Reading the Voice: The Dialectics of Violence in Nso Female Oral Poetry

London Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Sciences
Volume | Issue | Compilation
Authored by Andrew T. Ngeh , Ngeh Ernestilia Dzekem
Classification: For Code: 190499
Keywords: dialectics, violence, oral and poetry.
Language: English

African oral traditions have contributed enormously in the development of African literary discourse in both manner (form) and matter (substance). This study set out to investigate the role played by Nso oral songs chanted by women as an instrument in the interpretation of historical and contemporary society that is mostly characterized by technological innovation, globalization and modernism with their attendant scientific discoveries. The thrust of the argument of this study is built around the premise that the Nso language and culture transported from one generation to the other are rich in oral literature. This rich culture that exists mostly in the oral form is endangered and threatened partly by the fact that many believe that only written forms are worth the attention of literary scholars.


Reading the Voice: The Dialectics of Violence in Nso Female Oral Poetry

Andrew T. Ngehα & Ngeh Ernestilia Dzekemσ



African oral traditions have contributed enormously in the development of African literary discourse in both manner (form) and matter (substance). This study set out to investigate the role played by Nso oral songs chanted by women as an instrument in the interpretation of historical and contemporary society that is mostly characterized by technological innovation, globalization and modernism with their attendant scientific discoveries. The thrust of the argument of this study is built around the premise that the Nso language and culture transported from one generation to the other are rich in oral literature. This rich culture that exists mostly in the oral form is endangered and threatened partly by the fact that many believe that only written forms are worth the attention of literary scholars. Consequently, this, work considers the documentation of Nso oral songs by women relevant in such a global context because most of the songs are composed by them. Secondly, the women feel they are threatened, oppressed and marginalized both at home and at the national level.

In order to attain the objectives of this study, the feminist and new historicist critical criteria are employed in analyzing and reading some selected Nso oral songs chanted by the female folk. The revelations were that the Nso female songs are ideologically appealing and aesthetically fulfilling as they question patriarchy in all its ramifications.

Keywords: dialectics, violence, oral and poetry.

Author α: University of Buea, Cameroon.

Author σ: University of Bamenda, Cameroon.


Oral literature is one of the crucial aspects of African cultural heritage. Since culture is dynamic, oral literature is also dynamic. The human societies largely depend on oral traditions for their meaningful existence and interactions. This is because oral literature is both a reservoir and creative expression of cultural values, which lead the society along its moral path or along a redemptive function. This study argues that the oral mind whose literature was commonly considered to be rooted in a primitive past and was transmitted from mouth to mouth, and from generation to generation can be used as an interpretive tool which can be used to review the past, evaluate the present and anticipate the future. These researchers see the present as emerging from a past to which it is dialectically connected. For this reason, they submit in this study that the traditional society and the modern one are mutually inclusive in the oral traditional paradigm.

The research therefore reiterates the point that Nso oral songs which are chanted by women are didactic, dynamic and functional since they address issues of contemporary concerns. The songs/poems could also be considered as an effective weapon in the fight against violence experienced by women and the violation of human rights. The paper concludes that the Nso oral songs by women contain voices that articulate issues of the transcendental order since they come from the past but can be used to interpret socio-political and historical concerns in the Nso cosmic. As a consequence, one of the contentions of this paper is that the Nso female oral poetic voice is dynamic. Given its elasticity, it is also very relevant in any contemporary context because it is concerned with the issue of forced marriage, a cultural activity that violates human rights by exercising violence against the girl child.

The relationship between oral African literature and the people’s socio-cultural activities are mutually inclusive. African literature, whether written or spoken is linked to the people’s collective consciousness and this finds expression and meaning in their creative expression. The principal preoccupation of this paper is to investigate the fact that, although African oral literature has its roots in the past, it is nevertheless relevant in the contemporary context. This is because it reviews the past, evaluates the present and anticipates the future.

Before the various movements and conferences on violence against women and the girl child, most of the cultural activities carried out that violated human rights and exercise violence against women were not given appropriate attention because there was no interest relating oral literature to man and his/her feeling and culture. The various forms of violence experienced by the women as a result of her gender were seen by the patriarchal enterprise as her identity. With increasing conferences and the various movements on human rights and violence against women especially in the sub-Saharan Africa, there is the need to review the male’s perception of the woman. Thus, there was a general consensus amongst these advocates that women were not inferior in nature, but inferiorized by culture.


