Nelson Fawoh | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 23, 2014 6:18AM
— Republic of Cameroon motto
Nsaben Nelson Fawoh is an exchange student who works at the Dunes Learning Center in Chesterton. In his native country of Cameroon in west-central Africa, his friends have nicknamed him Mandela.
Fawoh, 28, currently lives in Chesterton with four of his fellow students. To me, when he laughs, Nelson sounds like a young James Earl Jones, but more exotic.
So, Nelson, how are our Northwest Indiana winters working for you?
“I want more snow,” he said.
You speak excellent English.
“In Cameroon, we speak French and English. I am from the English minority. After Germany lost the war, Britain and France took over. The French got 80 percent of the territory. To get a good job in Cameroon, you would need to speak French.”
“Oui. Many of the French-speaking Cameroonians do not speak English.”
There must be a tribal language, too.
“Yes, we have about 250 tribes in Cameroon. They all speak their own languages with different dialects. I speak a little bit of my tribal language, but understand all of it when spoken to. We have one more language which is very common in West Africa.”
“Yes. It is the widest spoken language in our country. Most of the uneducated people can speak it. It is a language I grew up knowing. Pidgin English came about in the colonial period.”
I know it is a trade language that has been spoken by people of many nationalities. Give me an example of a simple sentence in pidgin English.
“Dey di go for go chop rice.”
“They are going there to eat rice.”
Fascinating. To me, it sounds similar to Creole. College?
“I graduated from Buea College in Cameroon.”
How big is Cameroon?
“About the size of California.”
I’ve heard you’ve done work in the jungle. Please tell me about that.
“Yes, I’ve done a lot of conservation and research in the forests outside of the economic regions of my country. I’ve seen elephants in the jungle. We have chimpanzees and gorillas. We also have huge snakes like pythons. Some are very venomous like mambas and vipers.
“I was very fortunate once. My coworker told me to move away slowly. Once I moved from the site, he pointed to a viper that had been sunbathing a few inches from my foot. I went speechless for five minutes.”
Nelson, it breaks my heart, on Nov. 13 the black rhinoceros was officially declared extinct.
“Very sad. Poachers. They would kill as many as they could find. Most of the horns were shipped to China for so-called medicinal purposes. Sometimes the horns were carved on for sculptures. Poachers shoot elephants and trap monkeys as well. As conservationists, it is our job to turn in poachers.”
Birds of Cameroon?
“In the forest, we did research on bird population in 2011. We recorded 172 species.”
What do you think of Indiana’s state bird, the cardinal?
“That red bird is very beautiful.”
“I really like the Dunes. It is interesting how vast it is. I can see the sun stretching away from Lake Michigan all the way inland. Hiking down the sand dunes feels really good.”
Have you ever seen a lion in the wild?
“No, lions would be up north where there is more savanna.”
What about the folks who make click and cluck noises when they speak?
“That would be the Bushmen of South Africa. I’m sure they still exist. Some people, no matter how civilized the world gets, they want to stay the way they are. My little sister volunteered with Plan International trying to help the Pygmies. They lived in the forest northwest of us. They tried to show the Pygmies a better way of life in another region. Houses and a health center were built for the Pygmies.”
“Within a few weeks, the Pygmies went back to the bush.”
Nelson, about 175 years ago, we had a tribe that also started with the letter “P.” They lived in the very area where you were working earlier today. They were content with their natural way of life. Like the Pygmies, the Potawatomi also were removed from their homes in the forest.
“Environmental issues are global. I am driven to go to different countries to see what is going on with the environment and what people are doing to protect it. I want to educate people about what is needed to protect endangered species.”
Young men and women like Nelson “Mandela” Fawoh give me hope for the future regarding this volatile third rock from the sun.