A Swiss African Story

This is a true story, about a young woman who came to our English-speaking church from a home for asylum-seekers in about 2005. One of the older women in our church who had formerly been a missionary nurse in Cameroon took her under her wing, and helped where she could. I have changed the names of those concerned but the events happened as I tell them.

Seraphina grew up in a Cameroonian village. She was the daughter of a single mother because the village chief refused to let her mother marry her father who came from a different tribe. This situation put them into the lowest social position in the village. Seraphina’s mother scraped a living by selling homegrown vegetables at the village market. When Seraphina turned 15, the chief wanted to marry her off to another old chief and told her mother to present her for female genital mutilation in preparation for the marriage. Neither Seraphina nor her mother were happy about this, and Seraphina ran away. Her mother was told that she must either bring Seraphina back, or be killed because she had dishonoured the village. Somehow, Seraphina was taken to Switzerland illegally by an African man who promised to save her. Her mother was killed.

In Switzerland, the man who “rescued” Seraphina exploited her by getting her addicted to drugs and prostituting her. He was a homosexual, so not interested in her himself except as a source of income. However, he was quite happy to allow her to keep the child, a little girl, that she had when she was about sixteen or seventeen, as it gave him a certain prestige among Africans to have a child. After a while he died, and Seraphina was able to escape from her captivity and claim asylum together with her daughter.  

Then, still addicted to drugs, she was caught dealing them and sent to prison where she underwent withdrawal treatment. Her daughter was taken from her during this time, and fostered by a Swiss family. Although Seraphina is completely drug free now, she contracted HIV during the time of her exploitation and remains HIV-positive.

She had a very hard battle to fight but eventually managed to find a job and her daughter was allowed to live with her again. However, being still on social benefits and having no passport she wasn’t yet eligible for a residence permit although she had been in Switzerland for 12 years.

A few years ago she met a man from Cameroon at a church service in Zurich. His name was Michael, and he had been in Switzerland for about 20 years. He had his own taxi service in Zurich and was well established there. They fell in love and decided to get married, but since Seraphina had no papers she couldn’t get married legally in Switzerland. That didn’t deter them. Michael was there legally and had a valid passport, so he was able to leave the country and visit Cameroon.

He comes from a different part of the country and belongs to a different tribe from Seraphina, so he had to find a way of contacting the right people in Seraphina’s village. She knew that a friend of her mother’s still lived there, but didn’t know the woman’s name. That is a community with no street addresses, but mobile phones were now coming in. Seraphina described the woman to Michael, and explained where she always had her stall in the market (it used to be next to Seraphina’s mother’s stall) so Michael travelled there and searched for the woman. 

The first week she wasn’t at her market stall, and he couldn’t stay until the next week, so he gave a note to a boy at the market and asked him to pass it on to the woman when she came to her stall the following week. The message gave Michael’s phone number and asked her to call him. The boy did as he was asked, and the woman phoned Michael, who explained who he was and why he was trying to contact her. She was happy to help, so Michael went back to the village to meet up with her. 

Since Michael didn’t speak the local language, the woman was willing to be the go-between for him and the village chief. In that society, Seraphina was still considered as a “subject” of the chief and only he could give permission for her to marry, even though she hadn’t been in the village for 12 years. The woman explained to Michael how to behave and what to say so that he would be accepted by the village.

They agreed on a bride price, which Michael then brought ceremoniously to the village chief: a pig, a goat, a certain amount of oil and rice. Then the village held a wedding celebration for the happy couple in the traditional style, with Michael present in person dressed in the wedding costume of his village and Seraphina on Skype from her home in Switzerland, where she and her daughter put on their traditional tribal robes and joined in the dancing with the villagers. Then Michael returned to Seraphina in Zurich, and they moved in together as a married couple. In December 2017 their baby daughter Michaela was born, by C-section because of Seraphina being HIV positive. 

This story has a happy ending. Michael was also able to use his time in Cameroon to apply for papers for Seraphina, and she got a passport at last. Then they could also get married in Switzerland, which allowed Seraphina to get a residence permit, and since Michael also has Swiss citizenship (as does baby Michaela) the whole family has eventually become Swiss. 

16 thoughts on “A Swiss African Story

  1. The intersection of contemporary and traditional is an interesting part of this story. Many might think this dynamic is understandable when we look at the new world intersecting with the developing world. However, we can take the element of this story and see it play out within the confines of the United States. We have startingly poor people in this beacon of western modernity, who’s culture clashes with people just miles away. The human model remains constant throughout the ages. Thanks for the read.

    BTW, the marriage ceremony reminded me of a ceremony I attended, dedicating a public restroom in a small village in Ghana. The chief and his court were there. It was quite regal. The facility had been built by an African American couple, who were repatriating from the U.S.

  2. I must say, I was very moved when I saw the video of the wedding – the traditional celebration in the African village, linked by Skype with another (albeit smaller!) purely African celebration in the bride’s living room. Such wonderful costumes, music and dancing! I can see pros and cons in the patriarchal system of these villages – it would be terrible if all these age-old traditions were lost, but FGM is definitely one that should go. The alternative for this poor girl was hardly better – drug addiction, prostitution and AIDS – but she is in a very good place now. Praise the Lord!

  3. Such a tragic story with a happy ending. Thank you for sharing. Many of my friends are HIV positive and with the right drugs lead a relatively normal life. I hope the same is true for your heroine.

  4. Thank you for sharing!
    I am happy Seraphina met Michael. He seems able to provide love and security that had been lacking in her life. He was able to understand where she came from and go back and do things following the tradition.
    God is great! Blessings!

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