The BANGWA Tribal Area is situated in the north east of the Mamfe Division, and the watershed which extends along the side of this tribe forms the existing international boundary with the French sphere of the Cameroons.
The name ‘Bangwa’ conveniently describes all the inhabitants of this cluster of nine chiefdoms although they do not, in any sense, constitute a tribe or a single political unit. The word derives from the stem nwe (or nwa in the northern dialects) which refers to both the country and the language. ‘Bangwa’ therefore correctly refers to the people who speak nwe and inhabit the narrow strip of country in West Cameroon which forms the foothills of the section of the East Cameroon plateau inhabited by the Bamileke.
It is however, doubtful whether all in the inhabitants of the nine independent chiefdoms ever thought of themselves as ‘we, the Bangwa’, before they were grouped together as a unit of local government by the British administration. Each Bangwa chiefdom maintained much closer links with its neighbours, the Bamileke chiefdoms to the east, than with their Bangwa neighbours to the north and south. The term nwe is, moreover, used more specifically to describe the highland areas of the four chiefdoms, Fontem, Fotabong, Fonjumeter and Foto Dungatet.
The Bangwa inhabit a somewhat inaccessible region but they have always maintained contacts with their neighbours on all sides: the Bamileke to the east, the Mundani to the north-west, the Banyang to the west and the Mbo and Nkingkwa to the south. Links have been economic, cultural and historical.
The Bangwa speak a Bantoid language which is closely related to languages spoken by the Western Bamileke , particularly around Dschang and Fondongela. Important dialectical differences, however, occur among the Bangwa and the Bamileke.
The Cameroon Grasslands is a large cultural area, which is inhabited by a large number of related peoples. These peoples can be divided into three smaller subgroups: Bamileke, Bamum, and Bamenda Tikar. The Bangwa are one of the numerous smaller ethnic groups within the Bamileke complex. They are loosely affiliated with other groups in the complex, sharing many historical and political similarities while retaining their separate identity. All members of this group originally came from an area to the north and migrated in various complex patterns throughout the last several centuries. Fulani traders moving steadily southwards into Cameroon in the 17th century forced the southern drift of most of the current residents. The Bangwa were only officially separated from the Bamileke during colonial administration during the early 20th century.
People in the region played an important part in regional trade routes connecting with the seaport of Douala in the south and with Fulani and Hausa traders in the north. The Bangwa, like most of the people in this area, are historically farmers who grow maize, yams, and peanuts as staple crops. They also raise some livestock, including chickens and goats, which play an important role in daily sustenance. Women, who are believed to make the soil more fruitful, are responsible for the tasks of planting and harvesting the crops. Men are responsible for clearing the fields for planting and practice some nominal hunting. The Bangwa also developed trade relations with their neighbors living in southeastern Nigeria.
Authority among the Bangwa was traditionally instituted as part of the Bamileke political complex. Like most of the western Grasslands people, Babanki political authority is vested in a village chief, who is supported by a council of elders, and is called Fon. The Fon is elected to his position by his predecessor's council and is often an elder member of the most powerful extended family within the community. The chief is recognized as the de facto owner of all the land that belongs to a given village and is seen as the dispenser of supreme justice. Social behavior within the village is further controlled through a series of extensive age-grade associations and secret societies, both of which fall under the auspices of the village chief.
Like the Bamileke, the Bangwa recognize Si (a supreme god), but more commonly pay homage to their ancestors. Ancestral spirits are embodied in the skulls of the deceased ancestors. The skulls are in the possession of the eldest living male in each lineage, and all members of an extended family recognize the skulls as common heritage. When a family decides to relocate, a dwelling, which must be first purified by a diviner, is built to house the skulls in the new location. Although not all of the ancestral skulls are in the possession of a family, the memories of all ancestors are honored. The spirits of ancestors whose skulls are not preserved have nowhere to reside and may as a result cause trouble for the family. To compensate when a man's skull is not preserved, a family member must undergo a ceremony in which libations are poured into the ground. Earth gathered from the site of that offering then represents the skull of the deceased. Respect is also paid to female skulls, although details about such practices are largely unrecorded.
Types of Art
Most Bangwa statues are royal portraits, which are kept in royal shrines along with the skulls of the ancestors. Frightening masks associated with the Night society are employed by the chief to maintain social order. Beautiful beadwork associated with the Fon (chief) is common throughout this area.