Note added in 2013: to my knowledge the KRC is no longer functioning as an active organisation in Cameroon. DZ
In 1993 rhe Kaberry Research Centre (KRC), Bamenda, Cameroon published the volume:
the Incorporation of Royal Wives &
some Palace Rituals
Paul N. Mzeka
Mathias L. Niba
The theme 'Rites of Passage in the Western Grassfields' was selected after a rigorous discussion during the Kaberry Research Centre (KRC) workshop held at the Mbengwi Monastery early in 1990. Initiation Rites took precedence over all the other themes selected because of the realization that rituals have always incorporated elements of the environment and they often tend to be conservative (Nkwi and Warnier: 1982:23). Nkwi and Warnier point out that 'People do not part easily with their ritual symbols, and as circumstances change, the symbols are maintained even if they are not easily found in the environment'. The theme was thus chosen in order to try as much as possible to document some elements of the Western Grassfields' rituals that are still fairly well remembered, or practised before the barrage of modern civilization and the modern mass media will have wiped out these residual elements from the memory of the fast disappearing older generation. We hope our efforts will provide source material for further social and historical studies for scholars interested in this immensely diverse area.
The first workshop at which the above decisions were taken was devoted primarily to planning. The second that followed a year later proved to be highly enlightening, the theme approach being fully exploited. Researchers compared notes, strategies and field experiences. The sharing of experiences led to the modification of a few strategies and the insertion of vital elements omitted in the first draft of the study: this turned out to be very enriching to the study.
Finally, the Editorial Board met in November 1991 to examine the first drafts submitted so far. Naturally certain questions arose and needed further clarification and thus modification from researchers, or, as often happened, called for a return to the field for more information.
Apart from the study of Oku by Sam Wambeng, the Kom by Jerome Nsom, the Fulani minority by Sali Django assisted by Paul Mzeka which were requisitioned afterwards, all of the other contributions in the book are from the group that attended the first workshop in Mbengwi Monastery. Some ethnic areas had to be reassigned because four of the people in the group were unable to carry through their own research and write-up. Two other scholars who were contacted later found it too time-consuming a task to get involved in.
This book is thus the result of the collective effort by its contributors who bore, personally, all the cost of the research. The ACT organization took charge of preliminary typing and the Editorial Board including Paul Mzeka, Dr M.L. Niba, Dr Clare Wirmum and myself did the preliminary editing and coordination of the work, each stage under the careful supervision of Paul Mzeka.
I would particularly like to thank Paul Mzeka for formulating the questionnaire which was only slightly modified for this purpose, Isaac Akenji Ndambi and John Fokwang for their courage in doing two ethnic groups each and Sally Chilver of Oxford, England, for her untiring encouragement, support, proofreading the book and making valuable suggestions and for writing the afterword. Our gratitude goes to Dr Ian Fowler who "translated" our original disk and supervised the making of the final one. Professor Miriam Goheen of Amherst College came to our rescue by allowing us the use of Amherst print- out facilities, for which we are ever grateful. Many thanks are due to Che P.N. Mathias for the first typing on disk. I hope that everyone reading this book will enjoy the variety in the style and content in each case study presented by individuals with varying social and academic backgrounds who have lived some of these experiences they describe, some with such fondness.
The Western Grassfields, referred to administratively as the North West Province, covers 17,910km2 of the western portion of the grassfields of Cameroon. It extends eastward along the Nun valley and the highlands of Bamboutos, northwesterly along the Nigerian border and southwards along the northern fringes of the tropical forest region of Manyu Division. From south to north, it lies between latitude 5 N and 7 N and from west to east between longitude 9 30E and 11 30E. Its dominant geographical feature is the grassy, high volcanic plateau whose average height of 1,500m above sea level culminating in the 3,000m Kilum mountain in Oku. The region contains numerous crater lakes, some of which are believed to be dangerous because they can discharge lethal gases, the latest being that of Nyos in 1986 when nearly 2,000 persons lost their lives.
