BAMILEKE PEOPLE: THE MOST BUSINESS-ORIENTED TRIBE IN CAMEROON AND THEIR UNIQUE CIRCUMCISION INITIATION
The Bamilekè lives in the grass fields in the western providence of Cameroon. They were known as
“the people down there” associated them with the region of habitation. The region is made up of mostly grass fields, a mountainous plateau. The region is known for its hilly relief and rich soil.
Some of the valleys have the richer soil but are mixed with savanna and forest. It is common to find lots of volcanic rocks like basalt. “Bamilekè” is broken down into smaller tribes: Aghem, Babadjou, Bafang, Bafou, Bafoussam, Bagam, Baloum, Bamaha, Bamdendjina, Bamendjou, Bamenkoumbit, Bamenyam, Bana, Bandjoun, Bangangté,Bangoua, Bangwa, Bangwa-Fontem, Bapi, Batcham, Batchingou, Bati, Batié, Dschang, Fe'e Fe'e, Fomopea, Fongondeng, Foto, Fotouni, Mbouda. The Bamilekè region covers 6,196 square kilometers and extends 5°-6° N and 10°-11° E. Northwest they are protected by the Bamboutos Mountains located northwest and by the Noun River on the southeast side of the tribe boundaries.
Brief history: Including some 100 kingdoms of chiefdoms in this bantu group. They are of varying size but similar in cosmology,social, and political structure. They all speak similar languages but some more specific to the immediate tribe. The Bamilekè refer to themselves as Bamilekè when speaking with non- Bamilekè tribes but specify their kingdoms when speaking with other Bamilekè tribe members. The Bamilekè region is divided into five administrative divisions in the western province: Bamboutos, Haut-Nkam, Mifi, Menoua, and Nde.
Sexual division of production: Both men and women work in trade of the market place and of farming the product itself. They work eight-day weekly cycles and in long distance inter-ethnic exchange. Men are mostly responsible for tree crops and clearing the fields for the women and building any fences that are needed. They are dominant in the field of transportation; mainly men drive taxis and trucks since the pre-colonial involvement in animal husbandry and war.
Bamileke women of Cameroon dancing
Land tenure: The kings in each kingdom are the owners of all land. Then there are quarter chiefs that distribute the land to the head males. The head males then distribute plots of land to their wives, non-inheriting brothers, and sisters. They nominate heirs and heiress who will inherit the land and responsibility of all dependents on the land.
Ceramics: Religious sculptures are made for fertility, royalty, and wisdom.
In the Bamileke, the Kuosi society, who reports directly to the king, is responsible for dramatic masquerading displays. This was formerly a warrior society, whose members today are made up of powerful, wealthy men. Even the king may don a mask for an appearance at aKuosi celebration which is a public dance held every other year as a display of the kingdom's wealth. In the image to the left, you see the Kuosi masqueraders with their beaded elephant masks and feathered headressses. These feathered headresses were also worn by themselves with a cloth costume. The Kuosi society masks can resemble elephants or leopards, both of which are royal animals.
While Bamileke masks and masqueraders may appear in royal festivals, they are normally associated with various men's societies, most of which are ultimately linked to the palace and the King. The societies are closed to outsiders, and only those who have the authrization to partake in the various activities may do so. Each society has its own special house, its own masks, costumes, dances and a secret language, and acting on behalf of the king to establish order and to preserve social and religious structures of the kingdom.
One such society if the Kwifo (meaning 'night') society, who acts as a policing force while the king hears complaints and councils his people, carrying out punishments and executions at night. Acting as the kings agent, the Kwifo also mediates significant conflicts and pronounces sentence in both civil and criminal cases.
Each Kwifo society has a mask which serves as a spokesman and representaive. Known as Mabu, this mask presents the decrees of the society to the community. It ushers the members of the Kwifo through the village, alerting the people of the approach of the group, and compelling them to behave appropriately. Other masks are credited with supernatural strength generated by the 'medicine' of Kwifo, and embody the aggessive and terrifying nature of the society. Because of the gravity of the events surrounding their arrival, the wearers do not dance.
Kwifo masks are usually worn in groups of anywhere from eight to thirty, accompanied by and orchestra os drums, xylophone and rattles. When they make special apperances at the burial and commemorative death celebrations of a member of the group, they are viewed with awe and reverence.
The mask large, and helmet-shaped, would be place on top of the head where it is worn at an angle, the masquerader's head would be covered with a cloth through which he would be able to see. The carved headdress alludes to that of a prestige cap worn by kings and high dignitaries, (see below) thus reminding viewers of the importance and high status of this society. The Kwifo society masks are also known to be carved with the earth spider motif (see picture above) which alludes to the awesome power of the ancestors and spirits.
