Another Rich Story Ends: Yadji Moussa

Yadji Moussa was a man I met in Cameroon.  He became my most trusted friend there.  We spent many mornings speaking philosophy, over a cup of sugared tea into which I'd dip the fresh local bread. I trusted him to give it to me straight if I wanted to know the "African Street".  He kept me under his wing.

He told me he had problems in the past, that he had been at "rock bottom", and described those tough times in detail, with humor, making me laugh.  

During the 30 months I lived there, he only seemed to do better and better.  I have written about times that he was a hero in the town of Ngaoundal in Adamawa Province.  He had a way of being covertly confrontational, leaving friends and authorities to puzzle whether he was religiously passive, or feigning self-effacement, or ready to cut to the chase with a direct challenge.

He continued to do better and better after I left Cameroon, and Renee, my peace corps volunteer replacement, agreed he was something special.   They married and had two kids, Innah and Adamou, and returned to the USA to live in Michigan, around 1989 or 1990 I think.

He revisited rock bottom a few times, and the marriage broke up in 2000.   I owed him a lot from my time in Cameroon, and brought him to Vermont to start a business with me.  Yadji worked with me for 12 years in Middlebury.  

Yadji drowned June 21, while I was celebrating my twins birthdays in Arkansas.  I got a lot of calls in the spotty coverage of the Ozarks.  I wrote most of the blog while sitting in my parents living room in Searcy County, trying to decide whether to take my kids canoeing on the Buffalo River.  We decided to return and assist with the arrangements for Yadji, who for many years I described as my best friend, and for many times I was furious with, as only a brother can be.  I've decided to give this rewrite, to give the record another shot, because Yadji Moussa deserves the best.

Mon Ami, Mon Ami-ah.

The song "Suzannah" or "Souzana" by Sam Mangwana was playing on the cassette tap on my car radio when I picked Yadji up from the airport in 2001.  He had gone on a "consulting" trip home to Cameroun to see his family, clear his head, and see if I could find an importer, a first international business partner.

When I announced to my staff (Aaron, Roy, Race, Chris and Chad) that Yadji was moving for good to Middlebury, I meant it when I described him as a kind of Gandhi in my life.    My family in Arkansas knows I'd described him that way when I returned from Cameroon.

I had introduced him in those terms to Renee, my American Peace Corps replacement at CES Ngaoundal, and she must have understood what I saw in this poor man, in a humble kitchen, cooking eggs and selling sweetened tea to taxi drivers.    I guess she saw what I meant, because she married him, and they had a daughter together, born in Ngaoundere.

His wife brought him to the USA in part because she was afraid of the political stance he was taking inside a dictatorship, she told me she was afraid he'd be killed by the authorities he was willing to stand up to.  And I had seen him in the same way, as a champion of the poor and dispossessed.

I'd remember talking to him on the street and he told me to wait a second... he ran across the street to where a uniformed policeman was questioning a fulani tribesman (mburro).  He and the policeman began speaking in raised voices, and the Fulfulde herdsman snuck away.   When Yadji returned, he explained that the police always shook down the beef herders, because they sold their cattle for money but had nothing to spend that money on out in "the bush".   He didn't know the man, and they were not the same tribe... he just didn't like that kind of thing.

There are many heroic stories like that which led me to call Yadji my best friend, and to think of him as a little Gandhi in the town of Ngaoundal.  But I also don't want to sugarcoat this, because a lot of what I have learned to believe - hope and cynicism - I've come to from my 25 years living with this man as my friend and confidant.

When I first met Yadji, I was kind of broke (Peace Corps sent me with a check to a village with no bank and no Post Office, explained further below).   Yadji let me eat free at his small restaurant.   had a debt to a cab driver because he'd tried to save the life of a man stabbed in Ngaoundal... there was no hospital there, the closest one was Meiganga or Tibati, in different directions.  He put the man on his lap and paid the cabbie to go to Tibati, where they found the doctor was gone on vacation.  They turned and drove three hours back, at top speed, to Meiganga, where Yadji was covered with blood and the man was dead.   Yadji came back and found the stabber had paid off the town cops.  So he wrote a simple letter to the Governor of Adamawa, and told me how he had written in a persona, polite and childlike, asking "but why isn't this man being arrested," sounding like Cindy Loo Who asking the Grinch about the Christmas tree.  Three days later, provincial troops were sent to the town, the town cops were barricaded in their police station, and the knife weilder was arrested.   Yadji said that the police chief knew he had taken the victim to the hospital, and confronted him angrily, saying he KNEW Yadji was behind the letter to the Governor.

Yadji told me he opened his eyes wide, shook his head, and said "Patron, but I don't know how to read or write..." And the cop believed him, stomped his foot and left.

