Field Trip

To complement our special unit on Cameroon in during Dry Season FES, the whole group went on a field trip to the Bafut Palace, and the Mankon Museum about an hour's drive away.

The tribal ruler in the North West Province is called the "Fon" and is revered to the point of worship. This contrasts with the chiefs in the South West Province who are elected, and, as we have seen recently in Bekondo, are treated as ordinary mortals, and subject to scandals and libel same as any other person.

Bafut Palace

The Bafut palace had already come alive in my mind through the hysterically funny storytelling of Gerald Durrell in The Bafut Beagles, the story of his time in Cameroon rounding up animals for the London Zoo. It's truly a delightful read; the man has a great ear for Pidgin, and a masterful way of describing his experiences in a wry, self-deprecating tone. Unfortunately -- at least to my preliminary investigations -- it's currently out of print.

The guesthouse where Durrell stayed is now set up as a museum to the Fondom. Here we viewed WWI weapons taken from the Germans; petit arrows poison-tipped and used by the Bafut against their enemies of all kinds; royal cloth covered with symbols; animal skins (python, leopard, elephant tail, skull & foot); and large, carved wooden statues. The book talks about some 73 steps leading to the quarters. The older children, who are enjoying the book in Read-Aloud, were disappointed to count only 53. Must have been redone since the '50s when Durrell wrote.

One cabinet held pottery given to the Fon by Europeans in exchange for slaves. According to our tour guide, the Bafut were not educated therefore they sold their own people to white slave traders out of their ignorance. While I'll grant you they probably were not aware of the full import of their actions, I'm skeptical of the lack of culpability accepted by the Bafut: Africans were perfectly willing to buy and sell each other into slavery long before the white man came along with a business model for doing it more efficiently.

I found it quite disturbing the way our tour guide (5th wife to the Fon) moved very matter-of-factly from details like "this is where they made human sacrifices" to "over there we have the nursery school for the Fon's children." Traditionally, the Bafut observed an 8-day week. As I understood, they still keep the "country Sunday" to teach children about traditions. The Fon continues to hold court on Sundays as well -- whether on the 8- or 7-day week I'm not sure.

In the courtyard outside the palace, opposite a large grandstand was an ancient drumhouse, an open area used for dances every December (and as a parking lot for visitors the rest of the time), and waist-high upright squared-off stones covered in rust-coloured rivulets of what looked like blood -- and probably WAS, because that's where nobles' heads were cut off then buried. The stones have stood there for more than 600 years.

Numerous spots in this open area were formerly used in the shedding of blood. Another spot with stones called "mayo" (?) was used for child sacrifices. Apparently a father could sacrifice a child to get in the good books of the Fon and receive an important title in the village. Two large stones were for men and women accused of criminal cases. The accused were tied to the stone and given their own flesh and blood to eat and drink should they complain of hunger or thirst. This practice was stopped by the German colonizers in 1924, our tour guide stated matter-of-factly.

In the courtyard where the wives stay, the houses to the left were historically occupied by the wives the Fon inherited, those to the right by the new wives. Somehow I can't imagine either the new Fon or the old wives were often very excited about being second-hand goods.

Three closing pictures of the physical makeup of the Fon's compound: the houses were not particularly impressive; made of the usual mud bricks (for this area), the only detail to them indicating the wealth of their owner was the number of roofs made of a sort of shale shake or, even more upscale, cement tile. I thought this more attractive and far more durable-looking than the rusty corrugated "zinc" of the newer buildings.

Secondly, in this village compound, otherwise looking and operating much as it had for 100s of years, satellite dishes looked rather out of place as they sprouted from backyards and rooflines -- the only outward sign of modernity in the Fon's realm.

Thirdly, the traditional sacred building, called "Achum" was a tall building made of bamboo poles and thick thatch on the roof. The thatch is never changed, but grasses are added every year by royal decree. The result is a very thick roof. The building we saw across the courtyard was a reconstruction of the original burned in the days of the German colonizers but the 6-foot-tall stone foundation dated as far back as the tradition goes.

Mankon Museum

Nearby, another powerful Fondom for another tribe tries to preserve and pass on its history in a museum as well. This museum was small but beautifully set out -- I was not surprised to find it is financed by an Italian NGO. Given that every item was photographed, catalogued, described, dated and situated, etc, I felt sure there must be a Western curator involved in the process somewhere, ethnocentric though that may sound.

Some interesting pieces:

--Set of 5 prayer tablets;"just like rosary," the tour guide said

--15 kilo cap worn by the Fon for his coronation

--umbrella hat made from woven grasses

--"a sign of the Fon": lizard/chameleon, leopard, elephant and lion. These animals appear as motifs in stools, tables, jewellery and drums designated for the Fon's use.

The Fon doesn't ever "die"; he "disappears". The dead Fon is placed on a royal bed with wooden pillow, carved from one tree, where his head is cut off, then buried in ceremonial burial place. How this figures in with the fact the Fon's subjects are not to see his body, I don't know. Upon the death of their husband, the Fon's wives are naked and unbathed for 1 week -- a custom last practiced at death of old Fon in 1953; the new Fon doesn't wish it observed upon his "disappearance".

If I understood correctly, the Fon is not the absolute ruler of the Mankon people; the Kwifo, an advisory group of 9 members, is above the Fon in the hierarchy of power. What they do or how they are chosen was not explained.

All this pomp and ceremony surrounding a hereditary ruler flies in the face of the ideal of an egalitarian society enjoyed by the idyllic and serene Africans before Western intrusion. But what do I know?


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