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Dedication Story for The Ambassadors of Good Hope Fund

December 17, 2012

  1. Mr. Ashel G. & Mrs. Dorothy U. Bryan
  2. Prof. Emerson C. & Mrs. Martha Erb
  3. Rev. Dr. Ben C. & Mrs. Betsy Hobgood
  4. Prof. Braj B. & Prof. Yamuna Kachru
  5. Mrs. Mathel Martin
  6. Mrs. Ruth Milner
  7. Rev. Dr. Robert G. & Mrs. June Nelson
  8. Rev. Jerry & Mrs. Lucille Sullivan
  9. Dr. Robert S. & Mrs. Marjorie Terrill
  10. Rev. Tom & Mrs. Lois Underwood

Dr. Eyamba Georges Bokamba
Urbana, Illinois
December 2012

Some people attribute their success in life (via education and eventual professional employment) to their personal efforts by claiming that, “they pulled themselves up from their boot straps.” I have always wondered how they managed to do this. I certainly cannot make such a claim as a cursory examination of my life trajectory would show.

As I review calmly my personal history, I am struck by the enormity of the challenges that I faced and by the incredible opportunities, some people would characterize it as “destiny,” that I was offered freely. Born into a family of peasant farmers and fishermen in Maete, Bomɔngɔ sub-region of the Equateur Province, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), from a father who was known for his skills in harvesting and producing palm oil, cultivating plantains, as well as harvesting and conserving honey, I lost my biological mother when I was three years old. My mother, Marthe Nsengela, reportedly died at a very young age, leaving my father, David Adema Eyamba totally devastated and with a three-year old to raise by himself. My paternal grandmother, Pauline Munkola, who was my favorite grandparent and best protector whenever I got into trouble, had preceded my mother on this final journey to our Creator. I have no recollection or any account of my paternal grandfather and maternal grandparents.

The story that unfolded after the death of my mother is both an eloquent testimony to the wisdom of the African cultures’ conception of “the family” and extension of the African proverb that, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Owing in part to the story then that my mother’s death resulted from someone bewitching her, the fear that I would be subjected to the same fate if I remained in the community, and in part to my Uncle Thaddée Manyɛkɔ Bikoko’s concern for his young brother, I was whisked out of Maete by Uncle Bikoko immediately after my mother’s death. He traveled on foot from his rural community of Mokame through a combination of unpaved roads and tropical forest footpaths to pick me up. Some of my most vivid recollections of that daylong trip from Maete to Makame include my being carried on Uncle’s shoulders whenever we came across streams in the swamp, and when I was tired of walking on the unpaved (mud) road. On the latter occasions I enjoyed being taller than other travelers whom we encountered, and seeing everything (especially birds and butterflies perched on the lush green trees by the roadside) beyond what these walkers could see. This story of being carried on Uncle Bikoko’s shoulders was repeated many times during my pre-school years whenever we traveled long distance on foot.  It was a privilege that I enjoyed without any competition, as I was the only child in my uncle’s household until my cousin, Sylvestre Molanga Bilalo, was born seven years later.  Mama Louise Zikala Mumbɛlɔ, my father’s second sister, who lived in Mokolovɛsi, a community not too far from Uncle Bikoko’s, and who became in many ways my de facto mother whenever she was able to wrestle me from my uncle, also carried me periodically whenever we went far into the forest swamps to fish. But she did so on her back. Mama Loisa, as we affectionately called her, distinguished herself in her community for her farming and swamp-fishing skills. To my knowledge she never returned home from a fishing outing without catching fish in her traps, called bibɔkɛ in Dzamba (her native language), and she always had great yields from her maize, manioc, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane farms where I had my own crops, including an avocado and a mango tree.

Left to Mama Loisa or her young sister (Mama Hélène Mabalo) who lived in a nearby community (Bobɔkɔ) with her husband, I would have become a rural farmer; but Uncle Bikoko refused to allow his sisters this wish.  He, as the elder brother in the extended family, insisted that I should be schooled, even if doing so meant being sent away eventually to a distant town (Bosobele) where there was a full five-year primary school, and then thereafter being shipped hundreds of miles away in the summer of 1957 to Mbandaka, the capital city of our province.

