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Paysans montagnards du Nord-Cameroun

Antoinette Hallaire


Mountain farmers in North Cameroon

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1This work is devoted to the working and living conditions of the farmers of the Mandara mountains. It is based on over twenty years of surveys and field observations (1964 to 1986). During this period, the traditional agrarian Systems were affected by numerous measures proposed or imposed with a view to «development» and by the frequent drought years since 1970.


2The first part covers the whole of the Mandara mountains and starts with the physical environment. There are three types of environment. In the centre, a series of plateaux run from 700 to 1,000 m. Surrounding and dominating the plateaux, the mountain zones themselves have a pronounced relief and are scattered with blocks of rock. The highest point is at altitude 1,492 m. Finally, the surrounding borders of the plain at 400 to 500 m form the mountain farmers extension zone. The central plateaux and the long strips of relief enable most of the mountain people to spread their land over two environments: mountain/plateau or mountain/plain. This is a major advantage for the people who thus have two sectors with different potential.

3The region stretches for 150 km from north to south. Rainfall records show a north-south increase in precipitation and length of rainy season (850 mm and four and a half months in the north; 1,100 mm and six months in the south). They reveal irregular precipitation and a high frequency of drought years since 1970. The problem of water supplies during the dry season has become worrying.

4The total population of about 400,000 is made up of some thirty ethnic groups with extremely uneven distribution. Over two-thirds of the population lives in the northern extremity (one third of the total area) of the region. Population densities are high and frequently exceed 100 persons per sq. km, whereas the figure ranges from 10 to 60 persons per sq. km in the south. This contrast between the densely populated north and the ample space in the south is capital from the agrarian point of view.

5The populations of both the northern and Southern parts of the Mandara mountains belong to the same «paleo-Sudanian» civilisation found from Senegal to Chad among all those who escaped the domination of the Islamic empires and conserved their identity by moving to refuge zones. They display the specific traits of mountain people: terrace farming techniques, elaborate, original landholding Systems based on the private appropriation of land and a conception of land attributing greater value to uplands than lowlands. This civilisation in which religious, social and agrarian aspects are closely linked remained well preserved for a long time. It has now been questioned in only a few decades by its entry into a monetary economy, by the pressure on the people to abandon their mountain environment and by pressure on their religion to the advantage of Islam or Christianity.

6Finally, a chapter devoted to animal husbandry covers the modest activities of the farmers and the work of the specialised livestock breeders who possess large herds of cattle. The latter are Fulah graziers, most of whom live on the plateaux, and transhumant breeders who move up from the neighbouring plains each year. They are currently experiencing a crisis since the mountain people are cropping the plateau area and reducing the rangeland, and the droughts are affecting grassland quality. Some are beginning to switch to crop farming and others are leaving the region.


7Study of the agrarian Systems is then examined. The second part of the work discusses the densely populated northern zone.

8Most of the area is mountainous. It is divided into clearly identified ranges with areas of up to 10 to 20 sq. km and generally correspond to a village community. These ranges generally run down to the edge of a plateau, a plain or a lower valley cultivated by the mountain people. Many of them have installed homes in such places.

9The mountain areas of the village land are used each year to grow sorghum, together with beans, gumbo and roselle, three plants used to make the sauce served with sorghum balis. In the west, the Matakam alternate sorghum and kaffir millet.

10The fields are cropped every year. Fallow is unknown because of the high population density. However, the terraces, the various fertilisation procedures (stable manure, ash, plant debris) and the quality of the farming generally result in fait and even high yields (1,000 kg of sorghum per hectare) in the inhabited areas which are those most regularly fertilised. The very numerous varieties of sorghum, kaffir millet and beans are specific to the mountains and well suited to granitic sandy soils.

11The piedmont parts of the village land cultivated in the past few decades are used for peanut as a cash crop in rotation with sorghum. Cotton is grown at the edges of the plain when the soil is suitable.

12Peanut provides a cash income and useful complementary food. The advantage of cotton growing is more disputed. Cotton suffers more than other crops from climatic irregularites and the piedmont soils are not always suitable. When the harvest is mediocre, it is not uncommon to see the whole of the return paid out to repay the debts incurred in the purchase of seed, fertilizer and herbicides.

13Farms are small with approximately 7,500 sq. m per head of labour. Although the mountain farmers are not as limited for space as they used to be — as a result of emigration to the plain — lack of time is still the major bottle-neck of the System. Most of the cultural operations have to be performed in May, June and July when there is a work overload, and the present shortening of the rainy season reduces the possibilites even more.

