A Travellerspoint blog

NIKIA: dancing with fire and snakes

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“They are going to trouble you” Bas told me.
“No they are not” I insisted. “They don’t trouble women. They will trouble YOU, because you are with me.”
“Ah, but you are a white man. It is different. They will trouble you.”
“No they won’t. Last year they troubled the people I was with. They didn’t trouble me.”
Jakob chuckled. “That is why you wanted us to come with you. To protect you.”
It hadn’t occurred to me, but since they mentioned it I was pleased that Bas and Jakob were accompanying me. I calculated that not even the juju’s could intimidate Bas and Jakob.

We were on our way to Bamessing, for the annual Nikia dance. The dance with snakes and fire.

But despite the reassuring presence of my body guards, as we approached Bamessing and saw the army of Juju’s surrounding people and harassing them, I began to get uneasy. And so once we were set down in the small square, I quickly dragged Bas and Jakob into a palm wine bar.
“We are early. Let’s wait here until the dance starts. The juju’s can’t come inside.”

We sat with our palm wine and I didn’t here the Juju’s as they approached the bar in which we sat. I jumped as they started calling us in their high pitched voices through the window. Bas and Jakob laughed. Three Juju’s stood looking into the bar through the window close to my head.

They put there hands through the window, palms upwards asking for money. They spoke to us in high pitched voices and in a language that was different from the dialect of Bamessing or the neighbouring villages. I was surprised when Bas spoke back to them in the same language and began to converse with them.

The Juju’s stood at the window and in the doorway, calling to us. But by tradition they cannot enter. The number of Juju’s had increased to 6.

However, as we did not respond, soon they came in and stood in front of us. One of them put a wooden doll on the table in front of us. Another put a carrot on the table in front of Jakob. Another put the blackened seed of an avocado pear. I reached into the bag at my side and pulled out a handful of small change.

The Juju’s continued to call to us in their high pitched voices, pointing at the goods in front of us.
Bas laughed “we should give the baby something?”
The juju nodded.
“Shall I give him some palm wine?” and Bas picked up his cup.
The Juju shouted in alarm and refused.
I put a coin at the place the Juju was pointing, on the forehead of the doll. I gave each of the others a coin. Bas did the same. Jakob also gave some coins but refused to give co-operate with all of them.
As the Juju’s began to pack their things, Jakob held the carrot.
“But this is mine! I paid for it.”
The Juju grabbed it from him.
“Hey, what about the doll? Take the doll.”
The Juju was still demanding money and refused to take the doll.
“But we gave you money, come here and take the doll.”
The Juju made to leave without taking the doll.
“Hey! Take the doll.”
A man walked into the bar and stood sternly looking at the Juju’s. He shouted at them and beckoned them out of the bar. He pointed at the doll sternly until the Juju picked up the doll as it left.

He smiled and shook our hands.
“You are welcome”
“Thank you”
“They have been told to not harass foreigners or camera men. If she wasn’t with you (pointing at me) they could have sat with you and waited.” (Meaning until they were satisfied with the money given to them).
Bas laughed.
“Today I am going to be a white man. When they come to me, I am going to talk white man language to them.” And he put on a strong American accent.
“What would have happened if they didn’t take the doll?”
“We would have had to have given them more money.”

We had walked to the site of the dance and found that we were still early. So we found another palm wine bar – this time the bar was simply a circle of stools in the dust under a tree. I wanted to take a picture to catch the beauty of the moment, but I knew that the people would not like the intrusion.

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“So Nikia means clowns?” I asked
“Yes. Do you understand what the Juju’s are doing?”
“No”
“This event is depicting the migration of the people to Bamessing. So the Juju’s are not simply begging for money. They are trading. They always offer you something, before they ask for money.”
“Oh I see. The traders preceded the migration?”
“Correct.”

We watched the procession as it passed us.
“And those men carrying plantain saplings, pots, pans and any old thing that they could find in the house is depicting the migration, when they had to carry everything that they had with them.”
But in the spirit of the Nikia, at times the men were wearing mini skirts or other eccentric garments that had the crowds laughing as they passed by.

“And the snakes are depicting foes. When you see a snake you run away from it. So having the snakes around their neck means that they have overcome their foes.”
“What about the fire?” I was watching a man blowing fire from his mouth.
“Fire depicts the supernatural powers of the people.”

