Identification: Bamileke is a collective term referring to a loose aggregation of some 100 kingdoms or chiefdoms of the eastern Grassfields in the western province of Cameroon. The kingdoms are of varying size but have similar cosmology and social and political structures; they speak distinct, although related languages.

“Bamileke” Derive from a mispronunciation of a Bali (western Grassfields) interpreter’s designation, “Mba Lekeo,” or “the people down there,” which has been associated with the region since at least 1910, possibly since 1890s. Currently, Bamileke people most often refer to themselves as "Bamileke" when speaking to a non-Bamileke, and as a member of their specific kingdoms, villages or tribe when speaking with other Bamileke.

Location: The Bamileke region extends roughly from 5° to 6° N and 10° to 11° E. The region is 6,196 km² long and is bounded by the Bamboutos Mountains on the northwest and the Noun River on the southeast. The Bamileke region is made out of seven administrative divisions within the western provinces: Bamboutos, Haut-Nkam, Hauts-Plateaux, Koung-Khi, Mifi, Menoua, and Nde. Its irregular, hilly relief and great differences in soil quality characterize the region. Valleys, which have the richer soils, are mixed savanna and forest. Basalt and other volcanic rocks are common. The high-altitude prairie, for which the Grassfields are named, consists of non-cultivated land and at average elevation of 1,400 meters. Temperatures range from 13° C to 23° C, and rainfall amounts to more than 160 centimeters per year. The dry season lasts from mid-November to mid-February, with a fluctuating rainy season occurring during the remaining months.

Demography: No census data exist on the Bamileke as a people, but scholars estimate that they constitute about 25 to 30 percent of Cameroon’s diverse population. The overall population of the Bamileke in the late 1980s was approximately 2 million, 1 million of whom resided on the Bamileke plateau. Average population density is 200 km² but ranges from 15 to 400 inhabitants per km². The Bamileke region represents a pocket of relatively high fertility within the central African “infertility belt.” The birth rate is 49 per thousand, and completed fertility is 6.3. Infant mortality is 158 per thousand; life expectancy is 39.9 at birth, increasing to 49.2 at age 5.

The Bamileke area has served as a labor reserve since the early colonial period. Emigration, beginning at the turn of the twentieth century and intensify in the 1930s, has greatly influenced Bamileke demography and social life. The order, intensity, and scale of emigration have varied over time. Most immigrants were Bana during German colonization; Bafang, Bafoussam, Bangangte, and Dschang in the 1940s; and Bangangte in the 1950s and 1960s. In urban centers and peripheral regions of agricultural colonization, Bangangte continue to provide the largest numbers of emigrants. The predominantly male migration continues, as youths search for jobs to earn cash for consumer goods, bride-wealth, and to gain titles. Kingdom-specific voluntary associations play an important role in the social life of urban immigrants and help link them socially, politically, and economically to their place of origin. Many Bamileke maintain land in their home areas “ a foot in the land of the ancestors”, and movement back and forth between urban centers and rural villages is common.

Linguistic Affiliation: Bamileke languages, which are tonal, belong to the Grasslands Bantu Group of Broad Bantu languages. While some scholars list 24 Bamileke languages, nearly every kingdom names its own dialect as a separate language. Bamileke languages are not always mutually intelligible. Bordering kingdoms may speak languages that differ only slightly, but, because of intense migration over the past three hundred years, geographic proximity is not always a predictor of mutual intelligibility. Many contemporary Bamileke also speak French, and quite a few speak West Coast Pidgin and/or English.


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