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.

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