We were told to stand for the procession that was about to pass us.
“That is the Fon of the Nikia.”
Bas leant towards me.
“Have you noticed for the people here, they don’t care about what is happening with the Nikia. They are simply here, because of the occasion.”
I looked around me and noticed that the men were drinking their palm wine with little concern for the proceedings occurring behind them.

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After Jakob and Bas asked me
“Where now?”
“To Jakob’s bar. It is after all the 31st of December – let’s celebrate new years eve.”
And at the bar, I took a long thirsty gulp from my warm beer (there are very few fridges in the village) and asked “where is everyone?”
“We don’t celebrate new years on the 31st. We celebrate on the 1st.”
“But tonight is the point at which the old year ends and the new year starts?”
“And do you think we could wait up until midnight? It is only recently that we got electricity in the village.”
So they celebrate on the 1st with a day of feasting where everyone visits each others house and eats until they cannot eat anymore. In a part of the world where one good meal a day makes for a good day, this is a very special day in deed.

Posted by tamara_p 02:34 Archived in Cameroon Comments (0)

A journey for a cold Coca-Cola and a meeting with the Juju's

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Too hot too work and my head hurts. I think I need to go and get a cold coca-cola.

There are only 3 bars in the village that does cold drinks and even if it meant walking to one of them I was determined to have a cold coca-cola.

It was 3pm and in front of me was a group of school girls in their blue shirts and brown skirts. As we approached the market, the girls suddenly started screaming and took refuge behind a car. Startled I peered around them to try ascertain the problem. But I couldn’t see anything, so I gingerly followed them.

Again more screaming and running behind vehicles. So I stopped a passer by and asked her:
“What is going on? Why are they frightened?”
“I don’t know”

Again I followed the girls. This time I caught up with them and as they started screaming and running around me, I stopped one and asked her
“What’s wrong?”
But she looked at me wild eyed and said nothing.

Then I saw the problem. Juju’s.

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There were two juju’s ahead of us. They were crouching and between them was a man. They wore long dresses of feathers. Their faces were covered with a white cloth and on their head was a wooden mask. Each carried spears.

Thinking quickly I crossed the road in an attempt to walk past them without catching attention. From the corner of my eye I noticed one of them pointing a spear at me, but I averted my face and pretended to not notice. I took refuge in a shop and peered out from the doorway.

As the two Juju’s walked away, I did a quick look round the store but not seeing anything I wanted, I stepped out to continue on my way.

But the screaming children and running past me, made me step back. And when I saw the Juju wearing the grass skirt, with the big black mask on its head, carrying the black batons and with ropes held by two men tied to its waste, I gasped “Nkor” and ran into the store.

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“My goodness! Why is Nkor out?” I asked the store keepers.
They shrugged. They didn’t know.
One other customer came and stood beside me and expressed her annoyance.
“They shouldn’t come out in to the day like this and disrupt people.”

Another grass skirted Juju appeared behind Nkor. This time with a mask on its face. It walked to the Total station and stood towering over a man in a car. He could not move and the Juju would not move.

I don’t know where the children came from, perhaps they heard the singing from the Juju’s entourage, but suddenly the street was crowded with children. The third grass skirted Juju, this time with a long pole, chased the children and they ran screaming away. But as soon as its back was turned, the children came running back. The children ran in front, the children ran with the Juju’s, they ran behind. They provoked the Juju’s and ran screaming away, only to come running back when the Juju turned its back.

“Look at the way the Juju is chasing the children. It is not happy. Something has happened” The women beside me commented.

“What is going on? Why are the Juju’s out today?”
I asked for the third time.
“It’s the start of the festivities.”
“That’s not true. I have the calendar. The events started on the 6th of December and ends on the 30th of January. The next event is on the 7th of January. This isn’t on the schedule. What is going on?”
“I don’t know. It is December it is the time of the festivities. I don’t know” He shrugged. “Do you have things like this at home? Have you taken photographs? Are you frightened?”

Juju’s are part of the secret societies and are believed to be beings possessed by ancestral spirits. The face of the Juju is always covered, so one does not know the man behind the mask. The people of Bamunka believe that Juju’s do not talk and do not eat and have spiritual powers. Some of the more powerful Juju’s, if crossed can cause harm. (I was once told of a Juju whose shadow if crossed, will cause leprosy).

I waited until there were no children in sight before venturing out of the store, to resume my journey for my coca-cola.