Nso is found in the North West region of Cameroon. Its division is Bui which constitutes one of the largest and densely populated ethnic groups in Cameroon. More than four fifth of the Nso people are farmers. Beans, maize and potatoes are cultivated both for subsistence and commercial purposes. The men mainly occupy themselves with farming, hunting expedition and the tapping of raffia wine.

The Nso society is a patriarchal society where the women are only seen but not heard. In occasions and ceremonies, they are seen serving food and attending to the men. It is the manifestation of this voicelessness of the women folk in the Nso society that provoked the investigation of this study. However, with conferences organized nationally and internationally regarding the rights of women, some of them have become very assertive, revolutionary and vocal on issues that border on the marginalisation and oppression of the women in the Nso society in particular and the world as a whole. This is clearly demonstrable in the selected poems treated in this paper.

The Nso people cherish their culture and traditions and these institutions are headed by a traditional administrator known as ‘Fon’. He is assisted by sub-chiefs known in the Nso land as Shufaáy or Fai. These are quarter heads that assist the Fon in the day to day running of the administration. In addition to these are the regulatory authorities called the Nwerong and Ngiri that discipline deviants in the society and check the excesses of the Fon. These sacred societies are for men only demonstrating the male dominance of such a society. Because of their dominance, they tend to exercise their power irrationally and this includes the imposition of husbands on teenage girls.


With the introduction of feminism as a theory in literary studies, critics started reinterpreting and re-evaluating the condition of the women who are victims of male dominance. Their victimization has given them the courage to scream and express their feeling and opinion through their songs. The Nso oral songs by women studied in this paper give the Nso oral women in their creativity the opportunity to redefine their identity by rejecting the cultural practices that place them at the margin. This margin- centre dialectic is very preoccupying in the Nso female poetic voices. Their songs provide an outlet for them to voice their feelings. They use this occasion of their poetic performance to vociferate their opinion on force marriage, a practice that does not take their emotions into consideration. This study was provoked by Henry Kah Jick and Gilead Nkwain Ngam’s “The performance and Relevance of Kom (Cameroon) Riddles in a Contemporary Context” and Henry K. Jick and Andrew T. Ngeh’s “Mbum (Cameroon) Oral Poetry as a Changing Activity of Recreation and Redemption” The former argues that “the artist, who in traditional society, was essentially preoccupied with local events is in a contemporary context, and is now concerned with wider subjects which reflect the important issues of the day. As a result, his level of social criticism has to change from private to public” (4).Jick and Ngam highlight the fact that African oral literature no matter its genre has its root in the past but is relevant in the contemporary context.

Jick and Ngeh on the other hand contend that  Mbum oral poetry is a good instrument that can be used for the entertainment and redemption of the Mbum society in particular and the Cameroonian society in general.(1) Here oral poetry is used as a corrective tool that addresses some of the societal ills that plague the Mbum society.

Unlike the English literary critic Fredric Jameson who believes that Orature is obsolete and if remnants of it exists at all today it will be under marginalized and declining conditions, Jick and Ngam argue that “while Western Orature might have become antiquated, African Orature is alive” (4). They thus reject the view of the English pessimistic scholar who argues that Orature has only a marginal and problematic existence in today’s world as he writes:

The popular and folk arts reflected and were dependent for their production on quite different social realities. They were the organic expression of so many distinct social communities or castes, such as the peasant village, court, the medieval town, the polis and even the classical bourgeoisie when it was still a unified social group with its own cultural specificity. Advanced capitalism, however, has induced folklores decline, not by attacking the expression itself but by dissolving, fragmenting and atomizing its nutritive social context by way of the corrosive action of universal commodification and the market system (qtd in Jick and Ngam, 4)

While for Jameson, Orature is a fossilized form of a primitive past of a people’s culture, Jick and Ngam insist that African Orature retains it contested nature and is concerned with both private and public criticism. Consequently, this paper argues that African oral literature addresses issues of global concerns. The study hopes to illustrate this contention with the use of two Nso oral songs sung by women to argue that although oral songs like any other variant of African oral art forms are mostly rooted in the past, they are actively connected with the contemporary society.