14The mountain farmers have perfected an effective agricultural System which is suited to their specific environment, maintains soil fertility and would seem to be difficult to better. When rainfall is normal, they cover their own food requirements and earn modest incomes. However, the balance is fragile and food shortages have become frequent, mainly because of climatic uncertainties. In addition, when they settle in the piedmont areas, the mountain folk are doser to roads, schools, dispensaries and markets and are no longer in a separate world. In contrast, the agrarian effects seem to be less beneficial. The mountain fields are no longer fertilised and are finally abandoned in favour of piedmont fields where the crops are usually poorer.

15A series of useful measures have been taken to encourage emigration. Reception zones have been opened, firstly in the north in the Mora plain and then in the more remote plains in the south of the Bénoué department. They have settled the over-population problem. The development policy has concentrated on attracting the mountain farmers to the plain and encouraging them to grow cotton, and has switched from all activity in mountainous areas. The semi-failure of cotton and the problems related to the drought encourage reconsideration of this position. It would seem that attempting to improve living conditions in the mountains by advocating innovations made possible today by the lower population density could help the still substantial, hardworking population which is full of vitality.


16The Southern part ot the Mandara mountains (from the latitude ot Mokolo) differs from the north in that its population density is lower, as has been mentioned above, and is also amazingly varied, defying any attempt at synthesis.

17The physical environments are varied, with plateaux and mountains with sharp fragmented relief, more gentle hills and plains with inselbergs in the extreme Southern part. Rainfall and rainfall distribution increase southwards. Each ethnic group has its own agrarian System and the results range from mediocre to excellent. There is a succession of distinct local areas.

18A first set of areas from Mokolo to Tchévi is hinged on the inner high plateaux, flanked to the east by mountain areas and to the west by the Nigerian fronder. It is divided into two sectors: one in the north formed by the Mokolo plateaux and the Kapsiki lands, and the other by the Bana and Djimi lands.

The Mokolo plateaux and the Kapsiki lands

19The main feature here is the colonisation of the plateaux by people confined to the mountains until the middle of the 2oth century. This is examined through the example of Sir, a Kapsiki village. Until 1940, the Kapsiki lived in two mountainous zones on either side of the plateau. Most of the western zone is in Nigeria; the Cameroon part consists only of a few villages along the fronder. The eastern zone consists of a large mountain mass running up to an altitude of 1,302 m. This is where the village of Sir is located.

20The village was founded at the beginning of the 19th century in an empty sector of steep slopes running from the plateau to the plain. It grew rapidly, fed in particular by immigration. Farmed mountain areas became established around the initial core and the whole of the slopes were terraced and cultivated. Small hamlets formed on either side of the hilly zone from the 1940s onwards; a few lie towards the inner plain which lies below but more are on the plateau. Today, the population is scattered as far as 6 or 7 km from the slope zone. In 1966, most of the inhabitants of Sir still lived in the mountain. Like the northern mountain farmers, they practice permanent cropping of terraced fields, growing sorghum and peanut. As the rainy season is longer, they can grow long cycle sorghum outside the inhabited area; this is harvested in December. Potatoes, onions and maize have been introduced in small, well-fertilised plots.

21The Sir mountain farmers, who do not care for their crops as attentively as the farmers in the north, cultivate an average of 1 ha per head of labour. Surplus sorghum is grown which, together with peanut and potato, brings in a cash income. There are no food shortages.

22The inhabitants of the plateau practice more productive farming, growing sorghum, peanut and sweet potato in the fertilised fields around their homes. Further away, the same crops are alternated with fallows. Some farmers now possess ploughs drawn by donkeys. The sale of peanuts and sweet potatoes bring them substantial incomes; some of the most active farmers earned over 200,000 francs in 1986. One can talk in terms of the economic «launching» of these people.

The Bana and Djimi lands

23Unlike their northern neighbours, the Bana and the Djimi are plateau farmers. They have never stopped cultivating their fields even when they had to live in the mountains for reasons of safety in the 19th century. Their villages are at the foot of the mountain and at the bottom of the small hilly areas scattered through the plateau. The Bana grow sorghum and peanut and the Djimi grow mainly sorghum. They also have bush fields which are cultivated for 4 years or more and then left fallow for 10 to 12 years. Sorghum and peanut are the two main crops; sweet potato and bambara nut are also grown.

24The study of the Djimi village of Bamguel shows that about 1 ha is cropped per head of labour. The farms have since been able to expand thanks to the introduction of donkey or ox draught ploughs. The Djimi and especially the Bana earn good incomes mainly from the sale of peanuts and sweet potatoes and also from sorghum and bambara nut. Some Bana earned as much as 300,000 to 400,000 francs in 1986 from the sale of peanuts alone.

