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Vol. LXIII, No. 16
August 5, 2011

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The Royal We
Kings Are Among Us at NIH

On the front page...

Royalty from two regions in Cameroon, Africa, work at NIH.

Royalty from two regions in Cameroon, Africa, work at NIH.

Some 5,900 miles from here, in the northwestern region of Cameroon, Africa, two kingdoms are missing the physical presence of their kings (or fons, as they are known in Cameroon). But their loss is NIH’s gain—at least temporarily. Fon Kennedy Nganjo, ruler of Njirong, and His Royal Highness Raymond Kangnsen Buhmbi, fon of Kesu-Wum, work at NIH with security contractor MVM Inc.

So, how did NIH come to have royalty on its workforce?


Ruling Remotely

Nganjo said he came to the United States because he “was ambitious.” In addition to his NIH job as a part-time supervisor with MVM, he also has taught history and U.S. government at Woodbridge Senior High School in Virginia. And he’s a graduate student in education at Bowie State University.

The 11th king of Njirong, a village of about 6,000 citizens, Nganjo inherited the throne from his father in 1998. Kingdom economic woes and his own quest for higher education led him to relocate to the U.S. in 2003.

“I still have to pay tuition and I can only take courses in the evenings,” he explained, “but as soon as I [graduate] I’ll be on the next plane home.”

As chief decision-maker for his homeland, does Nganjo find it difficult to lead from a long distance?

“The world has become a global society,” he said, citing the Internet and telecommunications as tools he uses all the time. “I’m constantly in touch with my kingdom with modern technology. The kingdom is an institution just like the United States. When President Obama is out of the country, the United States continues to operate. You have well-organized systems in place to operate when the president is not in the country. My kingdom is the same way.”

Buhmbi was enthroned in 1988 in Kesu-Wum. Home to about 20,000 people, Kesu is one of 13 villages that make up the Wum federation. Buhmbi, too, has a competent structure that runs the affairs of his kingdom while he is away. “I have a regent who acts on my behalf,” he said.

Buhmbi came to northern Virginia 7 years ago, looking for opportunities to partner with American businesses and organizations that can help foster the development of his fondom. He began working at NIH in 2009.

‘A Wonderful Coincidence’

The Republic of Cameroon, which gained its independence in the early 1960s, has an estimated 19 million citizens. The elected president of Cameroon appoints a prime minister, who is the official head of the government. Fons, the country’s traditional rulers, govern their individual regions, but are subject to the rules of law set by the nation’s overarching government.

Fon Kennedy Nganjo (l), ruler of Njirong, and His Royal Highness Raymond Kangnsen Buhmbi, fon of Kesu-Wum, both kings of regions in Cameroon, Africa, work at NIH.

Fon Kennedy Nganjo (l), ruler of Njirong, and His Royal Highness Raymond Kangnsen Buhmbi, fon of Kesu-Wum, both kings of regions in Cameroon, Africa, work at NIH.

Photos: Bill Branson

Amid tens of dozens of similar self-sustaining kingdoms of various-size populations, the village of Kesu-Wum is about 80 kilometers from the northwest regional capital of Bamenda. The Njirong kingdom is not close enough in proximity to be considered a neighbor, according to Buhmbi.

“Our kingdoms are quite far apart,” he explained, estimating that it would take several hours to travel between the two villages. He and Nganjo knew of each other in Cameroon, but met at NIH—working for the same company—simply by happenstance.

“It was just a wonderful coincidence,” Buhmbi said.

“You know how they say birds of a feather flock together?” agreed Nganjo. “Well, we just stumbled into each other.”

‘Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown’

Although thousands of miles separate the fons from their subjects and in-person visits to their individual kingdoms are rare, distance is not the largest problem these kings have to tackle.

“It’s not so easy,” Buhmbi admitted. “We have a lot of situations to deal with. While people are preoccupied with personal issues, we as fons or kings have, in addition to our personal issues, the responsibilities of resolving conflicts and ensuring the welfare or well-being of our people at home and in the diaspora.’’

Consider, for instance, problems that stem from competing cultures and dueling ideals. One of the most difficult issues Nganjo is grappling with is the obligation to follow tradition. Take his kingdom’s custom of polygamy. His father had 13 wives. Nganjo—whose wife and three children live in the U.S. with him—says he has no desire to marry multiple times. His culture, however, pressures him to follow in the footsteps of his forebears.

“I do not want to have to do that, but tradition is very important in my kingdom,” he said.

Another practical difficulty for both Nganjo and Buhmbi is their kingdoms’ struggling economy.

Opportunities Outweigh Inconveniences

A number of circumstances—political unrest, health hazards, global economic downturn and poor infrastructure—have combined to leave our fondoms wanting, Buhmbi noted.

“Every day you are trying to improve the lives of your people,” Nganjo agreed. “We still do not have potable water. We’re still looking for engineers to find ways for us to get potable water. We have a government health center that is understaffed and underfunded. We need a laboratory and we lack many of the basic necessities. We have built a secondary school, but it needs textbooks and supplies. Part of my job as king is to get more support and funding for my people.”

Buhmbi has reached agreements with the School of Engineering at the University of Virginia and Rotary International to sponsor and develop a Wum water project that will provide potable water to the Kesu and Wum communities.

In addition, Nganjo and Buhmbi, along with other fons in the Washington area, founded the North West Fons Council, which brings together other Cameroonians in the region to help promote tourism, education and economic investment opportunities for their kingdoms.

If just a few of these potential collaborations bring benefits to the kingdoms, then both kings will consider their long-distance leadership successful, despite the inconvenience.

“Our primary concern has always been to promote and protect our cultural values, socio- economic development of our communities, provision of quality health and the economic empowerment of our people,” Buhmbi concluded. NIHRecord Icon

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