As six St. John’s University students ascended the 6,500 foot Mount Mbapit in Cameroon this past summer, they laughed recalling the requirement to train with intense cardio in the SJU Fitness Center before joining the study abroad trip.
The group traveled to the African nation, accompanied by Associate Professor and Director of Africana Studies Konrad Tuchscherer, Ph.D., from May 16 to May 30, 2017. Dr. Tuchscherer received a Fulbright award for his historical and ethnographic research in the northwest region of Cameroon known as the “Grassfields.” He was approached by SJU alumna Winifred Ayuk ‘07TCB in 2015 to bring current students to Cameroon so they could work to positively impact its future. Ayuk, who is now a successful accounting professional in New York City, underwrote the trip with a gift to the University. “Winifred’s generous gift to St. John’s has resulted in a truly transformational experience for students at our University, as well as in Cameroon,” said Dr. Tuchscherer.
The six students who participated in the trip were: Sylvie Do-vu ‘19C; Paul Hoza ‘18C; Camren Murray ‘19C; Sabyne Nicolas ‘16C, ‘19L; Hannah Sweatman ‘20C; and Jazmine Walker ‘18C. All are part of the interdisciplinary Africana Studies minor. Said Dr. Tuchscherer: “The six students selected were those who were deeply interested in Africa, had a thirst for adventure, and were ready to push themselves to their physical limits. Thanks to Ayuk, the only requirements for students were, apart from having the stamina to trek up mountains, to get malaria pills and bring a camera.”
The trip began in the capital of Yaoundé with a meeting hosted by the United States Embassy in Cameroon between the SJU students and students and professors from the L'École nationale d'administration et de magistrature (ENAM), which prepares government officials, and the Institut des Relations Internationales du Cameroun (IRIC) of the University of Yaoundé II, which trains students in areas of international studies and diplomacy. Hoza’s father, U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon Michael Hoza, also met with the students. The meetings were facilitated by Mouhammad Nabil Mforifoum Mbombo Njoya ‘15CPS, who is now pursuing a graduate degree at ENAM. Njoya is the son of Bamum king, El Hadj Ibrahim Mbombo Njoya. While at St. John’s, he completed a capstone project for the Ozanam Scholars Program on cultural patrimony and sustainability in Cameroon with Dr. Tuchscherer as his mentor.
The group then traveled to the northwest part of the country, the Bamum kingdom, where they worked in the Bamum museum, housed in a mud brick palace in Foumban. The students helped document the museum collections in preparation for the transfer of objects to a new museum, which is slated to open in November 2017. Under the supervision of museum director Nji Oumarou Nchare, they catalogued priceless masks, sculptures, royal gowns, and ancient objects of war. Nicolas, who is bilingual in French and English, helped to transcribe data and designed a new form to facilitate future data collection for the museum.
Students also had the opportunity to pursue individual research in their areas of study or engage in other forms of community service. Walker, an anthropology major, explored female concepts of beauty through a study of masking traditions and conducted interviews with Bamum queens and princesses. Sweatman, a sociology major, collected the oral traditions of a religion called Nwet Kwete, which was founded by King Njoya in the early twentieth century to combine Islam, Christianity, and Bamum religious thinking. The four other students engaged in community service at local schools.
At the end of their stay in Foumban, the Bamum king presented each student with a traditional Bamum gown and a bronze bracelet inscribed with their name in the Bamum script, Akauku.
In the final phase of their trip, students had the opportunity to observe Cameroon’s wildlife. They visited the Limbe Wildlife Centre and assisted a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researcher there with data collection for her doctoral thesis. The students interacted with chimpanzees, gorillas, and baboons, and spent a night in a protected wildlife sanctuary, sleeping in grass thatched houses. They even freed a tropical bird from a poacher’s trap, a feat that required a daring rescue from a boat. The last day of the trip was spent swimming in black volcanic sand beaches and fresh water streams in the shadow of Mount Cameroon, the highest peak in all of west and equatorial Africa.
“Cameroon transformed me,” said Murray. “It’s one thing to study about peoples, cultures, and nations in the classroom, but to experience these things, in a genuine environment of sharing with Africans, made this an experience that has changed me forever.” Murray is spending the rest of her summer as an intern with the New York African Film Festival.
Do-vu is spending her summer as a Jeanette K. Watson Fellow at a non-governmental organization (NGO) serving women and children in Tanzania. “Cameroon inspired in me a love for Africa and a desire to give back to others,” she said.
Ayuk’s gift to the University as an alumna has changed the lives of these six students and will serve as a foundation for the continued sharing and development between SJU and Cameroon.