Socially: the program provides very entertaining and enriching alternatives to street gangs, drugs and prostitution. Read more

Economically: the program saves the city council huge amounts of money in terms of policing, drug, alcohol and other social rehabilitation programs and prison upkeep. Read more

Culturally: it enriches the city or country. Africa still remains a mystery to most people. Its culture is little known. Read more

Tourism: many cities and countries derive a huge chunk of their revenues from tourism. Read more

Health: the explosion of child obesity and other numerous health concerns tied to inactivity in North America provides a good reason for the introduction of these dances. Read more

My first encounter with Tamukung >

At the entrance, we ran into a strapping fellow with bloodshot eyes called Nohkumba. Actually, this was not his real name, a mere sobriquet that stood for “the thief from Kumba.”  (Later, I learned that the actual meaning of Nohkumba is “a fool confides in his enemy.”) At a time when crimes were virtually nonexistent in this district, this man had quite a terrible reputation with the local police. Despised, he lurked on the margin of society and was prepared to do harm to anyone who got him upset. I knew of this reputation, my older sister having lectured me never to look in his direction whenever he was around. So, as soon as he loomed into sight, in those fleeting seconds that our eyes met, I drew closer to my friend, and nudging him sneakily, I nervously told him not to look in the man’s direction.

“Which man?” my friend let the cat out of the bag as his head circled like a radar in search of the person I was talking about. The old crook seemed to have picked up whispers of the warning, even though it was issued underneath my breath.

“Vaakeulong!” he muttered in the local dialect between clenched teeth to my utter horror. 

“How did he know I was the blacksmith’s son?”

Without any further delay, I told my friend that it was unsafe for us to be within the sight of this ruffian and we hastily disappeared into the population. 

The ground was jammed to capacity with a motley crowd of people, many of whom had come with some precious items to be exhibited and were anxiously looking forward to lifting one of the coveted prizes. There were numerous vehicles parked in a section of the ground, some with animals confined in huge cages and others with various products that would eventually go on display. Some animals were tethered to feed in an area lush with grass behind the stands while their owners watched on, occasionally patting and pampering them and voicing some words of endearment in one of the numerous native languages. Still to be displayed but placed on stands or directly on the grass were many kinds of attractive stuffs, a wood carving, brass and raffia works, furniture scintillating with finish, and numerous machines for processing some local food items.

Squeezing ourselves like maggots through the human jumble, we finally got to a wide path that had been opened up in front of the stands built all round so that they hemmed in the entire ground. Picking our way on this path to avoid the squeeze, we drifted with the human flow, chatting merrily and feasting our eyes on all the marvels the diverse worlds of agriculture and culture had to offer. 

There were the tractors, Ford as I now look back, the ploughs, intricate food processing machines and plant sprinkling devices, pigs, cattle, horses, goats, and sheep. There were birds of all kinds, mouth-watering snacks and foodstuff and a wide range of local beverages. 

We got to a stand where local fashion was on display and in my outfit I might have been mistaken for an object of exhibition myself. There were beautiful and intricately embroidered iridescent Cameroonian western grassfields costumes called toug, very traditional and hand-woven outfits, the ample and richly decorated overflowing Hausa robes called gandoura, hats of all kinds from different parts of Southern Cameroons. My friend and I were all over the place, shuttling from one vantage point to the other, and even though we did not quite understand a lot of what was going on, we tried to follow what was being said, including the exposé of a tall, shaggy-looking American agro-engineer from a small town called Bambui. It is much later I knew he was American because I vividly recall what the small flag that fluttered near his stand looked like. I think it was his white color and the rather intriguing way he talked that fascinated us more than the content of what he was saying. Back then, white people were as scarce as dog’s tears in this part of Africa.

As should be expected, we wrapped up our tour at the section where food items were sold. There were guruguru, elongated and hard peppery snacks made out of the compressed flour of roasted peanuts and corn; and akra, deep-fried corn cakes sweetened with banana and a speciality of our cuisine introduced by Hausa immigrants from Northern Nigeria. We came to an old lady selling steaming mayimayi, a tasty pudding made out of beans and palm oil and I bought some which I shared with my friend. There were huge stacks of juicy sugarcanes, baskets of sweet-smelling fruits, steamed yams and boh, heavily spiced roasted peanut paste stuffed with meats. After eating ourselves to a stupor, we washed down our food with ginger, a peppery, sweet drink that was locally produced from the juice of certain wild plants.

Since it was in the late afternoon that the folk dance competition would begin, I decided to rush back home and have a nap before then. Rambling in the hot tropical sun and eating all kinds of snacks and goodies had taken their toll. I was fast asleep when someone eagerly woke me up. It was my mother.

“What are you still doing here?” she asked in amusement. “Tamukung is already in the Agricultural Show ground and would soon begin dancing,” she announced.

Very frantically, I jumped out of bed, stormed out of the room and headed straight for the ground. Fortunately for me, it was just a stone’s throw away, so in less than three minutes I was already there. I arrived just when the musicians were busy setting their xylophones, a twenty-piece instrument of thick, hard, red, noisy tropical wooden bars played by four strapping princes, rumoured to be real virtuosos in the matter.  As for the accompanying drum, it belonged to a class of its own. It was a work of art in genuine Tikar tradition, with a long and tall anthropological tale to recount. Standing about 1.20m above the ground, with a long rope for the player to strap round his waist to keep it in place while he pounded away, this one seemed very special. Tapering downward from the top section where the leather is, it began to broaden at the base, giving it a kind of dumbbell shape.

