In the Northwest Region of Cameroon stands West Africa’s second highest mountain. Mount Oku, 3,011 meters high, is rural and quiet, with an isolated Himalayan feel. While visiting it, I find there's more to the mountain than meets the eye.
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 nomads herd their cows and the shimmering blue waters of a huge sacred crater lake collide with blue-forested mountains.
Like all of Cameroon’s regions, Oku has a fon – a local king or chieftain ruling the area. 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.
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,” says Romeo, my driver. There seems no escaping it.
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