The Bamileke are a Grassfields people. They are the largest ethnic group in Cameroon and inhabit the country's West and Northwest Regions. The Bamileke are regrouped under several groups, each under the guidance of a chief or fon. They speak a number of related languages from the Eastern Grassfield branch of the GrassField language family. These languages are closely related, however, and some classifications identify a Bamileke dialect continuum with seventeen or more dialects. The Bamileke people are known for their very striking and often intricately beaded masquerades, including the impressive elephant mask.
The Bamileke are organized under several chiefdom (or fondom). Of these, the fondoms of Bafang, Bafoussam, Bandjoun, Baham, Bangangté, Bawaju, Dschang, and Mbouda are the most prominent. The Bamileke also share much history and culture with the neighbouring fondoms of the Northwest region and notably the Lebialem region of the Southwest region, but the groups have been divided since their territories were split between the French and English in colonial times.
Following Ethnologue classification, we can identify 11 different languages or dialects:
Variants of Ghomala' are spoken in most of the Mifi, Koung-Khi, Hauts-Plateaux departments, the eastern Menoua, and portions of Bamboutos, by 260,00 people (1982, SIL). The main fondoms are Baham, Bafoussam, Bamendjou, Bandjoun.
Towards southwest is spoken Fe'fe' in the Upper Nkam division. The main towns include Bafang, Baku, and Kékem.
Nda'nda' occupy the western third of the Ndé division. The major settlement is at Bazou.
Yemba is spoken by 300,000 or more people in 1992. Their lands span most of the Menoua division to the west of the Bandjoun, with their capital at Dschang. Fokoué is another major settlement.
Medumba is spoken in most of the Ndé division, by 210,000 people in 1991, with major settlements at Bangangté and Tonga.
Mengaka, Ngiemboon, Ngomba and Ngombale are spoken in Mbouda.
Kwa is spoken between the Ndé and the Littoral region, Ngwe around Fontem in the Southwest region, and Mmuock (language) by the Mmuock people in the Lebialem division of the Southwest region.
Bamileke belongs to the Mbam-Nkam group of Grassfields languages
The Bamileke, whose origins trace to Egypt, migrated to what is now northern Cameroon between the 11th and 14th centuries. In the 17th century they migrated further south and west to avoid being forced to convert to Islam. Today, a majority of peoples within this people cluster are Christians. The Bamileke are the native people of three regions of Cameroon, namely West, North-West and South-West. Though greater part of this people are from the West region, it is estimated that almost half of Bamileke are from the English speaking regions, the majority of which are from the North-West region (there are 123 Bamileke groupings in this region, against 6 in the South-West and 106 in the Western region). The Grassfields area therefore encompasses the West and North-West and small part of the South-West region of Cameroon. Apart from the Bamileke, there are other tribes that are historically more or less linked to the Bamileke, whether by blood or through certain cultural intercourse (Dieudonné Toukam, “Histoire et anthropologie du peuple bamiléké”, 2016), as well as recently settled foreigners (Fulani, Haoussa, Igbo, etc.)
Historically, the Bamun and the Bamileke were united. The founder of the Bamun group (Nchare) was the younger brother of the founder of Bafoussam. Bamiléké are a group comprising many tribes. In this group, there are several superficial cultural disparities, including Dschang, Bafang, Bagangté, Mbouda and Bafoussam.
During the mid-17th century, the Bamiléké people's forefathers left the North to avoid being forced to convert to Islam. They migrated as far south as Foumban. Conquerors came all the way to Foumban to try to impose Islam on them. A war began, pushing some people to leave while others remained, submitting to Islam. This marks the division between the Bamun and Bamiléké people.
The Cameroon-Bamileke people cluster encompasses multiple ethnic groups primarily found in Cameroon, the largest of which is the Bamileke.
In the 17th century they migrated further south and west to avoid being forced to convert to Islam. Another reason for migration was to resist enslavement during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Today, a majority of peoples within this people cluster are Christians.
Germany gained control of "Kamerun" in 1884. The Germans first applied the term "Bamileke" to the people as administrative shorthand for the people of the region.
French administration and post-independence
The Bamileke are very dynamic and have a great sense of entrepreneurship. Thus, they can be found in almost all regions of Cameroon and in the world, mainly as business owners.
In 1955, the colonial French power banned the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) political party, which was claiming the independence of Cameroon. Following that, the French started an offensive against UPC militants. Much of fighting occurred in the West region, region of the Bamileke. Some tens of thousands of people died in the UPC conflict with French and Cameroonian troops.
The Bamileke's settlements follow a well-organized and structured pattern. Houses of family members are often grouped together, often surrounded by small fields. Men typically clear the fields, but it is largely women who work them. Most work is done with tools such as machetes and hoes. Staple crops include cocoyams, groundnuts and maize.
Bamileke settlement are organized as chiefdoms. The chief, or fon or fong is considered as the spiritual, political, judicial and military leader. The Chief is also considered as the 'Father' of the chiefdom. He thus has great respect from the population. The successor of the 'Father' is chosen among his children. The successor's identity is typically kept secret until the fon's death.
The fon has typically 9 ministers and several other advisers and councils. The ministers are in charge of the crowning of the new fon. The council of ministers, also known as the Council of Notables is called Kamveu. In addition, a "queen mother" or mafo was an important figure for some fons in the past. Below the fon and his advisers lie a number of ward heads, each responsible for a particular portion of the village. Some Bamileke groups also recognise sub-chiefs, or fonte.
