Skip to main content Accessibility help

An Outline of the Traditional Political System of Bali-Nyonga, Southern Cameroons

  • P. M. Kaberry and E. M. Chilver


A survey of the traditional political organization of a number of chiefdoms in the Bamenda Grassfields of the Southern Cameroons was made by the writers from May to mid-September 1960. Bali-Nyonga (sixteen miles to the west of Bamenda Station) was one of the chiefdoms studied. Our inquiries were directed mainly to situations and events in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, within the living memory of a few aged informants and of the parents of present title-holders. A few contemporary accounts of conditions exist for Bali-Nyonga for the last decade of the nineteenth century: those of Zintgraff (who was the first European to reach Bali-Nyonga), Hutter, Esser, and scattered notices in administrative, scientific, and missionary publications. These provide a rough chronological framework for Bali-Nyonga affairs for 1889–1914. British administrative officers in the course of tax assessment, the establishment of native courts and the resolution of land cases, collected oral traditions from the Mfon (Chief) of Bali-Nyonga and his elders, and accounts of earlier judicial and executive institutions from informants who had experienced them before the establishment of the German Imperial Military Station at Bamenda in 1902. We are not directly concerned in this paper with the expansion of the German administrative, trading, labour-recruiting, and missionary frontier, but with Bali interpretations of their own constitution at the period of contact (1889) and a little before and after. We hope to show that this constitution developed in intelligible circumstances which its special characteristics reflect.



Hide All

page 355 note 1 The thanks of Dr. Kaberry are due to the Department of Anthropology, University College, London, and to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for grants which made this tour possible, and those of Mrs. Chilver to the Oxford University Committee for Commonwealth Studies.

The research followed several field trips by the first (P. M. K.) in the course of which the economy of Bamenda had been surveyed and an intensive study had been made of Nso (Nsaw), the largest chiefdom in the area. The other (E. M. C.) had made a brief study of certain aspects of native administration in 1958.

The Bamenda Grassfields (as they are known locally) include a large part of what was until 1954 the Bamenda Province of which the headquarters was Bamenda Station. In that year the Province was divided into three Divisions—Bamenda, Nkambe, and Wum—but the term Bamenda still has a general currency for the wider area, and is so used by us unless qualified.

page 355 note 2 Cf. Zintgraff, E., Nord-Kamerun, Berlin, 1895; Hutter, F., Wanderungen und Forschungen im Nord Hinterland von Kamerun, Braunschweig, 1902; Esser, M., An der Westküste Afrikas, Berlin, 1898.

page 356 note 1 We wish we had space to thank all out collaborators, but fuller acknowledgements will be made in subsequent publications. We take this opportunity to thank the Cameroons Presbyterian (Basel) Mission for the use of one of their houses; the late Revd. Zürcher showed us many kindnesses.

page 356 note 2 As an artistic province the Grassfields present a recognizable unity, though particular styles, crafts, and techniques—such as brass casting by the cire-perdue method—are unequally distributed. Cf. Ankermann, B., ‘Bericht über eine ethnographische Forschungsreise ins Grasland von Kamerun’, Z. f. Ethnol. xlii (1910), 288310; Gebauer, P., ‘Art of the British Cameroons’, in Handbook of West African Art, ed. Ritzenthaler, R. E., Milwaukee, 1953. For an account of Tikar, Bamum, and Bamileke chiefdoms, see McCulloch, Littlewood, and Dugast, Peoples of the Central Cameroons (Ethnog. Survey, W. Africa ix), I.A.I., 1954.

page 356 note 3 Cf. Kaberry, P., ‘Traditional Politics in Nsaw (Nso)’, Africa, xxix. 4 (1959), 366–82. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the movements of peoples continued. Nso itself was augmented by refugees from mounted raiders from the north and the expanding state of Bamum to the east and south-east.

page 357 note 1 Bali-Nyonga with Bali-Gham (population 4,954) constitutes the Bani Native Authority in the present Bamenda Division. The census does not give the population of Bali-Nyonga town but in 1949 it was estimated to be about 8,000.

