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The Chamba Migration and the Origin of Bali Nyonga

**From Tintanji, Vincent., Gwanfogbe, Mathew., Nwana, Elias., Ndagam, Gwanua., and Lima, Adolf Sema. (1988)
An Introduction to the Study of Bali Nyonga: A Tribute to His Royal Highness Galega II, Traditional Ruler of Bali-Nyonga from 1940-1985.

Yaounde: Stardust Printers.

A Summary by Lilian Ndangam Fokwang

Bali Nyonga belongs to the Chamba lecko group – an entity that migrated from Chamba around River Faro in the Nigeria-Cameroon border and settled in the Benue plain around circa 1600. Many conflicting theories abound to the origins of the Chamba. Though the precise itinerary of the Chamba migration is not universally agreed upon, the most plausible and oft cited however remains the view that the Chamba together with the Bata were one of the many Sudanese groups that migrated from the Borno empire and settled around Lake Chad at the beginning of 10h Century AD. In the face of desertification, increased famine, and the ambitious expanding of the Islamic Kanem Borno empire, the Chamba group along with other non-muslim Sudanese groups decided to move south. Settling in the Benue around circa 1600, the banks of River Faro and River Dewo, provided ample vegetation for their cattle. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 18th Century with increased famine in the area, the Chamba moved westwards into Junkun country (still in the Benue) under the leadership of Loya Garbosa where they subdued the declining Kororofa Kingdom. From here they moved Southwards to Kontcha, concluding an alliance with the Buti. Continuing eastwards into Ngaoundere, the Chamba absorbed the Kufad –a clan of Mbum. Chamba-Fulani relations had been characterised by a long peaceful coexistence. The cattle breeding Fulani and the farmer hunter Chamba maintained good relations within the Kanem Borno empire. Historians point to the similarities in dressing and musical instruments such as the Danga and the Lela flute, flag bearing, as well as horse riding as products of this socialisation. However, in the face of the Fulani jihad which began in 1815, some Chamba clans resisting the ambitious expansion of the Islamic empire, and under the leadership of Gawolbe (C1790-1836) the group again moved south westwards in 1825 through Banyo where the Chamba incorporated large numbers of the Peli, Mboum and Buti and the Tikars commonly known in Bali Nyonga as Tikali.

Settling for a while near Bamun, the Chamba attempted to exploit a longstanding conflict between the Bati and Bamun to attack Bamun and incorporate it to the Chamba. Though failing to subjugate the Bamun, the Chamba subsequently amalgamated some of the Bati and moved further south into Bagam which they conquered. Some historians refer to the Bati elements incorporated here as ‘Ti Galwolbe’. Moving from there, the Bali Chamba headed through Bamenjinda and Babaju and into Bamenda. In the course of this, they fought with the people of Bafreng, Mankon, Bafut Bapinyin, Meta and Moghamo. Settling in Dschang, the Chamba were met with fierce resistance from the inhabitants of Dschang. This led to the death of Gawolbe in the battle of Bafu-Fundong near Djuitisa.

The Chamba then moved north-westwards and camped near Bagam in order to re-organise and select a new leader. Most grass field traditions still point to the Bali Chamba as warriors. It is believed that the attractive nature of the vegetation in these areas was irresistible to the horses of the Chamba prompting the group’s movement further southwards. The Bali Chamba are thus credited with having introduced the horse to the southern part of the country. Tradition holds that the constant movement of the Chamba was as a result of their search for land fertile enough to avoid the occurrence of famine.


The successor of Gawolbe was Gangsin but he proved unpopular and too weak to wield the Chamba together and establish a strong and united kingdom. Consequently, there emerged many postulants to the throne. The tensions between the rivals provoked a split between the Chamba elements. This split was to lead to the formation of seven distinct principalities.

1/ Bali Kumbat (Nepkolbi)

Led by Galega, this was the largest and probably the most influential group among the Chamba, they moved North-westwards waging wars against Bambili, Bambui and the Tikars of Ndop plain, finally defeating the Bamumkumbit and settling on their hilltop position. It is claimed that their leader Galega was an influential retainer who carried many palace secrets with him.

2/ Bali- Gangsin (Donep)

This group equally moved North-westwards and settled south-east of Bali Kumbat.

3/ Bali-Gashu (Gasonep)

Led by Ga-Nyam, the group first moved to the site of present day Bali-Gham befoe moving further northwards and settling to the east of Bali-Kumbat.

4/ Bali-Gham (Nepgavilbi)

Led by Ga-Sanga, the group moved to Bagham Nindeng where they acquired their locational name before settling in their present site near Santa.

