CAMEROON

A Nation's Stronghold

By Jheri St. James

Cameroon is well known for its native styles of music, particularly the most popular makossa and bikutsi, and for its successful national football team. Oku Juju Dance, a ballet company from the Oku region, a very fertile cultural melting pot in the northwestern part of Cameroon, is famous for extraordinary choreography incorporating masks, inspired by the forest, the fauna (juju) and their mysteries. The masks represent various wild animals (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos, etc.) as well as extraterrestrial beings (Dracula, ghosts, dragons) which are part of the mysteries of the fauna of the Oku mountain. The music combines ritual and play, with a charming beauty. The ballet is divided into dances from the northwest (Njang, Ndongo, Febien, Mfuu, Nokang), the west (Bend skin, Mangambeu), Pygmee (the longest continuous inhabitants of Cameroon) dances from the east, Assiko and Makossa from the coast, and is considered an initiatory trip into the origins of traditional Cameroon history.

Cameroon is home to over 200 styles of dance. Traditional dances separate men and women and are highly choreographed. The goals of dances range from pure entertainment to religious devotion. Musical accompaniment may be as simple as clapping hands or stomping feet, but traditional instruments include bells worn by dancers, clappers, drums and talking drums, flutes, horns, rattles, scrapers, stringed instruments, whistles and xylophones. Prince Nico Mbarga’s highlife hit “Sweet Mother” is the top-selling African record in history.

Photos of Cameroon Fabric for sale, Kila market, near Rhumsiki, Cameroon

Traditional arts and crafts are practiced throughout the country for commercial, decorative and religious purposes. Woodcarvings and sculptures are especially common. The western highlands have high-quality clay suitable for pottery and ceramics and the Bamum are known for beadworking. Other crafts include basket weaving, brass and bronze working calabash carving and painting, embroidery and leatherworking. Traditional housing styles make use of locally available materials and vary from temporary wood and leaf shelters to rectangular mud and thatch homes and materials such as cement and tin are increasingly common.

The Collection Site Clay of Marenbouom, used in Much Pottery and Architecture

If you ask questions, you cannot avoid answers.

The Republic of Cameroon is a unitary republic of central and western Africa, bordering Nigeria west, Chad northeast, Central African Republic east, and Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and The Republic of the Congo south. Cameroon’s coastline lies on Bight of Bonny, part of the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. The country is called “Africa in Miniature” for its geological and cultural diversity including beaches, deserts, mountains, rainforests and savannas. The highest point is Mount Cameroon in the southwest and the largest cities are Douala, Yaounde, and Garoua. Home to over 200 ethnic and linguistic groups (the five main ones being Bamileke, Bamoun, Fulani and Kirdi and Ewondo). Bamileke is the most populous group and rules much of Cameroon’s economy. The two main languages are English and French, with Bamileke, Ewobdi, Bamoun, Fulfulde and Arabic also spoken.

The soil of Cameroon has absorbed much political strife, beginning with the chiefs in AD 500. Portuguese sailors reached the coast in 1472 and, seeing the abundance of prawns and crayfish in the Wouri River named the area Rio dos Camaroes, Portuguese for River of Prawns, and the phrase from which Cameroon is derived. Over the next few centuries, European interests traded with the coastal people. Meanwhile Christian missionaries established operations and gradually moved inland. In the early 19th century, Fulani Muslim soldiers went on a jihad against non-Muslim peoples and those Muslims who still practiced aspects of paganism. By 1884, the Germans claimed the territory as the colony of Kamerun, moving inland, breaking trade monopolies held by coastal peoples and expanding their control, establishing plantations in the south and much infrastructure, using the native people as slaves. With the defeat of Germany in World War I, Kamerun became a League of Nations mandate territory and was split into French Cameroun and British Cameroons in 1919. France improved the infrastructure with money, skilled and (again) slave labor and French Cameroun eventually surpassed its British counterpart in gross national product, education and health care services. Conflicts among the British, the French and the Germans created much turmoil for decades and much blood was shed onto the earth of Cameroon.

