Growing up in Cameroon, Desmond Jumbam ‘16 M.S. formed deep ties to his community and developed a drive to create better lives for others and to care for those around him. These values have not only impacted his career path but continue to prompt him to fight for justice in his home country.
In 2010, Jumbam started pursuing his interest in science. He moved to the United States with the help of his aunts Anne and Loveline Shey and family friends Sue and Patrick Schmidt and June and Alfred Barrow to study biotechnology at Delaware Technical Community College. He then studied biology on the pre-med track at Taylor University, thinking medicine was a secure career choice. In reflecting on the public health system in Cameroon, however, he shifted his focus.
“You need to find ways to prevent diseases. You have to find ways to improve the raw health care system, which is very poor. People are extremely poor, so they cannot afford the health services, and a lot of the hospitals are run-down. This is how my interest in public health came about.”
Jumbam was accepted into Notre Dame’s Master of Science in Global Health program and went on to be a Health Policy Analyst in the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at Harvard University. He also worked at Boston Children’s Hospital. Jumbam is now a health policy advisor at Operation Smile, which provides cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries.
It is clear from his career choices that his passions lie in serving others, but while his education and career led him across the globe, his heart has remained in Cameroon. That feeling has only grown as civil war in the country has intensified over the last several years. At the end of 2016, tensions between the minority Anglophone population and the Francophone majority boiled over as a result of years of economic and political marginalization of Anglophone communities. The crisis has led to the looting and burning of villages, as well as the death and displacement of thousands of Anglophones. (Read more on the Anglophone conflict here.)
This crisis hit home this past March with the loss of Jumbam’s father, a local councilor in Oku, a subdivision in North West Region, Cameroon. On his way home from organizing legislative elections, the elder Jumbam — along with eight other councilors — was ambushed and beheaded by separatist fighters. Five more were taken hostage. His mother, Seh Rebecca, had to bury her husband without his head and Jumbam, who was in Ghana at the time, could not attend his own father’s burial because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
While his father’s death was devastating, particularly as he grieved alone, Jumbam resolved to make his mother smile. So, he posted his story on the crowdfunding site MightyCause to raise money for school tuition for children, food, medical care, and “financial aid for starting small businesses for sustainable living” for those financially affected by the ongoing crisis.
“It took a lot for me to do that. Just writing about it and putting it out there is not an easy thing,” Jumbam said, “After a few months, I finally got the courage to write that story, and I put it on MightyCause. I was just amazed by the response that we got. What was amazing about that was how much support and love I got from friends from high school, friends from Delaware, friends from Taylor, Notre Dame, Harvard, and strangers. That was the most moving part to me. I kept updating my mom. My goal was primarily to make her smile. When I told her that, she was just so happy. She was smiling and dancing and just ecstatic. I just love that.”
Seh Rebecca also felt that the cause was bigger than herself. She realized that she was in a position to support the other women affected by similar circumstances — those who were struggling to make ends meet.
“We all had different goals,” Jumbam said. “My goal was to give my mom hope after such a horrible loss. Her goal was to help the women who had it worse than she did. And others came to support me and my mom but also to support other women who had been horribly afflicted.”
A month ago, his mother arranged for about 20 women — from both the North West and South West regions of Cameroon — to gather over two days. The first day was for women to share their experiences, and the second day was a small business workshop.
“The stories that they told; it is the most heartbreaking you could hear. A lot of these women had not told their stories to anyone before. They have not had time to have closure and mourn properly. They cried together; we had a grief counselor there. That was extremely powerful. The second day was for the tools they needed to build their lives. We wanted to give them the resources they needed to go back and start their livelihoods again. We had small business training. We brought women from our communities who had small businesses and they shared advice on how to succeed. My mom and the other women volunteering had them talk through their ideas. Finally, we provided them with capital, so they can go and start their business. Many of them have already started running businesses for themselves.”
The way that Jumbam handled his loss reaffirmed his dedication to community and finding ways to share our common humanity. To Jumbam, this extends beyond family.
“You have to value your family, your friends, your fellow human being,” he said. “But I also realize there is injustice that prevails. You also have to fight for justice when you see things happening like they are in Cameroon, in the U.S., and in a lot of parts of the world. You have to be determined because those injustices will be there. (It is important to be) in solidarity with your fellow human being. We have to find ways to relieve suffering, especially when it is unjust.”
Jumbam is currently in Ghana and continues to work with Operation Smile. His mom still talks to the other widows on the phone each night, and the two of them are starting the Jumbam Family Foundation in honor of his father.
“The goal is to help other widows, to get children back to school, and to help women get back on their feet.