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Posted by tamara_p 04:49 Archived in Cameroon Comments (0)

The secret society of the King Makers

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“Erik, where are we going? I need to go to Tangoh for the announcements from the King Makers”
“Can we stop in Baba? It is their market day”
“No. I cannot be late. I promise to come back to Baba on the next market day.”

Erik was the driver of a motor bike and Erik and I had been visiting rural schools in the neighbouring villages all morning. It had been raining and we were covered in mud and dust from head to foot. I was cold from the constant exposure to the rain, tired and sore from the long hours on the motorbike.

We slipped and slid though the mud roads and deep water mud puddles.
“Now I understand why you wore your Wellington boots”
Erik straddled the bike and paddled through a puddle with the water lapping over his ankles, pushing the bike through the puddle.
“Should I get down and walk? It may be faster?”
“No. Stay on the bike. Look, someone has fallen.”
We drove past two people picking up their motorbike.

Eventually we stopped at a small junction with a market place and a few palm wine bars. I looked around me and hesitated to climb off the bike.
“Is this it?”
“Yes”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes”

So I climbed off the bike and approached the men sitting in the nearby palm wine bar.
“Good afternoon”
“Good afternoon”
“Is this where the celebrations are meant to be taking place?”
“Yes”
“Am I late? Have I missed it?”
“No you are not late. It will start soon”

“Soon” could be anything from 10 minutes to 2 hours, so I shrugged and turned to Erik.
“OK. Thank you.”
“Shall I wait? We can wait 10 minutes and then go back.”
“No it is OK. I am going to stay for the entire event”
“Really? How will you get back?”
“I will find some transport”
“It is not that easy here”
“Don’t worry I will manage”
“Call me if you want me to come and collect you”
“OK”
“Bye”
“Bye”

So I sat at the palm wine bar, drank palm wine and waited. My neighbour turned to me.
“It is very unusual to see foreigners make the effort to come here to Tangoh and to sit with the locals”
I looked around me wondering how to get back to the centre of the village many miles away and understood why.
“Well I have been in Bamunka for almost 1 and a half years and this is the first time that I have been here.”
“Are you working in Bamunka?”
“Yes. At the computer place opposite the police post”
“That is great”
I sipped my palm wine and watched a car churn its way through the mud, deepening the already deep holes in the road. I watched the suspension of the over laden car bump precariously against the road and is it reared and rolled across the road. Now I understood the high number of vehicle break downs along the road.
“This road is really very bad.”
My neighbours agreed.
“You should come and fix it for us”
I stared at them in disbelief.
“What? Why don’t you fix it? I only help people who help themselves”

Tangoh is one of the first locations of the village of Bamunka. Bamunka originated from the migration of a group of people from the Tikari tribe from the North of Cameroon. Bamunka was founded when they settled in Tangoh and as such Tangoh is the first market place and the location of the first palace. As such Tangoh is at the heart of the annual festivities.

“Look they are coming.”
“Where? How do you know?”
“Look at the long pole”

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The procession was made up of the secret society of the King Makers in the midst of whom walked a juju (masquerade) and followed by the secret society of the Nghumba. They walked from the secret and sacred forest which was forbidden to all apart from members of the secret societies. I understood that there was a cave in the forest which no man apart from the members of the secret societies could enter.

“Why are they called secret societies? They are not secret, I know who they are?”
“They are secret because you don’t know what they do. No-one knows apart from members of the society.”

The King Makers stood on the mound in the middle of the market. The juju stood amongst them. The Ngumba stood in a semi-circle behind them.

The secret societies of the King Makers and the Ngumba are the most senior secret societies in the village. When a Fon disappears (dies) the King Makers will appoint the new Fon and subsequently acts as advisors to the Fon. The Ngumba is the highest authority in the land and acts as the supreme court and the highest judge.

One of the King Makers stepped forward and made the first announcement. He spoke in the Bamunka dialect, which I do not speak, so I had to rely on summarised translations from a later date.
“Bush fires are banned.”
The other King Makers whispered to him, and he made the second announcement.
“Immoral behaviour and jay walking is banned.”
Between each announcement, the other king makers whispered in his ear.

Posted by tamara_p 03:01 Archived in Cameroon Comments (2)

As the crowds flee around us.....

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The crowds began to flee around us.

Kingsley and Etienne turned to me.
“Nkor is coming. Quick, get into the car.”
And we got into the car as the crowds dispersed and soon the area was deserted.

