Between the mid-19th century to early 20th century, the kingdom of Bamum was ruled by a very charismatic king who brought series of innovations to his kingdom, including inventing a writing script with which he preserved his people’s history and culture.
Bamum which lies in the Grassfields region of western Cameroon, was an ancient kingdom dating back to the 14th century. Founded by mfom (or king) Nchare―who reputedly crushed some 18 rulers, its capital was the walled city of Fumban (or Mfomben). By c. 1886, the kingdom came under the rule of King Mbouombou Ibrahim Njoya at a time when colonial involvement and encroachment on African lands was a top priority for European powers.
Mbouombou Njoya: Biography
Born c. 1860 to king Nsangu and queen Njapdunke, Njoya was the 17th in a long dynasty of kings who ruled over Bamum. Following his father’s death, Njoya could not immediately become king as he was deemed too young to rule. His mother acted as regent until he reached maturity.
Not long after his rise to power, the young king had to come to terms with the Germans who had a great influence in the area. The Germans had helped him recover his father’s head which was held by an old adversary, the Nso people. By tradition the head or skull of an ancestor is of ceremonial importance to the Bamum, and without it, any heir of the deceased could not be officially accepted as king.
Historically, Njoya was a man of faith who changed his religion from time to time. According to Mark D. DeLancey et al., in their Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cameroon, Njoya converted to Christianity under the influence of a German missionary. He later syncretised the traditional Bamum religion with Christianity to create a new religion, before converting to Islam in 1916.
He is thought to have married about 600 wives and to have had about 177 children in all.
Reign and Innovations
Njoya once becoming king, proved to be an able leader who made sure that all his people had access to him. By 1914, he held durbar (or court) daily outside the gatehouse. This served for the dispensing of justice and receipt of tribute.
Before his reign towards the end of the 19th century, the history of the Bamum people was preserved primarily through oral transmission from one generation to the other. Out of fear that important historical facts of the Bamum could be erased or corrupted, Njoya initiated a variety of ambitious and forward-thinking cultural projects. Among them was his introduction of the A-ka-u-ku script; based on pictograms and ideograms of about 70 characters fused from Vai and Arabic scripts. This alphabet was used to write down the history of his people. He established schools in which Bamun children extended their knowledge of their mother tongue, and learned the Bamun script.
According to various sources, Njoya may have also invented a hand-powered mill for grinding corn and other cereals, among other things.
Contact with European Powers
By the time Njoya became king, Germany had taken over parts of what is now Cameroon and were advancing further inland. Njoya, thinking it unwise to resist their advancement, greeted them with open arms. He would generally have good relations with the German. However, things would soon take a new shape; and for the worse. By 1914, British and French troops had invaded Cameroon, ousting the Germans. By 1916, Njoya’s Kingdom would come under French rule, losing its partial autonomy. The French who felt threatened by Njoya’s achievements, raided his kingdom, including the capital Fumban, banned the use of his writing script and destroyed his printing press, as well as his libraries and several books written by him.
Despite being abolished as king by the French, Njoya continued―in a de facto manner―to lead his people from Fumban. In 1931, the French exiled him to Yaoundé (today’s capital of Cameroon). There he died in 1933 at the age of 66.
He was succeeded by his son Seidou Njimoluh Njoya. His grandson, Sultan Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, today preserves what is a remnant of a once powerful and prosperous kingdom. Under his reign―although in a ceremonial fashion, the palace has also continued to witness a transformation into a museum, in which school children are learning Ibrahim Njoya’s Bamum script.
(By; Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)