According to the 1953 census, the population of the Western Grassfields was about 429,100 and by the 1987 census it stood at 1.2 million inhabitants. The rapid population growth is exerting excessive pressure on the available resources; consequently the tropical highland forest which forty years ago was estimated to cover 37% of the region (Kaberry, 1952:19) has virtually disappeared, the only noticeable remnant being the Kilum mountain forest whose existence is still constantly threatened by agricultural and grazing encroachments. Referring to this aspect of the region, Nkwi and Warnier (1982:23) point out that evidence from archaeology and botany indicate that the highlands were once covered with forests and their inhabitants were forest-dwelling people. Eye-witness accounts by Hauptmann Glauning, the German military commander at the dawn of the twentieth century, supports this claim: many still forested areas he then described have since vanished, with the wildlife they harboured (cf. Deutsches Kolonialblatt, 1906, 235-41 and 705-707). The Western Grassfields on the whole are fertile and well watered. The region is the principal watershed for the rivers that flow into the Mbam in Cameroon and the Benue in Nigeria. Rainfall averages 200cm per annum, falling mostly between mid-March and October, the period of the rainy season. The period from November to March is the dry season during which the Harmattan from the north envelops the region in a haze of dust.
Studies have established that the region has been inhabited for several millenia (Nkwi and Warnier, 1982:19), though many of the dynasties that claim origins outside the region emerged relatively recently. The traditions of origin of some of these dynasties have provided the basis for the colonial census classification of the peoples of the Western Grassfields because of their leading role in the sociopolitical and economic life of the area. Thus peoples whose dynasties claim a Tikar origin were classified as 'Tikar' irrespective of the fact that other groups claim separate origins. Much the same applies to the Chamba (Bali, Ba'ni) chiefdoms, recent formations composed of Chamba dynasties and Adamawa and Grassfields peoples incorporated in the course of raids and migrations (Fardon, in Paideuma 29, 1983). This principle applies less to the so- called 'Widekum' whose settlements appear to have involved more members of a group, now given the linguistic label Momo. Of the three groups, the 'Tikar' are so far the largest, constituting about 60% of the total population and are represented in this study by Nso', Oku, Mbum, Kom, Bafut, Yamba and Aghem. The Widekum, roughly 30% are represented only by Oshie and Batibo and Chamba, about 5% by Bali-Nyonga. The others, that is those who do not fit into any of the three groups (roughly 5%) are the Hausa, Ibo, Fulani and some of the villages in the Menchum and Donga Mantung Division, are represented by the Fulani, also known as Fulbe or Mbororo.
The kinship systems of these groups are mostly patrilineal, except for Kom, Aghem and some peoples of the Fungom area who are matrilineal. In their political systems the so-called Tikar and Chamba are characterized by centralized structures under the rule of powerful kings, nowadays called Fons. On the other hand, the Widekum group is marked by decentralized or segmentary political systems. Here, power is diffused among clan elders. Chiefs, if any, are actually first among equals. The Western Grassfields is therefore an area of immense diversity. They constitute and portray neither linguistic nor cultural unity, though their tight commercial, social and diplomatic network, their experience of the Chamba and Fulani raids, the Islamic and Christian religious influences as well as a shared colonial experience, first with the Germans and later with the British, seem to have installed and paved the way for a common future culture. For the moment, however, pluralism remains the keynote characteristic of the region.
Until recently, most of the cartographical names in the region were of missionary and colonial orthography and external origin. Attempts to recover and replace some of the names with more locally inspired linguistic usages have often been resisted. Recently, to be precise since independence in 1961, cartographical names have either been modified orthographically or completely changed. Bafreng has become Nkwen, Bamessing - Nsei, Nsungli - Mbum, Nsaw - Nso', Kaka - Yamba, Abakwa - Mankon, Bagangu - Akum. The Summer Institute of Linguistics is assisting in the development of an orthography for the local languages and this is also having an impact on the orthography of personal and place names.
We find a need for adequate knowledge of the belief systems of the people as corollaries of their world view. This is governed by the common ontological principle that life is the interaction between the world of the living, the ancestors and the yet unborn. These are principles which animate their sociopolitical, economic and cultural activities. This also affects their religious outlook. In their relation with the supernatural, the outlook seems to be polytheistic. The idea of a belief in one God appears to have been influenced by Christianity and Islam. But in the conventional traditional world view, the being that coordinated the activities of the various gods still remains a problem.
Our present research treats, in broad outline, the INITIATION AND INCORPORATION RITES IN THE WESTERN GRASSFIELDS OF CAMEROON through the various cultural practices of selected ethnic groups. For the time being we are concentrating on those rites performed during birth, childhood and adolescence. We hope that in the next volume we will treat those performed during adulthood and burial.Our studies revealed certain commonalities which support the theory that though diversified the Western Grassfields nonetheless constitute a cultural and historical whole (Nkwi and Warnier, 1982:6). Some of the principal cultural commonalities are the following:
- Except in Bali-Nyonga, nursing the first child away from the husband's home was a common practice. Usually, the mother's father's compound was preferred for such nursing.
- Everywhere, twins were believed to be children of God or of the gods and thus were gifted with certain mysterious powers. Almost everywhere the parents received social recognition and bore the title Taanyie, also Taangyie and Maanyie or Maangyie for father mother respectively.
- Stillbirth was commonly regarded as a polluting event. Consequently, the parents, in some instances just the mother, had to be cleansed. The cleansing rites invariably involved bathing and shaving.
- Almost everywhere the first child's navel cord was buried in the compound of the child's father, generally in or by his house.
- Ancestor 'worship' was a universal practice. Nowhere was ancestral intervention unrecognized and it was dutifully sought.
- Surprisingly, Bafut has no naming rituals, which are found almost everywhere else. Elements of the Bafut practice are nonetheless found in some areas where certain categories of children are named without rituals. This is the case, as will be realized, in Nso'.
Aware of the importance that the environmental elements of ritualism have, it was stressed from the start that every effort be made to identify items used during rituals. Identification was to be by local and English names and, where possible, by the scientific names as well. In the scientific domain, our identification exercise was made possible thanks to the presence of a botanist, Dr Clare Wirmum, among us.
The contributors to this volume are from a variety of backgrounds academically, but all of them are intimately familiar with the peoples they have studied. Most of the essays have been written from the insiders' point of view, which brings to the study a freshness hitherto uncommon.
The Editorial Board
Since the first professional ethnographer, Ankermann, toured parts of the Western Grassfields in 1907-9, they have been something of a puzzle to ethnographers. For a time interest in the art and culture of the present-day North West Province was rather overshadowed by the 'discovery' (in mid-1902) of the spectacular neighbouring kingdom of Bamum. But the complexity and diversity of its political systems, ceremonial life and material culture never ceased to engage the attention of successive generations of missionaries and colonial administrators, among whom were to be found some who made important contributions to its study. The continuous study of its cultural wealth by outsiders was broken by two fratricidal European wars.
After the second, Phyllis Kaberry arrived to make a study of the economic position of women and returned again (1958, 1960, 1963) to make a comparative study of its political systems. Before long she was followed by a number of distinguished successors - American, French, British, German and latterly Belgian and Dutch. At the same time members of the University of Yaounde and the Institute of Human Sciences, mostly indigenous to the region, began to make it a field of study, often from the viewpoint of its contemporary political economy and developmental possibilities. Students at the Major Seminary (STAMS) were encouraged to broaden their theological and pastoral studies by the observation of the beliefs and ceremonies surrounding them, in the spirit of Africae Terrarum, and have written dissertations.
But too little of this work, much of it tucked away in symposia, learned journals or theses, was available to or affordable by an increasingly highly literate public, in particular to the corps of teachers and teacher-trainers in the region.
True, Kaberry and I had arranged with the like-minded Edwin Ardener in 1967 that a summary of our findings should be published locally and cheaply in the series he was editing, as a starting point for further work. This was followed in 1982 by Nkwi and Warnier's very useful booklet, issued by the Department of Sociology at Yaounde University, which likewise appeals for further and continuous work on the spot.
