I previously blogged about Eugenie Kabiwa, who is the Executive Director and founder of the Agatha Foundation, an organization bearing her mother’s name that seeks to ‘uplift the culture and the quality of life in both the US and Africa.’ In this post, I recount Ms. Kabiwa’s initial challenges in the US and her work with the Agatha Foundation.
Arriving in the US shortly after 9/11, Ms. Kabiwa settled in Maryland, where she had both friends and family. As an unauthorized immigrant, her options were limited, but embracing the entrepreneurial sense that got her into the University of Dschang, she seized upon the opportunities that the US offered.
She initially worked at a Cameroonian restaurant owned by a family friend who turned out to be not particularly friendly. The friend’s goodwill ceased as an uncle came into the picture. The uncle provided quite a bit of support until he was killed in a car accident shortly thereafter.
Ms. Kabiwa took a position with a beauty supply store in Langley Park. She initially earned great favor with the owner, when her suggestion to carry French products earned great success with the store’s Francophone customers. From a starting salary of $6/hr, her pay was doubled within months. She also took on a job working the night shift at a Hilton hotel in downtown DC.
However, any success that she had with her employment situation brought trouble at home, as her landlord frequently took advantage of her tenuous legal status to extort money from her at gunpoint. She often ended up sleeping in her car to avoid confrontations. At one point, he took out a life insurance policy in her name listing him as a beneficiary. The silver lining in this was that she was so concerned by this maneuver that she sought out a lawyer, who was eventually able to legalize her status in the US. With papers in order, she now travels to Cameroon each December to conduct Foundation activities and has also travelled to China for business.
Ms. Kabiwa eventually opened her own beauty supply store near PG Mall. Unfortunately the Korean owner she had previously worked with blacklisted her from the suppliers that she had wanted to source from (something that she noted is not uncommon) and after several years of trying to make a go of the store, she closed up shop and got into healthcare (a field she had studied at the University of the District of Columbia).
The Agatha Foundation was formed shortly thereafter. Ms. Kabiwa’s mother (Agatha) had been supporting numerous orphans and street children back in Cameroon. She visited her daughter in Maryland and enrolled in a variety of online classes in order to better focus her efforts upon her return. Unfortunately, she became ill while in the US and passed away.
However, Ms. Kabiwa picked up the torch, forming the foundation that carries her mother’s name in 2010. In DC, the Foundation works with African immigrant youth in after school programs, offers health screenings and seminars, and convenes an annual soccer tournament (she mentioned the existence of local African soccer leagues, which would make an intriguing topic for a post).
The Agatha Foundation continues to support the orphans that Ms. Kabiwa’s mother had taken in. The Foundation also supports female agricultural workers (Ms. Kabiwa lamented the dominance of men in Africa as landowners although women do most of the agricultural work), is looking to develop a parcel of land in Limbe to host a medical clinic, orphanage, training center, and library, and hopes to soon further engagement with students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields.
The foundation supports seven staff in Cameroon and currently focuses its activities on the two Anglophone regions in the west – the Southwest and Northwest Regions (it also has relationships with organizations in Uganda and Nigeria). Ms. Kabiwa hopes to expand the Foundation’s work to other regions of Cameroon and has a range of ideas that need resources to be fully put into action.
I don’t believe that the Agatha Foundation is a name that has much resonance with DC Africa watchers. However, based on my discussion with Eugenie Kabiwa, I hope that is something that will change. Given the grit and determination she has showed to date, I suspect that change will come. Her perseverance is exceptional and I think it gives reason to be optimistic about both Cameroon (whose President assumed office not long after Ronald Reagan) and the US, which does have an entrepreneurial vibrancy, despite the current dysfunction of the federal government.