Unrestrained voice

Outspoken Cameroon scholar finds asylum in the US, joins San Benito Oriana Chorale

FINDING A HOME Edwin Tangwa, who arrived in the U.S. from Cameroon, is a member of the San Benito Oriana Chorale. Photo: Robert Eliason

Edwin Tangwa has a presence like no other.

Blending his graceful tenor voice with fellow San Benito Oriana Chorale members, Tangwa stands strong and tall—not afraid to be heard while rehearsing for upcoming concerts with the local choir.

Tangwa chooses to live his life in the same manner, but strong voices can receive strong feedback from listening ears—an unfortunate reality Tangwa can attest to after his experiences in the last two years.  

An exchange scholar from Cameroon, Tangwa came to the United States in June 2017 as one of 18 scholars participating in the SUSI (Study of United States Institute) program on Contemporary American Literature, held at Seattle University in Washington.

“Scholars from 18 different countries like Asia, Latin America and Africa, come together to exchange ideas from recent trends in the subject of American Literature of America,” Tangwa explains.

By August 2017, however, he found himself unable to return to his home country.

“It became clear that I would not be safe if I returned home,” says the 38-year-old. “So when the program ended, I had to file for asylum, which I did and got.”

And now, Tangwa, without his wife or three young children, is indefinitely residing—no longer a visitor—in America.

The reason for his asylum stems from years of tension that’s brewed beneath the surface of his bilingual country. And Tangwa, a professor in literature and literary theoreticism in his home country, has never been one to stifle his political concerns.

While attending SUSI in Washington, he voiced them on social media, leading to him to become a sort of “enemy of the government.”

“I kind of got into the spotlight with the government,” he says. “And while I was here, I couldn’t help but criticize the government—and they don’t take that nicely.”

The differences among Cameroon’s citizens stem back to 100 years.

According to Britannica.com, World War I brought a period of British rule over two-thirds of the country and French rule over the remainder.

After World War II, a push for the country’s independence began in Cameroon and Europe; by 1960, that independence was granted. Soon after, the country’s first president Ahmadou Ahidjo pledged to build a capitalist economy and maintain close ties to France.

That continued bond with France is something Tangwa believes created continued tension within the country.

And Tangwa says the francophone government now wants to assimilate all systems, such as the English educational system and English judicial system.

“It’s generated into something close to a civil war, with the English part asking for total independence,” he adds.

When Tangwa’s exchange program ended, he stayed with extended family in Hollister with time left on his visa, “hoping that maybe things would get better,” he says.

But they didn’t.

Tangwa has now been residing with his extended family—his aunt and her family—in Hollister for nearly two years.

But in true fashion, Tangwa has chosen to pass his time productively.  

“For the one year that I was going through the asylum process, I had no work authorization, so I volunteered with the parish doing catechism classes at Sacred Heart Church [in Hollister], and I joined the [Oriana] choir,” he says.

Once receiving his asylum visa, Tangwa began working at Costco in San Jose. But without a car, he relied on public transportation to get to and from work, sometimes traveling five or more hours each way.

“That was the first job I could get; there was no job around here,” he explains. “So it was kind of crazy, really. And I was on probation, so I had to be on time.”  

Tangwa has since acquired a car, and has lessened his commute time by finding a job at Gilroy Healthcare and Rehab.

“But I’m not intending on making a career out of health care,” says the former teacher.  

Having taught 10 years in a Cameroon secondary school and four years teaching at a university, Tangwa hopes to get back into the classroom to teach once again.

“I started an admission process at San Jose State University,” he says. “If everything goes according to plan, I’ll go back to school in August for a master’s in TESOL—Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.”

Though Tangwa has his doctoral degree from his former university, it only transferred some of his credits and credentials to WES (World Education Services) for verification.

“By the time WES sent for the second part, I had become an enemy of the government, so there was no response from the university,” he says. “[WES] had to work with what they got. I have at least a master’s; that’s all the document states.”

While awaiting his chance to start school in the fall, Tangwa also awaits his wife and children to join him in America.

“When I was going into asylum, they got an asylum through me,” he explains. “So I’m filing for them to come over. It’s a long process, but it’s on the way.”

He is able to communicate with them online, but only through apps that can’t be accessed by his government.  

He is also passing the time by working, participating with his church, and spending his second season with Oriana Chorale.  

Oriana members Stelvia Chambless and Laurie Venturini have been happy to get to know Tangwa, and have high hopes for him in America.

“He is very happy to be here and seems determined to make himself a contributing member of this community,” Chambless says. “His demeanor is respectful, hopeful, open-minded and caring. If the U.S. grants him asylum, they will have gained a true American: hardworking, pioneering and loving.”

Venturini agrees, adding “he’s very personable and has a great sense of humor. I hope he stays with us, and I think he will unless he moves away for some reason.”

As for Tangwa, he hopes to find himself in the classroom again, whether it be teaching or learning.

“I’m just looking forward to the day I’ll be able to do what I really want to do and really love,” he says. “In school, I kind of revive.”

San Benito Oriana Chorale presents “Bach to Rock” on Friday, May 17 at 7:30pm and Sunday, May 19 at 3pm at Christ Fellowship Church, 2066 San Benito St. in Hollister. Tickets are available for $15 at Postal Graphics or for $20 at the door, $10 for students.

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