I wanted to take a moment to share with you what ended-up being an unexpected epilogue to an unexpected year, at the end-of-which I traveled to Cameroon to help another Microsoft employee native of Cameroon launch her foundation and organize several events around education and career development.
I was already considering finding an organization to volunteer in Africa, not knowing at the time that my friend was planning a trip. When I found-out around the end of October, and since she needed help, It was a quick and easy decision to get onboard.
My friend, Anny Sonna, is the president and founder of the Sonna Etienne Foundation which is a non-profit organization promoting education and community building. She created the foundation in memory of her father, Etienne Sonna, and to continue his legacy of community building. Anny is a force to be reckoned with and is relentless in the pursuit of her mission.
Our planned activities included a Covid awareness gathering in her mother’s village Nkuop in Dschang, an intro to coding workshop in Balefang Public school in Dschang, our biggest event a Seminar on career development in Yaoundé. In addition, not realizing what I was getting myself into schedule-wise, I also volunteered to hold a professional headshots photoshoot, and a Shopify e-commerce training. Last but not least, one of Anny’s main objectives was also to register her non-profit in Dschang, town where her family is from and as it turns-out, a sister city of Seattle. Needless to say, it was a packed schedule and a whirlwind itinerary that took us from Yaoundé to West Cameroon and back.
Before I go on, I want to get the burning question out of the way: What about Covid ? and What about Covid in Cameroon ? The fact is Cameroon and Africa in general have not been impacted at the magnitude that scientists and pundits initially predicted. Cameroon in particular have not seen numbers anywhere close to those in the US and Europe, in fact, they are extremely low. Note that Cameroon requires a negative Covid test before boarding the inbound flight, and you get tested again on arrival at the airport. This test must also be negative before being released out of the airport. On the way back, we also needed a test to travel to Paris. None was required to board the flight to the US.
Anny and I started to work on our packed program in November, and one Saturday night at the dinner table, we came-up with our mantra for our big event in Yaoundé ENVOL (TAKE-OFF): Élever (Lift-Up) – Négocier (Negotiate)– Vaincre (Overcome) – Orienter (Orient) – Libérer (Liberate).
The seminar took place on December 10 in Yaoundé. In the short time we had to prepare and advertise, we managed to fill-up the room with over 90 people. The seminar had several keynotes, including Anny’s own story, and interactive sessions on building one’s brand, identifying one’s superpowers, resume optimization, working with a mentor, and defining a development plan. Although we did not know what to expect given the different environment and culture, the seminar was very well received. We are already gearing-up for the next one.
Early during our trip, we drove to Dschang, in West Cameroon. To be more specific, we were driven, as navigating the treacherous roads require some special skills. Imagine roads that have so many giant pot-holes, cars have to swivel from the left side to the right side of the road to avoid them, for miles and miles.
One of the highlights and utter surprise of the trip was Anny and I “Intronisation” (Enthronement) granted to us by the King of the Village Balefang where we held the intro to coding workshop. This is a great honor from a “Chef (King) du Village”. I learned later, that in addition to getting a Queen’s title in the village, this also means I was adopted by the Balefang village. Which also means that I became Bamileke, by adoption, the largest tribe in Cameroon. The official ceremony for our titles is to be held in 2021.
This is the sort of things you simply cannot plan for, and would not want to anyway. I was touched and humbled more than I can describe. I can tell you this is a title that I am extremely proud of.
I can only offer you a glimpse of our experience which was filled with adventures and emotions, hours spent in the car traveling from one city to the next, visiting “Chefs du Village”, meeting officials to prepare and submit the foundation paperwork, eating dinner in the dark in the countryside as the electricity shuts-off hours at a time, cold showers, flushing toilet with a bucket of water, riding motorcycle taxis…. Or trying to find the best location for the cheap wireless modem in the courtyard outside the house to get a shot at having a decent internet signal or any at all! This definitely felt like a completely different world.
All those things we take for granted in our daily lives, is a daily struggle there: roads, drinking water, electricity, internet. And yet people are filled with life and joy. Lifted by the spirit of community, they trade our western comfort for human connection and socialization.
Yet, all the smiles and buzzing life do not make this disproportionate inequality in accessing basic resources no less outrageous and revolting. One can only ask Why?
Make no mistake about it, just like this country still sees the impact of slavery centuries later, so too Africa is seeing the impact of colonization to this day. And is still being exploited for its resources by our so-called developed nations, among which my own native country, France.
I want to leave you with one last anecdote that was also a defining moment for me. As Anny and I went thru passport control during our one-hour layover in Paris on our way to Cameroon, we were in adjacent counters at the same time. We both showed our US passports. I hear Anny’s agent asking her if she has a “carte de séjour” which is a visa that allows you to enter and stay in France. My first reaction was both ignorant and telling as the first thing that crosses my mind is “oh shoot, they changed the rules. I am going to need to use my French passport”, the epitome of privilege in this situation. Except, my agent never asked me this question. He let me thru while Anny had to calmy tell her agent that as an American citizen, she does not need a visa. Least of which, for a one-hour layover. The only difference between Anny and I was the color of our skin.
I must confess, it took me a little bit to realize what had just happened, I was taken aback. Anny is the one who first talked about it asking me if I heard what had happened. Then she simply stated “It is always like that, I am used to it” and walked on.
One day, hopefully soon, the Covid vaccine will help us getting back to what we call our normal lives. But let’s not forget that there are other pervasive lethal viruses in our societies for which there is no vaccine yet even after centuries. And there is no warp speed plan to get one either.
In 2021, I pledge to continue to give in any way shape or form that I can. I also pledge to do more to fight all deadly viruses.
Happy New Year!
Tata Carole (my nickname in Cameroon)
To donate to Sonna Etienne Foundation: https://www.sonnaetienne.org/donate-now/
SEF is also in Microsoft giving tool to make a donation and/or request a match.