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Saving “Little Africa”
Cameroon’s diverse heritage is a microcosm of the entire continent and needs protection
By Mbom Sixtus | VOL.10 November ChinAfrica ·2018-11-01

Cameroon traditional dance is one of its important intangible cultural heritages (COURTESY PHOTO)

A story is told of a sculpture that was stolen from one of the most respected traditional kingdoms in Cameroon 52 years ago, taken to the United States and returned seven years later thanks to its mystical powers. The 62.5 inch wooden carving, known as Afo-akom, which means the Kom thing and (also known as Mbang in the local Kom language), was said to be the god of the Kom people in the northwest region of Cameroon. Kom is one of the country’s 17 kingdoms. 

The sculpture is a crowned naked man clasping a scepter. He stands behind a stool supported on three carved buffalo heads. Prince Yibain Valery of the kingdom of Kom told ChinAfrica that before the theft of the artifact, it was only brought out on sacred occasions, but now it is brought out during other important festivals for public viewing. 

“It is believed that Afo-akom was returned to Cameroon because its mystic powers troubled its buyers while it was in the United States,” said Valery. 

The statue is regarded as the spiritual, political and religious manifestation of the people. The governments of the United States and Cameroon, and the Kom people living in the United States, worked together to have it returned. The people of Kom constitute just one out of an estimated 200 ethnic groups in Cameroon that each has their own culture, beliefs and expressions. 

Protecting cultural heritage 

Christophe Mbida Mindzie, Director of the Cultural Heritage Department in Cameroon’s Ministry of Arts and Culture said the protection of the diverse tangible and intangible cultural heritages, which these various ethnic groups are endowed with, is still at its nascent stage. Cameroon is known as “Africa in miniature” or “Little Africa” because it is endowed with most of the continent’s diverse geographic landscapes, varieties of flora and fauna as well as traditions and customs found elsewhere on the continent. In addition, history books say the citizens of Cameroon come from several groups into which African people have been classified: Guinea coastal, Western Atlantic or Nigritic, Chadic, Western Sudan or Hamitic, Bantu and Semi-Bantu. 

“We have realized that if we fail to protect our heritage, there will be nothing left for posterity by the end of this century,” Mindzie told ChinAfrica, stating that measures are being taken in that direction. Unearthing the “Little Africa” status of the country would be impossible; so it is important to stop it from sinking, he posited. 

Mindzie said just like the Kom people, the majority of villagers protect their heritage assisted by an annual amount of about $195,000 from the state for rehabilitation, maintenance and preservation purposes. In April 2013, the government enacted laws that would protect cultural heritage from extinction, while the same year, a new program was introduced in Cameroon’s annual budget for conservation of cultural heritage. 

Addressing the parliament in 2016, Cameroon’s Prime Minister Philémon Yang highlighted the need for an inventory of national cultural heritage and intangible heritage after disclosing that some is being lost due to lack of information or non-inclusion in local and national heritage protection and management policies. 

Following the prime minister’s call, the establishment of an inventory was launched in accordance with the 1972 UNESCO convention on cultural and natural heritage and that of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The publication of the first directory contains intangible cultural heritage for three out of the 10 regions of the country. 

Cameroon ratified the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage drafted in 2003 on October 16, 2012. The country is a committee member. Its mandate in the UNESCO committee runs from 2018 to 2022. During this period, production of other complementary directories for the remaining seven regions will be processed. 

Mindzie said it is on the basis of the directories that his department would request Cameroon’s nomination to the list of World Cultural Heritage and inclusion on the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

Intangible heritage focus 

In addition to the directories of intangible and tangible cultural heritages, the Ministry of Arts and Culture has also produced a register of 368 cultural festivals in Cameroon. These are characterized by indigenous music and dance that are integral parts of the Cameroonian culture, the two most popular forms being makossa and bikutsi. 

Though the festivals bring hundreds of tourists to the country annually, Mindzie says the spiritual side of the festival remains sacred to the communities organizing them. “The public shows are intended to attract and entertain visitors as well as create jobs, but certain things in the inner circles remain a mystery to foreigners,” he said. 

Statistics from the Ministry of Tourism and Leisure shows tourism generated $961 million in 2017, representing 3.2 percent of the country’s GDP and employing 604,500 people. 

According to Mindzie, the government is not only providing funds to facilitate the holding of the festivals, but also provides money to sustain local museums, cultural centers, and encourages citizens to safeguard their identities and values of their tradition. This year, the government is financing the building of infrastructures in the towns of Kom and Buea for promotion of culture. 

With regards to language; Cameroon has over 200 native languages in addition to French and English; yet a 2017 study carried out the by the Catholic Church in Cameroon’s largest city Douala revealed that 60 percent of the youth do not know how to speak these native tongues. By extrapolation, this 60 percent will not be able to teach their offspring these languages leading to a gradual disappearance. 

In reaction to this study, the government began training teachers to teach local languages in collages and primary schools. This year, the subject of culture and tradition was introduced in the curricula for primary schools throughout the country. 

Chimse Linda Chungha, a primary school teacher in Yaoundé, said every child is expected to learn how to speak his or her parents’ mother tongue. “Parents play a vital role in this subject because they are supposed to teach the children at home,” she said. Meanwhile the Société Internationale de Linguistique (SIL), an international NGO that documents and develops minority languages, organized a national symposium in the nation’s capital Yaoundé in January this year to discuss the challenges of the promotion of local languages. SIL revealed during the symposium that it has, in association with Cameroonian 

Government, created alphabets, pedagogy and dictionaries for some 180 languages out of the 268 that exist in the country. It has also translated the Bible’s New Testament into 36 local languages. 

Edmond Biloa, head of the Department of African Languages and Linguistics at the University of Yaoundé said during the symposium that some 22 of Cameroon’s local languages have already disappeared. He regretted that some parents think local languages are of no importance and lay more emphasis on the study of English and French, which are the country’s official languages, and other foreign languages which they believe could help their progeny obtain jobs worldwide. 

One of the difficulties in introducing local languages in schools in Cameroon is that there are too many, said Mindzie. But the government is still sensitizing parents who see the introduction of a selected few as a form of colonization. It should, however, be noted that some communities like Kom and Ewondo, and some localities in the west region where a specialized school for the Fefe language have been created, are promoting the teaching of local languages by themselves. The teaching of the mother tongue in Kom dates as far back as the early 1980s. 

Protection of intangible cultural heritage in Cameroon is driven by the communities themselves, while government only provides financial support and the legal frameworks, said Mindzie. 

(Reporting from Cameroon) 

(Comments to niyanshuo@chinafrica.cn) 

  

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