We saw its entourage. About 10 men, bare bodied from the waste up and carrying large green leaves in their hands. They used the green leaves in gestures of appeasement.

Etienne hurriedly whispered to Kingsley.
“King, King, King, wind that thing up”
Kingsley wound up the car window and Etienne slunk down beside me, to the point that he was not visible from outside the car.

I only saw a glimpse of Nkor as it moved past us. I noticed the crowds who were taking refuge in the nearby bar as they paid homage to Nkor by dropping to the floor and squatting. Nkor towered over them. The men holding the ropes tied to its waste strained to restrain it. And then one man from the crowd lost his nerve, rose to his feet and ran. Nkor pursued and the men holding the ropes could not prevail, neither could the entourage with the green leaves who tried to distract Nkor. I lost sight of Nkor and the fate of the fleeing man.

As we waited, Kingsley had rolled down the window. Etienne whispered urgently:
“King, King, King wind that thing up. It can do us harm.”
As Nkor approached us, Etienne slunk down in his chair but Kingsley continued talking.
Etienne berated him.
“King don’t talk, Nkor is coming.”
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I was in the village of Nkar in the North West Province of Cameroon. I am a volunteer and I live and work in the neighbouring village of Bamunka. One of the traditional leaders had invited me to Nkar.

“Are you busy on Sunday? The Fon is going to Nkar. Why don’t you come along? For a taster of things that will be happening over the next few months”

So I cancelled and postponed all my planned activities and early on Sunday morning I slung my camera over my shoulder and set off. On the way I met the boys – Kingsley and Etienne. They stood looking at me wistfully and so I invited them to join me. Their eyes lit up and without a moment’s hesitation they agreed, and soon we were sitting folded in uncomfortable angles in a small 4-seater car carrying 7 passengers and the driver.

The Fon (king) of Nkar had disappeared (died). The village of Bamunka was visiting Nkar to condole with them on their loss. As such this was an event that would normally only be witnessed once in a life time.

The death celebration started with the notables of Bamunka formally making their way to the palace. Noticing people I knew amongst the procession, I was busy positioning myself for the perfect picture when Etienne grabbed my arm and dragged me off the road into the bushes. Before I had a chance to remonstrate, the air was shattered by the sound of gun fire as the notables lined themselves along the road and fired their guns into the air.

That day we were treated to the beautiful and colourful dances of the people of Bamunka. They danced the ritual of dispatching the old Fon. They welcomed the new Fon. The king makers danced. The second highest body in the land; the Ngiri danced. The women ululated from the crowd. As the notables passed before the crowd, the crowd acknowledge their status by sitting on the floor. The crowd rose and fell as they rose to their feet and sat on the floor.

All the women of Nkar shaved their heads to grieve for the loss of their Fon. The Queens all wore red. I counted over 30 Queens of the late Fon.

I met Mr. Bobo Sonjong in the crowd. I was pleased to see him and held out my hand to him. He recoiled and stepped away from me. Mr. Sonjong is one of the most seniour traditional leaders in Bamunka and his every action is determined by tradition. At times he cannot sit with the people, he cannot eat certain foods and on certain occasions he cannot shake hands with normal people or women. I have been in Cameroon for over a year and I am only beginning to understand the complexity of the culture. At times they believe that in shaking hands evil spirits can be transmitted to them.

I congratulated Mr. Sonjong on the amazing spectacle. He smiled with pleasure and replied
“This is only a small part of what you will see in December and January. We do not have time to display in full and we have to cancel certain events and keep others brief.”

We rested and drank palm wine at a local bar. The culture in Nkar differs from Bamunka and sitting amongst the people of Nkar, I made a grave error.

In the bar a Fie sat opposite us. He welcomed us and offered me a kola nut. I stretched out my hand to accept it, but the boys quickly restrained me and the Fie recoiled in horror.
“You must use both hands to accept it.”
So mimicking the boys, I supported my right hand in my left as I accepted his gift. The Fie laughed and asked me to take a photograph of him and his pleasure at the photograph somewhat made up for my error.

At 4pm we started to make our way back. We found a car that would drop us at the village, but we were delayed as we waited for other passengers. So we left the car and told the driver that we would be back directly – we wanted to see Nkar’s masquerades. That was when Nkor appeared.
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Soon we deemed it safe to leave the refuge of the car. I loitered in the open, but as the crowd began to flee, I fled with them. I was afraid to confront Nkor. The peoples fear empowers it, to the point where I dared not face it. And I fled with the same urgency as the people and made an undignified scramble into the safety of the car.

