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Modern languages professor becomes queen of Cameroon village

Marie Lathers
Marie Lathers

When three Case professors set out to scout sites in the West African country of Cameroon to establish a French and Francophone Studies Summer Program for Case Western Reserve University students, little did the group know that Marie Lathers, the Treuhaft Professor of French in the department of modern languages and literatures, would return home with the honorary title of queen of Fu'nda—and a gesture of acceptance into the community.

The newest queen of Fu'nda (a village of 9,000 people), has responsibilities to be the American "mother" to Gilbert Doho, Case's new director of the ethnic studies program and a native of Cameroon, and his wife, and "grandmother" to the couple's four children.

Doho secretly undertook the plans for the ceremonial honor as a way to thank Lathers for her hospitality upon his arrival in Cleveland and the welcome she gave his extended family in 2004 when they visited the United States.

Marie Lathers
Gilbert Doho

The Toula people, who account for nearly 3,000 people in Fu'nda, will now call Lathers "Mafo" or "Mafo Toula."

"It's a moment I'll always remember. It was like a dream," said Lathers, who took a side trip to Doho's village during the 10-day trip to the country that borders Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, Gabon and the Central Republic of Chad.

Doho's brother, Mathieu Tchinda, is now the village chief, having succeeded Doho's father in 1969 as one of the seven chiefs of Fu'nda under the leadership of the village's paramount chief, who has responsibility for financial and spiritual matters of the residents. Out of respect for his brother's position in the village, Doho now calls his sibling "Fo Toula" (my father).

Fo Toula led the ceremonies where Lathers was dressed in a black gown embroidered with colored geometric designs and given a ceremonial woven basket that symbolizes a wish for prosperity, not only in material wealth, but good health and justice.

"The woven bag should be filled with all the positive things indispensable in life," said Doho.

Lathers also received her own special stool to sit on before the village chief, who is the only person to sit on a throne that is backed. The stool is a work of art, according to Lathers, carved from wood and each leg is of a panther. The stool is meant only for the recipient's use. Lathers brought it home (and occasionally allows her 7-year-old daughter to sit on it).

The doors of Toula are open to Lathers, according to Doho. If Lathers expresses a desire for land, the village will give it to her, he added.

Doho's uncle drove Lathers and Laura Hengehold, Case assistant professor of philosophy, to the village. They went to the main village building where she learned of the honor. After receiving the title of "Mafo Toula," she drank ceremonial wine from a cup made from a cattle's horn and then watched as village women danced and sang.

Lathers said the entire time she felt as though she were surrounded by a large family.

On their visits to the United States, Lathers had met several members of Doho's family including his mother, who was present at the ceremony and who does not speak English or French. "I always felt a special connection with her," said Lathers, who now has responsibilities to be Doho's special American friend and family member.

Lathers—along with Cheryl Toman, assistant professor of French and Africanist, and Hengehold, who is interested in African philosophy and is now interim director of the French and Francophone Studies while Lathers is on sabbatical in France—visited three universities at Douala, Yaounde and Buea. Their investigation of a new summer program site had the support of a Presidential Initiative Grant.

Guiding the professors around the country and making introductions was Therese Kuoh-Moukoury, Cameroon's first woman novelist. Toman became close to the writer, who now lives in Paris, when she translated her work into English.

Through the writer's and Doho's connections with the faculty at the universities, the Case professors were able to meet and discuss ways that Case students can study a variety of disciplines during a proposed three-week summer study program in Cameroon.

Lathers said plans are to offer the program biennially with the alternate years devoted to a three-week program in Paris, France. The French studies program also offers a spring experience in Montreal to enrich the cultural and language experiences of Case students. During the Montreal trip, the students undertake community service projects, and they may be able to do this in Cameroon, too.

The department of modern languages and literature tentatively plans to launch the African program in the summer of 2007, according to Lathers.

Cameroon's predominant language is French but English is also an official language, which would make it ideal for students who do not major in French or speak it, but have interests in anthropology, political science, art and art history, music and other areas.

Lathers said over the next years, plans will be finalized as to which university will partner with Case and how the program will be organized.

 

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