By CARL JACOB BENDER (Culled from Twenty Years Among African Negroes (Halderman-Julius Company, 1925)
The following excerpt is from one of the numerous publications on the Bakweri by Carl Bender, a German Missionary who settled on the Cameroon coast toward the end of the 19th century, and lived among the Bakweri for about 25 years. One cannot help but sadly agree with Mr. Bender’s century-old observation that pre-colonial Bakweri culture was dealt a fatal blow when it came in contact with European “civilization”. Read on:
A keen observer and student of conditions must come to the conclusion that many of the African peoples at one time occupied a more exalted position in civilization and culture and that their present inferior state is the result of a slow, but sure, process of deterioration. This is also true of the Wakweli, the Duala and kindred tribes of West Africa. The underlying causes may not always be easily recognized and traced, but the fact remains.
The meager remnants of native industry and handicraft among the Wakweli are but a reminder of a higher culture than that which they at present possess. The art of smelting, once practiced among the Wakweli, is no longer known. This is only one of a number of striking examples in support of my statement. The same is true of pottery and forging and working in iron, at one time flourishing industries. The few old men among the Wakweli who are known as village smiths are easily counted, and they are looked upon as a wonder by the younger generation, when they work their primitive bellows of plantain leaves.
A still greater surprise it is, when the wizard of the improvised smithy pulls a piece of red hot iron out of the glowing and cracking mass of charcoal, and shapes it into a spearhead or a knife blade, or some other useful implement. When the last of these artisans passes away, another native industry and handicraft will have passed into oblivion. This not only means material loss, but also a step farther in the process of deterioration, unless something is done by the Colonial Government to revive and encourage native industry and handicraft.
The weaving of mats at one time was an art known and practiced by many. But the looms, which in earlier days could be seen in operation in many Wakweli huts, have completely disappeared, and the only article now produced along this line is the ordinary hand plaited floor mat. Likewise the preparation of dye stuffs will soon be a lost art. Indian red, orange and scarlet are the only vegetable dyes produced now.
Basket making and braiding of hats is an occupation for women and is still extensively carried on. The baskets range in size and form from an ordinary small handbasket all the way down to the big hampers in which the women bring their produce from the fields or to the markets. Of hats I saw some beautiful and most accurate work. I have not the least doubt that these products would find a ready market in America and Europe if they could be exported in quantities sufficiently large enough to make it a paying proposition. This possibility however seems, at least for the present, very remote.
Wood carving is also still practiced to a large extent. The surplus of carved stools, bowls, spoons, ladies, combs, etc., is sold at the markets for a fixed cash price, or given in exchange for the other articles. The manufacture of pottery, which in the early days was an important industry with the Wakweli, will soon be a lost art. Comparatively few women make their own cooking pots now, not to speak of ornamental pottery. The advent of the cast iron pot and of all kinds of cheap, gaudily decorated European crockery and tin and enamel ware, has hastened the end of this once flourishing industry. Wakweli women find it so much more convenient to buy their kitchen utensils and other household articles at the white man’s shop, and for comparatively little money. Why then should they go to all the trouble of making these articles themselves, especially when the White man’s product lasts so much longer?
The natives are not idealists – particularly when the question of increased exertion and labor on their part is involved. And who can blame them? Nevertheless it is to be deplored that little or nothing has been done by the colonial governments to foster this art and encourage a revival of this one time important industry.
Years ago, when the manufacture of pottery was still a flourishing industry with the Wakweli, beautiful specimens of work were turned out. I became intensely interested in digging up and collecting fragments of pottery on former town sites. The decorations of some of the finds I made is only another proof that in early times the Wakweli stood on a higher plane of civilization and culture. The same may also be said of the Duala and numerous Bantu tribes.