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Ep. 139: Francis Njuakom

Jack York, president and co-founder of iN2L, introduces the senior living industry to Francis Njuakom Nchii, founder and CEO of Community Development Volunteers for Technical Assistance (CDVTA) from Cameroon, West Africa. Francis joins the podcast from Cameroon where he is the leader at CDTVA promoting homecare for the elderly at the grassroots level.

Telethon

Lucas: Welcome to the Bridge the Gap Podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. An exciting show on deck for you today, you are not going to want to miss this conversation. We’ve got some good friends on and a new friend on as well. We want to welcome Jack York from It’s Never 2 Late onto the program. Jack, welcome to the show.

Jack: All right, thanks for having us again.

Lucas: And in addition to Jack, we’ve got the one and only we’ve heard so much about this man. We have Francis, he is with CDTVA and it’s a care for elders and women in a community based in Cameroon, Africa. Francis, welcome to the show as well. 

Francis: Thanks very much for having me.

Lucas: Yes. So very, very excited. We’re all on zoom, connecting each other from different countries and cultures all over the same thing, which is a care for elders and older adults. It’s the thing that we have, that’s common to our bond right now. So Jack, let’s talk about an introduction. How in the world did you and Francis actually get connected and start to build this long fruitful relationship?

Jack: Yeah, I mean, I can spend two hours talking about this. I will give the absolute abbreviated version and again, thanks for having me on. Francis and I were both invited to speak at a global Conference in Australia, which is the affiliate of LeadingAge an international organization. And we were on a panel speaking about innovation and, you know, I think I’m an innovative guy, iN2L is innovative and I think I’m kind of innovative. And all of a sudden here comes this guy larger than life. Looking like Eddie Murphy out of coming to America, full dressed and Cameroonian attire presenting before me.

And he’s like Martin Luther King talking about putting his life on the line to start this organization and just remarkable things that he’s done for the elderly and for women and Cameron. And I’m trying to like, how do you follow that from a that? I think I gave him all of my time to speak, but after, I mean, it was very moving to hear him talk and you’ll hear him in a couple minutes, but we never thinking without any expectation we just sent his organization $500 bucks. And just to help him, for the work that he’s doing and not expecting a thing. And about six weeks later, I get all these video clips and these long links for the 500 bucks, he set up the Jack York Northwest Cameroonian Elderly Women’s Goat Fund.

He had brought goats to nine different villages and it just, it just blew me away. And so we started to get to know each other and have some Skype calls and, and I just had said, Hey, if if, if that’s what you do for 500 bucks, what did you do for $25K? I just kind of made up this $25K number and it had always been a dream of Francis to build a senior center. And we went all over the country. We actually sold goats for 400 bucks that you buy a goat and, and, and Cameroon, Francis would get a goat name for you with family members there. We raised the money and they built the senior center. I went over there for the grand opening. It was named after my mother. It’s a Dorothy York senior center in the middle of Cameroon.

I go over there’s 3000 Cameroonian, villagers chanting my mother’s name. And it just, it was the most, you know, I say it with a big smile. It was the most spiritual moment in my life. It made me feel like part of my person, part of my reason to be on the planet is to help Francis and the work that he does and have fun along the way we brought Francis, we’ve traveled through at least 30 States seeing dozens of senior living communities. And he just lights everything up with that. I’m going to get the heck out of this. This is the Francis show, but it’s incredibly meaningful work that he does. And he is just the greatest man I’ll ever meet.

Lucas: What a captivating story, Josh, what does that mean, hearing that? What does that bring to mind to you?

