A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

My RSS Feed

Twitter: #apfellows

Posts tagged Culture

Fons of the North West Province

Helah Robinson | Posted August 1st, 2009 | Africa

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Nkumu Fed Fed’s HIV/AIDS awareness campaign attempted to combat the disease by identifying harmful cultural practices and training women to take the lead in changing those norms. Tradition, however, is engrained in society and is not challenged easily. Understanding that alone, women would face considerable obstacles, NFF reached out to the traditional chiefs of the North West Region. Called Fons, these rulers a more than just spiritual guides for their people, governing their fondoms as the primary and final voice on all matters—political, social and cultural. They are heavily respected in their societies and because no decisions are made without passing through them, as the sub-chief of Bali explained to us, cultural evolution will not happen without their cooperation. During its HIV/AIDS advocacy project, NFF sensitized a number of regional Fons to the dangerous effects certain cultural behaviors have on their communities. Over our two weeks in Bamenda, Johanna and I have had the opportunity to meet two local leaders who participated in the NFF training and get their thoughts on the subject.

Us with the traditional sub-chief
Us with the traditional sub-chief

Above: Johanna and me with the sub-chief or sub-fon of Bali.

Our first interview was with the sub-chief of Bali, a traditional leader and guide of several clans in the region who answers directly to the Fon of Bali. Before arriving at the palace, our project director Emmanuel Ngang briefed Johanna and me on appropriate behavior when meeting the chief. We were not allowed to touch him, could not cross our legs in his presence, and could not enter his home empty handed (we had to bring a gift or offering of some kind). Furthermore, we had to follow proper protocol during our meeting. For example, when he offered specially made fresh palm wine, the correct way to accept the drink was to approach him, bow and extend out your glass using your right hand while bowing. Though I am not a member of his clan, nor can I personally relate to the system of fondoms, I felt his authority nonetheless.

The chief explained that “in these areas…where traditions are still very much in tact, you cannot have access to the people without passing though the traditional rulers,” and that “every activity needs to pass directly through [him] to get to the people,” meaning his approval and involvement in the campaign was pivotal to its success. He was a surprisingly forward thinking, stating that culture is not static and that while “our fathers, their fathers and their fathers’ fathers” may have practiced a particular tradition, it may no longer work in the present day context. Cultural jamborees (large dance festivals that tend to include drinking and sexual promiscuity) for example, have become extremely dangerous in an environment with a high HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. Presented with hard facts concerning the health and security of his people, this ruler understood that continuing certain cultural behaviors would unsustainable and damaging, to say the least.

With the Sub-Chief and His Men
With the Sub-Chief and His Men

Above: Us with the Sub-Chief of Bali (center) with a nobleman (far right) and his traditional healer (second from left)

The second traditional chief we interviewed thus far was Emmanuel Muam Bong, barrister at law and Fon of Bu. Though he was older than the sub-chief of Bali and more subdued, Mr. Bong was equally outspoken concerning the cultural practices that have the potential to seriously harm his people. One such practice NFF highlighted as a main facilitator of the spread of HIV/AIDS was polygamy, yet all fons continue to be polygamists… save one: Emmanuel Bong of Bu. Despite significant outside pressure for him to take a second wife (or more), the Fon refuses to endorse what he believes to be an unnecessarily risky cultural tradition.

The fons trained during NFF’s advocacy campaign are truly doing something groundbreaking and awe inspiring. They are challenging cultural norms that have characterized their societies for centuries and are doing so for the good of their people. What is even more incredible is precedent they risk setting. They acknowledge that culture is dynamic, constantly changing and adapting to social evolution, but once progress starts, where does it stop? Combating tradition is remarkable, particularly coming from these rulers whose status and livelihood depend on culture and tradition. Once you start challenging the status quo, it has the potential to open the floodgates for social change, which can be threatening to their position. The fact that they are still willing to stand up against the disease, risking their own self-interest, is truly remarkable.

Fellow: Helah Robinson

Vital Voices in Cameroon


-1 Advocacy Project AMA Women Project Cameroon Cameroun Chiefs Child Trafficking Culture Douala Helah Helah Robinson HIV HIV/AIDS market Nkumu Fed Fed Pan African Women's Day Sandaga Traditional Rulers UCOMAS Vital Voices women women's rights




2013 Fellows


Benan Grams
Meron Menwyelet
Mohammed Alshubrumi
John Steies


Andra Bosneag
Chris Pinderhughes
Emily MacDonald
Jasveen Bindra
Kelly Howell
Raymond Aycock
Sujita Basnet

Middle East

Mona Niebuhr

2012 Fellows


Dane Macri
Laura McAdams
Mallory Minter
Megan Orr
Oluwatooni Akanni
Katie Hoffman


Adam Kruse
Alex Kelly
Alicia Evangelides
Heather Webb
Jesse Cottrell
Matthew Becker
Rachel Palmer


