Posts Tagged ‘museum’

Bafut portraits

I’m traveling for about a month in Cameroon and Kenya with a couple days’ stop off in between in Amsterdam. Yesterday morning I got an email from my mom saying ‘For some funny reason I don’t feel like you are having a great African birthday. I hope I am wrong.’

Moms are funny, that way they can sense things. And when your birthday is on July 4 (US Independence Day) you grow accustomed to a lot of fanfare. I’m not into Americana but I like the familiarity of spending my birthday in humid Indiana summer, eating watermelon, home made potato salad and cook out food, having red-white-and-blue frosted birthday cake with sparklers instead of candles on top, and sitting out in lawn chairs on the grass in the front yard, watching fireworks and slapping mosquitoes…. When I spend my birthday out of the US, I feel like I am missing something more than just my birthday.

The day ended up being very cool though.

Bafut palace

Instead of eating cake and watching fireworks with my family, I spent the day in the Bafut palace (where the Fon of Bafut lives) with my colleagues Judith and Roland, and with Maa Rose, one of the Fon’s wives. A Fon is a traditional king, and this palace has been around since around 1300 AD. It’s about a 30 minute drive from Bamenda town. (See Fon of Bafut on Wikipedia).

The original palace buildings were made from bamboo and reed, but after the Germans arrived to Bafut, they were reinforced on the outside with burned bricks and tile roofs. The only truly original remaining part of the palace is the sacred place, the Achum (you can see it in the far back left side of the photo).

It was pouring rain when we arrived to the palace grounds. Roland, who was driving us, was in gorgeous all white traditional clothing. He hadn’t been to the Palace before, so he found an umbrella and went with us, holding his white pantlegs up the whole way to avoid getting them all wet and muddy.

Judith is married to a man from Bafut whose grandmother was a Bafut Queen. She was known as the ‘3 time wife of the Fon’ because her first Fon husband died, his son inherited her, he also died, and so his son inherited her and she stayed with him until her death. Judith’s 9 year old daughter is named after this grandmother and insists that she doesn’t want to be the wife of the Fon.

Wooden statue of a Bafut Queen

We arrived late afternoon and Maa Rose came out to meet us. She is the 4th wife of the current Fon, who’s been in power since 1968 when he was about 13. Having several wives is common for a Fon, but the current Fon is a modern kind of guy, educated at the University of Yaounde, and instead of taking 159 wives (or was if 152?) as his father did, he’s settled with 8. He ensures that they all are provided for and get their education.

Maa Rose showed us the old talking drum outside of the palace that calls the village when something important is happening.  She said she would tell us about the Bafut history, and that they worship their ancestors, ‘but we are Christians too.’

She shared the meaning of the waist-high stone pillars scattered around (they mark where the heads of those who have died in battle lie). She took us over to see a pair of large stones where adulterers were punished (they were tied to the stones and pieces of their bodies were chopped off until they expired, and if they were still alive in 7 days, boiling water was poured on them). She explained about the 2 forked sticks planted in the ground (they mark the place where children used to be sacrificed to ward of any deaths as people got crazy during the annual dance celebrations).

Maa Rose said it was the task of the notables (not the common people or prisoners as in some other cultures) to select and give up a child for sacrifice in the name of community safety. This act also allowed a notable to grow in stature. When the Germans came in the late 1800s, ‘they taught us that this was bad, so now goats are killed instead.’ The custom of tying adulterers to the stones has also been discontinued, and now they are simply exiled.

After we saw the exterior of the palace, we went into the courtyard ‘which is set up for our children to play’ and then saw the sacred place, the Achum, where the Fon goes to pray and to do things which are secret. The Achum was erected over a lake and has been there since the beginning of the Fon palace. (We saw pictures from the late 1800’s and the place looks almost the same; the Achum is on the list of the 100 most endangered world cultural heritage sites). Each year on grass-cutting day, everyone in the village gathers grass and makes bundles to repair the roof of the Achum.

After seeing the Achum (only from the outside) we followed Maa Rose through a meeting room. The children who live in the palace were watching a movie, and ‘The First Noel’ Christmas song was playing in the background. Maa Rose told us, ‘In the older times, decisions were only made by men, but now in these times, decisions cannot be made without women too. So this is the room where we meet to make decisions. If there are decisions that must be made without women, the Fon and his notables make them in a secret society.’

Maa Rose opening up the museum

From there, we visited the Bafut Museum, located in a big mansion that the former Fon lived in. The roof of the mansion was taken off, though, because the ancestors were not happy that he was living there, and he moved back to live in the Palace. The house has been restored and converted into a museum with German funding. Entrance fees are ‘sent to the German coffers’ to keep up the museum up.

Maa Rose took us through museum after hours as a favor to Judith (who has Bafut connections) and said she wasn’t sure how to turn on the lights. Unfortunately I forgot my camera with a flash and had to use my iPhone which doesn’t function well in the dark, plus we weren’t supposed to take photos she later told us.

