By Ato Bob*
This is a sequel to my column ‘The Bali Nyonga of Cameroon’ in the May issue of The African Bulletin. This clarifies that Bali Nyonga has nothing to do with the more commonly known Bali in Indonesia. Bali here refers to a people in Cameroon and a bustling town of that name.
I subtitled the previous column ‘a story of African migration and a personal encounter’ as it also details how I became a proud in-law to the Bali Nyonga’s.
The Bali Nyonga were originally part of the Chamba Leko group that lived in the far Northern part of Cameroon, saddling the border with Nigeria. They started their migration southward in the early 1800s and became one of the last ethnic tribes to settle in ‘the grassfields’ (a term coined by the Germans, who by the way did arrive in Bali before 1889). Popular verbal accounts put it that the group came from further north towards Niger and was fleeing from being captured by slave raiders.
From a migrating Chamba Leko group to Bali Nyonga Chieftaincy
When they left Chamba the group was led by Gawolbe and arrived in Banyo, now in Adamawa Province, in about 1825. They absorbed other groups like the Peli, Mboum, Buti and Tikar and moved to near the powerful Bamoum Kingdom. With the help of the Bati, a small tribe repressed by the Bamoum, they tried to subjugate this well established Kingdom. This could not succeed, so they had to withdraw and entered the Bamenda Grassfields. There they continued their conquest and fought with already established Kingdoms of Mankon, Bafut, Pinyin, Meta and Moghamo. This naturally did not make them any welcome as new settlers, so they moved further west to Dschang, which is in the now called West Province. It was there that their courageous leader Gawolbe was killed, which forced the group to go south to Bagam to regroup and find a new leader.
Gangsin was chosen to succeed Gawolbe in about 1836, but could not keep the mixed group together due to his lack of popularity and weak conviction. None of Gawolbe’s seven children was dominant enough to emerge as the new leader, so they split up in seven factions divided between the six sons and one daughter. These seven groups were Bali-Kumbat which found their home in the Ndop Plains of the Bamenda Grassfields, the Bali-Gashu, which settled east of the Bali-Kumbat, the Bali-Gangsin now living south-east of Bali-Kumbat, the Bali-Gham now near Santa and the Bali-Muti now in the Tabara State of Nigeria. This leaves the Bali-Nyonga now near Mankon and the Bali-Kontan eventually taken up by the Bali-Nyonga. Gawolbe’s daughter Nanyonga led the Bali-Nyonga tribe, which included the earlier mentioned Bati, Buti, Peli, Tikali and Kufat elements. Nanyonga later handed over to her son Nyongpasi who then became known as Fonyonga I the first Fon or Paramount Chief of the Bali-Nyonga.
Fon Fonyonga I further strengthened his position and around 1885 established his palace at Kufom near the present Bali Airport, while subjugating the Bali-Kontan living there, with their leader became a sub-chief under Fonyonga I. Other groups in the area as the Baku and Kenyang people were also taken up into the Bali-Nyonga. Fon Fonyonga I died in 1886 and was succeeded by Galega I, who moved his palace to the current location in Bali in 1875. This shows that the Bali Nyonga had become a well-established, organized, and structured and dominating ‘Fondom’ (Kingdom) in the Bamenda Grassfields
One should realize that all of the above happened far away in the West African hinterland more than three hundred kilometres from the coast, with no constructed roads, no helpful river to navigate and the fastest means of transport perhaps a horse, but in the forest more likely your own feet. As an explorer you would be led by a guide/translator and trailed by a group of porters, carrying your belongings, but more importantly your camping stuff as there were no hotels or the like at the time.
The Europeans establish in Kamerun and reach Bali
In 1884 the ‘scramble for Africa’ had already started in West Africa ‘avant la lettre’ so to speak, with the slave trade on its decline, but replaced by a booming trade in goods from Europe, like cloth, guns, pots, liquor traded for palm oil, ivory, wood and gold. Both British and German traders were active at the mouth of the Wouri River. Missionaries were there too with the famous Baptist Alfred Saker establishing his mission station as early as 1848.
On 12 July 1884, King Ndumbé Lobé Bell and King Akwa signed a treaty in which they assigned sovereign rights, legislation and administration of their country in full to two German firms. This treaty was probably negotiated by General Gustav Nachtigal, Germany’s Consul General for Tunis. This assured King Bell of German protection and strengthened this authority, though he would have preferred the British, who were unfortunately too much occupied with Nigeria at the time.
As in most of West Africa, early European presence and settlement was limited to the coastal areas and towns. The thick jungle forest was difficult to penetrate let alone navigate, rivers however formed convenient inroads, but were not always available as in the case of the Bamenda Grassfields. Then there were various tropical diseases to which many Europeans succumbed, which caused West Africa to be called the ‘Whiteman’s Grave’.
Nevertheless in 1889 Dr. Eugen Zintgraff, a German explorer sent by his government to ‘Kamerun’ reached Bali and was well received He had already navigated and explored the Wouri River and was the first European to break through the ‘jungle’ or forest belt that surrounded the interior and entered the Bamenda ‘grassfields’.
Fon Galega I quickly realized the advantage and concluded a pact with Zintgraff, which strengthened his authority and established Bali as a trading post and centre of German activity. Zintgraff built a station called Baliburg as he had done with Barombiburg near Kumba and trained a group of Bali men as soldiers. He also took a Bali woman as his wife. However Zintgraff upset the Fon of Bafut during his visit there by forcefully drinking from the Fon’s cup and belittling him. This undiplomatic behaviour was suspected to be instigated by Galega I.
Galega I died in 1901 and was succeeded by his son Tita Gwenjang crowned as Fonyonga II, who continued good relations with the Germans. He asked for a Basel Mission to be established in Bali, which was promptly granted and the first church was erected in 1903. The Basil Missionaries adopted the Bali language Mungaka as the principal medium of evangelisation. They started translating the Bible in Mungaka that then became the lingua franca in the Bamenda Grassfields. Douala was selected as such by the missionaries in the southern part.
Fon Fonyonga II became an influential and dominating royal in the Bamenda Grassfields with the help of the Germans, who expected in return the collection of taxes and supply of labour for the German plantations in the south.
When the Germans were ousted at the end of World War I, the British became the colonial force in the western part, while the eastern was taken care of by the French. Vincent Samdala son of Fonyonga II was installed as Galega II when his father died in August 1940.
I met Fon Galega II in 1976 when my wife and I were on a family visit to Bali. My in-law, family head Ba Nkom Gwanmesia, was in the palace when we arrived and told of our visit. So when he asked for permission to leave and receive us at his house, the Fon asked to bring us to him. We came and had to follow the traditional protocol of greeting and though I sat quite near to him, I had to speak in Pidgin English trough my in-law who then translated into Mungaka. I remember being very impressed by his grand royal stature.
Galega II had then already played a leading role in the struggle for Cameroon’s independence and unification with the territory administered by the French.
There are some remarks one can make about the above narrative of this fascinating history.
It may seem quite heroic to mention that a group or rather a whole tribe migrated, realizing that these were not only the gallant fighters on horseback but also women and children carrying their belongings. Some must have been killed in battle or just died on the way, or even born on the way as my wife’s great-great-grandmother was.
On the other hand the struggle of the Bali-Nyonga forefathers to find a new home, while migrating hundreds of kilometres, must sound daring almost glorious to their descendants. However to the already established tribes in the Bamenda Grassfields the impact of this fierce band of fighters pushing themselves into their midst was less positive to say the least.
*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on email@example.com