The Bali Nyonga, also known as Bali Chamba, are a part of seven ethnic groups that bear the same prefix (Bali): Bali Nkontan, Bali Kumbat, and Bali Gwangsun. The Bali Nyonga are relatively newcomers to the grass field of Bamenda. During the early 19th century, the Bali who were a part of the Adamawa people suffered famine and pressure from their neighbors. They were also raided by the Fulani. The Bali moved from Chamba, having escaped from wars, a protracted drought, and other climatic hazards. They were horsemen and therefore mounted their horses and moved out to regions in search of food. As they traveled south, they fought with other ethnic groups, taking prisoners of war along with them. Later, they focused attention on markets in the southern forests, where labor was needed for the new palm-oil industries.
The Bali Chamba moved south, where they encountered contingents of the mighty Tikar, Wute, and Mbum peoples. Around 1835, the Bali Chamba were defeated by an alliance of Bamileke chiefdoms at Bafou-Fondo near Dschang. By 1850, they were in the Menda area (now Bamenda), where they settled and competed with the already established city states of Mankon and Bafut to conquer and acquire smaller villages. After Cameroon's independence, Bali Nyonga became a subdivision in the Mezam Division North West province. This entry discusses their language, culture, and religion.
Language and Culture
Mbakoh is the original language of the Bali people, although Mungaka later became the language of one of the clans. Until the death of King Gawolbe, one of their important leaders, the Bali people were one people living under one monarch, united by one purpose and one culture. Above all, they spoke the original form of Mbakoh, which continues to undergo various linguistic transformations.
Gawolbe's tragic death marked a turning point in the union of the Chamba group as the people split into seven clans: Bali Muti, Bali Nkontan, Bali Kumbat, Bali Gasu, Bali Gansin, Bali Gham, and Bali Nyonga. The Bali Nyonga is the only group that acquired a totally different language other than Mbakoh. It is not clear why they elected to use mungaka.
It is misleading to refer to the language spoken by the Bali as “Bali” and it can cause confusion among the villages, the people, and their language. This mistake probably stems from the fact that the descriptive name, “Tsu bah' ni” in Mungaka, which literary means “talk (of the) Bali” or the language of Bali, of the Bali people is used interchangeably. When a speaker asks, “u nin chu chu bah' ni?” (“Do you speak the Bali language?”), the conveyed meaning is the same if the speaker said, “u' nin chu mungaka?” However, the first, rather than the latter, question is frequently expressed.
The appellation “Bah' ni” is the original form of the now anglicized authentic form “Bali,” which dates from the colonial period when the colonizers found it difficult to articulate the sounds in the African names. They were forced to proceed with phonological changes and smoothing. Several complexities must be noted here—the name of the people, Bali Nyonga, Ba'ni, and Banyonga, and the name of the language. Earlier writers indiscriminately used unorthodox names such as Bali and Ba'ni to refer to both people and language.
Medicine and religion among the Bali people are derived from the same philosophical foundation. Thus, one finds that the priests and priestesses in the society can treat physical and psychological problems. They are able to discern whether a person needs one or the other. This happens because the doctors are skilled in the study of human behavior, physical or psychological. Living in villages with their people, the religious officials are able to determine who is psychologically in need of assistance and who is in need of physical help. They are experts at the use of herbs as well as in the nature of communication.
The doctors perform rituals that are rooted in the people's traditions, and this activity could include rubbing of special oils to ensure that the disease does not reappear or slaughtering chickens and other animals and pouring the blood on the patient. All of this is done with the sacred words used to call on the spirits or ancestors who might be responsible for the patient or the particular illness.
Among the Bali people, the voma is a male society of secrets. The voma is a type of cleansing team that would arrive in a village from the river and enter the town to cleanse it of all evil spirits. It was considered an abomination for a woman to view the voma when they paraded through the village, singing and dancing the special dance of the religion of the Bali. One can understand the temptation to view this dramatic performance, but women were warned to stay inside their homes when the voma performed. If a woman saw the voma, she would have to perform rituals to cleanse herself or she might not be able to bear children or see. The Bali also had other societies such as the house of njong, literally nda-njong, reserved for those who had completed certain rites.
When a young man inherited a throne and became a king, he was given the title “Ba Nkom.” It was the title of a king in a major family. The Ba Nkom had to observe certain spiritual rules—for instance, he could not shake hands. This particular rule was made more explicit when Europeans started visiting the Bali people. When the European would extend his hand, the Ba Nkom would not take it. This would have been a spiritual violation.
The Bali also had rituals that included everyone. For example, the Lela was a ritual dance that involved a brilliant array of colors and costumes at the Fon's (King's) palace. The Lela may be considered the coming together of the ethnic group in a massive ceremony of the prowess of the ancestors, spirits, and deities of the Bali people. As a crowning festival of the religion of the people, the Lela created the occasion for unity and reinforced the connectedness of the Bali people.
- ethnic groups
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- De Lancey, M. (2000). Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cameroon. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
- Frings, V. (1996). Kingdom on Mount Cameroon: Studies in the History of the Cameroon Coast, 1500–1970. Providence, RI: Berghahn Books.