In view of the above problem, the following questions cast a searchlight on this study:

  1. Does the oral song of the semi-lettered Nso Woman incorporate aspects of violence she experiences as a result of her gender?
  2.  How do these women react to this violence? Does her song fit in the discussion on modern trends about female marginalization, violence against women and the violation of human rights?
  3. What is the relationship between oral literature and society?
  4. What is the place of dialectic and violence in oral poetry?
  5. What is the relationship between aesthetics and ideology in oral poetry?
  6. What is the link between the past, present and future in African oral poetry?


The study anchors on the hypothesis that in their poetic voices the African traditional woman of the Nso land questions her marginal position within the sphere of the socio-cultural practices of her society. It further states that the woman with an unwritten tradition is conscious of the activities that violate her decision, choice and care little about her feelings in relation to the choice of a life partner. Reading through the voices in the songs, the analysis identifies gender violence that descends from the stronger and a more powerful one constructed from below to resist it. The one from below explores the semi-lettered woman’s consciousness about her victimization, exploitation and suppression. Through her songs she contributes in improving her marginal condition. From the poetic voices, it is evident that a new breed of women is born, women who are resilient, assertive, revolutionary and vocal on issues that border on their marginality. That is why both mother and daughter in the two poems treated in this paper question the dictatorial and patriarchal style of the Shufaáy imposing a husband on a little girl at the expense of her education.


Literary representations of women come mostly from the pens of men and are nearly always critiqued for their inadequacy. In this regard women’s literary history is often seen as subterranean or an undercurrent.  The vocabulary of silence, absence and hiding vie with one of revelation uncovering discovery. This paper employs feminism and new historicism in its analysis of the dialectics of violence in Nso oral song. According to Sarah Anyang Agbor in An Introduction to Commonwealth Literature, “Feminism requires a theoretical account of embodied gender differences that is grounded in the complex realities of women’s everyday experiences.” Susan Arndt in “African Women’s Literature: Orature and Intertextuality” writes that:

Feminism is a worldview or way of life of women and men who as individuals, in groups and or organization actively oppose social structures responsible for the oppression of women on the basis of their biological and social gender. Feminists do not only recognize the mechanism of oppression, they aim at overcoming them. ( qtd in Agbor,139)

The Nso women’s oral song can be analyzed using feminism because reading through their voices one notices that they bring out aspects of gender violence in the imagination and performance of their art. The two songs from the Nso tribe which form the corpus of this study are a cry of distress by the woman who as a result of her consciousness and awareness uses her voice to decry forceful marriage which violates her right and her humanity. Drawing from Agbor who quotes Helen Chukwuma, the central idea in this study is to show “a rejection of inferiority and a striving for recognition and to give women a sense of self as a worthy, effectual and contributing human being” (139). Taylor Verta et al in feminist Frontiers observe that “women everywhere suffer restrictions, oppression and discrimination because they are living in patriarchal societies” (1). They further state that, “violence against women manifests itself in many ways… The threat of violence against women is pervasive across cultures. Often, sexist ideologies encourage us to accept violence against women as either harmless or deserved” (415).

John Schilb and John Clifford in Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers opine that “Literature does not exist in a social vacuum. Rather, literature is part of human relationships” (3) Literary creativity is thus interconnected with social and cultural issues which result in pleasant and beautiful literature. The oral songs by Nso women subscribe to the view that the socio-cultural idea does not emanate from the void.

The second critical theory employed for the analysis of the selected songs in this study is new historicism. The new historicist critical theory gained currency in the literary academia in the 1980s as a counter discourse to the American text-based approach known as New Criticism. Critics of New Criticism gave an intrinsic analysis of literature, thereby, treating a literary text as an autonomous self-sufficient entity quite separate from society, history or any external causal agent. The new historicists, however, take the contrary view and contend that literature is the product of a particular socio-historical and cultural context and should therefore be interpreted against the background of its context. Hence, its interpretation can only be meaningful and relevant when the historical circumstances under which the text was created are taken into consideration. Proponents of this approach to criticism include Laurence Lerner, Jerome McGann, Irving Howe, Paul Ricoeur, Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher.

In summation, the co-relation between literature and history, in the area of New Historicism, is a reciprocal relationship. This approach connotes that it is not only history that influences literature; the reverse can also be true. This explains why Murfin and Ray (1979:239–240) state: “New Historicist critics assume that works of literature both influence and are influenced by historical reality, and they share a belief in referentiality, that is a belief that literature both refers and is referred to by things outside itself” .The above contention demonstrates that literature can also shape the face/phase of history. This means that literature can (re) shape and (re) direct history and vice versa.


