Sunday 8 April 2012

International African Festival of the Nyem Nyem People

The International Festival of the Nyem Nyem people annually takes place in the Adamawa region of Cameroon. Villagers and visitors climb into caves in the village of Galim while the Nyem Nyem people celebrate with war dancing. Though it’s deemed international and occurs yearly, it’s actually quite difficult to find concrete information about the festival. Being Cameroon, logistics take place at the very last minute and most publicity is done by word-of-mouth.

Thus, it was only through my Fulfulde (local language of Cameroon’s Grand North) instructor that I found out about the festival. He originally told me the dates were April 16-April 18th, but the members of the Red Cross told me April 7-9th. I did a final check with the Delegate of the Ministry of Tourism who stated April 6-8th. Like I said, concrete information is hard to come by!

I was in Yaounde for my Peace Corps Close-of-Service conference until April 5th, so when I arrived to Ngaoundere by the night train, I wasn’t sure what would really happen. And if someone had told me what would occur, I probably wouldn’t have believed them anyways.

At 11AM, Esther, a teacher and community volunteer, and I headed off to Narral bus agency. The only bus to Galim left earlier in the morning, but we could take a car to Tignere, which was only 55km away. The issue was that there was only a 1:30PM bus which was already full! We had to get there by nightfall as the war dancing would occur in the early morning.

Esther went to Alliance bus agency and called her friend at National bus agency to see if there were other cars – both fails. I called the Red Cross, but they had already left. The Delegate of Culture had already left as well. Renting a car would be too expensive on my Peace Corps salary. How would we get to this festival that was 145km away?

And that’s when a crazy idea hit me in the face. Why don’t we motorbike there? In the Ngaoundere area, you only motorbike 5km or so, no more. Otherwise, you always take a car. With no options left, I called a friendly motorbike-driving friend of mine, Obro. He and Esther said they would be in for a three-day adventure. Let’s go!

About three hours into the journey

So we were mistaken and it wasn’t 145km, but rather a 200km drive with the three of us piled on Obro’s motorbike. It was uncomfortable, but manageable…until I saw the rain clouds. “Ca va aller. Il n’y a pas un problem! (It’s good. There’s no problem!),” Obro said. It started to sprinkle and I held my breath. It stopped. Phew. It started to sprinkle again. Then no more. On the third sprinkle, it was a downpour!

Unfortunately, we were in the middle-of-nowhere with neither nothing nor no one in sight, so the only option we had was to keep on driving! Of course, the rains stopped once we reached a small village where Obro stopped to pray and we ate lunch. As we arrived to Tignere, we decided to continue on to Galim. Obro made a call as he said this would be the last place we’d have cell phone service. “Obro, do your relatives know we’re staying with them when we get to Galim?” I asked. He said no and as I proceeded to question him, it turned out that he’d never met these long-lost relatives. “Ca va aller. Il n’ y a pas un problem!” he says.

Still not there, but rather the middle-of-nowhere

He was happy to see an American

So there I was squeezed between a taximan and a teacher headed off to the tiny Cameroonian village of Galim, no clue where I will spend the night nor would I have cell phone service. Did I mention five hours had already passed by on this muddy motorbike? Sometimes I hate my crazy ideas.

Another hour passed and voila! We reached Galim safely and there was already dancing at the Lamido’s (traditional chief’s) palace. As I sorely jumped off the moto, I realized Obro didn’t have a suitcase. “Ca va aller. Il n’y a pas un problem!” he says.

The Lamido’s son, Aboubakar, saw little foreigner me and offered us a place for the night. Obro went off to find his long-lost relatives with whom he’d stay and Aboubakar led us inside the palace to a lavish meal of plantains, pasta, fruits, vegetables, and meat. Back at his house, I “bucket bathed” outside underneath the stars as I questioned whether this was actually reality.

The veranda to the house where we stayed for the weekend

Our host, Aboubakar, the son of the traditional chief

In the morning, Aboubakar had a motorman take us back to the Lamido Palace where we ate breakfast before running into the Red Cross volunteers and a few other people I knew from Ngaoundere. After breakfast and the arrival of the traditional chiefs of the nearby villages, we headed off to climb the caves on Mont Djim! Apparently, there’s a magic water spring that you can drink from that will cure all ailments, but I was more interested in the war dancing (and I didn’t believe it would cure my ailments but rather give me some sort of disease).

Let the music and horse fantasia begin!

On Mont Djim, fortune tellers predicted the future while it was one massive tailgate with food and yes, Cameroonian beer! We also hiked to the Execution Zone, where enemies would be thrown off the mountain after becoming beheaded. Why I decided to climb caves and hike in a dress and flip flops, please don’t ask!

Cave climbing in Mont Djim

Waiting for the war dancing

Hiking to the Execution Zone on Mont Djim

Back at the Lamido Palace, no one was really sure what was occurring until finally, the Nyem Nyem war dancers appeared! I’ve spent the past two years in Africa, but this performance was the liveliest dance I’ve seen with men, women, and children actively participating. I spent the next hour in awe as the men threw the children on their shoulders while dancing to the beat of the drums.

The Nyem Nyem war dancers - glorious!

The next morning, we jumped back on Obro’s motorbike to head home to Ngaoundere. Everyone knew us that weekend as we were the crazy ones that rode a motorbike the 200km to the festival (and well, I was the only American/foreigner in the sea of Cameroonians!). As we drove, Obro took a detour to Doualua, another small village. It turns out that his brother’s wife left him after he took on a second wife (polygamy is legal in Cameroon). Thus, Obro was on a mission to talk to her to get her to come back home to his brother after twelve years of marriage. As he tried to clear up the love triangle mess, I took a nap after finishing up my read “P.S. I Love You.” I guess it all worked out as she promised to come back if her husband would be nice to her.

I believed it was due to weight, but a part of the motorbike soon fell off. “Ca va aller! Il n’y a pas un problem!” Obro stated as he tied the piece back with some rubber. Note: Always travel with duct tape! A couple hours later, we survived another downpour which later turned out to be a blessing as the motor overheated and the mud water was able to cool it down.

We had left that morning at 8AM and I finally arrived to my house at 6PM. Over 13 hours on a motorbike. In the pouring rain. To climb caves 30 meters below the Earth. For war dancing with the Nyem Nyem people. In the tiny West African village of Galim. Did I mention that this was also my birthday weekend? Ca va aller!


  1. Very Interesting!

  2. Hello! Do you have a video and more pictures of this festival?

  3. Can you give us the name of the dress the people put on and the food they eat during the Nyem Nyem festival