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Spotlight on Germany’s Colonial Past: When Can Ngonnso Return Home?

  • June 24, 2022

The Voice of the King

That is a question for the king himself, who is demanding a return of the sculpture. Sehm Mbinglo I. rents an inconspicuous house in Yaoundé, situated on one side of a steep, dusty road covered in potholes. A metal gate is pushed aside to reveal a small courtyard and a large number of people, some of whom are introduced as palace guards, others as princes and princesses, the king’s children in other words. They are sitting around on white plastic chairs. The king, it is said, has 15 to 20 wives and countless children.

Then, before the king’s arrival, his private secretary and interpreter, a man named Bulami Edward Fonyuy, goes through the rules for the interview. Nobody but the king is allowed to sit down. A traditional head covering must be worn, of the kind he was nice enough to bring along. Nobody may approach the king without one. The king, a demigod who has the ability to communicate with gods and ancestors, must be addressed as “His Royal Highness.” The questions must be submitted to him, Bulami, who will then translate them for the king, who actually speaks perfect English, into the tribal language. The king will answer in the Lamnso language, which Bulami will then translate back into English.

The guests are served kola nuts and local beer, which we had been instructed to bring as a gift for our host. The nuts are bitter and earthy, the beer is warm. And then, the king is suddenly standing there, a stocky gentleman with a stern face. Everyone stands and falls silent as he sits on his throne – which is really just a camping chair covered in a colorful blanket and set on a piece of artificial grass. He leans his long, thin staff, called a kitoome, against the wall of the house.

“The king would like to welcome you very warmly on behalf of the Nso people,” Bulami translates. “And he would like to inquire how Germany and the German people are doing.”

Sehm Mbinglo I., 66, has a deep, tired and slow voice. I thank him for his inquiry and respond that Germany is deeply concerned because a war has broken out in Europe, but aside from that, the Germans are doing well. The king nods. I then inquire about the wellbeing of His Highness. Bulami does what he does each time he speaks to the king: He claps three times and then mumbles his translation through his folded hands into the king’s ear.

“The king says he cannot act as though he is happy, because the absence of Ngonnso, the founder and goddess of our people, inflicts fresh pain every day. The king would like to know how Ngonnso is doing in Germany.” I assure His Highness that the statue has all it needs, that it is on exhibit behind glass in a magnificent new museum, together with hundreds of other works of art. The king scowls, the idea seems rather distasteful to him.

What does Ngonnso mean to him? Why is her return so important? Bulami translates his response: “Ngonnso is the spiritual leader of the Nso. He and his people feel incomplete without her. Certain rituals cannot be performed without her. He needs her in order to communicate with the gods and the ancestors, to ask them for health, prosperity, protection and fertile land.”

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