My story is that of a sojourner who was born in Maete, grew up as a pre-schooler, and then as a primary school age child in several communities where members of my extended family lived: Mokolovɛsi with Mama Loisa, Mokame with Uncle Bikoko, Bobolo (known as Buburu during the colonial era) on the bank of the Ubangi River, and Bosobele, a Christian church (Disciples of Christ) in the Congo’s mission post, on the bank of the Ngiri River. It was from Bosobele that I was selected and recommended for admission, along with two other youngsters (David Moyonda and Maurice Mumbɛndu) by the Congolese-born visiting missionary from Mbandaka on our 5th grade graduation ceremony, the Rev. Ben Clay Hobgood, at Ecole Officielle Laïque, a prestigious primary and secondary school for Congolese in Mbandaka that was operated by the Belgian Congo colonial government. The curriculum at Ecole Officielle Laïque being much more demanding than that at the Bosobele’s primary school and with instruction given completely in French, I was required to repeat the 5th grade. In Mbandaka I lived with my elder cousin, Vivienne Mobaka Boku, the daughter of my elder paternal aunt (Emile  Moyanzo), and her husband (Joseph Bosukutu Mokano) in the Mbandaka II suburb.

After graduating from the 6th grade at Ecole Officielle Laïque in 1959, I was admitted into the school’s middle school two-year program known then as “Cycle d’Orientation”. Much of my academic career up to then was decided and guided by my school mentors, including those who, like “big brother” Ben  Hobgood, intervened propitiously at specific program completion junctures to select me for a recommendation to the next cycle.  However, in the early summer of 1960, after the advent of the DRC’s independence from Belgium, I embarked on my first adventure in shaping my career trajectory: I applied to and obtained admission at Athénée Royal secondary school which had been up to about 1959 an exclusive school for whites and those who were referred to then as “mulatoes” (mixed races) in the city. The school was renamed Athénée de Mbandaka in 1961.

During my residence in Mbandaka, which became my hometown by virtue of my long residence therein (1957-62), I developed a very close relationship with the Hobgood’s and Rev. Dean Cornwell’s families. Both Ben and Dean taught me and my protestant classmates bible studies in our religious education course at Ecole Officielle Laïque, and I babysat their children. Ben also served as a Coordinator/Master for the provincial branch of the Protestant Youth Group, known nationally then as Jeunesse Unioniste Protestante (Jeunipro) in which I served as the Provincial Youth President under the national leadership, at the Kinshasa level, of Mr. François N. Muyumba. Jeunipro was the protestant churches’ equivalent of the Boy Scouts that nurtured our leadership skills, enabled us to go camping overnight, and to organize other activities to keep us creatively engaged.

In June 1961, while at the Athénée de Mbandaka, my youth leadership took on an international scope and the prospects of my academic career opened up when I was selected with another local youth, Prosper Bosilo, to join a group of four other youth representatives from the Kinshasa and Katanga provinces as a delegation of Congolese youths to the international YMCA summer camp that was to be held at Camp Kon-O-Kwee near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There we joined a 7th Congolese, Samuel Shaumba, a pre-med student at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, who served as our translator and guide, and several youths from Europe for a camping experience.  Upon my return to DRC and at the end of the 1961-62 academic year at the Athénée, I received an academic scholarship from the International Christian Youth Exchange (ICYE), with four other Congolese youths (viz., Maurice Badibanga, Joncker Biandudi, Georges Nzongola, and Daniel Shungu), to continue my high school studies and possibly proceed to college, if I maintained a commendable academic performance. I was among the second group from DRC to benefit from this program and was admitted as a junior at Bowling Green Senior High School (BGHS), in Bowling Green, Ohio, where I was hosted by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastored by the Rev. Jerry Sullivan. My exchange program under this church was coordinated by Mrs. Ruth Milner, then Outreach Coordinator, at the United Christian Missionary Society (UCMS), the precursor to the current Division of Overseas Ministries (DOM). She in fact drove to the small town in Pennsylvania where our ICYE cohort received its initial orientation to pick me up and drop me off at the Christian Church in Bowling Green where I was met by Rev. Sullivan who not only coordinated my sponsorship locally, but also doubled as my church youth camp driver, companion on speaking engagements, and additional host parent for whose daughters (Jane and Beth) I babysat periodically.