The hairstyle shown in this kwifo mask is commonly seen among the Bamun, Bamileke and Tikar, and a frequently featured on brass, bronze, and wooded sculpture. This royal headdress is known as The Ndam Tcheu Dop in the Bamenda region, and asTcho Dung Dung in the Bandjan region of Cameroon.
It is the coiffure most commonly reproduced by sculptures when creating their masks and commemorative statues. It's origin is from a royal cap that was worn, the cap was knitted or crocheted from raffia or vegetable fibers.
It featured two lobes or prominentlateral sections. It's uniquness comes from the fact that each lobe is spiked with a multitude of tails, bumps, blades, or tiny rolls of cloth, each concealing a slim wooden peg to stiffen it or keep it upright.
To the right is an example of the afore mentioned cap, collected in the Bali-Nyonga kingdom of Cameroon in 1911. It is believed to have been used by royals in a ritual context during initiation ceremonies and the enthronement of an important individual.
Marriage: Bamileke practice polygynous marriage. At a young age the boy to men will attempt to gain a title and money to be respected to buy a bride. There are wife givers and wife receivers. “In bride-price marriage, the groom gains reproductive, sexual, and domestic rights by giving gifts of palm oil, goats, blankets, firewood, and money to the family of his bride.” The bride’s father and the groom never do
the bride price exchange. The father of the bride gains rights over the marriage on the patrilineal side of his daughter. “Christian marriage can still take place with or without bride-wealth, marriage by a justice of the peace, elopement, and single parenthood.” The bride price depends on the amount of education the woman has but also on how much the groom ability to pay is. The term for marriage is to “to cook inside” that symbolizes the women’s confidence to her kitchen. This is a literal term for the woman to cook each meal for
her husband but to also “cook” or procreate children.
Inheritance patterns: The Bamiléké people have emphasis on the male lineage through agnatic relations. Patrilineal decent determines the membership of the village as well as who gets ownership of the titles, land, compound, and wives. “For non-heirs, the obligation to sacrifice to patrilineal skulls ceases after two generations. Matrilineal descent determines inheritance of titles, movable property, and moral and legal obligation to lineage members.”
Parent-offspring interactions and conflict: There is some competition among wives of one man but in some cases there is tight relations and warm companionship. Some older co-wives are assigned to younger ones as a “foster” mother. Full siblings tend to have a close bond to the mother and family while half siblings fight for attention and inheritance. “Social roles are learned through example and through stories told around the mother's hearth at mealtimes. Bamiléké report particularly warm relations among full siblings, and refer
to hearthside commensality and storytelling as the source of this solidarity.” Mothers pay the role in child rearing but sometimes the an older sibling or co-wife will help with care while the mother is working. The Bamiléké are exogamous, preventing patrilineal links up to the fourth generation from marrying. Also preventing marriage with the matrilineal kin.
Bamileke women wearing their traditional indigo dress and performing dance at their Weh festival in Yaounde
Father is called heir and the mother is the heiress. Cousins are referred to by sibling names but are
distinguished in everyday language. There are special sibling terms that are referred to in order of birth. Also another name for twins, children born following a set of twins, and there is a complex system of praise names that announce the village origin of mother and father. Generations also have a given name to specify kingdoms and divisions age.
Patterns of descent (e.g., bilateral, matrilineal) for certain rights, names or associations: “The political implications of hometown associations focuses on male elites.” The Bamiléké have emphasis on the male lineage through agnatic relations. Patrilineal decent determines the membership of the village as well as who gets ownership of the titles, land, compound, and wives. “For non-heirs, the obligation to sacrifice to patrilineal skulls ceases after two generations. Matrilineal descent determines inheritance of titles, movable
property, and moral and legal obligation to lineage members.” Sons try to establish land near their father. “Young men were organized into warrior associations such as mandjo.”
Kareyce Fotso, bamileke musician
Political system: (chiefs, clans etc, wealth or status classes): There were kings who owned all land then trickled down a laddered hierarchy to women of the land owning men. Bamilekè boys in their youth go out seeking jobs in return for cash to buy consumer goods, bride wealth, and to gain title.