7.1   The Performance Principles and Events of Toh Song by Nso Women

The Nso people refer to the dance group whose songs we are going to analyze in this study as Toh. It is a dance performed only by the female folk and its songs border on social criticism. It is not easy to trace the historicity of this folk song by women among the Nso people, but it is obvious that this aspect of oral culture had existed as far back as the Nso history goes. Great Nso oral songs by women reveal sufficient evidence that poetry had/ has existed in the culture in the primordial past. That is why Chinua Achebe in “The Role of a Writer in a Nation” argues that “African people did not hear of culture for the first time from the Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and above all they had dignity” (10). In this regard, the two poems to be analyzed in this paper encapsulate the philosophy of the Nso man, his world view, mores and ethos regarding the essence of their existence.

The very first song to be analyzed in this work is titled “Shufaáy and Daughter”. This particular song decries the irrational power exercised by Shufaáy in the imposition of a husband on a little girl who is yet to get mature for marriage. The song debunks two things in the Nso cultural cosmology, namely that little girls are given out for marriage; secondly, their consents are not sought:

(Lamnso)        (Approximate English translation)

Shufaáy wun wan                                       Shufaáy and Daughter

Shufaáy, ooo, m yo’ne kúy ah  Shufaáy, ooo             Shufaáy, ooo  I am not yet mature ah Shufaáy, ooo

Shufaáy, ooo, m yo’ne kúy ah  Shufaáy, ooo             Shufaáy, ooo  I am not yet mature ah Shufaáy, ooo

M yo’ne kúy ah Shufaáyooo                             I am not yet mature ah Shufaáy ooo

La’ fo lúm e mu a Shufaáyooo                                Do not give me a husband ah Shufaáy ooo

ooo Shufaáy ooo                                     ooo Shufaáy ooo

M yo’ne kúy ah Shufaáy ooo                              I am not yet mature ah Shufaáy ooo

La’ fo lúm e mu a Shufaáy ooo                    Do not give me a husband ah Shufaáy ooo

ooo Shufaáy ooo                                   ooo Shufaáy ooo

ooo Shufaáy ooo                                   ooo Shufaáy ooo

The Toh dance is performed during sad and happy moments and the women succeed in passing across their messages because the audience is not limited only to women. The men who more often are their target are brought into focus as they are under fire. The song is performed during both festivals and dead celebrations. Lyricism is a crucial accompaniment of this particular song/dance as they sing both in times of joy and sorrow. For example the repetition in this particular song enhances the musicality of the song, and at the same time emphasizes the marginalisation and oppression of the girl child in the Nso society.

Shufaáy, oh, I am not yet mature ah

Shufaáy, oh, I am not yet mature ah

The above short song is terse and loaded as it explores gender violence from two perspectives, namely, the imposition of a husband without asking the girl’s opinion; secondly, the girl might not be ready for marriage. As indicated in the introductory part of this work, the Nso society is a patriarchal society where the men consider the women as chattel, that is moveable property, and this clearly maps out the margin-centre dialectic where the men occupy the centre of culture and power, while the women are pushed to the periphery. The manifestation of the abuse of traditional power is seen in Shufaáy’s decision to forcefully hand his daughter in marriage and this brings out aspects of violence experienced by the girl child because of her femaleness when it comes to the marriage question.

The girl child’s experiences in this particular poem are the foundations for interesting literary creativity as she strives to redefine her image by confronting the power of the Shufaáy. This resistance of the girl who laments in the poem is a pointer to a new breed of resilient and assertive girl child whose voice must be heard as she challenges the negativity of patriarchy in the Nso land. The vocabulary of silence and absence is completely absent in this song as the little girl in the song not only laments her plight but protests against the inhuman treatment accorded her. Such revolutionary tendencies manifested in this poem are contradistinctive to the traditional submissive of the Nso woman whose voice was suppressed as she accepted her fate as such.

The voice in the song is that of daughter. She cries out repeatedly to Shufaáy insisting that she is not yet mature for marriage. Her opinion is that Shufaáy should not give her a husband since it is not yet time for her to marry. The point she is making is that marriage is a matter of choice; that is who and when she is to get married should be determined by the girl and not Shufaáy. The song is clothed in repetition and this echoes the theme of force marriage as the expression: “I am not yet mature” is repeated in the poem.