page 358 note 1 Cf. Kähler-Meyer, E., ‘Stand und Aufgaben der Sprachforschung in Kamerun’, Z. f. Eingeborenen-Sprachen, xxxii. 4 (1942), 274. I. Richardson and A. Jacquot state that there are lexical similarities between Munggaaka and Bamum, and between Bamum and the north-east Bamileke languages, and that Munggaaka gives the impression of being a ‘simplified ’ Bamileke, cf. Linguistic Survey of the Northern Bantu Borderland, i (1950), 52.

page 358 note 2 Meek, C. K., Tribal Studies in Northern Nigeria, London, 1931, i. 329. The linguistic relationship is also referred to by Strümpell, and Struck, , ‘Vergleichendes Wörterverzeichnis der Heidensprache Adamawas ’, Z f. Ethnol. xlii (1910), 444 ff.Frobenius, L., Und Afrika Sprach, iii (1912), 270 ff., supplies a tradition of dispersal which makes no mention of the Fulani. Traditions recorded by the Gara Donga in Salsalar Sarakunan Donga, MS., 1960, mention Gildu near Beli as a secondary centre of dispersal.

page 359 note 1 Cf. Moisel, M., ‘Zur Geschichte von Bali und Bamum’, Globus, xciii (1908), 117–20.

page 359 note 2 If the rough dates for slave captures given by the Revd. J. Clarke (op. cit.) and the Revd. S. W. Koelle (Polyglotta Africana, 1854) are reasonable, the Bali raiders may have been responsible for some of them. A more detailed discussion of their evidence and also that of Moisel, Keller, Vielhauer, Strümpell, Migeod, Hogben, Hunt, Jeffreys, and others must await another publication. The history and dating of Bali migration and settlement will be fully discussed in a forthcoming publication by Dr.Jeffreys, M. D. W., who has already published an article on ‘The Bali of Bamenda ’, African Studies, xvi. 2, 1957, and has been most generous with information.

page 359 note 3 There are several differing versions of the Bali-Nyonga migration which will be discussed by Jeffreys. We have selected the account given above because it corresponds most closely with that of the cartographer Moisel (op. cit.) who, in 1907, derived his information from the Bali, the Basel missionaries stationed at Bali-Nyonga, the Chief of Bafu-Fondong and Njoya, Chief of Bamum.

page 359 note 4 Some of the BaNten groups of Bali-Nyonga can be identified with peoples mentioned in Mbwembwe's list of battle honours (cf. Njoya, Sultan, Histoires et coutúmes des Bamum, tr. by Martin, H., Mém. IFAN, Centre du Cameroun, 1952, p. 27), namely Kundem (pa Nden, south of the Massif du Nkogam), the Set pa Set of Fosette), the Nggod (pa Nguot, original location uncertain) and a small group called Kwen (pa Kwen of Mancha). We are grateful to M. Tardits for these identifications. Other BaNten groups bear names to be found in I. Dugast's map of submerged Bamileke chiefdoms in Bamum, cf. Inventaire ethnique du Sud-Cameroun, Mém. IFAN, Centre du Cameroun, 1949, p. 125.

page 360 note 1 According to the Bali History Committee, Galega I was born in Banyo, his eldest son (Tita Nji) at Bafreng, and his successor, Fonyonga II, at Kifo'm. Fonyonga II was ‘about eighteen ’ when his father Galega moved the capital. Galega's death was reported to Governor von Puttkamer on 15 February 1901, cf. Deutsches Kolonialblatt, xii (1901), 278.

page 361 note 1 The conquered BaNtanka chiefs were also permitted to retain the title of Fo. Whether there were always seven Komfon (Mubako, Dama) cannot established. The senior title is Tita Kuna, vested in the Peli group of Kontan. The other titles are Gwandiku (Buti), Gwanchella (Buti), Gwa'abe (Buti), Gwananje (Tikali), Gwayebit (Tikali), and Gwandi (Kefad). The Gwan-titles represent, we were told, creations of Nyongpasi before the attack on Fumban. The predominance of titles vested in the Butigroup, together with their two Fonte ranks, would seem to indicate that the Buti constituted an important section of Nyongpasi's army. They and the Tikali were also said to be the largest groups at Bali-Kumbat.

