My parents grew up in Baltimore, understanding that our forebears came from Africa. We never even thought to ask about the specifics of our roots, when there was really no way to know for certain. I'd long wanted to find out more about our family's past, however, and in 2009 took a DNA test through African Ancestry.
I learned that I share maternal ancestry with the Tikar people, many of whom now live in the Bamum kingdom in northwestern Cameroon.
Hometown: Baltimore, Maryland
Ancestral home: Cameroon
This changed everything for me. You don't know why you walk around with an emptiness inside or have that feeling at culture day at school when you don't have a dish to bring in that's from another country. Then, suddenly, you can know, We're not just from Africa; we're from these countries and from these ethnic groups, and they have these traditions, and that's part of why we are who we are.
While working as an actor and playwright in Brooklyn, I spent about three years studying the Bamum culture with Abdoulaye Laziz Nchare, then a Ph.D. student in linguistics at New York University. He's from Foumban, the capital city of the Bamum kingdom. Whenever we could find time to meet, he helped me learn the language, as well as plan a trip that, in 2015, would take me and my close friend Billye Sankofa-Waters (who learned she also has Bamum ancestry) to two places: Foumban and Bimbia, a port notorious for its role in the slave trade, in the country's southwest region.
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We flew into Douala, a big city on the coast, then took a bus to Foumban, a bustling smaller town, its dusty streets filled with pedestrians, cars and motorbikes. A grand Royal Palace for the king, at the center of town, is perched next to a museum devoted to the history of the kingdom dating back to the late 14th century. Nearby, a neighborhood buzzed with ironsmiths, sculptors and other artisans selling traditional games, masks and jewelry.
Everyone I met was surprised that I could speak the language. I was surprised at how strangely familiar the place and the people seemed.
The most exciting moment came when I met the Bamum minister of culture, who asked Billye and me, “Would you like a traditional name?”
"Absolutely!” we said.
He made arrangements for us to meet Sultan Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya, the king of the Bamum, who would give us our new names.
A few days later, I stood nervously before the king and told him, in the traditional language, that I'd come home from America to connect with my people. Then he gave me my name, NSangou (pronounced “SAN-goo"), and my new birth certificate. Billye became Mandou.
The second astounding moment came in Bimbia, a gorgeous seaside town with a forest full of butterflies, bamboo and brightly colored birds. After a long walk to the water's edge, we found ourselves surrounded by the remains of small stone structures that had once detained the men and women who would cross the Atlantic and never return. I held pieces of chains in my hand. Then I stood at the shore, looking out at the ocean, seeing what my ancestors saw before they were taken. I cried — hard. I realized I had seen where and who we were supposed to be had slavery not happened, and it was very like who we are now, minus the trauma. I knew I would return to the U.S. a different man.
It was the beginning of healing. And I have been NSangou ever since.