By Measha Brueggergosman, an award-winning Canadian soprano who has traced her roots back to the Bassa tribe from Cameroon, Africa. Here, she first meets the Bassa community, including three elders who conduct a transformative healing ceremony that will profoundly influence her life.
I just discovered that my family and I are of Cameroonian descent, so we are going to Cameroon. We’re going to delve into Cameroonian culture, I’m going to sing with a Cameroonian artist and we’re going to speak French. It is an incredibly exciting opportunity to learn that I am from Cameroon and then be able to act on it. To embark on a journey that seeks to reintegrate me into a culture that my ancestors were essentially stolen from through slavery in the 1700s is an experience that is quite surreal. Being from Cameroon is, in some ways, both amazing and terrifying.
Within minutes of leaving the airport in Cameroon, Mbombog Mbengan Nkaïnjé approaches me and performs a small welcome ceremony. He puts his forehead on mine, speaks some words in his traditional language, and instantly I think, OK something incredible is going to happen; I’m not sure what it is or if I’m going to be standing at the end, but it will be worth it.
Mbombog Mbengan Nkaïnjé takes me to a Bassa village near Douala, where I participate in a traditional African healing ceremony. Through a process led by three ba Mbombog (the plural of Mbombog is ‘ba Mbombog), I am warmly welcomed into the Bassa community while being healed mentally, spiritually and physically. It is an extremely powerful experience that really brings me closer to my Bassa roots.
A Mbombog is a senior leader in the Bassa tribe. Ba Mbombog are elders who oversee all matters of life – including matters medical, spiritual, civic and logistical. We have no exact equivalent for this term in North America, but I would describe them as a judge, teacher, counsellor, doctor, therapist, and community leader all wrapped into one. The role is distinctly reflective of Cameroonian and African culture. There’s an acceptance of elders here along with the knowledge they are meant to impart to the rest of us muddling our way through life. Now that I am being accepted into the Bassa community, the ba Mbombog are here to help guide my way in the universe.
Mbombog Mbengan Nkaïnjé is a very learned man. He and I immediately connect, which is in a large part due to him; he is very much in service to his culture. Upon my arrival in the Bassa village I see two more ba Mbombog, who Mbombog Mbengan describes as “more senior.” The first is Mbombog Masé ma Masé and the second is Mbombog Dr. Bakang ba Tonjé, a physician of 40 years who, after retirement, decided to study traditional African medicine to add to his knowledge. Immediately I am in awe of their power in the room.
I was immediately in awe at the amount of power in the room.
The process begins with a cleansing ceremony. You have to be cleaned before the healing can begin, I’m told. The ba Mbombog bring me into a courtyard and work together around me. All three of them put something into a pail that they filled with water, and mix the contents together.
Then the most senior Mbombog chews on some earth and spits it onto my chest, a vulnerable part of my own physical and medical trauma, especially as a result of my 2009 open-heart surgery. The ba Mbombog are incredibly sensitive to the fact that healing is ongoing and goes beyond the physical. I think everyone can relate to a memory, trauma, or fear that stays with them. If you believe that medicine is meant to heal, then cleansing these traumatic places is a powerful, important process.
The ba Mbombog proceed to washing my arms, legs, head and face with the contents of the bucket. Afterwards I am passed to some Bassa women, who dress me in traditional clothing.
It is great to visit a place like Cameroon where there is a very conscious marriage between occidental and traditional medicine, which takes into account the entire individual. The ba Mbombog strive to revolutionize your contribution to the world; it’s their goal and starting point. They want to empower you. Once you understand yourself, you have the power to change yourself and the world. I see this as Mbombog Mbengan takes the time to meditate on my life and consult with people who know more than he does. Learning about traditional Bassa medicine is an incredible experience. The nature of this medicine is to heal and create balance. It’s to center you and make you feel supported.
To me it seems that health has a much broader definition in Africa than it does in the occidental world, and I appreciate my time here greatly. It is a unique and profound experience, and I know it will continue to ripple outwards into different aspects of my life. Just talking to the ba Mbombog solidifies my belief that in the West we have a somewhat desperate system of care that is very advanced technically but lacks heart. Nobody is really talking to you in the Western medical system, but here they see more than the symptoms. I feel so seen and heard by the ba Mbombog, and we’d never even met before.