Josh: Oh my gosh. Well, it just makes me smile and, you know, I had the opportunity like you did Lucas to hear Francis talk just a little bit before the show and also to hear Francis laugh, which just really lighted up my day. And so I can’t wait to unpack the story a little bit more and allow Francis an opportunity to tell us more about his work, his mission, and you know, the first thing I was just sitting there just to kind of frame what’s going on in my mind, Jack, as we’ve been talking and Francis is how much Francis did with $500. And me knowing what our listeners are about to know what those dollars can do. Personally. It convicts me a little bit on how little I do with how much I have. So I hope that’s one of the takeaways that our listeners feel challenged about is 1) how blessed we are where we are no matter where we are here in our country and 2) we’ll talk about ways that our listeners, if they want to get involved with what Francis is doing, how they can help out abroad.

Lucas: Absolutely. So with that being said, Francis, tell us your version of this story. Give us some of your background and what has led to you and your passions behind helping our elders.

Francis: Thank you very much. Again, my name is Francis and I work for CDTVA income room. I’m trained in social work and community development. I’m also trained in leadership and advocacy. About 24 years ago, when my father died, my mother was cast to the streets because as custom would demand in the part of the country, from where I come, my mother after her husband stayed, was not allowed to inherit any of her husband’s property. As a young man, I wondered how my mother, who had worked so many long years and trying to ensure that she can live a good life at later years. And also that our family members could have a better life, could so easily be cast aside at the death of her husband, without any regard for her rights, now this gave me a revelation. As I continue to ponder over the difficulty and the injustice that my mother was going through, I then went through visualizing a range of discriminations and marginalization that women and elders were going through in Cameroon, in rural communities.

This revelation actually gave me inspiration to start an organization that would champion the fight against marginalization and discrimination for women and elders in Cameroon. And this was actually putting my life on the line. So after the establishment of CDTVA for over 22 years, CDTVA has provided a better life for women and elders in like my mother in giving them the opportunity to speak out, have their voices and to try to support themselves through economic activities that give them economic independence and give them the possibility to fight the evil cycle of poverty, which has been affecting their life for such a long time.

Josh: So I’ve got a question and I don’t want to derail our conversation too much, but Francis, because I don’t understand and I’m sure many of our listeners don’t really understand the culture of Cameroon and where you live. You mentioned something and you kind of passed over it very lightly, but you said you put your life on the line. Can you kind of help us explain like why it was so risky for you to do what you have done?

Francis: Yes. Before I answer that question, I would like to say that Cameroon is a country in West Africa in the central part. Our country has over 200 different ethnic groups with different traditions and cultures that their citizens have got to respect. Now, I come from a particular tribe in the Northwest English speaking part of Cameroon called Kom. The Kom tribe has a very strong tradition that is now matrilineal is in the sense that women in this community are really not given the opportunity to inherit property that belongs to the husband upon their death. At the same time, many years ago, women in this community did not have a right to own land. They never had the right to oppose anything that amended. And so if many of Cameron’s communities, the tradition is that we traditional norms and values put by traditional doulas, respected by notables and by members of the community so they feel that when a woman is married to a man, she is almost like a piece of property, the man’s board, because there is bright price that is paid by the month to the woman’s family. And so men in those days felt that they could do it women as the police. However, growing up in such a community where women were disregarded, women were much analyzed upon and subjugated to all kinds of human rights abuses meant exactly that for trying to protect the rights of women, men going against the traditions and norms of the community, particularly. Because this tradition is put in place by traditional rulers who are respected by many people in the society. And they are recognized by the local customary law. It meant that if you went against the rule of the traditional rule, like I did, for trying to speak up in protection and the promotion of the rights of women, it means that I can either be trusted by the traditional role as by the notables, by the, any of the community or something bad can happen to me.

And that is why when I engage myself to fight against the rights, to fight for the promotion of women’s rights, it meant that I was the first person to ever attempt to try to ask women to speak up, to fight against these injustices that have been put against them by society. And so I receive a lot of life threats. People told me I was never going to live to see this dream realized. Many times when I started this project and this campaign, I had to leave the village completely. I remember many times, one at one time, somebody came to my visit in a nearby town and asked me to stop going against the rules that have been put together in tradition by the traditional rules. And that if I continue to do this, I will die. And on time today, gentlemen, I’d like to tell you today that 22 years after I started this campaign, there has been complete transformation of the protection of the rights of women in this communities. Today, women have the authority to own land, women speak up. They are able to succeed their husband’s property.