Reading from her voice, she has become aware of the fact that her inalienable right has been violated. She breaks the silence as she boldly constructs violence from below to confront the dominant patriarchal structure represented by Shufaáy who cares little about her feelings and her emotions. Shufaáy sees her as an article/chattel which he can use to achieve his selfish aims but the young lady stands up and opposes him by stating her opinion. The young girl uses her voice to resist oppression and pursue her projects. This is the new direction and dimension adopted by feminism in the global world.

Through her courage and awareness, she acquires a model of strong womanhood, which is rooted in the cultural values of her community. Her protest is as a result of the experiences of complex psycho-social difficulties and emotional distress. Her voice and its tone reveal social deprivation which has an impact on her emotions and her feelings. Reading from her voice, one senses depression and anxiety. Her voice represents women’s psychical dissonance as a function of the interplay between tradition and patriarchy.

The compelling message in that short poem is surprisingly of contemporary resonance for as Verta Taylor et al observe, “women everywhere suffer restrictions, oppression, and discrimination because they are living in patriarchal societies” (1). They also point out that “Often, sexist ideologies encourage us to accept violence against women: as either harmless or deserved. Feminist analysis takes the position that violence constitutes a system through which men frighten and therefore control and dominate women” (415). From the poetic voice in the poem, it can be deduced that Shufaáy perceives violence on women as the right of the male folk. He uses it to prove his masculinity and worth but the young girl stands to redefine this practice by reconstructing her identity.

The expression “Shufaáy oh, I am not yet mature” is used to expose Shufaáy’s weakness which is the inability to see the negative effect of his desire for power and superiority. Her revolt, assertion and protest against Shufaáy’s show of power through force marriage is used to shock him to silence. The innocent but bold and courageous young lady validates her bravery and existence as the women symbolized by this little girl have moved from submissiveness to assertiveness. Instead of Shufaáy’s authoritative voice which is supposed to thunder and command her to marry with immediate effect, she resists domestic tyranny which has no respect for her emotions with determination and commitment. The listener has suddenly become the speaker as the result of her awareness and consciousness. The authoritative father now takes the position of a listener which he perhaps finds strange and embarrassing but which he must learn to cope with because the resistance which the young lady has built from below is carefully calculated. Her opposition is conditioned by the complex psycho-emotional distress which has caused her depression. This has been described by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth as interiorized violence; that is a sort of accumulated violence whose purgation is a catharsis.

She stands up and engages Shufaáy in a dialogue but ignores his opinion and emphasizes her view through the repeated use of the phrase, “I am not yet mature”. Her song is a warning to Shufaáy whom she orders to respect her right, her humanity and personality. Her song can be read as a designer development intervention which addresses gender inequalities. This song which is addressed to Shufaáy can be viewed as a method of analyzing existing gender inequalities when it comes to marriage. Her cry is a lamentation for she is not only expected to marry a man Shufaáy chooses but she is not yet mature.

Her protest is a gender mainstreaming strategy which is in line with international goals and recommendations on gender equality and the fight against all forms of violence against women thus validating the fact that the performance of Nso oral song viewed as literature is relevant to contemporary concerns. The young lady in her revolt engages Shufaáy in a debate in order for him and the culture he represents to understand women’s marginal situation. The tone in the song paints the picture of a stubborn male dominance and hostility towards a girl child within the context of the traditional Nso society. Therefore Nso female oral poetry is not art for art’s sake; it entertains as it instructs.

Her emancipation and empowerment make her to break the silence and take her decision. She tells Shufaáy what she wants and how she feels about his authority. Her decision to confront Shufaáy on the subject provides an innovative approach for she goes straight to the point as she addresses Shufaáy making it clear that she will not accept to be frustrated by his decision to force her marry a man of his choice. The song insinuates a change of perspective on the part of Shufaáy on the question of her daughter’s partner. Her determined and fearless protest which condemns Shufaáy’s activity can be understood as an inquiry process that tries to apprehend the factors that give her marriage life a living system as she seeks to articulate possibilities that can lead to a better future. The practice of forcing girls into marriage at very tender ages has motivated her to sing in the language which out rightly condemns this practice that promotes violence against women.