By Mbombog Mbengan Nkaïnjé, traditional healer from Cameroon, Africa. In the Songs of Freedom documentary, Mbombog Mbengan Nkaïnjé helps Measha reconnect with the Bassa tribe, a society from which her ancestors were stolen and sold into slavery in the 18th century.
An Mbombog is the person that the Almighty (Hilôlômbi) has entrusted to oversee the universe and protect all the creatures under their authority. He does this with the help of ancestors, and by grace of the Almighty himself. Our role is religious, spiritual and mystical. But it’s also socioeconomic, cultural and intellectual, because it’s the Mbombog who shows the path that leads Bassa individuals towards their full potential. My path to become an Mbombog began when I was spotted by several other senior ba Mbombog (the plural of Mbombog is ‘ba Mbombog’). One day my spiritual father, Mbombog, Dr Bakang ba TonjéI brought me to my family for a consultation prior to making my decision. My family approved this choice and I began my spiritual initiation.
The Mbombog is father to all the Bassa, and his wife is their mother. When you become Mbombog, even your biological father becomes your child. Measha is now a part of this lineage. And if she decides to move back to Cameroon, she’ll share the same heritage as my biological children. Other African nations have their own leaders and guides. We actually share a common history. But only the Bassa people have Mbombog. It is a very important role in Bassa culture.
Being a part of the Bassa community is an honour, but it also comes with responsibilities. To be Bassa is to submit yourself to the principles of the Mbog (universe), where the Mbombog is your guide. He leads his community towards respect and dignity. Dignity to the Bassa can be distinguished from other communities in the world by the joining of these three proverbs:
1) Tolo a tabé nlimil u njok: the mouse is not the elephant’s slave.
2) Me n’jél bé i mbay yoň (boň bô bi bum bô): everyone must fight for their own personal development, but this doesn’t exclude solidarity; on the contrary, one should be happy to see their sister or brother reach their full potential.
3) Me kit me yéne: reaching a decision must be respected in one’s soul and by the letter until the moment where a contrary decision is taken by the same assembly or another assembly hierarchically superior to the first, after concluding that the first decision wasn’t the right one.
When I learned of Measha’s arrival I was very excited. It’s like the return of the Prodigal son in the Bible
When I learned of Measha’s arrival I was very excited. It’s like the return of the prodigal son in the Bible. A child comes home after everyone thought he was lost forever due to the tribulations in the story, but they never stopped loving him, never stopped thinking about him. Of course the door was always left open, and his place in the house was always kept warm, in the hope that he would one day come home. His return is the choice that marks the end of a difficult and courageous journey towards social and economic freedom, but especially spiritual and cultural freedom. This child will have to learn his true identity among his fathers and mothers and sisters, and in return he will share his experiences with the outside world, and perhaps provide new perspectives on the modern world. And there’s no doubt this could provide real opportunities for the future.
The damage of the slave trade went beyond just stealing people
Before any ceremonies can begin I, along with my spiritual father and other select ba Mbombog, had to perform a ritual that I can’t explain, to find out whether the ancestors would accept her. Once we received the OK, I was chosen to meet her at the airport. There I introduced her to our shared ancestors and the Almighty God. The dead observe and judge what the living do, so I asked for their help, support and their blessing. The ceremony continued in the Bassa village. The specifics and the importance of the ceremony are confidential, similar to what happens between a doctor and his patient.
The slave trade, from which Measha’s ancestors were stolen, had major effects on the Bassa and Cameroon. So many people were taken from the Bassa and other African nations. The population density in Central Africa went from 35 people/km² in the 17th century, to 5 people/km² in the early 19th century. The damage went beyond just stealing people. It took the nation’s entire workforce, and what followed was the total subordination of Africa and the African people under the yoke of foreign people. It also created a troubling legend in the popular imagination, of “Kong,” a person who is suspected of enriching themselves by selling (in a mystical sense) human beings for exploitation in other countries or inaccessible regions: like Manikongo, the King of Kongo, who organized kidnappings in remote regions to acquire arms and enrich himself by trading with Brazilian slave traders.
