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Karl’s Chronicles no 27 Cameroon: The Sultans First Stand

Mask from th King depicting a beard which symbolized strenght
Mask from th King depicting a beard which symbolized strength

Heralding back to 1334 and founded by Prince Nchare Yen, who came from the Tikar tribe. The Bamun Empire established its first and brief capital at Njimom, twenty kilometres away from the second and current capital of Foumban. Bamun, became a conjugated spelling from Ba fut-mon, meaning People from Thursday. Signifying the day Prince Nchare Yen departed his village to establish his kingdom, leaving with his brother and a group of warriors to head east. They soon reached the broad River Mapé, commandeering a nearby boat to access the opposite bank. Nchare Yen informed his brother and half the warriors that the vessel could not accommodate them all, and once across, the boat would return to pick them up. However, to stifle any threat of competition towards the throne, the boat was quickly destroyed, stranding his brother and the remaining fighters. Before fully establishing his kingdom at Fon Pa Mben, (later reduced into present-day Foumban.) he sought advice from seven councillors under a sacred tree (that still stands) in Njimom.

The King with his seven councillors under the sacred tree
The King with his seven councillors under the sacred tree

Since the conception of the kingdom in the 14th century there have been 19 rulers across 626 years, including the current King Mbombo Njoya who has ruled since 1992. After Nchare Yen, came the first of two queens Ngoupou (1418-1461) who governed for 43 years and Ngoungoure, the 15th who only reigned for 30 minutes before resigning—making way for her son Nsangou to hold the throne.

Like all leaders, whether monarchs or presidents, there are those that are mediocre, leaving little to the brushwork of historians, and those formidable examples, that accomplish much. Pushing the boundaries, whether it’s considered contentious or not. King Mbuémbué (1757-1814) falls into the latter. Seeing himself as a warrior rather than a diplomat, announcing his ambitions by the aggressive claim ‘I will make the borders of the Kingdom with blood and black iron, borders made with words are inevitably raised.’ Swiftly strengthening his capital to withstand repeated attacks by the Fulbe. He cunningly divided his army into two, attacking both the Tikar and Bamiléké simultaneously, mastering a double victory. Represented within the royal coat of arms as a double-headed snake with the inclusion of a spider to signify hard work. A large metal bell was repeatedly struck before a battle, encouraging his soldiers towards greater nationalism, stoking the furnaces of bullish intimidation in the suit to another victory.

Panel presenting the Bamun Kings except the last two
Panel presenting the Bamun Kings except the last two

Ibrahim Njoya (1889-1933) the 17th Sultan brought much progress to the Bamun Kingdom. He founded the museum in 1924 as a historical landmark of presenting and safeguarding Bamum culture. Its history already documented through oral accounts became permanently recorded in Njoya’s own translation. Set down in The History & Customs of the Bamuns. Drawing on stories and possibly magnified myths of his sovereign predecessors. He changed the complicated and esoteric pictorial language into a reduced script, consisting of 510 signs which later became modified into a recognizable alphabet. Ibrahim Njoya soon set up schools to teach the new writing alongside Shumom, the distinct language of Bamun. One of only two alphabets that existed throughout West Africa, the other known as Fai came from Liberia. Aside from alphabets and a historical almanac, King Njoya also made headway to form a new religion. Taking his Muslim principles and fusing them with the doctrine of visiting missionaries and animist practises. Court music and theatre still depict his religious ideology even if the state, secular by political hegemony suppressed its development. He is also credited with designing the current palace when the original was destroyed by fire in 1913—incorporating numerous balconies, geometric patterned lintels, wooden staircases, and a cathedral-sized reception room. Supported by four colossal pillars, reminiscent of columns found in a Pharaonic temple.

Prince Nchare Yen destrouing boat once crossing Mape River
Prince Nchare Yen destrouing boat once crossing Mape River

At the time a German colony, the technological breakthrough of photography wasn’t lost on King Njoya or on visiting missionaries, military men, colonial agents and researchers who found the palace and the king fascinating and culturally unique. Publicized images in Germany caused a sensation, depicting a majestic and replete empire actually within a German dominion. The king embraced the advantages of print, noting its potential as a propaganda tool but also for documentation and recording family events. The queen mother Njapunduke, his wives & children, were soon posing for the cameras. The close relationship with photography passed onto his son Seidou Njimoluh Njoya and his grandson Mbombo Njoya.

When Germany succeeded its Cameroonian territory to France and Britain after the loss of WWI, Njoya’s reign co-inside with French occupation, weary of his pro-German stance, the French had him exiled to Yaounde in 1924 until his death in 1933.

