Hello Cameroon, called “Africa in Miniature” for its landscape that varies from desert to rainforest and the many different peoples and cultures who share at least 230 languages. Once split between French and British colonialists, but still ruled by traditional kings called fons, the country is united by its love of soccer.
“Clang! Clang!” King Fobuzie II strikes a gong as he speaks to his ancestors. “I’m telling them you are here,” he says. He is dressed in a long red dashiki and matching trousers. Several pots in the spacious room hold the spirits of three previous kings and paraphernalia from past ceremonies, carved wooden stalls and an earlier ritual fire, surrounds us.
We are inside Chomba village palace in the hilly Northwest Region of Cameroon, where I have come to explore the many ancient kingdoms, known as fondoms, each ruled by a fon (king). There are literally hundreds of fondoms spread across an area little larger than Vermont and each has an enormous palace full of splendid symbolic architecture and art, unique to this region. “Every aspect of life starts and ends at the palace,” says Fobuzie. “These fondoms act like their own states,” says Romeo, my driver. “They could rule themselves, without any Government help, because they use their own complex system and customs.” The fon is supremely revered and his word is held higher than the law.
“It was a complete shock to me when I was chosen,” says the king. A fon is appointed by his predecessor, who selects one of his sons, although it is never the eldest. “No fon ever dies. He just ‘gets missing’ and it is not until this happens that the heir is announced.” Within the fondoms, ancestor worship plays a big role. The ancestors are consulted before any important events, including the choice of the next fon. Witchcraft is strong in Cameroon and its power much feared. This whole realm is full of secrecy and mysticism. Around the palace there are many signs of it, with specific rooms for libations, sacrifices and a towering three-tiered black ancestor house in one of the courtyards.
It’s forbidden for anyone except their members to enter
The palace is a labyrinth of gates and courtyards that make it hard for anyone with sinister motives to find the king. As we twist and turn, Fobuzie points at a red earth house with big black haphazardly painted spots. “This is the kwifon’s house; a secret society. It’s forbidden for anyone except their members to enter,” he says. “It’s where they perform magic.” Close by, under a tree, is a shrine made of several small standing stones. “We call these heads. They are symbolic of our ancestors,” Fobuzie says. “We settle difficult disputes here.” A maze of overgrown gardens threads between the various rooms and buildings, adding to the magical feel.
The fon relies on multiple secret societies, all shrouded in mystery. Members perform their various duties while disguised under startling wooden helmets, their faces hidden by netting, and dressed in elaborate gowns. I spy one made of thousands of chicken feathers. It is foreboding, yet exquisite, and could grace any Paris catwalk. Another has hundreds of pockets holding occult medicine. “The kwifon are my traditional council and law enforcers,” he says. “People spend years of initiation before they can join.”
Each of the palace’s many reception areas has a huge throne, with scenes of wild animals and human figures expertly carved into the dark wood. Many are embellished with multi-colored glass beads and one has mammoth elephant tusks arching over it. “All this symbolizes power,” says Romeo. A bag made from a crocodile’s head hangs on a wall, leopard skin rugs cover the floors and all around are beaded animal-shaped masks and sculpted tables, each museum-worthy.
Travelling around the region, I see traditional mud and bamboo palaces everywhere, with corrugated iron now covering the many conical roofs that would once have been thatched with straw. They look like silver teeth dotting the landscape. Inside are ornately carved doorways and totem-pole-like columns. This area is high grassland, where the tall grasses frame copper red roads that run through mountains, plateaus and powerful jungle waterfalls. At one of the falls, Tarzan made an epic jump in the film Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. It is the home of the Bamileke people who claim descent from ancient Egypt.
Little is ever certain and straight answers are rarely given
Driving from Douala, the country’s major port and most populous city, I have already experienced Cameroon’s own particular mysticism. Little is ever certain and straight answers are rarely given. No journey is without numerous roadblocks and long lorries bounce along the pot-holed roads, piled with wood cut from the Congo Basin in the country’s east. Motorbikes tear past, laden with people who never wear helmets.
Hawkers stand by the roadside selling handfuls of cane rats that hang from their tails, as well as gazelle, pangolin and hedgehog. “The rats are a delicacy here,” says Romeo. I learn they are even farmed commercially as an alternative to the bushmeat trade that is such a threat to wildlife in a country whose people are so poor they have few other sources of protein.
