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FENDA celebrates the Ndop, an emblematic, spiritual, religious, and ancestral fabric of the Grassfields

By : Edith Flaure MIPO TCHINKOU, Architect and Town planner, cultural promoter 

The Ndop textile has always been the main attraction during traditional ceremonies as well as in big international parades. A Cameroonian stylist living in France often mentions that there is much more emulation when the Ndop appears on fashion shows in Europe. Because of the very particular history of the origin and the manufacturing process of this textile, the myth surrounding it, as well as the message that comes from it, lead us to be interested in it for more than one reason. His Majesty Nayang Toukam Inocent, depositary of the chiefdom tradition, the Fo of Batoufam, commenting on the depth of the message inscribed on this cloth, states: « The Ndop is an unopened letter left by our parents to us.  It is the sum of all the sciences that surround us. « 

While culture lovers in general and grassfield culture curators in particular have always called for the recognition of this fabric as an element of intangible cultural heritage, the Cameroonian Ministry of Arts and Culture signed on February 21, 2020, a decree relating to it. It is indeed the decree N° 20/0006/MINAC/CAB of February 21, 2020, bearing elements of the intangible cultural heritage of Cameroon.

Any heritage being called to be safeguarded, what could be more obvious than a festival around a textile that is not only the pride of the people who own it, but also that of an entire continent? In order to safeguard a heritage, it must be made accessible, as it is said, « When one share a tangible good, it divides. When one share an intangible good, it multiples« . This is therefore the place for « cultural fanatics » who think that the Ndop must be kept secret and preserved, to understand that as an intangible cultural element, it is called to be promoted, while keeping its heritage and especially its spiritual side.

To let the whole world know all the richness of this emblematic textile through a rhythmical presentation sequence of its constitutive elements and characteristics. Hence the idea of the National Ndop, Derivatives and Accessories Festival. The FENDA is a biannual meeting of the Ndop textile lovers and assimilated. It is a given opportunity for the promotion and enhancement of  the Ndop, Nnem, Nsouo textiles, … and any other textile having a structural and / or linear approach to the Ndop. It is an opportunity to raise awareness on our ancestral values and an appeal for the consolidation of living together.

  • History and knowledge of the Ndop

The Ndop is a traditional and ritual fabric of the Grassfields peoples (North-West, West, partially the Center, the Littoral and the South-West), which in an outstanding way, attracts more and more interest, not only in Cameroon, but also in Africa and even worldwide (just visit the world’s largest museums to confirm it). The need to know the reason for the great myth around what could be seen as just a cloth emerges between those who think that it should only be the concern of dignitaries and those who declare that its enhancement depends on its popularization and dissemination. « As a sacred ancestral fabric of the Grassfields people, the Ndop through its mysterious symbols reveals the mysteries of the creation and functioning of the world! »[1] The original Ndop Grassland fabric is one of the hand-dyed fabrics from the reserve. Its graphics and iconography, abide to codes.

  • Origin and history of the Ndop

Processing textiles in the Grasslands appears to be an ancient practice, very much prior to European penetration. «  »From local dap khekwop cotton to dze nnem fabric, and several other materials based on plant fibers, textiles have continued to follow an evolutionary dynamic. »[2]

The first specimens of Ndop are said to have appeared between the 15th and 17th centuries. At that time, a fabric of the same type was already in useBut it is from the 18th century, that real Ndop fabrics appear. The Nze Ndop is an essential element in the political and cultural life of the people of Grassland in general, and that of the Bamiléké of the West Cameroon region in particular.

« Strip woven cotton and indigo-dyed fabrics: these products also have a northern origin and have replaced ochre-dyed vegetable fiber fabrics and crushed bark. The technology is particularly advanced with regard to the famous batiks that the Bamoum and Bamiléké helped spread at the end of the 19th century. These batiks are displayed at funerals and other public events, and were also used as loincloths for notables and chiefs. They are made of sewn cotton strips, on which geometric designs have been embroidered. The piece is immersed in a bath of indigo, and the embroideries once removed reveal undyed white lines. This technique of embroidered reserves seems to come from the Benoue countries. It is used by the Abakwariga, a population related to the Hausa, the Djounkou, and the Tiv of Nigeria. As for indigo dyeing, it spread from the Hausa of Kano and the Kanouri of Bornou. Dyers of these ethnic groups were installed in Garoua and Ngaoundéré at the end of the nineteenth century, while at the same time, Sultan Njoya had six dyeing pits dug in Foumban by craftsmen probably captured in Banso country, in eastern Bamenda.»[3]

  • Manufacturing techniques and circuits
Faire connaître le Ndop

The design of the Ndop patterns on the cotton fabric from Maroua (Far North Cameroon) Photographer: Emily PINNA

The Ndop production circuits are like a chain with all the elements in the chain holding together, each one as important as the other, which roughly correspond to Harter’s descriptions[4]. It all starts with the cotton cultivation that is done in northern Cameroon. After the cotton harvest, comes the spinning, then the weaving of the narrow strips of fabric on which the decorative patterns are drawn by specialized craftsmen. After this stage, the strip of fabric that will be used by the artist is put at his disposal.  Each strip is treated separately and it is only after the defilage that two, three or four strips are glued edge to edge to obtain a loincloth of the desired dimensions, which was moreover controlled by the use that had to be made of it. It should be noted that one could judge the influence of the wearer of the Ndop according to the number of strips used to make his outfit. Thus « someone could say I have an outfit of X hands [5]».

  • Accessories

Even if it’s true that wearing the Ndop in Grassfield country is not everybody’s business, it’s all the more true that the accessories that go with it are not insignificant. Referring to accessories is like talking about all the other elements worn by the Ndop wearer, namely: headdresses, bracelets, canes, ennoblement or enthronement / sacralization rites, necklaces, etc.. Two dignitaries can dress in the same style of Ndop but the style of hat, necklace or bracelet, allows the initiates ( experts) to know to which group each one of them belongs. Some go so far as to say that « Ndop does not kill, but the hat does« . That is to say that behind the wearing of the traditional hat in Grassfield country, many mysteries reside.

The FENDA will be an opportunity to identify the differences between these various accessories and allow festival-goers to be able to make the difference between these objects in the future.

[1] Fidèle TAGATSING, interview on November 20, 2020 in Bafoussam.

[2] Jean-Paul Notué, Baham. Arts, mémoire et pouvoir dans le Royaume de Baham

[3] J.-C. BARBIE, Le peuplement de la partie méridionale du plateau bamiléké, in Colloques Internationaux du C.N.R.S. No 551. – CONTRlBUTION DE LA RECHERCHE ETHNOLOGIQUE A L’HISTOIRE DES CIVILISATIONS DU CAMEROUN

[4] Cité par Jean Paul Notué

[5] Entretien avec un notable à la cour royale Batoufam (Mbo’oh Pouoh », le 15 mai 2020.  La main parce que la largeur de la bande correspondant à l’écartement du pouce et de l’index.

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