Mourning the Loss of a Village Friend

Today was a sad day full of tragic news. I woke up to my NYT alert on the San Francisco plane crash, and made a mental note how spooky it feels that I am due to take a flight on a similar route in a few weeks’ time. You just never know. Then, I ended the day with a devastating news – my dear friend Victor, who was my guardian, student, teacher, and so much more during my two years of life in Cameroon, was killed in a tragic moto accident two days ago.

I found out the news via email. I was sitting at a bar here in Shanghai on a relaxed Sunday evening. My friend and I were just having a conversation about the SF crash. I saw a message on my phone, and I checked it, and out of habit, also checked my email. And there it was, in that short few paragraphs of email contained the terrible news. It is as is in the movies; suddenly, everything goes blank, and I just kept saying “oh my goodness”. I was in a slight shock, and in an attempt to explain to my friend what had happened, tears came.

Those two years in the Peace Corps had began to really feel like a dream. This month marks the 3-year anniversary of my return from Cameroon. But today, that life flashed before my eyes and once again became very real. I replayed moments of my time with Victor, and imagined the horrible accident that he had gotten in. He was riding a motor bike and was unfortunately hit by a large beverage truck. Tragic, yet this is so very common in daily Cameroonian life. I just never personally knew anyone who was affected.

More than ever, I am very glad that I had blogged. I dug deep into my blog posts and found stories that I had written. Victor was my first student in the many rounds of business seminars that I had given. He was the motivated, upstanding, and positive guy that Cameroon really needs. Victor was the traditional chief of my quartier (neighborhood), and upon my arrival, he took it upon himself to really look after me. I was so appreciative that I nominated him to become the official counterpart for my village for future Peace Corps volunteers.

Victor was operating a mushroom farm that employed Chinese technology. After taking my business class, we worked together to build a solid business plan that got him fundings to expand his operation in our little village. That business was his pride and joy, among many of the community development projects that he was working on to better Batié. He was also a big proponent of the Books for Cameroon project that I had spearheaded, and was always more than willing to take time out of his busy life to help when I reached out.

 

But beyond all of his wonderful work, Victor made me feel safe when I was a 22-year-old girl living alone in a Cameroonian village. During the initial months, he used his power as a neighborhood chief, took me to various community meetings and introduced me to the village. Immediately, because people respected Victor, they took me in as one of their own. I never once felt less than welcomed in Batié, and Victor played a big role in this integration.

Every time his family farm has excess fruit, Victor would bring them to me. He knew I love to eat mushrooms, so he would always give me far greater supply than the amount that I had purchased from him. When the neighborhood rascal kid stoled from me, Victor took it upon himself to make sure the kid was disciplined. I literally saw him chasing the kid around in a school yard.

All of these memories, and it is difficult to fathom that Victor is gone. Just last summer, I had received a gift and a hand written letter from him that sent tears of joy to my eyes. In the letter, he updated his business and life in Batié. He was the one person that constantly validated that my time and efforts during those two years in Cameroon were not wasted, but instead, much appreciated. During holidays and at random intervals, I would call a short list of friends in Cameroon to get an update on village life. Now, that list will be one short.

Upon receiving the news, I called Mama Chantal. If Victor was a father-figure to my stay in Cameroon, Mama Chantal was the mother figure. I told her I had heard the news, and she gave me more details on what had happened, and said that the entire village is in mourning. It didn’t take much longer after hearing her voice for me to lose it. In the same way that she had told me on my last day in village, she said not to cry. She said she can’t hug me and there is nothing I can do, so don’t cry. I told her I so much wish that I could be there with them, and she informed me that the funéraille will be on August 11th, and everyone would love for me to come. (Cameroonians bury the body right after the death, but does not celebrate the passing of the person until much later, at a big, awesome party.) I lost it even more when she said this. I told her I didn’t have the means, and deep within, I really wish I could be there.

As I sobbed on the phone, she continued to tell me not to cry, and was telling people around her that I am calling and I’m very upset. Then she would related the message that everyone tells me to not cry. This brought me back to 3 years ago.

On my last day in Batié 3 years ago, I sat in Mama Chantal’s bar with Victor and many friends. I was so sad to leave this village and the people who had became my family that I cried. Back then, Mama Chantal said, “Don’t cry, no one died. You’ll go back to school, and then you’ll come back.” Perhaps I cried precisely because I knew that there is a chance that I wouldn’t see some of them again, and so unfortunately, it came true.

Today serves as a reminder that Batié wasn’t just a two-year phase of my life. It was home, and I am and will always be la fille de Batié.

2 thoughts on “Mourning the Loss of a Village Friend

    • Thanks, Diane. This tragedy is unfortunately so very common in Cameroon. It could’ve easily been me as well. It serves as an important lesson to continue cherish life to its fullest, every single day.

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