CAMEROON: GRASSLAND REGALAIA, A UNIQUE DISPLAY OF PEOPLES INTRINSIC ROOTS FOCUS ON THE “TƆ̀GƏ̀/TƆ̄KƏ̀”
Pictorial display of regalia
The Northwest and Western regions of Cameroon, also known as the grasslands, because of their savanna vegetation, take pride in their culture which is as powerful as it is diverse. When it comes to aspects of culture like gastronomy, clothing, handicrafts, music and dance they jointly constitute some of the distinguishing traits which characterize the amazing diversity of peoples of Cameroon. Since the 1996 Olympics in Los Angeles, one aspect has been slowly capturing universal attention. It is the traditional dress, literally known as “the big gown”. On a trip to the Northwest the realisation is that, this attire made of uniquely embroidered fabric is a cardinal mark of culture. The wearing of culturally designed “big gowns” is the common dress code for men. These “big gowns” vary in design and terminology, depending on the traditional setting. So, the name of the dress may differ from one village to the next and so may the other design features. These differences might at times be perceptible only to connoisseurs. For instance “tɔ̀gə̀ or tɔ̄kə̀ is the mother tongue name for the big gown in some villages in Cameroon which is reminiscent of what the Nigerians call “dashiki”
Bafut, Mankon and Nkwen are three villages in Mezam Division of the Northwest Region of Cameroon which will permit us to better comprehend the outstanding nature of this regalia. In Mankon like in Nkwen, the big gown is a cultural outfit for men called “tɔ̀gə̀”, while in Nkwen it is called “tɔ̄kə̀”. A tour through these three villages reveals the gong, the moon and animals as the most visible features embroidered on the dress. Each of these features has a symbolic meaning within the respective tradition.
An understanding and mastery of the meaning and symbolic significance of the tɔ̀gə̀ is acquired through folklore and oral literature. This in fact is what anchors it to the centuries of tradition of the people.
Men clad in tɔ̀gə̀, dancing at a funeral ceremony in Nkwen
Want to know about the traditional dress for men in Bafut?
Meet Prince Majabi Michael, Prince of Bafut, Quarter Head of Njinteh Bafut. He details its specificities.
“In Bafut, the “big gown” is called tɔ̄kə̀. It is a Bafut traditional dress that symbolises the culture of its people. It is embroidered with very colourful threads. It has many symbols. For example, the gong symbolises the Bafut traditional authority, which is played in during traditional ceremonies. The gong is a very important in the culture and it is used in a variety of distinct occasions and just by a change in rhythm or sound it can announce war, a traditional ceremony at the palace of the traditional ruler, an ordinary occasion or just simply a dance. The animal skin is a symbol representing nobility in the Bafut tradition. The middle class do not wear it. Only first-class nobles like the paramount ruler wear the tɔ̄kə̀ with animal designs. The lion and tiger is worn only by the “Fon” (a traditional ruler); the spider is worn by second in the rank of the palace hierarchy. There is also the moon as a symbol. It is made in different sizes. The nobles wear smaller moons. The biggest moon is on the Fon’s tɔ̄kə̀ and this identifies him as the Fon. Royalty is symbolised by the gong, the spider and the moon. Simple commoners or ordinary people would not wear the moon. On a commoners dress is the gong but the gong and the moon are the most important symbols in the Bafut tradition. The tɔ̄kə̀ goes with a cap and there are different types of caps. There is the highest rank of caps made from porcupine thorns which tends to identify the user as a renowned warrior. It is worn by leaders in the traditional society. There are three types of tɔ̄kə̀ in Bafut tradition which are the tɔ̄kə̀, the ndá nwì and mbàrə̀wà. The way they are sewn, and their appearance is what distinguishes one from the other.
Discover the traditional Regalia for men in Mankon. It is called tɔ̀gə̀. Mankon is a destination of culture. Julius Mishimbu, Assistant Secretary of the Mankon Traditional Council reveals in an interview that in typical Mankon tradition, the tɔ̀gə̀ is the traditional dress worn by men. Even though it is used to refer to the general traditional dress worn by men, tɔ̀gə̀ itself stands for the big traditional dress for men sometimes designed with features that signify much. Talking about its inception he says “The exact origin is not known because most of us grew up to see our parents and grandparents putting on this. What I found out in Mankon is that “Fon” Angwafo II, who once reigned as paramount Chief was seen with the tɔ̀gə̀ as of 1911. That is the oldest picture we have of the tɔ̀gə̀ in Mankon. So, it is a dress that has been put on for a very long time, but we cannot exactly lay hands on when and where the Mankon people conceived this dress.”