Meanwhile new topics have developed, among them ethnomedicine, changes in land law, land tenure and land use, the 'new witchcraft' and the transformations undergone by old institutions and identities under the pressures of commoditization, modern communications and extensions of the sphere of government: these have given rise to important contributions by local and foreign writers. But older ones, too, have been a given a new look. The history of the pre- Colonial past, previously based on the conjectures of colonial administrators and simplistic interpretations of oral tradition, is now emerging more clearly with the help of archaeology, linguistics and palaeobotany.
But in the course of all this many of the large gaps in older studies remained unfilled. While chiefly rituals and the beliefs surrounding them continued to be studied in greater detail, those which marked the life-stages of individuals, even if they might receive occasional mention (most often in ethnomedical studies or those of gender roles and attitudes) were not pursued in the same detail. The first to remedy this omission on a regional and comparative basis have been members of the Kaberry Research Centre (KRC), the research wing of the Association for Creative Teaching. These have brought some quite new material to light; and much of it will certainly be seen as crucial to the understanding of the better recorded, public, aspects of Western Grassfields civilization.
I turn the reader's attention now to the back cover-page which describes the origins and purposes of the KRC. Besides engaging in research, it provides an archive of offprints, fieldnotes and unpublished materials as a resource for local and visiting scholars, writers and teachers. I hope that readers of this production will join it or persuade their institutions to order its publications, and that those of you who have enjoyed the famous hospitality of the Grassfields will remember that your offprint or seminar paper will reach an appreciative and knowledgeable readership there.
47 Kingston Road
Oxford OX2 6RH
Deutsches Kolonialblatt, 1906. Fardon, R.O. 1983 "A Chronology of Pre-colonial Chamba History".Paideuma, 29. Kaberry, P.M. 1952 Women of the Grassfields, H.M. Stationery Office, London. Nkwi, P.N. and Warnier, J.P., 1982. A History of the Western Grassfields, Publication of the Department of Sociology, Yaounde.
All inquiries for copies should be addressed to:-
KRC, PO Box 510, Bamenda, North-West Province, Cameroon.
(Copies may be available locally in the U.K. from:-
'Books from Africa', [D. Hogarth], 1 Birchington Court, Birchington Rd, N8 8HS.)
Click here to return to top of this document
The abbreviation KRC stands for the Kaberry Research Centre, a non-profit research component of the Association for Creative Teaching. It is named after Dr Phyllis Mary Kaberry, Yaa woo Kov, Reader in Social Anthropology in the University of London, who worked in the Western Grassfields in the 1940s and 1960s in close collaboration and correspondence with her informants and with teachers. The Centre is open on all days of the week (except Sundays) and is open to scholars, teachers, writers and researchers from within and outside of Cameroon who are interested in the study of the culture and traditions of the Western Grassfields - formerly the Bamenda Division and now the North West Province. The Centre welcomes those who are interested in this culturally diverse Province and hopes for a constructive and objective interaction with them. The Centre collects materials, published or unpublished, on the area. This is made available to anybody carrying out research in the said area. The Kaberry Centre Bulletin is to be published annually - two numbers have been issued - and is circulated to registered and paid-up members. A membership fee of 10,000 Francs CFA (about 40 USA dollars) is chargeable each calendar year. To register in Cameroon please send your fee in cash. Outside Cameroon please send your cheque (in equivalent British pounds, American or Canadian dollars, French francs, Dutch florins, etc.) to: The Coordinator, KRC, PO Box 510, Bamenda, N.W. Province, Cameroon, made out to Kaberry Research Centre. The KRC as a charity relies heavily on support from the public. YOUR CONTRIBUTION COUNTS. It can be a financial donation, or you can talk to us about your work, or talk about us to others, or collect and send to us published or unpublished material on the Western Grassfields of Cameroon and the areas which border it. The KRC welcomes exchanges with other periodicals and newsletters. We are happy to advertise any information sent to us. Finally, the KRC is looking for a sponsor or sponsors to help it to continue its activities. Any assistance, specifically for the production of the Bulletin, which contains information about recently published or forthcoming publications by its members, will be gratefully received.