Monday, August 25, 2008

My Town Monday: Life in West Africa

Me with Boh Cyprain in Yaounde, CameroonHere are two very different stories from Mr. Boh about the rituals for the deceased in Cameroon. One is an interesting piece on a tribal custom that is in danger of fading out of existence from a southwestern village. The other is a lighthearted look at the superstitious beliefs that haunt the living. I've included a couple of pictures of Mr. Boh and me in Cameroon (2004-05). For those of you who aren't from NY (my home state), you might not be so thrilled that I introduced my Cameroonian friend to the NY Yankees with a baseball cap.

Mr. Boh writes:
The skull ceremony in the Bamileke Land
The skull ceremony in the Bamileke land has become a famous event that most tourists have developed a growing interest in. Invited or not, most of them prefer to hang around during this ceremony with cameras to immortalise the event. Even Cameroonians who do not hail from this region witness this with a lot of curiosity.

In the Bamileke land, when the patriarch of a large family passes away and is buried, the rest of the family waits for a few years so that the head of the corpse should completely rot away so that they can have the skull. This skull stays where it was buried until problems begin to plague the family. This is to say that where there is no misfortune in the family, there is no cause for a skull ceremony. But when problems set in, there is a convocation of all the family members from far and near by the successor or the acting family head. When all are gathered in a fixed date, the notables and village elders stand around the grave and pour out libation to their forefathers and ask that they should forgive them for whatever they might have done wrong while the youths do the digging. When they get to the corpse, only a family member gets into the grave and detaches the skull from the rest of the corpse.
With the skull in hand,the designated person carries it to the family house where an elder will now anoint it with calm wood (reddish in color like blood clots). During this anointment, he makes requests on behalf of the entire family to the departed, for example, if a young person has been sick in that family (bed ridden) within this time -- since it is believed that illnesses of such magnitude are meant only for the old -- they would be asking for the skull's intervention. This is particularly where they really think that someone has a hand in the illness. In the situation where they think the illness has been inflicted by the departed family head in response to a wrong behaviour by the sick person or any member of the family,they will still seek mercy on the part of the skull. A mistake here can include the refusal of the successor to go to bed with one of the succeeded wives because here it is considered a taboo if you inherit someone and refuse to go to bed with his wife; it means the wife is nasty to you and therefore you need to be disinherited.

When all requests have been made, they embalm the skull with some cloths and burial again takes place just as before. It must be noted that during this ceremony, the women mourn just as the day the first burial took place.

After the burial, feasting and dancing continue the occasion because they assume their requests have been met.

In the Bamileke land, burials are not done following the normal day to day calendar. There is a traditional calendar that gives room for days like "country Sunday" -- as it is called -- which is the village's Sabbath day wherein no one is allowed to go to the farm or carryout intense work and equally no corpse is put into the ground (buried) on this day. Country Sundays are usually 02 per week.

In a situation where they make a burial program for a fresh funeral and it coincides with a country Sunday, they dig the grave and put in the casket in the evening of the day before the intended burial day but they don't fill the grave with soil. The next day, they do every other thing as programmed and only fill the grave now but no digging.

Certain traditional practices are still very much observed in the Bamileke region; meanwhile other parts of Cameroon are rushing in to modernism and leaving their valued tradition to fade out.

Mr. Boh and me goofing around along the highway from Yaounde to Kribi
Mr Boh and I often exchange details about customs. I remember one time, he told me that when a child looses a tooth, the parent throws the tooth onto the roof, and if the child is fast enough to run around the house and catch it before it hits the ground, it is supposed to bring them good luck. Well, when I laughed, in good nature of course, he asked what we do in America. So with pride, I began telling him how the child puts the tooth under his/her pillow and while the child is sleeping at night, the 'magic' Tooth Fairy comes in and takes the tooth, leaving money in its place. Of course, this made Mr. Boh laugh as he said, "What a rich country you come from." I laughed some more when I realized our custom wasn't any less absurd! I reminded him that the Tooth Fairy was meant for children, but, nevertheless, it was still funny to think that we perpetuate something so silly. Anyway, here's another tale from Mr. Boh about some of his country's customs and superstitions involving the dead:

The Dead Still Feel Hungry
In the villages of Bakossi in the south west province of Cameroon, it is believed that the dead are omnipresent, here with us in every activity that we carryout. When someone dies, it is forbidden to say bad things about him or her for fear that he may strike back in anger. When someone dies, family and friends have up to three days to carry on with whatever ceremonies to pay the deceased the last respects and the fourth day the person can be laid to rest, i.e. leave the face of the earth and join his ancestors.

The story has been told of one chief in this village who died and his body was kept in a local mortuary for three days. Being a chief, it took some time to prepare for the burial ceremony as various delegations were to read out testimonies and eulogies. The night of the wake-keeping, with the corpse placed on bed at the middle of the sitting room, people started singing as they filed past around the coffin, some dancing to the music that came from the choir. Most of the space outside was taken up by different female groups and had prepared fire-sides to prepare various kinds of assorted dishes to feed the population with.

BEHOLD!! Something happened; there was a black-out in the neighborhood. Electricity went out just for about 03 minutes and within this time something really strange occurred.

The corpse that had been laid in state, well dressed and with a pair of white gloves in hands and white socks on feet had taken advantage of the sudden darkness and gotten up. The three days it had already spent without food were becoming unbearable. All the dancing, singing and preaching from men of God were only helping to make the night look much longer than chief had expected. He had expected to be gone a long time ago but here he was being preached upon etc. Once he got up from that bed, he hurriedly rushed out to one of the pots of soup the women were preparing outside and dug his hands into it pulling out most of the meat and eating it up. (The particular soup is called "Eru" and it is eaten with a paste called "water-fufu" and preparing it entails so much palm oil).

As soon as he had finished eating, he landed back on bed where he laid himself back in state. Soon power supply was reinstated but nobody could tell chief had made a move but for one old wise grandmother who came very close to the bed where chief laid and started exclaiming aloud; "Chief, so you couldn't be patient just for a few hours to await your burial before taking a bite? Now see what shame you have brought upon us". With such exclamations, people started looking critically only to discover that the white gloves chief was wearing were all stained with palm oil from the Eru chief had eaten. Isn't this funny?

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Travis Erwin said...

Interesting customs. I might try that tooth one on my boys the next time the lose one.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is another set of blog posts that you must make into a book. So fascinating.

David Cranmer said...

Could be fun to give it a try. I just wonder what happens if the tooth gets stuck on the roof!

That’s not a bad idea. It’s no wonder Hemingway and Dinesen kept going back to Africa. There seems to be a wealth of material for our western eyes.

debra said...

I find these posts fascinating, David. Thanks to you and to Mr. Boh for a glimpse into his culture.

Barbara Martin said...

David, very interesting posts from a distant land where customs are exotic.

These deserve being documented and placed into a book.

David Cranmer said...

It's a lot of fun posting his stories. We have a few more to share with everyone.

Documenting these in a book is a good idea. I've also started an outline of my trip to Cameroon, possibly for a novel. We'll see where it goes.

Reb said...

David, these posts from Mr. Boh are so enlightening. I agree they would make a great book along with your impressions from your trip there.

Thank you for sharing.

David Cranmer said...

Reb, Thanks! And thanks to Travis for the MTMs and Boh Cyprain for his stories, which have helped me begin an outline. It’ll probably take me awhile but I’m going to keep working on it.