From Research to Royalty

Katy Gonder and Princess Mary Katherine Kassingang

Gonder and her young namesake, Mary Katherine Kassingang, daughter of the Nwa king.

Unless you’re born into royalty — or you’re Kate Middleton — your chances of donning a real-life crown are pretty slim. Drexel’s Katy Gonder defies the odds. In addition to her students here in Philadelphia, the biology professor now presides over 42 chiefdoms and 55,000 people as Maya, or Queen Mother, of the Cameroonian subdivision Nwa (located in the country’s Northwest Region).

Gonder’s unlikely tale began in 1997 when she was studying chimpanzees in Cameroon for her PhD. While at the country’s Wildlife Conservation Society office, she began working with Fon (King) Kassingang, who was a project assistant and French translator at the time. Over the years, Gonder and Kassingang embarked on numerous misadventures together in the field — including getting lost for days in the forests of Banyang-Mbo Wildlife Sanctuary — and the two have remained close for decades. When Kassingang was enthroned Fon of Nwa in 2015, he requested that Gonder be appointed their Maya. While the Maya is typically appointed from the sisters who live in the Nwa palace, the Kassingang family loved and respected Gonder as a mother and sister (so much so that they named their daughter after her) and the sisters of the royal family graciously approved the request.

So what exactly does the title of Queen entail? For starters, Gonder says, it means having many, many sisters. She also serves as the intermediary between the women of Nwa and as an adviser to the Fon, and, in 2016, she’ll oversee their cultural festival.

As for her newfound royal status? “It’s a little disconcerting having people bow to me,” Gonder says.

Fortunately, with a lifelong appointment ahead, she’ll have time to adjust.

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