October 15 was a special day in the calendar of Henri Etoundi Essomba, ambassador of Cameroon and dean of the Diplomatic Corps. It marked the 17th anniversary of the day that he presented his credentials to president Ezer Weizman.
While 17 is hardly a landmark number as such, it certainly is in a single ambassadorial posting.
Most envoys are in a posting for anything from two to four years. There are occasional exceptions such as that of US ambassador Walworth Barbour, who was in Israel for almost 12 years (1961-1973), or Mohammed Bassiouni, the ambassador of Egypt who served in the post for 14 years (1986-2000) until he was recalled during the second intifada, but as far as anyone can remember, no one has served as long as Essomba.
In fact, he has spent a total of 22 years in Israel. His four children were raised here, and although they are now in different parts of the world, having gone abroad for their university studies, they all regard Israel as their second home after Cameroon, and have many friends here.
Essomba was initially sent as chargé d’affaires in the early 1990s to set up the chancery and pave the way for Cameroon’s first ambassador to Israel.
He thought that he would be here for only a few months, but the few months stretched into five years, and no ambassador was sent during that period.
In the mid-1990s, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Essomba was summoned home and offered the position of deputy chief of protocol. He saw it as a learning experience and accepted. But within a short time he became Cameroon’s first ambassador to Israel.
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Nine years ago, in addition to his regular diplomatic duties, he became dean of the Diplomatic Corps.
As a rule, the dean is the veteran of all the heads of foreign missions in a given country.
But not every envoy wants the headaches or the added expenditure in a budget that is not increased by his or her foreign ministry. Bassiouni refused to be dean as did several representatives of European countries who were next in line. Dean is an honorary position that enables entrée into more intimate political and diplomatic circles as for instance meetings with royalty and heads of state and government, because the dean is always invited to welcome receptions, state dinners and other significant events and has the opportunity to shake hands and exchange a few words with the guest of honor.
Essomba’s eyes still sparkle as he recalls shaking hands at the airport with US President Barack Obama when the latter arrived in Israel in March 2013, and who when they met, wanted to know which African country Essomba represented.
In his boyhood, diplomacy was not his first choice as a profession.
In the French-speaking region of Cameroon, French customs and traditions continue to linger.
In every family there is a priest and a soldier. “I was the son my parents assigned to God,” Essomba recalled. He had grown up with the concept and genuinely believed that this was his calling – his mission in life.
For a while he attended a seminary, but when he found the constraints of religious life too taxing and began questioning some of the things he’d been taught, he earned the displeasure of his teachers and was eventually asked to leave.
He was then offered the opportunity to become a soldier, but he didn’t like that, so he enrolled at university instead and studied economics.
After he graduated, he was offered the chance to study for a PhD in America, but it entailed a lot of bureaucracy. In the interim, he sat for the entrance exam to the School for Diplomacy.
Friends who pointed out to him that the US scholarship did not include family expenses.
He had overseas postings in Paris and Brasilia before he was sent to Israel, but the major part of his diplomatic career has been spent here. He has no explanation as to why he has never been replaced, and much as he has learned to love the country and its people, he would like another posting before he retires. In Cameroon retirement age for diplomats is 60, and for Essomba that’s not so far off.
A basketball and soccer fan, Essomba used to play basketball at the Herzliya Country Club.
The mayor thought he was an American and offered him a position on the Herzliya basketball team. Though flattered, he was unable to accept, but he did accompany the mayor on several occasions when they went to watch a game.
He remains constantly surprised by the joyfulness and spontaneity of the people. “It is difficult to connect them with the perceived environment from abroad,” he says. “It’s something that absolutely continues to fascinate me.”
Though reluctant to voice any criticism of Israel, Essomba says that he occasionally allows himself because he’s been here for long that “I feel like an Israeli myself. I’ve been contaminated by the lack of patience.”
Although Israelis can be very polite, more often he finds them to be “quite rough.”
While his combined duties as ambassador and dean of the Diplomatic Corps don’t leave him much time for reading, when he does read, his preference is for biographies – especially those of Israel’s leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon. He reads biographies in English but prefers to read fiction in French, though he admits that he read Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness in English.
Over the years he has learned to love Israeli food. “When it comes to cuisine I’m totally Israeli even though I’ve never cooked.” He is particularly enamored with Israeli salads and other vegetable dishes “and of course I still eat humus. My children ask us to send them humus from Israel even though they can get it where they are.
But they want the special flavor from Israel.”
But once he leaves Israel for whatever reason, what will remain in his mind, he says, “is the gap between the perception and the reality of the country.
When you look at Israel through the eyes of the media, it is not a place to attract you. But living here, you are given opportunities to see the realities.”
Wherever he goes in Israel, regardless of life style and ideologies, he gets the feeling of a country struggling to secure its place within the international community. “You talk to people from the Left or the Right, and they all have this concern.”
His prayer is that Israel will live in peace as soon as possible.
“Coming from a peace-loving country like Cameroon, I was able to measure what peace means to the people in this country.”
For Essomba, his long period of service in Israel has been “a school for life, because you meet people from so many different horizons.” He says that he owes a lot to Israel, because in being confronted with so many different situations, he has been able to mature as a diplomat. It has also helped him to understand many things about Israel that may elude some of his colleagues who have served here for much shorter periods. “A lot of times I have to remind myself: You’re not an Israeli. You’re a Cameroonian.”
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