Chapter I





BEFORE we examine the economy of Bamenda and its bearing on the position of women, a somewhat detailed account of the history, ethnic character and distribution of the peoples is necessary since very little information has been published. The total population of the Province as given in the Annual Report for 948 is 301,000; but this is estimated from figures for adult taxable males, the last census having been taken in 1931. The people are negroid, with possibly a northern strain in some of the Tikar tribes. They vary considerably in physique; but, in general, those of the uplands appear to be taller, wirier, and of better build than those of the forest, where malaria, filaria, yaws, goitre and elephantiasis are prevalent.1

Apart from the analysis of the Nkom language by the Rev. Father Bruens,2 very little linguistic research has been done in Bamenda. The Basel Mission has translated the New Testament into Bali, and the Roman Catholic Mission has made some study of the language of Nsaw and produced a catechism in Nkom. The languages of Bamenda have hitherto been classified as Benue-Cross River (or semi-Bantu) and the Tikar placed in the Bafumbum-Bansaw group. But, in a recent set of articles dealing with a reclassification of West African languages,3 Greenberg has suggested that Bali, Bafut and Ndob (and presumably this would be extended to the dialects spoken by other Tikar peoples in Bamenda) are Bantu. But a definitive classification must wait on further research, as well as the publication of the results of the linguistic field survey of the northern Bantu Borderland now being carried out from the French Cameroons.

Until 1949, Bamenda was organized into 23 Native Authority Areas (see map in Appendix), but these did not in all cases coincide with ethnic boundaries. In Fungom, for example, there are a number of villages which differ in dialect, culture and provenance, - some deriving from the French Cameroons, some from the Benue Province. In the Ndop N.A. there are 12 small chiefdoms which neither linguistically nor culturally form a homogeneous unit, though 10 of them point to Ndobo in the French Cameroons as the centre

1 As far as I am aware there are no anthropometric data for the British Cameroons. Dr. Olivier has made a preliminary survey of the principal tribes of the Southern French Cameroons, and he includes a very small sample of 21 men and 13 women from the Tikar at Fumban. Vide, "Documents anthropométriques pour servir à l'étude des principales populations du Sud-Cameroun," - Bulletin de la Société d'Etudes Camerounaises, 1946, Nos. 15-16, p. 64.
2 A. Bruens, "The Structure of Nkom and its relations to Bantu and Sudanic", Anthropos, Band XXXVI1-XL, 1942-45.
3 Joseph H. Greenberg, "Studies in African Linguistic Classification. 1. The Niger-Congo Family," South Western Journal of Anthropology, vol. 5, No. 2, 1949, pp. 5-7. Greenberg has classified the West Sudanic nucleus, the Benue-Cross River, the languages in the British Cameroons, as well as some to the east, as Niger-Congo. Within this family he has tentatively distinguished 15 genetic sub-families; and to one of these-the Central Branch-the languages of Bamenda belong. This group includes, among others, the Cross-River languages, Munshi, Mbarike (Zumper), Jukun-Kyentu-Nidu, Bitare, Tigong, Batu, Ndoro, Bantu (Bafut, Ndob, Bamun, Bali, Banyen, Banyang, Ngami), and Mambila. In Bamenda, the Mbembe of the north appear to have linguistic affiliations with the Tigong; the Aghem claim to have migrated from Munshi; Badji (or Badjong-Pai) in Fungom is said to be of Zumper origin; while the Widekum may be affiliated with the Banyang in Mamfe.


from which they emigrated. In Nsungli,1 where there were the three Native Authorities of War, Tang and Wiya, the position is more complicated since the villages which belong to any one of these units do not occupy a continuous stretch of territory, but are interdigitated among villages belonging to the other two sub-tribes.

Some of the administrative units in the northern and western forests (as in Mbembe, Ngie, Meta and Esimbi) reflect to a much greater extent similarities of dialect and custom; but, while there is some consciousness of a common cultural heritage, the people themselves have never recognized a central political authority. It is perhaps only in Nsaw, Kom, Bum and Bali, where strong consolidated kingdoms had been created prior to the arrival of Europeans, that the existing Native Authorities corresponded, fairly closely to the traditional system of organization.

