Oklahoma's mourners seek understanding in Africa Bantus who overcame tragedy invite bombing victims' survivors to visit


Lee Ann Whittenberg can no longer stand to look at the daily pictures of the Oklahoma City bombing in which her 35-year-old daughter died.

So Whittenberg, 59, has accepted an invitation from Bantu tribesmen in Africa to visit and talk about what happened.

The Bantus are experts in grief.

They live around the volcanic Lake Nios in Cameroon. In 1986, a deadly cloud of carbon monoxide rose from the lake and killed more than 1,700 villagers, all of their cattle -- even the birds and insects.

Nearly a decade later, the hearts of the 500 Lake Nios survivors went out to those in Oklahoma City when a bomb ripped the face off the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and wounding more than 500.

It took a while for the Bantus to find a way to extend their invitation to the grief-stricken in Oklahoma, but it finally arrived in December through an international aid agency.

It came just in time for Whittenberg, whose mourning for her daughter Jo Ann has been reawakened by the trial of suspect Timothy J. McVeigh and the photos and newsreels of the carnage.

"To look at this over and over on TV every day breaks my heart," said Whittenberg. "I need to see something else. I need to see the courage that these people [the Bantus] had after the tragedy that they had gone through and to see how they have grown. For me, this is a blessing."

Amazed Oklahomans who never even heard of Cameroon or Bantus before have gratefully accepted the offer. Money was raised so that 10 of the Oklahoma City survivors or spouses of victims can leave next week to spend two weeks in the Bantus' tiny mountain villages.

As many as 50 people had wanted to go.

"One of the ways that people heal is understanding that they are not alone, that other people have sustained significant losses in their lives," said Valerie Dana, executive director of Interfaith Disaster Recovery of Greater Oklahoma City, the agency that is coordinating the project, dubbed COURAGE.

"They will talk about the disaster and how they coped. A lot of it was just pure will power and determination to go on."

That is what Sharon Coyne needs to hear. Her 14-month-old daughter, Jaci, died in the America's Kids day care center.

"I was never suicidal, but, especially right after the bombing, I felt that the quicker I go, the quicker I'll get to see Jaci again," Coyne said.

"[The Bantus] prove that it's still worth living," said Coyne, 26, who wants to bring some of her daughter's baby clothes to give to the villagers.

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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