My most vivid memories from the village are of arm work, back and forth trips to the river and tales of witchcraft under oil lamp lit evenings that kept me up all night. This was quite the ordeal for the city boy that I was but with some time and a bit of distance, I can now look back fondly at this period. As expected, returning to these roots proved to be a moving experience.
My village is called Nkom I, which means rock in the Beti tongue. The Beti or Ekangs are a Bantu people spread across Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Principe, and Congo. I belong to the Manguissa subgroup who speak two languages: Njowe, a variant of Eton, and Ati (also called Tuki or Sanaga). Most existing Beti languages are derived from latter. As legend goes, the Beti people fled islamization, led against animist people by Adamawa’s Muslim chief Ousman Dan Fodio, on the back of a huge snake named Ngan-Medza. While crossing the Sanaga river, sparks from the pathfinder’s lamp fell on the back of the snake who then disappeared into the river with a large part of the Beti people. The rest were left on the right river bank. Nkom is located in the Lekié division, Centre Province. Northwest of Yaoundé, it is more densely populated than its neightbouring divisions.
Obala, the town where I attended primary school, is quite the urban centre. Its position on the North-Cameroon road contributes to its liveness and its proximity to Yaoundé helps to keep its market bustling; it is responsible for the whole division’s commercial redistribution. The was a time when Luna Park (complete with boukarous, swimming pools, a lake, playgrounds, a zoo, a restaurant and a flower garden covering 12 hectares) was Obala’s main tourist attraction. Memories of it are tinged with a mix of nostalgia and resentment. I think Obala’s current main attraction is the Okali pimenterie where you can enjoy amazing roasted meat and some of the best peppers in the country.
Bordering the Mbam divisions, Lékié is the second biggest cocoa producer in Cameroon and a major supplier of agricultural products to Yaoundé. Despite its proximity to the political capital, the majority of the village in this division remain isolated and inaccessible. Once you leave the main roads, the rugged trails make driving a chore. It’s impossible to drive through most of them during the rainly season and you need off-road vehicules even during the dry season. This doesn’t stop buses and bush-taxis from making trips every day. The region’s eco-tourism potential remains underdeveloped. The same can be said of the Sanaga river infrastructure.
Beti village are patrilineal; girls usually leave their fathers’ village for that of their in-laws after marriage. Beti social organization is centred around Mvog (lineage or tribe). The Mvog designates the common ancestor in the last three to four generations and all his descendants.
Mine bears the name of our founding ancestor Ayissi Nguini and is referred to as Mvog Assinguin. Our culture views blood relations as sacred and such incest is prohibited. Before entering into any long term relationship, Manguissas must first ensure that there is no relationship between them. In other words they must confirm that they do not have any Mvog in common on both their paternal and maternal sides.
Nkom I‘s configuration resembles that of other Beti villages. Linear settlements are spaced out on each side of the main road that goes across the length of the village. My grandparents’ house has a large courtyard where we used to play pousse-pion, the cameroonian version of hopscotch, with a dried mango pit. The kitchen is a separate mud building with a corrugated iron roof. These roofs used to be made of raffia mats that had to be changed every two or three years.
A small medical centre stands opposite the compound in a space my father’s old primary school used to occupy. Further down, a large football pitch has been “drawn” in the middle of the forest gifted by mt grandfather. A building with freshly painted pink planks right across it stands out from the rest of the landscape: it’s a shop rented out by my father to a Malian newcomer. He goes back to Mali once or twice a year and though his Manguissa is still elementary, it should improve in a few months. Thanks to him, the villagers can now get basic commodities. The Beti are well known for their hospitality and open-mindedness. As a matter of fact, in Sa’a, Lékié most densely populated district, the biggest communities after the Eton and Manguissa majority population are the Hausas or nothern Cameroon, followed by the bamilekes of western Cameroon.
Nkom I, like all villages in Beti land, subsists off agriculture. The men use controlled forest fires to fertilize the land and the women then plant, look after and haverst the crops. They also fallow fields indefinitely when they are depleted of nutrients. Before doing so they prepare a new plot. Over time with this process, farms are established further away from the villages.
The Beti mainly grow plantain, groundnuts, cassava, maize, cocoyam, yam and potatoes as well as variety of fruits including mangoes, papayas, guavas, cherries, ambarella and much more. Friday and saturday are days of mourning. Long ago, an individual’s death was announced via the Nkul, a talking drum system used to communicated between the villages. Learning to play Nkul is an arduous process and a disappearing cultural practice. Fewer still are those who know their ndan, the code used to identify the sender and to exchange personal messages.
Once the neighbouring village have been informed of the death, the deceased’s people can begin to organize the funeral. The grave is dug and palm frond structures are erected, while the women prepare food to welcome the deceased’s Mvog, who come from as far as the Nkul is heard. An individual’s represents his entrance into the spirit world. For the Beti, the spirit world is the real world. In traditional society, the real strength of man is determined by his connection to the spirit world. “The spirit world is as natural as the physical world. The latter comes from the former”. As such for the Beti man, death is a new birth, the beginning of a new eternal life in the hereafter. Among funeral rites performed on the day of mourning is the Esani. Initially reserved for clan chiefs and eminent community members, Esani is a war dance now performed to honour the ancestors to urge them usher the newly deceased into the sacred community of his fathers. The dancers line up single file with banana stems in their hands and go around the dead man’s hut to the rythmn of the drums, culminating in a dance in front of the drummers.