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Archaeology and cultural heritage in Cameroon: the case of the DGB sites

Jean-Marie Datouang Djoussou


The archaeological recognition of 16 monuments of rare architectural interest in the Mandara Mountains of northern Cameroon (Figures 1 & 2) — the Diy-Gi'd-Biy (DGB) sites — has once again posed the question of sites of archaeological importance. These stone-built sites of the fifteenth century AD (David 2004; Datouang Djoussou 2006) show the role archaeology can play in the enhancement of the cultural heritage of a community, a region or a country. They did not attract national interest for many years; only in 2001 did the Culture Ministry of Cameroon invest in an inventory, the Inventaire général du patrimoine culturel et naturel du Cameroun. It is in this context that Nicholas David conducted reconnaissance fieldwork of the DGBs between December 2001 and February 2002 (David 2008) (Figure 2).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Location of the DGB area in northern Cameroon.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Distribution of DGB sites (after David 2008: 33).
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Though attention had been drawn to the DGBs in 1973 (Boutrais 1973) and again in 1982 (Seignobos 1982), it was not until 2002 that these sites were recognised as contributing to the cultural heritage of Cameroon, when, while preparing excavations in 2002, David drew the sites to the Government of Cameroon and the international community's notice. ICCROM (the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) reacted, through Africa 2009, by sending Edward Matenga, then director or the Great Zimbabwe National Monument, as a consultant. This marked the beginning of the national an international heritage route for these sites.

The creation of the DGBs' heritage

In 2004 a delegation including the representative from Africa 2009 for Central Africa and the director of Cameroon's Cultural Heritage visited the Mayo-Moskota and Koza sub-divisions to meet the various stakeholders, the administrative, political and traditional authorities. In 2005 the same team, joined by an expert in conservation and tourism management, went to Koza and Mozogo for a meeting aimed at preserving the DGB sites. It also served to remind Cameroon in general and the local communities in particular of the importance of the DGBs, letting the local authorities know that the government of Cameroon and the international community was supporting the safe-keeping of these architectural treasures, unique in Central Africa. The sites were listed in 2006 on the Cultural and Natural Heritage list of Cameroon which was submitted to UNESCO.

The local communities have also taken part in the process of the sites' acquisition of heritage status. But this goes far back in time. In practice, the pattern of turning sites into 'heritage' means their sacralisation. The sites had been taken over by communities, lineages or families on religious and/or mythical grounds, which gave them heritage status. They are protected locations, invested with power and maintained through cult practices transmitted through the generations.

Figure 3
Figure 3. The different heritage levels of the DGBs.
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These different moves and practices are all markers along the heritage route. They are signals of appropriation, selection, recognition and even re-recognition. Classification gives rise to regional, national and international 'heritigisation'. The first stage bears the mark of local communities, lineages, families and monitoring committees. The second and third stages are performed by academics, public administrations in charge of cultural heritage and international organisations which appropriate the heritage discourse (Smith 2006). This lets us propose that there are four stages along the heritage route, depending on the social actors involved in the process, either as passive or active agents (Figure 3).

The heritage status of the DGBs

Recognising the heritage status of the DGBs was made with reference to the definition of Poulot (2006: 16–17), according to which:

The intimate or secret relationship to places or monuments, of an owner or of diverse stakeholders, of specialists or initiates, in the name of attachments and convictions, but also scientific reasoning and political behaviours defines a primary heritage status.

On the symbolic and affective scale of recognition, there are two categories of heritage status at work on the DGB sites. There is what we define as 'the dominated', which is initiated by heritage managers. It demonstrates the State's attachment to the DGB structures, its drive to transform the cultural relics of the past into elements of national identity charged with representing the image of Cameroon at international exhibitions which are the major cultural events on the world stage.

The second category is considered 'dominant', from the voices that represent it, effectively supplanting the dominating discourse of the first. It encompasses the emotional and religious relationships existing between the sites and the local families and communities. This is the fundamental aspect of the value attached to the DGBs, which has contributed to their conservation. For local people these are places embodying benevolent an evil spirits, places of spiritual and socio-economic life. But the extent of their heritage value varies. The DGB ruins can be divided into community, lineage and familial heritage.

