May 11, 2017
After the Front Porch visit we headed back towards Bamenda. We had one more event for the day in a village on the other side from the others. Our visit to Anjin ran late and it was clear we would arrive after nightfall. Just getting through the city and the traffic was worth the journey. There were bad roads and commotion from all angles, but through the towns was such a hustle and bustle of day to day life. Was this really any stranger than how in the US people will sit for two hours of traffic a day on their way to work? When driving through the outskirts on the beautiful open roads, I was struck by the faith of the country, primarily the Christian based denominations of Baptists, Presbyterians and Catholics. It was everywhere – village signs, cars, trucks – the presence of God was an unwavering characteristic of this culture. It became part of the charm, the integration such different cultures and philosophies into one country.
We reached the village called Batibo well after dark. The spirit of Africa was seemingly unleashed at night. It was a huge inconvenience for the villagers to have us get there so late, but it did add to the sense of mystery and spirituality when it was pitch black outside. Francis “warned” me that this ceremony would have an added twist – I would have a private audience with the chief of this village. That is a rare honor, not given out lightly. So we were greeted in the dark by the multitudes of village women. The throng moved toward the main ceremony area with occasional flashlights in the air. Lilbert was there with Francis to lead Zack and I into the waiting area for the traditional chief of Gusang: His Royal Highness Gwan Mbanyamsig.
The waiting area was small and about 15 of us were waiting for the ruler in cramped, ceremonious quarters. The other folks in the room spoke in hushed tones, being reverent. It was obviously a big deal to be part of the entourage. The room was full of African history. There were a variety of thrones to site on in all shapes and sizes. These are respected, as no one other than royalty is allowed to sit on them. The gravity of the room was palpable, we were either not speaking at all or talking in whispers. It was a solemn area. Finally, two villagers in a ceremonious fashion and dressed in red Cameroonian garb, came through the doorway and invited us into the next waiting area. It was smaller than the first and the crowd diminished to about ten. Luckily it was fine for Zack to accompany so the whole experience could be filmed. There were more artifacts to gaze at and the history of the village came alive in this 15 x 15 foot room. Francis whispered in my ear multiple instructions, all tied to the appropriate way to meet his majesty when he appeared. I learned the proper way to bow, the significance of clapping three times before addressing him and the general protocol of how to meet royalty.
After waiting another ten minutes, the small door opened again and his majesty walked in. The man that appeared seemed to be the perfect “African King.” He was absolutely commanding. He filled the room, figuratively and literally, with his presence. He was very good looking and surprisingly young, large in his words, demeanor and his presence dominated the space. It felt inappropriate to stare or make direct eye contact, but in furtive glances I saw that his royal garb was exquisite and, in a fascinating twist of American irony, there were several pictures of Obama on his robe. We sat down and he welcomed us into his village. I was in awe of the moment and of his presence. He was very respectful to me as well as to Zack and Francis. He talked passionately about his village, the village needs and the strength of his people. We hung on every word. He was soft spoken and articulate, but I could easily imagine that softness turning into a fierce tone whenever necessary. I have had the good fortune over the course of my career to meet dozens of very influential and powerful people in a business context, but no one could touch the significance of this man. It was a fascinating conversation. I politely asked him questions about his tribe. Francis was not kicking me under the table so I assumed I was not creating an international incidents by the frankness of my questions. To my shock, he decided to coronate me as a “Bahtoh,” the village designation for royalty! Obviously I had no frame of reference of any of this, but judging by the response of the locals and the reverential tone that Francis whispered to me as he described what was happening, this was a significant honor. I was led into a chamber behind the palace by three local elders with Zack and Francis in tow. I was fitted with a robe with a long sleeve vest and a cap. A small red feather was placed into my hat. The feather was from a bird high up in the mountains that is in danger of extinction, which is revered by the local villages. Finally, I was handed a exquisitely crafted walking stick, carved by the local elders.
After my wardrobe change I came back into the entry area. The men clapped in unison. All of the sudden I was viewed differently. I was no longer a foreigner – I actually outranked almost all of them. Through the whole week I was constantly trying to process moments like this. We were lead out into the larger greeting room and out towards the village meeting hall. As I walked through each room the number of people grew larger and larger. The people danced and sang loud ovations. It was tied to the red feather that signified my title. With the villagers whooping and hollering, we were led to the same appropriate chairs at the head of the hall with Francis always to my right and Martin to my left. The ceremony from the other villages repeated itself: the prayer; the village descriptions; the words from Francis and then from me. As I watched this unfold, I looked at into the crowd of about 200 people. Francis explained that many of these people walked miles in the rain to get here. And when the event ended they would not have a luxury tour bus taking them back to their hotel. They would be walking back to their small one room homes that hold ten or more people in the pitch black dark. It was astounding! Something I can’t explain wants me to be here.
When it was time for me to talk I gave my usual thanks and gratitude to Francis, to CDVTA, to the local village and, in this case, high praise to their ruler who graciously has welcomed me into his kingdom. But as I closed my speech the spirit of my Bahtoh title overwhelmed me and I ran into the crowd with my walking stick held high, chanting at the top of my voice “Bahtoh!” The villagers all screamed back at me in unison. It was a powerful, emotional moment for me. I’m reluctant to view it on Zack’s video as I’m sure it will look a bit sophomoric and contrived, but at that moment in time it was real. I felt the power of this magical village and of this majestic ruler spilling through my veins.
After the ceremony was complete, we headed back into the first waiting room where the traditional meal awaited us. Zack and I had our fifth local beer for the week. (We become connoisseurs of their breweries). The meals were all ritualistic as well – women poured water over our hands before and after we ate, sometimes we had utensils and sometimes we didn’t – but the whole dining experience in the villages was so authentic I could picture the same scene being reenacted in each place over hundreds of years.
We climbed back into the Toyota truck with Sylvester and Lilbert always in the front seats. They often times disappeared into the crowd but they always popped up when needed. Zack, Francis and I snuggled in the back as we bounced our way through the darkness. We drove to Bamenda, our eyes opening and shutting after another magical day. Back at the hotel, Zack and I were virtually the only guests and we unknowingly tracked all kinds of dirt through the hotel, I think we were both too numb and astounded to notice anything superficial. I went to sleep for only two hours or so when I was awakened by the spirits of the country that drifted through my head until dawn.