By Innocent Chia http://www.chiareport.com/
To the cross majority of Cameroonians in Chicago-land, kids and their parents simply called this affable figure “Uncle Joe”. That was before “Uncle Joe” traveled to Cameroon in the mid of 2009 to accept the honor his departing father had bestowed on him as he parted this World to the great beyond. Meantime, without ever letting the cat out of the bag that he was a “Mbeii” – enthroned royalty – Uncle Joe’s home has always been palace-like, bustling with activity and people shuffling in and out. The pots on the gas cooker have always been commercial-type pots, not because of his four kids – Iya, Franchika, Claude and Destiny. Auntie Mabel, with unparallel culinary skills, may have been cut out for her husband’s destiny (no pun intended); feeding large numbers that come and go like at the Widikum Palace she seemed to have been prepping for.
The Chiareport caught up with the Fon – a self-confessed friend of the Chiareport – and the man whose dexterity on computers has earned him a living in Chicago for the last decade, was at ease in his new wardrobe.
Chiareport – Your Highness, I want to thank you for gracing the Chiareport with your first interview since your ascension to the throne of the Widikum - a diverse and rich ethnicity in what is known as the Northwest Region of Cameroon – in Mid-2009. Some readers are probably wondering…where is Widikum and, why refer to you as His Royal Highness?
HRH Joe Abey: I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me and I must say I am a big fan of the Chiareport.
The name Widikum is full of history and significance. To many, it is the symbol of a great people; the people of the Widikum tribe. To others, it is simply a clan, a subdivision or town. Whatever the case, Widikum town is located halfway between Mamfe and Bamenda in the palm valley along the banks of river Momo.
Since my enthronement as traditional leader it has been very difficult for many to separate me from whom they have known and who I am today, especially my friends. The titles that come with the uniqueness and responsibilities of the role is one even I have yet to be comfortable. However, the burden of whether to refer to me as HRH is not on me. Those who love and respect our beautiful culture want to preserve it and not pretend to make it as some thing of the past.
Chiareport: We got up one morning in Chicago and some of us got the privileged call from the horse’s mouth that while on a trip to Cameroon, you had been enthroned as traditional leader. In the first place, how did this happen? For how long was the throne vacant and, do you mind taking us through the process of the selection and enthronement of the Fon of Widikum?
HRH Joe Abey: I am Fon of Tikom-Widikum and not Fon of Widikum. There is no such person as “Fon of Widikum” given the significance of Widikum as stated before. You understand too there is no such person as Fon of Bamenda or Batibo etc.
As for the horses’ mouth, it wasn’t mine (laughs)… because I was shocked too by the reception I got at the airport the day I arrived back to Chicago. The word that I was enthroned as traditional leader was already in town long before my return. As such, that burden of informing the Chicago community of who I had become was lifted off my back.
How it happened? I don’t know how or why I was chosen by our father to succeed him. We are a big family and anyone of his children is capable and could have made an excellent choice in my opinion. By the way our father was a very wise and intelligent man so his wish to have me as his successor went unchallenged and respected. There was no infighting among us, and I thank God for that. It has been nothing but support and prayers for me to succeed. Again, they made this manifest during the three-step enthronement process:
1) An isolation process where you are hidden from the public for several days or weeks.
2) A sacred ceremony in secret by a select few King makers.
3) An official introduction to the public with elaborate celebration and feasting.
Prior to this, the throne had stayed vacant for about nine years, and I am the first to admit the nine years were the most miserable in my life. I had not seen this coming. There was a lifestyle I knew and giving it up for a role that is restrictive and an additional responsibility was something I was not ready for. It is challenging but I am ready and happy to serve my people the best way I can.
Chiareport: I trust that there are readers who are wondering since when did Widikum become a Fondom, as opposed to a chiefdom? In the first place, what are the major differences between the two and how do you assert that Widikum is one of the Fondoms of the Northwest Province? Or does it lie in the eyes of the beholder?
HRH Joe Abey: In our dialect the leader of a village is called "Ofon". The appellation Fon is therefore a derivative form of Ofon. We have Ofons and not chiefs. From our dialect then we have Fondoms. Widikum - the origin of many people of the Northwest province - I would think is the heart of most of the Fondoms of the region. The history is there without a doubt and the time is past and gone for anyone to define who we are or who we should be.
Let me add that there is a believe that Widikum, which at sometime was part of the Mamfe Native Authority, may have had some direct or indirect correlation making widikum Fondom a forgotten NW family of Fondoms that needed to be in it's right place and thank God it is now.