Claire Noone
Elise Filo

Latin America

Laura Burns

Middle East

Nur Arafeh
Thayer Hastings

North America

Caroline Risacher

2011 Fellows


Charlie Walker
Charlotte Bourdillon
Cleia Noia
Dina Buck
Jamyel Jenifer
Kristen Maryn
Rebecca Scherpelz
Scarlett Chidgey
Walter James


Amanda Lasik
Chantal Uwizera
Chelsea Ament
Clara Kollm
Corey Black
Lauren Katz
Maelanny Purwaningrum
Maria Skouras
Meredith Williams
Ryan McGovern
Samantha Syverson


Beth Wofford
Julia Dowling
Quinn Van Valer-Campbell
Samantha Hammer
Susan Craig-Greene

Latin America

Amy Bracken
Catherine Binet

Middle East

Nikki Hodgson

North America

Sarah Wang

2010 Fellows


Abisola Adekoya
Annika Allman
Brooke Blanchard
Christine Carlson
Christy Gillmore
Dara Lipton
Dina Buck
Josanna Lewin
Joya Taft-Dick
Louis Rezac
Ned Meerdink
Sylvie Bisangwa


Adrienne Henck
Karie Cross
Kerry McBroom
Kate Bollinger
Lauren Katz
Simon Kläntschi
Zarin Hamid


Laila Zulkaphil
Susan Craig-Greene
Tereza Bottman

Latin America

Karin Orr

North America

Adepeju Solarin
Oscar Alvarado

2009 Fellows


Adam Welti
Alixa Sharkey
Barbara Dziedzic
Bryan Lupton

Courtney Chance
Elisa Garcia
Helah Robinson
Johanna Paillet
Johanna Wilkie
Kate Cummings
Laura Gordon
Lisa Rogoff
Luna Liu
Ned Meerdink
Walter James


Abhilash Medhi
Gretchen Murphy
Isha Mehmood
Jacqui Kotyk
Jessica Tirado
Kan Yan
Morgan St. Clair
Ted Mathys


Alison Sluiter
Christina Hooson
Donna Harati
Fanny Grandchamp
Kelsey Bristow
Simran Sachdev
Susan Craig-Greene
Tiffany Ommundsen

Latin America

Althea Middleton-Detzner
Carolyn Ramsdell
Jessica Varat
Lindsey Crifasi
Rebecca Gerome
Zachary Parker

Middle East

Corrine Schneider
Rachel Brown
Rangineh Azimzadeh

North America

Elizabeth Mandelman
Farzin Farzad

2008 Fellows

Adam Nord
Annelieke van de Wiel
Juliet Hutchings
Kristina Rosinsky
Lucas Wolf
Chi Vu
Danita Topcagic
Heather Gilberds
Jes Therkelsen
Libby Abbott
Mackenzie Berg
Nicole Farkouh
Ola Duru
Paul Colombini
Raka Banerjee
Shubha Bala
Antigona Kukaj
Colby Pacheco
James Dasinger
Janet Rabin
Nicole Slezak
Shweta Dewan
Amy Offner
Ash Kosiewicz
Hannah McKeeth
Heidi McKinnon
Larissa Hotra
Hannah Wright
Krystal Sirman
Rianne Van Doeveren
Willow Heske

2007 Fellows

Johnathan Homer
Adam Nord
Audrey Roberts
Caitlin Burnett
Devin Greenleaf
Jeff Yarborough
Julia Zoo
Madeline England
Maha Khan
Mariko Scavone
Mark Koenig
Nicole Farkouh
Saba Haq
Tassos Coulaloglou
Ted Samuel
Alison Morse
Gail Morgado
Jennifer Hollinger
Katie Wroblewski
Leslie Ibeanusi
Michelle Lanspa
Stephanie Gilbert
Zach Scott
Abby Weil
Jessica Boccardo
Sara Zampierin
Eliza Bates
Erin Wroblewski
Tatsiana Hulko

2006 Interns

Laura Cardinal
Jessical Sewall
Alison Long
Autumn Graham
Donna Laverdiere
Erica Issac
Greg Holyfield
Lori Tomoe Mizuno
Melissa Muscio
Nicole Cordeau
Stacey Spivey
Anya Gorovets
Barbara Bearden
Lynne Engleman
Yvette Barnes
Charles Wright
Sarah Sachs

2005 Interns

Eun Ha Kim
Malia Mason
Anne Finnan
Carrie Hasselback
Karen Adler
Sarosh Syed
Shirin Sahani
Chiara Zerunian
Ewa Sobczynska
MacKenzie Frady
Margaret Swink
Sabri Ben-Achour
Nitzan Goldberger

2004 Interns

Ginny Barahona
Michael Keller
Sarah Schores
Melinda Willis
Pia Schneider
Stacy Kosko
Carmen Morcos
Christina Fetterhoff
Stacy Kosko
Bushra Mukbil

2003 Interns

Erica Williams
Kate Kuo
Claudia Zambra
Julie Lee
Kimberly Birdsall
Marta Schaaf
Caitlin Williams
Courtney Radsch