Bamileke

Types of Art

Most Bamileke statues represent the Fon (chief). Masks are also carved. Beautiful beadwork associated with the Fon is common throughout this area. 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.

History

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 affiliated and 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 traveled 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.

Economy

The Bamileke are primarily farmers, growing maize, yams, and peanuts as staple crops. They also raise some livestock, including chickens and goats, which 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. Men usually help with the clearing of the land, and practice some 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.

Political Systems

Authority among the Bamileke, as is the case in most of the western Grasslands, is invested 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 behavior 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.

Religion

The Bamilike recognize Si (a supreme god), but they more commonly pay homage to their ancestors. Ancestral spirits are embodied in the skulls of the deceased ancestors. The skulls are in the possession of the eldest living male in each lineage, and all 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, 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.

Facts about Bamileke

Location

Explore a map of Bamileke peoples and their neighbors in the grasslands of western Cameroon

Countries

Cameroon

Languages

Bamileke (Macro-Bantu)

Population

8 million

Neighboring Peoples

Bamum, Kom, Babanki