By Edwin Ardener (in Nigeria No. 60, pp. 31-8, 1959)
The Bakweri are a small tribe of some 16,000 people who live on the slopes of the Cameroon Mountain. They are quiet and reserved and are not widely known outside the Southern Cameroons despite the fact that both the Premier of the Southern Cameroons, Dr. E. M. L. Endeley, and the capital, Buea, are Bakweri.
Not many non Bakweri have the opportunity of witnessing their ceremonies, and it is rarely indeed that the participants will allow photographs to be taken. As members of the Elephant Society Mr. Mbwaye and I were in a privileged position.
This is the season when the annual dances of the society (Njoku Male) are held. Members, in the higher grades at least, claim the power to own elephant 'doubles' into which they can change at will. There are four grades in Male known as Love, Venjuka, Tamba and Vekpa which have an ascending scale of entrance fees, and which are open to men only.
Mr. Mbwaye, the Southern Cameroons Information Service photographer, is a member of Tamba. A member with an elephant double is thought to be able to trample on the farms of his enemies in elephant form, and to transport himself (and any friends he may link arms with) at tremendous speeds from place to place. Such a member must however take the risk that if his elephant double is killed by a hunter he too will suddenly die.
The society came from Womboko on the other side of the Cameroon Mountain. It was there that the belief in the power to change into an elephant (njoku) seems to have been grafted on to the widespread Male society, which, without this belief, is found all over the inland Kumba Division. A number of Bakweri villages have the society. The most well known is Wokpaongo near Buea, but less accessible villages such as Mafanja, Wova and Gbasa can sometimes show more of the traditional features of the society.
The evening before the annual dance of a society a bonfire is lit (ewond' a Male), and that night members are believed to enter their elephant bodies and trample through the bush. Next morning, as I saw one year at Mafanja, the damage is visible on neighbouring farms, although it must be said that the `elephants' seemed to have scrupulously avoided plots in use.
On the next day, usually nowadays a Sunday, the public is allowed to witness a dim reflection of these activities in the annual dance.
First there is a general dance of the members of the society dressed in head and waist cloths, with their bodies smeared with red mud and decked with vegetation of various kinds. This dance is known as Veambe and the participants, some of whom are quite young children, wind in and out of the village to the rhythm of the drums. This is said to represent the movement of the elephant herd through the forest, but some of the members almost seem to be dressed to resemble the forest itself. Most of the old meaning of this dance is lost and young members view it as an opportunity for bizarre fancy dress.
Then comes the spectacular part of the ceremony the entry of the elephants themselves (njoku), not, alas, the real elephant doubles, but representations suitable for public view. The njoku are dressed from the waist down in large spreading skirts of palm frond, while the rest of the bodies and the beads and arms of the dancers are completely enclosed in loose head dresses of sacking with a shaggy covering of raffia. From these extend `tusks' of iron wood, held from inside by the dancer. The whole head dress is extensible to twice the height by raising the tusks at arm's length above the head. As the njoku dance they stamp their feet, and `lisonjo' nut shells round their ankles make a rhythmic rattling. Senior members of the society pretend to hunt the elephants, and the elephants in their turn charge at the hunters and strike their tusks furiously into the ground.
After a time the elephant dancers rest and the popular `clown' of the society comes on. This is Moseke, a dancer covered in a net costume from head to foot, with yellow garden eggs for eyes. There is a special Moseke drum theme with a catchy rhythm, and the spectators join in with clapping. His appearance is eagerly awaited and be has to be a good dancer or suffer the criticism of the crowd. At the end of his performance, after some humorous by play, Moseke is presented with a fowl by one of the senior members. This year I noticed that at Wokpaongo he only received an empty dish, the members having failed to make the necessary subscription in time. On the other hand his dancing in general opinion did not reach the standard of great Mosekes of other years.
Another figure of the Male celebrations is Ekpang' a Teta, the `policeman' of the occasion. He has a wooden mask painted black and white and carries a knife and ‘medicine’, and strides about the dance ground, his ankle-shells rattling, threatening the crowd in a guttural language of his own. Ekpahg' a Teta is traditionally lent for the occasion by the Nganya society (a more exclusive group that sings satirical songs at night).
Eventually, after further dancing by the `elephants', the celebrations come to a close and the members repair to their own feast, and the real business of the society.
Pictures courtesy of Makuna Tande