Not much is known about Cameroon’s history prior to the arrival of Europeans. It is believed that the Pygmy Baka tribe, one of the oldest cultures in some parts of Africa, inhabited the region. The highlands of Cameroon are considered to be the cradle of the Bantu language, although the Bantu were gone by the time Europeans found the region. The country owes its name to the Portuguese, who arrived in the area in 1472. At the sight of giant shrimp, they shouted with delight, “Camarões, camarões!” (Portuguese for “shrimp”); thus the region was named Cameroon. The Portuguese, however, did not stay in the area long. In fact for the next 400 years, the northern region of Cameroon was a battlefield for empires such as the Kanem-Bornu in Chad, while the southern region was the hub of the slave trade. At the time of the arrival of the Germans in the late 19th century, the Fulani Empire in Sokoto (Nigeria) controlled the northern area of Cameroon. Shortly afterward Germany took charge of the region. Although they built schools, plantations, and railways, the Germans treated the plantation workers brutally. In fact on one of the plantations, one-fifth of the workers in a single year were reported to have died due to overwork. On June 28, 1919, after the German defeat in World War I, the French established their control over 80 percent of the region, and it became known as French Cameroon, while the British took control of southern Cameroon and a small area in the north. In 1960 French Cameroon was granted independence after the people of the region expressed their desire to be a free country. Ahmadou Ahidjo (1924–89), a northerner, became the first president of the new republic. He entered the political scene of Cameroon in the 1940s during the pre-independence era and played an active role in persuading the French to grant independence to the region. A rift between the northern and southern Cameroonians led to a bloody battle, which was finally stopped by French military intervention. The northern Cameroonians of British Cameroon expressed their desire to be part of Nigeria and voted accordingly in 1961. The rest of the region (the southern part of British Cameroon and French Cameroon) came together and formed a unified republic in 1972. In 1975 Ahidjo was once again voted to power and began making investments in agriculture, health care, roads, education, and the like. But he also established an autocratic regime, which led to an era of repression. All political parties were banned, and their leaders imprisoned. In 1982 Ahidjo resigned and appointed Paul Biya (b. 1933), a southerner, to be his successor. The next year, Biya decided to split Cameroon’s Grand North into three provinces, the Adamawa, the North, and the Extreme North and dismissed the ministers who had served in Ahidjo’s cabinet, charging that several had been involved in an attempt on his life. The alleged plotters were tried and found guilty in 1984. Ahidjo escaped to Paris and, shortly thereafter, northern members of Cameroon’s Republican Guard attempted a coup, but also failed. In 2002, a dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the ownership of the Bakassi Peninsula was resolved by the International Court of Justice, which decided in Cameroon’s favor. The region had been a source of friction between the two countries because oil had been found there.
The boot-shaped nation of Cameroon is located in the western part of Africa. It is flanked by the Central African Republic and Chad to the east; the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon lie to the south; Nigeria borders Cameroon in the north and west, with the Atlantic Ocean along the western coast. Topographically, Cameroon has three distinct parts: the northern savannahs (grassland dotted with trees, grasses, shrubs, and other forms of vegetation), northwestern hill regions, and the eastern and southern rainforests. A major portion of the country’s population is concentrated near the towns of Bafoussam and Bamenda with their fertile volcanic soil. Mount Cameroon is the country’s most striking topographical feature. The region is also reported to have serious volcanic activity as was evident by the leak of poisonous gas from Lake Nyos in 1986, which killed 1,700 people. The Bénoué, the Wuori, the Sanaga, and the Nyong rivers flow through Cameroon. Rainfall varies from region to region. While the extreme north receives scanty rainfall, heavy downpours are commonplace in some parts there. In fact, Cameroon is known to have one of the wettest climates on Earth with an average rainfall of 152 inches. The average maximum temperature varies from 70°F to 75°F, while the average minimum temperature remains between 66°F to 70°F.
