My memories of visiting Foumban, Cameroon in 2006 are still fairly vivid after a twelve-year absence. The palace with a statue of a mfon (local king or sultan) on horseback in front stands out, as does touring the museum of the palace and meeting with the sultan. The biennial Nguon festival was just celebrated there this month. I have not been able to attend during the festival periods yet, but I hear they are fantastic. This year, the city faces some acute security challenges as close as Bamenda, about 150 km away. Interestingly, both Bamenda and Foumban figure into the developments that led toward the approval of the Cameroonian federal constitution, with conferences between 1955 (in Bamenda, on the Anglophone side) and July, 1961 (in Foumban, where the Anglophones met with the Francophones on the Francophone side). While there were expectations on the Anglophone side that the process may continue to iterate after Foumban with more months of negotiation, the Constitution was nevertheless agreed to by representatives of both sides in August, 1961 in Yaoundé, ostensibly pending approval in the Houses of Assembly of both West Cameroon and la République du Cameroun. The House of Assembly of West Cameroon never gave its approval to the constitution before Cameroon became an independent federal republic in October, 1961. So the background to the current conflict has deep roots, and remains contested.
Fig. 1. The Royal Palace of Bamum Kings, Foumban, Cameroon
In addition to its role in the political development of the country, Foumban has also historically served as the source for great linguistic innovations at the palace, dating to the time of Sultan Ibrahim Mbouombouo Njoya, whose reign over the Bamum people was from ca. 1886 to 1933. He was not only inventor of a script for the Bamum, the last phase of which became known as “A-ka-u-ku” after its first four characters, but he also invented the secretive court language of Shü-mom in 1913. The A-ka-u-ku script was the final form resulting from multiple earlier stages of development, recorded in manuscripts produced beginning around 1896.
Fig. 2. Participants in the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project, Foumban, 2006
My 2006 visit was coordinated with Dr. Konrad Tuchscherer of St. John’s University and Oumarou Nchare of the Bamum Scripts and Archives Project. A trio of fonts was under development by Jason Glavy, applying different styles to A-ka-u-ku, and there was interest in getting feedback on these and a keyboard for use with the script. Unicode proposals were also developed for early and late stages of Bamum with Michael Everson; support started to become available with the releases of Unicode 5.2 in 2009 and 6.0 in 2010. A Noto Sans font from Google is now available for Bamum, and an online character picker can be found here. There is a known issue affecting diacritic placement in the Noto font in some applications, but for best current results in viewing the picker, font settings in Chrome should be set to support Noto Sans Bamum.
Fig. 3. A screenshot of a character picker for the A-ka-u-ku stage of the Bamum script, viewed in Google Chrome on Windows 10 with settings that support viewing of the installed Noto font.
The Endangered Archives Program of the British Library supported the digitization of a large set of the Bamum manuscripts, which may be found here. The Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris holds a small set of four additional manuscripts, not yet fully digitized, with inventory numbers 71.1934.171.1373 through 71.1934.171.1376. The longest of these, 71.1934,171.1375, runs for 567 pages and is a registry of births in Foumban dated to 1911. The four manuscripts in France were collected by Henri Labouret in the 1930’s. There is some metadata available for these, but further processing such as transcription and translation by and large has yet to start in earnest.
Fig. 4. The statue and garden behind the palace in Foumban.
There is a new museum that has been constructed in Foumban since I visited; architecturally it takes the form of a double-headed serpent, a symbol of the king’s strength. There is some wild drone footage of it as it was being constructed here.