Noah Schoen and Alain Tamonoche have something in common that both wish they didn’t.
They each are members of communities whose modern experiences were shaped by genocide —Schoen as a Jew and Tamonoche as a Bamileke, a people living in Cameroon who were victims of genocide beginning in the late 1950s when Cameroonian troops, under the leadership of the French army, razed the city of Yogandima.
Unlike the Holocaust though, the Bamileke genocide has gone largely unreported.
Tamonoche sought political asylum in 1999 and immigrated to Newark, New Jersey. He moved to Pittsburgh in 2003, where he was one of fewer than 50 Bamileke. The community here has since swelled to nearly five times that size.
While planning a commemoration of the genocide that took place in Cameroon, Tamonoche and other organizers decided to see if they could contact other groups of people with similar experiences.
Tamonoche learned through an article in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle about David Rosenberg, whose work chronicling the Jews of Somme, France, who were murdered by the Nazis during World War II, was being exhibited at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
Tamonoche reached out to the center and met with Schoen, its community outreach associate and its then-director, Lauren Bairnsfather.
Schoen said the similarities between what the two groups experienced were striking.
“The stories of genocide … were so dense and so powerful,” Schoen said. “Lauren and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”
That something began as behind-the-scenes support as the Bamileke planned what would be their second Pittsburgh commemoration. It eventually included three volunteers from the Holocaust Center, all children of survivors: Rebecca Jacobson, Adi Rapport and Debbie Stueber. Both Jacobson and Stueber spoke at the commemoration about their experiences as descendants of genocide, and Rapport hosted a dinner at her home for members of the two communities.
“I can say that the Bamileke group was honestly wondering what connection they could have to our community and by the end of the commemoration, I would say, their eyes were open, as ours were,” Stueber noted.
She said she was blown away by the information she learned about the Bamileke genocide and the lack of publicity and awareness around it.
Jacobson pointed out that after World War II, the Nazis were punished for the Holocaust.
“That obviously hasn’t happened here,” she said. “It’s still ongoing. It’s not like it’s ever really stopped. It’s been ongoing in fits and starts.”
The number of Bamileke killed — beginning during Cameroon’s war for independence from the French and continuing at the hands of the country’s own military — is unknown, but may number in the tens of thousands. Tamonoche said as many as 700,000 Bamileke may have been murdered.
Stueber said the lack of publicity can, in part, be attributed to fear, something she witnessed firsthand.
“When we had the potluck dinner at Adi’s, the people we spoke with were afraid,” she said. “They were afraid for their families back in Cameroon, so they don’t speak out.”
They have good reason for their trepidation.
Schoen said the Bamileke people experience periodic state-sanctioned harassment. When families travel, Tamonoche said, they split up into multiple vehicles so that if the military stops one of the cars, the entire family won’t be lost.
“Another reason for the lack of awareness is that they are only just beginning to tell these stories in public and we are helping to support and amplify those stories,” Schoen said. “In oral history, we mention that often people tell their stories, but no one is listening. This work by the Bamileke people might be the first step in people listening.”
The Pittsburgh Jewish community understands the terror of being targeted. It also knows the power of having people outside of its community reach out.
Rapport said that during the dinner she hosted she saw a bond forming between the two groups.
“I think trust was built that evening, that sense of, yes we are here to help you but also we feel it in our heart, we understand. I think it’s important to build that awareness and connection, not just as a Holocaust center but as friends and people,” she said.
That shared community was reciprocated on Aug. 26 when the Bamileke people held a reception in honor of Foh Njitack Ngompe Péle, king of the Bamileke kingdom of Bafoussam in Cameroon.
The program included a ceremony to honor Schoen for his work with the community and Pittsburgher Gordon Manker, who recently learned of his Bamileke heritage through an AfricanAncestry.com DNA test.
Tamonoche said that the event was an opportunity for people to get to know the Bamileke people’s traditions and cultures.
“We have a lot to offer the city of Pittsburgh,” he said. “We look forward to working together with our neighbors.”
Schoen said he’s pleased with the part both he and the Holocaust Center have played in bringing the Bamileke genocide to light.
“The goal of genocide,” he said, “is not just killing people: It’s erasure. So, one of the most important things we can do to combat genocide is to make it visible.”
The Holocaust Center, Schoen said, is inspired by the resilience and bravery of the Bamileke people.
“I am humbled and honored to have received this award,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com