Here is an interview with Yadji from 2008.  He speaks about his home village, Yenwa, one of the most "ancient" or primitive mountain areas of Cameroon, with no electricity or running water.  Yadji describes how people move from rural areas like Yenwa, to the cities.  And this is really a glimpse of the man, who speaks in a simple and disarming way... so you might forget that he knows 5 languages and could wrap you around a tree if you underestimate him.

That ability to "play the child" worked well those days in Africa.   But it was also a nifty trick that worked just as well in the USA, and would get Yadji in a lot of trouble over the years, as he found himself in and out of jail, driving cars with no registration and no license.   Three years ago I got a heart breaking call that Yadji had shown up at work in a car he had bought, drunk on his paycheck, and was sent home.  I called the police and gave his description, and he was arrested and served 14 months in the prison in St. Johnsbury.   Yadji never held it against me, and wrote to me from prison, and came back to work for me when he was released.  

It wasn't just that I had a "soft spot" or a bias for Yadji.  He was family.  If the banks ever burned down, and Good Point had no checks to write, I'd not be alone.  He was one person who would work beside me, knee deep in the ashes, without pay to make sure what needed to get done got done.  We had a loyalty to each other which we both had to keep from becoming a crutch.  I learned not to be manipulated by his sometimes faux-childlike requests, and he learned not to hold it against me that the business grew, and he was not a partner..   He was falling behind, and had a lot of unfinished business, principally with his family.

- - - - -

Yadji spoke at least 5 languages;  his wife told me it may be closer to 12 or 13.   She taught him English after he got to the states (he told me he also learned by watching cartoons).

I began here knowing I couldn't take the time to write the story Yadji deserves.  But I'd tap away a paragraph here and there, as I was inspired to.  Because there was no one else who was quite like him in my life, and there will never be a Yadji again, and no one else is going to give the texture to the most interesting homeless man in Vermont.

In 1984, I got a degree in "International Relations", having studied non-tarriff trade barriers, the British oil trade with the Ibn Saud families of Saudi Arabia, the wars in Sri Lanka, post-war Europe, China's Maoist revolution, Marxism, and Latin American current events.  I packed this knowledge up in a backpack and headed for 30 months in the Peace Corps in Africa.

In 1984, I arrived in Cameroon, Africa, having completed 2 months of intensive French and teacher training in Bukavu, Zaire.  Peace Corps assigned me a new "pioneer" post in Adamawa/Adamoua, and I got off the train at 11 at night, in a completely darkened African train depot.  No electricity, no depot staff, but some kids with lanterns saw me get off and somehow the word got out that an American had arrived in the village of Ngaoundal.

This isn't about the failure of Peace Corps to tell the town I was coming, or the failure to tell me that there was no bank for 150 kilometers to cash the check they'd given me, or post office for 100 kilometers to get the next check.  Today I'm writing about the end of a journey that began that evening, in Ngaoundal Cameroon.

I had just enough cash to get back to the capital by train, and started to economize, thinking about how the heck I'd make it there, and how I'd save enough to get a train ticket back to the capital Yaounde if the whole deal disintegrated.  I did not want to quit and go home, I'd been told that too many USA Peace Corps volunteers find a reason to quit, and I was selected to break in this "pioneer post" because they thought I had what it took to stick-to-it (Early Termination is called "ET" in PC lingo - as in "phone home", you leave and are lucky if anyone says "ouch" when you go).

They put me up in a room at the "Auberge", which was used almost exclusively as a bordello.   I decided to at least stick out the opening days of school and see if I could figure out what I was supposed to do before running completely out of money.

I found the cheapest-looking restaurant I could find - no walls, just 4 wooden posts and a tin roof.    One long picknic table, where eaters sat.  The choices were bread and tea with sugared milk, grilled cubes of meat (soia), and an occasional egg or avacado prepared by the chef, Yadji Moussa.

After paying for the first week of meals, I asked Yadji if I could eat on credit.  Despite the disbelief of the crowd, and the advice and heckling of the other Cameroonians, Yadji said of course and continued to feed me until I felt ready to make the trip to someplace where I could cash the start up check from Peace Corps.

Well, this is way too long for anyone but an academic or someone who has a hobby in international development.  It's way too long for very many of Yadji and my common friends.

But I'm trying and trying to explain that individual people in society can make a big difference, and that you have to have good people who meet with and do business with and share and feed each other, who argue with each other and make margins on each other.  To make a difference in international development, you have to stop exoticizing "the Other" and learn names and learn histories and earn reputations with each other MUTUALLY.  The battle of sustainable international development is going to be won or lost by people with personalities, talents, weaknesses, languages and names.   Writing "O-E-C-D" in big block letters as a symbol of "Stewardship" is completely and utterly useless and clueless.

