Cultural Overview

The name "Bamiléké" has been associated with a loose agglomeration of some 100 chiefdoms of what is now the Western Province of Cameroon since at least 1910, and possibly since the 1890s. The term derives from a colonial German mispronunciation of a Bali (western Grassfields) interpreter's designation, "Mba Lekeo," or "the people down there [in the valleys]." Since Cameroon's independence from French and British trusteeships in 1960, Bamiléké people identify themselves as Bamiléké when interacting with members of other ethnic groups, but refer to themselves as descendants of specific chiefdoms or villages when conversing with other Bamiléké. Starting in the 1990s, as ethnicity has become increasingly politicized, collective Bamiléké identity takes precedence over village and chiefdom identity in ever more contexts.

Bamiléké political organization is highly stratified, with a divine king (or sacred chief) and queen mother at the apex, followed by title-holding nobility, royal retainers, commoners, and (in the precolonial era) slaves. In the precolonial era, Bamiléké chiefs had power over the life and death of their subjects. They received counsel, as well as aid in the execution of orders, from the nobility, royal retainers, and members of secret societies (masked associations with particular religious-political jurisdiction). Chiefs currently have jurisdiction over civil court cases in rural areas, serve as justices of the peace, and are consulted and honored at many occasions. As in the past, Bamiléké chiefs and nobles practice active interchiefdom diplomacy, and visit the home-boy and home-girl associations of their urban-dwelling adherents. Increasingly, differences in wealth and power based upon commerce, education, religious affiliation, and participation in national party politics exist alongside the chiefdom-centered system of social stratification. There is no traditional overarching Bamiléké political organization. Bamiléké are active in several contemporary political parties, but are particularly associated with the major opposition party.

Rural Bamileke are primarily farmers. Women grow maize (the preferred staple), beans, peanuts, cassava, tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, and condiments, tilling with iron hoes. Men grow plantains as well as coffee (the major cash crop) and some cocoa. The chief is the titular owner of all land, but through his quarter chiefs distributes usufruct rights to male heads of patrilineages, who in turn distribute plots of land to their wives, their nonin-heriting brothers, and their sisters. High population density (125 persons per square kilometer on average) and lack of land has contributed to high rates of rural to urban migration. A tradition of both male and female participation in trade, combined with a work and achievement ethic, has helped the Bamileke gain a reputation as successful, even "aggressive," entrepreneurs.

Family and kinship provides the basis of ongoing rural-urban ties, the organization of labor, and childhood socialization. Bamileke practice a system of dual descent, recognizing the importance of both patrilineages and matrilineages for each individual. Descendants seek to insure their good fortune by venerating the skulls of their ancestors and ancestresses. Marriage is lineage exoga-mous and virilocal; brides always come from another lineage than the groom, and relocate from their natal homes to the house or compound that the groom has prepared for his new bride. Polygyny is culturally valued, but it is increasingly beyond men's means to pay bridewealth and construct houses for more than one wife.

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