 1956); Güsten, R., Studies in the Staple Food Economy of Western Nigeria (New York, 1968); Upton, Martin, Agriculture in South-western Nigeria (University of Reading Development Studies No. 3, 1967); Binet, J., Budgetsfamiliaux desplanteurs de cacao au Cameroun (Paris, 1956); Marticou, H., Les Structures agricoles du Centre-Sud, Cameroun (Yaoundé, 1962); Société d'Etudes pour le Developpement Economique et Sociale (SEDES), Le Niveau de vie des populations de la zone cacaoyére du Centre Cameroun (Yaoundé, 19641965). One problem with comparing this data is the nature of the sample used in each case. For example, the Cameroun study includes data on cultivators who do not plant cocoa. Seventy-six percent of the SEDES sample for the budget and labour study were considered ‘planters’, 10 percent traditional cultivators, 6 percent salaried workers and 8 percent ‘other’. All of these categories earned part of their income from cocoa, although for ‘non-planters’ this fraction was below 15 percent (SEDES, 19647ndash;1965: 94). By contrast, the Nigerian study was limited to cocoa farmers. Sara Berry's study of the Yoruba rural economy would suggest that two-thirds to three-quarters of the rural male population are farmers. Another related problem is the composition of the female sample. The SEDES study does include single women; the Galletti study appears to include only the resident female members of a cocoa farmer's household. I have not tried to adjust for these differences. It is also worth noting that the term ‘rural’ has an occupational rather than a population distribution referent, because of the urban nature of the Yoruba settlement pattern.

15 The average household size in the Galletti et al. study was 8.1 (Nigerian Cocoa Farmers, p. 192). All the Camerounian studies show a smaller size: 4.5 (SEDES, Niveau de vie, p. 72), 2.7 active adults (Marticou, , Les Structures agricoles, p. 7).

16 Güsten, , Staple Food Economy, p. 41; Essang, S. M., ‘Impact of the Marketing Board on the Distribution of Cocoa Income in Western Nigeria’, The Nigerian Geographical Journal 15 (1972): 3547.

17 Binet, , Budgets familiaux, p. 45.

18 The basic sources on Beti culture are: Laburthe-Tolra, P., Minlaaba (Paris, 1977); Thé, M. P. de, ‘Des Sociétés secrètes aux associations modernes: la femme dans la dynamique de la société Beti, 1887–1966’ (These, E.P.H.A., Paris, 1970); Ngoa, H., ‘Le Mariage chez les Ewondo’ (Thèse, Université de Paris, 1968); Binet, and Alexandre, , Boulou-Beti-Fang.

19 The major sources used on Yoruba culture are: Ojo, G. J. Afolabi, Yoruba Culture: A Geographical Analysis (London, 1966); Fadipe, N. A., The Sociology of the Yoruba, Okediji, F. O. and Okediji, O. O., eds., (Ibadan, 1970); Marshall, Gloria A. [Niara Sudarkasa], ‘Women, Trade and the Yoruba Family’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1964); Odugbesan, C., ‘Feminity in Yoruba Religious Art’, in Douglas, M. and Kaberry, P., eds., Man in Africa (London, 1969), pp. 199211.

20 Yoruba Culture, p. 84.

21 Lloyd, P. C., Yoruba Land Law (London, 1962), esp. pp. 85, 292, 296; Weber, Jacques, Structures Agraires et Evolution des Milieux Ruraux. Le cas de la région cacaoyère du Centre-Sud Cameroun (Yaoundé, 1974).

22 The harvest of egusi melon, which was cultivated in both places, bears a close resemblance to the cocoa harvest in both technique and social organization; it may have provided the cultural paradigm.

23 See Sudarkasa, Niara, ‘Women and Migration in Contemporary West Africa’, Signs 3 (1977): 187; Berry, , Custom, Cocoa and Change, pp. 164–65.

24 Woman's Role, p. 23.

25 This is implied in all the literature, e.g. Galletti, et al. , Nigerian Cocoa Farmers, p. 202. A recent book on food farming never even considers the possibility of women as a source of extra farm labour: Okurume, G. E., Foreign Trade and the Subsistence Sector in Nigeria (New York, 1973).

26 Upton, , Agriculture, p. 9; Tissandier, J., Zengoaga (Paris, 1969), p. 48. The original figures on farm sizes have been reduced to a standard farming unit of one man and one woman. Acreages per household have been divided as follows: Nigeria, the size of both types of farm has been divided by the number of adult men per household. Cameroun, cocoa farm size has been divided by the number of adult men, food farm size by the number of adult women.

27 For colonial history of the Beti food economy, see Guyer, J., ‘The Food Economy and French Colonial Rule in Central Cameroun’, Journal of African History 19 (1978): 577–97.

28 Sources for total work time, by type of work: Galletti, et al. , Nigerian Cocoa Farmers, pp. 294, 298; SEDES, , Niveau de vie, p. 117; Henn, Jeanne K., ‘Peasants, Workers, and Capital in Cameroun’, (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1978), pp. 170–71.

29 SEDES, Niveau de vie, p. 64.

30 Galletti, et al. , Nigerian Cocoa Farmers, p. 462.

31 The higher labour input per unit area in Beti female food cultivation (Figure and Table 2) implies that it is less efficient than Yoruba male farming. But the fact that Yoruba food farmers have abandoned full self-subsistence probably means that their food farming is more specialised. It is possible that male farmers manage to make their labour days more productive than women, who are often taking care of small children at the same time, but the different levels of subsistence maintenance in the two systems mean that Figure 2 in no way proves this.

32 Berry, , Cocoa, Custom and Change, p. 170.

33 Galletti, et al. , Nigerian Cocoa Farmers, p. 560. Sara Berry reports wage differentials between men and women for hired work in agriculture, Cocoa, Custom and Change, p. 135. I have also observed the same thing, although the types of work done by each sex were different: Guyer, J., ‘The Organisational Plan of Traditional Farming: Idere, Western Nigeria’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Rochester, 1972), pp. 84, 86.

34 Calculated from Henn, ‘Peasants, Workers and Capital,’ p. 169. The figure is based on estimates of the proportion of women’s output which is sold, measurements of hours worked, and cash income earned.

35 Hill, Polly, ‘The West African Farming Household’, in Goody, J., ed., Changing Social Structure in Ghana (London, 1975), pp. 119–36.

36 Polly Hill has pointed out the connection between production conditions and the rate of marriage in a rural area of Ghana where a high proportion of women remain unmarried. See her Food Fanning and Migration from Fante Villages’, Africa 48 (1978): 220–30.

37 A recent analysis by Barbara Bratby documents the nonvalorisation of women's labour in a New Guinea society: Bratby, Barbara, ‘Male Rationality in Economics—A Critique of Godelier on Salt Money,’ Critique of Anthropology 3 (1977): 131–38.

38 Rogers, Susan Carol, ‘Women's Place: A Critical Review of Anthropological Theory’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 20 (1978): 123–62. This issue is discussed on p. 157. I have substituted ‘value’ where she has used the concept of ‘power’, in order to provide an empirical economic referent for the concept.

39 Mintz, Sidney, ‘Men, Women and Trade’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 13 (1971): 247–69. Quote on p. 251.

40 See for example, Bukh, Jette, The Village Woman in Ghana (Uppsala, 1979).

41 Yoruba Family, p. 201.

Food, Cocoa, and the Division of Labour by Sex in Two West African Societies

  • Jane I. Guyer (a1)


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