This short poem exposes Shufaáy’s limited knowledge on the question of what marriage should be. The song thus becomes an envisaged tool for liberation which she uses to expose her condition and what she feels about Shufaáy’s decision. One of the messages she conveys in the song is that women should move from rhetoric to taking concrete decisions to save their lives. This validates the assertion that literature does not exist in a vacuum, and this is the forte of new historicism. It mirrors the society in which it is produced and seeks to make its people either uncomfortable or comfortable. In the case of the poem under discussion, Shufaáy is uncomfortable and the girl child is comfortable as she uses her song to question patriarchy in her society.

The repeated use of Shufaáy in each line of the song emphasizes her criticism of the practice personified by Shufaáy. It is a warning and condemnation of the evil practice. Shufaáy and the patriarchal culture he represents do not take into consideration the future life of the girl and the negative effects the practice has on her economic and social conditions in that marriage and the community as a whole. Her resistance and protest show that she is visionary and is also aware that “child brides are among the most vulnerable people on earth. Rarely accorded any rights, yet expected to assume adult responsibilities at a very young age, they are disempowered, often abused and frequently isolated. They are also out of reach of many development programs that target girls, as they are often confined to their homes (Machel and Robinson: 289)

The second song with the same thematic concern is titled “Not My Daughter”

(Lamnso)                                                (Approximate translation)

Ma’ti wan wom                                              Not my daughter

Taalla’ ma’ti wan wom oohmoohm                      Lineage head leave my daughter alone oohmoohm

Taalla’ ma’ ti wan wom oohmoohm                      Lineage head leave my daughter oohmoohm

Ma’ti wan wom nyaŋ oohomoohm                       Leave her in peace oohmoohm

Dzǝ lum gha? oohmoohm                            What is the marriage for?oohmoohm

Nkarsǝ si dzǝkir e lav ŋwa’                            Her friends are in school oyaa oyaa

Dzǝ lum gha? Oyaa oyaa                           What is the marriage for, oyaa oyaa

Ye nkarǝǝ si dzekir é lav ŋwa oyaa oyaa          When her friends are in school? oyaa oyaa

Ma’ ti wan wom nyaŋ oohmoohm                Live my daughter in peace oohmoohm

One of the limitations of the patriarchal practices in the Nso land is the rate of school dropouts as a result of early marriages. The girl child is not much valued when it comes to education; she is only good for marriage. This has slowed down development because of this gender imbalance. In this second poem it is the mother of the girl who raises her voice in protest because she thinks her child should be in school and not in a man’s house. Again it is the Shufaáy herein refers to as “lineage head.” Culture and education are in parallel lines because the former does not see the latter’s relevance in the girl child. The protest of the girl’s mother is indicative of the fact that the woman who was represented as lost, hidden or victimized has come of age now and must protest. A new breed of women is emerging; women who are vocal, assertive and resilient.

The mother echoes the relevance of education of the girl child when she says: “What is the marriage for? Oyaaoyaa/Her friends are in school./What is marriage for? Oyaaoyaa. African oral literature and Nso female oral poetry in particular possess a huge repertoire of themes which explore the dialectics of violence. One of the contentions of this paper is that violence against women in the area of the choice of a husband in marriage is counterproductive as it slows down development and compromises the career of the girl child in particular and women in general. The marriage is contracted at the expense of the girl’s education; that is why the line ‘What is the marriage for? Oyaaoyaa’ is repeated in the poem to demonstrate that such marriages are not as important as education.

Women give responses to their oppressors by creating songs and these songs form part of oral literature and are a form of literature. The songs by the Nso women are seen here as oral poetry which are analyzed like any other modern poem in written literature. Oral and written African literatures are mutually inclusive but oral literature is superior to the written form because written literature has a limited audience. It is inelastic. The songs by the Nso women give their literature local colour and enhance the effectiveness of stylistic devices such as metaphor, symbolism, repetition and contrast.

The voice in the Nso female oral poetry carries a message that is in line with various contemporary themes on human rights and the fight against all forms of discrimination against women. Sharon K. Hom in “Claiming Women’s Right in China” notes that “In the fall of 1995, the United Nations convened the Fourth World Conference on women. A parallel NGO event, Forum 95, was held along the same themes equality, development, and peace-and attracted over 30.000 people. Slogans emerging from the conference included the now well-known ‘Women’s rights are human rights’” (270). The Nso woman living in an unwritten culture uses her voice to respond to the violation of her rights and resist the traditional practices that ignore her opinion. This implies that both lettered and non-lettered women are conscious of the violence that they experience as women in their various socio-cultural contexts. Hom further observes that: “Nearly two decades have passed since the 1995 women’s conference and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and the platform of action that called on all governments to take action on areas including education, health care, violence against women, media stereotypes, and the rights of girls” (270).

