27 September 2016

Foumban, home of the Bamoun people

[The last entry on our March travels.]

Ahidjo dropped us off at our hotel, a group of rooms on the grounds of a small private school that runs on donations. Ecole les Petits Louh is run by a Dutch lady and her Cameroonian husband, who has created several eclectic murals around the lodging.

Artwork at les Petits Louh: murals with Cameroonian and Dutch traditional
housing, people escaping East Germany.

Foumban, the cultural and political centre of the Bamoun people, has had a long and storied history. While the Bamoun dynasty has been around since the 14th century, with a key point being a famous victory in battle that was decided by a bulls' horns movement or, as it is termed here, the double snake (the snake being a symbol of the sultanate's power). As our guide Ali at the palace museum told us as we reviewed chairs, accoutrements, murals, and so on featuring the ubiquitous symbol, “Double snake – double power!”

Lineage of the Bamoun dynasty.
The reign of Sultan Ibrahim Njoya, at the turn of the 20th century, was characterized by vertiginous turns aimed at political expediency. At first Ibrahim Njoya converted to Christianity to court German colonial forces (who helped him reclaim his father's head from his enemies, thereby enabling Njoya's enthronement), then later switched to Islam to gain allegiance of leaders in the Adamawa region. Sultan Njoya also created the Bamoun alphabet and wrote several histories of the Bamoun people.

Selected kings and sultans of Foumban, "Double Snake, Double Power"

The royal palace of Foumban was constructed under Ibrahim Njoya's stewardship, and also includes a room of thrones, each crafted to meet the contours of the incoming sultan. The architectural style apparently resembles a medieval chateau with Baroque and Romanesque touches.

Foreground of Foumban's royal palace, with statue of Sultan Ibrahim Njoya.

Cameroonians at the bar, Sultan Ibrahim Njoya.

After visiting the palace, we set off in search of the Museum of Bamoun Arts and Traditions. We bumped into a Mr. Njoya (no relation to the sultan) in his Friday finery, and he was kind enough to keep us company and show us the way.

Mr. Njoya outside the Museum of Bamoun Arts and Traditions.

The Museum had an interesting collection of Bamoun artifacts, and genial guides showed us around the main room. There was also a room showing the interior of a traditional dwelling. It featured a cooking area as well as a bed. Much like the Mankon palace museum, this Bamoun house had a bag with an important cultural function. It hung on the interior wall, rather than being passed around like Mankon's gossip bag.

When suitors came to visit a young woman, her mother could use the bag to communicate whether her daughter would make a good match. One side meant that the woman would make a good wife, but if the other side were facing out it was a warning that she would make a difficult spouse for you. Similarly, another bag was traditionally used to let visitors know whether the marriage was going smoothly or alternatively if there was conflict (in which case you could make your visit brief).

Small mosque on the way to the Bamoun museum.

Aside from the cultural sights, Foumban was also a very pleasant town. It has a high elevation so is a bit cooler. It is also a very pleasant place to walk around, as well as stop for a drink and watch the world pass by. While in town we met up with a Peace Corps volunteer who was able to tell us a bit about his work – principally teaching business classes to local farmers at an agricultural college just outside town.

Passport photo service. With rabbits for sale.

Mural near the royal palace.
Ali, who we visited again at the museum to collect an embroidered bedspread (though sadly lacking in double snakes) we bought earlier, showed us an upstairs view of a new museum currently being constructed. It includes double snakes, as well as the spider (representing wisdom to communities in both Northwest and West Regions), in its design.

Design of the new museum in Foumban. Spiders and double-snakes.

Passersby and the under-construction museum. You can see
one of the snakes' heads pretty well.

Covering up a skylight on the museum's roof.

In December 2016 there will be a biennial festival at the royal palace in Foumban, so we are keeping in touch with Ali on the off chance we can get an invitation (and days off from school to make the trip)!

On our way home from Foumban.
Cloudy skies near Dschang as we begin our descent
into Littoral Region and onwards to Douala.

17 September 2016

Mankon and Bamendjinda

Mankon palace entrance.

[Continuing our March travels in Cameroon's Northwest and West regions.]

About half of Bamenda is traditionally part of the Mankon fondom or kingdom. Its seat is about 5 kms north of downtown Bamenda. When we made a visit there we discovered that the palace curator was out, but George was happy to show us around.

