The Bamileke tribe is one with Art. Their culture is oh, so rich!
The Bamileke are part of a larger cultural area known collectively as the Cameroon Grasslands. Within the Bamileke complex, there are numerous smaller peoples who are loosely connected yet share many similarities while retaining separate identities. The Bamileke originally came from an area to the north known as Mbam, which is today occupied by the Tikar. Fulani traders moving steadily southwards into Cameroon in the 17th century forced the southern drift of most of the Bamileke, although some elected to stay behind and live under the control of the invaders. They travelled through the area now occupied by the Bamum where many Bamileke remained and intermarried. Eventually, the majority settled in scattered villages to the south of Bamum territory.
The Bamileke are primarily farmers, they grow maize, yams, and peanuts as staple crops. They also raise some livestock, including chickens and goats. All these play an important role in daily sustenance. Women, who are believed to make the soil more fruitful, are responsible for the tasks of planting and harvesting of the crops while the men help with the clearing of the land and hunting. Throughout history, the peoples of the Grasslands were part of extensive trade routes connecting with the seaport of Douala and through trans-Saharan traders including the Fulani and Hausa to the north. European histories mention trading at Douala between Cameroon Grasslanders and Dutch and Portuguese traders in the early 17th century.
The Bamilike recognise “Si” (a supreme god), but they more commonly pay homage to their ancestors. Ancestral spirits are embodied in the skulls of the deceased ancestors and these skulls are in the possession of the eldest living male in each lineage. All the members of an extended family recognize the skulls of their group. When a family decides to relocate, a dwelling, which must be first purified by a diviner, a hut is built to house the skulls in the new location. Although not all of the ancestral skulls are in the possession of a family, the spirits are not forgotten. These spirits have nowhere to reside and may cause trouble for the family.
To compensate when a man’s skull is not preserved, a family member must undergo a ceremony involving pouring libations into the ground. Dirt gathered from the spot then comes to represent the skull of the deceased. Respect is also paid to female skulls, although details about such practices are lacking.
Authority among the Bamileke tribe is vested in a village chief, who is supported by a council of elders, and is called “Fon”. The “Fon” is elected to his position by his predecessor’s council and is often an elder member of the most powerful extended family within the community. The chief is recognized as the de facto owner of all the land that belongs to a given village and is seen as the dispenser of supreme justice. Social behaviour within the village is further controlled through a series of extensive age-grade associations and secret societies, both of which fall under the auspices of the village chief.
TRADITION AND ARTS:
Masquerades are an integral part of Bamileke culture and expression. Colourful, beaded masks are donned at special events such as funerals, important palace festivals and other royal ceremonies. The masks are performed by men and aim to support and enforce royal authority.
The “Fon” as we’ve described earlier on, is often represented by the Elephant, Buffalo and Leopard. Oral traditions claim that the “Fon” may transform into either an Elephant or Leopard whenever he chooses. An elephant mask called a “mbap mteng” has protruding circular ears, a human-like face, and decorative panels on the front and back that hang down to the knees and are covered overall in beautiful geometric beadwork, including much triangular imagery.
Beadwork, shells, bronze and other precious embellishments on masks elevate the mask’s status. On occasion, a Fon may permit members of the community to perform an elephant mask along with a leopard skin, indicating a statement of wealth, status and power being associated with this masquerade.
Buffalo masks are also very popular and present at most functions as they represent power, strength and bravery.
Beadwork is an essential element of Bamileke Art and what distinguishes them from other regions of Africa. It is an art form that is highly personal in that no two pieces are alike and are often used in dazzling colours that catch the eye. They may be an indication of status based on what kinds of beads are used. Beadwork utilized all over on wooden sculptures is a technique that is unique only to the Cameroon grasslands.
The art styles of the peoples in the Grasslands are very hard to differentiate due to the complex and recent migration patterns that are typical of the region.
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