Back in the late ’80s, my parents started up a rainforest conservation project in Cameroon. They had their adventures getting there, having driven the whole way with all their gear in a Landrover. They almost got lost in the Sahara desert and crossed Chad, which at the time was in the midst of a civil war.
Their project was based in a remote village called Oku, in the north-west province of Cameroon. It revolved around working with local people to protect a remaining island of rainforest on Mt Oku, home of the Oku tribe.
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During my mum’s pregnancy, she was visited by a green forest snake. On telling this to some people from the village, they said that if she saw the snake again, it would have to be killed, in case it bit somebody. They went to the fon (chief) of the village to ask his advice, and he said not to kill the snake because it was the spirit of Mnkongmoteh, who had come to bless my mother and the baby. My mum went on to be visited by this snake several more times before I was born.
Mnkongmoteh was the founder and first fon of the Oku tribe. The story goes that he wanted to be buried in the forest when he died because it was his favorite place. However, after his death, it was decided that this was against tradition and unfit for the fon, so he was buried in the palace, despite his wishes. The following morning the tomb was found open, with the trail of a snake leading from the palace. They followed the trail deep into the forest, where they found a coiled green snake.
The tradition in Oku is that all children born into the tribe are named by the fon. So when I was born, the chiefs wife’s came to the hospital to tell my parents that I was to be called Mnkongmoteh, or Moteh for short.