Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Fon's dance

Once a year the Fon (King or traditional leader) of Bafut hosts an amazing cultural festival the Bafut “Abin”. We have attended now 3 times and this year I danced. Finally!
 The official invitation  includes lunch with the Fon held on a grassy meadow below a massive tree to the left of the museum. At the top of the stairs to the museum, a guard let us through the gate. Chairs were spread along the stone fence overlooking the parade grounds and parking where the dance would take place. We arrived well after the stated start time and waited patiently for his highness, and everyone else to appear.
 When the Fon appears everyone  must stand, till he is seated, and the same when he leaves, till he’s out of sight. He sat flanked by his retainers in their tie dyed indigo ceremonial cloth “skirts”, shirtless, each holding a  2 metre spear.

To his right facing us (sort of, he was behind a small tree) dignitaries are placed according to some formula. Most of them know not to arrive too early, some managing to arrive as they were called up to eat into the serving line.
We sat in the shade, under a canopy till it was our turn to be called up.  The Princesses in traditional attire walked past and an almost endless procession of robed and hatted elites, relatives and invitees arrived. Beer was the chief liquid refreshment although there were also a variety of flavoured  bottled bubbling beverages available.
We were entertained by a local photographer tour guide, who found us to be interesting subjects dressed as we were in traditional clothing. This year I intentionally left my camera behind. Last year I spent most of the event staring through the viewfinder or at the display screen, attempting to capture the pageantry, sumptuous fabrics and embroidery  swirling around me.
It was not so bad at the festival, but I’ve experiencing some challenges taking pictures. The locals never seem to have an issue but my white face brings out resistance and demands for payment.

A number of familiar faces drifted by and we greeted and were greeted ourselves by old acquaintances and friends. This is a well attended opportunity to see and be seen, an annual gathering of the tribes. Family groups, dance groups and the like wearing similar fabrics, designating that they were representing some faction of the populace.
Once lunch was done we stepped out to sit together in one of the local bars while the traditional rites took place. Outside a continuous parade of brightly coloured robes and dresses passed by in the bright sunlight. A vendor came in and I bought a(nother!) hat. I’d noticed most men had a new one each year, so…
I spotted a group going past with swords, spears and bows and arrows so we finished our beers and wandered back through the throng. The crowd was growing, the bandstand full. We positioned ourselves in front of the sacred drum and watched a group slowly make it’s way towards us from the palace, beating drums and playing flutes.
The Fon and the Mayor stood out and blasted away with shotguns,
then the first group came chanting, brandishing weapons and posturing  to stand in front of the Fon and his party. The point of it all is to show they are fierce enough to protect and support the Fondom from attack. Pledging allegiance. But this year no other guns were fired and there were fewer groups or quarters represented.
And then the Fon  began leading a group of notables in the beginning of the dance. He made a small circuit, then sat down to watch. The drummers had maintained their rhythm and moved in closer to the centre.
As the Princesses passed by in a long line  sweeping their horse hair fly wisks in time with the beat, other folks tagged on. I was grooving to the beat and it just seemed natural to step in and follow along, with my cane in hand. The woman ahead of me was impressed and guided me through as we circled in a long oval past the spectators ringing the procession. Numerous cameras and cellphones caught me as I slowly shuffled along. As we approached the shrine she told me to face it as we danced past.
 As I passed the royal party, first the mayor and then the Fon , along with a number of dignitaries,  acknowledged me with raised fists or canes. I was able to respond in kind by lifting my cane.

After 3 or 4 passes both my guide and I were done and  we melted back into the crowd. As best I could anyway, being one of about 9 white faces in a sea of Bafut Cameroonians.
An incredible spectacle, I felt like a Bafut man dancing with the people.

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