The Baleng of Bafoussan, Cameroon
On a recent visit to Cameroon, during the last week of February 2014, as well as spending time with the nascent Jewish community, I also met other groups. These included tribes claiming Israelite or Jewish descent, and others, while not claiming Jewish roots, were interested in aspects of Judaism and Noahidism. One of these is the Baleng tribe, who live in the mountains on the outskirts of Bafoussan, Cameroon's third largest city. The Baleng are part of the Bamileke ethnic group, which as we will see claim common heritage.
The Baleng are governed by a chief. He is surrounded and advised by an inner circle of nine minsters who help him to rule. The head of this circle is the prime minister, who also acts in place of the chief during any absence.
Together with two members of the emerging Jewish community in Cameroon, Serge and Hadriel, I met members of the Baleng tribe. Unfortunately the chief was not in the village while we there. We met with the prime minister, another member of the chief's inner circle and two regular members of the tribe. However we did not get as much information as we had hoped as "there are many things to which only the chief is privy". We arranged to subsequently meet the chief in Yaoundé. He was to contact us; unfortunately this did not take place as of the time of my departure from Cameroon. Hopefully Serge and Hadriel will still meet him.
We met on the large verandah outside the chief's palatial, though sparsely furnished, house. The building contained a high vaulted hall that could seat a few hundred people, including a gallery.
The Baleng claim to have left Palestine sic as a result of religious persecution following the Moslem conquest. This places their existence in Israel well after the destruction of the second temple, by at least six hundred years. It also implies that they are from the remnants of Yehuda who remained in Israel after most of the Jewish population had already moved on, probably to Europe.
From Israel the tribe moved south to Egypt, continuing to Sudan. As they continued their southward journey, at each location they arrived, they were met by more Moslems. From somewhere in Sudan they turned westward, travelling as far as Cameroon. As by this time there was already a Moslem king in Nigeria, they did not continue further west.
They left Israel as a group of tribes, and remain in these tribal groups today, all living in the same region of Cameroon. The Baleng elders told me that each of these tribes have very similar practices, though they were speaking to me about their own specific practices.
Upon their arrival to Cameroon, the tribes conquered the indigenous population, subjugating them to slavery. They told me that today they continue to subjugate them, though no longer as slaves; I assume as this is illegal.
Later in the conversation they also made a claim to have left Palestine around 3,000 years ago, contradicting their earlier statement of leaving Israel during the Moslem period. I can't be sure if they even realised this contradiction and I did not raise it.
The Baleng's history as a tribe in Cameroon, however, appears only to have started in 1545 with the appointment of their first chief. They displayed a list of the names of their chiefs and the years in which they ruled. This leaves a gap of some 700-800 years in their history since leaving Palestine that needs to be explained. They did not indicate how long their journey from Israel to Cameroon took.
In their list of chiefs, there is a gap of twenty years between two listed chiefs. They thought this may be related to a time when there was an arrangement with another neighbouring chief who took the hand of their chief's daughter in marriage. They were very vague on this and it appeared that really were quite clueless as to what happened in this twenty years.
They told us that their history and traditions were passed orally for many hundreds of years. As a result of this oral transmission, they admitted to gaps in their knowledge of their narrative. Recently, they proudly told us, they have been filling in these gaps with evidence from archaeological sic and other sources. Unfortunately this makes suspect whatever they told us.
As the chief was not in the village when we visited, we were unable to glean as much information as we had hoped -- "there are many things to which only the chief is privy". If this is true, it was not clear to me how this information is passed on to an heir following his father's demise.
Succession is always to a son of the chief. As a chief typically has many wives, and thus many sons, succession is determined by the inner governing circle, who have undisclosed ways of identifying the true heir from amongst the sons.
The Baleng believe in a single god, whom they call Shi. Shi exists everywhere, having no fixed domicile. They do however have specific places that are sanctified and it is from here that one connects with Shi. All of these holy locations are outdoors and it seems to me that they are all around a specific species of tree.
Even though Shi is omnipresent, individual tribesmen cannot approach him directly. This task is left to the priests. When an individual, who has a problem which he needs solved sic, he informs a priest. The latter then approaches Shi on the petitioner's behalf. The supplicant brings a male goat (there is the possibility to bring a sheep, but never a cow) as a sacrifice. A poor person may bring a chicken instead. In addition to the animal, he also brings oil, a cake, salt and some kola nuts. The cake is broken into pieces by the priest who then throws it around the holy area. The oil and salt are used in cooking the meat over an open fire. The kola nuts are eaten with the meat.
The kola is the Baleng symbol of peace. Whenever Baleng men meet, if kola nuts are eaten, it is considered a good omen for peace. When two men have a argument between them, they share some kola; then everybody will be happy. [Interestingly the kola tree is native to the rainforests of this region, mainly Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana.]
