After a long week of feeling trapped inside my AirBNB, a small bubble within the bubble of Cameroon’s political capitol, Yaounde, I felt liberated through one of my favorite educational institutions: a museum! Today, my host, my friend and I went on an excursion to Musee La Blackitude, a small, well-priced (given our budget) museum in the heart of the city. When we walked into the building, we were greeted by a tall man in glasses and a long white shirt with matching white pants. He told us the price of entry and led us into the main exhibit hall. He explained that he spoke French, Arabic and Mandarin but not English, but his calm, welcoming demeanor and our interest in the culture and history led our host to agree to serve as a translator.
Our guide first explained that the name of the museum pays homage to Negritude, an intellectual movement in support of unity across Africa and the African diaspora. In particular, the name was changed from Negritude to Blackitude in honor of Africans who were taken from the continent through the slave trade. As if I wasn’t already completely drawn in, he told me this museum was my museum.
He went on to explain that there are many misconceptions that people have about Africa based on representations in the media, but the museum reveals different information. One example was of the early democracies made of up the Society of 7 and the Society of 9 in the western region of Cameroon; these were the equivalents of the modern day Senate and House of Representatives. Even my host, a native Cameroonian asked why democracy has traditionally not been associated with African societies even though they have existed here for years. This was an extremely relatable point especially when I consider the representations of black Americans that I’ve seen on TV in Cameroon and the representation of Africa and Africans that I hear and see in America.
As we moved through the tour, we saw uniforms for members of secret societies that consisted of a mask with horns, shells, and long dreadlocks. These organizations enforced justice and exist even today in Cameroonian kingdoms. I was fascinated with the idea of secret societies and even more so with the hair they used to create the masks because it looks just like mine. When I initially arrived, I felt uncomfortable taking photos because… aren’t these supposed to be secretive?! When I asked for permission to take pictures, he let me know there was a great opportunity for me to create photo evidence that I hail from royalty in Cameroon.
We then entered a recreated palace; all the drapery, statues, and floor skins held their own meaning whether for decoration or function. Our guide told us that Africa was the only continent with women kings and shared a brief anecdote about an imposter who took the throne who was then overthrown by a woman. She was seated as the king for 30 minutes before reinstating the rightful king. I was inspired! The tour guide emphasized the power of women in African societies as they are the ones who multiply society and control much of the power of information.
In the end, our guide revealed that he is an anthropologist in practice and even suggested that I consider working on a master’s thesis with the museum. I was blown away and relieved!! I had truly found my people in this tiny museum. After learning so much about Cameroon and the history shared, I felt that this was the reason I wanted to come to Cameroon: to have the chance to talk to people around the country and take time to explore how my own history and culture is connected to theirs. I hope to visit this place again and hopefully share this experience with many more people.
Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Ballard is a rising senior studying anthropology and computer science. This summer, she’ll be conducting market research for CassVita, an agricultural start-up that converts cassava into hypoallergenic, gluten free flour in Cameroon.