In Memoriam: Roland Mbenkum, Dear Friend of HI Cameroon

It was mid-July 2007 and a small team of Himalayan Institute staff members had been sent to execute a new humanitarian project in the mountainous Northwest region of Cameroon. The first few months were challenging, yet very focused on gaining a foothold in this extraordinary new environment—Kumbo.

On this particular day in July the house was dark due to a power outage and the unforgiving deluge of the rainy season streamed down the windows. There was an unexpected knock on the door, then Roland Mbenkum and his wife Stella walked in. Roland’s smile and enthusiastic presence immediately lit up the dark surroundings and Stella embraced us as our new mother away from home.  From that moment, Roland was a friend to the Institute and continuously inspired those around him with his eternal positivity. Roland was a hopeful man, thinking about the light at the end of the tunnel before even approaching the tunnel. He never merely clung onto hope but in fact worked tirelessly to birth such hope.

Roland shakes hands with HI Cameroon staff member Jeff Abella.

Although new faces to us at the time, these two beloved people were already familiar to thousands of people in Kumbo and the surrounding areas, and respected spokespeople for those living in Cameroon. One of Roland’s biggest impacts was the founding of a local NGO, the MilanoKumbo Sports Academy, whose mission is “Helping young people to realize that sports can give them a future by helping to build self-esteem and community.” HI Cameroon has had many occasions to partner with MilanoKumbo to support the youth of Kumbo, including annual sponsorship of the Summer Vacation Sports program and hosting athletes from MilanoKumbo in the US who ran in the Boston Marathon as the first ever Cameroonians to participate in the race. The sports academy is not only an amazing resource for local youth, but a point of pride and unity for all citizens of the area.

Coach Roland gives a pep talk to some young athletes. He was inspired to start the sports academy to provide youth with a healthy alternative to the drugs and petty crime he witnessed while working as a judge in the municipal high court.

Proudly standing with the Boston Marathon athletes.

HI Cameroon joins thousands of people in remembering this inspirational community leader, who passed away last week. On behalf of all HI members who knew this singular man and how he served his people through many self-driven initiatives, we will miss you. Speaking on behalf of the HI Cameroon staff who have served alongside Roland in striving for youth empowerment, your efforts will live on and you will forever be remembered as an initiator of great change.

The close relationship between the MilanoKumbo Sports Academy and HI Cameroon will persist as one of Roland’s legacies.