Traditional homes are constructed by first erecting a raffia-pole frame into four square walls. Builders then stuff the resulting holes with grass and cover the whole building with mud. The thatched roof is typically shaped into a tall cone. Nowadays, however, this type of construction is mostly reserved for barns, storage buildings, and gathering places for various traditional secret societies. Instead, modern Bamileke homes are made of bricks of either sun-dried mud or of concrete. Roofs are of metal sheeting.
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.
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.
Religious sculptures are made for fertility, royalty, and wisdom.
The Bamileke tribe is governed by a village chief who is supported by a council of elders. In the past, the chief was believed to have supernatural powers that allowed him to turn into an animal (elephant, buffalo, or leopard). The chief is responsible for the protection of his people, dispensing supreme justice, and ensuring the fertility of the crops and fields.
Many of the art produced by the Bamileke tribe associated with royal ceremonies. Most Bamileke statues represent the chief. Art objects showed the position of a person it the hierarchy. As a person descended or ascended the social ladder the materials used and the number of pieces changed. In a chief’s residence one would find ancestral figures and masks, as well as headdresses, bracelets, beaded thrones, pipes, necklaces, swords, horns, fans, elephant tusks, leopard skins, terracotta pots, and dishware. All of this was used to assert the chief’s power. Beadwork and masks are common in this tribe. Masks were decorated with copper, cowrie shells, and beads. They were carved to represent male and female heads, stag, buffalo, birds, and elephant. The elephant masks and the buffalo masks represented power and strength. Bamileke masks were usually worn during ceremonies and rituals such as funerals and annual festivals. The art styles of the grassland tribes are had to differentiate because of the complex migration patterns of the region.
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 riminal 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 and 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
During the colonial period, parts of the Bamileke adopted Christianity. Some of them practice Islam toward the border with the Adamawa Tikar and the Bamun. The Bamileke have worn elephant mask for dance ceremonies or funerals
Masquerades are an integral part of Bamileke culture and expression. They are donned at special events such as funerals, important palace festivals and other royal ceremonies. The masks are performed by men and aim to support and enforce royal authority.
The power of a Bamileke king, called a Fon, is often represented by the elephant, buffalo and leopard. Oral traditions proclaim that the Fon may transform into either an elephant or leopard whenever he chooses. An elephant mask, called a mbap mtengis a mask with protruding circular ears, a human like face, decorative panels on the front and back that hang down to the knee and are covered overall in beautiful geometric beadwork including lots of triangle imagery. Isosceles triangles are prevalent as they are the known symbol of the leopard. Beadwork, shells, bronze and other precious embellishments on masks elevate the mask's status. On occasion, a Fon may permit members of the community to perform an elephant mask along with a leopard skin, indicating a statement of wealth, status and power being associated with this masquerade.
Buffalo masks are also very popular and present at most functions throughout Grassland societies, including the Bamileke. They represent power, strength and bravery and may also be associated with the Fon.
Beadwork is an essential element of Bamileke Art and what distinguishes them from other regions of Africa. It is an art form that is highly personal in that no two pieces are alike and are often used in dazzling colors that catch the eye. They may be an indication of status based on what kinds of beads are used. Beadwork utilized all over on wooden sculptures is a technique that is unique only to the Cameroon grasslands.
Before they were colonized, popular beads were obtained from Sub-Saharan countries like Nigeria and were made of shells, nuts, wood, seeds, ceramic, ivory, animal bone and metal. Colonization and trade routes with other countries in Europe and the Middle East introduced brightly colored glass beads as well as pearls, coral and rare stones like emeralds. These came at a price, however. There were often agreements with these other countries to exchange these precious luxury commodities for slaves, gold, oil, ivory and some types of fine woods.
The Bamileke trace ancestry, inheritance and succession through the male line, and children belong to the fondom of their father. After a man's death, all of his possessions typically go to a single, male heir. Polygamy (more specifically, polygyny) is practiced, and some important individuals may have literally hundreds of wives. Marriages typically involve a bride price to be paid to the bride's family.
It is argued that the Bamileke inheritance customs contributed to their success in the modern world:
"Succession and inheritance rules are determined by the principle of patrilineal descent. According to custom, the eldest son is the probable heir, but a father may choose any one of his sons to succeed him. An heir takes his dead father's name and inherits any titles held by the latter, including the right to membership in any societies to which he belonged. And, until the mid-1960s, when the law governing polygamy was changed, the heir also inherited his father's wives--a considerable economic responsibility. The rights in land held by the deceased were conferred upon the heir subject to the approval of the chief, and, in the event of financial inheritance, the heir was not obliged to share this with other family members. The ramifications of this are significant. First, dispossessed family members were not automatically entitled to live off the wealth of the heir. Siblings who did not share in the inheritance were, therefore, strongly encouraged to make it on their own through individual initiative and by assuming responsibility for earning their livelihood. Second, this practice of individual responsibility in contrast to a system of strong family obligations prevented a drain on individual financial resources. Rather than spend all of the inheritance maintaining unproductive family members, the heir could, in the contemporary period, utilize his resources in more financially productive ways such as for savings and investment. [...] Finally, the system of inheritance, along with the large-scale migration resulting from population density and land pressures, is one of the internal incentives that accounts for Bamileke success in the nontraditional world".
Donald L. Horowitz also attributes the economic success of the Bamileke to their inheritance customs, arguing that it encouraged younger sons to seek their own living abroad. He wrote in Ethnic groups in conflict: "Primogeniture among the Bamileke and matrilineal inheritance among the Minangkabau of Indonesia have contributed powerfully to the propensity of males from both groups to migrate out of their home region in search of opportunity".
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 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.
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 symbolic impersonation.
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).
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.