25These two groups have always farmed the plateau and have not needed to adapt to a new environment. They have steadily — and at their own speed — increased their cash crops and have never lost control of their own development.


The south-eastern mountains

26A thick ridge of mountains formed of ranges separated by deep incisions cut by watercourses lies between the Bourha-Tchévi plateau and the Southern plain. This is empty today, with the exception of two ranges — one inhabited by Daba and the other by the Téléki. Population densities are low at 10 to 20 persons per sq. km.

27In 1966, about fifteen small Daba villages were scattered through the range. One of them, Dogoy, is on a flat area surrounded by steep slopes. Cultural operations are carried out rapidly and no terraces are built. Two groups of fields are farmed with a two-year rotation: the fields in the village area cultivated continuously and brush fields cultivated for two years and then returned to fallow. In the «women’s year» when these fields are cultivated again, beans (a feminine plant) are sown in the bush and early sorghum at the village. The next year is the «men’s year» and sorghum is grown in the bush fields and peanut in the village. There are two bush fields in the mountain and two others in the valley running along the range to the north.

28The farming System is thus well understood, with rotations and long fallows. Holdings are large with an average of 1,300 sq. m per head of labour. However, yields are low and the soils are becoming exhausted. Peanut is becoming difficult to grow. The farmers are poor and young people are leaving the village. Cynocephalus cause damage to crops and the fields have to be watched all the time. This is a well-known problem in mountain areas with low population density.

29In 1986, the village moved to the piedmont. It has become bigger with the arrivai of young households from neighbouring villages and seems to be recovering a certain vitality.

The south-western hills

30A mountain zone with softer relief forms the south-western extremity of the region. The Goudé and the Ndjegn who live there have successfully changed to a monetary economy. They and the Bana are the richest farmers in the Mandara mountains.

31However, the Goudé farming System observed at Maboudji has a number of points in common with that of the Daba. Like the latter, they alternate beans and sorghum in the bush on slopes with no terraces, but they possess a large inhabited area where sorghum, peanuts and various complementary crops are grown continuously.

32They know how to take advantage of the potential of their environment. They profit from the long rainy season to grow very long cycle sorghum (April-December/January) with high yields, and sow peanuts and beans in two batches in order to stagger the work as much as possible. They fertilise the land by digging in plants and now buy Chemical fertilizers from Nigeria.

33About one hectare is cultivated per head of labour. Harvests are good and there are saleable surpluses of all crops. The people complement their agricultural incomes by selling the tamarinds that they pick and by developing small textile crafts, spinning and weaving cotton strips and embroidering hats. Some practice commerce which is stimulated by the closeness of Nigeria.

The Fali inselbergs in the Mayo-Oulo plain

34The Mayo-Oulo plain between the Southern mountains and the inselbergs was empty at the beginning of the century and has been gradually settled by Fali from the mountains. The inhabitants of the village of Aïnoro began to come down from the large Bossoum inselberg in about 1930. In 1966, fourfifths of them had settled in the piedmont area and all were there in 1986. The mountain fields have been abandoned.

35They farm a gently sloping area running down from the base of their mountain. The soil first consists of coarse colluvium; the houses are built here. This is followed by sandy soils and then a small, moist, clayey sector. Sorghum and peanuts are grown on the colluvium and peanuts, bambara nuts, beans and a little sorghum alternate with fallows on the sandy soil. The moist area is cultivated each year — including the dry season; tiny plots are used to grow all kinds of suitable plants; early sorghum, rice, sweet potatoes, sugar-cane and tobacco. The central zone forming most of their land is under ridge cultivation. The ridges are carefully remade every two years. The farmers consider that they are necessary for satisfactory yields.

36The Fali of Aïnoro find it difficult to make ends meet now that they have abandoned their mountain fields. They cultivate only 700 sq. m per head of labour and have to make do with equal fallow and cultivation periods, which seem inadequate for their mediocre land. The soil is becoming exhausted and in many places cannot even bear sorghum any more. In spite of careful cultural practices, the standard of living is mediocre and cash sales are very small.


37This view of the Mandara mountains from north to south shows the great variety of physical environments, population densities and aptitudes of the farming societies who live there. The mountain zones have generally been considered to be unpleasant areas that the population should be encouraged to leave. However, the success of the Goudé and the Ndjegn, the more modest performance of the northern mountain farmers and the difficulties encountered when too many people move down to the mediocre piedmont land call for a revision of this opinion. It is now the moment to encourage a mountain economy, taking into account the diversity mentioned above, and making use of the long farming experience in the region.

© IRD Éditions, 1991

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