Following upon the proposals made in 1948 by the Administration, 22 out of 23 of the Native Authorities agreed to federate into four groups, each with its own central treasury and council.2 Bali remained outside this reorganization since none of the Authorities could be persuaded to become members of a group in which it was included. Traditional hostility dies hard: the people have not yet forgotten that in the last century Bali conquered villages in the south and south-west, exacted tribute, and, under the Germans, received recognition as a suzerain power. They are fearful of domination: as one ruler phrased it - "if you federate with Bali, you might just as well cut your own throat!" Such an attitude is no doubt unduly apprehensive today, but the appointment of the Føn of Bali as a member of the Eastern House of Assembly in 1946 has, if anything, reinforced it.

So far we have discussed the relation between administrative units and ethnic grouping, and attention has been directed to those differences of dialect and custom which are stressed by the people themselves. But, if traditions of migration and broader linguistic and cultural similarities are adopted as criteria, the peoples of Bamenda fall within five main groups:

(a) Tikar,
(b) Widekum,
(c) Mbembe,
(d) Bali,
(e) Aghem.

To these must be added the Hausa and Bororo (or Pastoral) Fulani who have entered the territory in increasing numbers since the advent of British rule. The former tend to congregate in the large market villages; while the latter pasture Zebu cattle on the hill tops of the plateau, more especially in Nsaw, Nsungli, Kom, Bafut, Fungom and in Ngwo.3 It is difficult to arrive

1 The term Nsungli is not the name of a particular tribe, but is applied to the War, Tang and Wiya groups by the Nsaw. It derives from the Lamnso word for chatterers, nsungnin. Since, however, these three groups present marked similarities of culture and dialect in contrast with neighbouring peoples I have, for the sake of convenience, retained Nsungli as a classificatory term for them. This has been and still is the practice of the Administration in its Reports.
2 The groups are (i) North-Eastern Federation (Mbembe, Mfumte, Misaje, Mbem, Mbaw, Nsungli); (ii) North-Western Federation (Fungom, Bum, Kom, Aghem, Beba-Befang, Esimbi); (iii) South-Western Federation (Ngwo, Ngie, Ngemba, Meta, Mogamaw); (iv) Nsaw-Ndop-Bafut Federation; (v) Bali. Bamenda, formerly a division of the Cameroons Province, became a Province in July, 1949. The Province now contains three divisions, namely Bamenda, Wum and Nkambe.
3 No census has been taken of the Fulani and Hausa; but, according to the Annual Report for Bamenda, 1947, there were among the former about 1,500 payers of jangali (cattle tax) - a rough approximation to the number of adult Fulani men. There were 156,870 cattle in the Province.


at even an approximate estimate of the numbers of the five main groups, the more so since, as mentioned previously, Native Authority Areas are not ethnically homogeneous. For example, among areas which are predominantly Tikar there are small bands of Mambila origin (as in Mbaw); villages of Mbembe and Zumper origin in Fungom; a Chamba (Bali) village in Ndop, and Widekum villages in Bafut. In giving some idea of the relative numerical strength of the main ethnic peoples I have disregarded these small enclaves, since I have no data on their size.1


Ethnic Group

Native Authority Area


Per Sq. Mile

Estimated Population of Groups in 1948

Percentage of Total Population

TIKAR .. Nsaw (Banso)  


  Kom (Bikom)  








  Wiya |




  Tang- | (Nsungli)


  War |




  Mbem |


  Mbaw | (Ntem)




WIDEKUM .. Ngemba
Ngwo (Ngunu)
Meta (Menemo)
Esimbi (Age)





MBEMBE .. Mbembe
Mfumte (Kaka)





BALI .. Bali (Bani)





AGHEM .. Aghem (Wum)












(a) Tikar. As may be seen from the list above, the Tikar are numerically the most important. Nsaw, which constitutes a centralized political unit, has a population of 32,000 and is the largest. It is followed by Kom with 18,000, and Bum with 5,000. The Ndop N.A. has 35,000 but, as indicated earlier, it is a congeries of small chiefdoms which differ in dialect and custom and have, on an average, 1,500 to 4,000 members. The same applies to Bafut and Fungom.