But after a few headlong dives into the car, I began to tire of this game of hide and seek. And when the boys gestured to me, I refused.
“No. Why do I have to go? I am going to stay in the car.”
“You must leave. The Ngumba is leaving.”

The Ngumba is the most powerful being in the land. It is the owner of the land and all things on it. However, no women and no man who has not been initiated must see the Ngumba. They say that if a woman sees the Ngumba, she will suffer dreadful calamities. They say that her children will be born with terrible deformities. Every village has a Ngumba.

As the Fon of Nkar had died, the Nghumba of Bamunka visited Nkar. Now it was about to return to Bamunka.

Etienne urgently led me to a bar. I followed him, but as I entered the bar I paused rendered speechless by the sight that greeted me. On the floor of the bar were the women. They were sitting in rows, on their knees and bent in double so that their heads touched the floor and all facing the wall with their back to the door.

Impatiently Etienne urged me forward. I walked between the women into an inner room. Again I hesitated, struck by the sight that greeted me. The women stood inside the room, all of them facing the wall with their backs to the door.

So I stood with them, facing the wall with my back to the door. When I got impatient and turned to leave, the women stopped me “What place you go now?” So I turned back and faced the wall.

Later I asked Mr. Sonjong, “But isn’t it dangerous for the Ngumba to be travelling so early and in broad daylight?”
“People who know, know the sound and get out of the way. Those who don’t must take refuge in the bush”
“How does the Ngumba travel? Does it use a cargo truck?”
“Of course not, the Ngumba flies.”

To meet the community, visit us at http://www.squidoo.com/pcdi-cameroon

Posted by tamara_p 08:47 Archived in Cameroon Comments (2)

Substitute for chocolate

Notes from a volunteer in Cameroon

A friend asked me if there was anything he could send me. Perhaps some chocolate? At the time I replied that I did not know how to receive post. A postal service does not exist in the same sense as in Europe. Post is not delivered to my door in the village. There are no street names and numbers. Normally directions are given by reference to landmarks. My address is “Behind the Apostolic Church, Bamunka, Ndop”. But there is maze of streets behind the Apostolic Church. But it was only after his email that I realised that I had not eaten any chocolate since I landed in Douala, 2 months ago.
There is chocolate in the village, but apart from drinks, I do not buy imported goods due to the fact that very few foods or goods are imported to the village. There is one local “supermarket” but in its entirety it is the size of what used to be my living room in London. It contains cleaning liquids, soap, candles, some drinks, a few dusty cans of fish etc. When I fished around among the bottles and found a dusty and dirty bottle of shampoo, the staff had a quick discussion amongst themselves about what it was that I was buying. (African hair is very coarse. It is not uncommon for women to shave their heads. When I first tried to get my hair braided, I was told that my hair was too “slippery”. It would not hold the braids whereas African hair once shaped, retains its shape. Apparently their hair does not require shampoo). Shopping otherwise is at the local markets where individuals sell the produce from their farm. In the village we must make do with local produce. The nearest town Bamenda is luxurious in comparison, but also offers little when compared with the choice available in Europe. No good chocolate.
A few days ago I had a very bad day at work. My latest initiative to fix one of the fundamental problems at work had failed – again. I got home and the water was not running and we did not have electricity. I needed some comfort food. So I went to the market and bought the local substitute. Sugar cane.
I bought a stick of about 7ft long still containing its roots and leaves. I carried it over my shoulder back to the compound. I spent an agonising 30 minutes cleaning the mud of the cane and sawing it into sizeable chunks of about 1 ft each. I then sat on a stool outside my apartment and ate the sugar cane “African” style. This is to tear the bark off with ones teeth and spit it on the ground. To then tear chunks off the wood with ones teeth and to chew it to extract the sugary fluid. Finally, to spit the debris on the ground.
But that night with the power cut, I chewed the sugar cane and I looked up at the night sky and wondered at the number of stars and appreciated the dry lightening storm illuminating the sky (with the approach of the dry season lighting storms unaccompanied by rain or thunder are becoming increasingly common). And it was amazing.

Posted by tamara_p 11:02 Archived in Cameroon Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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