The Bali Nyonga of Cameroon, a story of African Migration,

and a personal encounter.

By Ato Bob*

Wherever a man goes to dwell, his character goes with him.

Introduction

I am related, by marriage, to the Bali Nyonga tribe that came from Chamba, but settled in the grassfields of North West Anglophone Cameroon. More about this revelation later.

African migration is nowadays almost always understood as migration to Europe but too much has been, is being and will be written about why, how and where Africans migrate to Europe.

This column is however about a particular human migration within Africa and my personal encounter with the Bali Nyonga.

What is migration?

There is migration in ecology, animal and human behaviour, but also in other organisms and in this our age, even in information technology. Human migration is mostly understood as people moving from one place to another with the intention to settle permanently or at times temporally. Nomadic movements of people on the other hand is not regarded as migration, because it is mostly seasonal and only few nomadic people have been able to keep this lifestyle till today.

Africa never had countries’ paraphrases the popular blog ‘Africa is a country’ and points to the Berlin or Congo conference of 1884-85, which prompted the drive of colonization and hence creating countries with borders. African borders are at times the hardest to cross, given regulations and red tape and again at times fluid and still not exactly determined allowing people, goods and cattle to move across or even back and forth.

Bali Nyonga

I am sure that all Bali people, who read the first lines of the introduction of this column, have now skipped down to this sub-heading curious to know what their in-law has to write about them.

I first became aware of the existence of the town of Bali and their inhabitants, when I worked in Cameroon in the early seventies. I was there with the Netherlands Volunteers (SNV) and as Assistant of the Teamleader, responsible for Adult Education in the South West Province and moderating two other volunteers. Co-incidentally, the first SNV team was introduced in 1965, placed as a multi-disciplinary team in Bafut near Bamenda, the capital of the North West Province. I was stationed in Kumba, nowadays popularly known as K-town, but then already a busy administrative headquarter of Meme Division with its many traders in cocoa, timber and other products. For my work I visited other towns and villages to promote Adult Education to the school teachers and the chiefs and elders. I also travelled regularly to Bamenda to meet my colleagues and other volunteers. Bamenda has a more temperate climate than the humid and hot Kumba in the southern forest zone.

I first heard of Bali Nyonga when I started dating a Cameroonian midwife, whom I met as a chorister in the Presbyterian Church, where I had become a member. Although her parents lived in Kumba, I learned that the ‘real’ Gwanmesia family home or compound was in Bali. That was where the family head ‘Ba Nkom’ and other elder brothers of her father and other relatives lived.

So when things became more serious between me and my love, her father sent me to Bali to ask ‘Ba Nkom’ for permission to marry. I planned that to coincide with my next trip to Bamenda.

On a Sunday afternoon I then went from Bamenda to Bali, guided by a young nephew to the family. We stopped at a bend in the main road from Bamenda close to the centre of Bali Town. I parked my Landrover in front of a small ‘off-licence’, a store for beer and soft drinks, where we bought a crate of assorted drinks to compliment the bottle of schnapps I had brought.

I was then led up a path through the compound, which had small houses on both sides, which I was told were on the left side for men and the other side for the wives or mothers. We were shown into the parlour of the last house and given a seat. After a short while the family head ‘Ba Nkom’ came in from his room and the nephew, some other family members and myself had to perform the special (hand rubbing and clapping) greeting I had been taught.

Then it was up to me to introduce myself and declare my intention and ask for permission to marry from the Gwanmesia family. Speaking in Pidgin English, at times assisted by translation into the Bali language Mungaka, I must have been pretty convincing, because… to my surprise and relief permission was granted! The drinks were then shared, which settled the matter.

I was promised a letter to take back to the father in Kumba, while I visited my intended’s grandmother in another part of Bali. There I met the most hospitable and kind woman Anna Kaisa, who invited me into her two room house and gave me a meal of fufu and ngoh, which I called ants, but were in fact fried termites. The way I ate that without batting an eye and even with relish must have gone round like a story to my credit.

However convincing the father, mother and other family in and near Kumba was a different story altogether. As they say, when you marry in Africa as a man, you must wipe your brows.

From Chamba to the grassfields, back to the migration story

When I got involved with people and later family from Bali, I was told various tall stories of how the Bali gained their place in Cameroon. How they came with their horses from Niger, how they fought themselves into the midst of other tribes, subduing them and ruling over them. How they travelled all the way south to the coast and tried to defeat the waves of the sea with their horses. How they led the first Germans around and named the tribes with the pre-fix ‘Ba’.

Some of this is now better researched and described now by various scholars and publications.

In fact, the Bali Nyonga were part of the Chamba Leko group that lived in the far Northern part of Cameroon, even saddling the border with Nigeria. They started their migration south ward 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 not arrived in Bali before 1889). They arrived in Banyo in about 1825 and while taking along others like the Peli, Buti and Tikar, travelled till they settled near the powerful Bamum Kingdom. The Bali unsuccessfully tried to subjugate the Bamum with help of the Bati. They then entered the Bamenda grassfields and attacked the kingdoms of Mankon, Bafut, Pinyin, Meta and Moghamo.

Around 1875 the first Fon Fonyonga I (Fon being like Paramount Chief) from Kufom settled his people at the present location of Bali.

Conclusion

Now nearly two hundred years since the Bali Nyonga left Chamba, they live and work not only in Bali, but all over Cameroon, Africa and even the rest of the World. Where there are large numbers of Bali indigenous, Cultural Associations are formed. The annual end of year Lela festival in Bali serves as a homecoming and reawakens interest in the rich cultural and other traditions and history of the Bali Nyonga people, which I have come to love and cherish

*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 atobobhensen@hotmail.com

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