1 The percentages given in the Table have been worked out on the basis of population figures in the Government Files of 1945. In the Widekum group, Beba and Befang are frequently linked together but should be regarded as two sub-tribes. In Mamfe, there are the Widekum-Menka tribes, which are culturally related to the Widekum, of Bamenda and which number about 10,000. There are about 10,500 Tikar settled in the French Cameroons. Since the writing of this report, further figures on the estimated population of the Bamenda Province have been made available in the Colonial Office Report for 1950, p. 236, Table 3. The figure given is 286,200, but as this may well be an underestimate and, as the next census is due in 1952-53, I have made no alterations in the Table above.


According to their own traditions, the various groups of Tikar settled in Bamenda came originally from Tibati, Banyo, Kimi and Ndobo - all in what is now the French Cameroons. Material on the history of earlier migrations is lacking, though Mr. Hawkesworth in his Assessment Report of the Bafut has made the statement that the Tikar, under a chief called Mbum, migrated originally from Bornu to the territory which now bears that name near Ngaundere. The French anthropologists incline to the view that the Tikar derived from the Mbum, and that the separation occurred many generations ago at a point somewhere between Ngaundere and Tibati. From there they settled in a vast plain watered by the Mbam River and its tributaries, the Mape and the Kim.1

About 300 years ago, increasing Chamba pressure, internal dissension, and a desire for new land resulted in the splitting off of small bands. Some of these were under the leadership of sons of a Tikar ruler, who were later to arrogate to themselves the title of Føn (Paramount Chief or King).2 They travelled west and south-west and eventually reached what is now Bamenda, but the sequence of their migrations is confused. Among the earlier were those coming from Ndobo to the Ndop Plain in the south of the Province, where small, politically autonomous villages were constituted some six to ten miles apart. None of these units was sufficiently strong to dominate the others; hostilities over land, murder and enslavement characterized their relations; and even the Fulani and Chamba raids in the last century failed to bring about some semblance of political unity or federation, though from time to time asylum was granted by one village to refugees from another.

Mbaw, Mbem, and Nsungli in the north-east of Bamenda were also the scene of early Tikar migrations from the French Cameroons. Settlements were made below the escarpment in the area formerly known as Ntem; but, at a later date, three main groups, whose descendants were to constitute the sub-tribes of Wiya, Tang and War, went up on to the Nsungli plateau and founded a number of small villages. In each sub-tribe one Village Head claimed the title of Føn and supremacy over the others; but even before the advent of the Germans his authority had been challenged by some of the component villages intent on asserting their autonomy. From Mbwot (most senior of the War group) a large band split off and travelled south into Nsaw, where some remained to establish the villages of Nkor and Djottin-Vitum and their offshoots - Dom, Din, Mbinon and Lassin.3 The main body of migrants under the leadership of their Føn journeyed farther west, subdued earlier settlers, and founded the centralized kingdom of Bum.
Bafut, Nsaw, Kom and Fungom4 were probably the last of the large scale