Regarding the distinction between a chief and a Fon, I think “Chief” is the European’s way of calling leaders. There is therefore no difference in reference to leadership but each village or cultural entity chooses its own way of addressing their traditional leader.
Chiareport: In several ways, the Cameroon you return to after an over 20 year sojourn in the United States is different from the Cameroon you left. For instance, you left before the wave of multi-party politics in Cameroon and the subsequent politicization of traditional rulers by the ruling elite. How do you think you will fit in the present political dispensation without splintering the people of Widikum who are entrusting you with the staff of leadership?
HRH Joe Abey: Very true the Cameroon that I left over two decades ago is very different in many ways from what it is today. Is it scary knowing what I know about both worlds? The honest answer is “yes”. However I am going back with an open mind and willing to learn and hopefully adapt to the new ways of doing things back there. I am going back home to serve a people and not going into politics. There is also the reality that avoiding politics all together as a leader would be unrealistic. I will have to walk a fine line balancing my own personal and opposing political opinions and finding a way to work with the party in power even if I disagreed with it. My allegiance is to the people of Widikum first and foremost.
Chiareport: Whenever I am privileged to visit the Widikum palace some years from today, what are your top five priorities or projects that you will be pointing to as achievements that are making a difference in the lives of the Widikumian?
HRH Joe Abey: I currently have ideas what I want to see in my homeland but my priorities might change as I get to know my people more and the problems that need some urgency. There will be the challenge of finding the resources to accomplish some of these tasks but God willing, there will be a way. I am hoping and praying a few years from today the following will be accomplished.
1) A 100% attendance of school age children and a significant increase in the number of scholarship recipients from “a project that has just been started by the sons and daughters of Widikum in the U.S.A”. This project aims at helping our academically-talented but financially under-privileged students to graduate from University and professional schools in diversified disciplines.
2) There is currently no public library in my area serving our growing student population. I am hoping in a few short years there will be one fully equipped with computers and hopefully internet access.
3) A clean town and relative clean water.
4) An equipped public youth center for our youths to give them a reason to stay in Widikum and not flea to cosmopolitan cities.
5) Job opportunities by having a policy that encourages investors and investments from locals and entrepreneurs giving rise to a diversified economy. Our sole reliance on palm oil is insufficient to satisfy the needs of many youths and homes.
6) The disappearance of obsolete cultural practices which inhibit positive progress.
7) A disciplined and God-fearing people
Chiareport: You have an amazing and talented family that has become an extended family to many of us. How do you reconcile between the monogamous lifestyle that you have probably grown accustomed to in the United States versus the polygamous family that almost certainly awaits you in Widikum? How is your wife taking it? How do you prepare the kids for it?
HRH Joe Abey: Thank you for the kind words about my family. It is also an honor to have you and your wonderful family as our extended family.
Polygamy in Cameroon is not illegal and in the United States it’s not too far from a husband who cheats on his wife or divorces one spouse for another ever so often...
True there is a long standing tradition of Fons marrying many wives and having many children. Do I think it’s wrong? Absolutely not! But, given the changing times and the family structure today, a Fon may have to think twice before engaging in a polygamous lifestyle and having a lot of children. My wife knows and appreciates the culture and that's what is important. To my kids, I am dad and they know I am there for them.
In reality, many Fons of today's Cameroon are monogamous but polygamy chiefly exists because of the many wives left by a Fon who has gone to his ancestors… And I bet, Tiger Woods wishes by now that home for him was in Africa where the press would worry more about the fact that there is no black woman in his bevy of concubines and care less whether he has six blondes with blue eyes!
Chiareport: I believe that the transition on your home front has been as interesting a transition as it has been with the rest of the public. Yesterday Chicago was bantering with you and today you cannot be seen eating in public with the rest of us, at public places you are reserved special seating, and I no longer can extend a handshake to you…Was it always in you?
HRH Joe Abey: No of course. Tradition is tradition and whether or not the practice is in one or not in one, tradition has to be respected.
Chiareport: Your Royal Highness, we thank you again for the time afforded us. We wish you and your citizens all the best, and look forward to an update of the transformations that your leadership will bring to your people.
HRH Joe Abey… Thank you, Sir. It was a pleasure talking to you. My regards to your beautiful family and, hopefully while you are in Cameroon you can get the chance to come visit me so we share some kolanut.