Ewe and Fon - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Ewe and Fon are farmers, fishermen, and market women. Nowadays they occupy all the positions and jobs to be found in government, civil service, business, and production. Staple crops are yams, maize, and manioc. (Millet was once important.) Beans, peas, peanuts, sorghum, sweet potatoes, onions, okra, peppers, gourds, papayas, bananas, plantains, mangoes, pineapples, oil palms, and some rice and cocoa are also grown. Animals raised include pigs, sheep, goats, dogs, chickens, guinea fowl, ducks, and pigeons. Fishing is of primary importance along the coast and in the Volta region. Cash crops include palm kernels, peanuts, copra, castor beans, kapok, and, by far the most important, coffee and cocoa.

Along the coast, from Accra to Porto-Novo, hundreds of thousands of Ewe and Fon women work in the ports and markets. From Lome to Cotonou, Ewe and Fon market women—both wholesalers and retailers—have a near monopoly on the internal economy. Even in small villages, many women are traders and retailers, selling anything from homemade fermented corn porridge to Coca Cola, often specializing in a single item such as fresh or home-smoked fish, imported Dutch wax cloth, fresh fruits and vegetables, or trade beads.

Industrial Arts. Ewe and Fon engage in pottery making, wood sculpting (mostly for religious use), and basketwork; in the past, every village had a blacksmith (see "Arts").

Trade. Ewe have traded with Asante and Fante, and Fon have traded with Yoruba and Hausa for as long as they have had their present identity. The slave trade and the salt trade brought other traders from the north of present Ewe and Fon regions, including as far north as Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) and perhaps Mali and Niger. Portuguese traders reached the coast in the fifteenth century, even before the Ewe and Fon had migrated that far. By the seventeenth century, when the Volta region had become home to an Ewe polity and the Kingdom of Dahomey had regular relations with Ouidah, European commercial envoys were no longer a novelty on what was then called the Slave Coast. The Atlantic commerce in slaves was a significant aspect of Ewe and Fon life for two centuries.

Market activities are central in all Ewe and Fon regions. Women almost always have something to sell on market days, including foodstuffs they make themselves. They often buy their husband's or brothers' catch of fish fresh from the sea or river and take it straight to various markets. Or they smoke the fish and take them to markets farther inland. Today European, U.S., and Chinese goods are available even in small Ewe and Fon village markets more than 150 kilometers from the coast, often taken there by local women who buy the goods in coastal cities. In Togo, Ewe and Mina are said to be trading peoples willing to travel far to engage in commerce, thereby distinguishing themselves from more northern and more strictly agricultural groups who stay closer to the land.

Division of Labor. Apart from the special status of kings in the Kingdom of Dahomey and occasionally chiefs in Ewe regions, who did not perform manual labor, the main division of labor is along gender lines. Men do heavy agricultural labor such as clearing the land and staking yam vines; they fish, hunt, and build houses. Women participate in the above activities also, such as preparing the palm-frond walling or fencing necessary to hut building, taking charge of butchered animals and fish, and carrying out almost all agricultural tasks except the very heaviest. Women also carry headloads as heavy as any load men can carry. Although it is often said that only women headload, this is patently untrue. Women are in charge of most market activities, although they may hire men to help them. One of the few items usually sold by men in the market is beef, often brought by Hausa or other Muslim traders. Most other kinds of work, including cooking, may be done by women and men, and even the above-mentioned divisions of labor are not absolute. Women and children may join with men in pulling in the enormous and heavy fishing nets from the surf after a catch. Gender-specific cash savings and work collectives abound, enabling members to have their own banking as well as support in house building, clearing land, harvesting, fishing, marketing, and all other labors. Especially notable are the Fon dokpwe , or cooperative, and the Ewe esodjodjo , or tontine (French). Both women and men engage in child care, although women are considered to have greater responsibility in this regard. Groups of men and groups of women may take care of any and all village children in their vicinity at any given time.

Land Tenure. Anyone from a particular region can farm on land that is not occupied by anyone else. Inside a settlement, a person wishing to employ land must ask permission of the village chief or the elders of the lineage owning the land. Formerly, rights have extended only to use of land; there was no absolute right to the land itself. In the Kingdom of Dahomey, land was by definition the property of the king. In most Ewe regions, land is inherited and administrated by elders of each patriline; any lineage member may build or farm on lineage land as long as she or he respects the rights of others nearby who are already established on the land. Widows of patriline members or other persons not members of the lineage may stay on the land and farm it, but it cannot pass definitively into another lineage. Only in the last few generations has land come to be alienable from lineage tenure by being mortgaged or sold. It is possible for palm groves and other wealth on the land to be passed on matrilineally, especially in Anlo and Glidji, where Akan matrilineal practices have influenced Ewe groups. Land not already belonging to a lineage (of which there is scarcely any now) may be acquired personally through simply clearing the land, or buying it from non-Ewe or non-Fon owners; the owner may dispose of such land without consulting lineage elders. Both women and men have rights to lineage land, often now called "inheritance of land," but, in areas where land is scarce, women have difficulty claiming such rights. Where lineage land is now alienable, plot by plot (e.g., southern Togo), women may, with difficulty, have a share in the proceeds of sales.


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