Every inch of the way, on that hard mahogany wood out of which it was carved, it had different kinds of tribal motives etched on the surface all round it: a chief in tribal garb sitting on his throne, a thatch house, a lizard, a pair of gong, a hunter returning home with his catch dangling at the end of a pole, a tapper on his way back from his raffia farm with wine, and a woman pounding food in a mortar. These images summed up tribal life and captured the very essence of these cultural competitions.

The slit-drum, with both handles representing the head of a mamba baring its fangs, was just as spectacular. As for the pair of gongs, it was as ancient as the hills, bearing splotches of some red camwood mixtures and with its handle encapsulated in a wicker woven out of lianas that grew in our forests and were referred to locally as mulongo. Wielded by a tall, strong fellow whose bulging biceps stuck out of sleeveless Ndobo raiment, they were huge and unleashed a dull, heavy note that blended neatly with the sound of the drums and xylophones.

I was still busy taking in the musicians and their instruments when my ears caught a rattling note. I looked up in the direction from where the sound had emanated. My word, what was I seeing! Half hidden by a segment of the grandstand where the dignitaries were sitting, on a path that had been cleared to let in the various dance groups, was what I had waited for so long to see. Almost blending in with the surrounding population, but still standing out well enough for a person to see was Tamukung.

Lined up in Indian file according to their heights, with a very tall dancer bringing up the rear, they were about sixteen of them, all dressed up in some of the finest of very traditional dancing regalia. Brand new, the outfits the dancers had on were designed out of the alternating blue-white stripe Ndobo material (originally woven by the Njokuns, an ethnic cousin to the Tikar and Chamba people of the western region of Cameroon, but later became one of the tribal signatures of the Tikar, especially when Ibrahima Njoya became the Sultan of the Bamouns), with the edges of the arms, collars and girds rimmed with cured goatskin. This being a ritual dance that had been transformed into a recreational one, they all had their faces covered and sported some of the most beautiful dancing head masks I have ever seen.

They were gaudy Tikar masks, crafted by some of the best masters in the trade, with many of them encrusted with copper embellishments, beads, and cowries, the trademarks of the greatest of these artists. Their dancing whisks, of horsetails set on carved hardwood and sometimes ivory handles, were decorated with beads in the grand style of the Bansos, Bamilekes and Bamouns (three major Tikar groups). As for the seeds used to make the rattles strapped around their feet, they were something else. Fat and flat and woven into a thick cluster, their vibrations could scare the devil out of hell during dancing. I was very impressed.

Just by himself, the lead dancer, or the akam as he is known in this part of the world, could be compelling material for an entire dissertation in cultural anthropology at the University of Harvard or Oxford, so we need not go too much into him. Unlike the other dances, his outfit was dark and intricately woven and his headpiece, like those of some of the other dancers, anthropomorphic. At the time, the akam was a stocky gentleman said to be the very best in the art, my namesake I am proud to announce, to wit Ta Ayeh.

Shortly after I had breezed in, and amid all kinds of curses and complaints I had managed to squeeze myself through the forest of legs of spectators to my vantage position, the voice of the announcer proudly rang out with those magic words: “Tamukung of Bamendankwe.” I adjusted and sat up as the xylophones immediately struck up, and then the drums rolled in and rumbled in one of the most beautiful melodies I had ever heard.  It was thunderous and the ground was shaking. With the akam leading the way in a prancing gait, and the other dancers in tow, Tamukung strutted into the ground like Spartan soldiers. The competition was on.  And as my people, with a hefty but not undeserved reputation for bragging, tend to announce: “If you want punches you’ll see punches!” which in plain North American English stands for “Bring it on!”

“Atungsiri built his house and spent the night outside…” the old lines of a popular village lore to shame a chicken thief, which I would hear so often after, were hammered out of the xylophones in the language of my forefathers. I could literally feel my head swelling with pride that my own people could put it all together that beautifully. And as the dancers strutted their stuff, the spectators voiced their approval in countless cheers.  

Since there were many dances participating in the contest, Tamukung had to stage its performance only for ten minutes. But in those ten minutes, the troupe went through quite a good number of pieces in its repertoire. Then came the exit song, whose lyrics another uncle of mine, Dr Martin Ngu Ndumu, this one a math professor at the Maryland Eastshore University in the United States and a cultural icon with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the Western Grassfields, would chant to me later.

“The elephant is passing through the compound of Ta Fundoh…” he chanted as he regaled me with cultural tales of the folk dances of our people.
Ta (father) Fundoh Muma, he told me, was the originator of Tamukung, and of course the elephant is the dance itself. He said that when Ta Fundoh started it, it was the dance of his compound (almost all big compounds in Bamendankwe own dances) until he staged it before the Fon (Chief) of Bamendankwe and he was so enamoured with its sheer beauty and sense of style that he asked Ta Fundoh to make it the dance of the people by handing it over to him. The name “Tamukung” means “the Father of Dancers” in Mendankwe, the dialect of the Bamendankwe people.
In the cultural competition, Tamukung won the first prize, a feat this dance would repeat in numerous other occasions and competitions. After the event, bursting with pride, l let it be known to anyone who cared to listen that Tamukung came from our village, a place I had never actually known. By associating with the dance and my uncle who was its manager and technical director, this gave me a sense of pride, belonging and identity, an example that we would emulate years later, when carried away by a dance fantasy, we started a troupe in our compound.