MDY grad on mission to spread word
of human-rights violations in Africa © Oct. 12, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications
At the age of 41, Norwich graduate and human-rights specialist Ebenezer Akwanga has yet to step inside a voting booth.
Much of his ruined youth, on the other hand, was spent within the walls of a prison in the West African country of Cameroon, often in solitary confinement. For creating a youth political action group at the age of 18, Akwanga was imprisoned and made to endure circumstances so brutal and degrading it still exhausts him to recount the details.
In October 2012, fellow members of the Norwich community were able to hear Akwanga’s story and experience the perspective of a man victimized by the leadership of his homeland. Akwanga, who earned a master’s degree in diplomacy from Norwich’s online College of Graduate and Continuing Studies in 2011, spent three days on campus, meeting people and speaking before a range of audiences. His message was that all people must act more aggressively on their better instincts.
“I hope at the end of the day when I leave here something may be different in your thinking,” he told an English composition class on the final day of his visit. “Deep in my heart I am happy for what I did. I paid the price for it.”
Writing—the pen—is bigger than any weapon in the world, and you have it.
2011 MDY graduate
Standing before the morning class, Akwanga recounted his early life without trying to disguise an enduring sense of outrage. Socially aware from a very young age, he learned about the world from “Voice of America” programs on his father’s radio in the middle of the night. At the age of 15, he founded a club to educate Cameroonian students about democracy. This got him elected president of the first student union at the University of Buea, but also made him known to the Cameroonian government, often described as being at odds with the people in its English-speaking territories where Akwanga lived. Eventually, this led to his expulsion. After starting the Southern Cameroons Youth League at 18, he was arrested, tortured and sentenced to 20 years’ hard labor.
For seven years, Akwanga witnessed mock executions, slept with corpses, was beaten, shocked with electricity and made to endure sexual and other humiliations. Two years of solitary confinement left him temporarily paralyzed in his lower body. He called his physical recovery a miracle.
Akwanga said he “died several times and came back to life,” before the letters he smuggled out of prison reached the human-rights advocates who eventually secured his release.
“There was one thing that saved my life,” he told the class, “my capacity to write.”
Akwanga, author of the book Smiling Through Hardship (2007) and co-author of Burundi’s Negative Peace (2009), said that writing in prison helped him hold onto his identity and conscience, and even find some state of inner peace. He urged students to educate themselves about the state of the world and to record their feelings and ambitions.
“Speak your anger on a piece of paper and nowhere else,” he said. “Writing—the pen—is bigger than any weapon in the world, and you have it.”
Swiftly transitioning to another building and a seminar on citizenship, Akwanga shifted the message to the state of the world and his mission to educate people on human rights. Africa, which he left in 1997, is a “sick” continent, in which many countries lag behind the rest of the world in democracy, treatment of women, gay and lesbian rights and general regard for the welfare of individuals, he said. Change must be brought about.
Akwanga added that the U.S., which he called a paradise for its freedoms of speech and ideology, must assert itself as a “beacon of democracy.” Americans must not allow certain policies, such as ignoring the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in the Rwandan civil war and the indefinite detention of prisoners in Guantànamo Bay, to ruin that international reputation.
“This is the moral standard of the world whether we like it or not,” he said.
Ivelliam Ceballo, an International Studies and Communications student from Lakeland, Fla., said Akwanga’s presentation was “a lot to take in,” and a sobering reminder of the need to be aware of what is going on in the world and how we must use our talents to make a difference.
“I feel blessed to be in this country; inspired to help,” she said.
Akwanga, who lives in Maryland with his wife and three children, has sued Cameroon for multiple human rights violations through the UN Human Rights Commission. He was given U.S. refugee status in 2006, and is now a citizen planning to vote in the coming elections. He is close to receiving a doctorate in philosophy from the University of South Africa, and hopes to serve as a human-rights advisor and instructor in Africa. Akwanga also wants to establish a human-rights library in the country of Liberia.
Following the second class of the morning, Akwanga said that speaking of his youth always leaves him drained, but also helps him face the horrors of his past. When bringing his message to a room of people he feels a “heavy load” moving from his shoulders to the floor.
He's especially happy to be appearing at Norwich and visiting friends made as a result of entering the Master of Arts in Diplomacy program. He will serve, Akwanga said, as a “self-styled ambassador,” and keep strong ties with the school.
“I hold it very deep in my heart,” said Akwanga. “I am very proud to have graduated Norwich University.”