My first visit to an African country was a month-long trip in Cameroon a couple years ago. I had no idea what to expect nor any solid plan for my time. I was visiting a friend, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, and left everything up to her. By a twist of fate, she contracted typhoid while I was there. She went to the hospital and I joined two other volunteers on their trip to Foumban. That experience was a highlight of my trip; Foumban is a place that is just teeming with culture.
The Bamoun Kingdom, Seated in Foumban
One of the main attractions in Foumban is the Royal Palace, still used by the current sultan and housing an excellent museum. At the palace, you’ll encounter murals that depict the sultans and the duration of their reign, stretching back to the late 1300s.
The palace was built by the 17th sultan, Njoya Ibrahim, out of bricks on the site of the former bamboo palace. In the museum you’ll find lots of interesting artifacts ranging from old guns to ceremonial dress, from goblets made from the skulls of enemies to musical instruments. It is well worth the visit and you’ll have a guide to explain things to you.
The kingdom was founded by Tikar emigrants to the area, and it is said that the founding fon (the title later changed to sultan) conquered 18 rulers to found Foumban. The emigrants mixed with the locals, absorbing their language and then became known as the Mbum. When the Chamba people migrated to the area, that was when the kingdom was formed.
One of the more notable parts of the history of the Bamoun was under the reign of the 10th sultan, Mbuembue. He fought to expand the kingdom’s territory and at one point was fighting the Fulani on two fronts. When he won both the battle on both fronts, he incorporated a two headed snake into the emblem of the kingdom.
Islam and the Grand Mosque of Foumban
After the Germans invaded the area, the sultan was killed and there was a power struggle for the throne. The son of the killed sultan, Njoya, ended up on the throne and negotiated with Germans to be under their rule, but to retain a bit of sovereignty. One thing he did was convert the kingdom to Islam, which remains a defining characteristic of Foumban, which is located in a more Christian part of the country.
The grand mosque isn’t far from the palace and a climb to the top of the minaret provides excellent views of the surrounding countryside.
Artisans and Handicrafts
In addition to the royal palace, the other main attraction of Foumban are the artisans and handicrafts. There are extensive shops and stall selling a variety of handicrafts, but of particular interest to me were the shoe makers and the brass sculptors.
I was fascinated by the shoe makers, shaping the leather and recycling old tires and pieces of linoleum for the soles. I ended up buying two pairs for myself.
There is a part of town where all of the brass sculptors live. They purchase discarded brass fittings for plumbing from around the country and continent to use in their lost wax style. How it works is that the artists create their sculpture out of wax. Then, they cover that wax sculpture with clay, to create a mold. Once the clay has dried, they fire it, melting the wax and pouring it out. Molten brass is then poured into the mold and will look like the initial wax sculpture. After the brass cools and hardens, the clay mold is broken, revealing the brass sculpture.
I ended up buying a bangle of a two-headed snake from the brass artisans, and I am constantly asked about it. I love telling people about this little known kingdom within Cameroon.
Foumban is about 300 kilometers north of Yaoundé, maybe five or six hours by bus. Honestly, I left much of the travel arrangements to my Peace Corps travel companions, as I do not speak French and they were much better versed in how to travel in Cameroon.
I was a little bit bummed to find out that there is a major festival in Foumban in November every two years. I went in May in an off year, so I had no real chance of seeing it. If you do go or have been to the festival, let me know how it was!