State of the Union / When Michel met Sophie
An African Baha'i meets an American faithful who was always drawn by the call of faraway lands.
Michel Nkouaga’s father, an engineer from the Cameroonian village Ebolowa, always liked detective novels. One day, in the library, he spotted a title that looked promising: “Thief in the Night.” He took it home, not realizing it was about the principles of the Baha’i faith, one of the world’s youngest major religions.
And, well, as his son, sitting at the Baha’i World Headquarters in Haifa several decades later, puts it, “That turned out to be a good read.”
Michel, 33, along with his four brothers and one sister, grew up following the teachings of the Bahá'u'lláh, considered by the faithful to be God’s latest messenger and the one who founded the religion in 1863 in Iran. Michel first came to Israel –where both Bahá'u'lláh and the Bab, the accepted forerunner of the faith, are buried – for a month-long visit in 2005.
That year, Michel was in the middle of his agriculture studies at Dschang University, in Western Cameroon, but as one of his brothers was doing a volunteer mission in Haifa, he and the rest of his siblings took the opportunity to make a family pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Once together, in between praying and volunteering, those Nkouagas did a lot of what they enjoy most – singing.
The family choir performed at several Baha’i gatherings that month, singing traditional Cameroonian favorites as well as Western covers in French, English and Bulu, their tribal language, and along the way acquiring a few fans.
“The first time I saw her was at a concert in a garden patio,” says Michel. “I saw a sea of people, but somehow this specific lady in the front drew my attention …though I did not know she would be my wife.”
Sophie Richardson, a strawberry-blonde daughter of an electrician dad and an accountant mom, grew up in Florida but always felt the calling of far-away lands.
Like Michel, Sophie is not only a Baha’i by upbringing, but also, as required, has reaffirmed her dedication to the faith as an adult, joining an estimated 5 million to 6 million practicing Baha'is spread around the world today.
In 2004, after earning a degree in international relations from Indiana University and working for a few years in Spain in an import-export business, Sophie, who prefers not to reveal her age, came on a mission to Israel. Every year, some 650 Baha’is from around 80 different countries do the same, showing up to voluntarily tend the gardens, guard the shrines, do the paperwork and get closer to their faith.
Less of a romantic sort than Michel, Sophie does not remember that patio concert, nor would she classify herself as a “fan” per se, but she was friendly with Michel’s brother, a fellow volunteer, and so came along to some gigs. And at one of them – she can't remember which – the two first spoke.
“She asked me about Equatorial Guinea, which borders Cameroon. It’s the only African country where they speak Spanish, and she said she had always wanted to come to Africa and was planning to go live there, because she could speak the language,” says Michel. “I immediately felt that here is a lady who knows what she wants and does things for herself. I don’t like ladies who think the man has to do everything.”
At the end of the month, Michel returned to Cameroon, finished his studies and soon found a job with the ministry of agriculture, doing research on coffee and cacao breeding on a plantation in the south. Sophie, meanwhile, wrapped up her two-and-a-half year mission and, true to her word, moved to Equatorial Guinea, where she started working for Spanish companies in administrative jobs.
The two tried to keep in touch by phone and e-mail, much as one would with any friend, but it was not easily done. Despite being about 300 kilometers away from each other, as the crow flies, communications between the neighboring countries was abysmal. Not to mention that Michel, living in the tiny plantation village, had to travel 40 kilometers just to get to a phone line or a computer with Internet.
They did get to see each other, however, at several Baha’i regional gatherings in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé.
It was at one of those gatherings, at the end of November, four years after they met, that Michel says he first considered “moving forward” with Sophie. “I was thinking that I needed to have a family and get settled and Sophie was of a good character,” he says. He was too shy to say anything though, so only brought it up later, in an e-mail. They agreed to discuss the matter in person the next time they attended a meeting in Yaoundé together.
