The amazing stories of Africans living in the United States are rarely told in the United States where most people in the news are often white. Kids who grow up watching television or browsing news sites often end up believing that the world ends in California and starts in New York. They may also end up believing that success, peace, care, love and intelligence are all white while failure, chaos, terror, ignorance, anger and violence are all black. TODAY NEWS AFRICA USA knows that’s false. Our popular segment “My American Story” highlights the perseverance, tenacity, intelligence, sophistication, struggles and successes of Africans in the United States and Canada – Simon Ateba, editor-in-chief of Today News Africa, Washington D.C., August 18, 2018.
Jean-Rene Ella-Menye was born in the central African country of Cameroon, but was fortunate enough to study on three continents. He completed his grade and high school studies in Cameroon before proceeding to Strasbourg in France to study pharmaceutical sciences. Finally, he traveled to the United States and studied Organic and Medicinal Chemistry.
“I consider myself an African, a European and an American. I cherish having those three cultures within myself and I am constantly reminding myself where I came from,” he told TODAY NEWS AFRICA USA in an interview in early August.
Jean-Rene Ella-Menye now works for a contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) in the pharmaceutical industry. What they do, he explained, “is take drug development projects from big and small pharmaceutical companies and design a way to make these drugs in large scale from the lab to the plant for clinical trial and commercialization”.
His most memorable moment in the United States, he said, was receiving his PhD.
What he misses the most about living in Africa: “The raw and carefree culture. The food sold in the streets. Did I say the food? The colorful clothes people wear, the open markets with the smell of fresh fruits. The fact that since the primary concerns of so many are basic needs, people are simple and often do not suffer from so-called “First World’s Problems”.
Mr. Ella-Menye granted an interview to TODAY NEWS AFRICA USA, and gave us a peep into his extraordinary life in the United States.
- What’s your name now? What was your name before? What do people call you and what do you prefer to be called?
My name is Jean-Rene Ella-Menye, and still is to this day (laughs). People often call me JR, a bit shorter and easier to remember (laughs)
2. What African country do you identify with and what part of that country do you associate with? What state do you live in the United States? What’s your citizenship?
I identify with Cameroon, where I was born, and although I lived in the capital Yaounde, I love how diverse a country it is and embrace all the different cultures inherent to it. That is what makes it such a culturally rich and colorful place. I live in California and I am (still) of Cameroonian citizenship.
3. Where and what did you study?
I was fortunate enough to study in three countries: primary and high school in Cameroon, pharmaceutical sciences in Strasbourg, France and Organic and Medicinal Chemistry in the US.
4. Where do you work or what type of job do you do?
I work for a contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) in the pharmaceutical industry. What we do is take drug development projects from big and small pharmaceutical companies and we design a way to make these drugs in large scale from the lab to the plant for clinical trial and commercialization. I hope this made sense (laughs).
5. How long have you been in the United States?
I have lived in the US since December 2002, so at the end of this year, it will be 17 years!
6. What has been your most memorable moment in the United States?
There have been a few, however finishing and receiving my PhD degree was definitely one that stands out for me.
7. What has surprised you the most in the United States?
That’s a tricky one (laughs). I would have to say it’s probably how proud people are of being Americans. National pride exists in all countries, but it’s at a different level in the US.
8. What do you like the most about living in the United States?
The fact that it is a country that will afford you opportunities to be the best version of yourself that you can be. Now let’s be clear: at times, America will eat its own young, thus one still needs a good deal of luck. But hard work is rewarded here more often than not.
9. What do you miss the most about not living in Africa?
The raw and carefree culture. The food sold in the streets. Did I say the food? The colorful clothes people wear, the open markets with the smell of fresh fruits. The fact that since the primary concerns of so many are basic needs, people are simple and often do not suffer from so-called “First World’s Problems.”
10. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned about being in the United States?
That although money is an awfully nice thing to have, it will never truly fill one’s heart. Like so many developed countries, there are many wealthy people here. And yet several are over-stressed, depressed and ultimately unhappy. The pursuit of happiness is much more than the search for wealth.
11. What’s your biggest challenge in the United States?
Staying true to the fact that I am a culturally-mixed person. I consider myself an African, a European and an American. I cherish having those three cultures within myself and I am constantly reminding myself where I came from.
12. What’s the biggest misconception about life in the United States that people in Africa have?
Probably that we all live in mansions in Beverly Hills and have so much money that we can take care of a family of 30 back home monthly (laughs).
13.They say that everyone has a book in them. What would your book be about?
About a kid that grew up in Yaounde, Cameroon, arrived in France at the age of 18, had to work nights to pay the rent, pay for food and pay for school, and who eventually made his way to America to be able to provide not only for himself, but also for his family back home.
14.What do you spend the most time thinking about?
How to be the most productive person that I can be, but also the kindest to those around me.
15. What is something you will NEVER do again?
I honestly could not think of anything. I guess that means I haven’t done too many awful things (laughs).
16. What are some of the events in your life that made you who you are?
l lost my mother when I was 20 years old and it’s an event that has shaped my life and will do so until my last breath. It has made me truly value moments with those I love, appreciate life and the opportunities that are presented to us, and never forget that every new day is a gift, not a promise.
17.What is the strangest thing you have come across?
At the risk of sounding blasé, there is nothing that I find overly strange. I think that the world is full of wonders and mysteries, starting with us, human beings. So I often take everything in stride and try to understand the world around me rather than judge it.
18. What are you addicted to?
Luckily, I do not have an addictive personality. However there are a few things I can’t do without: music, sports (practicing, as well as watching), movies, and great relationships.
19. As you get older, what are you becoming more and more afraid of?
That one day I am not going to be able to run anymore (laughs).
20. What song or artist do you like but rarely admit to liking?
I embrace all my musical tastes, so none.
21. If life is a game, like some people say, what are some of the rules?
Life to me is a bit like a chess board, every piece has its own abilities and role. So the main rule in my opinion is: use your skills to the best of your abilities in order to win the game.
22. What’s the most surprising self-realization you’ve had?
That I could sing and play the guitar well enough that many people would not only want to listen to it, but would also enjoy and be touched by it. It is as rewarding as it is humbling.
23. What do you regret not doing?
To this point in my life, I have no true regrets about not doing something that I really wanted to. I am crossing my non-superstitious fingers that things stay that way.
24. What gives your life meaning?
Being able to make this world a better place in my infinitely tiny corner of the universe.
25. What are you most insecure about?
We are all vain to a certain extent, so as I age, I look into the mirror and try to flatten those bags that are growing heavier under my eyes (laughs)
26. How do you get in the way of your own success?
Not always being a go-getter, by being a bit too happy with where I am. It is a tricky subject, because there’s a fine line between having the ability to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, but also pushing to get and achieve even better.
27. What are you afraid people see when they look at you?
Just another black man, stereotyped into what (unfortunately) many in the masses still see, meaning an unsuccessful, unintelligent, often indigent person. In truth, this is something I fear for all people of color.
28. What’s one thing you did that you really wish you could go back and undo?
Oh you are really hitting hard with these questions aren’t you? In an interview once, while trying to look assertive, I gave the interviewer the impression that I was a difficult person, which I’d like to think that I am not (laughs). Needless to say that I did not get that job, and that’s one moment that I’d definitely like to have back.
29. When do you feel truly “alive”?
When I am listening to an amazing song. When I am kissing. When I just finished a great workout. During and after a great, deep conversation. And there are many more.
30. What do you like most about your family?
Through thick and thin, we are and will be there for each other.