By Mokun Njouny Nelson
When I walk into the office of Mayor Frederick Tanjoh, he offers me what every true son of Batibo village offers a visitor; some palmwine. He clears his throat after a sip from his cup and in a clear voice tells me “…as custodian of the values of the people of Batibo, I need to know how the different kinds of palm wine taste so I am more a wine connoisseur.”
“That means you only like tasting palm wine, you are not a committed drinker?” I ask.
He takes another gulp before replying “You can’t ask if someone is moving and living behind his shadow. I prefer palmwine to any other type of drink”
Welcome to Batibo, a small village in North Western Cameroon located some 40 Km away from the provincial Capital, Bamenda. The small village, however, has a much more bigger reputation; it is officially Cameroons’ palmwine Capital. Some 10.000 liters of Palmwine are produced from the village daily, the highest amount produced anywhere in Cameroon which is why the village has been dubbed Cameroons palmwine capital. It is home to some 100.000 inhabitants.
Palmwine or “fitchuck” as it is called in the local Moghamo dialect, gives life, vitality and a name to the village. Nothing happens in the village in the absence of “fitchuck”. It is the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation, the ever present guest at all social occasions; it is “omnipresent” in everything that happens in the village and the people love it because it not only keeps them happy but also generates some badly needed revenue for the village and the local council.
Palmwine is tapped or harvested from a raffia palm tree that usually grows above 20 metres tall. There are many different types of palmwine depending on the tree from which it is harvested but Batibo does happen to have the best “branded” palmwine produced in Cameroon.
By some inexplicable design, every single family in Batibo has a raffia palm bush. Most families in the village depend entirely on palmwine for their income. It, therefore, helps them send their children to school, treat them when they are sick, and marry the girls off when they are old enough to leave home.
According to the interim Mayor of the Batibo Rural Council, Tanjoh Frederick, the origin of this plant in the region remains a mystery. “God is a mysterious being; every place that he has made has something that can be used in serving that place. When God placed our people here, he knew the value of wine. Thank God, the first miracle that Christ did was changing water into wine in Canaan, and that wine may be the palmwine that we have in Batibo.
“Legend has it that the raffia was just a wild plant in the bush and an elephant passed and broke one of the young stalks, and devoured it, bees invaded the area and continued drinking the remains of what the elephants left behind. Intrigued, the people also tasted the white liquid that was apparently making animals and bees so happy. They fell in love with what they tasted and have been cultivating palmwine ever since,” the mayor said.
Scientifically, however, there is no exact reason why there are so many raffia palm trees in the area.
The reputation of Batibo for producing great palmwine has spread beyond the confines of the small village. Daily, some wine from Batibo gets to the nation’s capital Yaounde and the economic capital Douala situated some 700 km away from the village.
“Palmwine is a unifying factor in the village” Mayor Tanjoh tells me, which is why all birth ceremonies, marriages, religious and death celebrations, among others, must always have jugs of palmwine present.
Wine of life
During traditional marriage ceremonies, the marriage is considered null and void if the bride and the groom do not exchange a traditional cup of palmwine. Walters Tegwi Tebo is one of the custodians of the traditions of the Ifit people in Guzang, one of the 22 villages that make up Batibo Sub Division. I met him during a traditional wedding ceremony and he told me; “This exchange of wine is like an oath that the bride and groom take to remain faithful to each other. They drink in the presence of family members who also drink from the same cup as witnesses to the event. This (exchanging a traditional cup of palmwine) is considered as the wedding ring that is exchanged during civil marriages.” When a marriage fails, it means the partners have broken an oath they took before the god of palmwine.
Mayor Tanjoh acknowledged that the presence of so much wine in the village did not mean Batibo people were mostly heavy drinkers. He said parents made sure their children did not drink palmwine during the day because like all alcoholic drinks, it could completely mess up their brains. He admitted drinking was highly regulated and most of the wine produced in the village was sold to neighbouring towns and villages.
Because it takes an average of 15 years for a raffia palm to start producing wine, the local council carries out regular sensitisation campaigns to explain to the people the need to always plant new trees as the old ones die out. Mayor Tanjoh admitted the village would lose out its enviable position of Cameroon’s palmwine capital if there was no drive to plant more raffia trees.
“Life in the village as we know it will come to an end if there is no palmwine,” he adds and takes another long sip.
I join him with a long gulp from my own cup and we both hope palmwine would always flow from Batibo, my home village.