“What is that?” Michel says, looking confused when asked whether he had ever dated any other girls besides Sophie. She, in turn, is familiar with the concept, but such “dating,” stresses Sophie, was never part of her lifestyle, either.
"It was not the way I was raised," she says.
Indeed, it’s not common practice in the Baha’i faith to “date” in the Western sense of the term, and the religion does not allow members to have any physical relations prior to marriage. Instead, members of the opposite sex typically begin as friends, and when they feel it may be appropriate, they can move on to discussing that next step. Marriage, in the Baha'i faith, is only allowed between a man and a woman.
Sophie liked Michel’s character too. “I got to know him better in the context of those meetings. I observed him from afar. How he treated me was less a concern, but I wanted to see how he treated others,” she says. In addition, she notes, she liked Michel’s “devotion to God.”
Michel nods in agreement. “We were spiritually aligned,” he says. “After that, all the rest comes together on its own,” she says.
But before going any further, according to their faith, the couple needed to get the blessings of their parents. So, Michel went home to talk to his mother and father, who already knew and were fond of Sophie, while she, upon return to Equatorial Guinea, called her parents in Florida.
“My mother had been mentally prepared for a while. This was the first time I approached them with this topic, and so while they did not know Michel, they could tell I had thought it through thoroughly,” she says. A wedding date was set for March, three months later.
“The approach of sitting down all together and discussing character and priorities makes complete sense to me. I can't think of any other way of doing it,” says Sophie. “That is what marriage is all about. There are other elements, like attraction. But you need this foundation.”
The fact that Sophie and Michel are an interracial couple was of no concern to them or their families. If anything, such unions are specifically praised throughout Baha’i scripture, as one the faith’s main tenants is one of unity – that humanity is one single family, with appreciation for diversity of ethnicities, nationalities, cultures and social backgrounds.
“In Africa, when you marry a white person, people are happy for you, because they misunderstand: They believe that you are marrying someone with a lot of money and so you will soon be rich too,” admits Michel. “But that was not what our marriage was about. In our religion there is just no such thing as prejudice.”
The wedding was a modest affair, and took place in the Nkouaga family’s garden, with members of Michel’s family and some Baha’i friends at hand. Sophie’s parents had considered coming too, but her mom was intimidated by the vaccinations needed to travel to Cameroon, and her dad did not get a visa in time. Sophie wore her best dress for the occasion, but it was neither white nor new. The young couple read a short vow prescribed by the Baha’u’llah affirming their dedication to God, Michel’s youngest brothers sang, and his parents invited everyone to a homemade dinner.
Afterward, the young couple moved together back to Michel’s village in the south, where he continued his research, and Sophie became a housewife, mingling with the 100 or so other villagers, reading lots of books, cooking, and eventually getting a satellite Internet connection set up at home, which, she admits, cracking a grin, was a “lifesaver.” They also spoke about the future. Michel wanted to study in North America, Sophie wanted to continue working in Africa.
But first, they wanted to spend some time dedicating themselves, as a family, to a Baha’i volunteer mission. And so, a year after the wedding, Michel and Sophie found themselves back in the Haifa gardens where they had first met. “It was important to me that we serve before continuing with our lives,” says Michel. “God is the one who gives us everything and we need to put in something.”
These days, they live, like all volunteers here, in an apartment rented for them by the Baha’i center, and spend their days volunteering at the headquarters: Sophie doing her second stint in the administration, and Michel out in the gardens, working as an irrigation specialist. Sometimes, they go to the beach, or out for a meal, or travel around the country, especially to Akko, Baha’i's other holy site in Israel. They have not been to Tel Aviv, nor does it sound very interesting. “But what is there to do there?” they ask.
The plan, after their two-and-a-half year mission ends, will be to go get more education, hopefully, Michel says, in the U.S. or Canada. And then, Sophie chimes in, they plan to return to Africa to live. Children, of course, they say, are also part of the plan. “We will get confirmations along the way. Everything will fall into place,” she says.