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.”
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.
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.”
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