Bamileke Chief Hapi IV
Village and house organization: The kingdoms are divided into quarters, villages, compounds, and houses. The kingdom government and administration live in the “quarter” also referred to as the “village”. If the family were monogamous then the living arrangement would consist of a conjugal house, a kitchen, and an outhouse. If the family were polygynous the living arrangement would consist of just “the husbands house surrounded by a semi-circle or two rectangular “quarters” of his wives’ kitchen-houses.” The wives live in their kitchen houses with their children. The children (boys an
d girls) will live there until they get married or go off to school. The kitchen house has one room with a hearth in the middle and a granary of raffia bamboo above the hearth.
They are most commonly made out of mud bricks and roofed with thatch or tin. The house used to be made of raffia bamboo with sliding doors and thatch with conical roofs. They would all be square. During the pre-colonial era, rural compounds commonly had a fence. They rarely do nowadays. All of the
royal houses follow a specific floor plan and are always located/built on a slope. “Below an entry gate made of spines of the raffia palm ("bamboo") and either thatch or corrugated iron, a wide path (the "foot" of the compound) divides the two wives' quarters, each quarter ruled by titled queens.”
Bamileke Sharing of Love (this performance with my husband, serge olivier fokoua, is the proof of the highest expession of love between a man and his wife. the "NKUI", sticky sauce from Bamiléké people is at the center of this exchange. this traditional meal is eaten during pregnancy or after childbirth)
Specialized village structures (mens’ houses): “A gate leads to the king's palace, a variety of meeting houses of secret societies, a traditional court building, and a sacred water source used only for the king's meals.” They consider the are above the gate to be “dry and infertile” while the area below the gate is considered “rich, moist, fertile, and spiritually complicated.”
Bamileke Chief`s palace
Trade: The Bamiléké trade agriculture goods, game, small livestock for salt, palm oil, and iron hoes. Trade markets grew during the colonial and post-colonial eras. “Both local and European goods were bought or bartered.” The entrepreneurs are known for being aggressive. They dominate the taxi and transportation in most sectors they are associated with.
Bamileke art, mother breastfeeding her child
Specialization (shamans and medicine): The community had diviners and spirit medians that determine the need for a ceremony and in healing. Healers and witches use the same supernatural powers.Many healers combine divination with herbal medicine. In the past, diviners, spirit mediums, and religious specialists had higher status than herbalists. This relation is now reversing, along with a trend toward more individual and fee-for-service treatment. Contemporary Bamiléké seek medical assistance from both private and public hospitals and clinics as well as from their rich array of traditional practitioners (see “Religious Practitioners”).
Passage rituals (birth, death, puberty, seasonal): It is ritual that the mother buries the placenta and umbilical cord after birth. Baby boys are then circumcised and girls are secluded until pre-puberty. For the king: “Royal rituals enact the transformation of a new king from a mere mortal to a divine being, the embodiment of the office of kingship. These rituals include capturing the new king, and enclosing him and two of his queens in a special temporary structure ( la' kwa ) for nine weeks.
During this time they are fed medicines and taught their new duties. A ritual—complete with the symbolism of birth and feeding—marks the emergence of the king from la' kwa. He fully becomes king only after he has sired at least one male and one female child.”
Other rituals: Death ceremonies are held one year after the death and they are a public display of wealth and the value of the deceased. The mourning ends when the body has made a full transition into ancestorhood. Spirit medians, diviners, and religious specialists use herbal medicines. Herbalists are now seen as equals to the spirit medians, diviners, and religious specialists.
Bamileke funeral ceremony
Myths (Creation): “All Bamiléké believed in the power of ancestors, through the metonym of the ancestral skull (tu ), to cause good or bad fortune for their descendants.” They believed the ancestral skulls control access to propitiary rights. If improper care of the ancestral skull follows death, there is said to be wrath, illness, infertility, and sometimes, even death.
Cultural material (art, music, games): The Bamiléké are known for their wooden sculptures, masks, stools that are often decorated with beads and cowries, and carved house posts. The motifs include human figures usually representing ancestors, and witches, along with animals that represent fertility, wisdom, and royalty. It is ritually that the kings wear white and blue woven cotton cloth.
Bamileke Kousi Elephant masqueraders, 1930
Death and afterlife beliefs:Relatives shave their heads and wear blue or black clothing during the week of mourning. After one year of death, lavish celebrations are held. After the celebration the heir and heiress will exhume and care for ancestral skulls and keep them in clay pots or in small house-like tombs.
Taboo of naming dead people? After one year of death, lavish celebrations are held. After the celebration the heir and heiress will exhume and care for ancestral skulls and keep them in clay pots or in small house-like tombs. “Prior to missionization, Bamiléké believed in a creator God, Nsi. Some groups believed in local deities relating to natural features (streams, groves of trees, rocks) and personal spirits.”
