“I love my Vodou Priest – he is even more important than the President of the Republic.”
A very powerful statement from one man interviewed in Cameroon, where Vodou is a daily part of life. Every person – from the humble worker to the Sultan of Bamum himself pay homage to the senior Vodou priest, known as a Tata in Cameroon (just as in Congo, as opposed to the title of Houngan in Haiti and Benin).
Cameroonian society has a social and administrative organization ancestral: the chiefdom. But superior even to this is the Vodou Priesthood. Even the Chiefdom knows that without the power of Vodou as a stabilizing cultural force it will fail.
By ethnic group or geographical situations, the traditional leader, whether sultan, king or paramount chief, represents power and authority over a village or even a region. But the Vodou Tata represents spiritual authority. An authority directly from Bondye, or God.
True to the tradition, descendants and heirs of historical lineages whose origin is often lost in the mists of time, they are the last kings of Cameroon. They still occupy a prominent place in the lives of many ethnicities. They are both the guardians of customary authority and custodians of religious values. Also playing the role of auxiliaries of the administration, they are important people for the central government.
The Vodou Tatas are equally important. Their traditions and lineages stretch back even further than the kings in Cameroon. It is said that the first king in Cameroon was anointed by a Vodou Tata, just as the Abraham was first anointed by Melchezidek, a Priest of the Most High God. While the King represents temporal authority, the Tata represents a higher spiritual authority.
The current Sultan of Foumban, Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, king of the Bamum, is a former Minister of the Cameroon government for a long time remained in the service of the State. He is also a devotee of Vodou and regularly pays homage to the senior Tata.
The politicians of the country seek support from the Sultan. The Sultan is one of the greatest kings of Cameroon. And the Sultan seeks support from the Tata.
The authority he has over his people is said to determine who is elected in the presidential election as of 9 October. Those who do not pay proper homage to the Sultan – and the Tata – often are never elected. Politics, or spiritual power?
At four meetings of the Sultan we interviewed people on the street to examine their feelings on politics, the Sultanate and the Vodou Priesthood in Cameroon.
Fabrice, shopkeeper in Foumban:
“The Sultan is very important here. He is well respected and has a great influence in the region. It is the law. If the Sultan is a candidate is best for our region, I will vote for that candidate, I will follow his instructions. For I know that the Sultan is directed by the Tata, who is an authority of God.”
Rabiètou, phone vendor in Foumban:
“It’s the King of the Bamum. He has great authority here. Only the Tata has more authority. For my vote, I will follow the choice of the Sultan who rules with the spiritual discernment given by the Vodou spirits.”
Salla, wife and mother:
“I love my King Sultan of Bamum. It is more important than the president. Only the Tata is more important. I’m ready to vote for anyone if the Sultan or my Tata asked me.”
Moustapha, Islamic Imam:
“The people have a duty of obedience, submission in relation to the Sultan which is a religious authority before a traditional authority. Only our spiritual leaders such as the Vodou Priest or the Quran have equal authority.”
These stories give an idea of the weight the King as well as the Vodou Priesthood hold over the elections. They have the power to guide the selection of all his people to elect their next president.
For those who feel that a monarchy or a priesthood have no place in government – consider one fact: in Cameroon the vast majority of humanitarian aid, medicine and education is funded directly by the Vodou Priesthood and the Sultanate. They are the sole sources of educational and medical advancement in Cameroon. Without these traditional institutions the country of Cameroon would be set back many years.