Of the 16 ruins listed, five — DGBs 1, 2, 6, 9 and 15 — have multi-faceted links to nearby communities. Three sites — DGBs 8, 10 and 12 — are linked to lineage cults. At DGB 7 there is a single family which claims a spiritual attachment to the site. These sites are cult places embodying supernatural powers capable of averting epidemics, deciding the favourable outcome of armed conflict with neighbouring communities, promoting the fertility of the land, the livestock and the women. To achieve this, the good offices of the local spirits are invoked, through the sacrifice of sheep, goats or chickens, commonly accompanied by libations of local beer (Figure 4). Altars made of upright stones and pots (Figure 5) are erected on or near the sites, and each community has a chief-sacrificer.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Sacrificial ritual at DGB-1.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 5
Figure 5. The altar on DGB-8.
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The symbolism surrounding the DGBs gives an indication of the immaterial values attached to them; it is through these sites that the intimate links between the communities and the DGBs are enacted. The structures of the northern Mandara Mountains are thus physically and symbolically integrated into local life. Knowing nothing of the original builders of these ruins, the current communities came to them through historical contingency, recognising the spirit of the place. This recognition contributes in many respects to the continuing ambivalence of their heritage status. It is however the immaterial aspect that is dominant, with the inhabitants of neighbouring communities benefiting from the protection offered by the sites.

The heritage status of the DGBs is thus expressed in three spheres: traditional, academic and state-controlled, all enmeshed. The traditional heritage is at the basis of the intimate, secret, political, cultural and cultual transactions relating to the DGBs. In other words the heritage status of these sites is rooted in the behaviour of the local communities. The second sphere, the academic community (archaeologists), comes into contact with the first and is drawn into a movement already in train. Their reports and representations to national and international bodies concerned with heritage bring the latter to engage in the movement.

From the heritage creation and heritage status of the sites presented here we learn that the archaeological elements are ambiguous, and expressed both vertically and horizontally. At a diachronic level, the DGBs respond to criteria relevant to the past as well as the present. Their historic value lies in the fact that the sites exist beyond their original socio-cultural context. As for their relevance to the present, they are no longer forgotten but enjoy a new lease of life, given to them by today's local communities.

The ethnological ambivalence resides in the material and immaterial values attached to the DGBs. As architectural structures the DGBs belong to the cultural heritage, which confers to them a specific status from the top as well as the bottom levels of Cameroonian society. To this we should add a certain immateriality of the heritage, since the symbolic and ritual values the sites embody are recognised, preserved and transmitted through the generations.

The identification of the DGBs and the stages they followed along the heritage route lead us to reflect on some work carried out in Cultural Heritage Management in Cameroon, such as the recent archaeological mitigation work connected with rural development, road construction, the building of the energy infrastructure and mining. Several sites were discovered, many cultural remains uncovered, and reports and articles written (e.g., Asombang et al. 2001; Oslisly & Mbida 2001; Lavachery 2004; Lavachery et al. 2005, 2010; de Maret et al. 2008) but no attempt was made to bring these discoveries into the heritage sector. Work was limited to reporting the results of archaeological interventions. Granted, these results represent in themselves a sort of heritage creation, but only at an academic level.

We believe that the desire to appropriate, preserve and valorise past cultural elements must become part of a wider dimension. In an African context where local populations are not sufficiently informed of the value of archaeological data, could archaeology not benefit from the sensitising aspect of heritage creation? This approach would allow us to stimulate awareness of the archaeological heritage and would permit its evolution from purely academic to a community-owned heritage. It would take into account the socio-cultural aspects of archaeological resources by including the local communities in the uncovering and valorisation of past remains, leading to a truly participative archaeology, where local people, as is the case in the USA and Australia (Ah Kit 1995; Smith et al. 2003; Smith 2004, 2006) are important actors.

(Translated from the French by Madeleine Hummler)


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