Before the storm in Cameroon
Rhumsiki Peak in Cameroonâs far north looms tall in the bare and rugged landscape of the Mandara Mountains. (Anthony Ham/LPI)
It’s the start of the rainy season in the southwest highlands of Cameroon – the time of year when opalescent thunderheads billow over the mountains, clouds of tiny insects called mote-motes swirl in the humid air and the banks of elephant grass that riot along the red-earth roadcuts seem to grow taller, greener and more vibrant by the day.
A few light, teasing showers have fallen in the past fortnight, freshening the landscape ahead of the thundery rains that are still gathering on the horizon, and a growing sense of expectancy lies over the patchwork of traditional tribal kingdoms that still hold sway up here on the plateau. Good rains bring prosperity, and for that the hopes of the villagers are directed to their local kings, known as ‘Fons’, who are said to possess magical powers of intercession. Cameroon’s national government in Yaoundé may have jurisdiction over the secular world, but when it comes to the forces of nature and, for that matter, grassroots politics, the local Fons are powers to be reckoned with.
In the Fondom of Bafut, perhaps the most venerable of these kingdoms, the approach of the wet season is also when scores of villagers head into the countryside, machetes in hand, to harvest elephant grass. This is used to add a fresh layer of thatch to the roof of the Achum, an imposing 15th-century temple said to be the oldest building in central Africa. Built of massive wooden beams carved with animals, it houses the sacred fetishes used by the Fon and the high priests to commune with the spirits of Bafut’s ancestors.
‘For the next two weeks everybody will be bringing in sheaves of grass to put on the roof,’ says Queen Constance, a smiley woman in a black and gold dress who is one of the Fon of Bafut’s six wives. ‘Hunters will be going into the hills to kill game for a big feast that comes at the end, when the job is finished and the whole community gathers in the palace courtyard to celebrate. It is a joyful time with food and dancing, plenty of palm wine, and everybody sharing everything.’
The annual grass-cutting ceremony in the Fondom of Bafut is not the only great old tribal gala in this gloriously diverse Central African nation, where more than 235 different ethnic groups flourish, animist beliefs run deep, and ties to the land, its bounty and the turn of its seasons remain strong.
Even the name Cameroon comes from the profusion of life at the country’s shores. When the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Po sailed along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea near the end of the wet season in 1472, he was astonished by the huge quantities of prawns he saw swarming up the estuary of the Wouri River, near what would one day become the sprawling Cameroonian seaport of Douala. He named the place Rio dos Camarões, the River of Prawns, a moniker which time and the vernacular corrupted to Cameroon.
‘It must have been an amazing sight back then,’ my driver Joseph remarked a few days previously as he drove me across the causeway bridge over the Wouri. We were on the way out of the snarl of Douala’s traffic, with the 4,000-metre bulk of Mount Cameroon looming in the distance, its mass half obscured by smog and thundery haze.
‘Even today, after all these centuries of fishing, it’s still an incredible thing to see the prawns coming up the river,’ Joseph continues. ‘Everybody gathers around to scoop them up and celebrate the end of the rainy season. They come only in November, you see, and when we see them we know the rains are over for the year and the sun is going to come out and shine on us again.’