Sometimes when Edwin Ngongbo is driving his son to watch their cousin play in a Robinson Secondary School football game, or he’s pulling up to the family’s Fairfax day care center, he thinks about his own youth in Bamenda, Cameroon.
It’s half a world and lifetime away, and that’s how it feels.
It’s in this hilly city in central/western Africa, marked by swathes of grassland, where Edwin would run for hours, playing soccer or carrying stones to help his builder grandfather.
“Bringing up a child in Africa, you provide food, shelter and education,” Edwin said. “That’s how you show love.”
Here, he said, parents are expected to be present for every game, to organize play dates, and to help with school projects. “I love doing that, but it’s different,” Edwin said.
And in Bamenda, the role of parent was blurred: One’s aunt or uncle might play as much a role in nurturing a child as her or his mother or father.
In Edwin’s case, it was his grandparents: John and Christina Ngongbo helped raise him. Like many young Cameroonians, Edwin’s mother, Lucie, had dreams of going to America to flee from an autocratic regime and create a better life for her family. So when Edwin was 10, Lucie left for Washington, D.C., and Howard University.
John “Pa” Ngongbo took care of Edwin while Lucie was away. He was the one who paid Edwin’s school tuition, and encouraged Edwin when he wanted to take debate classes or study French literature.
Edwin finished primary school, then secondary school. He received a bachelor’s in law degree.
And two weeks after passing the bar in Cameroon, at age 22, he boarded a plane for America. He remembers feeling nervous, apprehensive. But “mostly excited and grateful for the opportunity.”
Lucie at this point had completed both undergraduate and graduate work, and had received a doctorate in environmental sciences/education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She had created a life here, and she was ready for her children.
That flight to America changed everything for Edwin. “Whatever I have achieved is mostly by virtue of coming to America,” he said. His plan was to become a lawyer in America, as he’d intended in Cameroon. But that would have required more expensive schooling.
“And I’m a realist,” he said. “I have a heavy accent and foreign credentials. People told me I might not get the attorney job I wanted even with another law degree.
“But you can get fulfillment in a lot of different ways.”
So he did. Edwin’s arrival in America coincided with the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. He began taking computer classes, including one in database administration. That led to an IT job with the federal government, one he holds today.
He earned two master’s degrees in the last 15 years, including a master’s in business administration and another in law, from the University of Virginia.
He thinks sometimes that he’d like to pursue a theology degree as well.
The Cameroonian community in the Washington area is large, Edwin said, and through that he met his wife, Liz. Together they are raising Jason (6) and Jordan (2).
While other family members from Bamenda over time have made their way to Fairfax County to join the Ngongbos, many stayed behind. Still, they are very much a part of Edwin’s life.
“In America, people think about paying for the mortgage and the electric bill and day care,” he said. Edwin’s bills include tuition payments for cousins in Africa and medical payments for a sick aunt. It’s how he pays it forward, he said.
“To be able to do those things gives me an opportunity to help others in my family who haven’t been as fortunate,” he said.
“You can’t have everything in life, but there is something for everyone.”