George in an inner courtyard.
George led us past the court, where small civil disputes are adjudicated by the Fon and his advisors. As with many Northwestern fondoms, the Achum is the building where the most important ceremonies take place and only select community members may enter.

Achum antechamber/courtyard. Note that this Achum
has a "monitor" on top.

George also took us to visit the Mankon palace's museum, which houses a large amount of artifacts from the fondom's history. These included panels on Mankon's colonial experience (unlike some kingdoms, Mankon opposed the Germans, which led to disputes with neighbouring communities), weapons and armor of Mankon and German forces, as well as a range of ceremonial items whose precise meaning and/or use I have forgotten over the last several months.

A favorite item was the “gossip bag.” This large grass/raffia-woven bag was given to someone who spread a rumor. They were then to pass it on to the person who shared the gossip with them, until the bag made its way to the source of the slander. The originator of the gossip was then punished for their crime.

Bamenda is in a valley and the main road into town is equipped
with a runaway vehicle bay. Complimentary use!
The next day we travelled east to the West Region of Cameroon. The region, with assistance from an Italian NGO, has put together La Route des Chefferies with information on the various chiefdoms you can visit in the region.

To allow us to make a few stops along the way, we commandeered a minibus that plies the route between Bamenda and Foumban. Our Avenir Voyages driver, Ahidjo, was a nice, quiet man, and I think he enjoyed the pit stops.

Our vehicle in the Bamendjinda museum courtyard.
We first went to the museum in Bamendjinda. This museum is notable for its focus on slavery – both domestic and international. With the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the museum discussed the role of westerners and the local collaboration that allowed it to take place.

When we first arrived the museum was closed, but a small boy was sent to fetch a young woman who is one of the present chief's wives and a curator of the museum. She had been busy working in her fields (maize and beans?) but was a convivial host. We were joined by Elianne, a Cameroonian woman living in France who was researching tourism promotion in Bamileke areas of West Region as part of her doctoral studies.

The savannah buffalo is a potent symbol for the
chieftancy of Bamendjinda.

Portrait of a Bamendjinda chief.
The museum noted the differences between the form of slavery in the region and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Slaves in this area were generally prisoners of war, debtors, criminals and could generally earn back their freedom. They also reportedly lived under less violent and dangerous treatment than slaves in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Clay skull used for burial of a family member lost to slavery. The people in this area believed that it was necessary to bury a deceased relative's head after they died; during the slave trade they created clay skulls so that their relatives could rest in peace.

Bamendjinda, located on a dirt road off the main Bamenda-Bafoussam road, didn't seem to get many visitors. It's a shame as its particular emphasis on slavery does not appear to be something that is widely discussed in Cameroon (the Case des Tempetes “amusement ride” at the Musee Maritime doesn't add much to the conversation).

Entrance to the Bamendjinda Community Museum.

The museum also featured a couple of interesting artifacts, including one on public urination and luck. According to our guide, the carving denoted the fact that seeing a member of the opposite sex urinating is good luck whereas coming across a member of the same sex is bad luck. Suffice it to say that women in Cameroon have a surplus of good luck, while men are unlucky.

(Rare) good luck for men.

Totems of the Bamendjinda chefferie include
the tortoise, spider, and chameleon.

Another advantage of renting a whole minibus (Elianne joined us for the ride to Bafoussam) was that we were able to stop and visit the Chutes de Metchié, a waterfall just off the road. It's considered a sacred place, so there were a number of chicken baskets that once contained birds that were offered up.

Chutes de Metchié / Metchié Falls.

11 September 2016

Zen and the West African Service Economy

In opening, I remain closed. Being closed, yet I am also open. What am I?

Today, two answers.

Antennas at the Voice of America broadcasting outpost on Sao Tome.

1. A restaurant in São Tomé

It was sunset, and we were looking for a drink. The guidebook recommended a place called O Pirata (“the pirate,” or for us non-Portuguese speakers, “Oh, Pirate”).  It was, as promised, just after the National Assembly building, right by the water. There was a sign that said “O Pirata.” It was not lit up. There was no one out on the patio, yet there were chairs and tables – and inside, chairs and tables with tablecloths, knives, forks and spoons on top of them. Oh, Pirate – you did not seem to be closed for good, and it was 5:30 on a Thursday night. Yet you also – your front door in particular – did not seem open.