During my two-year stay there (1962-64) I lived with two different white host families: Prof. Emerson R. Erb (an Accountant at Bowling Green State University), Martha Erb (a nurse at the Bowling Green Hospital) and their four small children (Raymond, Roland, Mary, and Nancy) in my first year (July 1962-June 1963); and then with Mr. Ashel G. Bryan (a banking executive), his wife Dorothy H. Bryan (an artist) and their three post-primary school aged children (Becky, David, and Kathy). I had my own room at the Erbs, and shared a room with my brother, David, at the Bryans, while our two sisters (Becky and Kathy) shared one. Both families showered me with their love in every respect, just as if I were a member of their respective families. This was remarkable in those effervescent days of the Civil Rights movement when racial discrimination remained overt even in the North. I lost contact with the Erb family after they went to Iran on a faculty exchange program with the University of Tehran in 1963, but I became a permanent member of the Bryan family such that I visited them frequently throughout my college and graduate studies. 

Before graduating from BGHS in June 1964, the Division of Overseas Missions extended my ICYE scholarship to cover my college education initially at Philips University (Enid, OK) where I pursued the pre-med program for two years, and then at the University of Kansas (Lawrence) where I earned my B.A. degree in English with minors in French and Political Science in 1968. My local funding from several Christian churches in the Kansas City area was coordinated by the Cherokee Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), my host institution, pastored by the Rev. Tom Underwood who, with his family (Mrs. Lois Underwood, a musician) and four children (Charlie, John, Linda, and Bill) became my second host family. Throughout my four years of college studies I was hosted by Dr. Robert S. Terrill (a psychiatrist), his wife Mrs. Marjorie Terrill (a librarian), their three elementary to middle school age children (Steve, Nancy, Linda) and their grandmother (Eura Terrill) of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, where I spent most of my vacations and worked as a nurse’s aide in the psychiatric department at Menorah Medical Center in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, thanks to Papa Terrill. As at my previous host families, I was most fortunate to be treated with love and considerable care just like the rest of the children to whom I also became the elder brother. And since the house was bi-level and had several bedrooms, I had my own self-contained room in the house’s lower floor near the family and game rooms. I was protected from racial discrimination by outsiders in every way that Papa Terrill deemed appropriate for our family. He also served as my adviser in all matters of interest to me, along with Rev. Underwood, and Mrs. Mathel Martin, the Outreach Coordinator at Cherokee Church who ensured the local coordination of my college scholarship funding and often drove me to speaking engagements in town.

After I graduated from the University of Kansas and went on to pursue graduate studies for my first master’s degree in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1968-1970), with an assistantship the first year and a Ford Foundation fellowship the second year. Thereafter I transferred to the Department of Linguistics at Indiana University (IU), Bloomington, for my Ph.D. and a 2nd M.A. (1970-1974), thanks to teaching assistantships from the department. Throughout this long prelinage my host families stayed in close contact with me. In fact, Dr. Nelson’s office, the Department of Africa in DOM, offered me a fellowship during much of my studies at IU, in addition to supporting my wife (Molingo Virginie Bokamba) in college. He also frequently invited me to DOM whenever he presented his annual budget request and/or whenever he had visitors from the Disciples of Christ Church in the Congo (now known as Community of Disciples of Christ in the Congo -- CDCC) and related churches in South Africa. Further, during the major holidays and/or summers, whenever it was feasible, I visited freely any of my families; and whenever there was a special event in my nuclear family, several of them made every effort to participate. Along these lines and since my appointment at the University of Illinois, Prof. Braj B. Kachru (linguist) and Prof. Yamuna Kachru (linguist) have been truly my professional mentors in every respect, and have shown me their affection as a big brother and sister, respectively.

What emerges from the narrative above leads to four conclusions:  (1) I was most fortunate, considering my humble and potential difficult beginnings, to be carried on the shoulders of giants in a global village consisting of a rainbow extended family; (2), without this support, I would not have obtained employment and achieved my present status as a professor of Linguistics and African Languages at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, which is a world-class institution; (3) without the explicit guidance that I received from all the above-mentioned giants and role modeling that they offered me during my education life trajectory, I would certainly not have become whom I am today; and (4) the gifts from all these giant ambassadors of good hope and my father, uncle Bikoko, Mama Loisa and Mama Hélène  have compelled me to continue the tradition. As the Bible states, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even much more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48). I hope that the creation of the Ambassadors of Good Hope Fund, to which others will contribute, will serve as a liberating token of my personal and that of other contributors’ gratitude to them.

Read about the Ambassadors of Good Hope Fund: Mission Statement

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