Although a ruler must stay in his village, King Kevin is studying public administration in Yaounde. (Photo by Eugene Nforngwa)
Although a ruler must stay in his village, King Kevin is studying public administration in Yaounde. (Photo by Eugene Nforngwa)

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - Africa's history is filled with narratives of powerful chiefs who ruled large and small kingdoms. Many traditions of power remain, though they are somewhat reduced in the evolving politics of nation states. Families pass along inherited roles, but a young king in Cameroon sees a larger world.

Here is one in a series of articles about some of modern Africa's traditional rulers.

Many traditional rulers still wield a lot of power in Cameroon. Yet, they also have to submit themselves to many restrictions imposed by the throne. Once crowned, they have to abandon everything and return to the village to rule over their kingdoms.

But a growing number are ignoring the old practice and moving out to pursue professional and academic careers elsewhere. From Yaounde, reporter Eugene Nforngwa sent in this profile of a traditional chief battling with his royal status and the pursuit of modernity.

King Kevin Shomitang II leads two lives. One involves bright-colored regalia, indescribable headgear, leopard skins, elephant tusks and dozens of black statuettes. The other is a life of smartphones, laptops, iPads, books and student assignments.

Listen to Eugene Nforngwa's interview with King Kevin II

The first is a traditional life: as ruler of Bambalam, a small kingdom in northwestern Cameroon, Shomitang II is a powerful political figure, the custodian of a rich culture and the spiritual leader of more than 45,000 people.

The second is an academic life: as student at the School of Public Administration in Yaounde, Shomitang II has joined a growing number of traditional chiefs that are embracing modernity – often leaving their thrones behind to pursue professional and academic life in the cities.

Does a king need a public administration degree?

There is an armchair covered in a thick red cloth, a leopard skin and a black stool. But there are no bare-skinned aides or elderly men bending over to recite praise to the King. Instead, several young men are downloading music on a laptop – a task that is frequently interrupted by the buzz of cell phones.   

It’s just after sunset on the last Tuesday of May 2014 when Shomitang II drops a bunch of keys on the carved stool. Without a word, he lowers himself into the covered armchair. His feet rest on the sun-dried leopard skin with shrinking edges. His presence appears to fill the room; and everyone leaves.

The stool, the red cloth and the leopard skin are the only signs of royalty in the crammed sitting room. Nothing else gives away the power and authority bestowed on him. Unbelievably, he shares the building with other tenants.

The king wears sneakers

Shomitang II tries his best to look like the king he really is. He does not give or take handshakes. The young men bow each time they come close. Once he is there, everyone speaks in barely audible mumbles and only enters the room if invited. The scene feels awkward because he is dressed in sneakers and a sweatshirt.    

The Fon of Bambalam, as he’s better known, was crowned in 2009. At the time, he was an Economics major at the University of Buea, a student who liked jeans, t-shirts and “relaxed dressing”.

Today, he is revered and feared by his people. His functions include saying prayers to the ancestors and settling disputes in the community. He is so powerful that he is referred to as god.

But since he was crowned, Shomitang II has been more or less, an absentee king.

After completing his Economics degree, he is studying to become a civil administrator. When he finishes next year, his job is likely to take him further and further away from his village.

Pursuing dreams beyond their kingdoms

For traditional chiefs like Shomitang II, who are pursuing other dreams out of their kingdoms, the price to pay is often huge. It frequently includes leaving behind huge palaces and reverence to share tiny flats with total strangers in the city. Or taking orders from “ordinary” people like teachers and supervisors.

Shomitang II says the sacrifice is worth it.

“When fons move out, they get to meet people within the nation and out of the country who can bring development to the village. I have friends in Canada because of the fact that I am a fon. If the fondom was not open, if I was not learned, if I did not approach them well, I would not have these relationships. You go out of the village, fetch, go back and develop the village.”

A god-like persona demystified

Shomitang II describes himself as a modern traditional ruler. He says he tries to promote inclusive governance and is working to demystify the god-like persona of the king.

“In the past a traditional ruler was seen like the almighty. The people saw him as god. They worship the fon. In the yesteryears, the fon was the sole person to do everything, he took decisions all alone. [Involving others] does not cancel the fact that the fon is the overall leader or the spiritual leader. This approach involves many people so that ideas are shared at all levels.”

But there is not much he can do to change an institution that has served his people for centuries.

When he was enthroned, King Kevin was obliged to take many more wives and inherit the surviving women of his ancestors. He goes everywhere with a hat because no one is allowed to see his head. Outside his palace – in the bus or other public places – his chair must be covered because he does not share seats with non-kings.

Fon Shomitang II says he found these restrictions that come with the throne too overwhelming. In fact, he tried to escape several times when he was chosen to succeed his father – King Fosi Yankum-Ntaw. But he has since accepted his fate and is trying to leave a legacy of his own.