Talking on International Human Rights Obligation and Local Reality, Hom opines that:

Since the early 1980s, China has engaged in extensive efforts to rebuild a legal system, including passing numerous laws, policies, and programs aimed at eliminating discrimination against women and promoting gender equality. However, this domestic framework must be understood and implemented within the context of international human rights. Obligations that China has committed to, including the convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against women. (270)

Reading the second poetic voice in line with the action of the international bodies on the subject of violence against women, one sees that the mother’s revolt and resistance on behalf of her daughter constitutes the determination to challenge the perpetrators of this inhuman act symbolized here by Shufaáy’s illegal but cultural right:                                                

Taalla’ma’ti wan wom                                      Lineage head leave my daughter alone

Ma’ti wan womnyaŋoohomoohm                Leave her in peace oohmoohm

DzӘlumgha?oohmoohm                        What is the marriage for? oohmoohm

NkarsӘsidzekirélavŋwa’                        Her friends are in school

DzӘlumgha?oyaaoyaa                                      What is the marriage for?oyaaoyaa

Oral literature in general and the Nso female oral poetry in particular address serious international and global issues. The song exposes the ignorance of those who practice forceful marriage especially that in which children are forced to marry men old enough to be their fathers and even grandfathers. The idea that this song conveys is that some traditional practices are harmful as they encourage violence on women and girls. Graça Machel and Mary Robinson in “Girls Not Brides” state that:

While we acknowledge the value of tradition in all our lives, we believe that child marriage is a harmful traditional practice – it is a violation of human rights and a major hindrance to development. Child marriage, whether an official marriage under the law or customary union, is without doubt a fundamental violation of human rights. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sets out that: ‘marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses’. Child marriage affects millions of children, predominantly girls. The reality of life for most child brides is forced marriage, force sex, and end of education and few choices about the future. Early pregnancy and childbirth bring additional risks, with girls under fifteen five times likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than women age twenty and older. (288)

The practitioners of the tradition of forceful marriage symbolized in this song by the lineage head are not knowledgeable about the negative impacts this traditional practice has on the human psyche and community development. The mother’s voice in the song is an educative tool which she uses to conscientize women and girls on the violence perpetrated and perpetuated against them through such harmful traditional and cultural practices. Through this song she draws the attention of the silent women and girls calling on them to break the silence and stand up and fight back. Her emphasis here is on education. Her opposition to the lineage head and the patriarchal enterprise he represents is an invitation to members of his club to revisit and review their perspectives on marriage for the wellbeing of the girl child. Without this, the wellbeing of the community will be retarded. To the woman in this poem, violence against the girl child is violence against humanity in general.

The lamentation of the woman in the poem is an overt cry against the marginalization of the girl child in particular and women in the Nso land as a whole. Her femaleness gives her the platform on which to stand and protest against the marginalisation and oppression of the female folk. She does not say that marriage is bad, but she condemns early marriage in line with. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that “Child marriage, whether an official marriage under the law or customary union, is without doubt a fundamental violation of human rights sets out that: ‘marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses’. Her opinion which clashes with that of her husband, the lineage head is that marriage is for “mature” women and not for little girls. She cries out to the entire women folk to share her perspective on this issue that threatens their comfort, security and peace. Her protest makes her to redefine the perspective of the woman’s world and redefines her identity as she denies the stereotyped notion that as a woman one has no voice on matters that concern her emotions. The expression demonstrates her determination to resist his project at all costs. In this line, her opposition is firm and stiff as she uses the rhetorical question: “what is marriage for? to debunk the limitations of patriarchy in imposing men on little girls as husbands. Again, this rhetorical question shows total rejection and disapproval of this cultural action and traditional practice the lineage head stands for. She uses the “ovaaovaa” sound that comes after the word “marriage” and as a device to achieve beautiful melody that will help to sustain her message so that its echoes may go to distant areas and wake up the silent women who think that women are inferior in nature and not inferiorized by culture:

Her friends are in school

What is the marriage for?oyaaoyaa,

The voice of this mother and that of the little girl in the first song which demonstrates the fact that girls are seldom heard, but the impact of child marriage is felt throughout their communities – and that impact is overwhelmingly negative. Poverty and child marriage often go hand in hand because the girl child is not given the opportunity to go to school in order to enhance herself. Without education or other professional skills, the girl child has little chance to lift herself out of poverty. They are also more likely to be poor because of lack of education; and the consequences are devastating: higher risks of illness, malnutrition, high infant mortality rate and death during child birth. For generations, their rights to health, nutrition and education are consistently denied. In short, force marriage perpetuates the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and ill health and these hinder the realization of six of the eight Millennium Development goals, the UN-agreed global targets: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; and combating HIV/ AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. Ending force marriage is an essential step in advancing both development and respect for basic human rights. (Machel and Robinson,289)


To conclude this paper it is pertinent to restate the hypothetical contention of this study. The study contends that though force marriage as a form of violence against women is a global concern, the impact is tremendously felt in the Nso society. The study revealed that the oral song by indigenous women with unwritten cultures responds to contemporary issues. The woman with unwritten literary forms is not a passive victim of the practice that erodes her dignity and pride and brings out her humiliation and frustration. She confronts the patriarchal practice of superimposing husbands on little girls. Her opinion is that Shufaáy and the lineage head who represent that culture in the two poems studied in this paper should rethink and evaluate its negative effects on the girl child. What these two poetic voices communicate is that the African literary community in the 21st century still captures individual existential conditions especially those of indigenous people whose participation to development is enveloped in their oral art forms. The two poems x-ray the psycho-ethical and psycho-emotional conditions of the victim who rejects force marriage thereby breaking the cocoon of ignorance. Mother and daughter reassert their identity as members of the community who see beyond the borders of the culture that surrounds them. Their resistance illustrates that culture is both a bed of revolution and a springboard for innovation. It provides man with capital to invest in a new enterprise.

The above analysis of the Toh songs by Nso women can be used as a framework to expose the global women’s quest for an inclusive culture and morality that consider their own choices in life. Put against this background, the two songs studied in this paper are a dignified statement on the moral consciousness of a society that must wake up, take cognizance of the inevitability of change and come to grips with it. In the context of a society bent on becoming a global village, responses to female freedom will easily be indexed to positive changes in other sectors of the community such as politics, economic and social. This paper thus concluded that African oral literature is not obsolete; it is dynamic. It is not only rooted in the past; it is relevant to the modern setting since it articulates issues of contemporary concerns. The protesting voices in the two poems are those of idealized female characters with respect to female critical thinking; it is a call for women all over the globe to subscribe to the emancipatory project. Their revolt is a form of educational system for dehumanized women of the world who are dying in silence. The study also argues that since Orature preserves the culture and history of indigenous people, Nso oral songs by women therefore through their performance, contribute to preserving the people’s culture and history while responding to the social and political issues of their age. Consequently, the performance of the Toh oral song among the Nso people is a living, spontaneous and responsive art that is used to pass important cultural information from generation to generation.


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About the Authors

Andrew T. Ngeh holds a PhD in African Literature from the University of Yaoundé 1, Cameroon. He is a senior Lecturer in African Literature and has been teaching African poetry, the African Novel and Critical theory in the University of Buea, Cameroon for the past seventeen years.

He has published extensively nationally and internationally in peer-reviewed journals. He won a prize for “the most outstanding literature article” for 2013 in the South African Journal of African Languages. (SAJAL) in his article titled “Language and Commitment in Anglophone Cameroonian Poetry: The Poetic Vision of three Anglophone Cameroonian Poets." His recent publication which is a book published by Scholars’ Press titled Power Dialectics in Anglophone Cameroonian Poetry (2014) is on sale in the market.

Dr Andrew T. Ngeh is a member of the International Society for Development and Sustainability (Japan) and European Centre for Research Training and Development. (UK).

Ngeh Ernestilia Dzekem holds an MA in African literature and she is working towards her terminal degree. She is an Assistant Lecturer and teaches in the University of Bamenda, Cameroon.

Funding Agencies

We are indebted to the Ministry of Higher Education in Cameroon for introducing in 2009 the Modernization Research Allowance in Cameroonian State universities which has boosted and revamped research in Cameroon. We are also grateful to the research allowance paid by the Faculty of Arts, Universities of Buea and Bamenda for research related activities.


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