Women are not allowed to approach too close to a holy area but stand on the periphery. (When we later visited a holy site, I asked them to point out where the women would stand. I was quite surprised how non-peripheral their location was.) A woman cannot bring a sacrifice, but must rely on a man, usually her husband, to bring it on her behalf. The women however may inform the priest directly of her problem.
Following a sacrifice, all present eat from the meat. The head and hooves are first separated from the animal and buried. Everything else is roasted and eaten. The animal is opened up for cooking. Any passerby must stop and join in the feast until its completion.
Holy sites exist historically. They said they no longer remember on what basis these locations were selected. New holy places can be added/sanctified if the village spreads. In order to bring existing holiness to a new site, branches from trees at an existing sacred site are planted at the new location. The holiness of a sacrificial site is perpetual ("unless government takes them away").
The older an animal, the better quality the sacrifice is thought to be. Other than this ceremonial approach by the priest to Shi, they don't seem to have any form of prayer, neither for priests nor for individuals.
Our hosts took us to one of the sacrificial sites. It was in the shade of three huge trees, which were obviously quite old. At the site we saw baskets in which sacrificial animals are brought. However we saw little evidence that a sacrifice had been carried out here for some time. There were some signs of scorching at the base of one of the trees, and perhaps on an area near the trees. However it did not suggest to me a place which had recently been used for open air cooking activity. It is possible that this was a largely disused site. I do admit that I was a little surprised that they agreed so easily to take us to a holy place. It was indeed quite distant from the chief's compound, though there were a few houses nearby. I assume there are other holy places which are more frequented and closer to the chief's residence.
Boys are circumcised five days after the baby's umbilical cord falls off. At the same age, both of a girl's ears are pieced. [I could not find a connection other than some type of equality. At least they do not practice female genital mutilation.] At age twelve months, boys' heads are shaved. Some time after their tenth birthday, a ritual baptism is performed on boys. They refused to specify what form this takes, whether immersion, sprinkling or other. The told us that even mothers do not know what happens at this ceremony. Other than piercing their ears, they did not inform us of any other rituals for girls.
Marriage is by arrangement between two fathers. Priests are not involved in this process. A dowry is paid by the groom's family to that of the wife.
Divorce is strongly discouraged other than in a case where a man is unable to produce offspring. In such a case, the new husband must pay first husband the dowry he had paid to the bride's family. The connection between the woman and her original husband is then totally severed.
Polygyny [a man marrying many women at the same time] is permitted. They burst out laughing at my question as to whether they also allow polyandry [a woman married to more than one husband at a time]. They are a male dominated society.
A female adulterer is banished from village. At the village boundary, ashes are sprinkled on her.
The Baleng do not practice any menstrual separation.
In the case of a divorce or perhaps marital breakdown/separation, the divorced woman's new children from the subsequent husband are considered to be the children of the original husband. However this only has practical application if the mother dies before her second husband. In such a case, the children are forcibly taken from the father and given to the original husband. Such a separated wife is buried along side the original husband.
The whole body is buried, sometimes inside the house, but usually outside, nearby. They do not have fixed cemeteries.
Women cannot attend a man's burial.
A tree of peace is planted on a grave.
After a few years, a body is exhumed and then head (skull) removed. It is taken back to deceased's house. The body is reinterred in its original grave. Prayers are said in the house, asking the deceased to intercede with Shi. [It is not clear whether a priest is involved in these prayers, though this statement contradicts what they told me earlier about sacrifice being the only communication they have with Shi.] The head is then reburied inside the house. If the floor of the house is tiled, they may not retile above of the place where the skull is now buried. We also saw the receptacle for carrying the head. We actually had to "push" them to reveal that they performed this exhumation. We had heard about it and wanted to verify it with them. We asked a few times until they revealed this.
The Baleng have a seven day mourning period. Relatives and people living in same house in which the deceased lived, must sit only on the ground for the whole week. They do not cook for themselves during their mourning; other people bring food to them.
The Baleng do not have any dietary restrictions. Their sacrificial animals are slaughtered with a knife to the throat. While this is also their preferred method of slaughtering non-sacrifical meat, I was under the impression that they don't particularly care if it is slaughtered in any other fashion.
Other than that they do not eat domestic animals like cats and dogs, seemingly because they are "too close" to them, they will eat anything.
The Baleng have an eight day week. The eighth day called pesah. It is a day of total rest. No work at all is carried out on this day. It is spent eating with family and passing on traditions to children. Their seventh day is called l'samba. Some have suggested this is close in sound to the word sabbath or one of its derivatives. There is no special significance to this seventh day.
When I asked them how they managed to live by an eight day week in a country whose legal week was only seven (children must attend school from Monday to Saturday). They responded that indeed today they are unable to practice the sabbath any more, though not out of choice. I'm not sure whether they keep the sabbath any more even when Saturday and pesah coincide.
Every second year the Baleng celebrate a three months long festival from December to February. This festival is characterised by much sharing. During this three month period, the priests perform a weekly sacrifice. The year in which the festival occurs is called a "year of grace". The next festival will take place in December 2014, though the "official" announcement is only made 90 days prior to the festival. They have no other festivals or special days in their calendar.