I decided on small business by the end of my time in Africa.  Because I saw the power that Yadji had when he could pay back a taxi driver, in meals, to drive a stabbing victim to a hospital (and the power of Suzanne Ateh, the anglophone "free woman" of Ngaoundal, who also fed and sheltered me).  With what education he had, he could write a letter to the governor of Adamawa which made a difference.  And he could Tom Sawyer his way out of the confrontation with the chief of police.

And if my company ever burned down, Yadji would have been the last guy standing with me, knee deep in the ashes.  And I love him because of who he was and not because of what other people saw about him.   It stops being exotic when you live with someone and share soap and chop.   Get the loudly opinionated exotic-izing missionary trade controllers out of my life and let us bury our friends in peace without your loud told yous and finger wagging non-profit lecture loads.  Let us beat the "bad exporters" by exporting.   We know this - that if good people don't play, good people don't win, and the fact that missionaries blew a game with the Stone Age tribesmen of Australia doesn't mean that another arms-dealing steel-ax selling Taiwanese businessman wouldn't have found the tribe and sold them steel tools for nubile sex girls or tantalum.   Pick yourself up, learn from the missionaries mistakes, learn the teams numbers and personalities and study the plays.   Get out of the stands and get on the floor and lets remember, celebrate, and bury Yadji ... and keep playing some more ball.

Below is a picture of "Boubakari".   When I was in Yenwa, he was the talk of the village.   One of Yadji's brothers was tending his field, and a woman came up to him.  She looked vaguely familiar.  She asked "Do you know me??"  His brother stammered, then said her name... a little unsure, but she looked like a woman he had met ten years previous, when he was a teenager.  Yes.  She said he got it right.  And THIS, she said, "is your son."   She turned Boubakari over to Yadji's brother, turned her back and left.

Boubakari had been living in Nigeria;  Yadji's brother had been there on some business and did not deny his relations with that woman.  But the kid, Bouba-kari, soon resolved the question of why she had sought out Yadji's family and left him there.

He was a wild boy, a Kameroon Katzenjammer Kid.

- - - - -

I'm probably going to drive back to VERMONT this weekend, and manage what needs to be managed.   The canoe trip with my kids will probably become a road trip to Vermont.  We'll stop to swim on the way.  I have a dozen more Yadji stories to tell, hero stories and hair-pulling stories.  But everyone is asking me now what he'd want.

He would want to ride back into Michigan on a white horse and be the big man, the important man, the rich man, giving his kids everything they ever wanted.  And he remained ashamed to go back in any other way, he always had a plan to schedule his trip back to his family on his terms, when he was on top again.  But the pain he felt from not being there for them was something wicked people took advantage of, every paycheck day.  Like some kind of Huck Finn character - not Huck's father, but someone with money that couldn't seem to get enough, but any was too much.

He needed to be in charge of little kids, the way he was in Ngaoundal, the one which the "primitive" kids would bring their report cards to, even to be scolded, rather than bring them home to a hut where neither parent knew an "A" from a "D".   They came to Yadji to be rewarded and scolded.  He was incredibly important to that town in a way that his wife and I saw.  We transplanted him to the USA, and he lived here in an important place that no one understood.  Like a wild box turtle in the garden, ageless, and doing no harm, but not free.  [That's an inside reference to a box turtle I rescued from the highway on my last canoe trip... my youngest son and I planned to release it safely along the Buffalo National River wilderness area, but our canoe tipped over, and I still don't know what became of Mr. Box Turtle.  And I'm complete in knowing the entire life story of Yadji.]

Yadji in his element:  crowded train car, building mud bricks, children
One more story... In Yenwah, Cameroon, a travelling Cameroon National Political Party representative came to beat the president's bandwagon.   Yadji was in the home village that week.  Why did a one-party state need poor people to donate to a political campaign... he seethed incredulously.   He asked questions from the group... Why should we donate when we are poor, the president is rich, and we have no electricity, no water, and no school?   The campaigner gave a long-winded nothing response, and asked people to donate "what they can".  Yadji then spoke up and said to the crowd... "I will donate 500 CFA - to build a new school, by ourselves!"

He said the campaigner and the crowd sat quiet, and motionless, until an 80 year old woman, someone of no means whatsoever, a widow of the village, spoke up and said "And I will donate 25 CFA to build the school."  He said that her donation, her contribution of what little she had, broke the ice and shamed them all, and that more voices cried out, donating, 1000 CFA, 500 CFA, louder and louder.  The Cameroon party campaigner left empty handed, and the village men gathered the money, bought tin for a roof, and built a small school.