 

22 years after I have not died, I’m now more respected that doctrine has gone through the whole country. We did not only fight to stop this at the community level, we fought hard to ensure that the government at national level could come to the support of elderly women and men, and ensure that we widows have their rights given back to them and that they can speak up and be listened. We brought men and women to the national Capitol to speak to the prime minister. We brought men and women to the national from the legislature to ministers. And we brought them to speak to policy makers. This hookup, we also organized when Jack came to Cameroon for the launching of the Dorothy Senior Center, the government was so spoke with was so positive about the coming that Jack had to be given a standing ovation by the government and by the communities. There were over 3,000 people, including men and women who came out to say, thank you for this long campaign that you have supported in Cameroon. 

Now we have our first senior center, which means that the government is now with us. I want to say that today with the long struggle for security in support of the rights of women and men and others, we now have in Cameroon and national policy, that was filed for the protection and the promotion of the rights of women and elders.

 

Jack: You know, obviously there’s stuff Francis is talking about is big and global and transformational, but on just the ground level, what he’s doing and you cannot really get it until you go over there. I know Josh, you’ve done a lot of stuff yourself too, when you immerse yourself into the other culture, you get it. But what he’s doing at a ground level is he’s teaching women to be beekeepers. He’s teaching them to be farmers. He’s teaching them. It’s not a, you know, here’s money or here’s this. They’re being taught to be able to make their own decisions and support themselves and not be dependent on either the man or the government. And so it really, just so resonates the self worth that you would see these, these people have.

And when these people were there chanting, chanting, when I was over there, they’re really, they’re more chanting Francis and CDTVA, and just the fact that they’re given their lives and it’s the same with the elderly. So anyway, I just, it’s easy for Francis to get into these massive issues, but when you go there, you really see it on a working level.

Francis: Maybe just to add to what Jack I said, when I just got there started to come in for the promotion of women’s rights and rights of elders in Cameroon, women were not allowed to do beekeeping. Beekeeping was an activity on for men or women did not raise goats. They do raise goats. Goats were only raised by men because these were high income opportunities today. Women lead us in beekeeping within these communities. Our women raise goats. Most of that came through Jack’s donation of the first Jack that came through the $500. Many women are the ones keeping and leading the goats. So I just wanted to say there has really been a lot of transformation, like Jack said, supporting women to be independent of us and support us of society.

Josh: What an amazing work, what an amazing story. So tell us a little bit, Jack, you’ve had the opportunity to go over there from your perspective outside of the country going in and seeing, I believe you referred to it as we would call a senior care type community.

Jack: I mean and I know time runs fast on these podcasts. I think it’s great to get Francis’s perspective on senior living over here. There really isn’t the senior living the way we think about, but what live in Cameroon and aside for a second, I think what I took away from my whole experience over there was, was first of all, the people that they don’t, what we would just so take for granted, you turn a faucet and water shows up, you go on a road and you can drive. There’s none, there’s just as such. It’s, it’s poor infrastructure, it’s poor health care, all this kind of stuff. But the joy in these people is a thousand times more joyful and grateful. Than 90% of the people in the US. It’s fascinating to me. And, you know, you try not to get stuff political and everything is so hypercharged, but gratefulness seems to be disappearing from our country. And you give a goat to a village and you’re treated like a King, you know, and completely sincerely. So I think what I really took away from the trip was really that. You go over there with kind of a paternalistic gee, we are doing so well, let us help you out. And you go walk away going, you know what we may have all this, but we don’t have this joy, you know, how do you get this joy of day to day living? It’s just in their DNA. I think that that’s kinda my biggest perspective of the trip.

 

Josh: Well, and so Francis tell us a little bit, you know, Jack shared with us about his perspective. You have spent some road trip time, and I understand some miles here with Jack and iN2L on a road trip on more than one occasion and been, and seen our country and our communities. What is your perspective on your time spent in the United States?

