POPULATION: 13 million
LANGUAGE: English; French; twenty-four African languages
RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; indigenous beliefs
Cameroon's present borders were drawn after World War I (1914–18). It had been a German colony in 1885 but was surrendered to the British and French in 1916. These colonizers divided the country in 1919. The British administered West Cameroon as part of Nigeria. The French made East Cameroon part of French Equatorial Africa (along with Chad, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo).
Cameroon won full independence in 1960. Cameroon's first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, declared a one-party government in 1966. In 1972, a strong presidential government replaced the Federal Republic, and the country's name became United Republic of Cameroon.
Cameroon is slightly larger than California. It is one of Africa's most varied countries, physically and culturally. The climate varies with the latitude and the terrain. It is humidly tropical along the coastal plain, cool in the western mountains, and rather dry and hot on the flat and sometimes rolling northern savanna (treeless plains).
Cameroon's 13 million people come from seven major ethnic groups. However, by some counts, as many as 200 ethnic groups live within Cameroon's borders.
Cameroonians speak about twenty-four different African languages. In the North, people speak Saharan and Chadic languages. Bantu languages are spoken in the South. Cameroon is unique in having both English and French as official languages. French is dominant, and there is a movement to make it the only official language. However, the northwest and southwest provinces hold on to English.
Cameroonian folklore has many intriguing myths, legends, and proverbs from its varied cultural groups. Examples of proverbs are "Rain does not fall on one roof alone," "He who asks questions must be prepared to hear the answers," and "If you do not step on the dog's tail, he will not bite you."
An example of a myth recalls how traditional society once treated twins. It is said that in the past when a woman gave birth to twins, she presented them directly to the Sultan (ruler). A chicken was sacrificed to safeguard them and to ensure their good behavior. The mother then returned home with them and fed them meat. (Supposedly, twins from this group had an amazing ability to chew meat even before their teeth come in.) At age five, they returned to the palace to stay. The Sultan raised them as his own children and gave them a good education. As they grew older, the Sultan asked their advice on important decisions.
One of Cameroon's greatest heroes is Douala Manga Bell, who was hanged in 1914 for acting in opposition to German colonizers. Cameroonians remember his deeds and the bravery of his companions in songs and plays that are passed down from generation to generation.
Cameroon is mainly Catholic (34.7 percent) and Protestant (17.5 percent), but there is also a large Muslim population (21 percent), especially in the North. More than a quarter of the population follows native African beliefs. Like many other African peoples, Cameroonians combine parts of traditional animist (spirit) beliefs with their Christian or Muslim beliefs. For example, a marabout (traditional healer) may advise a sick person to write on a prayer board passages from the holy Koran. The patient then prays by reciting the words. Next, he dilutes the ink from the board and drinks it, taking in the holy words.
Holidays in Cameroon are treated differently by different groups. For example, National Day, May 20, which marks the change to a stronger government in 1972, is a great celebration for French-speaking Cameroonians. But the English speakers in the West see this holiday as a reminder of the power they gave away to the French-speaking majority at that time.
French speakers celebrate more on New Year's Day. English speakers emphasize Christmas. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, people put on their new clothes and go to church. Near Wum, people form large groups and go from village to village socializing, eating, drinking, and dancing. The feasting is so joyous that even Muslims join in the celebrations and go to church.
Traditional rites of passage such as initiation into adulthood, are losing the significance they once had in Cameroonian society. As Christian beliefs replace the traditional ways, baptisms, first communions, and weddings are more important. But, church ceremonies have not completely replaced traditional ways.
The language of greeting depends on the region. In French one typically says, Bonjour, comment ça va ? (Hello, how are you?). In Pidgin English one says "How na?"
People shake hands and some kiss on the cheek. Pointing to a person is considered rude. So is crossing one's legs at the knees or in the presence of someone with higher status. People use the right hand to pass or accept objects.
Visitors appear frequently and without warning, and relatives often stay and are fed for long periods.
