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PRONUNCIATION: kam-uh-ROON-ee-uhns
LOCATION: Cameroon
POPULATION: 18.5 million
LANGUAGE: English, French, 24 African languages
RELIGION: Islam, Christianity, indigenous beliefs


Cameroon's present borders tell the history of European great powers' competition and the results on the battlefields of World War I. What began as a German colony in 1885 was surrendered to the British and French in 1916. These colonizers partitioned the country in 1919 and obtained protectorship of their respective portions from the League of Nations in 1922. Protectorate status changed to official trusteeships in 1946 by the vote of the United Nations. The British administered West Cameroon as part of Nigeria, while the French made East Cameroon part of French Equatorial Africa (along with Chad, Gabon, and Congo).

In 1955 Cameroonian insurgency movements led to internal self-governance, which became full independence in 1960. The UN-sponsored plebiscite in 1961 resulted in northern British Cameroon voting to become part of Nigeria, while southern British Cameroon joined with East Cameroon in a bilingual federal republic. Cameroon's first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, declared a one-party state in 1966. In 1972 a unitary constitution and a strong presidential government replaced the Federal Republic, and the country's name became United Republic of Cameroon. In 1982, Ahidjo handed power over to his prime minister, Paul Biya. Biya dropped “United” from the country's name in 1983. He remains in power despite allegations that his party rigged the multiparty elections of 1992, and that in the presidential elections of 2004 his party erected substantial barriers to registering voters and allowed fraudulent balloting.


Larger than California, Cameroon is one of Africa's most diverse countries, physically and culturally. Its crossroads location at the lobe of West Africa earned it the nickname, “the hinge of Africa.” When Portuguese explorers first went up the Wouri River in 1472, they found the estuary teeming with shrimp. The Rio dos Camaroes (River of Shrimp) as they named it, became “Cameroon.” From Lake Chad at 13°n latitude, Cameroon extends southward to 2°N of the equator. Cameroon borders Nigeria to the west and north, Chad and the Central African Republic to the east, and Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Congo to the south.

The climate varies markedly with the latitude and the terrain, from humidly tropical along the coastal plain, to cool in the mountainous west, to semi-arid and hot on the flat and sometimes rolling northern savannah. The vegetation also changes from tropical rain forest in the southwest to semi-desert in the northern reaches. Buttes, inselbergs, and ancient volcanic cores offer picturesque landscapes in the north. To the west lies a long line of rounded mountains of volcanic origin. Mt. Cameroon, an extinct volcano, is the highest point in West Africa at 13,500 ft.

Cameroon's 18.5 million people come from seven major ethnic groups, primarily Fang, Bamiléké, Bamum, Duala, Luanda, Basa, Fulani. However, by some counts, as many as 200 ethnic groups exist within Cameroon's borders. One way of thinking about an ethnic group is to see it as the most extended level of the family. People of the same group usually have origins, history, homeland, language, customs, and name in common. Africans most anywhere identify with their “home” villages, though they may never have lived there.

Since independence, Cameroon has experienced a great rural exodus to the cities. Currently more than 30% of the population is urban. The population is densely concentrated in the south, near the port city of Douala, and in the northwest province around Bamenda. The north, which is primarily land for grazing and cotton production, is sparsely populated. Like most African countries, Cameroon is a country of youth, where 41% of the population is younger than 15 years old.


Cameroonians speak some 24 African languages. In the north, people speak Saharan and Chadic languages, and Bantu languages are spoken in the south. Cameroon is unique in that it has adopted both English and French as its official languages. Though French is dominant and a movement to make French the only official language is alive, northwest and southwest provinces hold tenaciously to English and are unlikely to give in without a major fight.


Cameroonian folklore consists of many intriguing myths and legends from the diverse cultural groups. However, one example from Bamoun recalls how traditional society once treated twins. In former times when a woman gave birth to twins, she presented them directly to the Sultan. A chicken was sacrificed to safeguard them and to ensure their good behavior. The mother then returned home with them and fed them meat. It is said that Bamoun twins have an extraordinary capacity for chewing meat even before teething. At age five, they returned to the palace to stay. The Sultan raised them as his own children, giving them a good education. As they grew older, the Sultan consulted them as his advisors on important decisions. Today, twins still are called Nji (chief), but the Sultan no longer raises them and their former power has diminished greatly.

One of Cameroon's foremost heroes of near mythical status is Douala Manga Bell. The people living near Douala chose him to protect their property from German colonizers. The Germans were attempting to expropriate the city of Douala and its surrounding lands, an explicit violation of an 1884 treaty. The Germans responded to organized resistance with armed force and arbitrary arrests. Finally, they captured Douala Manga Bell and tried him for high treason. They condemned him and a companion to death by hanging in 1914. Douala Manga Bell thus became a martyr-king. Cameroonians remember his heroics and the bravery of his companions in songs and theatrical performances, passed down from generation to generation.


Cameroon is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims each accounting for about 40% of the population. Whereas Christians predominate in the south, Muslims comprise the majority of the population in the north (roughly north of Garoua). As elsewhere in Africa, many people combine aspects of traditional African religion and animist beliefs with their Christian and Muslim faiths. One example of this overlay involves healing. A marabout (teacher and diviner) may advise a sick person to write texts from the holy Quran on a prayer board. The patient then prays by reciting the texts. Next, he dilutes the ink from the board and drinks it, in effect, ingesting the holy words.

If Cameroonians are divided by regional differences and language, there is much harmony and little religious strife amongst people of different faiths. Indeed, communal celebration of Muslim and Christian holidays has resulted in much crossing over from one faith to the other (see Major Holidays ).


Holidays elicit various forms and degrees of celebration, mainly depending on one's region and religious faith. For example, May 20 (National Day), which commemorates the change from a federal to a unitary government in 1972, inspires much greater celebration from Francophones than from Anglo-phones. The residents of the western provinces increasingly see this holiday as a reminder of the power they gave away to the French-speaking majority when their regional assembly was abolished. The inverse is true of Youth Day, which Anglo-phones (especially before unification) celebrated for three days. The championship finals for soccer and track and field events highlighted this holiday, formerly called “Empire Day.”

Similarly, traditions vary for Christmas and New Year's. The Francophones hold great celebrations for New Year's Day, while Christmas for the Anglophones means pageantry, feasting, and best behavior. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, for example, people wear new clothes and go to church. Children put on costumed reenactments of Christ's birth and give poetry recitals. They are judged and the winners perform later at the chief's palace. Near Wum, people form large groups and go from village to village eating, drinking, dancing, and socializing. The feasting is so joyous that Muslims join in the celebrations and go to church. Likewise, for the Ramadan feast, Muslims invite their Christian friends to help them celebrate their main religious holiday.


Traditional rites of passage are losing the significance they once had in Cameroonian society, especially where communities westernize or Western schooling is becoming dominant. Formerly, circumcision was one of the most important rites. It represented the shedding of youth and embracing of man- or womanhood. The transition occurred swiftly within the time frame of the initiation, which lasted from a few weeks to a few months. Upon completion of the rite, a “new” man would build a home, marry, and start a family. A “new” woman would no longer play as a girl, but she would assume the responsibilities of wife and mother.

Nowadays, Christian beliefs, especially from the Protestant faith, are replacing traditional ways. The strict application of Protestant catechism may not distinguish between the cultural and religious forms of initiation. Dancing with masks, for example, may be mistaken for idolatry. Schooling also interrupts the initiation schedules. Consequently, baptisms, First Communions, and weddings may outshine initiation, even though church ceremonies do not entirely replace traditional ways of celebrating passage.


The language of greeting depends on the region, but in French one typically says, Bonjour, comment ça va? (Hello, how are you?), and in Pidgin English one says “How na?” People shake hands and some kiss on the cheek according to the French custom, especially younger people in urban areas. People call someone by extending their arms, palm facing down, and bringing the fingers in and out. Pointing is rude, as is crossing legs at the knees or in the presence of someone with higher authority. The right hand is used to pass or accept objects.

Dating between couples is more commonly seen in the capital and big cities, and marriages are still arranged by family and relatives throughout the country. Visitors appear frequently and unannounced, and relatives commonly stay and are fed for lengthy periods.


Despite favorable agricultural conditions and offshore oil, Cameroon ranks 144th out of 177 countries in terms of human development. Cameroonians face many of the same challenges as other Africans. Almost 7 children out of 100 do not live until their first birthday. Life expectancy at birth is 53.3 years. Unsanitary practices make waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, and parasites very common. Rural health is improving as fewer village women and young people haul water from streams and springs. Instead, thanks to newly developed sealed wells, they can pump water by a foot pedal. In the villages, most homes are still made of mud and thatch, but these gradually are being replaced by concrete hollow block and galvanized iron roofing. In the capital and other cities, electrical power reaches many neighborhoods. Still, migration and squatting are common, resulting in shantytowns where people go without basic conveniences. Bathing and washing clothes in local streams are common.

Most of the main national roads are paved, two-lane highways. An incomplete stretch from east of Yaoundé to Ngaoundéré in the northeast is easily traversed by train. Good train service is also available from Yaoundé to the port of Douala. However, once off the main roads, the terrain can be rugged and some roads are blocked in the rainy season. Most people still travel by taxi bus and bush taxis, which are usually crowded and packed high on top with plastic water containers, sacks of charcoal, and chickens.


Cameroonians typically have large families with at least six children. Families are larger if the head of household has more than one wife. Grandparents and great grandparents generally live in the same compound as their offspring. The elderly command great respect and influence decisions, but the male family head usually leads in important matters. Women shoulder much of the work, tending fields, gathering firewood, and hauling water besides taking care of the children and doing the housework. One practical reason why families are large is that children help at a very early age. As soon as they are old enough, they tend fields with their mothers and siblings. It is common to see a four-year-old girl carrying a baby brother or sister on her back or doing chores around the house.


Traditional dress is found mostly in villages. In the north, Muslim men wear boubous, which are cotton pants over which a waist-, knee- or ankle-length robe is worn. Boubous typically are white, but also are made of other colors. Women wear multicolored flowing robes and cover their heads in public. Although women wear pagnes (sarongs) in the north, they are more popular in the south. The pagne is multipurpose. Not only does it serve as a wraparound skirt, but a second piece can be used to hold a baby to one's back, provide shade for the head, or give warmth on chilly mornings. A turban, usually from the same fabric, covers the head. Cameroon's high-quality cotton makes excellent cloth of traditional African patterns and designs.

In the towns, people wear these clothes too, but are also likely to wear Western pants and shirts. The younger generation wears jeans and T-shirts. Women typically wear blouses over their sarongs. As in many African countries, market traders also sell used clothing from Europe and the United States, which has been shipped by the bale. Children are likely to wear these as everyday clothes.


The staples are corn, millet, cassava, groundnuts, plantains, and yams. These are made into fufu, a stiff paste, which is rolled into small balls and dipped into stews. A favorite is Jamma Jamma, spicy greens, served at the large noon meal. Women and the younger children typically eat together near the cooking fire. People eat out of communal bowls with their right hands, taking care to wash their hands before eating. In the cities or among the more “modernized” Cameroonians, people eat with kitchen utensils much like in the United States. Breakfast for the urbanite might include locally grown coffee, cocoa, or tea with milk and lots of sugar, and some freshly baked hot French bread.

Fruit abounds in Cameroon. Because of seasonal climate variation, one finds oranges, grapefruit, limes, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts in abundance. Common beverages include coffee, tea, palm wine, soft drinks, and beer, all of which are produced locally. Cameroonians love beer as evidenced by the number of breweries, the many brands, and the important role that beer plays in social encounters, parties, ceremonies and feasts.


In Cameroon, education is bilingual, provided by government, missionary, and private schools. At state schools, education is free of charge. The government subsidizes other schools. Primary school begins at six years of age. Children begin high school at the age of 12 or 13, and continue until 19 or 20. High school has two cycles, which vary from the Anglophone to the Francophone region. In 2005 the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollments were 62%, a fairly high ratio for Africa. Similarly, more than two-thirds of adults were literate. The government has established five regional campuses of the University of Yaoundé, each with a different area of specialization. Approximately one of three adults cannot read or write.


The current popularity of Cameroonian modern written literature, film, and makossa and bikutsi music owes its success to an extremely rich and diverse cultural past. In 1974 the Cameroon government decided to protect this heritage by organizing a national culture festival. For Cameroonians, traditional culture expresses beliefs and tells stories about the physical and supernatural worlds. Therefore, it is impossible completely to separate culture, religion, and art from each other.

In traditional society, people still perform ancient rites with music, dance, masks, and statuettes. Among the Mouktélé in the north, music and dance are closely linked to farming and growing cycles. Young women play flutes (madij) when the millet sprouts from the earth. As harvest approaches in October, they are joined by young people playing bark flutes (talok-waï). Others stamp rhythmic beats on the earth with their feet. The neighboring Toupouri dance to tam tams, cover their bodies with butter, and apply a red mineral powder to their chests.

The Bamoun of Foumban play dirge music at night to accuse a person of a serious crime. Fortunately, this gruesome procedure occurs rarely. With lifeless voices, singers march deliberately, hitting iron bells, and tapping on buffalo-skin bags. Fang musicians and storytellers dance and play the mvet, a harp-sitar that uses calabashes as acoustical amplifiers. They tell fables and legends, and narrate heroic events. The Pygmies all sing, improvising many parts and hitting sticks together to celebrate after a successful hunt (see Folk art, crafts, and hobbies ).


Most Cameroonians (70%) work in agriculture as subsistence farmers, herders, and plantation workers. The remaining 30% are divided fairly equally between services (17%) and industry (13%). Like much of Africa, formal jobs with regular salaries and benefits in Cameroon are scarce, and tend to be in the public sector. With an unemployment rate of about 30%, most Cameroonians in the service sector make their livings doing informal jobs such as peddling goods on the street, tending market stalls, or providing the odd service. For example, one 70-year-old Cameroonian woman, Noubissi, is a traditional healer. Her profession is semi-formal in that it is protected by a Cameroonian labor union. She casts out evil spirits while burning herbs that she uses to treat her patients. She specializes in gynecology, pediatrics, female sterility, birthing, and infant health. She only prescribes natural medicines made from herbs that she herself gathers in the forest. Her unfading clientele suggests her efficacy. When asked how she cures people she answers, “Only God knows. He guides my hands.”


Cameroonians are soccer fanatics, and rightly so. Cameroon's national team, “The Lions,” qualified for the 1982, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002 World Cups, and went to the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals. In the 2008 Africa's Cup of Nations, Cameroon was defeated by Egypt in the championship match. Young men and boys play soccer with any kind of ball on nearly any kind of field, giving Cameroonians a constant source of entertainment. In 2008 Cameroon and China signed agreements to construct multi-million dollar soccer stadiums, Olympic-sized swimming pools and other world-class sports infrastructure in Doula, Yaoundé, Bafoussam, and Limbe. Other popular sports include basketball, tennis, and handball. Some men are fond of chess and checkers.


Socializing at baptisms, weddings, and parties or going out to night spots where music is played and people dance often passes as entertainment; and at these venues Cameroonian makossa music defines much of the popular culture. People play it everywhere: on their transistor radios, at truck stops and taxi stands, in pubs and restaurants, and in nightclubs. Musicians such as Manu Dibango and Sam Fan Thomas became international celebrities. A blind Bamiléké singer, André-Marie Tala, nicknamed Ray Charles, topped the charts in the 1970s. The music is hard-hitting with a tight, fast-paced rhythm that has spawned a number of rivals among them the extremely popular bikutsi. Bikutsi comes from the Beti people around Yaoundé and means “to beat the earth.” It is danced at parties, weddings and funerals and has generated controversy for the sexual content of its lyrics and suggestive dancing styles. Current top artists are Patou Bass and Ovasho Bens.

Cameroonian television consists of the government station, which has limited broadcast hours. However, with the coming of satellite dishes, Cameroonian audiences increasingly tune into world culture beamed from outer space.


Cameroonian art is rich and meaningful. Through art, people tell their history, or express their beliefs about nature, procreation, leadership, divinity, and the afterlife. Artists use their natural materials to sculpt, carve, shape, and fashion objects to help them express their understanding of the world to younger generations. Art objects include “elephant” masks; wooden, bronze, and bead-covered statuettes; carved pillars and bed posts; woven baskets; and pottery. The Tso dancers of the Kuosi (one Bamiléké community) wear fabulous, intricately beaded elephant masks when a chief or an important dignitary dies. Statuettes with fat cheeks symbolize good eating, while protruding bellies represent fecundity.

Many other crafts have cultural, practical, or monetary value. Craftspeople fashion tam tams and various kinds of flutes. Contemporary artists copy ancient forms and sell their art to tourists who come to visit Cameroon for its cultural heritage, natural beauty, and national parks.


Cameroon's social problems—unemployment, crime, government corruption, human trafficking, forced child labor and money laundering—are in part due to a stalled political transition from authoritarian one-party rule to multiparty democracy. Newspapers regularly carry stories alleging civil rights abuses, beatings, and even fatalities related to government crackdowns on public protests, demonstrations and strikes. Some of the violence stems from the rivalry between the Anglophone west and the Francophone east. In the 1990s the government sent troops into the western provinces to quell demonstrations.

Cameroonians also face serious economic and social challenges. The population growth rate is nearly 3%, which means by the year 2015 Cameroon will have a population of almost 23 million, most of it younger than 20 years old. The demand for education, health, and jobs will be very great. Moreover, intensive and unsustainable land uses are contributing to deforestation, overgrazing, desertification, poaching, and over fishing. Some reports indicate that Cameroon has become a transshipment point for drugs that formerly transited through Nigeria.


Cameroon is a male-dominated society where women face unequal treatment under customary and statutory law, and discrimination in private sector employment, the civil service, political appointments, and in the country's social hierarchy. Women are expected to raise children, cook and do household chores, work in the fields, fetch water and firewood, and generally do not go out on their own to socialize in public unless it is at the market or running errands. About 20% fewer girls than boys enroll in primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions, and about 30% fewer women than men are literate. Considered property of their husbands, women generally do not own land or inherit property when their husbands die. Girls are subject to trafficking, early forced marriage, and rape.

Female Bikutsi musicians and performing artists like KTino, who sees herself as a Cameroonian suffragette, use their music to liberate and emancipate Cameroonian women.


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Debel, Anne. Le Cameroun Aujourd'hui. Paris: Les Editions Jeune Afrique, 1985.

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Lobe, Iye Kala. Doula Manga Bell: Heros de la Resistance Doula. Grandes Figures Africaines. Paris: ABC, 1977.

Mbaku, John Mukum. Culture and Customs of Cameroon. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

—by R. Groelsema