Francis: Yes. Thank you very much. I would like to say, like, Jack just said that in many of the villages where we’re working in Cameroon people, what a lot of people in the United States take for granted. I have visited with Jack times two, with the support of iN2L I’ve visited over 30 States and all over 70 senior living communities across the United States. And what I can say is that you are exceptionally lucky for the way you care for your seniors in the United States, you have excellent road infrastructure. You have clean, regular supply of water. You have regular supply of electricity. There is world-class treatment of care for elders, particularly those who have problems of dementia are treated with a lot of exceptional care. This is the good hospitals that are good doctors that have good nurses. I’ve seen all of this, and this is amazing.

Let me compare it to the situation in Cameroon. When you compare this advanced care system in the United States, with what we have in Cameroon, it is like comparing day and night, there is completely absence, lack of drinking water, lack of water. In most communities, there is no electricity. We don’t have good doctors in the rural areas. The roads, honestly, like Jack would tell you, people just struggle to live their lives at a time, but what’s the status with our elders and women in Africa is that the level of the happiness, love and compassion and commitment for the groups of their communities is immeasurable. They live in poverty, they are so happy. I’m so grateful to be able to look for ways to collaborate with partners and volunteers, to build communities with the 20 call home all the time. And so I like to say that another part that we can learn from United States is that when I went through the United States, I saw America’s greatness in welcoming, in being nice, and embracing me always. They supported our activities. They allowed me to interact with their seniors and blessed some of them more importantly, they were not afraid to share our challenges and to explain their own challenges to us.

And so one thing stands out clear, good for United States and Africa love is the greatest thing that we all share as a people. And so I would feel so happy that I’ve been able to learn from this in terms of dementia, we’re using the lessons of the United States to integrate our elders in the community. That dementia is not a curse. Dementia is just a condition that comes to someone as he ages. And so this is bless us because normally you would like to know when somebody developed dementia in the communities, many people saw this person as a witch or as a wizard. And some of them were really discriminated upon and sent out of the community. Today people does to my experience from the United States and beginning to embrace people who are faced with challenges of dementia within the communities. And that is how I see the similarities and the differences and how we learn from one another.

Lucas: Wow. That’s powerful. Well, so going off of that great story and that great dialogue, you guys are planning a big event here very, very soon. Jack, tell us about this telethon that’s taking place.

Jack: Yeah, for the last four years, Francis and I have had a road trip. And so we, we can’t do a road trip this year for a variety of reasons. But Melissa Banko, who both of you guys know from Banko Design, she had a similar experience that I did. And that was that when we made the rounds last year, we went to Atlanta and met Melissa and her team. They made a relatively small donation to Francis. And from that donation came this really cool, relatively small, but it was incredibly impactful, meaningful water project. And again, the same reaction that I had with the goat fund is that if man, if that’s what he does for that, what would he do for something more? And so Melissa and I got together and got creative, and it’s only her idea to do this, but some of you, this may age me, you youngsters over there might not know it, but we’re trying to do a little bit of a recreation of the old Jerry Lewis, muscular dystrophy telethons, where we’re going to be in Atlanta at Melissa Banko’s office. We’re going to have live goats. We’ve got live goats to kick things off. We’re doing some goat yoga, but our goal is to raise $50,000 to both help fund Francis organizationally and finish a larger water project. That Front Porch, the senior living organization at California, Front Porch has been a huge supporter of Francis again, because they know what he does with the money that it goes to where it’s going.

So on Thursday, October 22nd at 7:00 PM Eastern time, we’re kicking the telephone off. We have some senior living talent. People have sent in some music. And again, it’s going to be just a whole kind of a variety show with me wearing a red sequin jacket, trying to look like Jerry Lewis says we as we honor the work of Francis and CDTVA, so it really, it kind of mirrors what we’ve done and that is do a really good thing for a really good man for a really good organization, but have a hell of a good time while you’re doing it. And that’s what this telethon is all about. And really appreciate the chance to talk about it a little bit.