They claim to use a calendar based on a lunar month, but they were unable to explain how this is relevant to anything they do, especially since they base their three month festival on the Roman/Christian solar calendar.
Their priesthood is hereditary. If a priest's son is a "bad" person, he does not inherit the priesthood from his father. In addition to inheriting priesthood, a Chief can appoint anyone who is a "good person" to become a priest. This priesthood is then also passed to future generations.
The priests perform sacrifices wearing special clothes. They are bare-chested and barefoot. They wear a kind of skirt or cloth. No specific colour required.
To their consternation, their religion is not recognised by Cameroon government. I think as far as the government is concerned they are Christians.
The Baleng have their own legal system. Permanent judges are appointed by the chief.
If a dispute cannot be successfully settled, both parties are taken to a special place where "only the truth can be told". If a man lies in this place, something bad will happen to him, possibly even death, which will obviate the situation.
It was not clear to me what their legal system entails nor by what set of laws they judge. However they did tell me that the current chief is trying to appoint legal professionals to the post, e.g. someone who studied law or similar at university. However this does not necessarily imply that they do not have a legal tradition.
Strangers/outsiders are permitted to join the tribe.
Men undergo circumcision (if necessary) in addition to baptism.
Outside women automatically become part of the tribe by marrying a male member.
Customs and language
While they claim that their tradition originated in Palestine, the Baleng [quite honestly/matter-of-factly] concede that things have probably changed over time and geography. They say that neighbouring tribes [the other Bamileke sub-tribes] have similar traditions and customs to theirs, though not always identical.
Their claims of linguistic similarity to Hebrew did not seem to substantiated. The told me some words in their language which they claim to be similar to Hebrew. I failed to see a connection in any of the cases. They speak a purely Bantu language. The various Bamileke sub-tribes seem to have understandable dialects of the same language.
When asked if they wish to reconnect with world Jewry or with Israel, they answered very positively. When I asked them what this meant to them, they said that only the chief can decide on anything like this. "If the chief says stay here, then we stay here. If he says go to Israel, then we go."
Analysis and Conclusions
When presenting a sacrifice, a poor person my bring fowl if he cannot afford the designated sheep or goat.
Animal sacrifices are accompanied by a meal offering.
They circumcise boys at a young age, which is approximately eight days old.
They circumcise and baptise male converts.
Only a priest can approach Shi. This is true in Judaism in some respects. While everyone is able to able to communicate directly with God via prayer, since the dedication of the first temple in Yerushalayim by King Sh'lomo, all sacrifice was limited to the temple location, and all sacrificial actions other than slaughter could only be performed only by the cohen, the priest. Similarly, two way communication with God was only available via the specially trained/prepared prophet.
They have a seven day mourning period during which time they sit on the floor and don't perform domestic tasks.
They had three narratives as to when they left Israel: 3,000 years ago, in the Moslem period, or at some time that puts their arrival to Cameroon in 1545.
There were too many things which they were unwilling, though more likely were unable due to a lack of knowledge, to disclose to us.
The admit to filling gaps in the knowledge of their tradition from modern sources, who are likely to have biases.
The similarly concede that things have probably changed over time and geography
Histoire et anthropologie du peuple bamiléké (Paris: l'Harmattan, 2010, 242p.), by Dieudonné Toukam does corroborate that the Bamileke origins trace to Egypt and that they migrated to what is now northern Cameroon between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century they migrated further south and west to [again] avoid being forced to convert to Islam.
According to the Baleng themselves, their history only appears to have started in 1545 (see photograph above). The accepted history is that the tribes in their area came from the north, in fact fleeing the Moslems as they claim. The dating is interesting as they are using the Gregorian [Julian] calendar which would not have been used in Cameroon until the the colonial era, well into the 19th century.
The Baleng's description of their observance of shabat is impressive, until you realise that their sabbath occurs only every eighth day rather than every seven. While eight is probably more intuitive and usable than seven, it would be doubtful any Jewish group (which they claim to be) would have anything other than a shabat every seventh day. I asked them how they manage working on an eight day week in a country which works on a six day work week, with a seventh day off, they answered that they were pragmatic about this and don't observe the sabbath properly as "the children are at school" and other inconveniences. I said it must be nice that they can keep shabat properly every 56 days, but they looked at me blankly in response.
Their admission that they have forgotten a lot as it was "orally transmitted" is important especially when they claim to now be filling in the narrative by researching current sources. This is always one of the fears one has when confronting a new group, but here they are openly admitting to flubbing the evidence. The fact that the chief maintains many of the secrets and does not share them is also worrying, especially considering that a new chief is only appointed subsequent to the demise of the previous incumbent.
Based my discussion with the Baleng tribesmen, it seems quite uncertain to me that they are of Jewish descent as they claim. I come to this conclusion, though they do have some interesting customs, due to the fact that they have an eight day week and that they themselves claim weakness in their oral tradition.