ST. LOUIS -- Representatives of several nations -- including at least one king -- gathered in St. Louis Thursday for the Sister Cities International Annual Conference.
Among the attendees is Fon Doh Gah Gwanyin III, king of the Republic of Cameroon, here with one of his four wives as part of a 20-person delegation.
For many St. Louis residents, contact with the city's 10 sister cities is limited to passing a highway road sign declaring the kinship. Gah said he is here to learn how his hometown, Balikumbat, can become a sister city.
"I'm here to get trained," he said. "What attracted me to the program is its potential to help alleviate poverty, improve international security and combat AIDS."
Other attendees say the Sister City program offers hope that personal interaction can lead to fewer world conflicts and more economic development.
The conference is hosted by the St. Louis Center for International Relations. Chairman Mary Rumy said more than 1,000 delegates from 48 countries are expected to attend.
The conference includes workshops on how to foster relationships with other cities and a keynote speech on Saturday night by former Sen. George Mitchell, D-Maine.
St. Louis adopted its first sister city, Stuttgart, Germany, in 1960.
Wilma Prifti, president of the St. Louis Stuttgart Sister City Committee, said the key to gaining sister status is having a dedicated group of volunteers in both cities. Local volunteers must also get approval from each city's mayor.
Sister city relationships are often driven by student exchanges at local universities, Rumy said.
In St. Louis, both Webster University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis have been involved in student exchanges with sister cities.
Cruen Nuoko, another member of the Cameroon delegation, said he became frustrated at a previous conference after he realized that many U.S. cities were scared of partnering with African cities because of all the perceived baggage they carry with them.
"A lot of them see us as approaching with cup in hand," he said. "We want to be recognized as equal partnerships in these relationships. We have a lot to offer."