BAMUM Information

Location: Southeastern part of Cameroon
Population: 100,000
Language: Bamum (Macro-Bantu)
Neighbors: Bandeng, Bafoussam, Tikar, Wute
Types of Art: Recognizing the importance of the skull, representations of the head are found in nearly all decorated utilitarian items. Masks used in initiation and for education purposes are common. Statuary often represents the Fon, and many types of beaded objects are related to his investiture.
History: The Cameroon Grasslands can be divided into three smaller subgroups, one of which is the Bamum. Within the Bamum complex there are numerous smaller ethnic groups, which are loosely affiliated with one another and share many historical and political similarities while retaining separate identities. All members of this group originally came from an area to the north and migrated in various complex patterns throughout the last several centuries. Fulani traders moving steadily southwards into Cameroon forced the Bamum into their current location during the 17th century. The Bamum are also one of the first peoples in Africa to develop a writing system under the auspices of King Njoya at the end of the 19th century. Njoya was able to maintain his status as a ruler under German indirect colonial rule but was forced into exile when the French took over in 1916. The kingship has since been restored.
Economy: The region played an important part in trade routes connecting with the seaport of Douala in the south and with Fulani and Hausa traders in the north. All of the people in this area are historically farmers who grow 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 the crops. Men are responsible for clearing the fields for planting and practice some nominal hunting. Specific economic enterprises are dictated by the particular microenvironments of individual ethnic groups.
Political Systems: All of the peoples who make up the Cameroon Grasslands culture area pay allegiance to the king (Fon). Each village is governed by a leader who is selected by his predecessor and who is usually the head of the dominant lineage within that community. Each Fon is served by a council of elders who advise him on all important decisions and who also play an important role in the selection of the next Fon. The Fon serves for a lifetime, abdicating the throne or stool only when nearing death. Complex age-grade societies also help to structure the community. Among the Bamum, the role of the Fon is heightened above what is standard for the Grasslands region.
Religion: The peoples of the Grasslands reserve the highest allegiance for their lineage 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 as common heritage. 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 memories of all ancestors are honored. The spirits of ancestors whose skulls are not preserved have nowhere to reside and may as a result cause trouble for the family. To compensate when a man's skull is not preserved, a family member must undergo a ceremony in which libations are poured into the ground. Earth gathered from the site of that offering then represents the skull of the deceased. Respect is also paid to female skulls, although details about such practices are largely unrecorded.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,