My biggest question:  what role would Yadji have played in the African and Arab Spring?  He hated the dictator, Paul Biya of Cameroon, with an open distain that made many (especially his wife) feel he was becoming a reckless and marked man.   He helped the revolution in another way, by helping to dismantle the bad computers so that good and repairable computers could be exported to a new generation of Africans, intent on completing the democratic changes Yadji wanted.  Donations to Yadji should perhaps be sent to World Computer Exchange Interconnection of Seattle, CARC, PCRR, TechSoup Global, and other organizations which today place working computers in schools like the ones Yadji helped to build, connecting kids like Kamkwamba William, DIY of Malawi, to the world wide web.

Reading "Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians" by Lauriston Sharp... but this is not about Yir Yorant.  When I read it, I was struck by how very different someone like Yadji is from someone like Wahab, or like Hamdy, or Jinex, or the other people I work with in the developing world.  None of them is a description for any of the others.  But Yadji was unique as someone I know personally, for so long, who came from a part of Africa which really was isolated.  Yadji was not typical of the Africans I meet with and work with today, and I don't mean to make him symbolic of anyone else but Yadji.  

He's family.   I'm writing something about him which I may have written about my brother.  People who know me know exactly what I'm saying there and those who don't know Yadji or my brother don't know what I mean when I say "step over the bodies.  If you can't help someone, keep trying until you find someone you can help."  He had the same disease as my brother, and I can't hide it and can't explain it.

[postscript:  I was probably baiting someone, subconsciously, with my links to Lauriston Sharp and Bojangles Bill Robinson.   Thanks to a comment from Leah Miraj, below, I want to make clear that my references to Lauriston Sharp's "stone age" essay was tongue in cheek.  My friend Yadji could play to type, and this is about how he did that before he ever moved to the USA.  He was not a techie or a "geek of color", he was a demanufacturing employee.  Most regular readers of this blog don't live in Vermont and don't know Yadji from Hamdy, Souley, Mariano, Miguel, Wahab, etc... I was trying to describe a real person here... and in truth I probably felt a little bit of anger at him when I wrote this.  But that's between Yadji and me.  The Yir Yorant essay, while it has some validity, is an analogy I reject as any regular reader can tell you.]

I would be kidding around


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful memories of Yadji. He and I met while attending a court ordered therapy group. Yadji was very helpful to me in suggesting a spiritual approach to my problems. I followed his advice and am very happy today. Yadji was so very honest and only wanted people to love each other. He used to say: "I like you. You don't like me? I still like you!" I'm sorry that he didn't get to go back to Michigan and be the hero to his family . . . but he did wonderful and caring things here in Vermont. We have lost another good person!

Leah Miraj said...

Thanks, Robin, for writing down these stories about Yadji Moussa. I only knew Yadji briefly but I could tell that he was a good person and his death is a very tragic loss.

I want to say that despite my feelings of gratitude that you have taken the time to write down some great stories about Yadji Moussa, I find a lot of the language in this post offensive and often covertly racist. For well-meaning people, pointing out their racism almost always results in hurt feelings (as opposed to looking into it) because fortunately the word racist has become a dirty word in our society but I think it would be worse not to mention it, especially to someone such as yourself who obviously cares for the worlds causes.

To me it sounds like you are telling readers repeatedly how close you were with him and also how you hoisted the white mans burden to “transplant him in the USA,” and take care of him and call the police on him when it was necessary. It seems that you are trying to make sure readers don’t forget he was your African friend, as opposed to just your friend, which from your account seems to reflect on you in a positive way at his expense seeing as how he was apparently manipulative, childlike, resentful for what you had, irresponsible etc.

As opposed to what you stated in the first sentence here; “Yadji was a man,” I have a hard time believing, based on what you wrote, that you really ever saw him as a man in the same way you see yourself as a man. It at least seems as if you are a bit incredulous as you repeatedly compare him to anything but a man: Cindy Loo Who, Tom Sawyer, a box turtle.

History has proven that when white people compare people of color to children, and animals it has been anything but humanizing and uniting for mankind. Lastly I would point out that a concept often referred to as “the white mans burden” is the answer to why the missionaries in your parable were in fact to blame for damaging the ecosystem in the story. They are above all vain and pretentious.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Hi Leah,

Wow. The term "accidental racist" has so many edges.

I probably should have understood that people would see this post who don't know me or my track record.

It was an emotional day, and I was trying to convey the mix of sorrow but also anger and loss. As for "white man's burden", well... actually I've tried to make the exact point you're making, ad nauseum and redux. Wow. Yadji would have appreciated the irony.

Box turtle I'm not sure about (I had accidentally drowned a box turtle last summer in a canoe capsize incident, but it was an obscure and inside reference). But clearly Yadji was playing "cindy loo who" in a clever way in that reference, and any Mark Twain character I write about is a huge mark of respect. I'm happy people like you are out there on the watch against covert racism, even if I hope you'll see this as a case of friendly fire.