Cameroon: traditional kingdoms

Traditional chiefs, or kings (called “fon” here), are an integral part of the political organization of the country. Officially functioning as auxiliaries of the central government, they are often the only face of the authorities which people in the countryside are exposed to. The more effective kings are true figures of authority for their people, more influential and respected than the remote central government in Yaounde.

We visit several palaces in the western highlands, where we travel for a few days, and get fascinating insights into sophisticated cultures.

The Bamoun kingdom, founded 600 years ago and whose current sultan is the 19th in the dynasty, is one of the most revered in the country. The 17th sultan, Ibrahim Njoya, initiated Meiji-like reforms for the kingdom in the 1920’s at a time when the French colonial administration was trying to defang the fon-doms.

He created one of sub-saharan Africa’s first written scripts, to counter the  introduction of the latin alphabet. Made up initially of 530 pictograms, it evolved to become an 80 letter alphabet. He set up printing presses to spread the use of the new writing system through books, used in newly opened local schools. He introduced modern agriculture and adopted western architectural styles which he blended with local traditional styles. Ibrahim Njoya was exiled by the French when he proved too successful – and before he was able to complete his African “Meiji restoration”.

We also visit the palace of one of the great kingdoms of Cameroon, Bafut, in the Bamenda area of the northwest highlands. One of the king’s eight wives, Queen Constance, shows us around. An articulate and charismatic personality, she gives us a behind the scenes view into the role of traditional chiefs. She touches on the creeping centralization which the government in Yaounde is trying to impose, to delegitimize traditional chiefs. More than 50 years after independence, politics in Africa remains resolutely local and tribal, with most people’s main allegiance being to their traditional leaders. The extreme example of this being the Ashanti king in Ghana whose power and influence rivals that of the elected government.

palace of the Bamoun fon (king)
ritual statuette at the Bamoun palace
palace of the Bafut fon
with Queen Constance, in front of the Bafut palace gates
ritual dance at the Bafut palace
appointed a friend of the Bafut by the palace chamberlain

Cameroon: schizophrenic tropics

Cameroon is a country of stunning natural beauty, with tropical beaches, lush rainforest, dry savannah and fertile highlands. Home to 256 tribes, each with their own dialect and culture, some highly sophisticated. Host to one of Africa’s last “Big Men”, Paul Bila, who has been president since 1982. Colonized by three nations. The Germans were here for 30 years until they were ousted in 1916. They left a legacy of interesting colonial architecture. The League of Nations then gave France and Britain a mandate to administer it. By the time Cameroon gained its independence in 1961, it had split into two countries. Anglophone West Cameroon and francophone East Cameroon. The two entities reunited in 1972 after a referendum but have been uneasy bedfellows since.

The francophone part (making up 80% of the country), which dominates, inherited from the French their cuisine, their dependency on the state and a general sense of unfriendliness. Nowhere in Africa have we met such sullen and obnoxious behaviour. One of the worst hotels we stay at in Africa displays a “credo” in every room advertising their aspiration to benchmark the Ritz Carlton. The anglophone part is a little friendlier (we remember at least two smiles from our journeys there ). It does not have much to show for 50 years of British rule apart from uniforms in the schools.

residence of Jesko von Putkamer, German governor of Kamerun – Buea
Tarzan was here! The Ekom-Nkam falls, where the movie Greystoke was shot
refrain from practicing black magic here
Fulani woman in the central highlands
the streets of Douala, Cameroon’s commercial capital
term limits not a problem (seen in Douala)
commemorating old battles between colonizers