The Red Carpet: It's A Long Road

Posted: September 27, 1986

The police escort swept into little Marston Street in North Philadelphia, bringing the limousines carrying Philadelphia's distinguished, esteemed and famished guests.

It was almost 4 p.m. and the representatives of Philadelphia's new "sister city," Douala, in the West African nation of Cameroon, had been on the go since 9 a.m.

They were tired and hungry. Mostly hungry.

They were in the middle of a tightly scheduled, event-filled, three-day visit, during which it might have seemed to them that the city had not only rolled out the red carpet but also was using it to flail them.

After being shown the 2900 block of Marston, a finalist in the city's Clean Block Contest, and the community garden nearby, the distinguished guests were urged to return to their limousines because the tour was behind schedule.

Then a number of things happened:

* The enticing aroma of fried chicken and grilled hot dogs reached the noses of the African delegation.

* An abrupt right turn was made, away from the limousines and toward the food.

* An instant block party erupted.

* The city's carefully timed tour fell into disarray.

* Wilhamenia Reeder became the happiest woman in Philadelphia.

Sitting on her porch at 2919 Marston St. was the Honorable Christian Tobie Kuoh, mayor of Douala, with a big dish of Reeder's macaroni salad on his knee. With him were two members of the Douala City Council.

All of them were eating heartily and were full of praise for the culinary skills of the people of the 2900 block of Marston. Soon everybody was eating - even the police officers and the newspaper and television reporters. A party atmosphere prevailed.

It was a happy and smiling Mayor Tobie Kuoh who climbed back into his limousine 20 minutes later. He had been fed, kissed and fussed over, and he left with a little sack of black-eyed peas and an enormous brown paper bag full of collard greens, all from the community garden.

The Marston Street stop Thursday was an impromptu and welcome break from the whirlwind of official functions that began shortly after the Douala delegation's arrival Tuesday evening with a reception at the Palace Hotel, following a 20-hour flight from Cameroon. It ended yesterday with a breakfast, a tour of the Art Museum, a visit to Girls High School, a tour of a water treatment plant and a tour of the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum.

The reception was brief and, by 8 p.m. (2 a.m. in Douala), the delegates had been left at the hotel to have dinner and rest.

Mayor Goode's administration set out to wine, occasionally dine and woo the Douala delegation in an attempt to establish not only cultural and educational exchanges with the city, but economic ties as well.

Douala is a port city of 900,000 in one of the more politically and economically stable countries in Africa, according to Maceo N. Davis, manager of International Business Development for the Philadelphia Commerce Department.

Cameroon is a major exporter of cocoa, coffee, aluminum and other goods, Davis said. It is expected, he added, that its exports to the United States will come via the Port of Philadelphia.

In exchange, the delegates from Douala are interested in tapping Philadelphia's expertise in waste-water treatment, solid-waste disposal and traffic control. Many of the meetings during the three-day visit concerned these matters.

So both the city and the visitors were interested in making this a ''working" visit as well as a ceremonial one, and that appeared to be the major reason for the tight scheduling.

If the 15 members of the African delegation were suffering from the effects of jet lag, it didn't prevent them from showing up the next morning (Wednesday) for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast briefing, followed by an 8 a.m. motorcade tour of Center City and a stop at the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, 419 S. Sixth St. Then they were whisked through the historic district, with quick stops at the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Next, there was a brief meeting with Goode, who said that making a sister- city agreement with an African city had been one of his major goals since taking office.

Everyone gathered in the Mayor's Reception Room for the official signing of the agreement, an hour-long ceremony that began with the playing of both countries' national anthems and that was marked by speeches by Goode, Tobie Kuoh and Paul Pondi, the Cameroonian ambassador to the United States.

Thus, Douala became Philadelphia's sixth sister city. The others are Florence, Italy; Tel Aviv; Torun, Poland; Tianjin, China, and Inchon, South Korea.

After the ceremony, the delegates stood in a receiving line for an hour, shaking hands with city officials and others.

Then, as would happen often during the visit, the men went in one direction and the women in another. While the men were having lunch and a tour of Temple University, the wives of Tobie Kuoh, Pondi and Paul Engo, the Cameroonian ambassador to the United Nations, and Douala Councilwoman Elise Tchamba were having lunch and meeting several Philadelphia businesswomen at the Business Technology Center, 5070 Parkside Ave.

The women, with the exception of Tchamba, who rejoined the men's delegation, then went on "a very brief shopping tour," according to Barbara Cox, executive director of the Mayor's Commission for Women, and to dinner at Cornucopia, a catering establishment, where the National Political Congress of Black Women was their host.

Tobie Kuoh and his party went from Temple to a meeting with various department heads in City Hall, followed by a visit to the American Institute of Architecture, 16th and Sansom Streets, and a 6 p.m. reception at the Urban Education Foundation, 46th and Market Streets.

Dinner was not on their schedule. Although there were hors d'oeuvres at the reception, the visitors were too busy being greeted and shaking hands to get near the food.

The reception lasted until well after 7 p.m., leaving little time to change before everyone was supposed to be at the Port of History Museum at 8 for a program showcasing such Philadelphia talent as Philadanco, the New Freedom Theater and jazz singer Janice McClain.

But the tour's organizers had trouble getting their guests out of the hotel on time - some wanted to rest; some wanted to eat. Nobody arrived at the museum's theater until 9 p.m. Tobie Kuoh, who is 73 years old, decided to skip the concert.

Thursday saw the pace continue - at least until the delegation hit Marston Street. It began with a reception at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall and ended with a black-tie dinner hosted by Goode.

The delegates, if they felt harried, were too diplomatic to say so. Even if they had complained among themselves, most of those around them would have been unaware of it, since French was the only language spoken by the majority of the party. Tobie Kuoh did say, through an interpreter, that he was "very impressed with the attention and care given to the planning of our visit."

Asked late on Thursday if he found the pace hectic, interpreter Kent Felton, who serves as a consultant to the Commerce Department, said: "Hectic? Right now I don't know whether I'm speaking French or English."

Thursday morning's schedule included a meeting of City Council, where Council President Joseph Coleman told the delegates, "My heart is full of

joy" at the prospect of having Douala as a sister city.

There were formal introductions of all of the council members and each of the delegates. There was a moment of silence for the 1,746 people killed in Cameroon in August by an eruption of poison gas from the earth. There were speeches by Goode, Tobie Kuoh and Pondi. Resolutions welcoming and honoring the visitors were proposed and passed.

After Council, there were more meetings with city officials. Then the official delegates were taken by motorcade for a brief visit with Constance Clayton, superintendent of schools.

This was followed by what was supposed to be a "tour of city neighborhoods," but the first stop was Marston Street, and the delegates were hungry . . . .

"I never had such famous people sitting on my porch," said Wilhamenia Reeder. "They are really very friendly, you know. And such good appetites!"

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