Who is Chantal Biya?

25 Sep

I was going through the Flickr stream of the U.S. Department of State, and happened upon portraits of the Obamas with various heads of state. Most of the pictures fall into the typical photo-op category, while some are contenders for Awkward Family Photos: Executive Edition. But one of the photos is in a class of its own.

L-R: Chantal Biya, First Lady of Cameroon; Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States; Paul Biya, President of Cameroon; Barack Obama, President of the United States.

I … I don’t always come up short for words (see the below behemoth entry on a cookie), but … yeah.

So who is Chantal Biya?

Reliable sources are pretty scarce. Early background details are easy to find (born in Dimako to parents Georges Vigouroux, a French émigré, and Rose Ndongo Mengolo; grew up in the capital city of Yaoundé).

We know that she became the 2nd wife to Paul Biya after his first wife Jeanne Irène Biya died. Also, her AIDS/HIV cause is fairly well known due to her creation of the Chantal Biya Foundation Hospital, a unique organization that focuses on children. In fact, the hospital has been covered in the New York Times.

Chantal’s work and her hair are a double-team of media attraction, and have earned her some fans. I imagine news about her cause attract cameras, while the spectacle of her hair is at least partially responsible for keeping them clicking. She’s made famous at least two hairstyles, one of which is the aptly named Chantal Biya, and the other is the banane, or banana (actually, this is a general term, but I suppose the authors of the linked article found it worth mentioning because of her take on the style). Without precise definitions, I can only guess that whatever is emblematic of coiffed extravagance qualifies as the former, and any bouffant with hair twists counts as the latter.

Naomi Campbell and First Ladies, one of whom is not like the others

Paul Biya, Chantal Biya, Hat Biya, and Pope Benedict XVI

What gets hazy are the particulars. Cameroon is one of Africa’s most corrupt nations, so any illuminating information is hard to come by and difficult to verify. I’ve read that her foundation was created to shore up support for her (although it’s undoubtedly made some great contributions), and that it replaced the location of the pavilion that bore the name of the former 1st lady, whose death is shrouded in mystery. Biya is also rumored to have been a former prostitute (213). For a more optimistic look, there’s the book Chantal Biya: La passion de l’humanitaire (EN: Chantal Biya: Humanitarian Passion), which is a very long, 260 page ode to her. Also, the presidential website has some additional information on her youth, work, and family life (check out her photo album to see her holding a lion cub and uprooting a gigantic cassava specimen).

Jeanne Irène Biya
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