Far From Home
On both sides of his family, Gilbert Ayuk’s grandfathers were chiefs of their villages in his native Cameroon, located in west-central Africa.
“They had the responsibility of ensuring there was peace, community growth in the villages and the royal areas,” Ayuk explained. “My mom’s dad was a second-class chief - chief of Tinto 2 village - the highest is the first-class chief. The class is determined by the number of subjects under you. My grandfather on my dad’s side was also chief, and the current chief is my uncle.”
Ayuk grew up in Mamfe, a community of about 20,000 in the southwest province of Cameroon, about 75 miles from the border with southeast Nigeria. But today he is employed as an instructor of physics and math at Minnesota West Community & Technical College and calls Worthington home.
“My specialty is physics, but I do teach math because I took a lot of math courses as a graduate student and undergrad,” he said.
Raised in what would be considered a middle-class home - his father was employed in government administration for 25 years before retiring and moving back to his home village - Ayuk showed an aptitude for math and science at a young age. He was the third child of nine - seven brothers and one sister - and because his older brother had gone to university, it was expected he would, too.
“Our system (of education), adopted from the British, is that by the time you get to the eighth or ninth grade, you know if you’re good with the sciences or good with the humanities,” he explained. “Around the 12th grade, I decided on engineering or physics. There was just one engineering college in Cameroon, and it was in the French section and 90 percent of the classes would be in French. I grew up in the English-speaking part, so to escape that headache I decided to enroll in physics in the English-speaking college. I majored in physics and minored in computer science.”
Once a German colony, Cameroon became a League of Nations mandate territory with the defeat of Germany in World War I and was split into French Cameroon and British Cameroon in 1919. Although now united as the Federal Republic of Cameroon, the differences between the French and British areas are still prevalent, especially in the preferred language, Ayuk explained.
After completing his undergraduate work, Ayuk taught for a year at a Catholic high school before returning to the University of Buea for a master’s degree. He taught for one year at a Presbyterian secondary school before securing a position at the University of Dschang in French Cameroon.
In the meantime, Ayuk had met his wife-to-be, Magdalene, during a return visit to his former high school in Mamfe. They kept in touch in the interim, and she had been accepted to the Dschang university a year before he was hired there.
But Ayuk eventually decided that in order to advance his career he needed to study in the United States. He was admitted to Wayne State University in Detroit in 2006. He returned briefly to Cameroon to marry Magdalene - the last time he was in his home country. After completing his studies, the recession in Detroit made it difficult to find a job, so he volunteered as an educator at the Detroit Science Center and later in the literacy program at the Detroit Public Library.
“Then we moved to Baltimore so my wife could enroll at Johns Hopkins (University). She will graduate from there in May with a BSN in nursing, and then she will move to Worthington - unless she decides to change the agreement,” he said with a laugh.
Ayuk has two children: a son, Charles, 12, who lives in Cameroon; and a daughter, Bessie, 6, who is with his wife in Maryland.
After a brief stint at South Louisiana Community College in Louisiana, Ayuk saw a posting for his current position at Minnesota West. “Fortunately, they thought I was a good fit,” he said.
He is anxious to be permanently reunited with his wife and daughter and hopes to get more involved in the local community once that happens.
Since Worthington is a long way from his family in Cameroon - about 6,500 miles - and it’s an expensive trip, Ayuk keeps in close contact with his parents, siblings and other relatives via email and Skype. He describes his home country as “very hospitable” and one of the most stable regions in Africa. It has a tropical climate, with average temperatures generally above 70 degrees.
“There is no snow in Cameroon,” he said. “The wet season runs from May to September. The southern part is very tropical, and the northern part cooler - more arid desert - and is mostly occupied by Muslims, the southern part by Christians.” Cameroon has 230 tribes, each with its own favorite foods or methods of preparing traditional Cameroonian fare.
“We are very hospitable, and we respect our elders, give them priority. If you are a visitor, you are automatically placed in the same category as the elder in the house. … Men are considered the head of the family, so then men go first and then the women and children,” Ayuk explained. “That is especially the way in the villages, although the cities are more modernized. But respect for elders is prevalent.”
The city of Buea, the capital of the southwest province where Ayuk attended university, is located on the eastern slope of Mount Cameroon, the highest mountain in western Africa, and is cooler than other areas of the country, although it has warmed as population and development have increased.
“There is a mountain race there that takes place in February that attracts climbers from Europe,” Ayuk said, also noting that structures that were built during the German colonization are among the country’s most popular attractions. “The German mark is still on Cameroon.”
Courtesy of Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe