My Father's Gift
by Sixtus Z. Atabong
“Sixtus’s father had only one request of Sixtus—‘give back.’ And give back he did.” —Edward C. Benzel, MD, emeritus chairman of Neurosurgery, Cleveland Clinic
Born into a poor West African family in the disease-stricken town of Fontem, John N. Atabong embarked into the unknown in search of hope. He was eleven, but he triumphed against all odds to give his children the best care and education available. Eventually, he sacrificed his most valuable possession, his son Sixtus, sending him to study in the United States with nothing more than lessons learned from his days working the farms and his father’s basic biblical teachings. Sixtus Atabong's journey of temptations and challenges in the US gives rise to a mission: to give back. He uses his gift to extend God’s healing hands and unfailing love to the far corners of the earth through sustainable health care infrastructures. Fulfilling his father’s dream, Sixtus hopes that he too can leave the world a better place than he found it.
IN THOSE DAYS, IT was not unusual for a family to have more than five children. The reasons were three-fold. First, families never knew which child would survive to adulthood.
Secondly, more children also meant more farm hands, increased productivity and profit for the whole family. Lastly, as parents grew old, the role of caretaker went to the children. More children meant that role could be distributed among many instead of a few. However, the popular expectation at that time was that girls would marry into a different family, so only the boys would inherit and foster their family name and legacy. Even with all his success, Dad still felt all his hard work would be in vain if
he did not have a son to carry on his legacy. The superstition in rural villages was that a prosperous farmer without a son must have made a deal with the dark powers—his sons in exchange for wealth. My father did not want that taint.
Though Dad knew there was a God, he didn’t know much about Christianity. He had been introduced to the faith by Catholic and Protestant evangelists, but always brushed them off and would advise them to get a real farm job and stop extorting people. He had been to the Catholic Church several times, usually during celebrations, but he still had doubts about the existence of the one God. He admitted that sometimes he would contemplate the beauty of his surroundings, and its relation to his existence. The one thing he was certain of was that hard work led to success.
It was a cloudy day in July 1974 when he had his first communion with God. It was the season for insect control. At the break of dawn, he made it out to his cocoa farm with his insecticide supplies. The crew worked for hours on end and stopped for a break only if it rained, because the rain would wash
away the chemicals immediately. They strapped on their back a ten-gallon tank of water mixed with insecticides, with the pump on the left hand and sprayer on the right. Rainwater in barrels
throughout the farm was used to remix and refill whenever the workers ran out of chemicals. They would repeat the drill several times throughout the day for up to three months, and would only stop for harvesting season.
On this fateful day, the rain poured. Dad couldn’t make it back to the farmhouse, so he found shelter beneath a tree. He took a short nap and dreamed that Mom was pregnant with a boy. He awoke and envisioned life with a son he could go to the farm with. He thought, If this God does exist, he should know my heart’s desires and give me a son. He went down on his knees, raised his arms up to the sky and made a deal with God—since I have no enemies and I’ve taken care of many, and I’ve worked hard all my life, you should bless me with a son. He went home and told my mother of his promise to God, asking her to help him keep this covenant should they be blessed with a son.
Good news came three months later. Mom was carrying another baby. But would this be the long-awaited boy my father had asked for? There were no ultrasounds or laboratory tests to tell, so everyone had to wait nine months to find out.
With the rumors in town that father was not capable of having a son, he decided to make a very friendly bet with the village chief, who at this time was his very good friend. Because all of father’s farms were far from the house, he had always wanted a farm closer for my mother and the girls to plant noncash crops for home consumption. However, the properties around the village were forbidden land, reserved for the chief and his family. So the chief entered a verbal agreement with my
father: if my mother gave birth to a male child, he would give my father a piece of farmland close to the village. In return, Dad would name his son after the chief.
With every passing day for six months, Dad performed nightly prayers with the family. He bought a four-pound King James Bible and asked his children and strangers to read it to him. He wasn’t afraid to show his newfound friendship with God by buying the biggest Bible he could find.
In those days, most women delivered children at home, and only those who could afford it travelled to the closest government hospital. Since it was impossible for a pregnant woman to know her delivery date, she and a family member would travel to the hospital vicinity and find a home to live in near a hospital. This period of uncertainty sometimes lasted for weeks or even months, especially for first pregnancies.
Dad had decided that this child, like the previous five, would be delivered at Mount Mary Hospital in Buea, the provincial capital of this region in Cameroon. This was a Catholic mission hospital about thirty miles away. It served wealthier government officials and was run by European missionary physicians. Mom went ahead and Dad planned to follow to Buea three weeks before delivery. They stayed with a distant relative a few blocks from the hospital.
On the day of delivery, my father sat outside the delivery room and waited. After delivery, a nurse came out to notify him of the birth. He gave thanks to God. Mom asked her if she had told him the sex of the child, and the nurse responded that she hadn’t. “My pikin, e get five girl pikin dem and e don di wait for boy pikin. Abeg go tell yi say na boy pikin,” Mother explained to her that her husband has five girls and is very anxious to find out the sex. She asked the nurse to go back outside and tell him that it’s a boy. The nurse went back outside and asked my dad why he didn’t inquire about the sex of the baby. Dad responded that he was too anxious to find out. The nurse then announced to him that he was the father of a baby boy.
Dad took off in a state of elation. He gathered some friends and passersby in Buea and a nearby town of Muyuka to celebrate with him. It would take him about twenty-four hours, and on April 1st he made it back to Munyenge. He proudly announced my birth, the birth of his first son, as he entered the village. They all thought it must have been an April Fool’s Day joke. As it was customary during this time, because of the high infant mortality rate, newborns were kept in the hospital for weeks, even months. My dad was asked by one of his brothers how the baby was doing, and he replied that he was so overjoyed and eager to share the news that he forgot to see the baby. It was also not unusual for men to go days before seeing their wives and new babies. It would be another three days before a delegation from the village accompanied father to come for me.
Mom and Dad went on to have three more girls and another boy. They were also blessed with numerous adopted children. Their faith in God would grow with children, and Dad’s dedication to impact his surrounding would also grow. Together they worked hard to keep his covenant with God.
Sixtus Z. Atabong, PA-C, President and Founder of Purpose Medical Mission (PMM) is a neurosurgery Physician Assistant. PMM is a nonprofit organization focusing on developing sustainable healthcare infrastructure and services in developing countries. It has helped build clinics and hospitals in Cameroon, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Sixtus believes in empowering communities with the knowledge and tools to address the global threat of health disparity and lack of basic education.
Sixtus is the recipient of numerous local and national awards for his leadership and humanitarian work, including the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center Hall of Fame Award and the American Red Cross Humanitarian of Year Award. In 2013, he was awarded the PA Service to the Underserved Award by the American Academy of Physician Assistants.
Sixtus was born and raised in a small farming village in Muyuka Sub-division, Cameroon, West Africa. He migrated to the United States in 1995 where he faced many challenges, but eventually obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Laboratory Sciences and a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. He uses his life experiences and voice to motivate individuals on attaining their God-given purpose. He speaks on issues such as, living a purposeful life, realizing your American dream, financial independence, and racial relations.
Sixtus' goals in life have been achieved through faith and self-determination. He enjoys traveling the world with his family and learning about different cultures. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, with his wife, Kyu Mee, and their two sons.
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