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The Bamileke (French Bamiléké) are a collection of Semi-Bantu (or Grassfields Bantu) ethnic groups most highly concentrated in the western highlands of Cameroonmarker's West Provincemarker, west of the Noun River and southeast of the Bamboutos Mountains and in the Mungo region of the Littoralmarker, Southwest, and Centre Provincemarker. The Bamileke divide themselves into over 100 individual groups, each under the rule of a chief or fon. Nonetheless, all of these groups are related historically, culturally, and linguistically. With over 2,120,000 individuals in the late 20th century, the Bamileke are the most numerous semi-Bantu group. They speak a number of related tongues from the Bantoid branch of the Niger-Congo language family. These languages are closely related, however, and some classifications identify a Bamileke dialect continuum with seventeen or more dialects.


The Bamileke did not consider themselves a single people until colonial times. Even today, individual Bamileke usually regard themselves as members of one or another chiefdom (or fondom). Of these, the fondoms of Bafangmarker, Bafoussammarker, Bandjounmarker, Bangante, Bawaju, Dschangmarker, and Mboudamarker are the most prominent. The Bamileke also share much history and culture with the neighbouring fondoms of the Northwest provincemarker, but the groups have been divided since their territories were split between the French and English in colonial times.


Following Ethnologue classification, we can identify 11 different languages or dialects:

Variants of Ghomala' are spoken in most of the Mifi, Khoung-Khi, Hauts-Plateaux divisions, the eastern Menoua division, and portions of the Bamboutos division, by 260,000 people (1982, SIL). The main fondoms are Baham, Bafoussammarker, Bamendjou, Bandjounmarker.

Towards southwest is spoken Fe'fe' in the Upper Nkam division. The main towns include Bafangmarker, Bakumarker, and Kékem.

Nda'nda' occupy the western third of the Nde division. The major settlement is at Bazou.

Yemba is spoken by 300,000 or more people in 1992. Their lands span most of the Menoua division to the west of the Bandjoun, with their capital at Dschangmarker. Fokoué is another major settlement.

Medumba is spoken in most of the Nde division, by 210,000 people in 1991, with major settlements at Bangangtemarker and Tongamarker.

Mengaka, Ngiemboon, Ngomba and Ngombale are spoken in Mbouda division.

Kwa is spoken between the Nde and the Littoral province, Ngwe around Fontem in the Southwest province.


Early population movements

Because the Bamileke are such a diverse group of peoples, it is difficult to determine their exact origins and early history. The best estimate is that they and the related Tikar and Bamun occupied a western portion of the Adamawa Plateaumarker before the 17th century. They eventually crossed the upper Mbam River into what is today Tikar territory.

The Bamileke migrations southward likely resulted from the Fulbe (Fula) invasion of the Adamawa Plateau led by Modibo Adama. The Bamileke and Tikar also wanted to find fertile land for cultivation. The Bamileke thus moved southward in a succession of five waves. The first group, which included the Baleng, Bapi, and Bafussam peoples, moved southwest into what is today the eastern half of Cameroon's West Province. Here, according to tribal traditions, they founded several villages, including Bapi, Baleng, and Kounden. Before long, however, the Bamun entered the region. The groups fought, and the Bamileke groups fled further west across the Noun River in a number of small groups. These small populations then founded an equally scattered number of fondoms, including Bandjounmarker, Bankassa, and Balengo (founded by the Baleng princes). Other minor fondoms were established after conquests, submissions, or civil wars among fons and their subjects.

Four more waves of migrants followed the first. The next included the Bagam, Bamenda, Bansoa, Bazu, and Bangu; the third and fourth consisted of the Bati and Bafamgwa; and the fifth and final wave of the Bamugum and Bandenkop. As various peoples migrated, smaller groups often split off to found their own settlements or fondoms, such as those started by the Baleng princes. Meanwhile, a steady stream of migrants continued to enter the newly claimed Bamileke territory. The Bamileke dominated and assimilated them, however, so that today these groups share the Bamileke culture and, often, language. In fact, those Bamileke groups at the western and southern frontiers of Bamileke territory may be descended from these early, absorbed peoples, as they have much stronger links with their forest Bantu neighbours and often consider themselves as somehow distinct from the other Bamileke groups.

German administration

Germanymarker gained control of "Kamerun" in 1884. The Bamileke quickly adapted to the new realities of colonialism by establishing themselves as enterprising traders and partners with the new rulers. The Germans urged or forced large numbers of Bamileke settlers to move south to work the coastal plantations they had planted there.

The Germansmarker first applied the term "Bamileke" to the people as administrative shorthand for the people of the region. It was during German (and later Frenchmarker) colonial rule that the Bamileke first began to regard themselves as a single, albeit fragmented, people.

French administration and post-independence

Under French colonial rule, the Bamileke birthrate grew, and their small territory's capability to support a large population was put to the test. Thus, beginning In the 1940s, Bamileke migrants continued and expanded the trend begun by the Germans almost a hundred years earlier of moving to the Mungo region of the Littoral, Southwest, and Centre Provinces in order to work as labourers, open businesses, or start farms. These farmers mostly purchased their land from the region's historical inhabitants, the Duala and Bakossi peoples. By the 1950s, the Bamileke had come to outnumber the native Dualas and Bakossi of the area. The original inhabitants of the region were growing increasingly disenchanted with having given up their lands.

