The Bamileke Tribe
The Bamileke Tribe hails from Cameroon. They speak a language of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo family. The tribe does not refer to themselves as Bamileke per se, but instead use the names of the individual kingdoms to which they belong or else refer to themselves as “grasslanders.” Their origin is uncertain and often debated, but it appears that under pressure from Fulani invasions in the 17th century, they moved south in a series of migrations from the region that is now occupied by the Tikar people.
Each of their kingdoms was ruled by a king (fon) whose position was hereditary within a localized patrilineal lineage. Some of these kings were assisted by a queen mother (mafo). Descent, succession, and inheritance are patrilineal among the Bamileke people. Polygamy and dowry are practiced as well.
The Bamileke practice sedentary farming. Their staple crops include corn, taro, and peanuts. Men generally clear the fields, build houses, and engage in crafts, while women do most of the cultivating. They have little livestock. They reside in square houses with conical thatched roofs surmounting latticework walls, made of raffia poles with mud-filled interstices. Chiefs’ houses are decorated with carved doorframes and house posts; a wide variety of articles including artworks was at one time skillfully carved by the Bamileke from wood, ivory, and horn.
The Bamileke are said to be the most ‘business-minded’ of all the African tribes—as they are very enterprising and eagerly adapted a cash economy. They have played an important role in the economic development of Cameroon as professionals, traders, artisans, and laborers.
Ancestor worship is the dominant form of religion. The lineage head preserves the ancestral skulls and offers sacrifices to them. Charms and medicines are prepared by doctors, who also practice divination by interpreting an earth spider’s manipulation of marked blades of grass. Some Bamileke have adopted Islam, while others have been converted to Christianity.
Most Bamileke artworks relate to kings and important chiefs who defined their power by the display of prestige objects during key ceremonies. Statues generally represent the Fon. Beautiful beadwork associated with the Fon is common throughout this area. The art styles of the peoples in the Grasslands are often challenging to differentiate due to the complex and recent migration patterns that are typical of the region.