I have slave ancestors too, but no one in my family knows where they were taken. The slave trade has affected all families in Cameroon, so much so that we don’t have the courage to visit the slave ports such as Bimbia in the southwest of Cameroon, or the ports in the Kribi region in the south. But we’ve adapted to the situation, with a twinge of sorrow in our hearts. It doesn’t, however, manifest itself in our daily lives.
By Measha Brueggergosman, an award-winning Canadian soprano who is recognized around the world for her spectacular voice, innate musicianship, magnificent performances and vibrant personality. In the Songs of Freedom documentary Measha discovers traces of her ancestry in the Bassa tribe in Cameroon, Africa.
You can’t come to Africa and not expected to engage in some kind of musical or dance activity. The Assiko dance is the Bassa tribe’s own dance and it is very popular in Cameroonian culture. You can liken an Assiko to square dancing but instead of a caller you have a guitar playing specific rhythms and melodies that indicate what steps you are supposed to be doing. Communication between the dancers and the guitar is very important. Sometimes the guitar tells the dancers what to do and sometimes the dancers perform movements that encourages the guitar to respond. It’s a very collaborative process that can go on for hours.
The Assiko is a sassy, sassy dance, but, from personal experience, I can tell you that it is terribly difficult. Your arm is supposed to be doing something while your shoulders does something else. Everything is moving. Your face is doing something, your chest is doing something and of course your hips should be working magic. There is a tremendous amount of hip isolation, which is not my forte, but when given the opportunity I am very much willing to try.
The Assiko is a sassy, sassy dance but it is terribly difficult
The Assiko dancers I am surrounded by are so good. All four of them are professional athletes. Raoul, the main dancer, is an incredible teacher. He attempts to teach me a couple of steps before I go out so I will not humiliate myself. I can sense his empathy for me, and as soon as he sees my limitations he is very kind in breaking things down and doing things a little slower. I am motivated by a desire to pay homage to this culture to which I have been newly christened.
I pull out as much from myself as I possibly can, because I want the people in my Bassa neighbourhood to know that even though I don’t have the technique, I definitely have enthusiasm and a certain fearlessness. One thing that I find comforting about learning to dance the Assiko in the Bassa community is that it’s easy to give over to a spirit of sweet abandon and fearlessness and just try a dance that you’ve never tried before with your North American body.
For me the most magical part is when they start leaving trails in the sand. The dancers are sliding through the sand and leaving trails, all while gyrating their hips. It’s crazy. I sweat now just thinking about it.
By Sanzy Viany, a young and accomplished Cameroonian artist. Sanzy blends beautiful Cameroonian rhythms with music of all styles, such as soul, jazz and rumba, to create a unique sound. During Measha’s visit to Cameroon, she got the opportunity to sing with Sanzy in Eton and English. Here you can read about Sanzy’s life growing up in Cameroon and her passion for music.
My family comes from a village called Obala in central Cameroon, but I grew up 40 kilometers away from there, in the country’s capital, Yaoundé. I still live in Yaoundé where I was born, but from time to time I go back to Obala to stay with my grandma.
The Yaoundé community is very diverse. There are many types of houses and many different types of people. Everyone in our community is open-minded and quite joyful. If you were walking down the streets of my community in the early evening you might see children playing together and people hanging out, talking and laughing around a few beers. We love peace and good food!
Our town belongs to the Ewondo tribe, but you can find many other tribes around. I belong to the Eton tribe and we speak the Eton language. I also belong to the Essele clan (a clan is like a huge family), which exists inside the Eton tribe. In Cameroon we have more than 200 tribes. The Eton tribe is a branch of the great family of BETI, which stretches across neighbouring countries like Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. For me, we say I am Eton Essele’s daughter, which describes my tribe and clan.
I’ve been playing music since I was a child. When I was young I would go to church with my mother when she used to rehearse and sing during mass. My mother’s side of the family is made up of artists. Many of my uncles play a traditional instrument, the balafon, and all my aunties sing. At nine I wrote my first lyrics and at 15 I touched my first microphone. After I received my Master’s degree in business law I decided to make music my career, and I must confess I am the first person in my family to be a professional musician!
