On a recent rainy day, I had an embarrassingly difficult time locating the offices of the Agatha Foundation, which turned out to be only blocks from my home in NE DC. I had a very interesting chat with the amazing Eugenie Kabiwa, who is the Executive Director and foundation of the organization bearing her mother’s name that seeks to ‘uplift the culture and the quality of life in both the US and Africa.’ In addition to speaking about her current work, Ms. Kabiwa related an incredibly transparent and open account of her youth in Cameroon and early struggles in the US as an unauthorized immigrant.
A brief glimpse of Ms. Kabiwa’s time in Cameroon follows and I will discuss her experience in the US and the path that led her to found the Agatha Foundation in a second post to follow.
Early in our conversation, Ms. Kabiwa noted that she ‘come(s) from an abused home’ and that because of that, she ‘tend(s) to move away from everybody.’ One way that she deals with her experiences is to discuss them in a very open manner. I listened in rapt attention as she recounted her struggles in Cameroon and her early years in the US. I had had a particularly difficult day at work, but Ms. Kabiwa’s experiences, from her troubled relationship with her father to her interactions with a vindictive Korean beauty supply store owner, starkly illustrated how minute my own troubles of the day were.
Ms. Kabiwa’s mission to support youth and women has its genesis in the experiences that she shared with her mother as a child. Her father, a successful businessman with rubber and cocoa plantations beat the two of them and ran Ms. Kabiwa’s mother out of the household by the time she was 12 years old. At one point Ms. Kabiwa followed and split time between her mother’s rudimentary residence and an uncle.
She excelled at St. Francis College, an English language boarding school in the country’s Anglophone southwest and received one of the region’s top marks on her college entrance exam. Having made quite an impression in a nutrition class, the school’s principal had sought to make arrangements for her to study hotel and catering management in the UK. Unfortunately, her father refused to support that course of study.
Unable to continue with her education, Ms. Kabiwa struggled mightily to find a job, an experience that she noted was a ‘nightmare.’ If not for an intervention that somewhat vaguely resembles the interaction between an African woman and a British woman in Chris Cleave’s well-known novel, Little Bee, it is unlikely that I would have ever met Ms. Kabiwa.
At a park in the seaside town of Limbe, she approached its expatriate British manager for a job. She made no headway with him, but did attract the attention of a visiting British professor who had been struggling to acquire certain varieties of seeds. Ms. Kabiwa was able to help her acquire the seeds, even though most of the varieties were not found in the Limbe area.
With support from the Professor, Ms. Kabiwa was able to move her mother to a better house and pursue a Management degree at the University of Dschang. She held a paid internship with the brewer Guinness, but her relationship with her father remained strained and regular employment continued to prove elusive.
She eventually became a dedicated volunteer for a local agricultural NGO, assuming much responsibility without enjoying the accompanying financial perks. However, in 2002 Ms. Kabiwa had the opportunity to attend a seminar in New York. She left and never returned (until her papers were in order several years later), telling her father that she had been granted a full scholarship for study.
I’ll discuss Ms. Kabiwa’s life in the US and her work at the Agatha Foundation in a post to follow. Stay tuned.