Abela is a simple form of greeting strangers and familiar people among the Ngemba people of Cameroon. It is usually interpreted as “How is it?” The response is “abongne,” meaning “It is good.”

This is a common expression among the Ngemba, an ethnic group from the Northwest province, Cameroon. The Ngemba live in several important towns in Cameroon and comprise nearly 2 million inhabitants in Tuba, Mankon, Nkwen, and other towns in Western Bamenda province.

Among the Ngemba speakers are various family groups who use “abela” as a greeting. They Bafut, Bafreng, Mandankwe, Mbili, Mbambili, Mbui, Bamunkum, and Kpati. To these people, the word “abela” has an ancient meaning attributed to the interactions with strangers and other people. It signals recognition of the person inasmuch as to ignore another human being is considered the breaking of a taboo. Thus, it is a vile act of neglect and disrespect.

Abela being a simple form of greeting has no other ritualistic origin; however, as a way of initiating conversation or generating familiarity and friendliness, it fosters social coercion among the Ngemba and outsiders who use it. The term “abela” is so popular that even people from other ethnic groups now use the term for greeting whenever they meet a Ngemba person. This is a sign of hospitality and politeness, and it is part of the grace of demonstrating connection, togetherness, and respect.

It is believed that the Ngemba migrated from a place called “Feulu” in Tibati near Banyo in the Adamawa Province of the Republic of Cameroon because of the frequent interethnic wars between the Ngemba and the Fulani, a large and powerful trading and martial people.

The Ngemba left Feulu under the leadership of Aghajoo, a wealthy man with numerous victories in war, and made a brief, but significant, stop on the fertile and scenic plains of Ndop. Following tremendous competition for territory and warring feuds with other ethnic migrants, the Ngemba group left Ndop and continued their trek, settling by the great Mezam River where they organized their families.

Africans generally use greetings such as “abela” to ascertain the status of a person’s family, the economic well-being of a community, and the relationship with the ancestors and the spiritual world. Thus, the greeting “abela,” like similar expressions in other languages, speaks to the equilibrium between communities. To ask someone “How is it?” is to inquire about something more than the superficial presence of the individual, but to seek a deeper response about the condition and life of the community.

A typical greeting only begins with the expression “abela” and continues with questions about individual members of the family, relatives, and even animals. To really know “how it is,” one must interrogate the entire universe of the person that you are greeting, and therefore it is not an easy, quick, raising of the hand and moving onward. It must be a sincere question, and the questioner usually receives a full and complete answer. This is the nature of reciprocity in the Ngemba culture.

By Emmanuel Kombem Ngwainmbi

Further Readings

Ayotte, M., & Lamberty, M. (2003). Rapid Appraisal Sociolinguistic Survey Among the NGEMBA Cluster of Languages: Mankon, Bambili, Nkwen, Pinyin, and Awing: Bamenda, Santa and Tubah subdivisions Mezam Division North West Province (SIL Electronic Survey Reports 2003–002). http://www.sil.org/silesr/abstract.asp?ref=2003-002.

Sadembouo, E., & Hasselbring, S. (1991). A Sociolinguistic Survey of the Ngemba Languages. Yaounde, Cameroon: Centre for Anthropological Research and Study, Societe Internationale de Linguisticque.

Soh Bejeng, P. (1978). The History and Social Institutions in the Ngemba Chiefdoms of Mbatu, Akum, Nsongwa, Chomba, and Ndzong (Travail et.documents de 1’ISH, No. 9). Yaounde, Cameroon.

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