Palm wine plays a very important social and ceremonial role in many West African societies. In the Cameroon Grasslands, a large cultural area located in central Cameroons which is inhabited by a number of related peoples including the Bamun, the Bamileke and the Bamenda Tikar, palm wine is used at funerals, celebration of marriages, for performing traditional rites, and as a reward form the king or Fon to his loyal subjects on special occasions
To make palm wine, a palm sap collector climbs high into a Raffia palm, using a rope which joins his ankles around the trunk as a lever to hoist him upwards. Near the top, he makes a triangular cut into the male flower of a Raffia Palm and a reed with a small cup at the end is inserted in each flower – up to 150 litres of sap per tree per month can be milked in this way and the tree renews the supply every year.(The lazier way is to chop down and kill the palm, leave it lying for a week and then tap the trunk via bamboo tube).The sap is very sweet at first, but becomes more sour as the sugars in it are converted to alcohol over a week or two.
The basic container for palm sap, collected and left to ferment into wine, is a large calabash with a carrying handle and a wooden stopper. For large court ceremonies .dozens of these containers would be transported to the palace at the command of the king so that the dancers and guest could be refreshed during the proceedings.
Ceremonial palm wine containers were often fashioned out of clay for the use of the Fon and other members of his court, but in a few areas, notably Bamum, where ornate beadwork was very much a symbol of royalty, large and superb beaded wine jars were icons of elegant court life. These containers were obviously quite rare – try and find one on the internet and you will be surprised at how few and far between they are.
They were made in the same way as the ornate beaded statues and thrones of the Cameroons court – the object to be beaded was wrapped in hand loomed cloth, and the beads affixed with a curved needle
using lazy stitch – i.e. several beads were scooped up with the point of the needle at one tie and then fixed to the cloth in a row. (The same technique is used by the Ndebele of South Africa and the Native American Plains Indian when covering large areas of cloth or hide with beadwork.
The main body of the beaded palm wine vessel is made of a gourd, just as the traditional wine containers are, and this is attached to a wooden stand which holds it off the floor and keeps it stable. The entire structure is then covered in cloth and the beads sewn on. Finally the ornate stopper is
caved, covered and beaded. These stoppers often incorporate birds and animal icons which are very much part of Cameroons court art and which convey specific symbolic characteristics.
Cameroons beaded palm wine jars are beautiful and important examples of court art, and anyone who is fortunate enough to own one can count themselves blessed.