Property Stories

From Edward Bechard-Torres

We had arrived at Minkoaméyos, a small town straddling a main road just beyond the outskirts of Yaoundé, when a colleague of mine recited that worn fetish: “Work in the field is always more complicated: you learn how all those laws you’ve been reading about translate into practice”.

My colleagues were making rounds in the village to houses that had been designated by a UK-based NGO to be demolished and re-built according to a model designed to curb the incidence of malaria in children. I was to piggyback onto these visits to interview residents on the methods by which they came to access their plots of land.

There was always going to be more to property law than what was provided for in the medley of inherited laws and local ordinances. Our visit that day underscored the role property law may play in the construction of identities and of perceived communities.  More precisely, in Minkoaméyos, property rules almost certainly help cement perceived differences between the locals – les autochtones – and the non-locals – les allogènes. To explain, not every Cameroonian possesses a right to title any bit of land. The right to undergo the titling process on a specific plot of land flows from a certificate of traditional occupancy, a document that, in essence, certifies that one’s “ancestors” occupied a given plot of land. It is hard to imagine any world where one’s ancestors continually occupied a single plot of land, but that is the only story these certificates permit.

If a “foreigner” intends to acquire titled property, he would have to either purchase that certificate of occupancy and undertake the titling process himself, or he would otherwise have to wait for a “local” to title the plot and then purchase the titled land. In Cameroon’s urban centres, I have been told, most of the land occupied has been purchased, even if in an informal sense; few plots are still held by the original occupying family. The widespread absence of original occupants signals an aggregate shift of property holdings away from a less-efficient allocation, based on a families’ historic occupancy, to a more efficient one that privileges those who stand to benefit most from close proximity to urban markets.

In Yaoundé’s satellite villages, however, the property holders’ composition is mixed. In some villages, the difference between the autochtones and the allogènes is stark. In these places, the allogènes may be wealthier, mostly holding employment in Yaoundé, and take advantage of the relatively inexpensive cost of land to build gated dwarf mansions, which stand in stark contrast to the mud-based housing of the indigenous. In Minkoaméyos, the separation is invisible; the “foreigners” are residents drawn from the surrounding region who mostly hope to gain employment at the budding water treatment facility within the town’s limits. The “foreigners” do not appear to be any wealthier. They are culturally similar and occupy by and large similar houses to their “indigenous” neighbours.

And yet those differences, traceable to property law, may have generated a sense of group identity, with an accompanying sense of solidarity between imagined kin. The end of my day had me sitting under a large aluminium sheet that shelters a family’s supply of wood. The family’s eldest sister they are allogène – informed me that les indigènes often “sell” the same piece of land to multiple buyers. To avoid being defrauded, incoming families often have to signal to other prospective buyers that that portion of the property has been “purchased”. I have seen walls of houses, for instance, that have been inscribed with the forbidding “DO NOT BE MISTAKEN, THIS HOUSE AND LOT HAVE ALREADY BEEN SOLD”. Her family had bought a virgin plot, and to evidence their occupation they decided to immediately erect an improvised residence. That need to construct has imposed a double cost – the family lives in an unstable house that imperils the health of its residence, while its construction diverted needed savings away from the mother’s project to build a more durable, adequate familial home. The vendors have stumbled with handing over the certificate needed for her family to title the land – a “he has it, no she has it” kind of affair – and her working family is simply too busy to put the kind of pressure needed to get things moving. Throughout her story, the family are referred to merely as “les autochtones”. At the end, the eldest sister points to a small plot across the path, recently acquired by another family of allogènes. She tells me that she watches out for this family as well, to make sure that les autochtones do not try and pull a fast one on her apparent comrades.

The community could have been studied exclusively through its property norms. We repeatedly found wives busying themselves alone in their home, where they spend the lion share of their waking minutes. In spite of their reliance on their husband’s living quarters, they were ignorant on their property status. The most basic questions went notably unanswered. Nearby, a large family’s property is held communally in a collective title, kept at the home of the communal matriarch. This sub-community prefers to manage their property relations amongst themselves, perhaps according to custom, and eschew the application of State law. The entirety of the property is titled only so as to preclude forced eviction at the State’s hands.

Most importantly, the day underscored the how common property-related insecurities were. So few plots have been titled. Many occupants not only lack that basic legal protection, they also lack the tools and capacity to obtain it. One man tells us that he had purchased a future morsel from a man who had purchased the customary right to title the lot in its entirety. The vendor has since died, and this occupant is now clueless as to the location of the documents he would need to title his morsel.

Others have begun the titling process. The process, even after recent reforms, remains cumbersome and expensive. One resident, lured into hope by his neighbour’s success story, has taken the first steps and expects the process to take six months (as per the government’s half serious promise). Down the way, one family had invested its hopes in a sponsor, an individual who undergoes the titling process on behalf of another in exchange for a portion of the resulting securitized property. Three years have passed and no title has yet been received. The sponsor has been happy to live and farm his share of the land and to blame bureaucratic hurdles for his own lack of follow-through.

A kind of property anxiety is thus widespread – as it should be in a State where the threat of forced eviction looms large – and while it may encourage residents to undertake the titling marathon, it risks over-simplifying the life of property norms to the question of “is this property securitized, or not?” Although, it is interesting that, of all the criteria on which the UK-based NGO selects the recipients of its model houses, that is not one of them.

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