It was not that difficult to choose between being a lawyer and being a singer, because music is my passion. My mother always said an artist with a background in school is better than one with no such background. In Cameroon many young people have degrees but they don’t have jobs. With my voice I sometimes make more money than a lawyer in one month! I think a career as a musician might sometimes be insecure, but having a Master’s degree doesn’t guarantee a job that provides a lot of money either.
It was not that difficult to choose between being a lawyer or a singer because music is my passion
At first my father was not happy with my decision to pursue music, but once I started travelling and he saw my name in the newspapers, he, like many others, realized that I was serious about it. People must know that music is not something you choose or decide to do when nothing else works out for you.
My career really began in 2004 when I started recording my first album, which unfortunately didn’t see the light. On the bright side, that same year one of my mentors signed me up for MASAO, an international music festival taking place in Cameroon that features only the voices of African women. This was the first time I had ever been on stage in front of people playing live music, and it changed my life.
After that I recorded another album, Akouma, which means “wealth” in Eton. It has eight tracks and it allowed me to travel for performances throughout Africa and Europe. I had a tour in Benin and Holland through a project called Daughters of Africa. In three months we played 90 shows in theaters all across Holland. I’ve also played in many festivals in Cameroon and the rest of Africa and have had the opportunity to sing with great African artists such as Ismaelo from Senegal, Manu Dibango from Cameroon, Amy Koita from Mali and Monique Seka from the Ivory Coast. I love to play music and travel with my band. They are so sweet!
I play what people call “world music,” but I call it “ewanga jazz.” My style is a fusion of jazz with a traditional rhythm called bikutsi . I do not just mix these two genres of music; I am very open to experimenting with many musical styles. Sometimes, I mix bikutsi with soul, salsa, slow, bossa nova, rock, R&B or others depending on how I feel when I am composing. An artist is a kind of social painter. In general, I use my music to express everything I feel, everything I see, and everything I would love to see and realize in my life or in other people’s lives. I am greatly inspired by people’s dreams, tears and sorrows.
My roots are the basis of who I am musically speaking. I see myself as an ambassador for my culture. I use my mother tongue and my traditional rhythms to express myself and to reach my goal of being a great ambassador. What I want to share with the world concerning my culture is the music, the dance and the language I use, even if I will mix it with English sometimes.
Collaborating with Measha was a great experience. I loved her instantly! I especially enjoyed singing with her and helping her tie her hair for the tailor. The song we sang together, “Go Down Moses,” still touches my heart and makes me feel blessed because I can feel the pain of Israel and the determination of Moses. That song is very special.
My family doesn’t have the same history as Measha’s. On the contrary, one of my ancestors, the father of my grandmother’s mother (my great-great-grandfather), was a king, so we had slaves! Kings don’t exist in my tribe anymore, but that’s my family history. Kings and their slaves vanished with colonization, but in the villages everybody still knows who comes from what part of society. Of course we cannot trace everything, so we do not marry someone from the same clan in case we both might have the same ancestor.
I had the chance to see my great grandmother (the daughter of the king) while she was still alive. In my culture, family history is passed on from parent to children in the villages. My grandmother told my mom about our history, who told it to me, and in the future I will tell it to my son.
By E.S.D. Fomin, a Cameroonian history professor with a specialization in the slave trade and slavery in Africa. Fomin writes, teaches and speaks extensively about African slavery and the transatlantic slave trade at universities in Africa, the U.S., Canada and Europe. Through his works he seeks to demonstrate that the underdevelopment of Africa is historically rooted in the havoc that the transatlantic slave trade caused on the continent.
The trade in enslaved persons between Africa and the Americas was the outcome of European capitalism. The first shipment of enslaved Africans ever to happen occurred between the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America. Direct shipment of many thousands of Africans to North America started in the 1600s and was motivated by the search for cheap labor to cultivate European tobacco, cotton and other crops at plantations. Planters in the American states of Arizona, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and others exploited many thousands of enslaved persons from Africa whom they got from mainly British, Dutch, French and Spanish slave traders.