We stood quietly for a moment, pondering. Then I heard someone’s voice in the kitchen. 

“Good evening?” I tried.
“Good evening!”
“Is the restaurant closed?”
“No, I’m here. The other people haven’t come.”
“Oh! Can we have a drink?”
“No, it is closed.”

We decided to get a taxi back.

2. A pharmacy on a Sunday

I checked my temperature on Saturday: 34.4 degrees Celsius, which is less of a normal resting temperature and more of a normal hibernating temperature. Sometimes I run a little cold, so I checked Chris’s temperature: too low to read. I decided I needed a new thermometer. Many places in Cameroon are closed, or open only for a few hours, on Sundays. Happily, there is a pharmacy open seven days a week right on our block.

Approaching the pharmacy, I became confused. There was the sign that said “ouvert,” but there also was the barred front door. There was the security guard who’s usually posted outside, waving. It turned out, though, that instead of waving me in, he was waving me back. There was, I saw, a light on inside. I became more confused.

“Good morning!”
“Good morning.”
“Is the pharmacy closed?”
“May I go in?”

What then should I do? At a loss, I pulled out my thermometer and waved it around, explaining to the guard that it had un problème.

As if summoned by this tiny, malfunctioning wand, a man in a white coat appeared behind the closed door. He was the pharmacist. He agreed that 34.4 degrees was very low. He also agreed to sell me another thermometer. He went to the back and got me one, showing me the price. I gave him the money and held on to the thermometer. He went to the back again and reappeared with my change. We parted satisfied, though still curious. At least, I was.

These experiences remind me: beware of false binaries. Black or white? Open or closed? Like so many things, these exist on a spectrum.
Or as Miracle Max might put it,

04 September 2016

Mt. Oku, International Women's Day and Bafut

Continuing our March 2016 holiday travels with my family.

After a nice breakfast prepared by Shangtal, we were given a ride to the outskirts of town to begin our hike with our guide Ernest.

Ernest leads the way.

We walked past farmland until we reached a community forest, where people can still trap small game and raise bees but do not farm.

Up in the tree! It's a man-made beehive!

Higher up the mountain, it became clearer that we were not making for the crater lake as expected. After reading the guidebook's description of the hike as “not particularly strenuous or challenging,” I thought I'd settled on a less difficult version of our Mt. Manengouba hike, with no mud to boot.

Trees on Mt. Oku.

Traps used to catch rodents.

While quite forested in lower stretches, Mt. Oku gave way to grasslands as we approached the summit.

Grasslands and forest.

A reputed 7 hour round trip was closer to 10 by the time we made our way back to town, although all felt some accomplishment and we then rode back to Bamenda.

We were quite impressed that Ernest spotted this
chameleon in a tree some five meters off the path.

The next day was International Women's Day. We met up with our colleague Izong, who was home for Spring Break, to check out the parade in Bamenda.

Pidgin English deployed in mobile phone carrier advert.
Gari is made of ground cassava. You add sugar to make it tastier.

We were warned that today is truly the day for women, and there were suspiciously large contingents of teachers for a school day, as well as groups taking over the various bars around town.

Today is for the women. The students will still be at school tomorrow.
Float promoting/demonstration voter registration.

From Bamenda we went north to Bafut to visit the Fon's palace there. We were hosted by Ma Rose, one of the Fon's many wives. Each successive Fon inherits the wives of his predecessor. The idea is that they counsel and advise him, and that the Fon remains responsible for the financial support of the wives and their children.

Bafut palace's grandstand and the compound entrance. The grass
Takombang House holds the Fon's ceremonial drum (for broadcasting messages).

We originally were given the number of Ma Constance, but she must have been busy at the Bafut International Women's Day celebrations and didn't hear her phone (we met her on the way out).

Bafut palace compound. Only the Fon and his
advisors can enter the thatched-roof Achum building.

Similar to Oku and other Northwest Region fondoms,
spiders and lions are symbols of wisdom and power.

Ma Rose showed us around the palace museum and grounds, and hastily arranged for a short dance performance.

In the old days adulterers and other criminals were
 tied here, beaten, and left for wild animals.

We headed back to town for drinks and dinner, and encountered many roving bands of International Women's Day revelers.

Our neighbours at a bar in Bamenda. This night belonged to the ladies.