Artist Issa Nyaphaga is a native of Cameroon, a central African country where political leaders live in luxury while most of the population lives without electricity, sufficient food or health care and where preventable diseases, particularly polio, run rampant. When Nyaphaga was forced into exile in 1996 for drawing critical political cartoons, he discovered he could help his people by communicating his country’s plight to the Western world. After a spring 2009 artist residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, Nyaphaga ran a supply drive with the help of Jenny Sanborn, a volunteer for Santa Fe-based humanitarian nonprofit Soulful Presence. In October 2009, Sanborn and Nyaphaga brought crutches and medical supplies, as well as funds to buy five custom wheelchairs, to N’ditam, his village in Cameroon. Learn more about Nyaphaga’s nonprofit, Hope International for Tikar People. KBAC is collecting gently used crutches for Nyaphaga and Sanborn’s next visit to Cameroon, which they hope to make in June.
SFR: What inspired you to help your village this way?
IN: [After being in exile for five years, friends] told me that my parents [in Cameroon] were very, very sick. Being a refugee, you can’t go back home, so I had to make the very hard decision to go to Cameroon by changing my name. And I discovered this child [Ibrahim], a survivor of polio, and I just wanted to help…I was a social worker in my community in Paris, and I displayed all the pictures to my network, [and the kids I worked with] baked pies and candies to sell so we could send away a chair to Ibrahim. That’s how I decided to make a nonprofit.
What was it like when you brought supplies to N’ditam?
JS: I was a visitor, but I was working in partnership with a local villager…People were trusting, open. They knew that they could work with Issa because he’s somebody they grew up with—but in addition, they saw someone coming from very far away who also cared about them…No one from the outside has stayed in peoples’ homes here, shared meals with them, tried to learn their language.
Did Santa Fe’s relatively strong social conscience help your fundraising efforts?
JS: Absolutely. In Santa Fe, once you ask and you explain what’s happening, people immediately start thinking about how they can help. People said, ‘I have an extra pair of crutches’ or ‘How can my business help?’…Oftentimes with nonprofits, people wonder where, exactly, does the money go, and if it’s making a difference—with this you can see how it’s on a small scale, but it’s literally life-changing. People at every step of the way, from Santa Fe to his village in Cameroon—complete strangers—jumped in…We brought 18 pairs of crutches.
IN: And we brought medical equipment…The airlines took the extra bags for free—they didn’t charge us anything from here to New York.
Issa, how does this work differ from speaking out against the government through your art?
IN: Me and my friends, we don’t want to keep denouncing the regime that doesn’t want to change. It’s very stubborn. The president changed the constitution so he could have another term and an artist wrote a song about it, and now the artist is in prison. Nothing is changing. The reason why I’m doing this nonprofit is to do something besides a government project. I’m not denouncing the government directly; I’m just doing something different.
Cameroon has had the same president, 76-year-old Paul Biya, since 1982. What do you think will change once he’s gone?
IN: Nothing…So that’s why we’re doing this project, to help the people of the rainforest whose voices are not heard. [But as a nonprofit, HITIP was] able to reach some people in the Ministry of Interior Affairs, people in some very strong positions, to tell them what we’re doing outside of the country to help people. They want to bring us the help we need…That’s the beginning of the change, but not at the political level.
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