Procession in Bandjoun in the western part of Cameroon. The public part of the initiation rite just before the circumcision of boys in the age of 6 to 8 years old.
Circumcision initiation ceremony in Bandjoun
Bamileke Boy gets ready for an initiation ritual in Procession in Bandjoun in the western part of Cameroon. The public part of the initiation rite just before the circumcision of boys in the age of 6 to 8 years old..
Bamileke circumcision initiation ceremony
Bamileke newly circumcised initiate
Bamileke circumcised initiate
Bamileke Elephant masks
The King and the Kuosi Society members in Bandjoun 1930
Elephants are the world's most commanding land creatures, unsurpassed in grandeur and power. Thus elephant masks, while rare in Africa, are fully appropriate symbols of important leaders or, at least, their respected deputies or messengers. The societies that use these masks in fact act as agents of chiefs' control and as formal royal emissaries. Elephant societies that originated in Bamileke and spread elsewhere
in the Grasslands consist of three graded ranks attained by wealth. These elephant masks, signifying kingship and wealth, were worn by the powerful members of the Kuosi regulatory society, which included members of royalty, wealthy title holders, and ranking warriors of the Bandjoun kingdom of western Cameroon.
In the past, payment of a slave or a leopard pelt to the chief who owns the society was necessary for entrance to the highest rank. The glass beads used on earlier masks were nineteenth-century trade beads of Venetian or Czechoslovakian manufacture, used as well in exchange for slaves. Elephant mask costumes were thus called "things of money" since their beads were both objects and symbols of wealth
(Brain and Pollock 1971:100; Northern 1975:17-21).
Elephant Society Mask, late 19th century
Raffia, canvas embroidered with beads
62 3/4" x 18 1/2" x 8 1/4"
Gift of the Director's Council 97.2.1
Memphis Brooks Museum of art
Elephant masks comprise cloth panels and hoods woven from plantain fiber over raffia. On this background multicolored beads are stitched in geometric patterns. The basic form depicts salient features of the elephant—a long trunk and large ears. The hood fits tightly over the masker's head, and two hanging panels, one behind and one in front, partially conceal the body. The front panel is the elephant trunk, and
the two large, stiff circles hinged to either side of the head are its ears, which flap as the masker dances. While the mask symbolizes an elephant, the face is human. Eyeholes provide visibility, and a nose and mouth with teeth are normally present.
Elephant Helmet Mask, about 1950 1970
Ball State University Museum of Art
Such masks are often worn with robes of dark woven fiber covered with small fiber knobs or indigo and white tie-dyed "royal" cloth. The robes contrast greatly with the maskers' bright red legs, dyed with camwood. Costumes also include beaded vests with broad belts and leopard pelts attached at the back. Since a chief owns or controls the masking society, both leopards and elephants are apt metaphors for
Maskers dance barefoot in these colorful costumes to a drum and gong, moving slowly as they wave poles with blue and white beaded tips trimmed with horsehair. They whistle "mysteriously and tunelessly," brandishing spears and horsetails. Maskers are later joined by chiefs and princesses, parading by an elaborate tent in which high-ranking men sit to observe. A masker hurls his horsetail to the chief, the crowd
cheers, and the celebration continues with various feats performed primarily by younger maskers. When the festivities end, the favorites are rewarded with kola nuts and wine (Brain and Pollock 1971:100-104; Northern 1975:17).
Sotheby's - New York
Arts of Africa, Oceania & The Americas
Auction Date : May 17, 2002
Lot 44 : Bamileke elephant mask
fashioned from cloth in the form of an abstract elephant framed by large flat circular ears, with a panel at the
front and back composed of indigo resist dyed cloth and a burlap lining; elaborately beaded overall with yellow, green, white and blue glass beads in geometric patterns.
The beauty of these masks is largely in their colorful beaded patterns. Dark blue or red backgrounds provide foundations for basic geometric designs laid out in white, creating a striking contrast. As Tamara Northern indicates, the masks show varied degrees of order and complexity (1975:116).33 Masks may be sparsely or densely beaded.
The mask's lavish use of colored beads and cowrie shells displayed the wealth of the members of the Kuosi society; and its colors and patterns expressed the society's cosmic and political functions. Cowrie shells are also symbols of wealth and power and were used in the some examples of these masks.
Bamileke “elephant-mask” (West Cameroon).
Black denotes the relationship between the living and the dead. White refers to the ancestors and potent medicines. Red symbolizes life, women, and the institution of kingship. The dominant triangle designs on both masks represent leopard spots, the leopard being a royal symbol of power and mastery like the elephant. The members of the Kuosi regulatory society belonged to the royal court and enforced the laws of the kingdom in all spheres of life. The society gathered together during funeral ceremonies of its members and for public celebrations of kingship to display the Bandjoun kingdom's power and wealth.
