Religious Beliefs. Prior to missionization, Bamiléké believed in a creator God, Nsi. Some groups believed in local deities relating to natural features (streams, groves of trees, rocks) and personal spirits. All Bamiléké believed in the power of ancestors, through the metonym of the ancestral skull ( tu ), to cause good or bad fortune for their descendants. Matrilineal ancestresses were believed to be especially prone to anger. Although these beliefs persist, many Bamiléké are now members of Christian churches. The dominance of two major denominations, Catholic and the Église Evangélique du Cameroun (of French Calvinist origin), varies by locale. The Baptist, Jehovah's Witness, and Adventist churches are active in the Bamiléké area, but to a lesser degree.
Religious Practitioners. Religion and politics are not easily distinguished. The Bamiléké king is considered divine and responsible for the health and well-being of his subjects. He is aided in his religious duties by the bandansi (the men of the house of god), a secret society. Three other groups are also important in religious practice. Lineage heads, as custodians of ancestral skulls, control access to propitiary rites. Diviners and spirit mediums are active in determining the need for ceremonies and in healing. Healers and witches use the same supernatural power, ka, but to good or bad ends.
Ceremonies. Life-cycle ceremonies include burying the placenta and umbilical cord by the mother's kitchen at birth, circumcision for boys and prepuberty seclusion for girls (both termed nja), burial, and death celebrations performed approximately one year after death. Death celebrations ( funerailles ) are public diplays of wealth, of the value of the deceased, and of the new heir. They mark the end of a period of mourning, when the deceased has completed the transition to ancestorhood.
Royal rituals enact the transformation of a new king from a mere mortal to a divine being, the embodiment of the office of kingship. These rituals include capturing the new king, and enclosing him and two of his queens in a special temporary structure ( la' kwa ) for nine weeks. During this time they are fed medicines and taught their new duties. A ritual—complete with the symbolism of birth and feeding—marks the emergence of the king from la' kwa. He fully becomes king only after he has sired at least one male and one female child. Arts. Bamiléké are famous for their wooden sculpture, masks, and stools (often ornamented with beads and cowries), and carved house posts. Motifs include human figures (ancestors and, occasionally, witches) and animals (representing such qualities as royalty, wisdom, or fertility), as well as geometric designs. Baskets, mats, and bags, woven of raffia-palm fibers, are common and beautifully executed household items. The Bamiléké blue and white royal display cloth is distinctive. Bamiléké artisans import cotton cloth woven in the north of Cameroon, sew a pattern of raffia fibers as a resist, and send the cloth back north to be dyed in indigo vats. Although some centers of tourist art exist, these are most developed in neighboring Bamoun and in the western Grassfields. Music played by Bamiléké secret societies utilizes drums, balofons, and whistles. This music has been incorporated into the repertoires of some contemporary Cameroonian pop musicians.
Medicine. Bamiléké traditional medical practitioners include herbalists, diviners, spirit mediums, and religious specialists. Many healers combine divination with herbal medicine. In the past, diviners, spirit mediums, and religious specialists had higher status than herbalists. This relation is now reversing, along with a trend toward more individual and fee-for-service treatment. Contemporary Bamiléké seek medical assistance from both private and public hospitals and clinics as well as from their rich array of traditional practitioners (see "Religious Practitioners").
Death and Afterlife. Death may be attributed to natural causes, but in most cases Bamiléké use divination to answer the questions why this person, why now, and who did it? Varying forms of witchcraft figure prominently in causes of death, and public autopsies are performed in some Bamiléké kingdoms as part of the search for cause. Immediately following death, female kin wail, announcing the death to the neighborhood. Burial generally occurs within twenty-four hours, during a one-week period of public mourning (French: deuil; Pidgin: cry-die ). Close relatives of the deceased shave their heads and don blue or black clothes of mourning. Approximately one year later, lavish death celebrations are performed (see "Ceremonies"). Widows can resume sexual relations following the death celebration. Some time after this celebration the heir or heiress will exhume and care for ancestral skulls in clay pots or in small houselike tombs. Bamiléké believe that improper care of ancestral skulls leads to ancestral wrath, illness, infertility, and even death.