Bamileke

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The Bamileke people are located in the western province of Cameroon. They share a boundary with Anglophone Cameroon. Mount Bamboutous, a well-known demarcation of the Bamileke in Cameroon and abroad, extends to the Southwest up to the Nkam region. The High Lands of Dschang-Bana-Bangante, a relatively cold area for this part of Africa, divide the land from the North to the East.
The word Bamileke is a colonial corruption of the name of the Dschang people, who consider themselves Baliku—that is, the people of the hole in the Earth. Thus, the name Bamileke is not an original term and carries a meaning never intended by its people, although it has been embedded in the culture. The word simply attempts to provide a description of the location of the Bamileke people.
The Bamileke are found everywhere in the country given their large population in Cameroon. They live in small groups surrounded by farms. In overpopulated areas, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find unused land. The women are solely responsible for all farm work, whereas the men are breeders of small livestock; they are also merchants and craftsmen. In addition, the Bamileke have made good use of land between Nkongsamba and Douala toward the Bassa land in the Mbang and equally toward Banen of Ndikinimeki. They are owners of an important percentage of businesses in Douala.
Many secret societies are in operation among the 8 million Bamileke spread across more than 94 kingdoms. Given that they had a set of common customs, the people have built a common cultural identity and cohesiveness across the country. They hold closed “family” meetings and discuss and make decisions on family matters without involving external entities. Decisions usually address issues such as financial growth, reasons for a death in the family, and adherence to the process of becoming a successor. This custom, also widely known as fumlab, is seen as the nexus of Bamileke culture and religion; it is also widely believed and feared as a religion, in which a person, usually a man, donates to a close friend or family member evil spirits in the form of human beings in exchange for financial prosperity.
Like their neighbors, the Bamoun (Banoun), Kom, and Babanki, the Bamileke believe that human death is not a normal occurrence, but an act shrouded in mystery and mysticism. No matter what his or her age, when a person dies, his or her relatives must consult a doctor or find the reason for the death. Each person in the family is forced to come forward and swear before a totem that he or she has no hand in the death. If there is a murderer among them, he or she is instantly “trapped” by the totem. During the burial ceremony, the family member must undergo a ceremony involving pouring libations into the ground, and all material gathered from the spot is seen as the skull of the deceased.
Masquerades possessed with ancestral spirits and magical statues are common artifacts used within the kingdoms. These artifacts, including skulls of deceased ancestors and musical equipment—xylophones, drums, and flutes—are kept in a secret place in the home of the eldest living male in each lineage. During the celebration of death of personalities, like King Njoya's mother (1913), elephant masks were worn to demonstrate their importance.
Women are expected to bear children. Irrespective of her marital status, if a woman does not have children, the Bamileke believe she has been bewitched. Consequendy, the doctors are consulted, and remedies are provided that reverse the situation.
The Bamileke believe in the existence of the supreme god, Si, but Si is remote, and therefore the ancestor spirits as imbued in masquerades and statues are more common throughout the kingdoms. When an elder is obliged to relocate to inherit another compound and property, the previous home is first purified by a healer with divine powers, and a dwelling is built to house the ancestral skulls in the new location because the spirits have nowhere to reside, and leaving them with no home may cause irreparable trouble for the family.

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Further Reading

  • Asante, M., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Universities Press of America.