Cameroon has good conditions for farming, and oil is an important natural resource. But Cameroonians face many of the same challenges as other Africans. In the villages, most houses are still made of mud and thatch. However, these are gradually being replaced by houses made of concrete blocks and galvanized iron roofing. Still, many people travel from place to place, and many camp out in poor areas (shantytowns) at the edges of cities. Shantytowns often do not have basic services such as clean water.
Young people date more in the capital and big cities than in rural areas. Throughout the country, marriages are still arranged by families. Cameroonians usually have large families with at least six children. Families are larger if the head of household has more than one wife. Grandparents and great-grandparents live in the same compound, or group area, as their children. The male head of the family usually leads in important matters. Women must do much of the work, tending fields, gathering firewood, and hauling water besides taking care of the children and doing the housework.
Traditional clothing is most often worn in the villages. In the North, Muslims wear colorful flowing robes and women cover their heads in public.
Pagnes (sarongs) are worn by women in all regions. A second piece of cloth can be used to attach a baby to one's back, provide shade for the head, or give warmth on chilly mornings. A turban, usually from the same fabric, covers the head.
In the towns, people sometimes wear traditional clothes, but the men are also likely to wear Western pants and shirts. The younger generation wears jeans and T-shirts. Women usually wear blouses over their sarongs.
The staples are corn, millet, cassava, groundnuts (peanuts), plantains, and yams. One or more of these provide the ingredients for fufu , a stiff paste, that is rolled into small balls and dipped into stews. A favorite dish is jamma , spicy greens, served at the large noon meal. In rural areas, people eat out of shared bowls with the right hand. In the cities, people eat with kitchen utensils much as in the United States and other Western countries.
Bilingual education, education in two languages, is provided by government, missionary, and private schools. Primary school begins at six years of age. Children begin high school at the age of twelve or thirteen, and continue until nineteen or twenty. The government has built five regional campuses of the University of Yaoundé. Each one has a different area of specialization.
Cameroonian modern literature, film, and makossa (urban-style) music are very popular, thanks to Cameroon's rich and varied cultural past. Makossa music is heard all over the country, playing loudly from radios or being performed by live street musicians.
In traditional society, people still perform ancient rites with music, dance, masks, and statuettes. One group plays dirge (funeral-style) music at night when they want to accuse a person of a serious crime. With lifeless voices, singers march through the streets, striking bells and tapping on drums made of buffalo skin.
Most Cameroonians (about three-quarters) work in agriculture as subsistence farmers (growing the basic foods needed for the family), herders, or plantation workers.
Cameroonians are soccer fanatics, and rightly so. Cameroon qualified for the World Cup in 1982, 1990, and 1994, and went to the 1990 quarterfinals. Other popular European sports include basketball, tennis, and handball.
Cameroonian makossa music defines much of the popular culture. The music is hard-hitting, with a tight, fast-paced rhythm. People play it everywhere: on their transistor radios, at truck stops and taxi stands, in pubs and restaurants, and in nightclubs. Musicians such as Manu Dibango and Sam Fan Thomas are national celebrities.
Cameroonian television is limited to the government station, which has limited broadcast hours. Some men are fond of chess and checkers.
Folk art objects include elephant masks; wooden, bronze, and bead-covered statuettes; carved pillars and bed posts; woven baskets; and pottery. The Tso dancers of the Kuosi perform in fabulous beaded elephant masks when a chief or an important person dies.
Cameroon is making political changes from a one-party system to democracy with several political parties, but the change has not come easily. Private newspapers carry stories claiming civil rights abuses, beatings, and even deaths related to demonstrations and strikes.
Cameroonians face serious economic and social challenges. The population grows at about 3 percent a year. The demand for education, health care, and jobs continues to increase. In addition, Cameroon's environment is endangered by destruction of forests, excessive grazing, illegal hunting, and heavy fishing.
Carpenter, Allan. Cameroon. Chicago: Children's Press, 1977.
DeLancey, Mark. Cameroon: Dependence and Independence. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1989.
Hathaway, Jim. Cameroon in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1989.
InterGO Communications. [Online] Available http://www.teachersoft.com/Library/ref/atlas/africa/cm.htm , 1998.
World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/cm/gen.html , 1998.