‘rich uncle’ is Googled approximately 6,000 times per month globally.
Not knowing the conditions under which I would be forced to survive as my living arrangement in the city had not exactly been settled beforehand, I was hesitant to make haste toward what would be my new home for an undetermined amount of time. My impression had been that I’d go to live with my educated uncle who was then the dean of students at a Protestant seminary in Yaoundé. I had a picture of the way this would be in my head, based on how I’d perceived my uncle on one of his grand entrances to the village when I was much younger.
He had just returned from an extended tour of the Holy Land in Israel, the culmination of several years of post-graduate studies in Europe. My first impression was one of awe; he was so clean and shiny. We were all so dull and dirty. I felt like I wanted to tell him hello and get the chance to shake his hand, hoping somewhere inside that some of what he had would somehow rub off on me. But I kept my distance and just observed every single interaction in detail; the way he was making my grandmother, his mother, proud. The way everyone else was conceding to him, making a clean place for him to sit, offering him a beer, laughing at his jokes, following his coming and going, hoping to be the lucky recipient of some of his pocket change that jiggled like music to our ears. Though I have to dig really deep to remember what I was feeling and then to recount it in complete honesty, I do believe that somewhere inside I wanted him to notice me, to pick me out of the rest, to tell me he saw something special in me, to see past my mud caked face and torn plastic shoes, but I just settled for staying at a distance so I wouldn’t gamble a rejection that would have done more harm than good.
Later in life I realized that my younger brothers and sisters, small nieces and nephews and other young friends of the family in the village may have felt the same way when I returned home, a little scared of me but also a little hopeful that I might notice their poverty and take pity. I’m sure their minds swirled with fantasies about America and my time there, wondering just how and if I could help them to make something of their life in a magical kind of intangible way. I know how it feels to believe that someone else holds your fate in their hands, and the only thing left for them to do is to twitch their noses and you’ll be the recipient of the same lucky charm destiny. From the perspective of someone who really has nothing in comparison to the reality of someone who really doesn’t have everything, it is impossible to separate their individual success from your belief in their individual responsibility for you to succeed. And the only way to see outside the belief that rich uncles are your ticket to success, is for you to walk in the shoes of a family member who is esteemed way above their means, feeling the pressure to provide when your own needs and the needs of your immediate family, far exceed your income or any hope for future fortune. I suppose immigrants live much the life of the rich and famous, just more often than not, with the expectation that they afford their family and village friends back home the same luxuries of American life without imposing the burden on them, of being in the spotlight or working overtime just to make ends meet. Being the star of your family is not enough unless you have the star power to back it up. There is nothing more fulfilling for me than to be able to provide for my family and meet their expectations, but nothing is worse than the empty free fall of trying to sleep while voices keep calling out to you from the dark recesses of your conscience, with accusations that you’ve ignored their needs just because you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be where they are. And in the same wave of conscience, I have pity on my uncle who I now know spent so many years in the limelight of being the one who in everyone else’s mind, could have given more. Back then, I even thought that he should have given more. And why not? He had been educated abroad and there always seemed to be enough money for trips to the local pub on the corner. What I later realized is that alcohol was probably a last resort to take the edge off of the increasing pressure he felt to give everyone in the family a chance, a golden opportunity to succeed. I was one of those who expected a lot of my uncle, but at the time, I failed to realize he had given me much more than I could have ever gotten from any book about someone who ‘made it’ abroad or from money that he might have handed me with no strings attached. He had given me a live example of success. He had opened the door to my imagination, just by showing up to the village with his new way of acting and dressing. And whether consciously or sub-consciously, I know he is the reason I had the chance to dream of making it a little beyond where he had gone.