BROOKLYN (Workers World Today) – Fontem, a remote village in Cameroon, West Africa, is a village where government corruption is as rampant as is poverty. A village where your “sink” is a river that is reachable via a long trek from your home where you drink glasses of water, wash your soiled clothes, bathe your body and cook your meals–all in that same river. “Senior government officials fly to foreign countries to seek medical care while most people don’t have care for the most basic health needs,” as observed by a remarkable and astute visionary Sixtus Z. Atabong, the author of My Fathers’ Gift: How One Man’s Purpose Became a Journey of Hope and Healing. I recently interviewed him on my radio show, Writers’ Café.
Sixtus emerged from the shadows as a savior of the people in his village, inspired by the memorable and touching words of his father, Pa John Atabong, a farmer, who “showed me a piece of land he bought…he wanted me to use the land…to build a hospital.” To realize this dream he sent his son to the United States to study. His father was unschooled in the traditional sense but knew the importance of education for his son’s future and for the future of his village.
On his very first visit home from his schooling in America, Sixtus visited a medical clinic in the village that just opened its doors to the sick, a medical clinic that employed a doctor with questionable medical credentials. The treatment to prevent tetanus after a punctured nail “involved putting a knife or machete into a fire until it became red hot, then putting drops of cooking oil on it which was immediately dripped into the puncture wound to kill the tetanus bacteria.” After witnessing such medical procedures, “I decided I had to do something to alleviate the pain and suffering in my village.” His father suffered the consequences of diabetes and thereupon his leg was amputated in a country whose landscape was dotted with volcanic rocks, certainly not a terrain that is wheelchair accessible, a term we regularly hear in the United States but not in his home village. You are sick; your obvious destination should ideally be a medical clinic in your neighborhood, employing a doctor clad in that traditional white coat with a framed medical school certificate affixed proudly to the walls. Not the case here.
Getting his son to America was fraught with difficulties due to scam artists who found farmers to be vulnerable because of their lack of education. His father instilled in his son words of wisdom and inspiration “to treat everyone like I would like to be treated and never forget where I came from and to come back and help the people in my community,” words that were imprinted in his very consciousness. Upon witnessing Sextus playing high school soccer, a scout offered him the opportunity to attend college on a scholarship. Free education–what a godsend for this farming family. The catch–his parents were obligated to pay for the visa and airline tickets. Not so bad you might say. Well upon agreeing to this financial arrangement, the money was accepted but the scout disappeared in thin air never to be seen again by the Atabong family.
To fulfill his father’s mission Sixtus founded Purpose Medical Mission whose modus operandus was to “bring medical aid to severely medically underserved communities around the world.” Why did he select the word Purpose? “We picked the name Purpose because we all believed this was a call from God to be an extension of His healing touch.” The partnership they established was as follows: “We work alongside them to build their clinics and teach them how to care for each other, telling them that we expect them to care for themselves.” Country after country in his itinerary, Sxitus witnessed the same poverty and suffering as in his own country. Inevitably people would approach him and ask how he could perform his duties and not get overly emotional. His response: ”I don’t see these people as victims; I see them as partners.”
Sixtus related an interesting story of their operating room that was built brick by brick in the States and mailed in a gargantuan packing crate to reach his remote village. Why was this necessary? Just picture this disturbing scenario–you have just been wheeled to the operating room and amidst a medical procedure, major or minor, suddenly lo and behold, the lights blink off. This is not an imaginary scenario, it is a frequent occurrence due to problems with the local energy grid. How did Sixtus ever get the idea of putting an operating room in the mail? “The U.S. Army once built mobile clinics made out of shipping containers. By constructing the operating room in another country we could guarantee the sterility, water line, air conditioning and electrical supplies.”
A representative example of government corruption, which could have derailed his project but did not, was manifested when in the midst of it all; they had to temporarily close the hospital “because government officials randomly show up with demands for money and would threaten to close hospitals unless they were paid.”
Government corruption notwithstanding, “one of the first things I had to do was forge a relationship with government officials. …a government that placed no value on the life of its citizens unless the citizen was a government official…It paid dividends for with the help of the government we were able to get permits…to have a clinic and to find a doctor …Before our coming this was close to impossible to do; we were able to develop an effective line of communication between us, the government officials and the locals. When you have a trilateral line of communication especially in third world countries, it‘s easy to detect a fallout or disconnect in projects.”
Throughout the book we see photographs after photographs–his village where children wash clothes in the river, members of his family, posing with government dignitaries accompanying the text that tell the story of a medical visionary who was born in a poor remote village in the continent of Africa but persevered in the face of government corruption and poverty to rise up to prominence in the global medical community.
“This is an important book and deserves to be read and shared and gifted. Mr. Atabong and his father through him tell the story of how the blessing of the Father is the seed that bears much fruit…” – Tom Stanton, Vice President and General Counsel-Texas Methodist Foundation, Director Congo Project For Relief
“From Cameroon to Lubbock, Sixtus Atabong ‘Dreamed No Little Dreams’ and made them come true through hard work and perseverance. Now, through his work as a physician assistant and as the founder of Purpose Medical Mission, Atabong is paying it forward in West Texas and across the world. What an amazing life.” – Kent Hance, Former Chancellor Texas Tech University System, Former U.S Representative Texas 19th District
“There’s nothing more fulfilling and encouraging than learning about the obstacles that Sixtus overcame to achieve not only his dreams, but his father’s dreams! This is one of the most inspiring and fulfilling books offering an abundance of wisdom and inspiration!” – Hana Qubti, Purpose Medical Mission volunteer
“Meeting Sixtus in person is a testament to recognizing the definition of ‘force of will’. Reading his personal and family history allows all of us the opportunity to recognize the origins of that force; the sacrifice and faith that have allowed him to become an inspiration to so many in west Texas and around the world. In a time of division, his human warmth and accomplishments on page after page are beyond inspiring! Read this, feel how it stirs your soul, and challenge yourself to help others in this way!” – Bryan Mudd, News Anchor, KAMC-TV, Lubbock Texas
Marilyn Silverman is a writer, assistant editor of Caribbean American Weekly, host of Writers Cafe Radio Show, and Panelist (How to market and promote your book: Inaugural Black Book Expo, New York).