King Njoya in the audience courtyard taken in
King Njoya in the audience courtyard taken in

Within the museum, artefacts from the long sovereign line of the Bamun Kingdom relate as far back to Nchare Yen. A strong military prowess, presented by rows of cutlasses (indented at one end for extracting enemy teeth) and their ornate sheaths, poisoned arrows, long wooden spears, home-made rifles and animal-hide shields. In a separate room, personal items of Sultan Mbuémbué include a four-foot smoking pipe, a metal bell (enticing warrior aggression), and a dagger, alongside a large mask depicting the two-headed serpent and a false beard worn to note strength. Other artefacts of interest include royal thrones and stools, some beautifully inlaid with cowrie shells. Imposing Masquerades and spiritual emblems such as the buffalo (power) and the bird (deliverer) to evoke these spirits through dance. The coronation uniform assembled from a variety of feathers, incorporating good & bad, rich & poor as a representation of all the people within the kingdom.

Simple but delicate wooden lintel for a door
Simple but delicate wooden lintel for a door

During the initiation, the new king could not leave the palace grounds for nine weeks. Though the guide, under an ark of a smile, declared the king received many women during that time. Before a sultans coronation, he would return to the sacred tree in Njimom with his seven councillors just as Prince Nshare Yen had done back in 1394. Near to death, the Sultan would determine which son should be his successor and nominate a daughter as a councillor. Twins within the Bamun kingdom, seen initially as secretive and mystical, in possession of particular gifts, were summoned to the serve the king. The girl would later become one of his queens and the boy a visor. Two twins were buried alive on the king’s death to accompany him into the afterlife.

Cutlass far left alongside their dcorative sheaths
Cutlass far left alongside their decorative sheaths

Facts: The Sultans Palace is open Mon-Sat. Tickets cost 2000cfa and 500cfa to visit ‘The Case of Nkindi’. Guided visits are available in both English and French. A new museum which is finished but not yet open will accommodate all the artefacts from the palace museum. For now, they are gradually being transferred, leaving the palace museum rather thin on the ground. Resembling a giant spider over a double-headed serpent, the new museum almost resembles a theme park ride or reptile house of a modern zoo. Positioned across the road from the central mosque and market, it is undoubtedly an incongruous sight.

On Fridays, if the Sultan is in residence, after the main prayers at the mosque, it’s possible to observe smartly attired people come and pay homage to the Sultan. Under the accompanying tunes of court musicians in a strong cultural chapter of the sovereign’s duties.

The main hall where the Suktan greets his guests
The main hall where the Sultan greets his guests

Held roughly every two years, the Ngoun is a two-week harvest festival that dates back 600 years—allowing the Bamun people to present their frustrations with the Sultan. Unveiling his power and influence, amid a brief period of humbleness in listening to the complaints of his subjects. Rarely would a President honour such court? The festival includes dancing, masquerades and surely some drinking. This year it will be held 27th Nov – 7th Dec.

Reaching Foumban from Douala, Yaoundé and pretty much anywhere else requires a stop at Bafoussam. The Avenir Voyage on Rue Joumou next door to the Hotel Fédéral operates regular minibuses to Foumban. Tickets cost 1000cfa for the 90-minute journey, terminating at the main Agence de Voyage, three kilometres west of the town centre. Change to a motor-taxi or a seat in a shared taxi for 200cfa to reach the centre.

Hotel Zenith is planted on a steep hill and backed by pine trees in a peaceful neighbourhood. This basic hotel has large s/c rooms with a balcony and sagging beds starting at 5000cfa. The water is intermittent in Foumban, resulting in buckets of water used for bathing. Electricity, as in much of Cameroon is arbitrary. The Zenith has a large but generally quiet bar next door. Ideal for transport to the Agence de Voyage though a couple of kilometres from the Sultans Palace.

Hotel Beau Regard, conveniently located in the heart of Foumban. A five-minute walk from the palace, mosque and surrounding markets. It has fallen from its earlier days of prestigiousness as the best hotel to one of neglected mediocrity. Rooms are mainly s/c.

Hotel Pekassa de Karché  Route de Bafoussam Tel: +237 2 33 26 29 35

Just 200m from the palace, this is easily the nicest place to stay in Foumban. S/d without a/c 10,000/15,000cfa. With a/c 25,000cfa/40,000cfa. There is a good on-site restaurant with mains starting at 2500cfa.

Foumban can easily be done as a day trip from Bafoussam.  Hotel Fédéral on Rue Joumou near the Carrefour Total has modern s/c rooms with hot & cold water, and satellite television starting at 10,000cfa. Downstairs is a pleasant bar and a small restaurant.

There is a branch of Societé General close to the mosque which has an ATM. But in case of complications, it’s worth changing money in Bafoussam beforehand.

For food, there are a few stalls selling omelettes and coffee around the intersection at the rear of the market. Boulangerie Moderne close to Beau Regard sells fresh pastries, bread, and cakes as well as Boulangerie Parisienne halfway along the Bafoussam Road. Restaurant Maturité, 200m west along the same road from Hotel Beau Regard sells local food in its first-floor restaurant.


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