Heart of Treasure Valley: Father and Son visit bond in new ways after trip to Cameroon

November 14th, 2010 by admin

November 14, 2010
Idaho Statesman

Tony and Duvonte Boatman with Fon Fobuzie II of Chomba. Fobuzie was one of Tony’s students at Joseph Merrick Baptist College in Ndu in the mid-60’s.

They call him “Pa,” a term of great respect. They call his son “brother” and tell him, “You’re one of us now. You are a Cameroonian.” (Or, as they say in the common Pidgin English: “Yousa be we now. You be we brother. You be Cameroonian.”)
Long before his son was born, Tony Boatman was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. For three years, he taught English at a college in the mountains of Equatorial Africa.

More than 42 years later, Tony, now retired from the Boise Philharmonic, returned to Cameroon to visit his students — those students who now call him “Pa” — and most importantly, to take his 17-year-old son with him. It was a homecoming for Tony, and a door for Duvonté into the world outside America.

For the two of them together, the trip was unlike no other.

Tony says: “I would have had a good time if I had gone by myself. To share the experience with my son made it magical.”

Duvonté says: “(This trip) molded us together strong. I got to see his past and what kind of person he is. He’s impacted a lot of people’s lives. It’s the kind of character I look up to.”

Being outside of American culture and all that he’s familiar with, the trip gave Duvonté, a senior at Boise High School, a place to observe, to experience and explore.

“Here (in Boise), I’m surrounded by different skin colors than I am…I’ve gotten used to it. But being where — far, far back — you came from, it’s a new idea: Who am I as African American? It made me think: Who am I? It makes you wonder how far your roots go back…

“Since I have the same skin color, they thought I was from Cameroon. They were surprised my dad spoke pidgin English (a common language based on Bantu language grammar) and I didn’t. I’m surprised he remembered over 45 years. He speaks a lot of languages. He remembers everything.”

For a month, Tony and Duvonté lived in Cameroon. As Tony is new on a board that supports the Cameroon Health and Education Fund, they toured hospitals and clinics. They visited villages and cities, experienced traditional and modern culture. Everywhere, they renewed old friendships and made new friends. Perhaps the single most striking gift from the trip was the open-hearted welcome.

Duvonté: “It’s something you can’t express…Even for people who weren’t from their country, they brought you in, making you feel at home, making you feel comfortable.

“It kind of felt like it was home: They would do anything for you. That’s something I want to give other people, that feeling.”

Some of Tony’s former students have gone on to play significant roles in building the country — politicians, doctors, attorneys, tribal leaders, teachers. They invited the Boatmans into their homes.

Duvonté: “Seeing his students and the memories they had — the joy on their faces — was a major part of my trip.”

Duvonté made his own friends: Derrick, 16, and Carlson Chia, 17, with whom he corresponds via e-mail. The brothers live with their grandmother and mother; they study hard and want to go to college.

“Looking at them, (my life) seem blessed. They struggle — just like anyone from Cameroon. They know they have to work hard. And it makes you realize how much you are — I wouldn’t say lucky — but blessed to have what you have and be from where you are.”

Cameroonians live very simple and very labor-intensive lives, says Tony. Although houses might have a television, dinners start from scratch with rice, cassava, potatoes or cornmeal and a bit of chicken or goat. Compared to other parts of Africa, Cameroonians have enough to eat.

Almost all homes lack refrigerators, washing machines, and hot running water. Often water must be carried in from a community water tap. Electricity can be maddeningly undependable.

“Not having television, phone, computer. Or hot water. People go through this every day, not having water. The (advantages) we have are tremendous.

“(But on the other hand) I realized we don’t need all those things. …It made me appreciate what I do have.”

Duvonté worked with AIDS orphans called the Chosen Children, recalling the days when he needed a home before he was adopted by Tony, a single dad. He visited schools, helped teach sexual education to young kids in fifth and sixth grades. “It opens your eyes with AIDS and what it does,” he says. He showed kids how to play basketball and they polished his soccer skills.

“I taught them about America and how it’s different. A lot of people didn’t think we had poverty — we’re one of the richest countries — but people here struggle as well. People struggle everywhere. They were surprised.”

When Duvonté told his friends from Boise High School about his trip, they, too, had to re-evaluate their assumptions: They thought technology didn’t exist, but cell phones were ubiquitous. They thought anti-American sentiment would be high, but it was quite the opposite. Boise friends thought all Africa was impoverished, but many Cameroonians are successful business people. And except for lizards, the Boatmans had to go to the zoo to see wild animals.

“(Travel) progresses your thinking… You can take different views on how people see things. …(You’re) seeing the rest of the world and a different way of life.

“…It makes your mind wonder, imagine and draws your interest…”

And within that big world, Cameroon now has a special place in his heart, just like it has had for his father. Duvonté has his own friends who will keep him connected (“They take their friendship very seriously”) and his own sense of responsibility to the people of Cameroon. The green, yellow and red bracelet around his wrist is a just a symbol.

“It reminds me where I was and the things I went through there. (Cameroon) has built me, built strong character in me.

“(The experience) show me ways to treat people; it shows me ways to care for people: To show love and respect. I want to bring that with me to America and make any difference I can.”


“One of most enriching things that any person can do with life is to go somewhere else and spend a meaningful amount of time living and working in another culture,” he says. “It gives you a platform to stand, observe and sift though the culture you’ve taken for granted all of your life. I don’t mean going to Kenya for two weeks and going on a safari or going to the beach in Mazatlan.

“I still tell college students: If you want to have two of the most meaningful years you could possibly have in your life, join the Peace Corps, or something else, that takes you out of the United States, away from western culture and civilization,

“(You get to) look at life through the eyes and experiences of other people. It causes you to see everything differently. And it causes you to accept things with better understand. It also calls into question a lot of things that you always took for granted.

“I’m hoping that’s the thing Duvonté takes away from all of this, that… There’s a wide and magnificent world out there that needs to be explored. And it also needs to be experienced.

“If we’d spent a lot less time shooting and more time talking to (other people), we’d be a heck of a lot better nation.”


The former French Cameroon and part of British Cameroons merged in 1961 to form the present country tucked next to Nigeria. It is called the “crossroads of Africa,” and on their migrations through, many people would stop and settle. In land slightly larger than California, Cameroon has 250 indigenous languages.

It has enjoyed relative stability and is, in fact, victimized by its own success, says Tony Boatman. The education systems have grown more rapidly than its economy; many graduates are unemployed or under-employed. Retirement is mandatory at 55 or 60 to make more jobs.

Life is surprisingly a lot like it was 40 years ago, except for more widespread electricity, cell phones and satellite TV. “You can see a woman tilling crops in traditional garb with a wooden hoe,” says Boatman, “stop and take a cell phone call.” Cameroon exports agricultural products.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” he says. The geography goes from tropical rainforest to mountains to desert. It’s a pleasant climate, people are friendly and honestly curious and welcoming. But you really have to work at it to visit; there is no tourist infrastructure, he says. “Traveling town-to-town by bus requires much patience and can be a heart-stopping adventure.”


Cameroon Health and Education Fund (where Tony Boatman is on the board) is an American non-profit that channels 100 percent of its tax-deductible gifts to the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Board. CBCHB operates five hospitals, 40 clinics and treatment centers, HIV, malaria and TB diagnosis and treatment, and education and outreach programs for anyone, regardless of religious beliefs. The hospitals provide what is regarded as some of the best treatment in sub-Saharan Africa. For more information, check out the website or contact Tony at acboatman@aol.com

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