Identification. Bamiléké is a collective term referring to a loose agglomeration of some 100 kingdoms or chiefdoms of the eastern Grassfields in the Western Province of Cameroon. These kingdoms are of varying size but have similar cosmology and social and political structures; they speak distinct, although related, languages. "Bamiléké" derives from the German mispronunciation of a Bali (western Grassfields) interpreter's designation, "Mba Lekeo," or "the people down there," which has been associated with this region since at least 1910, possibly since the 1890s. Currently, Bamiléké people most often refer to themselves as "Bamiléké" when speaking with non-Bamiléké, and as members of their specific kingdoms and villages when speaking with other Bamiléké.
Location. The 6,196-square-kilometer Bamiléké region extends roughly from 5° to 6° N and 10° to 11° E. It is bounded by the Bamboutos Mountains on the northwest and by the Noun River on the southeast. With the Bamoun area it constitutes the southeastern half of the Grassfields, a mountainous plateau spanning the Western and Northwestern provinces of the Republic of Cameroon. The Bamiléké region is made up of five administrative divisions within the Western Province: Bamboutos, Haut-Nkam, Mifi, Menoua, and Ndé. The region is characterized by its irregular, hilly relief and great differences in soil quality. Valleys, which have the richer soils, are mixed savanna and forest. Basalt and other volcanic rocks are common. The high-altitude prairie, for which the Grassfields are named, consists of noncultivated land at an average elevation of 1,400 meters. Temperatures range from 13° C to 23° C, and rainfall amounts to more than 160 centimeters per year. The dry season lasts from mid-November to mid-February, with a fluctuating rainy season occurring during the remaining months.
Demography. No census data exist on the Bamiléké as a people, but scholars estimate that they constitute about 25 percent of Cameroon's diverse population. The overall population of the Bamiléké in the late 1980s was approximately 2 million, 1 million of whom resided on the Bamiléké plateau. Average population density is 125 persons per square kilometer but ranges from 15 to over 400 inhabitants per square kilometer. The Bamiléké region represents a pocket of relatively high fertility within the central African "infertility belt." The birthrate is 49 per thousand, and completed fertility is 6.3. Infant mortality is 158 per thousand; life expectancy is 39.9 at birth, increasing to 49.2 at age 5.
The Bamiléké area has served as a labor reserve since the early colonial period. Emigration, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and intensifying in the 1930s, has greatly influenced Bamiléké demography and social life. The order, intensity, and scale of emigration have varied over time. Most immigrants were Bana during German colonization; Bafang, Bafoussam, Bangangté, and Dschang in the 1940s; and Bangangté in the late 1950s and 1960s. In urban centers and peripheral regions of agricultural colonization, Bangangté continue to provide the largest numbers of emigrés. This predominantly male migration continues, as youths search for jobs to earn cash for consumer goods, bride-wealth, and to gain titles. Kingdom-specific voluntary associations play an important role in the social life of urban emigrés and help link them socially, politically, and economically to their place of origin. Many Bamiléké maintain land in their home areas ("a foot in the land of the ancestors"), and movement back and forth between urban centers and rural villages is common.
Linguistic Affiliation. Bamiléké languages, which are tonal, belong to the Grasslands Bantu Group of Broad Bantu languages. While Voegelin (1977) lists twenty-four Bamiléké languages, nearly every kingdom names its own dialect as a separate language. Bamiléké languages are not always mutually intelligible. Bordering kingdoms may speak languages that differ only slightly, but, because of intense migration over the past three hundred years, geographic proximity is not always a predictor of mutual intelligibility. Many contemporary Bamiléké also speak French, and quite a few speak Wes Cos Pidgin and/or English.