Drowned student’s family prepares to bid farewell

The Twin Cities Cameroonian community is working to raise money for memorial services.

Karlee Weinmann

On March 29, Cameroon native and University first-year student Elomo Lenya died in a drowning accident at a New Brighton pool.

Since then, her family has faced burdens beyond grief for a lost sister, daughter and niece.

To help a family without adequate monetary resources, the Twin Cities Cameroonian community has rallied to compensate for the estimated $25,000 price tag of memorial services stateside and in Cameroon, as well as the trans-Atlantic transport of Lenya’s body.

Financial concerns

Five Cameroon natives living in the Twin Cities formed the Elomo Kuna Lenya Fund, a committee dedicated to raising awareness and generating funds to cover associated costs.

The committee members knew Lenya’s father, Emmanuel Lenya, in Cameroon and have remained friends in the United States.

In the past, groups have convened under similar circumstances within the Cameroonian community to support the families of the deceased and ease the inevitable financial strains.

Dr. Grasso Ebako, a University alumnus and member of the committee, said he has helped in other fundraising efforts and the process is never an easy one.

He said in the past he’s seen remains of Cameroonians awaiting burial kept in funeral homes for up to four months when families have not been able to generate necessary funds.

“There’s not much that you can get out of donations from friends because you have to raise $20,000 or $30,000,” Ebako said. “And when they’re coming at $20 or $30, it’s going to take a lot of them. That’s a difficulty we’re facing right now.”

Other donations have come from the Interfaith Campus Coalition and area churches.

The University also donated an undisclosed amount to help transport the remains, according to Wilson Ekinde, the committee’s chair.

Both Emmanuel Lenya and his wife, Anna, will make the trip to their home country for a traditional service. For them, air travel expenses could reach $7,000.

Elomo Lenya will be transported by a commercial aircraft sometime next week, pending authorization by the Cameroonian embassy in Washington, D.C.

To alleviate some financial stress, the University’s standard protocol when enrolled students die is to immediately cancel enrollment and refund that semester’s paid tuition to the family.

Federal and state loans are typically “discharged” or forgiven, while private loans vary in procedure, according to Mary Koskan, director of One Stop Student Services.

Ebako emphasized the importance of the University in the fundraising process.

“The students choose the University of Minnesota because they believe it’s a good school,” he said. “And when situations like this happen, the University should stand by them.”

Emmanuel Lenya said his family appreciates the committee’s initiatives, which are in step with Cameroonian cultural traditions.

“We try to help each other somehow. We try to see if we can assist each other in one way or the other,” he said. “That’s our tradition – we always like being together.”

Traditions of Cameroon

Last Friday, more than a hundred friends, family and fellow Cameroonians flooded the small Lenya home to pay respects at a traditional all-night memorial service.

lenya’s Visitation and Funeral

Visitation
When: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday
Where: Spielman Funeral Home 344 University Ave. W., St. Paul

Funeral
When: 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Arlington Hills Presbyterian Church 1275 Magnolia Ave. E., St. Paul
What: Following the funeral, there will be a reception at the Lenya home: 1904 10th Ave. S., Minneapolis

Visitors shared drinks, African food, prayer and song in Elomo Lenya’s honor throughout the week, but came en masse for the all-night vigil.

“People are coming every day to say hi and present condolences,” Emmanuel Lenya said. “Being with people is what is important.”

Labelle Nambangi is a native Cameroonian who came to Minnesota to attend college at Metropolitan State University. Though she didn’t know Elomo Lenya, she said it was important for her to attend the ceremony since the two were from the same tribe.

“It’s really hard to see one of us go,” she said.

While a large gathering is expected upon death, family friend Venny Ngawanyia said Elomo Lenya’s sudden passing led to a greater turnout.

Donate

The Elomo Kuna Lenya Fund
Please contact or send donations to Mr. Wilson Ekinda
Address: 8593 Savanna Oaks Lane, Woodbury, MN 55125
Phone: (651) 501-3661
Cell: (651) 329-7272
Checks: Make checks payable to Elomo Kuna Lenya Fund.
Credit cards: Call TCF Bank at (800) 823-2265 and ask for the Elomo Kuna Lenya Fund.

“This is unprecedented,” he said at the memorial. “It touches us at a different angle. She was young, vibrant. This was so unexpected.”

In Cameroon, people have been gathering at Elomo Lenya’s grandfather’s home since word of her death arrived, Emmanuel Lenya said.

During memorial ceremonies in Cameroon, village members typically don traditional attire and perform customary dances to African music.

“Sometimes when they hear the drumming, everyone goes down and starts dancing,” Emmanuel Lenya said. “It is an honor; it is participation; it is proof of belongingness.”

Siona Nchotu’s daughter came to the University several years ago to pursue a degree in pharmacy, a goal much like Elomo Lenya’s.

Nchotu lived with Emmanuel Lenya before the rest of his family arrived in the United States, and said even the house brimming with supporters would pale in comparison to the services in Cameroon.

“If (this happened) back in Africa, all of the University would be at the funeral,” she said.

A final farewell

With Twin Cities memorial services scheduled for Friday and Saturday, the Lenya family is preparing to bid its final farewell to its daughter, sister and niece.

Veronica Musong, Elomo Lenya’s aunt, reminisced about helping her niece with homework and reflected on the abruptness of death and grieving.

“We are all very sad,” she said. “It’s going to take time. It’s not easy.”

Pending fulfilled financial needs, embassy authorization and a flight reservation, Elomo Lenya’s remains will be sent to Cameroon next week.

Services there will continue upon her body’s arrival and a celebration of her life will likely last for weeks.

– Alex Robinson contributed to this report.