Puffy cheeks of wisdom
In the Cameroon Grasslands, there are over one hundred different kingdoms, which are believed to date back to the thirteenth century, each with its own distinctive architectural style and ruled by a Fon, or king, supported by his many wives.
We first met Prince Amadou Njoya of the Bamun Kingdom in New York at his exhibition of sculptures and masks from the Royal Kingdoms of the Cameroon. He insisted that we include the Grassland Kingdoms in our new book and arranged to take us to fourteen of the most renowned palaces, often two hundred miles apart.
The Palace of the Oku Kingdom was one of the largest, consisting of over 50 houses with one part belonging to the king, another to the queens, and third part dedicated to the Fon’s powerful secret society known Kwifon.
The Kingdom of Bafut featured an awesome six-hundred-year-old thatched palace with carved wooden support pillars and walls of long bamboo poles. Each grassland palace serves as a center for religious rites, traditional ceremonies, and governance. The Fon is not only responsible for the stability of the kingdom but is the patrons of the arts, keeping alive traditional ceremonies and festivals and protecting their masks and beaded regalia in royal museums. The royal art, which is devoted to the veneration of the ancestors and the enrichment of the Fon, is on permanent display in the museums, except when taken out for use on ceremonial occasions.
In Foumban we met the Bamoun King and witnessed the biennial Ngoun Festival, a five-day celebration of Bamoun culture. To re-enact their victories in battle the kings 7,000 subjects paraded down the streets in traditional war costumes, some wearing carved wooden masks. Many of the masks featured puffy cheeks. Amadou explained to us, puffy cheeks represented wisdom and knowledge- the bigger the cheeks, the wiser the man.
Of all the countries in Africa, Cameroon boasts the highest density of Kingdoms – each one dedicated to the preservation of its cultural traditions and its unique art forms.