The Baham museum
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Secret societies and religion
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Secret societies and religion

In Baham, the social and political organisation is based on the distribution of titles organised into a hierarchy and on the so-called secret societies (only some are really secret) which represent: the religious, political, economic, military, judicial and cultural structures controlling social life and limiting where necessary any abuse of power by the king feu; the skeleton of the whole social structure; the court that allowed individuals to express themselves and play a part in the affairs of the kingdom; etc.

These associations certainly do not hide their existence, their ritual material or their emblems etc. but for the most powerful, what is really done there, namely the practices and rites, the meanings of the symbols, in a word, their essence, remains prohibited for the outsider. There is a wide variety of mkem (on taking power a king can create one or several) and each one can have its masks, its dances, its symbols and its specific material that distinguishes it from the others.
 
    The kou’gaing society in action


The kom manu’ society parading with a young successor

They can be classified according to their functions (political, military, esoteric, religious, judicial etc.), the periods of their foundation, their meeting places (the mkem of the royal residence as opposed to those of the quarters or of the powerful lineages), the social stratification ( mkem of princes or of the members with royal blood, mkem of retainers or the notable commoners). Masks, receptacles, costumes, seats, different elements of material culture are used by the mkem both as ritual material in their activities and as emblems and symbols indicating their ranks, legitimising the power and authority of the individual or collective holder. In the kingdoms on the Bamiléké plateau as here in Baham, power was in the shadow of secret and surrounded by mystery and the sacred, hence the somewhat terrifying, disturbing and religious aspects of the powerful secret societies.

 
    An initiation ceremony

This is materialised by the masks, receptacles, costumes, statues, adornments and other plastic productions both regarding the forms and the dramatic and spectacular setting, their vision having to cause intense emotion and making a deep impression during the rituals. The objects held in greatest awe when they are sacred are those associated with the (kaing), simultaneously transcendence, strength, dynamism, magic, rites of initiation and of fertility.


The nye society on the market place

The Baham believe in the supreme being Si, whilst worshipping several divinities, apart from Christianity which has been expanding since the first half of the 20 th century. The Baham fear the action of the dead, in particular of the ancestors over the living. Ancestor worship is the foundation of autochthonous religion. As the political and social organisation rest on religious conceptions closely linked with the territory, these ancestors, in particular royalty, represent a sort of lobby who in the beyond can intercede in community life. Their worship is periodic and uses various ritual materials: masks, statues, receptacles, musical instruments, costumes etc. In Baham, there are sanctuaries for the family, the quarter, the lineage and the kingdom. The most important of the ten or so main sanctuaries is Fovu’.


The hweneka’ society in action

The beliefs of the Baham linked to divining, cursing ndo, witchcraft, magic, protection and purification of the kingdom in occult ways, give rise to rites, dances and different ceremonies of the secret societies using specific material, sculpted, painted, woven and embroidered figures. The most spectacular appearance of these productions takes place during funeral ceremonies, the enthronement of kings and notables, the biannual rites of kaing (rites relative to initiations, to cults of fertility, the evocation and use of occult forces for the well-being of the group). One of the main reasons that explains the close relationship between art and religion is that graphic or plastic expression restores to language the dimension of what cannot be expressed. The difficulty of perceiving the invisible world, the problem of showing the aspects of supernatural powers whilst concealing those that are reserve for the initiated, require recourse to symbols.

     
     
     
     

Crest mask (thwe msouop)

     
     
     
     
 
     

Cimier de danse

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