Following independence, Cameroon’s economy boomed for a considerable period of time. Exports reached an all-time high, and the country was one of the most prosperous nations in Africa. However, in the mid-1980s, faulty economic policies, accompanied by a drop in the prices of its principal commodities such as coffee, cocoa, and oil, and inflation forced the country into a decade-long recession. The government tried to revive the economy by initiating pro-market economic reforms, and the International Monetary Foundation and the World Bank are assisting but continue to press for additional reforms, including increased transparency in budgeting, privatization, and poverty reduction programs. Another problem the government must find ways to deal with is the traffic in people for purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor and prostitution. Cameroon is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor. Most trafficking is internal and children are at greatest risk. j LIFESTYLE AND CULTURE Cameroon is home to more than 130 ethnic groups. The five most prominent among them are: Kirdi and Fulani in the north, the Bamoun and Bamiléké in the west, and the Ewondo around Yaoundé. The Bamiléké enjoy a formidable position in the western region and are one of the largest communities in Doula. They are organized into more than 80 political units, each led by a chief who is the custodian of ancient customs and traditions. Also, there are a number of secret societies in each unit that share responsibility for the preservation of ancient rituals. The Punu tribes live in small villages along the Ogowe River Basin. Each village has several lineages, and its head inherits the leadership of the village matrilineally (by descent through the female line). In contrast, the Bamoun have a single ruler they refer to as “sultan.” Although English and French are the official languages, Cameroonians prefer to use their native dialects. The three main language groups of the region are the Semi-Bantu languages of the west, the Bantu languages of the south, and the Sudanic languages of the north. Each ethnic group has its own way of life and culture and adheres to its traditions and customs. Even today, 40 percent of the population still holds onto its indigenous beliefs, including vodun. The influence of Christianity and Islam is also evident, however. Christians make up 40 percent of the population; Muslims account for 20 percent. For the indigenous cultures of Cameroon, music and dance are an integral part, especially in religious observances and rituals such as initiation and funerals. Makossa is the most popular style of music in Cameroon. It originated from a popular dance form in the Cameroonian city of Doula, known as kossa. It is an adaptable form of music that can be easily played on the guitar and thumb pianos. Bikutsi is another popular type of dance and music that is traditionally sung in Yaounde. Sculpture, woodcarvings, and wooden masks are some of the popular art forms of Cameroon. The masks made by the Punu tribe are famous for their size, style, and designs. These masks are almost 12 inches tall and 8 inches wide. Since white has been traditionally associated with antiwitchcraft powers, most of the Punu masks are white.
In Cameroon, feuille, or manioc leaves (also called cassava and yucca), features prominently on the menu and is a chief ingredient in most traditional sauces and stews. Sauces are traditionally accompanied with riz (rice) and a mashed potatolike substance that appears in three forms: couscous, fufu, or pâe. These dishes can be made from corn, rice, manioc leaves, or even banana. Grilled chicken and fish are popular meats in Yaounde, and there are many stewlike dishes that combine meat and greens with a peanut butter sauce. Bananas are a major cash crop in Cameroon, and they are used in numerous ways; when very ripe, they can be mashed and used to make banana bread. Yams are a staple food in many African countries, and Cameroon is no exception. The word yam comes from the Fulani people of Cameroon and the Congo, whose word for ‘eat’ is nyami. Unlike the yams or sweet potatoes in the United States, African yams are white or pale yellow in color. Both yams and plantains are sliced about one-quarter-inch thick and fried, and can be found for sale as snack foods in markets throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Depending on one’s taste, they can be coated with powdered ginger and/or cayenne before frying and then salted, sprinkled with salt and hot sauce (Tabasco works!) after frying, or, if a sweet snack is preferred, they can be sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. BIRTH
In Cameroon, women depend on experienced midwives to help them through the process of delivery. The birth of a child is a time for celebration. Within 10 days of its birth, the child is named after the circumstances in which he or she was born, or after a prominent relative belonging to the father’s or the mother’s side of the family. The names are often unisex. Also, after birth, a girl’s ears are pierced while the boy is circumcised in accordance with tradition. Twins are considered very special—a gift of the gods—in Cameroonian society; so a ritual to persuade the children to stay on Earth is performed. A special shrine is erected in their honor by the taangyie, the father of the twins, inside the mother’s house. A special chicken dish is prepared to feed the children. Meanwhile, the maangyie, the mother of the twins, performs a ceremonial dance outside the house. The tribal chief sends two cups, which are hung over the twins’ heads, and strands of precious beads that are strung around their necks.