Cameroon began its independence with a bloody insurrection which was suppressed only with the help of French forces. There followed 20 years of repressive government, even with investment in agriculture, education, health care and transport. In 2006 an international court ruling awarded sovereignty to Cameroon in an oil dispute with Nigeria. Cameroon has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, however, the country’s progress is hampered by a level of corruption that is among the highest in the world.

Even today, Cameroon is a region of much ferment and dissent about many human rights issues existent today: forced forensic physical examinations of men; use of child soldiers; landmines, and freedom of press and other media. As of this writing, Cameroon’s leader Paul Biya entered the list of The World’s Worst Dictators, as compiled by David Wallechinsky (Tyrants: The World’s Worst Living Dictators (Regan Books).

By trying repeatedly, the monkey learns how to jump from the tree.

In the midst of turmoil, there are those who revere the earth, all living beings upon it, and are acting to preserve them. “The Elephants of Cameroon” is part of “Field Trip Earth", the North Carolina Zoological society’s newest online learning project. One may support this project by adopting an elephant or by giving a donation: http://www.nczooeletrack.org/adopt.html or http://nczoo.com/donate/elephants.html.

A Canadian-led team hopes to unlock mysteries of Cameroon’s granite strongholds. In 2002, a University of Calgary archaeologist began the expedition to excavate the Strongholds of Cameroon, which are some of the most remarkable stone-built structures anywhere in Africa. Located in the Mandara Mountains of northern Cameroon, the strongholds range in size from small stand-alone structures to complex, castle-sized fortresses with platforms, terraces and covered passageways. The curving walls on some of the larger strongholds are over six meters high and strong enough to serve as defensive barricades, although their exact function is still unknown.

Created by Mandaras Publishing - http://www.mandaras.info

There are 11 stronghold sites. “We really don’t know much yet about these amazing structures,” says Dr. Nicholas David, U of C archaeology professor. “One local story has it that they were used by groups who were almost constantly at war. People of the area relate fantastic legends involving men with coppery skins, horses, cannibals and slaves, although the architecture of the strongholds seems quite unsuitable for trade in slaves.

In 1823, Major Dixon Denham, a British explorer, met a group of chiefs on horseback from the area of the strongholds who were paying tribute to a local sultan. He described the chiefs as wearing animal skins, bone jewelry and “one to six strings of what I was assured were the teeth of the descendants of the people who built the strongholds.”

Although they are likely over 300 years old, the strongholds have never before been the subject of scholarly inquiry. Dr. David says, “The colonial period resulted in Africans being denied their history, but of course knowing that history is a vital part of nation-building. Archaeologists, by uncovering information, make a real contribution to the building of stable nation-states. These stone-built strongholds build Cameroonian identity.”

No matter how fast a man is, he cannot outrun his shadow.


Site Photo from Soil Collectors

Cameroon's soil collection was a combined effort between Mrs. Gladys Viban and Mr. Mathias Tientcheu, of the Public Affairs Section of the American Embassy in Yaounde and the Honorable Adamou Ndam Njoya, the Mayor of Foumban who is also a Cameroonian member of parliament. The location was a place called Marenbouom, which literally means "where clay is collected" in the Bamoum language.

“The Marenbouom valley is one of the most fascinating natural sites of Cameroon. At the beginning of the 20th century, clay of various textures and colors from this valley was used to produce bricks and tiles for the construction of the Bamoum Sultan Palace, one of the most outstanding historical landmarks of Cameroon. Cameroonians and foreigners who visit the Marenbouom site all marvel at its extraordinary beauty and the many manifestations of the ingenuity of the Cameroonian people it reflects.”

 

The story of the soil collection of Cameroon is populated with people, places, art and music. People in positions of power destroying other people; people in positions of power helping to collect soil for an art project. Places of horror; places of beauty. Art and music past and present. It is the combination of these elements that constitutes a nation’s stronghold, its home land, the dna of Cameroon. We thank all those who contributed to our art project in such a kind and generous way. The soil of Cameroon will not be forgotten as it becomes one unique part of the final production of the 50’ x 50’ fresco uniting all the soils of the world as one. The word for peace in Cameroon, a land of 280 languages is varied, but in Mr. Tientcheu’s language Bafang, they say “Mbouani”.

The heart of a wise man lies quiet like clear water.


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