Throughout the slave trade, enslaved individuals from Africa produced resources in North America that European traders took to Europe to manufacture into products. Many of these goods were then taken to Africa and exchanged for the enslaved. This trade, which involved manufactured goods from Europe, enslaved persons from Africa and raw materials from America, is often called triangular trade. In this triangular trade Africa was the most negatively affected because it lost tremendously valuable human resources. The procurement of these unfortunate individuals created conditions that stunted development in the African continent.
Throughout all of the traumatic stages of the enslavement saga, music played a great role in the perseverance of the enslaved
Enslaved Africans, who constituted a central past of the triangular trade, experienced indescribable horror throughout their entire enslaved lives. This terror was inflicted by their captors in three main stages: the capture and march of victims from the hinterlands of Africa to the Atlantic coast, the dreaded middle passage on slave ships (which only the very lucky ones survived) and the cruel treatment on the plantations. Throughout all of the traumatic stages of the enslavement saga, music, and singing in particular, played a great role in the perseverance of the enslaved victims, despite their ordeal.
During the inland march to the coast, slaves sang to instill courage in members of their ill-fated group or to placate the enslavers so that they would be lenient in their treatment. During the middle passage, the slavers organized regular music and performance opportunities in an effort to boost the spirits of the enslaved. At the plantations the enslaved played music when they had the opportunity to entertain themselves and to evoke cultural memories. Later, Christian religious music (“Negro spirituals”) dominated their social life because of the comfort that these spiritual songs provided; people believed that those who suffered in this world would we blessed by a better life in the next.
Cameroon was deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade and was also partly affected by the trans-Saharan trade. This explains why people from many Cameroon ethnic entities* are found in virtually all parts of the world, especially in the Americas, Europe and the Arabian Peninsula, as shown in recent DNA studies. The Port of Bimbia was known to European explorers even before the start of the slave trade to the Americas, but it only became one of the major exits for slaves taken across the Atlantic Ocean in the 18th century. However, by 1529 the Portuguese were already exploiting the coast of Cameroon, seeking enslaved people to work in their sugarcane plantations at Sao Tome off the coast of Bimbia. The key European actors of the trade in Bimbia were Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, French and Danish. By 1700 Bimbia was seriously involved in the transatlantic trade, which lasted in the area up until the 1850s.
African people also played an active role in the slave trade
African people also played an active role in the slave trade. In the late 19th century, during the reign of King William of Bimbia, the leader of the Isubu ethnic group, the Isubu people were the dominant Africa traders at Bimbia port. They would travel to the hinterlands to procure people from various ethnic entities to sell to European traders. In general, people in ethnic groups did not sell their own kin. They sold only persons they procured from other groups through kidnapping, raids, capture and purchase. For example, the Bassa ethnic entity was directly exploited by the Duala, who controlled trade along the Cameroon coast at the Wouri Estuary. The Bassa were also known to sell persons from other ethnic groups, even though they were not slave traders par excellence. There were a few exceptions to the rules, however, and many ethnic groups, including the Bassa, sold their kin who were accused of crimes against their own people. Before the slave trade, such people would have otherwise been executed. It is important to remember that people who were sold along the coast of Cameroon and other parts of Africa were not slaves to begin with, but free individuals who were enslaved and then sold.
The impact of the slave trade on local populations was great and it is still being felt in many areas of Cameroon today. The indiscriminate sale of individuals created a lot of problems for Cameroon including the loss of valuable population, insecurity, fear, uncertainty and the consequent absence of sustained development. Ethnic conflicts that have slowed development in Africa for centuries and that are rife in parts of Cameroon are usually traceable to the history of past enslavement. Ethnic conflicts in the northern parts of Cameroon, where memories of past slave-taking are still fresh, continue to negatively affect relationships between some ethnic entities today.
Today, some people of the slavery diaspora, whose ancestors experienced this involuntary mass dispersion of people, are looking to reconnect to their Cameroonian roots, and they are welcomed back warmly. This shows that their ancestors were not unwanted in their original societies, they were stolen. The most important thing about this reconnection is that Africans across the continent and those in the diaspora reject the so-called “curse of enslavement” and want to unite for the development of the continent by reclaiming African dignity and honor.
* The term “tribe” is no longer used in African studies by African scholars. Instead, these structures are referred to as “ethnic entities.”