In 1955, the French banned a wing of the Union des Populations du Cameroun (UPC) political party, which they deemed to be a terrorist group. This party had much support among the Bamileke, so many of them fled to the Tombel region of Britishmarker Cameroon (today part of the Southwest Province). When further attacks on the French colonial government originated from the region, the native Bakossi were quick to blame the Bamileke newcomers. The Bamileke counter-accused the Bakossi of perpetrating the acts in an effort to reclaim their lands. A spate of skirmishes between the two groups soon followed, and attacks, blamed on the UPC militants, continued.

The independence of French Cameroon on 1 January 1960 did not stop the tensions. Things finally came to a head in December 1966. UPC militants attacked a Bakossi vehicle near the Bamileke settlement of Nken, at the edge of the Kupe Mountains of the Tombel region. The Bakossi blamed the Bamileke of the nearby villages of Ekonegbe and Nsoke for the murders, and the victims' families and other enraged Bakossi sacked the villages. The government of British Cameroon sent troops to quell the violence, but not before many Bamileke settlers had been killed.

Lifestyle and settlement patterns

Political structure and agriculture

The Bamileke's high population and relatively small territory has taught them to be skilled and resourceful farmer. Their settlements are fairly compact and scattered. Houses are often placed in groups, which are then surrounded by individual fields. Neighbours typically separate their fields with fences or hedges. Though livestock are few, these barriers also serve to keep pigs, goats, and chickens from devouring the crops. Men typically clear the fields, but it is largely women who work them. Most work is done with muscle-powered tools such as machetes and hoes. Staple crops include cocoyams, groundnut, maize, and taro.

Several farms of this type form a "village", though the term is used for any settlement from a few hundred to several thousand people. The village head is the chief, or fon or fong, who is the nominal owner of all lands cultivated by his subjects. The fon is well respected by the villagers, and he is traditionally accorded with political, judicial, and spiritual authority, including certain divine powers. The fon chooses his own successor from among his children, though this information is typically kept secret until the fon's death. A secret society known as the Laikam is tasked with naming and crowning the new fon.

Various advisers and councils serve the fon. Chief among these is the Council of Notables, or Kamveu, which consists of between five and nine individuals. In addition, a "queen mother" or mafo was an important figure for some fons in the past. Below the fon and his advisers lie a number of ward heads, each responsible for a particular portion of the village. Some Bamileke groups also recognise sub-chiefs, or fonte.

Economic activities

The Bamileke are renown for their skilled craftsmen. Their artwork was highly praised by early European visitors to their lands, though since the colonial period, many traditional arts and crafts have been abandoned. Bamileke are particularly celebrated carvers in wood, ivory, and horn. Chief's compounds are notable for their intricately carved doorframes and columns.

Traditional homes are constructed by first erecting a raffia-pole frame into four square walls. Builders then stuff the resulting holes with grass and cover the whole building with mud. The thatched roof is typically shaped into a tall cone. Nowadays, however, this type of construction is mostly reserved for barns, storage buildings, and gathering places for various traditional secret societies. Instead, modern Bamileke homes are made of bricks of either sun-dried mud or of concrete. Roofs are of metal sheeting.

A reputation as shrewd businessmen is today supplanting the Bamileke's esteem as craftsmen. The various peoples have eagerly and adeptly adopted the European-introduced cash-based economy, making the Bamileke some of Cameroon's most prominent entrepreneurs. Many Bamileke thus find employment as not only artisans or labourers, but also as traders, business owners, and skilled professionals. They have thus played and continue to play an important role in the economic development of Cameroon.

Religious beliefs

The Bamileke were largely Christianised during the colonial period, and today more Bamileke profess Catholicism than Protestantism. Some people practice Islam toward the border with the Adamawa Tikar and the Bamun.

In addition, traditional ancestor worship still thrives. The leader of each lineage is expected to offer libations to the forefathers with aid of their preserved skulls. Traditional medicine also features prominently in these beliefs, and healers are diviners, as well. One common form of divination involves interpreting the manipulation of various marked blades of grass by an earth spider.

Succession and kinship patterns

The Bamileke trace ancestry, inheritance and succession through the male line, and children belong to the fondom of their father. After a man's death, all of his possessions typically go to a single, male heir. Polygamy (more specifically, polygyny) is practiced and encouraged, and some important individuals may have literally hundreds of wives. Marriages typically require a substantial bride price to be paid to the bride's father.


  • Fanso, V.G. (1989) Cameroon History for Secondary Schools and Colleges, Vol. 1: From Prehistoric Times to the Nineteenth Century. Hong Kong: Macmillan Education Ltd, 1989.
  • Neba, Aaron, Ph.D. (1999) Modern Geography of the Republic of Cameroon, 3rd ed. Bamenda: Neba Publishers, 1999.
  • Ngoh, Victor Julius (1996) History of Cameroon Since 1800. Limbé: Presbook, 1996.

Further reading

  • Knöpfli, Hans (1997—2002) Crafts and Technologies: Some Traditional Craftsmen and Women of the Western Grassfields of Cameroon. 4 vols. Basel, Switzerland: Basel Mission.

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