He goes ahead to say that the traditional dress known as tɔ̀gə̀ in Mankon, specifically has three symbols; the gong which is used to summon people and indicate the authority of the village, the Lizard marked on dresses and the snake that is interwoven most often around the neck. “These three symbols identify the Mankon man with his tɔ̀gə̀. The snake is just a design around the neck interwoven for beauty. The most important thing is the gong. The Lizard is quite a smart common creature that is found around every home running around so those who conceived it surely designed it to differentiate the tɔ̀gə̀ of Mankon from that of other villages. In Mankon, there are three forms of this dress which are the tɔ̀gə̀ itself, which is the biggest, the ndá nyì which is slightly smaller than the tɔ̀gə̀ and the bàrə̀wà which is similar to a jumper,” Mr Mishimbu said.
In addition to symbols on the tɔ̀gə̀ is the moon designed on the back of the dress in the form of a round red circle for nobles, princes and title holders. The moon shows that a noble, a prince a title holder or leader is a guide. He shines the light for others to follow. The paramount ruler’s tɔ̀gə̀ is woven out of looms. To distinguish nobility from other citizens the cap they wear has a red feather in it. The red feather is granted by the Fon or any other noble person he decides to delegate for the purpose. The tɔ̀gə̀ is usually in three pieces, the long gown worn on top and the two pieces worn underneath. The main colour of the dress is black, but the embroidered symbols are done in specific colours. According to Mr Mishumbu, there is really no specific choice for colours of the tɔ̀gə̀. It is his contention that the black fabric is used as the base of the dress because when contrasted with embroidery of bright colours it gives the dress its uniqueness and the brightness which is its hallmark.
Nkwen-A discovery of rainbow colours
In Nkwen, men wear the big gown called tɔ̀gə̀ as a cultural outfit. Findings reveal that people in this village wear multi coloured designs after the colours of the rainbow. Muma Azehfor, Second Traditional Adviser to the Paramount Chief of Nkwen discloses that the dress is designed differently from that of other villages. It is fashioned following colours of the rainbow. “We believe so much in the rainbow. The rainbow carries messages that can be good or bad”.
In a chat with Suh Sylvester, Assistant Quarter Head of Mbelem Quarter in Nkwen, he explains that the tɔ̀gə̀ is a common dress for the men in Nkwen to wear when they come out for traditional rites. There are no specific or particular people who wear the tɔ̀gə̀. Anyone can wear it but must respect the specific nature of certain symbols. “We saw our forefathers and their ancestors wearing this and we are just going on with the very same tradition. I think our forefathers thought it necessary to have traditional attire that could be used to identify us wherever they met as Nkwen people”.
Suh Sylvester in rainbow tɔ̀gə̀
The symbols on the tɔ̀gə̀ of Nkwen people include the gong; used to summon people to attend an event. The gong is also used as musical instrument. The calabash which is also embroidered on the dress symbolises the container used to serve palm wine. Special calabashes are also used in the palace to perform traditional rites. Those who qualify to wear the tɔ̀gə̀ with the moon at the back include the Fon, princes and palace servants. To differentiate, the paramount chief wears one with a bigger moon than those worn by others The moon is a symbol of authority. The people believe that since the moon naturally brings light, people of prominence carry the moon on their dress which shows that they are leaders and pace setters. The tɔ̀gə̀ worn by ordinary people in the community is not adorned with the moon. The paramount ruler’s tɔ̀gə̀, might also be embroidered with a tiger or lion as a symbolic in reference to their positions as rulers just as these animals are kings of the forest. The animal symbols are restricted only to the paramount chief who is the highest in rank. His dress is sometimes trimmed with cowries to signify royalty. The sub chiefs and princes do also wear cowries. However, more cowries are added to the dress of the paramount ruler to avoid any confusion as to hierarchy. There are other symbols used, such as the spear and the peace plant. The spear is a symbol, and recalls its use back in the days of war faring warriors. The peace plant is the traditional symbol of peace, love and unity in many regions of Cameroon especially in the grasslands. Common features on an ordinary Nkwen man’s tɔ̀gə̀ are the gong, the calabash, the peace plant and the stars. In Nkwen there is traditionally the tɔ̀gə̀ and the ndā nwè as the two types of tɔ̀gə̀.
Types of tɔ̀gə̀
From research the types of tɔ̀gə̀ and their significance was noted
First type: Loosely described as the first type, it is the biggest in size from where the name originates. It is an open gown that covers the entire body to the feet, the sleeves are loose, covering the arms and extending with a length covering the hands. The Bafut man calls it “tɔ̄kə̀”, Mankon and Nkwen call it tɔ̀gə̀.
Bafut man in tɔ̄kə̀
Second type: The second type extends slightly below the knees. It has loose sleeves with the length ending slightly below the ankle or extending to the wrist. It is called Ndá nyì in Mankon, Nkwen calls it ndā nwè, while Bafut calls it ndá nwì .
