S.N. Nyeck, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at Clarkson University.
I was not planning to leave Cameroon. I had never really envisioned myself living in the U.S.; it was an accident in a way. I was a student of law, but I had to leave my legal studies at the age of twenty-three because I became involved in a legal case as the plaintiff. A family member of mine was a victim of rape when she was ten years old, although she had a mental age of about two as a result of Down Syndrome. I brought the issue to the attention of the court because I suspected the perpetrator was a family member. I won the case, only for it to be appealed soon after on the grounds that as a lesbian I hated all men and so had reason to bring this case to light. Under Cameroon law, the minimum for rape sentence if found guilty is fifteen years but with the aggravating circumstance of incest he should have gotten life in prison. This maximum sentence was not necessarily what I wanted but it was the law. During the first round, he was sentenced to twenty years. With the appeal he was again found guilty of all charges, but given five years. This was a violation of the penal code, but it made political sense. With the president’s annual address, he would grant amnesty to prisoners with sentences of five years or less. My life was threatened by the perpetrator, which led me to seek asylum in the U.S.
I had travelled to the U.S once before, visiting for three months, but I had not imagined returning to live here. I learned about the U.S. through reading; I would go to the U.S. Embassy Cultural Center to check out books in English. French was my first language. Martin Luther King, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou—what I admired was that the U.S. was a place where one could voice an opinion and run the risk of being shot. I thought that was amazing. I felt that I was living in a society where the very imagination of any struggle was forbidden and thought was suppressed before it could be conceived. It is a bit paradoxical that I would say that, but to me the U.S. was never an idealistic or ideal place to live. It was a place where struggle could happen, albeit a risky one. That was my vision of the United States.
When I arrived here in 2003 I stayed with the family of the editor of a journal I had been writing for: A Globe of Witness. I wrote a column titled, Colors of Conscience. I was writing mostly online personal reflections, trying to organize some debate on queer issues in Africa without being harassed. The editor and his family lived in New York. As a result of this relationship I became connected to the President of LaGuardia Community College who awarded me a Presidential Scholarship to facilitate enrollment. They had a great program called Exploring Transfer which took Community College students taking honors courses to a four-year college, in my case Vassar, for immersion. Following this I applied to top schools and decided to go to Swarthmore College where I studied political science and comparative literature.
I was granted asylum in April 2004. When granted asylum, one cannot return to the country of origin. Once asylum is granted one technically becomes stateless, a person under protection of another state. When I left Cameroon, I left behind my family, key among whom was my maternal grandmother. She said, “I hope I will see you again.” I used to receive a portrait of her each year; that was something that kept me going. She really stood by me, we were very close. I vividly remember that day not knowing where I was going but believing that my family was going to be with me in spirit. During the years I couldn’t travel back, I lost my grandma and it was very difficult. I was not there to say goodbye to her. In 2011 I returned and visited her grave. Doing so gave me the closure I needed to fully settle into my new homeland.
If you ask me, I wouldn’t say I have experienced cultural shock as such, with the exception of seeing homelessness displayed so prominently. Coming from a place where, compared to the U.S., people are poor, and seeing someone my age not having a roof, it was just mind-boggling. Conversely, I was very lucky to be mentored by people in academia who were critical thinkers themselves. This nurtured a vision of the U.S. as a place of freedom of thought—one doesn’t have to be right but one is afforded the right of expression. Paradoxically, the more I live in this country, I come to the realization that most of the U.S. is actually anti-intellectual and not as open as one might assume. But in the classroom, people are allowed to grow and think in a totally different environment.
Aside from these differences, Cameroon is similar to the U.S. socio-cultural attitudes towards gender—sexuality and politics are controversial. Nevertheless in the typical daily life sexuality is constantly being negotiated. Unlike the U.S., however, legally, Cameroon still criminalizes same-sex relations. According to some human rights groups, Cameroon now has a higher detention rate of queer people, whereas in other places such as Uganda, much publicized cases do not necessarily lead to longer detention time.
Like most people I live in two different worlds, many different places, but I wouldn’t say it is a clash of cultures. I never idealized the United States and I never idealized my own country. My sense of place and belonging remain with me.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.