Coming of age initiation rites for both boys and girls are well-kept secrets among most of the ethnic groups in Cameroon, and ethnic groups forbid members to describe the rituals to outsiders, especially Westerners. For this reason, not much is known about them. Both sexes are taken deep into the forest, to a secret place, for the rituals, which last several days. Among the Baka (formerly called Pygmies), boys to be initiated are undressed, washed, shaved, and then have palm oil rubbed on their bodies. After these procedures, they are taken to a special hut, and the rituals, some of them dangerous, begin. Phases of the rituals that are “public” include dances and processions. The boys spend about a week in the hut, a period when they are not allowed to eat, sleep, or drink very much. Toward the end of the initiation period, each boy comes face-to-face with the Spirit of the Forest, who kills them and then brings them back to life as adults. In Bafoussam, the ritual marking the transition from childhood to adulthood occurs every two years during November–December; a girl is not considered to be a woman unless and until she has gone through the Rhe Nian Nian, whatever her social status. The entire initiation lasts for nine weeks, but the girls spend nine days in the bush with their initiators, while the villagers’ most significant dances are performed daily in the chief’s yard. When the Nian Nian (initiated woman) emerges from the forest on the 10th day, a grand feast is held to welcome her. In Baleng (a subdivision of Bafoussam), the initiation ritual is held at the end of every leap year. It is estimated that 20 percent of the women of Cameroon have been infibulated as part of the initiation rites. (Infibulation involves the complete removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and most of the labia majora. The vaginal opening is then sewn almost completely shut. It is done, according to its advocates, to increase the man’s pleasure; at the same time, it not only robs women of their capacity for pleasure but makes the act of intercourse extremely painful. The cutting is often done with a piece of shell or broken bottle, which leads to frequent infections. This is not a one-time operation. After intercourse or childbirth, the vaginal opening is sewn shut again.)
Child marriage was once an integral part of Cameroon’s culture. The promising of the bride was a fairly simple ritual. A prospective groom or his father would place a log of wood on a fire. If the parents of the newborn girl agreed to the proposal, then the log of wood would be allowed to burn and the girl was considered engaged to the suitor. The bride price was also negotiated at the time that the marriage was fixed. Among the Bangwa tribe, marriage is finalized only after the payment has been made. Also, since child marriage was the norm, the Bangwa girl would go to her husband’s place after reaching physical maturity. In earlier times marriages were lavish affairs, but due to escalating costs, modern couples prefer a simple ceremony and seek the blessing of their elders.
In Cameroon, per ancient traditions and customs, the cause of death is always considered both natural and unnatural. The belief in supernatural forces is widespread, and witchcraft and vodun are an integral part of Cameroonian cultures. Traditionally, the dead of a village were buried right behind their homes. The burial of a chief or a noble person would be rather lavish, while the death of a commoner was a simpler affair. The Bangwa tribes believe in life after death and that souls assume the form of spirits and ghosts to avenge their death. They believe the dead souls spread death and disease among the living if they are not ritually pacified. According to Bangwa religious belief, souls go either to heaven or hell, and both these places are under the ground. The sky is considered to be the home of witches. Because of this the Bangwa tribe found it difficult to accept the Christian belief that heaven was located somewhere up in the skies.