The Feast: A Bamum Folktale

Title: Helmet Mask

Date: before 1880

Geography: Cameroon, Grassfields region

Culture: Bamum kingdom

Medium: Wood, copper, glass beads, raffia, cowrie shells

Photograph from The Met

A chief who ruled over many villages decided to give a great feast for all his people. So he sent messengers to the villages to announce the event. His messengers told the people that the feast would take place on such and such a day and asked each of the men to bring one calabash of palm wine. The day of the festival came. People bathed and dressed in their best clothes. They walk to the chief’s village. Many hundreds of men and their families were on the roads and paths. They converged on the house of the chief. There was drumming and dancing. Each man as he entered the chief’s compound, went with his calabash to a large earthen pot, into which he poured the liquid refreshment that he had brought.

Now there was one man who wanted very much to attend the feast, but he had no palm wine to bring. His wife said, “why don’t you buy palm wine from so-and-so, who has plenty?” But the man replied: “What! Spend money so that I can attend a feast that is free? No, there must be another way.” And after a while he said his wife: “Hundreds and hundreds of people will pour their wine into the chief’s pot. Could one calabash of water spoil so much wine? Who would know the difference?” And so he filled his calabash with water and went with the others to the chief’s village. When he arrived, he saw the guests pouring the wine into the big pot, and he went forward and poured his water there and greeted the chief. Then he went to where the men were sitting, and he sat with them to wait to serving of the palm wine. When all the guests had arrived, the chief ordered his servants to fill everyone’s cups. The cups were filled and each of the men awaited the signal to begin to drink. The man who had brought only water was impatient, for there was nothing so refreshing as palm wine. The chief gave the signal, and the guests put the cups to their lips. They tasted. They tasted again. And what they tasted was not palm wine but water, for each of them had thought, “One calabash of water cannot spoil a great pot of good palm wine.” And each of them had filled his calabash at the spring. Thus the large earthen pot contained nothing but water, and it was water they had to drink at the chief’s feast. So it is said among the people: “When only water is brought to the feast, it is water that must be drunk.”