holds a wall mask depicting a "Kam": a traditional
title in the Kingdom of Oku.
Nchinda Wanjel Frances is a traditional carver from
the village of Oku in Cameroon. Most of what he produces
is for traditional use in Oku — where many of his works
are treated as sacred objects.
Wanjel still employs the low-tech carving traditions
that he learned from his forefathers. Using only his
hands, a wooden mallet, and homemade chisels, he sculpts
traditional Oku masks and stools of astonishing beauty,
complexity, and simplicity.
The near-perfect symmetry of his pieces is achieved
without even the benefit of a ruler.
holds a homemade chisel (center) made by heating
an iron file (upper left) in a fire until it becomes
malable. The file is pounded into the "v" chape
of a chisel, set into a wooden handle, then shapened.
On the right is an imported chisel given to him
by a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Occasionally he sells to tourists, or expatriates living
in Cameroon, such as Peace Corps Volunteers. However,
Wanjel's steadiest customers are the people of Oku themselves
— including the Fon
(king) of Oku. They buy or barter for his masks
or stools. The stools are used in the kitchen for cooking
by the fire.
The masks become the heads of jujus for use
in traditional ceremonies. A juju is best described
as the representation of a traditional spirit. However
"representation" is hardly the word: The people of Oku
do not regard a juju as one of their neighbors dressed
in a costume; they revere the juju as the spirit itself.
Traditionally, women are prohibited from seeing jujus
— or from even seeing
the masks* when not in use.
As a traditional carver, Wanjel is particularly sensitive
to the relationship between Oku and the Kilum Mountain
Forest which surrounds it. He depends on the forest
for various types of wood, leaves, medicine, bush meat,
and honey. His knowledge of the forest and it's traditional
uses has made him an important resource to the international
effort to protect it: The Kilum Mountain Forest Project.
gathers special leaves from the Kilum Mountain Forest
and burns them in his workshop. The smoke from this
fire slowly penetrates into the carvings that hang
on the wall. Note the buffalo mask (upper right)
that has only recently been added to the wall.
Rather than a wood stain or paint, it is the accumulation
of smoke from the fire in Wanjel's workshop that gives
his carvings their dark coloring, as well as a residual
Culture, like smoke, penetrates deeper than any superficial
stain or varnish; deeper than many of us appreciate.
Wanjel, who generally wears an American tee-shirt,
is nonetheless infused with the culture of Oku. The
art that flows from his hands is like scent of exotic
incense that takes you somewhere you have never been.
| The Information Backroad
|If the Internet is the "Information Superhighway"
then Oku is an "Information Backroad." No
Internet. No phones. No post office. And only
the well-to-do have electricity.
When PEOPLink visited Wanjel in late 1999,
he had never heard of the Internet. When
it was explained to him, by Edwin
Fotachwi he became very interested in
selling his carvings online. A system was
devised for PEOPLink to communicate with
him via e-mail. It goes something like this:
- PEOPLink sends Wanjel an e-mail that
immediately reaches a mail server in Douala,
Cameroon's largest city.
- In one or two days, the message is downloaded
by an e-mail service in Bamenda, a provincial
capital. The message is printed out, and
- Within two weeks, a friend of Wanjel
drops by the e-mail service and collects
the message. He takes the message to a
the "taxi park" in Bamenda where taxis
and buses bound for Banso load passengers.
The printed message is given to a trusted
taxi driver. Once in Banso, the message
may be handed again to another taxi driver
who will carry the message to Oku,
- The taxi driver delivers the message
to a general store that Wanjel frequents.
- When Wanjel happens to pass this general
store, he will collect the message
- Wanjel waits until the afternoon when
his son comes home from school so the
message can be read to him.
- Wanjel dictates a response, and this
entire process happens in reverse
*PEOPLink was careful to explain
to Wanjel that, if his masks were to go on the Web, women
all over the world would be able to see them, including
women from Oku. Wanjel explained that the prohibition
applies only to Oku women viewing the physical masks while
they are within Oku territory
here to see all the products of Wanjel available through