1 Vide, E. H. Hawkesworth, The Assessment Report on the Bafut Area of the Bamenda Division, 1926, para. 15; and I. Dugast, Inventaire Ethnique du Sud-Cameroun (Mémoires de l'Institut Français D'Afrique Noire, Centre du Cameroun Serie, Populations, No. 1, 1949), p. 129.
Dr. Jeffreys has made a special study of tribal migrations in Bamenda, and it is hoped that his information will soon he made available. I myself did not make intensive inquiries into this subject; but, in the course of discussion with Aføn and Village Heads, I found that some details of migration, which were mentioned in Reports written 15 to 20 years previously, had already been forgotten.
2 As a matter of convenience in this book I have employed the Nsaw term for paramount chief namely, Føn (pl., Aføn), but there are dialectical variations of it in other Tikar groups.
3 The Aføn of Djottin-Vitum informed me that their ancestors found earlier settlers on the site of the present village, and that they conquered them. Little is known about the indigenous inhabitants; but, in one of the Government Files, there is a note to the effect that remnants of this population are to be found today in the Fonfukka Valley. The people of Djottin-Vitum speak a dialect called Nooni.
4 In the Fungom N.A. there are five Tikar villages (Fungom, Mine, Nyos, Kuk and Kung) which, like Kom, are matrilineal. The first four may have been originally an offshoot of the Kom.


Tikar migrations to Bamenda. The Kom, who are matrilineal, defeated a number of patrilineal groups in the surrounding area (Nchang, Ake, Mejang, Basaw) and made them tributary. The sub-tribes which today constitute the Bafut Native Authority were earlier migrants who passed through the Ndop Plain on the way to their present territory. They comprise Bafut (which claims seniority over the rest), Babanki, Bafreng, Babanki-Tungaw, Bambili, Bambui and Bamenda.

The Nsaw, according to the history given to me by the Føn and most of his Councillors, settled first at Kovifem, some 12 miles to the north-west of their present capital of Kimbaw. There they prospered, multiplied and dispersed over the land to the south and south-west. There too they were joined by small bands from other Tikar groups which had settled earlier in what is now known as the Nsungli area, the Ndop Plain and the Bafut N.A. These became voluntary allies, but some of their leaders elected to maintain a semi-independent status as m'tar. They possessed, and still possess, among other privileges a right to retain the skin of leopards; and they were, and still are, under no obligation to give a daughter in marriage to the Føn. They became the founders of clans whose members regard themselves as "the true people of Nsaw", in contradistinction to the people of conquered subtowns of alien origin (see below). Some of the other leaders of groups who were voluntary allies were assimilated into the Føn's own clan as distant clansmen or duiy, and they became the founders of important sub-clans. Among these were the ancestors of three high-ranking councillors (vibai), namely Fai-o-Ndzendzef (from the Tang clan in the Nsungli area), Fai-o-Tankum (from Mbaw), and Fai-o-Luun (from Kiluun in the French Cameroons). In the last century, as a result of constant Fulani raids, the reigning Føn decided to move his capital to the south. He subdued the Chief of Nkar who, until that time, had held much of the land in the vicinity of Kimbaw and to the south-west. He then defeated a number of villages in the north-west whose founders had come originally from the Nsungli area. These were Djottin-Vitum, Din, Dom, Lassin, Mbinon, Nkor and Nser. By the time the Germans arrived the Føn had consolidated his kingdom and established a centralized machinery of government.1

(b) Widekum. I have classified the eight patrilineal tribes of the west and southwest of Bamenda as Widekum since the majority give the village of Widekum on the Mamfe border as the place from which they migrated to Bamenda many generations ago. Ngie and Esimbi deny such an origin and may represent an earlier stratum of settlement. The former claim a common origin with Meta and Mogamaw, but assert that Widekum split off from Ngie! The Esimbi recognize no affiliations at all with the others; but, apart from differences in dialect, their culture is similar.

The pattern of migration bears a strong resemblance to that in Nsungli, Mbem and Fungom. Small bands established their villages over the tribal territory and became politically and economically autonomous, although they acknowledged descent from a common tribal ancestor whose name is frequently that of the tribe (e.g. Ongieekum for Ngie, kum meaning lineage head; and Ungwo for Ngwo). The genealogies of some of the Village Heads in Ngie go back ten to twelve generations, and in Meta eight to ten .2 One Village Head in each tribe was recognized as senior to the others in that he took the leading

