May 17, 2017 – The opening of the Dorothy York Senior Center and Hannah Thomas Children’s Wing was only one day away, so we had one more chance to enjoy a local village. This day was dedicated to Mbesa, up the road past Oku, it was chance to spend quality time at one village as opposed to short stops at multiple locations.
It was a long drive and one of my favorite and unexpected experiences of the whole week greeted me. An entourage of two cars and four motorcycles took us to the village. As we climbed up farther and farther, an urge hit me, “I wish I was on one of the motorcycles.” I was like a kid at Christmas, begging Francis to go along with my request to ride on the back of one of the bikes. Francis is always game for an adventure, so the riders lobbied to have the “honor” to take me up the hill. I climbed on the back of a bike and at the last minute I remembered to bring my ipod along for the ride. I hadn’t been on the back of a motorcycle for 15 years and it was sheer magic. Climbing higher and higher, my senses were on complete overload. My eyes saw the sheer majesty of the mountains, the trees, the fog through the hills, Lake Oku, the cliffs, the Cameroonian villagers smiling at me along the way. My nose smelled the beauty of the African forest and my ears locked into the music of Bruce Springsteen and my daughter Perrin. I was over 7500 miles away from home and hearing my talented daughter Perrin singing “Valerie” was an indescribable parental sensation. She is such a powerful, beautiful singer and hearing this song filled my soul. Knowing that I would be honoring my mother in less than 24 hours was as mystic as it gets.This trip was so full of magical, insane, brilliantly choreographed group experiences and I devoured each one. But this was a private moment of serenity – it was just me, my daughter, the Boss and Cameroon. My friend Bill Thomas is always preaching about “being,” the beauty of elders having the ability to live in the moment as opposed to our American obsession with tomorrow. That’s where I was. I was just in that moment.
As we got closer to Mbesa a handful of other motorcycles joined in. I didn’t get what was going on and then it hit me, today’s “Jack York Procession” was all about motorcycles leading into the village. What did Francis have up his sleeve next? I went from this serene moment of my daughter singing to me to all of the sudden I was in the middle of my own Cameroon version of a Hell’s Angels celebration. I threw my headphones into my pockets and raised my arms in the air. It was time to get back into the village spirit and what a village it was!
We stormed noisily into Mbesa. Villagers were lined up on the side of the roads as I got closer and closer to the center. In the distance I saw the tribal women in their colorful native dress dancing and waving their branches. I hopped off the motorcycle and Lilbert (he always knew where to be) was waiting to guide me through the throng. This crowd was raucous, intense, whirling, singing and, most of all, smiling. I threw myself into the crowd, always looking to kiss the oldest women. I got swallowed into the crowd, smiling ear to ear as I disappeared into a forest of Cameroonian elders. I occasionally saw Zack popping up like a bobber in an ocean, sometimes he was ahead of me, sometimes behind. He was magical in how he managed the filming, each hand holding a different camera. And he was smiling as well!
We were led into a small chamber room. For the third day in a row I met a tribal chief. This time it was His Royal Highness Fon Njong Gilbert III. All the tribal chiefs I met each day were different. Their age, their demeanor, the specific protocol for their villages. But they all had such deep gravitas – I could sense their power. The power each inherited from their fathers, their grandfathers, their great grandfathers, ancestors and lineage that stretch as high and as deep as the mountains themselves.
Francis and Lilbert gave me a lot of whispers for this encounter. They translated into “don’t do anything stupid Jack, there are some rituals and rules here to follow.” Francis and I read each other very well. We wound up in another small waiting area and after fifteen minute his Highness appeared. I was overwhelmed. His presence sucked the oxygen out of the darkened chamber. He did not speak directly to us, his words were translated by an attentive villager. He understood what we said but his power is such that he does not directly speak to anyone other than this young man. He welcomed Zack and I. There was such power in his words that I struggle to remember the conversation days later as I write this. But I remember the sensation of being in the presence of greatness. He was young, but majestic. The prime minister of Cameroon had been to this village last week and this magical ruler was instrumental in subduing an uprising between Mesa and Oku. He was the peacemaker and he was honored accordingly.
