Cameroon is probably the most diverse country in Africa with landscapes that vary from dense tropical rainforests to deserts and everything in between. It is also rich in flora and fauna and has a bewildering mix of ethnic groups, each with their own cultural, linguistic, culinary and musical traditions. Gail Collins describes the wonder that is Cameroon.
Imagine a giant hand plucking up tiny pieces of every country in Africa, then putting all the pieces together in one place – well, that is Cameroon. Known as ‘Africa in miniature’- not for its size, which at over 475,000 sq km makes it the 53rd largest country in the world – but for its incredibly diverse geography, people, languages and culture.
Even its history is diverse, undergoing many influences starting with Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, becoming a German colony towards the end of the 19th century, then divided between Britain and France after the First World War. It became a federation and then finally, the Republic of Cameroon in 1984.
Triangular in shape, sitting at the crossroads of Central and West Africa, it neighbours Nigeria to the northeast, where Cameroon’s ever-changing landscapes meet the Atlantic Sea with a magical blend of mountains, desert plains, dense forests and mangroves.
To the east it borders the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, where the backdrop changes yet again to humid rainforests and wooded savanna. This is the country’s largest but least populated region. To the south, it lies alongside the Republic of Congo where tropical rainforests and the Southern Cameroon Plateau prevail.
This glorious chameleon-like environment, where every ecological and climate system are embodied, comes with a host of flora and fauna to match. Over 8,000 types of plant have been recorded, together with more than 400 species of mammals, and according to last year’s edition of the bible for twitchers – The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World – 965 bird species have been found. Add to this 250 reptiles and 200 amphibians and its biodiversity leaves you breathless.
So, who are the human inhabitants of this African jewel? From a population of over 27m, only 10% are classified as indigenous peoples – the Pygmies, the original hunters and gatherers of Cameroon who still live in the slowly declining rainforests, the Mburo, who reside primarily along the borders with Nigeria, Chad and Central African Republic, and finally the Kirdi communities, who live high up in the Mandara Mountains.
Add to this a melting pot of 250-plus ethnic groups, including a sizeable number of migrants from Nigeria and beyond, and you find a people as diverse as the land they live in.
As a nod to its colonial past, English and French are the main official languages, however with so many ethnic groups there are also more than 250 dialects spoken. Its verbal diversity has entitled it to UNESCO’s classification as a “distinctive cultural density on the linguistic map of the world”.
Rhythms as varied as people
With such a disparate population, the rhythms and beats of Cameroon are as varied as the people but from the many traditions of music, some have gained popularity across the country. Makossa, which originates from Douala – Cameroon’s largest city, perched on the Wouri River and one of Central Africa’s most prolific industrial centres – means ‘dance’ and its funky sound, which has developed since the late 1960s, is exactly what it makes you do. Over time it has merged with Congolese rumba sounds and much like the rest of African modern music, been influenced by new imported styles from the west.
Bikutsi music is also popular, with roots embedded in the traditional music of the Beti and Ewundo people, who live around the southern capital city of Yaoundé. A wild and lively dance music, it made its debut outside Cameroon in the 1980s and 90s when the legendary Les Têtes Brulées, with their half-shaved heads, glowing white body paint and hard-hitting electric sound, appeared first on national television and then went on to perform across the world, including the rest of Africa, Europe, US and Japan, despite the untimely death of their band leader and guitarist.
Perhaps the most famous exponent globally was Manu Dibango, who died two years ago. The charismatic jazz musician, who excelled on the saxophone, became a star in France as well as Belgium, where he linked up with some of the Congolese music giants.
Today the urban music scene is being dominated by the likes of Locko, who initially rose to prominence by being the first Cameroonian to post cover songs on YouTube. In 2020, his seven track, aptly-named album, Locked Up, kept him in the public eye.
With a claim to fame as Cameroon’s fastest rapper, KO-C made a bid for international fame with his first-ever tour to the UK last year. Cameroon still has a way to go on the international stage, but emerging artists are beginning to make an impact.
Eruption of contemporary art
The artistic influence from such a culturally rich country ranges from the traditional royal wood carvings, including thrones, figures and ceremonial masks, crafted with infinite skill by the Bamileke people, to an eruption of contemporary art that has received international acclaim.
Artists such as Angu Walters, whose abstract and surreal designs, mostly on the theme of family – evincing in particular his reverence for mother figures and traditional village life – are exhibited worldwide and his colourful, joyful canvases are a complete contrast to what is going on outside his studio, based in the town of Bamenda.
Last year, the prestigious Goethe Institute honoured Cameroon’s Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell, the great-granddaughter of King Rudolf Douala Manga Bell, for her “highly regarded ideas for coming to terms with colonial injustice and consolidating Cameroon’s own identity”.
She co-founded the Doual’art centre over two decades ago with her art historian husband and has been responsible for the funding behind many important art projects, including the imposing The New Freedom sculpture, which stands 12 metres high on Douala’s busiest roundabout. Created by the artist, Joseph-Francis Sumégné, it addresses the contemporary issue of the environment and is made entirely from recycled materials.
There is a good literacy rate in Cameroon and it is no surprise that the country has contributed some of the continent’s leading thinkers. Authors such as Imbolo Mbue, Patrice Nganang and 2020 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens winner, Djaili Amadou Amal have successfully presented their stories outside Africa. Food also plays an important role in Cameroon’s heritage, whether it be the recipes handed down through many generations to the people living off the land in rural communities, or migrants cooking their food as a way of preserving their culture in a new country.
Most wide-ranging cuisine
Not surprisingly, its cuisine is one of the most wide-ranging in Africa from the traditional fufu, a dough-like dish made from fresh or fermented cassava, popular throughout western Africa, to the crops brought about by colonisation such as potatoes, tomatoes and sweet peppers.
One of the unofficial national dishes of Cameroon is Ndole, a belly-warming stew that originated from the Douala tribe, traditionally made from boiled bitterleaf and groundnuts with seasoning, and the addition of meat or fish.
Another is Kondre, originating from Bafang, a town at the heart of the Bamileke people. Initially a ceremonial food reserved for special occasions, its ingredients include plantains, tomatoes, onions, spice and meat.
Cameroonians, like most West Africans, love their food hot but it seems Cameroon wins out on producing the most eye-watering pepe sauce, made from scotch bonnet chillies, tomatoes, garlic and other ingredients. It is used to give any dish or snack a zing that will blow the top of your head off but is delicious in fish or meat pepe soup.
Finally, I must mention Cameroon’s national sport – football. Although latecomers to the game in historical terms, they have qualified for the FIFA World Cup more often than any other African nation and have been the AFCON hosts this year.
This article is part of a special report on Cameroon supported by Stratline Communications and investiraucameroun.com. The editorial content was commissioned separately and produced independently of any third party.
Read more articles from the special report.