Josh: Oh man, Lucas.

Jack: Lucas. I don’t think it is. Do we have your submission yet? Your musical submission, you guys get a couple of, we have a time slot laid out for a loop, you know, it’s easy to have guitars on the back of your wall. What does that mean? But let’s see some real Lucas.

Lucas: Gauntlet thrown down. You guys are trying to raise money. So you don’t want me doing that, but what a great event that’s taking place you know, Josh, we definitely want to be a part of it in however capacity that we can be.

Josh: Well Bridge the Gap is definitely going to be a part of it. We can’t wait honestly, Jack, for anyone that knows you very well in the industry knows that anytime the red sequence jacket comes out, it’s an important event that people don’t want to miss. I have many visions running through my head right now of that red jacket. So I can’t wait to be part of it October 22nd, our great friends at Banko Design and It’s Never Too Late. I’m supporting a great man and Francis a great organization, a great work. And we’re happy to just be a small part of being able to share this story on our platform. Lucas, I know we’re going to tell our listeners more and connect them to this event and how to, how to get connected.

Lucas: Yeah. So all of our listeners right now that I’ve been captivated by this story, we’re going to put everything into the show notes. You can also go to BTGvoice.com and gather all this information and register to be a part and participate in this event that Jack is putting on for Francis’ organization. We just want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts Francis, you’re a warrior for justice. You’re a warrior for those in need, and you’re a warrior for the truth. And we thank you for your testimony. We thank you for standing up for the truth, and you’ve obviously been honored and blessed for doing so. You’re brave and courageous. Thank you so much.

Francis: Thank you very much, indeed. Thank you, your team iN2L, Jack and the Bunko group. Encouraging and standing with women in Cameroon. Thank you very much, indeed.

Lucas: It’s our honor. And our pleasure to have you on today, Jack, thank you for the introduction. Any final comments or words on the event?

Jack: No, I just think, I mean, come to the event, it’s going to be fun to watch. So I mean, I want to commend you guys too, like iN2l, we’re running businesses, we have to bring in more money at the beginning of the month and the end of the month, but you guys are supporting causes left and right. You’ve been doing it through your whole career. And I think that you know, my shout out is to anybody, do things outside of your own bubble and the rewards you get are a thousand times over whatever you put in financially or timewise and Bridge the Gap speaks to that. I know Josh, you personally speak to that as well.

Josh: Thanks Jack. Thank you, Francis.

Jack: Yes, Francis, do our thing. Close with a Cameroonian tradition.

Francis: Thank you very much.

CAMEROON TRADITION

Lucas: What a great conversation. Once again, check out our show notes for all the links, go to BTGvoice.com and connect and get involved and engaged with us. Thanks everybody for listening to another awesome episode of Bridge the Gap.

Francis: Thank you so much. Thank you very much.

Josh: This was fun!

Jack: road trip, Cameroon road trip, baby. And I want to see Sara in Cameroon.

Sara: I would love to be there.

Jack: One of my tangible memories is Francis had me at like, it was one of the better hotels there for a couple of days. I had been on the road for three days. I’m finally got a shampoo and I got all this shampoo all over, I was finally getting clean and all the water cuts up. All the water cuts up. I’m poured over my head in the shower trying to unleash it. And it’s like, it’s a different, it’s a different world.

Francis: What I’m going to Jack. I do like to get this experience. Each time I come to United States with Rosie and we get into a hotel and the shower is so strong, the water flow is so regular, so warm and so nice that sometimes we stay under the shower for one hour, just standing and wondering how life could be so different. Another one is entering the car and driving on American roads. The roads look so neat because I was so small that sometimes I just start sleeping.

 

Jack: It ain’t sometimes Francis, it’s every time it’s within like 20 seconds.

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Ep. 139: Francis Njuakom