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Field Mission to Bafut, Cameroon: Part 1, Achum Shrine

I travelled recently to Bafut in Cameroon to inspect the ongoing conservation work at Bafut Palace. Put on the Watch in 2006, the palace was in a critical condition. Many of the original tiled roofs had collapsed or were badly decayed. Progress has been dramatic since then. Six roofs were retiled in the first phase and a further 10 will be repaired in this current cycle of work, and already the site bustles with renewed life.

Photographs of the palace hardly convey how vibrant a place of living cultural heritage it is. At the centre of the site is the Achum Shrine, which is the most sacred place in Bafut.

It is a simple structure—raised on a stone plinth, surrounded by timber columns carved with animals and grimacing human faces and covered with a thick thatch of grass—but it resonates majesty and history and a fierce spirituality. The columns supporting the structure are decaying at the base and there is evidence that it has started to tilt. It is hoped that the shrine will be the focus of the next phase of conservation work.

The palace is the home of the Fon of Bafut, who is the traditional ruler of the Bafut people. He lives in a house next to the shrine and the two large compounds either side are filled with the houses of his queens. The current fon has six wives but his grandfather boasted over 100. The fon described the inner life of the palace to me; only he and his wives are allowed inside the Achum Shrine. It houses an ancient fetish, which is all that remained after Bafut Palace was destroyed by the German colonial army in 1895 as an act of retribution for an insurrection.