Man wearing ndá nwi in Bafut
Third Type: Mbàrə̀wà: It is the smallest compared to the other two. It is sleeveless, has open spaces along the armpit with the length of the dress reaching the waist or sometimes extending to the thigh. It is the dress etiquette for those who serve during ceremonies because it is simple and comfortable to work and move along with. The Bafut call it mbàrə̀wà while the Mankon call it bàrə̀wà. This is however not traditionally in the dress code of Nkwen.
Mankon native clad in bàrə̀wà
What about women with regards to “tɔ̀gə̀/tɔ̄kə̀”?
In strict traditional etiquette, the tɔ̀gə̀/tɔ̄kə̀ is a male dress in the three villages highlighted in this piece. Be it Mankon, Bafut or Nkwen, the most common traditional outfit for a woman is “blouse over loincloth”. The blouse covers the upper part of the body to the waist while the loin is stripped round the waist extending right down the feet; a head scarf accompanies the dress. “bouba and labba” is the mother tongue name for blouse and loin cloth in both Nkwen and Mankon. People of Bafut descent call this “boubou and labba” (note the word “and” which is borrowed from English language). Just like the big gown for men, the dress code for women carries symbols like the gong, calabash and peace plant in these three villages. In Bafut exceptionally, women of high status like queen mothers have their outfit embedded with moon and animal symbols but their counterparts in Mankon and Nkwen are not accorded these two symbols as moon and animal symbols there are reserved only for men since women are considered “not prominent”. A similar culture that cuts across these three villages is the queen’s outfit. The queen who is the wife of a traditional leader wears a necklace and bracelet made from cowries in addition to her blouse and loin as symbol of her royalty and position. This regalia reserved for women appear to be a compatible match when women accompany the men who wear the big gown. Women also dress in the regalia during ceremonies like traditional marriages, baby showers, funerals, religious events, annual dances and outings.
Bafut woman in blouse over loin
Mankon woman in blouse over loin
Making of the Regalia
Fabric is imported from countries like Benin and Nigeria. Local dressmakers through years and increase in demand have come to develop mastery and dexterity in the use of sewing machines. Production of the attire is in conformity with the requirements of each traditional group. Hand embroidery commonly called “marking” takes several weeks. The end product is the amazing bright and colourful artwork that bestows on these garments their uniqueness. Dressmaking workshops specialised in the trade now flood markets and streets in all towns of the Northwest region. The dress is now marketed throughout Cameroon and even abroad. Interest in the regalia took a different dimension after the Cameroon Olympic team used it as its uniform in the 2016 London Olympics and were designated by the fashion magazine Essence as the best dressed team.
A tɔ̀gə̀ Embroiderer absorbed in needle work
The tɔ̀gə̀, an outfit of unmatched charm
The tɔ̀gə̀ is the valorised attire during ceremonies like marriages, annual dance, festivals, and visits to the palace, cultural displays, funeral and ceremonies, also used in ornamental designs, used for curtains and generally as an interior design fabric. Over time, people have been seen wearing the tɔ̀gə̀ in religious ceremonies. It is the prescribed dress code to welcome guests for events. It is also the official uniform for many cultural groups. Those who cherish the tɔ̀gə̀ attest that it signifies identity, strength, wealth, ethnic affinity and country love. Many have agreed that the dress is the most outstanding and now it is identified globally with the entire nation and not just the grassland. The way in which the attire captures the culture of a people and their history while making room for the development of sewing and artistic skills is seen as a panacea for may start-ups in the clothing industry. How long this traditional and authentic product can resist the aggressive nature of global commerce and Chinese ingenuity is anybody’s guess.
Evolution in the tɔ̀gə̀
Lately, Custodians of culture have witnessed a kind of reawakening in this traditional dress. The tɔ̀gə̀ is seen in a variety of styles either influenced by personal choice or sometimes influenced by the dressmakers and designers. The evolution is noticed in the wearing of the mbàrə̀wà by females, the existence of flowery designs of tɔ̀gə̀ without basic traditional symbols and sometimes the wearing of specific symbols with no regard at all to traditional protocol and hierarchy.
A brief on the dress code of women
Though this piece is focused on the dress code for men, a brief on the traditional dress style for women is necessary.
In the three villages mentioned in this write up, the most common traditional outfit for women is conspicuously identified as “blouse over loincloth”. The blouse covers the upper part of the body to the waist while the loin is stripped round the waist extending right down the feet; a head scarf accompanies the dress. “..” is the mother tongue name for blouse and loin cloth in both Nkwen and Mankon. People of the Bafut descent call this “..”. Just like the big gown for men, the dress code for women carries symbols like the gong, calabash and peace plant but the moon and animal symbols are reserved only for men. It appears that there is scant differential in outfit peculiarity among women. All other women are traditionally identified by this dress but for the queen (wife of a traditional leader) who wears a necklace and bracelet made from cowries in addition to her blouse and loin. The cowries are a symbol of her royalty and position. It is explained that particular symbols are accorded only to men because women traditionally do not handle leadership positions and are considered “not prominent” in the aforementioned villages.