Royal Residences and Sacred Forests in Western Cameroon
The Intersection of Secular and Spiritual Authority
Keywords:Sacred sites, conservation, environmental history
In this paper I discuss the environmental, cultural, and political significance of the palace forests of the indigenous rulers in the Grassfields region of north western Cameroon. All true chiefs in the Grassfields have palaces, and the possession of an impressive palace with a sacred forest adds much to the status and legitimacy of a ruler. The forests, which may be as large as 200 acres, lie close to the palace buildings and are homes for a variety of social institutions. They are the shrines where the palace and state gods reside; they are burial sites for young children from the palace community; they are the sites of sacrifices of appeasement; and, in several regions, they are the venue for meetings of secret societies. The forests are also the venue for the royal dances known as lefem, carried out by members of dance groups. The lefem events involve rituals, dancing, and feasting within the forest, and are occasions where individuals display their social status. In this paper I explain why the ecological condition of many of these forests is still good, despite lack of specific support for their conservation from the central government of Cameroon. There is a wide range of local stakeholders with interests in the continued well being of the forests, and the general cultural revival in the region today serves to further strengthen the institutions responsible for the forests’ survival.
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