By Joan Jenkinson, Vice President of Independent Production for VisionTV / Zoomermedia. Jenkinson has been with VisionTV since 2001 and has had the privilege of overseeing the production of hundreds of hours of documentary, music, lifestyle and drama programming. She commissioned the Rhombus Media production of the feature film and four-part music series Songs of Freedom for VisionTV / ZoomerMedia.
Of the many productions I have been a part of, Songs of Freedom with Measha Brueggergosman is particularly close to my heart. This music documentary and series is a wonderful expression of music that speaks to everyone but has special meaning to people whose ancestors have been enslaved and are now free.
My family immigrated to Canada from Jamaica when I was very young – an escape to freedom of sorts. My parents left a country with a history of slavery and colonial rule that has left an indelible mark. The class structure ranks individuals by the shade of their skin and perpetuates widespread poverty and violence. My parents left to find employment and the possibility of a good life and education for their children. They succeeded.
In spite of its economic and social issues, when I visit Jamaica I find the people are expressive, vibrant and resilient. They are full of faith and hope that one day they will be truly free.
I had the opportunity to visit Senegal when I was 19. Although I don’t know my specific African origins, I felt at home. I was welcomed and embraced by the community as Measha was on her trip to her ancestral home in Cameroon. The people I encountered had strong musical traditions of song and dance that were full of infectious life, joy and passion. They shared this with me as a “sister” who had returned home.
I’m thankful to Measha for sharing her journey and her family history and for bringing this music to life in such a special way. This project will touch the hearts of everyone who sees and hears it, as it’s done for me.
VisionTV / ZoomerMedia is very pleased with its collaboration with director Barbara Willis-Sweete of Rhombus Media and with the producers of the digital media components from DEEP Inc., Irene Vandertop and Thomas Wallner, who have brought us these exceptional visual expressions of freedom.
By Measha Brueggergosman, award-winning Canadian soprano. In the Songs of Freedom documentary Measha traces her roots back to the Bassa tribe from Cameroon, Africa. In Cameroon she reflects on what this visit means for her and her family’s future.
My brother and I found out that we were Bassa when we sent DNA swabs to a lab in the United States. When they returned, we showed a match of more than 95% with others who are Bassa.
To me Cameroon is still a foreign place. It’s a culture that I don’t necessarily identify with, at least on the surface, but I think metaphysically and spiritually there are tremendous similarities between the Bassa people and the characteristics that are strongest in my family.
My visit to Cameroon taught me so much about my history. The whole “Bassa-ness” that was birthed in this trip leaves me feeling more connected to my genealogy. I was welcomed into a culture that immediately saw me as part of the Bassa. There was this immediate inclusion and to them it’s obvious that I’m one of them. Right away I felt like I belonged. It was as if they had simply met their newest sister. I found it very emotional – they were welcoming me back.
When I was with the Bassa dancers in Dwalla, the community started cheering. It was overwhelmingly emotional because I had been lost, but now I’m found. It was just so incredibly immediate. No one took any time to consider it, there was no paperwork involved and they didn’t gather a committee to decide whether I was worthy; I was simply Bassa. I have never experienced that kind of inclusion before.
Anyone who has overcome any kind of trauma knows that the only way forward is through
In western cultures we have to work so hard to feel like we belong to something. It’s so much work to create community. There is so much discernment and so much trial-and-error. It’s exhausting. I will probably be less judgmental going forward. Mistakenly, I used to think that I was inclusive and empathetic and non-judgmental, but now I know that I’m not.
I am Canadian, and I am Bassa, and to me these are the most immediate influences over my life. I hope that I can create a clear connection to Cameroonian culture for my children. I would like them to know and respect the fact that they are Bassa.
There’s so much that I still want to do, but if tomorrow it was all over, I would still be quite thrilled with the life I have had. I have been through some challenging things in life: I was morbidly obese and then I lost weight, my aorta exploded and I almost died and I have lost two babies. There are a lot of processes there that require a tremendous amount of self-reflection. They were very difficult experiences and I think people looking in from the outside might wonder how I’m still standing. But anyone who has undergone grief or illness or faced any kind of juncture in life where you have to go one way or the other knows that the only way forward is through. I’m very optimistic today. Every day is a new day.