Several hundred kilometers northwest of Buea sits the dusty francophone city of Foumban. The city is the center of the Bamoun people, who have preserved centuries-old animist traditions and who produce some of the finest traditional masks, bronze work, cloth, and handicrafts in all of Africa. Foumban is also famous as the site of Nguon, one of the best-known cultural festivals in all of Cameroon. “Nguon” means “locust” in the Bamoun language, and the festival—held every two years—was originally an occasion for farmers to gather in order to celebrate the harvest (characterized by the appearance of locusts) and also to air their grievances to their Sultan and hear his response. Nowadays, Nguon draws Cameroonians from across the country (and people from around the world) to witness and partake in traditional music and dancing, ritualistic ceremonies, and the Sultan’s speech. Nguon also continues to be a celebration of the unity of the Bamoun people; in 2010 at the last Nguon, the Sultan proclaimed as such in his address to his people:

“[... In] celebrating the Nguon, we are perpetuating an act of paramount importance our ancestors have done for centuries in order to forge our unity and build our future…whatever our religious beliefs or our political beliefs, we should never forget that this story belongs to the whole community Bamoun, [from] which we can learn to cope with the challenges we have today in the quest for social and economic development of the region of [the] Noun [River]. It is understandable therefore that Nguon then belongs neither to the King nor the royal family, but [to all of the people of] Bamoun, without distinction.”*

This past weekend was the 544th celebration of the Nguon in Foumban, an event to which we were drawn by an unlikely series of circumstances.

It all started several weeks ago, when we were returning from our Monday afternoon class in Limbe, and met two Dutch women on the van to Buea. They told us that they were volunteers at a hospital in a small village called Banga, and that they were planning on going several weekends hence to the Nguon festival in Foumban.  They then asked if we were interested in joining them. We tentatively agreed, and made plans to stay with them at an inn in Foumban for the weekend of December 7-9. What we didn’t realize at the time was how far away Foumban is from Buea. This past Friday, we left our house at 7 in the morning to catch a bus there and didn’t arrive until about 8 at night; the return trip on Sunday was much the same. From the experience, we learned an important rule: never plan a trip where your hours spent travelling exceed your waking hours at your destination. We also affirmed an observation that we have noticed before: namely, that in the US, people wait for buses to depart, while in Cameroon, the buses wait for people. This means that buses don’t depart until they are full, regardless of the time that they are scheduled to leave. It also means that if a bus packed with 70 people is speeding along and someone on it wants to hop off to grab an ear of corn, the bus tends to stop to allow that person to do their errand before continuing on its way. Needless to say, we are not particularly excited about the prospect of sitting in any sort of moving vehicle any time soon.

Travel woes aside, Nguon was a very cool event. We awoke on Saturday morning and headed to the Sultan’s palace, a majestic brick building several stories high where, we understood, the events were to take place that morning. Nguon had in fact been going on all week—before our arrival, the festival’s activities had included soccer matches, traditional dances, a beauty pageant, a huge all-night party, and the opening of Foumban’s first bank (and not a moment too soon! We needed cash when we arrived, and thus became among the bank’s first patrons). However, the main events were to occur on that Saturday.

When we arrived at the Sultan’s palace, we spent a good half-hour getting jostled by the huge crowds (mobs, really) that had arrived to attend the event. Cameroonians dressed in their finest western-style suits or in stylishly-tailored cloths printed specially for the event pushed against barriers set up to control the crowds, while fancy cars pulled up to unload their passengers. We also saw more white people than we have ever seen in Cameroon—many were tourists, but we also bumped into the American Ambassador and his entourage, who had been specially invited for the occasion. 

When we entered the palace compound, a ceremony had already begun to take place. Hundreds of men (and a few women), all dressed in traditional attire and carrying spears wrapped with green leaves, walked in a slow procession towards an open plaza in front of the palace door. Each walked up to the dignitary standing there and bowed down to him. Then, the dignitary took two handfuls of grain out of a bag that each man proffered and deposited them in his own bag.  Finally, the man walked away, and another man took his place. The clothing worn by this procession was like nothing we have seen since our arrival in Cameroon: men wore elaborate masks, helmets rimmed with monkey skulls, and bags made from natural fibers and animal pelts. Hats were ubiquitous; many people wore ceremonial Bamoun woven caps threaded with small chicken feathers or with pointy pieces of cloth, and some wore elaborate headdresses with larger feathers protruding skywards. All the while, more men marched between the slowly-moving procession of supplicants to the Sultan, playing various instruments—huge drums carved with anthropomorphic figures, six-foot-long brass trumpets, and rams horns that, when blown into, sounded vaguely like Jewish shofars. 

After watching the event for several hours, we walked across the street to where an enormous esplanade had been prepared with thousands of chairs. We sat amongst Cameroonians and white tourists, talking alternately in French, English, and Spanish, and hearing about where visitors were from and what they were doing in Cameroon. Nguon really is, more than any event we have witnessed so far, a national festival; though it celebrates a very specific tribe and region, people from attend from across the country and around the world.

Within a few hours, the esplanade was full of spectators, and a line of men marched into the center accompanied by beating drums and resounding trumpets. Several carried spears and drums. One man, coated head to toe in feathers, danced across the ground. Another man led in an ill-fated sheep by a rope. Seated opposite this processional, beneath two towering elephant tusks, was a man wrapped in a turban and covered from head to toe in ceremonial cloths. We learned, from announcements read over a loudspeaker in French and English, that the processional consisted of village men who had come to air their grievances to the Sultan, and that the Sultan— His Majesty Ibrahim Njoya Mbombo, the 19th King of the Bamoun Dynasty of Nchare Yen, and the man bedecked in a turban beneath the elephant tusks—would answer them. Their concerns, we were informed by the loudspeaker, ranged from increasing banditry to climate change.

Two men in the processional planted twin ceremonial spears in the ground in front of the Sultan. Then, they ritualistically sacrificed the sheep, dripping its blood over the spears and onto the ground of the esplanade. Next, they moved aside and listened as the Sultan gave his address. Speaking in French, he greeted the Bamoun people, and explained how he would address their concerns. 

After the Sultan’s speech ended, the crowd dissipated, and we took a walk around Foumban to see the market and the grand mosque, and to buy a few of Foumban’s handicrafts. Soon, we returned to our hotel to rest and relax before venturing out into the rowdy Foumban night for dinner. Though we did not manage to make it to any further festivities, we learned that there was ceremonial dancing all night long at a village situated above the city of Foumban to close out this Nguon until the next festival—the 545th—in December of 2014. 

*Information retrieved from; translation is the work of the author.