Monday, Oct. 6
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

I waited until all the members of the Ndi Wamba family arrived home, many dragging after a long day in the fields, to summon everyone into Father’s salon.

It was already dark, so Regine lit a weak kerosene lamp and placed it on the table in front of me. Once everyone had taken a seat, I leaned forward in mine and raised my voice. Children and mothers alike stared at me with anticipation.

The reason I had returned to the village, I explained, was because I had brought with me a big gift.

Friends at home in America had heard about the difficulties of the Ndi Wamba family, I said, how there’s not much money for school since Father died. They think it’s important that every child get an education. And so they have sent money to pay for both school fees and books for all the students this year.

The room was silent. This was where I expected everyone to break into cheers, to clap and laugh and hoot with thanks. But they just stared. Perhaps I hadn’t explained it well in French? Perhaps they didn’t understand? I wasn’t sure, so I continued to speak.

“Because of this great gift,” I said, “I’ve brought with me sheets of paper and pens so every student can write a thank you note to the person who paid their tuition. Because this gift of school, this is a great gift. And we should thank the people who sent it, right?”

Ah! There it was! The cheering and hollering and hooting and clapping! The message had gotten through. Mamas agreed out loud that it was important to give thanks. The kids smiled at one another with wide eyes.

I started right away, handing out a piece of paper to each child with the name of the person who had paid for them. Each student wanted to know who their sponsor was, how I knew them. “That’s my aunt and uncle,” I told one child. “A colleague from work,” I said to another. “A friend of my parents.” And — this solicited a cheer from the crowd — “My grandmother!”

The kids work on thank you letters to those who paid their tuition.

Kids work on thank you letters to those who paid their tuition.

For more than an hour they wrote by the light of kerosene lamps, helping one another with words they didn’t know how to spell. For those who weren’t sure where to begin, I suggested explaining why they liked school or what job they hoped to find when they graduate.

Some kids wrote rough drafts, then copied the letters, without mistakes, onto fresh sheets of paper. Others read their letters out loud to the mothers, who watched the group from one corner of the room.

Thirteen-year-old Janvier, who finished first with my help, caused a commotion when he read his note aloud. “He says he wants to be a lawyer!” his mother, Justine, cried, laughing as she announced this news. She hadn’t known about her youngest son’s aspiration, for not many children here in the village are asked what they want to be when they grow up.

When all the letters had carefully been placed in envelopes, I told the group I had one more surprise: an American game, sent by my parents.

I walked around the room giving a glow stick to each person, an object they didn’t recognize. I handed them out as if they were glass and tried to keep a straight face as I warned everyone not to break it — I figured if one person cracked their stick so it glowed, the cat would be out of the bag.

The family, craddling their glow sticks, followed me out into the yard, where it was so dark we could barely see each other. I cracked my glow stick so it glowed, then wrapped it like a bracelet around my wrist. Time stopped for a moment while this sunk in. And then, pandemonium! Kids put the stick around their wrists and came to me for another. Soon everyone was glowing at both wrists and dancing, turning the yard into a rave of floating colors.

Dancing in the night! My camera flash lit up the yard.

Dancing in the night! My camera flash lit up the yard.

In Africa, no one’s ashamed to dance, and you don’t need a stereo to have a party. That night, the family sang to create music, moving their bodies to the rhythm, echoing one another in song. Glow stick containers became microphones. Hands waved in the air.

When Mama Justine began wailing my name and the kids danced toward me, I knew they were singing thanks in their language. I joined in their hoots and claps. We made so much noise that neighbors arrived to see what the party was about.

It was the children who ended the party. They hadn’t yet eaten, and it would take time to prepare dinner. They retired to their respective kitchens, still wearing the bright bracelets.

Their mothers stayed behind, and Katherine spoke for the group.

“You tell your friends,” she said, “that when you gave the news to the Ndi Wamba mothers, they danced and they danced!”

It was God who had brought me there, she continued. God brought me during the time of greatest need. And now I represented Father. I had slept in his house, eaten off his plates, paid for school for his children. His spirit would watch over me, bringing me great fortune because I had helped my African family.

I thanked them, too, for helping me understand life in a culture far different — and, I would argue, far more difficult — than my own.

When they left, I closed the door and sat down to look at the letters. I’d just read a few, I told myself, since I’d have to translate most of them from French to English later anyhow.

But once I read one, I couldn’t stop.

Jean wrote that this gift of school would help him become a man who was valuable to his country and his family. Christelle said as an educated woman she’ll be better suited to make money to help her poor parents. Regine wrote about how she wished she could visit the States to hug the person who had paid her tuition.

They were each moving in their own way. But it was Natalie’s letter that brought tears to my eyes. When she grows up, she wrote, she wants to be a journalist.