Cameroonian Villagers Look to First College-Educated Chief to Lead Progress on Health Care, Education, Utilities

Nearly 30 years ago, Cameroonian native Samuel Akale headed off for America, where he graduated from college and earned a postgraduate degree before beginning a decades-long career in law enforcement. This year, Akale accepted his native community’s request to return home and serve as its leader.

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Cameroonian Villagers Look to First College-Educated Chief to Lead Progress on Health Care, Education, Utilities

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BAI KUKE, CAMEROON – The main road into this agricultural village in southwestern Cameroon is rocky earth. Residents walk and cycle about the village on roads unsuited to vehicles.

A quiet community of 5,000 people, Bai Kuke was bustling earlier this month amid the coronation of its first educated chief.

On April 12, the people of Bai Kuke gathered to slaughter goats and cows in honor of their new chief. The meat was transported throughout all nine areas of the village to ensure that all could take part in the coronation feast.

A large, fancy government car carrying Simon Sombe, the divisional officer for the Mbonge subdivision, rolled into town – an unusual sight in a village with just one road passable by car.

Villagers crowded in front of the village’s palace, which is still under construction, the unfinished parts draped in green and white fabric. Two emcees animated the occasion as the crowd waited for the festivities to begin.

But this was not a typical coronation of a village chief.

The kingmakers, village natives tasked with choosing the chief, dashed tradition by electing Samuel Akale, a Cameroonian who has lived for 29 years in the United States, where he earned two higher education degrees.

Once Sombe, the divisional officer, read the prefectoral order declaring Akale the new village chief, the kingmakers escorted Akale from a nearby house to the installation ceremony.

When Akale emerged, the crowd erupted in song and danced around Akale. An entourage of eight men – some in local garb, some in business suits – accompanied Akale as he took his seat on the stool that traditionally symbolizes the chieftaincy of Bai Kuke.

Next, John Ebunja, the sanga moki, the custodian of village tradition and main adviser to the chief, handed Akale the traditional chief’s broom. The broom, made of raffia palm branches, likewise symbolizes the authority of the chief.

With that, the village got its first educated chief.

When the nine-member council of kingmakers weighed the merits of an educated outsider and the son of the former chief, Akale squeaked out a 5-to-4 victory. Villagers hope Akale’s American education and 20-year career in government service will enable him to bring development to this rural community.

Born in Bai Kuke, Akale, 53, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 1986. He earned a master’s degree in sociology from the Minnesota State University, Mankato, in 1992. He is a probation/parole office in Madison, the capital of Wisconsin.

Akale says studying sociology, psychology and corrections taught him a lot about human nature. He hopes to use that knowledge in ruling the village.

Akale had never thought about becoming chief, he says. However, when he visited Bai Kuke last year, members of the village council approached him and told him they considered him a candidate for the role.

Bai Kuke had three chiefs before Akale. None of them had attended school.

The village’s last chief died in 2012. It often takes time to replace a village chief in Cameroon. In the absence of a chief, the village council rules.

A chief rules until he dies or resigns. The chief is responsible for providing security, settling disputes and ensuring development. He is accountable to the divisional officer in charge of the subdivision. The position carries a salary of 50,000 francs ($83).

Ebunja says the late chief was a calm and loving man, but that his lack of education prevented him from ruling with vision.

Villagers hope Akale will usher in a new era of progress.

Akale is described as both playful and strict. He smiles constantly. He says he works to be accommodating and hospitable to everyone he encounters in Bai Kuke. He speaks slowly and admits that he works to keep his slight American accent in check.

“Home is where the heart is, and my heart is right here in Bai Kuke,” he says with a broad smile. “Twenty-nine years in the United States of America cannot erase the fond memories and love that I have for my community and its people.”

Despite living in the American Midwest for the past 29 years, Akale is a familiar face here. He has visited the village often and has initiated some important development projects here, including a water project that reduced the incidence of cholera and educated villagers on water safety, Ebunja says. In the past, villagers blamed cholera outbreaks on witchcraft.

Akale says the entire village benefited from the water system he helped put in place.

Akale recalls how his heart sank when he learned of a cholera outbreak in the village in 1998. It was then that he decided to get involved in the community’s development. He donated nearly 3 million francs (about $5,000) to launch a water infrastructure project in 1998, he says.

“I was always moved to tears whenever I heard that there was an outbreak of cholera in my beloved Bai Kuke,” Akale says.

Akale’s investment allowed the village to build a catchment at a common source of water, an upland spring, and pipe water from the catchment to the village distribution system.

Previously, villagers had to walk long distances to fetch water from the spring. Others obtained water from contaminated wells or streams in which people bathe and defecate, Ebunja says.

The village now has both public and private taps.

Beyond Akale’s initial investment, residents who want private taps pay a one-time fee of 10,000 francs ($16) to maintain and clean the catchment; they also cover the cost of connecting to the system. Villagers who cannot afford to connect to the system or pay the water fee get their water from public taps or neighbors with running water.

The purity of the piped water has improved the villagers’ health and eased their minds.

