IMPORTANT: If anyone at all has information about how three American citizens should go about crossing the Cameroonian border into mainland Equatorial Guinea, please please please contact me. NO ONE WILL GIVE US A STRAIGHT ANSWER/THIS COUNTRY MIGHT NOT BE REAL.
Case in point: “You should totally go there! It’s kind of like North Korea.” -American NGO employee who once tried travel to EG. His flight was “canceled.”
The group has an ongoing list of things we’ll probably never say again. They’re not all appropriate, nor are they all understandable, but I’ve pulled a few in an attempt to give an idea of what the heck life looks like here. As you read, bear in mind that every one of these was said in the most nonchalant of ways. Totes normal.
“The damn rooster woke me up at four again today.”
“After ringworm, life’s a breeze.”
“I mean, it was good. Some guy tried to get me to take his sister as his wife.”
“Sometimes I worry that I’m going to bump into somebody and be the reason they spill all their peanuts.”
“My 17-year old brother keeps taking my camera to take pictures of his bellybutton.”
You haven’t really lived until you’ve been violently ill from the point where two African train cars connect with a very surprised police officer holding onto you to ensure that you don’t fly off the speeding locomotive into nocturnal jungle nothingness. My body picked a great time to pick up a parasite. This one may not make the cut for Tales of Cameroon: an Uplifting Collection of Short Stories.
The other day, Margie, Abby, Sumi and I were having a particularly rough day. As a result of being in terrible moods, we discovered the perfect Cameroonian cure-all:
Street ice cream
+ “We Found Love” coincidentally starting to blare through the sidewalk speakers said up being the ice cream man just as we got there
+ the reappearance of Rat Man, a street vendor who sells rat poison from a cardboard box. The box has four dead rats strapped to it, presumably to demonstrate the effectiveness of his product. There is nothing to do but laugh.
We’ve lived in the north for a week now. Ngaoundere, specifically. If someone told me that SIT was starting our program over and I would be spending the entire time here, in this home stay, with this climate and this landscape, I’d accept with joy.
My host family here. What women. This time around I have a widowed mother, an older sister (truly older- she has her PhD) and a 3-year old niece. Oddly similar in demographic to my Yaounde host family, but so different in every other way.
I am, once again, the farthest away from classes by 15-20 minutes. But I wouldn’t trade it. Instead of being in the city, we’re in a suburb, almost. I walk through a field and a foresty area to get home, and can see the bustling part of Ngaoundere across open landscape when I turn into my neighborhood. Our house is a little set back from the main road and our entire front yard is garden. Beautiful, flowering, wooded garden full of little birds. There are vines growing on the gray house, and it makes it entirely possible for this place to ever look drag- it’s a healthy gray one beautifully accelerated by all of the green around it.
And this gray house has people constantly in and out of it, whether they’re family members, children selling produce and other little necessities, the young man who works in the garden, or the 3-year old’s friends. It’s delightfully communal; I always have a sense that we’re strongly connected to everyone around us. We know what they need when they need it, and they know the same for our family.
On Sunday, I went out to the porch to write, and Maman was sitting on the steps with a girl from the neighborhood. This particular girl was selling little pancake dough things. Maman sent her inside to get a pot, which the girl did, and she proceeded to fill the thing to the brim. Then she left, but she left behind her tray with food still on it. Maman stepped inside, leaving the pot. I held my seat, confused, and selfishly assumed that our house would be having pancake things for breakfast.
As I sat alone on the porch, there were a few young kids who wandered around the side of the house to stand in front of the porch. I smiled and greeted them, and when it was clear that they didn’t know French beyond the basic greetings, I went back to my writing.
→ About 80% of Ngaoundere’s population speaks only Fulfulde and that figure typically applies to women and children first. In turn, this is more true for the lower class who don’t have access to a strong and consistent education. Unfortunately, if a child ever wants to leave northern Cameroon, even just to travel, it’s invaluable to be a French speaker. ←
I also assumed, as I returned to my writing, that I did not need to go inside and inform Maman that these children were waiting outside. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go from this house in a week and I’ve yet to encounter someone who has done so by accident.
Sure enough, Maman was back shortly. She reclaimed her place on the steps, brought the pot to her lap, removed the lid. Then she said something in Fulfulde and the first of the children approached her, both hands held out, palms up. She gave him a little pancake. He quietly thanked her and retreated. Then the other kids do the same. As the first six were fed, more and more kids began to stream into the garden from every side. Nobody pushed or fought for seconds; each accepted his or her breakfast and stood back to slowly eat.
I stopped counting at 39, but I’m fairly certain that between 50 and 60 children, all under the age of ten, visited my host mother over a span of fifteen minutes. She fed all of them. In fact, somehow, she had exactly the right amount of food- even to feed the few stragglers who came after all the others had already left. She bought out the girl’s entire supply of pancake-breads.
When everyone had left and it was only Maman and me, she didn’t say a word, just laughed and began to smooth down the sand path that had been put in disarray by all the little feet that had just visited. This is the conversation that took place between us as she humbly fixed her garden.
“Maman, do you do that every Sunday?”
– “No no, not every Sunday. There’s no schedule.”
– “Whenever she has bread.”
“How do they know to come here?”
– “I send her to tell them.”
And then word spreads.
So I spent a lot of my day reflecting on generosity. It’s not a word that infiltrates my vocabulary often. It’s an incredibly difficult to realize, I think. As I wonder about it, I know very few people who can be characterized by generosity. Of course, we all have generous moments, but when I reflect on whether or not the word ‘generous’ would be the first to someone’s mind when they think of me, I know the answer is no. And I don’t know how many people could honestly say otherwise. I don’t know that our lifestyles let us be that way.
But what a beautiful way to live! This neighborhood depends so much on one another, and the way my Maman sees it, she’s simply doing her part. Feeding 55 children breakfast on a clear Sunday morning is her part. I am regularly reminded, in my life here as well as the States, that there’s nothing I like more than the idea of living in intentional community, everyone leaning on everyone else in some way. Our particular neighborhood is uncharacteristically symbiotic, I think. I will learn a lot from living here.