“Damn gondola,” Iñaki wrote on the postcard he sent his girlfriend from Rome, six years after the gondola ride that changed her life forever.
“The problem is,” Rolande confessed, “It might have been ‘blessed gondola’ after all.”
A long series of mixed fortunes and misfortunes led Rolande from her hometown of Douala, Cameroon to Italy at the age of 35. It began when she was four months old and her mother fell ill. Rolande’s father, not knowing what to do with a four-month-old baby, picked up his daughter and drove her to an orphanage 200 kilometers away.
Despite two attempts to return to her family at the ages of 5 and 10, Rolande struggled to adapt to the happy but humble farming lifestyle that was less privileged and less organized than the one she knew. To Rolande, farm work was a punishment. “At the orphanage, if you woke up in the morning and you saw ‘field’ next to your name on the chalkboard, it was because you had been bad.” It was hard to accept this as her family’s way of life. After the second failure to adapt to home, Rolande’s father drove her back to the orphanage, where she stayed till she was 23.
She maintained ties with her family. Her father visited her regularly, often with a sibling or Rolande’s mother. As the country developed and roads were paved, the once-a-month visits even became weekly. But this didn’t inhibit the fear that Rolande developed with adolescence that she was a product of misfortune, and that she had a happy family she would never truly be a part of. It wasn’t till she was 18 that she began to see things a different way.
She had been educated in the orphanage and trained in secretarial skills. At the age of 18, she got her first job as a secretary for a lawyer. For the first time in her life, she was making money, and that money was for her and nobody else. What’s more, her family was in need and she was able to provide for them. The realization that she was the only one of her siblings to receive an education, and that she had the power to help them, awoke something in her. She recognized a sense of purpose in herself. Overnight, her misfortunes had turned themselves into an opportunity.
When she was 35, Rolande was granted an opportunity to study in Torino, Italy for three months. A month-and-a-half into her stay, Rolande and two friends, a girl from Finland and another from Benin, were touring Venice. Somewhere, between the beginning and end of a gondola ride, Rolande’s future changed forever.
Before the ride, the gondolero showed them where to leave their bags behind the seat. By the end, their bags were gone. “I lost everything,” Rolande said. The bag had held all her documentation. “I could not get on a plane. I could not go back to Cameroon.” The girls got police passes that allowed them to move within Europe but there was nothing to be done about the missing IDs. Many times passports were turned in, the police reassured them. But if not, it would be three years before Rolande could return to her country.
After distractedly finishing her course in Italy, Rolande moved to Santander with the girl from Benin, who had family there. The girl soon left and moved to the South of Spain, but Rolande saw no reason to move. She took shelter at the Red Cross and waited to be offered a job.
She did not speak a word of Spanish when she was hired as a caregiver for an elderly couple in Santander. The man she worked for was an old, retired banker who rose every morning and put on a crisp, ironed shirt and tie, before sitting down for breakfast beside his wife who was very ill. He was wonderful to Rolande and appreciative of her work. “Oh, I couldn’t say a word but I could iron shirts,” Rolande remembered with a laugh. Rolande felt comfortable in spite of the language barrier but she made it her mission to learn the language. She read, she asked questions, and every day after his siesta, the man worked with her. He made her practice saying expressions and writing them down so she could learn how words looked and sounded. Within three months she was able to communicate with him and his family, answer phones, and carry herself with competence.
When the man’s wife died nine months later, Rolande found a job caring for a different woman in Santander, where she continues to work now. This work paid her well—far better than she was ever paid in Cameroon—and for a while she lived very comfortably, buying things when she wanted things, spending money with ease. But she felt a certain agitation. Having been raised among nuns in an environment of charity, she felt a need to give back.
Anxiety grew in her and one day she woke up unable to see clearly. She went through two weeks of tests at the doctor but no number of pokes or pinches gave rise to any diagnosis. Then one night in a dream she resolved to herself, “I am going to do something.”
She woke up, her vision clear, with a new resolve, a dedication. Through the local parish she began providing for a family of one mother and five kids whose father had died in the fire that burned down their house. When she realized she was able to make a difference and people were interested in helping her, she turned this into a full-fledged non-governmental organization (NGO) that now reaches out to the families of 42 children.
In the time since her NGO took root, Rolande met her current partner, Iñaki, a citizen from the Basque Country, who is working beside her to achieve her latest goal. Together, Rolande and Iñaki are reaching out to Cameroon so that Rolande can give back to the place she came from—in the form of an orphanage for the care and education of disadvantaged people.
For the first time since she left, Rolande is returning to Cameroon this summer with Iñaki to set up the orphanage. She is devoted to her religion and to her history, which have together made her see herself as having both power and purpose. Rolande’s goal is to pass on a message that disadvantage is not tragic or inescapable; rather, it is an opportunity.