IBOKO, Cameroon (GPI)-- It is 6 p.m. on the eve of the chief’s coronation in Iboko, a tiny village of eight homes in Cameroon’s Southwest region. Here, as in many of Cameroon’s rural communities, the village is struggling to breathe life into its traditional practices.
The town crier of Iboko strikes a gong, and the village falls quiet in anticipation. In the dialect of the Ngolo tribe, he announces the customary rules for the performance of the Nganya, a traditional Ngolo religious cult.
“Because of the coronation of the chief,” he says, “from 10 p.m. till dawn, the mystical Nganya masquerade will be performing, so everyone should stay indoors. All bush lamps should be put off or lowered. No noise or fidgeting should come out of any household, no bedtime discussions.”
The customs even regulate bathroom use.
“Even though toilets are outside of the house, no one should dare to walk outside to urinate or defecate,” he says. “If you feel like it, do it inside the house through any means. If you go contrary to any of this, you will have yourselves to blame.”
The crier disappears to make way for the masquerade.
Men belonging to the Nganya cult perform this dance on special occasions, says Iboko resident Balemba Bekumaka. At age 89, Bekumaka is the oldest man living in Iboko and is himself a member of the cult.
Their role is to protect the village through song and dance before the dawn of the occasion. Women and men who do not belong to the cult must not witness its performance or they risk misfortune and a heavy fine.
The previous chief of Iboko died in 2005, Bekumaka says. Because chieftaincy is hereditary, a council of village kingmakers, including Bekumaka, summoned the late chief’s only son to assume the throne.
But at the time, his son was living and working abroad in the United States and said he did not have time to dedicate to community issues. The council of kingmakers was unable to persuade him to return to the small village.
The kingmakers eventually settled on Thadeus Naliembe, a nephew of the late chief, as the new ruler. Villagers of Iboko waited three years to raise the funds needed for the traditional coronation ceremony. Wonder and anticipation filled Iboko last month as the kingmakers at last crowned the new chief.
But not everyone in the village embraces these traditions.
“Let them not disturb people,” says one Iboko woman who had returned to the village for the coronation. “What kind of useless tradition is this?”
This is not an uncommon attitude, Bekumaka says. He and other villagers are clawing onto their customs in the face of modern pressures.
“We don’t want our tradition to go down the drain,” he says. “That is why you see us performing the Nganya dance, amongst others, in important events like the coronation of our chiefs.”
Village elders lament the decline of traditional practices in Cameroon as youth move to urban areas to pursue education. The rise of monotheistic religion has also eroded traditional beliefs, as Christians decry them as witchcraft. But anthropologists say that traditional activities are driving tourism throughout the country and are alive among the Cameroonian diaspora. Cameroon’s government also engages traditional leaders as they implement policy at the local level.
More than 50 percent of the population now resides in urban areas rather than their indigenous villages, according to the United Nations Statistics Division’s 2011 profile on Cameroon. The profile predicts the urban population will grow an additional 3.2 percent each year.
Meanwhile, approximately 80 percent of Cameroonians polled for a study published in 2010 by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life expressed Christian beliefs. But the percentage of the population who participate in traditional ceremonies was just 40 percent.