One of the many cool facts about Cameroon is that the country’s population includes hundreds of small tribes—so many that there are, according to recent estimates, over 250 distinct languages spoken here. The epicenter of this linguistic diversity is in the Northwest Province, several hundred kilometers north of Buea, where the name of each and every small town is frequently also the name of a tribe and of a distinct language. Though Buea (in the Southwest) is the ancestral homeland of the Bakweri people, it is home to members of many of other tribes from all over Cameroon (partially because of the job opportunities and University education that Buea provides; and partially because the Northwest and Southwest provinces are the only two Anglophone provinces in the country). 

Why do I describe all this? Well, two nights ago, I was on my way home from a friend’s house, where I had spent a few hours using her speedy (relatively speaking) Internet access for a few Skype calls to the US. I walked out into the warm nighttime air, stood on the side of the road heading uphill, and stuck out my thumb backwards to signify that I needed a taxi to take me to Buea Town. It was after 10:30, and taxis on Wednesdays can be tough to find—plus, after 10:00, the prices tend to rise—so I was gratified when a taxi driver pulled up, honked to signify that I could enter, and then agreed to take me home for 200 francs ($0.40). I squeezed into the front seat with another man who was already sitting there, and greeted everyone in the taxi. The man sharing my seat immediately asked me, “You will pay for all of us, no?” Several months ago, I would have responded to this in frustration—“no! Why must you always bother me by asking me to pay?” I might have asked. Now, I’ve learned to respond to these queries in a different way. Cameroonians have great senses of humor, and for whatever reason, they tend to find pretty much anything that I (as a white man) say to be pretty much the funniest thing in the world. So, responding using humor instead of anger, I flipped the question on my fellow passenger and asked, “Oh, you will now pay for me, then? And these people in the back of the car? You are too generous!” All of the passengers shrieked in laughter—I don’t think anyone will ever find me as funny as people seem to here—and I knew that I had made some new friends.

I chatted with the people in the taxi as we sped uphill, and learned that they were coming back from work in Molyko, and also that they lived right around the corner from my house. I introduced myself as Josh, which they quickly repeated back to me as George—apparently, ‘Josh’ is an unusual name here (though Joshua is not), so I am used to just being called ‘George’ (or occasionally ‘Charles’), which sounds pretty much the same as ‘Josh’ coming from a Cameroonian. We discovered that another man in the taxi shared my (fake) name of George, which meant that we were ‘brothers.’ “My Father never told me about you,” this other George exclaimed to me. Then, he asked, “If your English name is George, what is your Bakweri name?” Alas, I told him, I had none—no Bakwerian had ever given me a name. He told me that his name was ‘Monono,’ meaning ‘unity,’ and another man in the back piped up with his own name, ‘Wokolo,’ meaning (apparently), ‘you must not sleep all day.’ Then, they both decided on a new name for me. Henceforth, they said, I would be ‘George Ngale,’ or ‘George, Leader of Men.’

We pulled up to our destination, and I invited them to come and visit me anytime. To tell the truth, they’re not the first taxi passengers I’ve rode with here whom I’ve invited to visit me at home. With up to 7 people packed in a small taxi, taxi rides are always interesting. And in a town with few public amenities, the taxicab really is the one truly public space. So now, thanks to a short taxi ride, I have my Bakweri name. 1 tribal name down; 249 to go.

This story proved oddly prescient given what happened when I arrived at GHS Buea Town for YAN classes the following day. It turned out that it was “National Day of the Mother Tongue” (yes, Cameroonians find any excuse for a national holiday), and so when I arrived at school, a raucous assembly on the schoolyard had replaced academic classes for the day. The principal was at the front, holding a microphone and teaching those students interested enough to listen about how to sing in her native language. Many were dressed in traditional clothes—I saw the woven, mortarboard-like caps of the Bamoun people, the long cloth dresses of the Fulfulde, and the wrapped country fabric worn by the Bawkerians. Several YAN students passed by me to say hi and to pull me over to a better vantage point from which to watch the assembly. When I asked them about their own mother tongues, my students identified speaking over a dozen, in addition to English, French, and Pidgin. YAN is a diverse group indeed. 

The assembly was coming to a close, and so as a closing order of business, the assistant principal announced which students had won a monetary prize for participating in the day’s events. These awards had a Cameroonian twist: the prizes, the assistant principal explained, could not be fully distributed since there had been some trouble finding small change for 10,000 franc ($20) bills. Thus, some students would be receiving large bills, which they needed to divide equally amongst other prizewinners. After announcing the winners, the assistant principal dismissed the students to go home, and the event’s DJ played a mix as the students left—“Will you Marry Me,” a song from West Africa heard everywhere in Buea, mashed together with “Gangnam Style,” a South Korean pop song that has become a global phenomenon for the silly dance associated with it. Whether the mix of songs was deliberate or not, I can’t say; but it did prove a pretty cool symbol of the interaction between Cameroon—and its 250 distinct tribes and languages—and the global community of which it is a developing part.


PS: We have recently been made aware of some scary developments taking place in the Extreme North province of Cameroon, where Nigerian terrorist groups angry about France’s interventions in Mali recently abducted a French family and took them to Nigeria. The news sources so far have been fairly vague about what is going on, particularly because of how remote the Extreme North of Cameroon is; there were reports recently that the kidnapped tourists were rescued, quickly followed by reports denying the rescue. For now, it appears that the French family remains captured in Nigerian territory. What we have heard from the US Embassy in Yaoundé is that American personnel across the north are being withdrawn to southern Cameroon, and that a travel advisory is in effect for the Extreme North and North provinces of Cameroon. We have visited the Extreme North during a wonderful trip in November (in fact, we were exactly where the kidnapping occurred), but have no plans to return right now; and we want to reassure our readers that these events are taking place very far from us, and do not pose any threat to us or to the Southwest region where we live. We invite you to follow along with us, and will post any updates as they become available.