A bond formed across cultures

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 12, 2008

By AMY GORDON / Staff Writer

HELENA — As Veronica Ngae looks at her youngest daughter, the pride is evident in her eyes. After all, Hannah, 21, is a talented singer with a sweet smile who plans to attend college next year — a dream she could not have achieved in Kenya, the Ngaes’ original homeland.

The Ngaes came to Shelby County from Kenya in 2004 because of the economic situation, Veronica said. She and her husband, George, have seven children; because of age limits, only the youngest four were covered by their parents’ green cards. The oldest three are still in Africa.

“We don’t have good jobs in Africa. There’s no money,” Veronica said. “The three still in Africa don’t have jobs. They’re depending on me. I send them money. My parents are depending on me.”

Veronica, an Alabaster resident, makes money in different ways — she works at Frankie’s, a local restaurant; she cleans a local church; and she cleans houses in the area. Her determination to earn money for her family, however, is what led her to Cathy Vanderkamp’s house and to a friendship that would change two lives.

To hear Cathy tell it, their meeting was a twist of fate.

“Veronica walked from door to door and left little pieces of notebook paper with her information on it,” said Cathy, a Helena resident. “Eventually, she caught me at home, and she would not take no for an answer. I was really impressed, and she really wanted to work.”

The working relationship between the two blossomed into a friendship-mostly because the two had more in common than it first seemed.

“I’m not from Birmingham, and I just didn’t feel that I fit in here. Veronica and I are both outsiders,” Cathy said. “We have the same beliefs. I like that being a part of my life.”

Veronica said Cathy makes life simpler.

“She has helped me so much. She is my help here. We are sisters now,” said Veronica.

For Veronica, who will apply for citizenship next year, the United States is her homeland now. While she holds on to some of the African traditions, her children have become more Americanized. In 2006, Hannah even put her singing to the test and tried out for American Idol.

“They said I was nervous but I had a beautiful accent,” Hannah said, flashing her grin. “Even Simon said I had a beautiful voice.”

Hannah gets her voice talent from her mother, who in turn gets her talent from her own father-God.

“When I am shopping or cleaning houses, God says, ‘Stop what you are doing and write these songs,'” Veronica said. “One day in Wal-Mart, Cathy was shopping and I was singing in my head. I was singing to God.”

That unshakable faith is at the heart of the bond between the two women, Cathy said.

“She gives to my spirit,” Cathy said. “Her presence gives me a peace. It’s almost like she gives me permission to relax. Veronica and her family live Christian acts of kindness.