Imagine my surprise when I heard that one of the largest cultural events in Cameroon, my newest home, would take place just after I arrived, and in my city of Douala! The Ngondo water-centric festival is normally held throughout November but would culminate on the first Sunday of December so I jumped on a motorcycle taxi and headed straight to Wouri Bay as early in the morning as I could manage.
I’d passed by the normally empty, flat dirt patch by the Wouri river before, and was told of its’ significance to the country since that is where the first Portuguese explorers landed in 1472 and named the river after the abundance of prawns (“camarões”) that later on extended to the country. When I arrived that morning, the land had been transformed – I initially just saw bumper-to-bumper cars from not just all over the country but also visitors sporting license plates from neighboring Niger, Chad, and Gabon.
Tents covered the sweaty spectators, packed in tightly hiding from the hot sun, and I was making a beeline for the shade when two men dressed with white makeup on their face, brown long clothing, necklaces with shells of different sizes and wrappings around their head, waist and back of dried leaves and seaweed suddenly appeared.
The Entry into Ngondo
They barked at me to get out of the way, gesturing wildly, and I jumped back to realize that one of the major tribes’ chieftains had just arrived. Decked from head to toe in traditional regalia, colorful clothing, coral necklaces, and canes in hands, they led the procession of tribesmen and female leaders towards their seats on curved wooden traditional thrones.
Another onlooker leaned towards me to explain, “They are Sawa, the coastal people. Already they sent a swimmer to get message from spirits but it’s very secret!” I checked with a friend later on, who clarified that the annual festival was most known for a chosen diver who goes underwater, for over an hour sometimes, to retrieve a prophecy in a gourd from the myengu (sirens not dissimilar to mermaids) for their elders to interpret behind closed hut doors.
I ducked behind one of the seated areas just in time to catch one of the traditional dances, complete with a set of musicians on the tam-tams (traditional drums made out of hollowed logs placed sideways with strategic carved-out openings). Each group presented and received massive cheers from their respective seating section, and I couldn’t help but chuckle alongside the crowd when the two bilingual MCs announced that one of the groups was delayed in their arrival due to a flat tire on the highway. The final group chose to put on an homage to their recently deceased king, parading his photo around the ring of spectators and standing in a line posed while a singer belted out a dedication.
The Events of Ngondo
The crowd grew tighter beside and behind me as the MCs announced several of the upcoming main events. First, Miss Cameroon 2023 and two runner-ups arrived to do a lap, waving and smiling in perfect form. Their colorful gowns trailed onto the ground behind them, and I glimpsed impressively high stilettos somehow not sinking into the sand. Then, preparations began for the highly competitive traditional combat which most resembles wrestling. A pair of assistants cleared a ring of any rocks or leaves, and the tam-tam players and camera crews repositioned to be as close as possible to the circle.
Two groups marched rhythmically from the sidelines towards the circle, dressed in their respective tribes’ colors of purple and green. The three fighters on each team warmed up their muscles before taking turns removing their shirts and exchanging greetings with the referee and their opponent. Around me, the crowds let loose cries of encouragement and excitement as the two wrestlers locked arms around sweaty shoulders and heads for three minutes at a time, then five minutes, then three minutes again. A fighter broke loose six or seven times, and grabbed at his opponent’s legs, nearly knocking him off balance but no one fell the entire time. Nonetheless, the team donning purple was deemed the winner and the spectators erupted in fists pumping and shrill cheers, deafening me temporarily.
The grand finale was the pirogue race between three tribes in hand-carved skinny canoes which could hold up to 70 rowers. They had been warming up all morning, and a massive crowd was eagerly watching across the bay while other family and friends sat in their own boats alongside the competitors in the water to get a better view. The announcer signaled the start of the race, and two big screens broadcasted their progress as they faded out of view down the Wourri river.
A restless crowd started shuffling towards the edge of the river to get an unobstructed view of the winning pirogues coming in at the finish line and I hurried over with them, taking care to watch my footing around the uneven wet dirt and plants. When someone tapped my shoulder, I quickly glanced back, thinking it was someone asking me to get out of their view but was delighted to see an acquaintance completely clothed in one of the water tribes’ traditional clothing. She pointed at the approaching pirogues in the distance, “My brother is there! He’s winning!”
Sure enough, two teams were approaching rapidly with a number of other assorted wooden boats around them trying to see the action and simultaneously stay out of their way. The flurry of white paddles furiously churned the water, and I could make out the person who was their equivalent of a coxswain, shouting out orders and waving a small whip with horse tail hair. The two pirogues rounded a tight turn and one pulled ahead narrowly, careening towards the finish line to roars of hooting and hollering around me. I could barely keep my balance on the mounds of dirt and sand while the announcer announced the winner into the microphone, barely audible over the crowds and the winning tribe erupting into chants and songs straight through the main stage. I glanced at my friend to see her reaction, but she wasn’t next to me anymore.
I twisted around, and finally spotted her in the midst of her tribe’s celebration, wildly grinning and spinning, dancing and ululating in a blur of yellow, purple and red.
Written by: Annie Elle
Annie is originally from Los Angeles although she’s worked and lived abroad for the last 10 years. Currently living in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, she’s traveled to over 100 countries and enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and volleyball when she can.
Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01
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