Cameroon exploded onto the international arena when its soccer team, thanks to Roger Milla, became the first African squad to reach the World Cup quarterfinals. It sits on the Atlantic coast, bridging West and Central Africa, and was colonized by the Germans, French and English. It is politically stable, yet surrounded by the kind of neighbors no one wants. Nigeria’s Boko Haram terrorists, responsible for several recent kidnappings in the far north, come and go across its borders, Chad poses security problems and the Central African Rrepublic is in the midst of horrific religious violence. Cameroon itself may be peaceful but it is one of Africa’s most corrupt countries, an unwanted title for anywhere. “Corruption is killing this country,” says Romeo. It’s the far-too-common African story of a country rich in resources, from oil and coffee to cocoa and wood, yet poverty-stricken.
They say I am fitting teeth in women’s mouths
King Fobuzie goes against at least one African stereotype, however: he supports women. He is regularly invited to many international conferences on female issues and at a recent one was hailed as a champion of women’s empowerment. “Some men criticize me for this,” he says. “They say I am fitting teeth in women’s mouths.” He has become involved with MUSAB, a local charity, in helping to stop traditional widow rites. “Here there is no such thing as accidental death,” he says. “A widow is blamed.” As a result, she is thrown out of her home, often forced to marry her brother-in-law and made to sleep on the floor. “They cannot chop (eat) with others and are kept isolated at home, sometimes naked for weeks.”
When he became king at the age of 15, he quickly realized much of his support came from women. The queen mother is much esteemed and he relied on her for advice, while he also had his mafu, a palace woman crowned as princess, and all the wives of previous kings, who he inherits. He also has a harem of his own wives. His wives and many children live in one courtyard full of mud and bamboo houses.
I ask him how many he has. He laughs. “Would you ask me how much money I have in the bank?” he says. He tells me women are far more active than men and it is usually their small earnings that pay for children to go to school.
My next stop is Nsongwa’s palace, which is reached by a rough bumpy track. Many of the palaces are remote, hard to access and, like this one, have no electricity. The fon, like many others now, is educated and has a job as an agricultural technician as well as being king and his fondom has a reputation for blending old with new. Traditionally, many tribes consider it shameful for a fon to take a job since he should never have a boss. The palace, beside a sacred forest, has pictures of wild animals painted on the walls, huge talking drums carved from tree trunks and two standing stones. “Barren women are given ripe bananas by the fon and stand between these stones, with a woman suckling her new-born baby,” says Romeo.
As I wait to be received, clutching my customary gift of a bottle of palm wine for the fon, I overhear some villagers. Much of their conversation is laced with talk of magic. One tells of a friend struck dead by thunder because of a spell put on him for having an affair, another mentions a nearby lake disappearing because the village spirits were unhappy. They talk about a man who turned into a panther. Inside the palace, we sit in one of the courtyards where there is a line of stone seats. “These are for the council of nine who act like the supreme court,” says the fon. “It’s actually they who rule, not the fons. This is our Cameroonian approach to democracy.”
Dusty masks, wooden pygmy figures with ET eyes and beaded sculptures
Foumban in West Cameroon is the home of the sultan of the enormous Bamoun Kingdom whose power is even greater than the fons. The peach light of early morning illuminates the palace’s German Baroque brick front, carved wooden balconies with snake motifs and Romanesque arches. Mist climbs over the terracotta roofs as people emerge from the pink mosque that is surrounded by market stalls where breakfast is French bread, beans and rice. The streets are full of artisan workshops, selling the art this region is so famous for. Rooms are stacked high with dusty masks, wooden pygmy figures with ET eyes and beaded sculptures. I have my breakfast in a café alongside a couple from Marseille. Desiree, daubed in thick make up, has a small chihuahua dog on the chair beside her. “I adopted my son, Aboubakar from here,” she says.
Mount Oku, my next destination, is West Africa’s second highest mountain at 3,011 meters. It is rural and quiet, with an isolated Himalayan feel. The nights are cool and I snuggle under a blanket in King David’s Hotel, a simple guesthouse where power cuts are common. Up here Fulani herd their cows and the shimmering blue waters of a huge sacred crater lake collide with blue-forested mountains. Oku’s fon, Sintieh II Ngum Martin, is dressed in Micky Mouse shorts and an animal skin hat. He tells me not to swim in the lake because he has not yet performed his sacrifices there. “Sacred lakes do many wicked things,” he says.
