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Truly Bizarre Story About A New York Shopper, A Prisoner In China And Samuel Eto'o

Truly Bizarre Story About A New York Shopper, A Prisoner In China And Samuel Eto'o
By Paul O'Hara

A grim but bizarre tale from China has just come to wider attention in recent days. In September 2012, an Australian living in New York found an unexpected piece of paper inside a shopping bag on Saks, Fifth Avenue. Hoping to pull out her receipt, Stephanie Wilson found a letter from an African prisoner in China, begging for help from, among others, Samuel Eto'o.

The desperate cry for help was written by a man who said he made the bag while being held unfairly in China. He said he was Cameroonian and had been wrongly convicted of fraud. He claimed he was forced to work thirteen hours a day making paper bags and other small items.

The message was signed Tohnain Emmanuel Njong and was accompanied by a small passport-photo sized photo of a man in an orange jacket.

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Curiously, it also asked the reader to contact Samuel Eto'o. Easily the most famous Cameroonian in the world, Eto'o was playing for Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia at the time. Njong may have felt that Eto'os charitable foundation could come to his assistance.

Please help to contact the United Nations Human Rights Department or if possible Samuel Eto'o Fils and let them know my sad story. I'm Eto'o's fan club manager in the University.

Thanks and sorry to bother you.

Wilson took the letter to the Laogai Research Foundation, which was set up to highlight the conditions in Chinese labour camps, or laogai. This sparked a search for the man, who was eventually tracked down and successfully identified by New York organisation DNAInfo. Unprompted, he managed to confirm details from the letter, including the reference to Eto'o.

Now 34, Njong had been teaching in Shanzhen when he was arrested for fraud in May 2011, a charge he strongly denies. He was denied contact with the outside world and was held in detention for 10 months awaiting the assignment of a government-sponsored lawyer.

Njong was released at the end of his sentence in December last year and put on a plane back to Cameroon. He found work hard to come by on his return home, but has since found a job in Dubai. Even though his letter was found after his sentence was completed, he is glad that somebody found it.  "It was the biggest surprise of my life," said Njong.  “I am just happy that someone heard my cry."

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This is a truly horrifying tale, and the reference to Eto'o was only a part of the man's desperate attempt to alert the outside world. Njong had written a total of five letters, placing French versions in bags that were labelled in French. One can only speculate as to how many similar stories come to a less satisfactory conclusion. It's not even the first time desperate letters for help have been found by unsuspecting members of the public.

On a less tragic note, it's also a reminder that famous athletes are often the only popular references we have to some countries. For example, haven't we all begun a drunken exchange with a person from El Salvador by saying "Mágico González!" in a well-meaning but annoying fashion, or had a Basque person mention John Aldridge's wonder spell at Real Sociedad as their only knowledge of Ireland? I know I have.

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