1 For another version of the settlement of Nsaw consult M. D. W. Jeffreys, "Nsaangu's Head," African Studies, March 1946, and his article on "Death of a Dialect," African Studies, 1945. See also M. D. W. Jeffreys and P. Kaberry, "Nsaw History and Social Categories," Africa, XXII, 1952.
2 The genealogies of the Village Heads of Asarabiri (Ngwo) and Benakemø (Esimbi) are much shorter, being 6 in the one case and 4 in the other.


role in the sacrifices to the tribal ancestor and the gods of the earth;1 but, according to statements in the Government Reports as well as those made to me by informants, it is now several generations since there has been an assembly of all villages of one tribe for the performance of such rituals. Prior to European control inter-village fighting and slave-raiding were frequent, and the only instance of concerted action in Ngie seems to have been for defence against the aggression of Bali in the last century. It was unsuccessful. Most of the tribes, with the exception of Ngemba and part of Ngwo and Meta, inhabit the forest since an advance to the uplands was checked by the Tikar and Aghem. Bebadji (Beba) was for a long time tributary to Bafut and was influenced by Tikar culture before it finally broke away and moved to its present site. Farther north, villages of Befang and Esimbi were harried by the Aghem and compelled to send drums of oil as tribute. German subjugation of the Widekum forest areas was piece-meal and in some cases was undertaken at the instigation of Bali, from whose suzerainty villages in Meta, Mogamaw and Ngie revolted between 1904 and 1912. Beba-Befang and Esimbi were not visited by the Germans until 1907; villages were burned, and many of thepopulation scattered to form isolated compounds, especially in Esimbi.

(c) Mbembe. The term Mbembe has been applied by myself to the group of three tribes, Mbembe, Mfumte and Misaje, which inhabit the rather lowlying forest areas of the north and north-east of Bamenda. With the exception of the two villages of Bebe Ketti and Bebe Jatto, they comprise small patrilineal groups who are of mixed origin and who settled in their present territories about four or five generations ago. The people of Misaje possibly originated from Kentu, but have been influenced by Tikar culture. In Mbembe itself, the first settlers were probably from the Upper Donga and established themselves in Akwadja. They were followed by others from the Wukari Division who were probably Tigong and who crossed the Donga farther to the west and founded the village of Ako, from which, at a later date, small bands migrated to what are now the villages of Mbandi, Akonkaw, Andi, Jevi and so on.2 Some of the villages in Mfumte, e.g. Lus and Kwaja, claim to have come from Akwadja in Mbembe to their present site; while others again allege that they are Tikar from the French Cameroons.

The villages consist of fairly compact clusters of compounds and, prior to the advent of the Germans, they were frequently on hostile terms with one another. Their political and kinship organization is very similar to that of the Widekum, although linguistically they differ markedly from the other ethnic groups of Bamenda. Their linguistic affiliations to the Mbembe-speaking people of the Cross River have not yet been investigated. They apparently offered little resistance to a German expedition in 1910 which came to collect labourers and taxes; and were left to pursue their own way of life, apart from the suppression of warfare and slavery. During the British regime they have, until recently, been only "lightly administered" owing to lack of communication by motor road and remoteness from administrative head-

1 The most senior Village Head in Ngwo, namely that of Asarabiri and its hamlets of Nkun, Geminggi, etc., maintains a more elaborate court than the Ngie Village Heads. He claims a right to a portion of game killed in his village-area, and to services in housebuilding and the provision of firewood. His authority is, however, limited to his clan and its effective exercise appears to depend on an exceptionally forceful personality rather than on the sanctions of tradition.

2 Vide, R. Newton, An Intelligence Report on Mbembe and Nchanti Areas of the Bamenda Division of the Cameroons Province, 1935, paras. 11-17; and 91-97. Mashi and Munkap, in the Fungom N.A., claim to derive from Bebe Jatto and Ketti, but no longer follow matrilineal descent. In Mbembe, the villages of Berabi and Abonkwa claim an origin from Bamum, while Mbiribwa asserts that it came from Ntem (Tikar).


prev. | next