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Godlove and the Ladder Dance
A leader in two worlds. By Felicity
After landing in Douala, Cameroon, we hired
a taxi driver to take us six hours north to Bamenda. Soon he stopped,
explaining that he needed to buy chocolate for the car. At least, thats
what it sounded like. Though I studied French for eight years, Im always
on the lookout for misinterpretations. But this time I was rightthe driver
returned with a pot of chocolate spread. At a gas station on the edge
of the city, he painted the spread on the numbers on the car door. This
was to hide the fact that his vehicle didnt have the right papers to
I was in Cameroon
at the invitation of a former teacher of mine at Penn, Dr. Godlove Fonjweng
G93 Gr97, to make a video documentary of a ceremony initiating him as
leader of his extended family. (Godloves relatives would have been there
to greet us at the airport, but the storm of the century in Paris caused
Air France to cancel our flight; the soundman and I arrived in Douala
days later than planned and on a different airline.) Godlove had suggested
that I do the documentary after having heard that I had purchased a video
camera and taken a course on expedition documentary filmmaking.
Godlove at the ceremony
initiating him as family leader; right: Juju dancer.
Going to Cameroon
was a gamble; I borrowed lots of money to do it and even missed a week
of graduate school. What made me want to do the video is that I have a
deep belief in peoples ability to run their own lives. Godlove is such
an example of a successful person, from a place that, in the United States,
is commonly perceived as needing help. I thought that making a video
of this ceremony to share with Americans would send a profound message.
I first met Godlove
when I was an undergraduate in Bob Giegengacks environmental-studies
class, and he was one of the teaching assistants. Watching him in the
front of the room or handing out photocopies in that class of 500 students,
I remember thinking there was something so modest, so joyful, yet so capable
about him. In fact, he embodied the essence of what he is nowa leader.
The son of a poor
church minister who had made a living from crushing palm nuts for oil,
Godlove first came to the United States in 1986 to attend college. He
and his brother, Isaiah, had sold life insurance throughout Cameroon from
their VW bug in order to raise funds. Without much other information on
universities here besides the library at the U.S. Embassy in Cameroons
capitol, Yaonde, he picked the University of Delaware. I wanted to be
not too far north where it would be cold, nor too far south where it would
be hot and humid. Also I was seeking proximity to oceans and major cities.
I really wanted to see D.C., New York and Philadelphia. Delaware embodied
all that, he says.
Godlove was first
in his class freshman year, but running out of money. At the suggestion
of a geology professor at UD, John Wehmiller, a Swarthmore alumnus, he
transferred to that university, completing his undergraduate education
under full scholarship. He went to Penn for his masters degree and doctorate
in geology. Today, he lives with his wife and two sons in their home in
New Jersey. (Godloves father died in 1987, a year after Godlove arrived
in the U.S. He was not able to return to Cameroon until 1989. Since he
started working, he has returned about once every three years.)
Cameroon is known
as Africa in miniature because the topography ranges from desert in
the far north to savannah in the middle to rain forest in the south. The
northern part of the country is mostly Muslim, and the southern mostly
Christian. Its two official languages are French and English. French and
Korean companies are logging heavily in the country. The government is
a parliamentary system under President Paul Biya. The opposition party,
the Social Democratic Front, is headquartered in Bamenda, near Godloves
village, Njikob (pronounced jeekob or just kob).
Njikob is set in
mountains, forests and streams 45 minutes outside of Bamenda. When I was
there, in January, we wore hats and jackets at night and snuggled into
our sleeping bags. The days were crisp and bright. However, red dust from
the roads and ash from burn-offs of mountain fields caused me to lose
my voice for a few days. Boulders are strewn throughout the village, and
there is one impressive cliff-face, for which the town is named. Njikob
means rock in the Metta language.
Njikob is in the
English-speaking part of Cameroon. It has no electricity, and no restaurants.
Since it is in the heartland of the opposition party, roads are not maintained.
(You could make a Jacuzzi in the pothole in front of Godloves house.)
There is a great abundance of food, but they sure work for it. Before
starting, farmers pray for the strength to do it.
I heard people say
that in Cameroon there is plenty of food and good soccer, and that is
keeping the country at peace. Cameroons national soccer team, the Lions,
won the African Nations Cup held in Nigeria this year.
As it turned out,
the taxi drivers chocolate worked like a charm. The soldiers at all the
army checkpoints, in their red berets and green uniforms, licked it up,
so to speak. At least they didnt fire their guns, like Godloves relatives
did during the celebration.
We arrived in Njikob
just in time for the ceremony, which was attended by about 2,000 people.
First, segments of Godloves extended family performed a series of dances.
Each subset of the family had its own new costume of brightly colored
fabric from the market. Family drummers sat in the middle of the dirt
compound, playing rhythms, while about 50 people in matching outfits danced
in a circle around them. The first dance was the Akate, a Christian
dancethough you wouldnt know it unless someone told you. Next was the
Mens Dance. They put on grass skirts and beads and let all heck break
loose, shaking their feet and their legs in a stampede in slow motion
around the drummers. In one dance everybody held cut branches of trees.
a village near the top of the nearby mountain to perform the Ladder Dance.
Masked dancers on super-tall stilts jigged and shook around the compound,
rolling their heads on their necks, causing the crowd to ooh and aaah
and applaud. Special leaves had to be strewn in the stilt-walkers path,
or else any woman who crossed it would not be able to menstruate.
A short, masked
juju-dancer shimmied in a sack of feathers and brandished a black wooden
statue, scaring everyone, including the other dancers. Because Godloves
father was a Christian, the juju was only for show. Apparently, real juju,
or masquerade dancers, can do things like make your mouth and nose melt
and your face turn green, until you undergo another ceremony to get better.
The next day, the
anniversary of his fathers death, there was a private family ceremony
at which the family girlsthe term refers to any female relative born
in the village; some are 75 years youngtransferred power to Godlove as
his fathers successor as family leader. In preparation, the girls yelled
and sang and danced while they cut up bulls horns and ate raw meat from
the skulls. According to Godlove, some dance groups perform this ritual
to appease the gods and protect themselves from evil spirits.
Later, when the
plantains and other food were prepared, male elders dressed Godlove in
a sweeping black outfit with red and yellow figures embroidered on it.
The elders placed an embroidered hat on his head, with earflaps down to
his shoulders. They gave him his fathers cupa sawed-off bull horn, with
the edges smoothed so he could drink from it. They poured palm wine into
the cup, and all the family members drank. The girls made offerings of
money and cola nuts into his palms and chanted and sang, Thanks to Godlove,
we are one. The offerings were to acknowledge and enhance his power as
the new leader.
Now, besides heading
the environmental-studies program at Philadelphia University (formerly
the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science) and teaching geology
at Penn, Godlove is the leader of his extended family in Njikob. I guess
it makes sense that a town called Rock would have a leader trained in
Felicity Wood C92 is studying for her masters
degree in urban planning at the School of Public Policy at UCLA. A 20-minute
clip of her video was shown at the Africa Summit in Washington in February.
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