The mysterious Ngondo Festival and what goes on in Douala

The Sawa (coastal peoples) of Douala, Cameroon, celebrate the Ngondo, a celebration centered on water, every year. The jengu ceremony is the festival’s centerpiece. At the ceremony, which takes place on a beach in Wouri Bay, a devotee swims out to the miengu’s underwater kingdom (plural for jengu). The miengu, who are said to resemble mermaids, are thought to bring luck to those who worship them. Tradition has it that the devotee can spend hours submerged and then surface with his attire appearing to be entirely dry. The ceremony is off limits to children. Ngondo was outlawed by the Cameroonian government in 1981 but was later allowed to return. Every year, the ceremony takes place during the first two weeks of December.

Not all individuals known today by the name “Sawa” have always gone by that name. They used to call themselves “muna mboa” (Duala), “mwan mboka” (Mongo), “man bo,” and “mwan mba,” which all mean “native son” in English. Each clan typically has a unique name that refers to its most recent common ancestor. However, not every clan gave themselves a name. They occasionally received names from the local population. Our fellow inhabitants in Sawa simply referred to us as “the coastline people” or Duala. Those who do not strictly belong to the Duala clan have expressed irritation over the fact that this name exclusively refers to one of the numerous clans.

“The Ngondo Festival, which has been observed as an annual religious/traditional festival for countless years, is a way to communicate with the spirits of “water Gods.” In order to celebrate and rejoice in the unity of the various African tribesmen who come together for further celebrations of the event, a number of rituals and feasts are performed at the beginning of the Ngondo festival.”

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The most intriguing aspect of this festival is the unique spiritual spectacle or performance put on by the Jengu cult, which distinguishes it from all other festivities held during festivals in Cameroon. The Sawa chiefs traditionally send initiated Sawa Jengu cult members as messengers to the Sawa gods in the kingdom of Miengu, which is claimed to reside in River Wouri. The initiated individual plunges into the vast River and vanishes.

He remains under for more than an hour before emerging with his body, the customary clothing, and the basket completely dry. There is a severe guiding secret in the conduct of the festival ritual, so children are not permitted to attend this ceremony. Because Jengu ceremonies are carried out in such secrecy, the celebration was outlawed by the Cameroonian government in 1981 and reinstated in 1991.

This celebration draws about thirty ethnic groups from the coastal and south-western regions, including the Sawa, Tondé, Jébalé, Ewodi, Bakoko, and Bassa peoples. The sacred vase’s immersion, the selection of Miss Ngondo, and a pirogue racing are its three key components.

To find messages from the water deities, the “Myengu,” an emissary enters the Wouri carrying a vase (sirens). Yai assu yai (Come assu come) is a frenzied mass cry uttered by the boatmen, traditional priests, and other initiated elders as they immerse themselves into the water to the Jengu. Assu is another name for Jengu. When they are brought to the surface, the individuals appear dry, and the ancients gathered in the sacred hut interpret the calabash they brought.

According to tradition, the “Myengu” guard their people and assist them in following their directives, which are said to bring blessings such as strength, wisdom, prosperity, fertility, good fishing, good harvests, fraternity and love for one another, and peace both within families and across the entire nation.

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