2018-02-09 / Travel

La Toilette du Chef

Part One
By Warner M. Montgomery, Ph.D.


The entrance to the fon’s palace was made of mud brick. The entrance to the fon’s palace was made of mud brick. I served as administrator of the American School in Douala, Cameroon, West Africa, in the early 1990s. One of the highlights of my tour of duty was a visit to a local chief (fon) who ruled over 17,000 people in an isolated valley deep in the Bangwa Mountains near the Nigerian border. I was accompanying a Pentecostal missionary couple (whose children attended my school) on the annual visit to their flock in the mountains of darkest Africa.

The first European arrived in the valley in 1898 soon after Kamerun (now Cameroon) became a German colony in 1884. He was seeking laborers for German plantations on the coast near Mt. Cameroon.

Instead of willing laborers, he found awe-inspiring mountains, steep paths crossed by dangerous waterfalls, an isolated village surrounded by banana groves, and a quiet dignified fon living in a rustically beautiful palace surrounded by subservient wives.


The fon poses for a photo. He had 64 wives and 386 children. The fon poses for a photo. He had 64 wives and 386 children. The German, a dedicated Christian, failed to sign on laborers but did succeed in converting the fon and establishing a church. A hundred years later, I received an audience with the reigning fon and his Christian tribesmen.

We left Douala in my Suzuki 4X4 early in the morning and arrived at the missionary station at nightfall. A resident German couple (nurses) delivered babies, mended wounds of domestic violence, and conducted Christian services at their Pentecostal Chapel overlooking the valley 7,000 feet below. This dedicated couple had arranged for me to visit the fon.

The next day at the break of dawn, I began my journey into the valley. I carried a gallon of water, a jacket in case it got cold, peanuts for sustenance, toilet paper for emergencies, and a letter of introduction from the Government Officer in Douala for the chief.


The first fon greets the German missionary in this 1898 photograph. The first fon greets the German missionary in this 1898 photograph. The only way in or out of the valley was a well-used footpath. For the first few hours, it was a steep incline, then a series of sit-and-slide steps followed by swinging foot bridges, and finally meandering fields where villagers grew manioc (starchy potato-like root) and beans.

A young man, a professed Christian, walked with me part of the way pointing out the jujus (spirit houses) intended to frighten away evil spirits. He proudly said he didn't believe in them, but nevertheless, warned me not to go near them.

When the path leveled off, I took a swim at the foot of a scenic waterfall. The cold water was a relief for my sore legs and feet. The tropical heat began to build, and off I went on the last leg to the village. I passed women working in the fields, children minding chickens and goats, and men sitting under thatched lean-tos smoking and drinking. Not an unusual African scene.


I rested at these falls before continuing to the fon’s palace. I rested at these falls before continuing to the fon’s palace. When I arrived at the village, an emissary of the fon announced, “ Welcome, I have arranged a royal meeting in the throne room for you.” News travels fast in tribal society even without electricity, roads, mail service, or cell phones. ( This was the early 90s, remember?)

I was escorted across a stagnant moat through mud brick walls into the palace grounds. For a moment, I imagined I was in medieval Europe, but strong odors brought me back just in time to avoid a queue of piglets.

The emissary gave me a full tour— in English with a touch of French. The tribe had migrated into the valley from what became Nigeria during the European colonization. The fon I had come to visit was the grandson of the first fon who built the present palace.

The second fon was Christianized at an early age, sent to boarding school in England, graduated from Oxford, and represented northeast Cameroon in the British Parliament after World War I when England took over Kamerun from Germany. When Cameroon gained independence in 1960, he served in its first elected legislature.

In 1963 the second fon was chosen to represent the Republic of Cameroon as ambassador to the English Court of St. James, but before he could assume his duties, his father (the first fon) died. Tribal protocol required him to return to the valley and assume royal duties. Except for a few trips to Yaounde, the new capital of Cameroon, he remained in the valley to serve his people.

When the third fon succeeded to the throne, he married his father’s 16 wives, including his own mother, and adopted all of their children. The emissary told us the current fon had 64 wives and 386 children, all of whom lived in the royal compound and used the royal bathroom.

Continued next week

Return to top