Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Brother from another mother

I’ve always secretly wanted an older brother. Someone to worry and care about me, someone to fight with (in the most loving sense of the word), and someone to protect me even when I don’t think I need protecting (which is probably more often than not). I never imagined however, finding a brother on the other side of the world.

After traveling for 3 straight days, arriving at a foreign airport that was both confusing and overwhelming, and getting stopped in the middle of the night for a “visa/ passport check”, home felt a million miles away. Just as my mind began to wander to the awful “what if” scenarios, we finally arrived at the hostel in Yaoundé.

As I approached the front steps, wide-eyed and a little nervous, the women standing at the door came forward. I found myself suddenly and completely enfolded by two strong but gentle arms and every muscle in my body began to relax. It was at that moment, being embraced by a women I had never met, but feeling the love of a universal mother, sister, and grandmother, that I knew I did not need to be nervous or afraid. After a long and tiring journey, I was finally “home”. It quickly became apparent that the welcoming nature of the women at The Peace House was no coincidence or exception.

After having been briefed by the US embassy on the dangers of traveling alone in Cameroon, some of the Cameroonian students offered to escort a few of the American girls to the market. There were people and taxis’ everywhere, and as we did our best to dodge them while still avoiding the treacherous gutters that lined the roads, I got the distinct, intuitive feeling that someone was following me. My grip on my bag automatically tightened as I quickly glanced back. I was relieved to find that it was one of my new Cameroonian friends who had been following so closely. He gave me a look that has since been burned into my memory. A look that said, “Don’t worry; I will take care of you.”

From that day on, these men were not only our peers and friends; they were our shadows, our bodyguards, and sometimes even our fashion experts. Everywhere we turned they were there protecting us – making sure that we weren’t getting into trouble. They took care of us not out of obligation, but out of genuine affection and respect. We shared an instant bond that I have never experienced. How was it possible that we were already so close? “You are my sister and I am your brother” was the only possible explanation I received or needed. We are family because we are human beings - we share a world, a history, and a vision.

Time and time again, I was welcomed into the homes of parents and grandparents, and time and time again, I was treated as family. I have never witnessed such unconditional giving. Sit down - I can stand. Eat - There’s always enough. Drink – you must be thirsty. Come in - you’re always welcome. While traveling throughout Cameroon, my light skin, hair color, and height, definitely made me stand out. And while I was often observed with strange and contorted facial expressions, the confusion disappeared as soon as I smiled. The smiles, waves, and occasional “peace signs” I received in return told me that no matter my background or nationality, as long as I showed acknowledgement and respect, I was welcome.

Although Americans don’t usually have a reputation of being very welcoming (among many other things), I hope that some day it will become clear to us that we do share a world and a family that is larger than our immediate community - A family that is capable of great things and although doesn’t necessarily need our help, deserves our support.

“Compassion can be put into practice if one recognizes the fact that every human being is a member of humanity and the human family regardless of differences in religion, culture, color, and creed. Deep down there is no difference."
~ Dalai Lama

My self-challenge: To welcome and acknowledge a 'stranger' as a member of my family.

"Family Photo" with Rene's family in Bamenda, Cameroon.
Photo taken on Friday, June 15th, 2007

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