If the money can be raised and the visas obtained, several members of Peter A. Njang's tribe will travel from the village of his birth in Central Africa to the place of his death in Montgomery County.
The visitors will come to a pine-shaded patch of earth at an apartment complex in White Oak, where a police officer fired a bullet into Njang's chest Aug. 12, 2004.
The members of his Mbo tribe will perform a ritual to dispel the ill omen of his violent end. They will invite Njang's spirit to return with them to Cameroon to join the spirits of his ancestors at a sacred hill outside his village.
Like much of the Washington region, Montgomery is a land of transplants who keep their cultures close. Sometimes the habits of home are a comfort during tribulation. And sometimes the burden of defying tradition is too great to bear.
Njang's brother Sebastien said the ritual is necessary to prevent his family's misfortune from spreading to others. He feels guilty that the rites, normally performed at the first anniversary of a death, have not taken place, and he dreams of his brother nearly every night.
"They believe now all of us are bloody," said Catherine Njang, Peter's 33-year-old aunt and de facto big sister, speaking of her family. "So they have to cleanse us."
Sebastien, 30, also embraces the practices of his new land. This week, he plans to file a wrongful death suit against the county in federal court, represented by an attorney who says the death was the result of an especially American misperception. "To put it bluntly: young, black and idle -- must be up to something," Gregory L. Lattimer said.
County officials say the shooting was justified because Peter approached Officer Candice Marchone with a box cutter and refused her orders to stop and lie on the ground.
Sebastien's pastor, the Rev. Currie Burris of Silver Spring Presbyterian Church, is puzzled by the official account of Peter's death. "Why would he go after an officer with a gun with a box cutter? That's crazy."
The county government has its own rituals. A Montgomery grand jury decided in October 2004 that there wasn't cause to prosecute Marchone. An internal police investigation cleared her of wrongdoing.
The Njangs' village, Nguti, is in the rain forest of Cameroon's South West Province, an area bordering Nigeria that was once colonized by Britain. Peter's great-grandfather is said to have founded dozens of Presbyterian churches during a lifetime of proselytizing.
In late 2003, Peter was 24, newly married and on his way to becoming a merchant seaman when he learned he had won the "green card lottery" -- a program in which the United States hands out 50,000 immigrant visas every year. Last year, more than 6 million applied.
He could not resist the chance to follow his brother and Catherine, also winners of the lottery. Arriving in May 2004, Peter and his wife stayed with Sebastien at his apartment in Adelphi. Peter had decided to become a doctor, and Sebastien advised him to start his career in nursing.
Peter disagreed. He resolved to earn money to finance his studies so he could become a doctor as quickly as possible. "He was somebody very ambitious," Catherine said.
In two family pictures taken in Nguti, Peter wears a tie and a serious expression and stands squarely before the camera. Sebastien describes him as "very mobile, very creative."
On the morning of Aug. 12, 2004, Peter and Catherine had planned to meet at her White Oak apartment and take a bus to Wheaton to register for a security-guard course. He was late, so Catherine left without him.
When Peter discovered that Catherine was not at her apartment, he began to wait, standing around under some pine trees. Marchone, on patrol through the parking lot of the rental complex as she ate her lunch, saw Peter and thought his behavior suspicious, according to police. She stopped her cruiser and got out. It was a little before noon.
What happened next is in dispute. One witness, Mario Milton, told television reporters that Njang advanced on Marchone, ignoring her commands, bearing what Milton called both a "knife" and a "box cutter."
"A male coming at her with a knife, that close -- I felt she did what she had to do," Milton told WJLA the day of the killing.
State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said "multiple" witnesses said the same thing, but he would not name them. Lattimer said he has witnesses who will say otherwise, but he would not make them available for interviews, saying he feared they would face intimidation.
Marchone fired her Glock once. As backup arrived, she and others began to administer first aid. On WJLA's tape, she is seen kneeling, her head in her hand, fellow officers around her.
At Their Mother's Side
For Sebastien, one task loomed above all others in the days after Peter's killing: telling their mother, Alice.
She had come to the United States in late 2003 to get medical care for vision problems related to diabetes, but botched treatments in March 2004 left her blind, Sebastien said.
Peter and his mother had grown especially close while staying at Sebastien's apartment. Peter helped her bathe, and Catherine said he brushed aside the notion that a daughter should do such work. "You bathed me when I was a kid," Peter told his mother.
Two days before Peter's death, a health crisis landed his mother back in the hospital.
Sebastien kept in touch with her by phone for two days but didn't tell her about Peter. He and Catherine asked Burris and the hospital chaplain, along with some other family members, to gather in her hospital room.
As they stood around her bed, she and Catherine made small talk. When Alice asked how Peter was, some of those gathered began to weep, but in silence, so she wouldn't know. Catherine led everyone in the chorus of a hymn, and afterward, one of the clergymen told Alice that Peter was dead. "Why not me?" she cried out. "Why him?"
On Sept. 7, Alice, Catherine and Sebastien left Dulles Airport for Cameroon; the casket was sent separately. Catherine and Sebastien returned to the United States after Peter was buried in the family cemetery, but Alice remained.
Since 2002, Sebastien has worked as an armed security guard at the Justice Department. "If the person attacking you has a gun," he said, "you try to shoot first. You don't shoot to injure; you shoot to kill. If he has something less threatening -- a knife, a stone -- you try to use handcuffs, the baton, pepper spray. It's not different for police officers."
Sebastien is a round-faced man with a squat build and a gentle manner. He says these things sitting back on a couch in Catherine's living room, his eyes cast down, his chin on his chest. Sometimes he wears a black T-shirt printed with a single word: "WHY?"
"I don't know if the question will ever be answered to their satisfaction," said Cmdr. John "Mitch" Cunningham, Marchone's supervisor. "The police officer was faced with a life-threatening situation, and she took action which regrettably ended in Mr. Njang's death."
Catherine said that if not for her children, who have grown accustomed to the United States, she would return to Cameroon. "There's no money there, but you have some peace."
Returning to Tradition
Sebastien feels caught between the demands of tribal tradition and the Christianity his family has embraced since his great-grandfather founded churches and raised a son to be a pastor. "Our grandfather never wanted us to get into stuff like this, because he was a Christian," Sebastien said.
He isn't sure about the details of the ritual. As his grandfather wished, Sebastien has not been initiated into the ranks of Nguti's adult men -- those who can enter the sacred area where they believe Peter's spirit will dwell and who might have witnessed a ritual such as the one that will be performed for Peter.
It may occur as early as the end of this month, once family members back home obtain plane tickets and visas for the village chief and others.
"They can't afford not to do it. They may be looked at as an outcast in the village. People may say that they had a hand in" the death, said Greg E. Fonsah, a University of Georgia agricultural economist who is a member of the Mbo tribe and author of a book on its history.
Catherine can't help but remember how a letter informing Peter about the results of the green card lottery initially went to the wrong person and how the family urged him to come to the United States once it was properly delivered. "We were trying to force things," she said. "Meanwhile, God was telling us, 'This child shouldn't go.' "
Peter's relatives in the United States still feel his presence. Sebastien's dreams give him the sense that Peter is away on a trip, perhaps to Delaware or California, and will return. Catherine sees Peter in the faces of passersby. Even now, Sebastien's baby daughter cries out in the middle of the night: "Uncle, uncle, uncle."
Once the ritual is completed, Sebastien supposes his dreams of Peter will end.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.