The Bamileke


The Bamileke are one of the largest groups in Cameroon, numbering between 3.5 million and 8 million people. The Bamileke speak a number of Bantu languages of the Niger-Congo phylum. The main language groups include the Ghomala’, Fe’fe’, Nda’nda’, Yemba, Medumba, Mengaka, Ngiemboon, Ngomba, Ngombale, Kwa, and Ngwe. Though the languages are closely related, there are at least 17 dialects that follow a continuum of change that makes it possible for people to understand each other. The Bamileke live in several provinces in the highlands area or the grasslands region covering the western part of the country.

Bamileke trace their origins to ancient Egypt and claim to have left Egypt in the ninth century CE. After nearly two centu-ries of moving across the continent, they arrived in their present location in the 11th century. The history of their journey from the Nile to the plateau of western Cameroon includes tales of magic and even levitation of the entire population over wide rivers and deep chasms.

They arrived in western Cameroon in the 11th century, and in the middle of the 14th cen-tury, they began to split into different local kingdoms called fon or fong,andthefirst to be established was Bafoussam by Prince Yende´. He was followed later by a royal sister who also founded an indepen-dent fon. The pattern was repeated by others, and Bafoussam was the original home of many of the subsequent king-doms.

A number of waves of new people arrived; according to their legends, five separate waves arrived and were absorbed into the Bamileke identity, as were those who already lived in the area. Today, little difference can be noted even in language, but those who live along the western and southern limits of Bamileke territory are most likely descendants of those peo-ple who already lived in the area and were incorporated into the Bamileke. They share some cultural traits with the forest Bantu who live nearby.

The Bamileke are patrilineal, and a man’s children belong to the fon of their father. Property is inherited by one single heir, a son. Men can marry large numbers of women and, in the past, wealthy men could have literally hundreds of wives. Strict inheritance meant that wealth would not be spilt upon the death of a head of household and group cohesion gave other, less lucky sons, the ability to share in their father’s wealth, though not inherit it out-right. Families live in grouped housing surrounded by their fields. Each village is governed by a chief, also called a fon, who has nine advisers. The position of fon is also inherited and, in the past, the decision of who would be the heir was kept a secret until after the fon’s death.

As noted above, Bamileke men are able to marry a large number of wives. In general, the man pays a bride price to the bride’s family, and all of her children belong to the fon of the man. Men work to clear agricultural fields, but the actual farming is left to the women. Like many agricultural societies, women and children are important sources of farm labor.

Even today, Bamileke villages produce quantities of taro, peanuts, maize, and yams. Men are also engaged in trade and entrepreneurship. Starting in the 17th century, Bamileke men have moved out of their home area as traders and entrepreneurs spreading throughout Cameroon. Following the introduction of colonial authority in the second half of the 19th century, Bamileke traders and craftsmen have expanded into other parts of Africa and, with colonial empires, to other parts of the world.

The Bamileke are skilled craftsmen, though it is said that since colonial times many of their skills have been lost. They have reputations as carvers of wood, horn, and ivory. Many of their sacred masks are made from cloth heavily beaded, using imported glass beads. Several types of masks associated with different societies are still made—and many sought on the international African art market. Among the most spectacular are the elephant masks, which represent the power of the fon.

It is believed the fon has the ability to change his shape into that of a leopard, a buffalo, or an elephant. All three of these animals are the embodiment of what a fon is; powerful, fierce, and willing to defend his people. The elephant mask is made of dark (often in deep indigo) cloth and covered in beads and cowrie shells, symbols of wealth that outline and fill in the main features, including large ears. The mask falls down the front of the wearer in imitation of the trunk. The person wearing the mask also wears a long, decorated tunic, again of dark indigo cloth, and has a large feathered crown on the top of his head. Masks are worn during special ceremonies and at funerals of important men.

The Kuosi Society is the most important of the men’s societies and in the past was made up of warriors. Today, it is composed of important and wealthy busi-nessmen, and even the fon himself may decide to wear a mask and join the mas-querade. Kuosi Society members wear elephant and leopard masks, both animals associated with the political power of the fon. The Kwifo Society is another specific mask group and each local Kwifo Society has their own mask.

The masks are worn during trials or when the fon is receiving local petitioners. The Kwifo masks are worn in groups of up to 50 individuals and are accompanied by an orchestra of xylophones, drums, and rattles. Unlike the Kuosi masks, the Kwifo masks are a large, helmet type made of carved wood and deco-rated with brass and copper. The masks are of men and frequently include elaborate hairstyles that in the past were associated with high-ranking dignitaries.

Christianity was introduced to the Bamileke during the colonial period and subsequently, there have been some con-versions. Islam has also penetrated from the north where Fulani and Hausa have come into contact with the Bamileke. Most, however, adhere to the religion of their ancestors that focuses on the honor-ing of ancestors. The skulls of ancestors are kept so as to provide a place for the spirits of the departed to live. If it is not possible to keep the skulls, a ceremony is held periodically to ask for the help of the ancestors even if there is no place for them to live.

The Bamileke have a supreme god called Si, though he had little to do with the affairs of man. Ancestors are appealed to and can send messages through illness or dreams. Women are seen to be the embodiment of fertility of the land, and it is advanced by the Bamileke—this is the reason women are the planters and cultiva-tors of the soil.

Germany extended its control over the Bamileke in 1884 and were the first to use the term Bamileke for the entire population as an easy means of identifying and classi-fying African peoples in the colony; the Bamileke used names of local fon to iden-tify themselves.

Following World War I, theGerman colony of Kamerun was di-vided between the British and the French, and most of the Bamileke fell under French control. Resistance to European domination grew in French Cameroon, and in 1955, the Union des Populations du Cameroon (UPC) was founded demanding independence. The French quickly outlawed the organization and attacked those supporting the UPC, and the Bamileke were among those to suf-fer.

The attacks against the Bamileke were so severe that in some texts they are called the “Bamileke genocide.” The exact count of dead is not fully known, but Bamileke see the killings as the first, but unreported, genocide in contemporary African history. They compare the French operations against them to be similar to the German attacks on the Herero in Namibia and later Hutu and Tutsi attacks against each other in Rwanda and Burundi. The war with the UPC continued until its leader, Ruben Um Nyobe´, and his subsequent replacement, Fe´lix-Roland Mounie´, were both killed by the French in 1958 and 1960, respectively.

Cameroon became independent in 1961, with British Cameroon deciding to join French Cameroon rather than Nigeria. Fol-lowing independence, the Bamileke have prospered, using their entrepreneurial skills to become among the best-known business-people in the country. Bamileke music, called Mangambe, was fused with other Cameroonian sounds by Manu Dibango in the 1970s to create the dance style called Makossa. According to Manu Dibango, “what makes the makossa popular is that every Cameroonian can find himself in the makossa” (Ewens, 109). Since the original music began, it has been taken up and developed by groups such as Les Tetes Brule´es.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra-phy. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

“Campagne militaire Francaise en Pays Bami-leke.” (accessed February 14, 2011).

Crabtree, Caroline, and Pam Stallerbrass. Beadwork: A World Guide. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Ewens, Graeme. Africa O-Ye! A Celebration of African Music. London: Guinness Publish-ing, 1991.

Toukam, Dieudonne´. Histoire et anthropologie du peuple bamileke. Paris: l’Harmattan, 2010.

Van Custem, Anne. “Les coiffures d’Afrique subsharienne.” In Costumes et Textiles d’Afrique: Des Berbe`res aux Zulu. Milan: 5 Continents Press, 2008.