She gave us a full-on explanation for each of the items in the museum, starting with the carved statues of the first German to arrive in Bafut and his wife. The coolest thing about these statues to me is that they represent Germans, but the Germans are dressed and portrayed in old Bafut style — naked and with traditional jewelry and ornaments. Maa Rose said that of course the Germans weren’t naked in those times, and that the Bafut had just carved them in their own style.

wooden statues of first Germans to arrive to Bafut

We moved along to a carved statue of a Bafut Queen. In the past, said Maa Rose, ‘Our queens were na-ked!’ They wore cowry shells to show that they were a Fon’s wife here, around the waist.’ The cowry shells on the statue dangle in front of the pubic area. ‘Today of course a Fon’s wife is not naked, ha! So if I would wear my cowry there, no one could see them. So we wear them here around the wrist.’

The cowry shells are a sign of Fon royalty.  ‘The Fon, if needed, can turn himself into an animal, like a bull or an elephant, and escape into the bush. You will see his cowry shells though. So if a hunter tries to kill him, he will just bow like this, and you will see the shells, and you will know it is a Fon and you cannot kill him.’

In addition to a lot of amazing wooden statues, rooms with old Fon royalty items, including the last elephant to be killed in the area (over 200 years ago — his foot, tusks and skull are in the museum) we saw a lot of gorgeous masks. ‘Before cameras, if you really loved someone, you could ask someone to make a carving of them.’

In the room made to look like a traditional Fon’s room, there was a bed with a lion skin on it and elephant tusks on the floor. Maa Rose said that before the Germans came, it was tradition that a Fon’s feet could never touch the floor, so he would wake up and stand on top of a person. ‘The Germans taught us that it is not right to treat a human like that, so now the Fon does not do that.’

In the museum there are also weapons that had been given to the different Fons by the Germans who were colonizing, and we heard the story of the Fon’s grandfather (the one who was married to Judith’s husband’s grandmother) who spent 1 year in jail in Limbe for refusing to surrender to the Germans.

There is also a case with some common looking German porcelaine. ‘This is the slavery room,’ Maa Rose told us. ‘It is said that for one of these, you could get two slaves. The Fons did slavery before.’ In the slavery room there are also beaded calabazas and a pair of beaded shoes that are said to have belonged to the first German to arrive to Bafut, and which were given to the Fon. ‘This German wore eye glasses, and people thought they were his actual eyes. He used to take them off and set them down, and the people would work hard there because they thought his eyes were still there, watching them.’

The Fons loved to fight, she said. ‘They would go to fight in the very front with their notables.’ (Wish we had that going on today in more places, things would likely be quite different). We saw the room of a former Fon Queen with all her things. A basket for going to farm, her cooking utensils, her bed. I like the idea of the queens cooking and farming. Judith told me later that the current Fon also has a farm, and he takes his children there with him to farm. The Fon’s current wives, also queens, nowadays have jobs. Maa Rose is a teacher.

We saw statues of ghosts. Maa Rose said that it is believed that the ancestors come to visit the current Fon to tell him what to do or how to behave. When they are upset, they come in a certain form and you know that everything is not OK. The former Fon used to beat his wives, for example. ‘Even the wives that he inherited from his father.’ So the father who was missing (‘we don’t like to say a Fon is ‘dead’ we only say he is missing’) came to tell him to stop beating his wives, and that if he didn’t stop he would be really sorry.  The cane he used to use to beat his wives is there in the museum.

When a Fon goes missing, there will be those wearing a particular mask and dress that go around to all the villages to advise them that something has happened. They will know then that they must go to prepare their things, because when it is announced that the Fon has gone missing, they will not be able to do anything for 2 months. The cannot collect wood or visit their farms. So they have to prepare.

By the time we finished our tour of the dark museum, the sun was setting.  Maa Rose invited us over to her small house within the palace complex to see her handicrafts. ‘Here we sell these small things to buy whatever the Fon can’t buy us, like our little soaps and oils and things.’ I bought a bamboo salt shaker and a wind chime, and paid a small sum for the museum and Maa Rose’s wonderful historical orientation.

She asked us to come meet 7 of her 9 children (the other 2, her eldest girls, are away at university). They were all sitting around the fire, in the small kitchen across from where we’d looked at the handicrafts, getting the oil fried to start cooking their dinner.

The kitchen is cozy and simple, with blackened walls from fire smoke. Some guinea pigs were skittering around in one corner and chickens were roosting in another. In the rafters, above the cooking fire, there were some tiny onions, strung on thin sticks, drying and smoking to be added to food later on.

Maa Rose said that next time we should come much earlier, so that we could share a meal and talk more.  She apologized for the rain and mud and that she couldn’t get the lights on in the museum or in her house so we could see things better.

I left feeling pretty sure that Maa Rose is the most beautiful Queen I’ll ever meet.

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