This is the story of a future African leader who is already a role model in her country. But it’s also the story of how her family helped her to come to the United States after getting an important government fellowship. And it’s the story of her encounter with I-House or “the United Nations of Berkeley” as she calls it, which is hosting her very first stay in the US. Finally this is the story of a friendship born at the I-House Front Desk.
I knew Hilda and Honorine even before their arrival at I-House in late June. I had been told they were sisters, from Cameroon, and would have been occupying the same room on our sixth floor. Hilda, I learned, uses a wheelchair, so she was placed in a room close to an accessible restroom. I helped prepare their check-in packages. Everything was set up to welcome the two women and the other 25 African recipients of the important Washington fellowship. I-House was ready to host another group of extraordinary scholars from around the world.
What a unique opportunity to learn more about Africa through the words of such brilliant people. This thought encouraged me to start chatting with Hilda and Honorine as soon as they stopped by the Front Desk, on their very first day at I-House. And of course…we talked food. The sisters found the American food too “sugary” – as I do – so we exchanged tips about different products. We were obviously curious about each other and the conversation was flowing easily and getting deeper and more intense.
That became a daily appointment. Hilda and Honorine would stop by on their way back from classes at the Goldman School of Public Policy around 6:40 pm when my shift is almost over. And we’d talk about everything, more and more confident in our newborn friendship.
One day the sisters came with a gift, a beautiful necklace and a pair of earrings made in Cameroon. I treasure this gift as my personal bridge to their country which I am now getting to know better.
On another day, Honorine came to the Front Desk alone while her sister was in class and told me about her kids back in Cameroon whom she had left for a while to help Hilda take advantage of her fellowship. I learned she was here just to help her sister because, Hilda told me on another occasion, “this is what we do in my country, in Cameroon. If a family member needs help we just leave everything else and go help. What is more important than your own people?”. Simple as she said it.
I kept thinking of the two sisters, trying to imagine the peculiar dynamic of this amazing “couple”, speculating on all the difficulties that Hilda, as a woman and a disabled person, could have possibly been facing in her own country. I was thinking of Honorine’s love for her sister and her constant presence on her side.
It was time to tell this story that so well matches the compassionate spirit of I-House, I thought. So one afternoon we sat down together in the iconic Great Hall and talked more.
Muluh Hilda Bih has been dealing with muscular dystrophy from the age of four. Terrible everywhere, but more terrible in Cameroon where the first sign of this cruel progressive illness had been considered proofs of witchcraft. Only the dear love and encouragement of her family, her father Thomas in particular, have kept Hilda from giving up her dreams. “In high school – she says – when dystrophy got worse, I was ready to abandon all the dreams I had and live a life confined in my room, that is what happens to disabled people in Cameroon where all kind of support and infrastructures are missing. But my father, a poor farmer, didn’t give up on me. I just shifted my dreams and decided to put all my efforts into helping people with my same difficulties.”
By working hard and pursuing her dreams, Hilda has become one of the very few disabled journalists in her country, a reporter and the subject of many news broadcasts at the same time. She now works at Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV) in Bamenda, in the country North West region.
Hilda struggles every day. She has been working at CRTV for the last eight years but still the company has not provided a ramp for her wheelchair, so one of her brothers takes her to work every day and helps her with the stairs to her office. He left his job to help her every day.
While I talk to Hilda, Honorine sits silent as usual, listening to her sister, watching over her. Hilda has been selected for this program with 499 other future African leaders over 50,000 candidates in the whole African continent. After a bit of back and forth with the program committee, Honorine was able to come here as well, to take care of her sister.
And then they arrived at I-House and it all started on that first day at the Front Desk, when we began talking to each other and exchanging ideas, emotions and experiences at the entrance of this historical building.
“Berkeley is treating us well, the Goldman School of Public Policy is great and I-House is the perfect place for us” – says Hilda. “Everyone is so kind, we get to meet so many people from all over the world, it’s a goldmine of experiences that I’ll treasure when I get back home.”
When Hilda talks, I sometimes forget about her disability and illness as every word and plan is a project for the future. She’s committed to making a difference in her country and in the life of other people. I-House hall of fame is watching, and as I listen to her, I start figuring out a spot where to put her photo in a not so distant future, I hope. Yes, I-House, this summer you are hosting tomorrow’s African leaders.