5/ Bali Muti

This group travelled via Wum and settled in Takun which is located in present day Tabara State in Nigeria. It is one of 15 local government areas in Tabara state.

6/ Bali Nkohntan

This group settled in Kuform in the present Bali-Nyonga subdivision. They were subsequently assimilated by their Bali Nyonga cousins. This explains why unlike other Balis, Bali Nyonga today flies two flags (tutuwan)

7/ Bali Nyonga.

Led by Nyongpasi, son of Princess Na’nyonga, this group first moved to Tsen (Kuti or Kupare) located on the southern part of the Bamun region. Here, they renewed relations with the Bati seen as recalcitrant subjects of the Bamun Some theories hold that an attempted alliance with the Bati against the Bamun failed and prompted them to move from the area. Together with the recalcitrant Bati elements, in C1848 they moved towards Bamenda waging a series of wars against eastern Bamileke groups such as the Bangante, the Bansoa and Bamunju. In Bamenda, they made a blood treaty with the Fon of Bafreng and stayed there for seven years before pursuing their Nkohtan breathren to Kuform. Defeating the latter, Bali Nyonga incorporated this group as well as its Baku, Mudum and Kenyang subjects in 1855 and settled in the area. Nyongpoasi later became Fonyonga I the first ruler of Bali Nyonga.

Map of Bali Nyonga Sub-Division


Bali Nyonga and the Origins of Mungaka

Of all the existing Chamba groups, Bali Nyonga is the only one to have evolved another language almost to the extinction of Mubakh which is spoken by the rest of the Chamba group. After settling in their present site, the Bali Nyonga constantly faced aggression from Bali Kumbat. However, at the battles of Paila and Ngwa’ndikang in C.1875, the Bali Kumbat suffered a heavy defeat from Bali Nyonga. Most of their leaders were killed. These skirmishes were to be of greater significance in the subsequent differences that developed between the Bali Nyonga and the other Chamba elements. Owing to the necessity to distinguish between the troops in battlefield communication, the Bali Nyonga adopted a totally different language that could enable it keep secrets away from their Bali Kumbat aggressors.

The coexistence between the Bali Nyonga and the Bati was instrumental in initiating the latter’s language into Bali Nyonga. The result was the development of Mungaka considered as an amalgamation of Bati and Bamun although it is possible that other languages might have impacted on the development of Mungaka. Some theories hold that incipient Mungaka was a pidginized form of language derived from a fusion of Bati, Bamun and other Bamileke languages. For a long time, Mubakoh and Mungaka existed side by side but by 1889, Mubakoh had gradually been relegated to a court language while Mungaka was the lingua franca. Bati language is the mother tongue of what subsequently developed as Mungaka.

Thus, there still exists some linguistic affinity between the Mungaka and the Bati language. For instance the Mungaka name for ‘horse’ is ‘Nyam Bani’ which literally means ‘Bali animal’. Some Mungaka linguists hold that this appellation is probably derived from the Bati and or the Bamun who acknowledged the Chamba people were horsemen. The eclectic nature of the Bali Nyonga people means that the language continued to borrow from other languages. As a result of early trade between Cameroonian and Nigerian tribes, Mungaka came to borrow from Ejagham and the Bayangi in Manyu and the Efik in Nigeria. Though these languages are not spoken widely in Bali, they are quite popular in the domain of traditional singing and dancing particularly with the Nyangkwe dance. Outside Bali Nyonga, Mungaka became a lingua-franca for non-native speakers. Used as a language of communication in many parts of the Northwest, enjoying the status of other widely spoken languages such a Douala, Ewondo and Fufulde.

The adoption of Mungaka as a language of communication by the Basel Mission Church when they arrived the country in 1903, led to an extensive and intensive use of Mungaka for both church and secular interactions. It was subsequently initiated into formal education. Mungaka became one of the first Cameroonian languages to be codified. Through the diligent work of the Basel missionaries who found the Mungaka phonetically less complicated and easier to learn, the codification of Mungaka began. Based on a slightly modified orthography of German, a Mungaka vocabulary glossary was soon developed. By 1915, a translation of Bible stories was available in Mungaka.

However, with relatively few people schooled in Mungaka, and with many native speakers unable to properly use the Mungaka orthography, some people have developed an anglicised orthography which results in an unorthodox but fairly intelligible script. (eg ‘Bang’-walking stick and ‘tang’-arithmetic. Nevertheless, whilst the written form of Mungaka is formal and standardized, the spoken form remains less formal and more diversified characterized by code switching and/or mixing various forms of linguistic interference. Hence the name of a horse in

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