“Before the coming of pipe-borne water in Bai Kuke, I was never sure of my life and that of my family members,” says Amos Penda, 50, a village resident. “There were frequent cholera outbreaks in Bai Kuke, and this caused us to lose many souls.”

Bai Kuke has had no major outbreaks since Akale donated the money to build the borehole and pipe system, Penda says.

Akale says he looks forward to implementing other development projects to improve the lives of Bai Kuke residents.

Maternal health, solar electricity, improved roads and educational scholarships are at the top of his list for his first five years as chief.

A father of five, including three daughters, Akale cares greatly about maternal health. His first objective is to improve health care in the village by equipping the health center with solar power, he says.

Bai Kuke has no electrical grid. Some villagers use fuel-powered generators, but most know how to live without. In the future, Bai Kuke will be a place where no woman dies in childbirth, Akale says.

“My number one priority is to get the health center electrified with solar-powered energy,” Akale says. “It is risky for pregnant women to come have their babies in this health center right now.”

Some of Akale’s American friends donated medical equipment, including microscopes and echography machines, to the Bai Kuke Health Center, but most of the equipment is unusable until the center is electrified, Akale says.

“Solar is the surest and most sustainable option that we have right now,” he says. “And we can get to install it immediately the finances are available.”

Akale plans to begin raising funds for the solar energy project when he returns to the U.S. next month.

“The solar project is definitely the first of my five-year development plan,” he says. “I plan to achieve that before the end of 2016.”

Villagers also look forward to road improvements.

Elizabeth Mbelle has lived in Bai Kuke for nearly 40 years. Because of the poor quality of the village’s roads, she must walk to other towns to do business, she says. She walks the road from Bai Kuke to Bokosso, which is inaccessible to cars, because it is the quickest route to neighboring towns, such as Limbe and Muyuka.

“Many people have suffered to trek from here to Bokosso whenever they are about to travel, sometimes with heavy loads on their heads and backs,” she says in a phone interview. “I will be particularly excited because that would mean I will have to enter a car from Bai Kuke to my destination.”

Akale plans to link Bai Kuke and Bokosso with a road suitable for vehicles, he says.

Given Akale’s educational background, villagers hope he emphasizes education and scholarships for schoolchildren.

Protus Ngwa, an Israeli resident who was born and raised in Bai Kuke, thinks scholarship programs are what the village needs most.

“The giving of scholarships will enhance the literacy level of Bai Kuke, thereby reducing the number of dropouts in the village,” he says in a Skype video interview.

Ngwa says he is proud to see an educated chief in Bai Kuke.

“I cherish education more than anything else, and I will follow the chief’s example by giving scholarships to deserving children in Bai Kuke this upcoming academic year,” he says.

Education guarantees development in the future, Ngwa says.

Akale aims to improve education in Bai Kuke. He wants to give more and more children the opportunity to go to school.

“My village needs to be counted amongst villages that have high levels of literacy,” he says.

There are now eight schools in Bai Kuke – two nursery schools, four primary schools, one government-run secondary school and one private secondary school.

Akale plans to construct a permanent secondary school building to replace the temporary facilities now occupied by a village school established 10 years ago. He has already donated 800 cement blocks for the project, he says. The village council allocated the land for the school during the rule of the previous chief.

But with no formal support coming from the government of Cameroon, he plans to raise funds from foreigners, NGOs, elites and friends.

Ebunja confirms that the government does not allocate any development funds to the village that could be used to build a school.

“Having a school close to home will encourage more children to attend,” Akale says. “Young people who stay in school are less likely to get pregnant or marry young.”

Penda agrees. Akale is a role model for the younger generation, he says.

“Our children would want to emulate the example of Akale,” Penda says. “They would want to grow up to become like him by going to school and contributing to the development of their communities.”

Akale hopes to achieve all of these goals by 2020, he says. He plans to raise 30 million francs ($49,000).

Despite Akale’s big plans for the village, many opposed his election.

Some even challenged his claim to native status, alleging that his parents came from a neighboring village.

“Samuel Akale is not our chief – not now, not ever,” says Job Ngole, a Bai Kuke resident.

Ngole says he is not impressed by Akale’s degrees.

“Chieftaincy is not about education,” he says. “It is about who is a true indigene by birth to ascend the throne.”

Ebunja, the traditional custodian of the village, dismisses challenges to Akale’s native status, noting that Akale’s father came from Bai Kuke.

“Our Bai Kuke culture is patrilineal, not matrilineal,” he says.

Akale too says he is confident of his mandate to rule.

“I have more than 90 percent of community members behind me, and this alone tells me that the community has found me worthy to be their ruler,” he says.

Ebunja and other villagers say they believe, despite the disagreement, that Akale will bring prosperity to the community.

“America man is educated, sociable, development-oriented, and, above all, a native of Bai Kuke,” says Penda, referring to Akale by a common moniker.

For Ebunja, living to see Bai Kuke get an educated chief is a dream come true.

“When I retire to the land beyond, I will sit my ancestors down and tell them that Bai Kuke too was finally ruled by someone who went to school and who had the interest of his people at heart,” he says.

For now, Akale will return to America until he retires early next year. Then he will permanently relocate to Bai Kuke. An interim chief will serve until then.