Source: Sign of the Leopard - Beaded Art of Cameroon
The elephant masks of the Bamileke
At the head of the highly structured Bamileke chiefdoms is a fon. He is assisted by a council composed of eight men, patrilineal descendents of the founders of the kingdom. The mkem, or assembly of the holders of hereditary rights, includes all the men who have rendered a great service to the kingdom; for example, war chiefs, or men who have enriched the royal treasury with elephant tusks or leopard skins. Each
member of the mkem is head of a society with a specialized function: either religious, economic, military, or so on. The members of only two of these societies, the warrior societies of kuosi and kemdje, are allowed to wear the elephant masks and the leopard skins. Ceremonies in which the wealth of the fon is displayed take place on the death of a fon or a man of high rank, or every two years, during the most important meetings of these societies.
Every item in the elephant mask costume denotes wealth, power and privilege. The multitude of glass beads which decorate it are ancient barter money, dating back to the slave-trade period. This display of wealth is in fact one of the functions of the mask. The elephant and the leopard are also evocative of force and power, both the power of the animals themselves, masters of the bush, and also that of the fon. For a fon is said to be able to transform himself into an elephant or a leopard.
Source: The Dance, Art and Ritual of Africa – Michele Huet
Cameroon Grasslands, 20th Century, Colonial Period
This mask represents the elephant and the leopard, royal symbols of the king's
power and wealth. According to Bamileke legend, the king can transform himself
into either of these animals at will.
Such a mask would have been worn in a biannual dance by the king and
members of the Kuosi association, an elite group of Bamileke men. Dance
costumes often included luxury items such as elaborate beaded garments,
feathered and sculpted headdresses, indigo-dyed royal cloths and leopard pelts.
The large ears and hanging trunk of the mask are indicative of an elephant.
Kings are said to have accomplished legendary deeds while in the form of an
elephant, such as moving giant trees blocking their way. The king faces similar
obstacles as the leader of his people. Not only does the elephant evoke a sense
of might and majesty, but their ivory tusks were a source of wealth, exchanged
for beads and other goods.
The spots of the leopard are reflected in the beadwork patterns. The strength,
power, speed, and cunning of the leopard are also characteristics equated with
This mask was generously donated by Richard and Barbara Faletti and is part of
the Richard and Barbara Faletti Family Collection of West African Cultural
Spurlock Museum, University of Illinois
KAREYCE FOTSO ''KWEGNE'' (CAMERUN,2010) @ [256k]
Kareyce Fotso's Afro-folk
A rising new star from Cameroon
Aspiring young Cameroonian singer Kareyce Fotso has made it to the finals of RFI's "Découvertes" award (to be held in the Togolese capital, Lomé, on 25 November.) After honing her performance skills touring with the group Korongo Jam, Kareyce has now launched a promising solo career. RFI Musique profiles the rising new star of Afro-folk.
A few weeks after the national heat for the "Jeux de la Francophonie", Kareyce applied to take part in the "Visas pour la création" programme organised by CulturesFrance. Her dossier was accepted and the young Cameroonian singer won a grant to come to France and take up a three-month residency in Bourges in May 2009. Here, Kareyce got to work with the French percussionist François Kokelaere (renowned for forming a number of groups including Les Percussions de Guinée) who took on the role of her artistic director. "François got me to look in the mirror and see myself as I really am," Kareyce recalls, "That experience helped me avoid falling into any sort of caricature. And it went way beyond music, too. I felt as though I'd truly discovered myself for the first time in my life."
Prior to her arrival in Bourges, Kareyce spent six years honing her performance skills as a dancer and backing singer with Korongo Jam (a Cameroonian group to whom François Kokelaere also acted as an advisor.) Her talent was originally spotted while she was still a student at the University of Yaoundé. Here, she started out studying biochemistry which she describes as "the worst time of my life - I was literally bored to tears!" Kareyce eventually swapped to do a course in audiovisual communication but music remained the great love of her life. Her father, a professional sculptor all too familiar with the precariousness of the artistic life, had banned his children from pursuing a career in the arts. But Kareyce's brother, who was sent to boarding school to get him away from the music scene, finally persuaded his parents to let his sister follow her dreams. Kareyce was allowed to indulge her passion for music so long as she got good grades at school and the talented youngster managed to do both at the same time, keeping her classmates amused in school by performing her own versions of cartoon theme tunes.
Translation : Julie Street