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Fri, 04/15/2011 - 1:00pm

The Bus to Cameroon Makes a Round Trip

News | International Visitors

By Sherry Harbert

While the World Affairs Council of Oregon greets hundreds of people to Portland each year through the International Visitor Leadership Program, there are few occasions to see firsthand what public diplomacy means to those visitors. Alice Nkom’s recent return to Portland provided a rare glimpse into the impact of the Council, its members and the greater Portland community on future and current leaders of the world.

Nkom first arrived in Portland in 2003 to learn about grassroots democracy. The Cameroon native was an attorney at the time, but wanted to learn what it was like to be a citizen within a democratic government. She would walk away from her meetings in Portland with a profound realization—democracy could begin with her.

Nkom spoke of her dramatic transition at a Council gathering in February. “I consider Portland my birth village, because really it was here that I was born as a citizen.”

After her 2003 visit, Nkom armed herself with knowledge, ideas and enthusiasm to create a mirror organization in Cameroon after meeting with members of The Bus Project. The grassroots organization, then just two years old, was the vision of Jefferson Smith who imbued an ideal of mobilizing democracy for many Oregonians who were outside the traditional political apparatus. Nkom said she discovered herself within that ideal as someone who had far more potential than what she could achieve inside a courtroom.

Nkom returned to Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, and began engaging local youth and women in a grassroots movement to register voters and help them understand the political process in their country. She said she had seen political power held “in one hand” for too long. By the 2006 general election, her new organization, Get on the Bus, had registered over 300,000 new voters. “Voting is not only a right, it’s a duty,” said Nkom. “And, voting is power.”

Nkom thought that the growing power of her grassroots movement would change the election. When it didn’t, Nkom and others could have quit, but Nkom learned that democracy was more than elections. “Democracy is an endless job,” she said. “It obligates us to be vigilant.” She said her first run at trying to produce change was a tough battle. Even though she helped her fellow citizens to express themselves on many issues, she struggled to keep her early momentum.

Then, Nkom was given another opportunity to re-engage her passion for democracy. She was selected as one of 18 “Gold Stars: Alumni Connecting the World” to tour the U.S. last month as part of the 50th anniversary of the National Council for International Visitors (NCIV). She again met with members of the Council and The Bus Project in Portland, and was the keynote speaker at a gala reception at The Benson Hotel, which included Portland Trailblazer Nicolas Batum, along with his mother and sister, who are also from Cameroon.

Nkom said her second trip to Portland was as important as her first. “I am re-energized,” she said. “I was grieving before coming back. But now I know how to re-direct the Bus. The Bus will not stop.”

Caitlin Baggott, Nicholas Batum, Alice Nkom, Rep. Jefferson Smith, Amy Barss

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