page 361 note 2 An account of pre-colonial trade in Bamenda is to be published by one of us (E. M. C.) in Afrika und Übersee.

page 361 note 3 Gwe, usually in association with manjong, are found in many of the neighbouring chiefdoms. In Bali-Nyonga they played an important role in the Lela ritual, they acted as market police, and they were privileged tricksters at ceremonies.

page 362 note 1 In Manted, Tita La'dinga had a lodge called Ndankwa; Tita Munggu had one called Ndamukong; in Ndanjam, Tita Fonja had Ndale and Tita Lavot had Ndanggo. These names for military lodges also occur in the chiefdoms of Bali-Kumbat and Bafut. Other minor named lodges of warriors also existed in Bali-Nyonga.

page 362 note 2 There is no evidence that the warriors of conquered villages were formally incorporated into an army sector. But when Zintgraff arrived many had muskets, and some did take part in 1891 in their own contingents in an attack on Mankon. When Mankon with its Bafut allies turned the tide, the subject villages of Bangwa, Bafochu, and Bambutu changed sides, but were subsequently punished by Tita Gwenjang and dispersed. After this event tributary villages were excluded from campaigns.

page 363 note 1 For Ankermann's field-notes see Baumann, H. and Vajda, L., ‘Bernhard Ankermann's Völker-kundliche Aufzeichungen im Grasland von Kamerun 1907–09 ’, Baessler-Archiv, N.F. vii. 2 (1959), 217317. They were not available to us in the field, We have since been able to check some of his valuable information by correspondence with Bali informants.

page 364 note 1 Detailed accounts of the Lela and Voma ceremonies performed in 1908 are given by Ankermann, cf. Baumann and Vajda, op. cit., pp. 261–71, and by Vielhauer quoted by Ankermann, op. cit., pp. 272–4. Shorter accounts are by Streiber, J., Evangelischer Heidenbote, lxxxii (1909), 91, and by W. E. Hunt, Bali Assessment Report, MS. 1924.

page 364 note 2 The BaNten, who originated from Bamum and Bamileke, have a chthonic cult of the ancestors; the ‘original Ba'ni ’ claim that their own cult is different.

page 366 note 1 The rank of the Fonte was hereditary; the choice of successor was vested in their respective elders, but the Mfon had the right to intervene in a disputed succession. Most of them were appointed ward-heads, though not by virtue of their rank.

page 367 note 1 Baumann and Vajda, op. cit., p. 234. For an account of such an assembly held in 1908, see pp. 235 ff.

page 367 note 2 F. Hutter, op. cit., p. 340.

page 370 note 1 For contemporary appreciations of Bali influence before and after the labour treaty, see the expedition reports by von Stetten, Rittm., Deutsches Kolonialblatt, iv (1893), 33 ff.; Böckner, G., Deutsche Kolonialzeitung, i (1893), 79, and vi (1893), 74–75; Conrau, G., Mitt. dtsch. Schtzg. vii (1894), 89103; and Ramsay, Hans, Deutsches Kolonialblatt, xii (1901), 237.

page 370 note 2 See Rüger, Adolf, ‘Die Entstehung und Lage der Arbeiterklasse unter dem deutschen Kolonialregime in Kamerun (1895–1905)’, in Stoecker, Helmuth, ed., Kamerun unter deutscher Kolonialherrschaft, Berlin, 1960, pp. 201–2, for an account of the agreement; the remaining papers of the Imperial Military Station at Bamenda, lodged in the Buea Archives, give a vivid picture of the predicament of the Stationschef.

An Outline of the Traditional Political System of Bali-Nyonga, Southern Cameroons

  • P. M. Kaberry and E. M. Chilver


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed