Monday, July 27, 2009

Flavor of Cameroon Comes to Ripon via Entrepreneur

Aneh Mundi was born into a prosperous and well-connected family in Cameroon. “My father had his own medical practice – like a small hospital – and my mom was a teacher and a politician.” Both of her parents were trained abroad, and they met and married in Philadelphia.

“When I was little and I looked at their wedding pictures, I thought they were the most beautiful people in the world, and the snow in the background made it even more beautiful. I felt that I could not die without seeing snow. Years later, God answered that prayer. He sent me to Wisconsin -- where snow abounds!”

The path from Cameroon to Ripon was anything but straight, however, involving political and familial upheaval at home, a three year stint in Liverpool, England, and graduate school in Stout, WI.

The path started with a passion: food. “I’ve always loved to work with food. I started cooking for my family when I was eleven. When we played house, I was always the cooking mom, setting up a three-stone fireplace in the yard and cooking something – whether it was edible or not!”

“My mom saw that’s where my passions lay, so I was sent to Liverpool Polytechnic to get my undergraduate degree in Home Economics.” During that time, Aneh’s passion for cooking evolved into a passion for food science. In 1993 she moved to the U.S. and enrolled in the food science Master’s program at UW-Stout. “That first winter it was -30 degrees for weeks, and I thought, ‘Is THIS how winter is?!’ It took a little getting used to!”

In May of 1995, Ripon’s Smuckers plant hired Aneh to work as a supervisor, and then manager, of their Research and Development Department. “At first Ripon was a stretch for me. It bothered me to be the only black person around. But that didn’t last. I met Sue and Art Volkman [then pastor of Trinity Evangelical Free Church], and it turns out that they had lived in DC, and that Art was a good friend of my godfather in DC! Art and Sue were instrumental in the wedding arrangements of my godparents, and my father had been the best man at the wedding. They had pictures of my father!”

After Aneh had finished her program at Stout, she had said, “Okay Lord, I just want to go south.” Meeting the Volkmans confirmed to her that Ripon was where she was meant to be. “I came south all right!” she says, laughing.

As far as adapting to the community and new work situation, Aneh encountered few difficulties. She says she made a decision early on to try not to see problems as a result of racism. “I just don’t go there” she says resolutely. “If someone has a problem with my race or color, it’s their problem.” She also finds that if you live here long enough, “people see you as one of them.”

She has only experienced one case of “really in-your-face racism.” As a Smuckers employee, one day she went to a retailer to charge some items to the company account. “They put me through all this stuff which I know they did not do with other employees. The company controller had to call to resolve the situation and he really gave them an earful.”
Living as an African in a small town pretty much forced Aneh to get to know Americans. “I joined the church family [Trinity Evangelical Free Church] and made a lot of friends there. And I got to know my co-workers. They are no different than people in Cameroon. People have the same desires and ambitions whether they are in a poor or rich country. I was also involved with Ripon Young Life Ministry for about six years, and Choral Union with Ripon College.”

She contrasts her experience in Ripon with the experiences of other Cameroonians, including her siblings, all of whom live in larger cities, and who spend time within their community. “They may have never experienced an American potluck! I’m more comfortable now in this community than I am in my original community.”

Aneh could be speaking for many expatriates when she says she is more comfortable in her new home than her old one, but that in some ways she will still never quite fit in. “I’m in this gray area. I’m still an alien.”

How was her experience of the US Immigration and Citizenship Service (USCIS)?

“When I started working at Smuckers, it was no problem initially getting a work visa.” She started running into problems when she tried to get permanent resident status. For Aneh to get permanent resident status through her job, Smuckers would have had to prove that there was no other American who could do the work.

“It’s a long process of labor certification to prove this.” After two years, Aneh made the decision to leave Smuckers. “We weren’t getting through the visa problem.”

Aneh spent the next year figuring out where she wanted to go with her life, and researching immigration laws. She found what she thought was a promising, little-used visa category for entrepreneurs, but had a hard time finding a lawyer because most of them only wanted to work with the illegal immigrants “that came out of the woodwork” when Clinton declared an amnesty in 2000.

“I was having difficulty because I wanted to do things the right way. I couldn’t find an attorney to take my case – it wasn’t sensational enough.”

Aneh ended up reading through the entire immigration code herself, and participating in seminars designed for immigration lawyers. By the end, “I sure learned how to interview attorneys! You pay a them lot, but a lot of the them don’t know the law as well as I do!”

She eventually found a good immigration lawyer in Tennessee, and took advantage of a program created in 2000 to deal with the huge backlog of immigration cases. “For $1000, you could have your visa process expedited – it was supposed to take five to ten business days.” In the submission process, Aneh’s application package got “lost” in the immigration system, and could not be accounted for by the USCIS.

In the end, repeated inquiries on the part of Representative Petri (whose office received so many calls on Aneh’s behalf that he finally called her to ask for the calls to stop!) she received the visa she sought. She is convinced that if she had not paid the $1000 and enlisted the aid of Representative Petri, there is no telling how long the application would have been lost in the system.

Once her visa problems were more or less resolved, Aneh started a consulting business in food product development, and eventually opened her store, Aneh’s Fine Foods, in 2005. “This is something I’ve had a burning desire to do – to sell my own products!”

Being a consultant has had its rewards. Aneh enjoys the challenge of coming up with products that meet her clients’ parameters. “There is excitement in what I try to do. But some marketing groups’ pie is too high in the sky! Sometimes the marketers will say things like, ‘We want to come up with a new granola bar, and it needs to be all natural and it needs to be able to sit on the shelf for two years!’”

In particular, Aneh has been turned off by a lot of the highly processed, so-called “health food products”. She has a passion for helping people learn to eat delicious, natural, whole grain and wholesome foods, and she aims to show them how to do this. Developing new recipes is one of her favorite activities, and her store is full of products that come with recipe cards. She counsels her customers, “Just because it’s healthy doesn’t mean it has to be boring. And just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It’s about learning to eat responsibly, enjoying what you’re eating and making the right food choices.”

“At my store you can find whole grains such as quinoa, spelt, millet, flaxseed and bulgur; unique rices from around the world, various types of beans, spices, and loose leaf teas. There are some seasoning mixes for meat, such as Ripon Rub, a tribute to Ripon, where I have spent most of my adult life. Bamenda Seasoning, is a tribute to the town where I grew up. The seasoning reflects the types of ingredients used in West African Cooking. These are great rubs for grilling, broiling and even stewing meats.”

Entering Aneh’s Fine Foods, a customer will experience both the exotic and the familiar: everything from chocolate chip cookie mixes to recipes for Ethipian tea, from a calico bean soup mix to a shelf of exotic spices.

To further her goal of encouraging healthy, delicious food, Aneh now delivers a weekly podcast on cooking. “I’m developing a following on-line. I have groupies! They tune in and listen every week. I talk about ingredients and spices, and I put out two or three recipes for the show. It’s fun to see where my listenership comes from – there’s a guy who owns a café in Ohio who tunes in!”

The show can be accessed through live at 6:30 on Monday night, or a recording can be downloaded and listened to at any time.

“I’m a food scientist first, a business person second. I haven’t done everything right, and I’m still on a learning path. I don’t know what else I would do with my life if it wasn’t about working with food. It is a passion I enjoy!”

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