14 Jan 2008
...And a chat with Fon Sitieh II
The sprawling palace complex of the paramount ruler of Oku or ‘Fon of Oku’ is situated in Elak Oku-one of the three dozen administrative units under his jurisdiction. “The Fon’s palace is in Elak village, so the chief of Elak is my landlord”. Said ‘Fon’ Sitieh II Martin on December 22nd 2007 during a discussion we had with him in his palace.
The prelude to that discussion started about 3pm when I arrived in front of the palace with my sister Njei Grace. We notified the protocol people that we want to see the Fon. After waiting for about ten minutes, someone came and ushered us into a corridor of one of the houses in the outer court of the palace. We sat there for another fifteen minutes before we were taken into the Tourism office situated within the inner palace court. We were later taken into the hall where the Fon receives people and given seats. Another long wait and the Fon finally entered the hall through a back door led by an elderly man. We stood up as a sign of respect when the Fon entered. He was pleasantly surprised to see my sister (a fellow teacher with whom they usually meet annually to mark French Language Exams for the Cameroon General Certificate of Education GCE). He sat briefly, greeted us and returned to the secluded area of the palace with his aides (an elderly man and a small boy). He returned to the hall shortly with the messengers carrying a basket containing Kola nuts and a calabash of wine and a bottle of red wine. In the typical tradition of Oku, the kola nuts and the soft drink that was in the calabash were shared to us by the Fon. The method of receiving the drink is as follows; You join your opened palms together, place your mouth at the base of the opened palms and sip the drink that the Fon pours into your palms. All of us took turns to receive what is called here “water from the palace”. He then gave us another bottle of red wine to take home. The Fon then sat down. So did I and my sister but his three aides kept standing throughout the time we spent with the Fon. He is the paramount ruler of more than 120,000 people residing in 34 villages and two ‘aldorates’ (local Bororo administrative units). The traditional governing system of chiefs and Fons in the North West Province of Cameroon predates the colonization of the country. It is similar to monarchy where succession runs within the royal family. “Our succession is quite fixed. You don’t doubt because you do not succeed your father directly. My son cannot succeed me”. I succeeded Fon Ngum III and my son can only succeed Fon Ngum III’s son. Said Fon Sitieh II. “Most of the chiefs are notables. There are also notables that are not chiefs as well as there are some chiefs that are not notables. To be a notable you have to undergo initiation rites”.
“The Fon is answerable to the Ngumba”. “The Ngumba is the highest traditional authority. The Ngumba is much more authoritative than the traditional council in the way they try cases”. The type of cases that are not under the jurisdiction of the Ngumba are sent to the civil courts. In an answer to a question whether some people do not defy rulings passed by the Ngumba?, the Fon said it was rare. “If you fail to respect the judgment of the Ngumba, you are considered not fit to be an Oku man”. “You can be ostracized and prevented from attending celebrations. This type of social exclusion is unbearable”.
About bride price the Fon said, “Here, we do not sell people but we exchange material goods. However you can bring ‘firewood’ in cash to your in-laws.
“You [a father] cannot take more from an in-law than you gave when you were marrying the mother of your daughter”. “Men are almost solely responsible for decisions of marriages involving their daughters. The woman is not supposed to be publicly seen to take any decision. She could however discretely influence issues behind the scene”.
Oku tradition is not unique in the way that it undermines a mother’s role in issues relating to the marriage of her daughter. Many parts of North West province have similar traditions.
Fon Sitieh II has been on the throne for less than 2 years and he joked about this when I posed the question by saying. “I am an apprentice Fon—I am still in school”.
After chatting with the Fon for twenty minutes, he then led us on a tour of the palace. We visited the Museum that contained impressive objects of art—mostly carvings. The people of Oku are leading sculptors in Cameroon. He also showed us a structure in the form of a small building constructed with 100% local materials. It stands at the main entrance of the palace. It is usually built when there is a transition from one Fon to another. It is then left unattended even if it is collapsing or even if an insane person decides to destroy it until when it shall be replaced during another transition occasion. We moved passed the spot where the Fon usually comes out to sit and participate in a public gathering in the inner palace court. He showed us another part of the palace that he receives people and his office proper that is located in a very secluded part of the palace complex. We then separated after the tour and the Fon took an excuse to go and attend to other functions.
The Fon of Oku is also a principal in one of the secondary schools in the area.
Njei Moses Timah