The fon is creating a museum of local carvings as well as the clothes and masks worn during the theatrical juju masquerades performed throughout the area. With no electricity for lights, the darkness makes the costumed figures look even more frightening. “When jujus perform they are no longer believed to be human,” Sintieh says. “They have supernatural powers. When some display you run away in terror.” Sintieh points at one. “This is mabu, a messenger who instils panic when he places a particular leaf on your doorstep,” he says. “When this happens you know you are in serious trouble and must hurry to the palace, bringing a fowl or calabash of palm wine.” He also tells me that when certain jujus spear a bad spirit a puff of smoke appears. “I know this may sound strange to you,” he says.
Leaving the palace I hear loud and energetic xylophone music coming from a mud house down a path. “Juju house” is chalked on the wall and dried grass hangs like a skirt above the door, warning that what is going on inside is secret. I walk back to the main road to find one of the town’s only restaurants. With few tourists, I need to order my evening food in advance. In a rickety clapboard shack, a large and charismatic woman in a big fur coat greets me. Later, I return for a delicious huckleberry leaf, fufu and chicken dish.
It feels like the top of the world
Early the following morning I climb the mountain, walking through farms up into montane forest draped with old man’s beard, and onto lofty grassland covered in wild flowers. Birds of prey paraglide and the sun warms my skin. It feels like the top of the world. Suddenly, I hear shouting and look below. Three men are chanting loudly, maniacally throwing their arms upwards and asking the heavens to open. “They are performing magic,” Romeo says. There seems no escaping it.
Kribi, a small beach resort by the Atlantic Ocean close to Equatorial Guinea, is my journey’s end. The town is known for the spectacular Lobé Falls nearby, which tumble over black volcanic rocks into the ocean. Spray flies in the bright sunlight to create rainbow prisms. South Africa is only other country on the continent where waterfalls spill directly into the sea. All around I see kilometers of untouched golden beach, with barely a person in sight. Upriver from the falls, Kola pygmies live in the dense rainforest among lowland gorilla and elephants, only 80 km away.
I am staying at Hotel Ilomba, a hotel opened in the early 1990s by Therese Osih, a Swiss woman who has lived here for 45 years, and her late Cameroonian husband. With just 20 rooms, the popular hotel is booked months ahead, usually by expatriates. Therese wears elegant West African dresses in vibrant patterns that she has a local tailor make from cloth bought in the market. The rooms are spacious and light, with white linen, and brightened by a few pieces of exquisite African art, mostly from Foumban and the surrounding region. My room is high on a hill and looks out on a thick tropical garden full of flowers, birds singing and big sea views.
Sitting on the restaurant terrace at night, looking out over the ocean, I see lights twinkling on the horizon. This is the controversial Chad- Cameroon pipeline, built in 2003 at a cost of $3.7 billion. “It’s the largest infrastructure project ever in Sub Saharan Africa,” a man nearby tells me. “But, as usual, you don’t see any wealth generated from it in the neighboring area. It carries oil from Chad, which is landlocked, and 90 per cent of it runs through once-pristine rainforest in Cameroon, ending in Kribi.”
The same fisherman just catches it again a few hours later
Aside from this major blot, the beaches appear as they must have for years. Turtles wander up onto the sands, despite the fact local people like to eat them. “I have tried for years to protect them,” says Therese. “But the fishermen catch them and then tell tourists they will only release them for money. The turtle is freed, but the same fisherman just catches it again a few hours later.” She half laughs at how futile the situation is. Lying in the warm shallow clear sea, I savor the idyllic scene: a fisherman in his pirogue casting nets, and a tiny church spire which peeps out from the line of tropical forest.
Along the never-ending beach are a few simple restaurants. They consist of a few chairs and a table crudely made from bamboo, covered with a tablecloth on which is displayed some freshly cut frangipani flowers. I turn up at one that seems deserted but then the owner, Pierre, emerges from the forest. There is no menu but he asks what I want, then slips his pirogue into the water and goes off fishing. My supper will be ready for me later.
That evening, I return to find Pierre busy cooking a huge fish on a fire flickering behind a simple banana frond shelter. He serves it with fried plantain and fresh pineapple and it is one of the best meals I have ever tasted. His job done, Pierre retires to a hammock, swinging in the trees while I watch the sun go down over the gentle surf. It can take time to adjust to this country but it soon works its magic, willing you to return.