After introductions and praises between Francis and the tribal leader, we were welcomed inside another secret chamber. I was to receive another tribal honor and recognition. Two of the local villagers led me back into a small room and waiting for me were several men fit me with royal garb. When I return to the US I look forward to storing all of this magnificent pieces of tribal attire. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return next year and honor the villages by wearing what they presented me. On my cap was another red feather but also a small rounded quill from an African porcupine. The feather and the accompanying quill put me in exceptionally high esteem for Mbesa – a higher rank than the previous two days. Francis intermittently whispered all of this to me as I wandered from elder to elder, shaking hands and bowing.
When I came out of the room the crowd was extremely respectful to my new found title of “Tabey” and I acted appropriately reverent. We wandered towards the central meeting area where the chief joined us for the celebration. As we got closer to the celebration area the noise got louder. Once we walked onto the stage the crowd went crazy. Having His Highness in attendance at an event is rare. This was by far the loudest, largest and most raucous celebration so far. About 400 people were in the crowd, with standing room only on all sides. They hope this person from the US has the financial resources to help them. But it is more than that. The personal connection I have with Francis, and iN2L with CDTVA, was part of all of this magic. It wasn’t just a fundraiser. It was a tangible appreciation for the work of Francis and the fact we have made the trip this far into Mbesa.
Along the way we met a young man in the village. He designed, seemingly on his own, a small hydro electric generator which brings power to the village. The rain started furiously so we were not able to see his work. He personified the spirit of the people. Given education and a chance, they have the work ethic to make magic. His humility and his expertise reminded me of Immaculate. People like the this can change the entire paradigm for the country. Because of the problems with power and the downpour I see in the background a young boy diligently holding an umbrella over a remote generator. That was what kept the lights on. That is the spirit of the country – to deal with the reality in front of you without complaining.
It was a wild, phenomenal celebration. The volunteers in this village, neatly dressed with uniforms they buy themselves, wrote a song for iN2L. It was wild to hear Dorothy York, Jack York, Zack, and It’s Never 2 Late repeated in the chorus of a song sung so heartfelt by the CDVTA volunteers. Here is an excerpt of the song. I was at the high chair of honor. We gave speeches and I had the honor of adopting a beautiful young baby in this village. The people danced and sang after all of the speeches. Just when I thought I had seen it all, an older woman slithered through the crowd to find me and gave me a gift bag. I bowed and thanked her for her bag, I was suddenly aware that this bag was moving. What could this possibly be? I cautiously peered inside and her ceremonial gift for me was a live guinea pig! You can’t make this stuff up. I pulled the guinea pig out of the bag, laughed from the bottom of my gut and sang praises to my new friend while trying to imagine sneaking him through security on the way back to the US.
After the celebration, we headed back into the small meeting area for a farewell meal. This one had a unique twist –for the first time on the journey whiskey was introduced into the experience. I received a a small boot from the tribal chief. Francis quietly whispered to me that the boot is meant to drink out of. The chief gleefully poured about three shots worth of whiskey into the boot and handed it to me. I felt the weight of the United States of America on my shoulders. I had to drink the whiskey and prove we are a worthy country. I took the monster gulp, lost my breath for a second and tipped the empty boot over to show to the village of Mbesa that Americans are tough!
I wear a ring on my right hand that was given to me by my father 35 years ago. It was the ring he received from his father in 1941 when he graduated from the University of Nebraska. I told the chief the story and the meaning of my ring. When the chief heard the story and my desire to pass the ring to one of my sons, he took Francis and I back to a small chamber where the ring was blessed. I will not reveal the details of the blessing but its power and its symbolism will never be forgotten. He told me with a strength that I would never attempt to challenge that God ordained this moment to happen. It was etched in stone long before I was born. He said he was able to see me in a way that I cannot see myself. It was so real. This was not voodoo or sorcery. It was a man connected to a higher power that put Francis and I together.
After we finished the meal our visit was over. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. The chief was another powerful man who when you left his presence you walked away drained. He is a life force, as were the other chiefs. Francis, thank you for arranging these meetings. I honor the chance to see them again next year and I will bring plenty of whiskey next time.
This powerful day was over and we headed back down the hill. The power of this chief and of the last three days of chiefs, is permanently etched in my soul. I looked out the window, staring out into the dark Cameroonian night, amazed and awed at the divine intervention that led to this day, to this week. I was emotionally preparing myself for the pinnacle of the trip – the inauguration of the Dorothy York Senior Center that would take place the next day. After this week I was excited and terrified as to what Francis had up his sleeve for the main event. He did not fail to deliver…