African Fashion Week Minnesota

Small in numbers, Cameroonian community is beginning to make a mark on Minnesota

Cameroonian immigrants and their children are starting new businesses and launching events like African Fashion Week, coming this fall.

Cameroonian Christian Walah at Bali African Market in New Hope on June 4, 2024. He has helped his father run the market featuring African sourced ingredients after immigrating to America 6 months ago.

After years of slow but steady immigration to the U.S., Minnesota has become an unexpected hub for one Central African community.

The state’s Cameroonian population has more than doubled since 2016, when peaceful protests in the country’s Anglophone regions escalated into civil war with the French-speaking majority. 

“The media doesn’t say much about it,” said Adrian Abongmbu, a Cameroonian immigrant and county manager at Alight, a humanitarian aid agency. “But we see it because I know from our community how many family members have been lost and how many have fled for their safety.”

According to the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, in 2016, an estimated 1,400 people in Minnesota reported being born in Cameroon. That number has steadily grown to around 3,600 people in 2022.

When Abongmbu moved to Minnesota a dozen years ago, he remembered meeting people from the Cameroonian community at small gatherings hosted in the homes of families who came from the same tribe as his wife.

“It’s grown exponentially,” Abongmu said of the Bafut tribal community, as well as the larger Cameroonian population in Minnesota. “It’s come to a point where it can’t happen at someone’s house. We have to rent a big hall to host people. And that’s just one community.”

Sahan Journal broke down the Census data and will be profiling some communities that saw dramatic growth in Minnesota since 2018.

Abongmu said he attributes the growing community to the affordable cost of living in Minnesota. 

“It’s very moderate. And it’s very family friendly,” he said. “It’s easy for people to start their lives in Minnesota. Many people are moving from other states here.”

The growth of the Cameroonian community tracks a nationwide trend. More than 89,000 people in the U.S. reported Cameroon as their place of birth in 2022, according to Census data. The largest Cameroonian community in the U.S. lives in Maryland.

Abongmu lives in Ramsey with his wife, daughter, and two sons. His mom also immigrated from Cameroon in 2021 to be closer to Abongmu and his family. He said it’s not uncommon for Cameroonians in Minnesota to encourage family members and friends in other states to move here and support them along the way.

Cameroonians living in the U.S. since 2022 without documentation are eligible for Temporary Protected Status through June 2025. This designation can be renewed if the U.S. government finds a certain country is unsafe to be deported to. The status does not provide recipients with a path to citizenship.

Coming together

Abongmu said one of the biggest gatherings for the Cameroonian community in the U.S. is a soccer tournament held in the Twin Cities every year in August.

“It brings together Cameroonians from all around the country,” Abongmbu said. “People showcase their local businesses.”

The soccer tournament is hosted by the Minnesota Cameroon Community, more commonly known as MINCAM. 

The group was first founded in 2008. It held weekend-long cultural events, fundraisers, and gatherings hosted at a community center in St. Paul. 

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a petition in 2022 alleging the nonprofit mismanaged the community center, letting it fall into disrepair. The group subsequently agreed to improve its policies and oversight and has been in a transitional period since.

Walter Dobgima served as the nonprofit’s president from 2020 to 2022. He resigned due to differences with the board. 

Dobgima moved to Minnesota in 2002. He first immigrated from Cameroon to Arkansas where he had been studying since 2021.

“I had family here. The plan wasn’t to move to Minnesota,” Dobgima said. “I was on summer break and I ended up liking it so I transferred my credits.”

Attracted by more job opportunities in Minnesota, Dobgima transferred to Saint Paul College. He now works in medical laboratory sciences as a technical supervisor for M Health Fairview.

He described MINCAM as an umbrella organization that brought Cameroonians of all tribes together. His favorite project was a weekend-long cultural event that featured performances, vendors, and a gala. The event was typically hosted during the soccer tournament’s final match.

“Those were some of the things that held us together, the cultural events. That was one big event that everyone looked forward to,” Dobgima said, adding that the center’s closing created a void. “There was a lot of differences of what people wanted to be done with that building.”

New cultural events

Florence Wanda moved to Minnesota in 2000 and has since encouraged her sisters, their children and grandchildren to move to Minnesota too. The Lakeville resident lives close to the rest of her family in Apple Valley.

Wanda said that there are many tribal groups within the Cameroonian community that depend on where in the country they came from. Some tribes differ in occupation, the way they prepare certain foods. The biggest difference is in language dialect, Wanda said. Wanda is part of the Bamileke peoples, who live in Cameroon’s western high plateau.

“When I came it was really small so everybody was together,” Wanda said of gatherings and events. “But as the population is growing, there are a lot of groups based on their tribes.”

“I don’t think there is any one venue that could contain all of us in the same place,” she added.

Wanda and her husband run Diaspora One Tikar One People, a nonprofit organization for cultural education and heritage preservation. They are hosting a Minnesota African Cultural Festival in September. 

Wanda’s daughter Modoh Wanda remembers growing up attending Bamilike gatherings at the homes of her family’s friends. They would dress in traditional clothes and eat together. The men would sit in one room and discuss business matters. The women would talk about the same thing but in a separate part of the home, she said. Modoh would hang out with the other kids, who would usually be playing in the basement. 

“That’s how we kept the culture, now that I’m looking back,” Modoh Wanda said. 

She added that the group would also provide mutual support if, for example, someone was sick and struggling to pay hospital bills.

“It was a way for our community to take care of each other,” she said. 

Modoh Wanda is the chief executive officer of the first African Fashion Week in Minnesota which will be held in September, too. The event will feature local fashion designers, as well as designers from Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, and Togo. 

Manka Nkimbeng is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Nkimbeng moved to Minneapolis for work in 2019, but prior to that she had visited family in the state in 2006. She remembered the Cameroonian community at the time being small, but close-knit.

“I came back again three or four years after and it just became bigger,” she said. 

She said that since she’s moved she’s seen a variety of Cameroonian businesses open, such as hairdressers and grocery stores like the Bali African Market in New Hope.

Nkimbeng is part of the Mankon tribe and also serves on the Mankon Cultural and Development Association. The nonprofit has a local and national chapter and works on development projects to support the Mankon community locally, as well as back home.

Nkimbeng recently participated in a mother’s day event in St. Paul for local Cameroonian mothers. They got together and took a limo ride around the city, dressed in Barbie-pink gowns.

“It was such a unique experience,” Nkimbeng said. “It was the first time we honored our mothers in that way.”

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