Monday, Sept. 22
Few cars make the trip from Dschang to the village of Fongo-Ndeng in the wet season, when rains have washed away parts of the dirt road. I’d have to take a motorcycle taxi for the 45-minute trip, guys at the transport station told me.
That was fine with me. I love moto taxis! As every African will tell you, the world is much clearer from a moto than from a car. My driver tied my backpack to the seat and instructed me to jump on.
It was a beautiful day for a ride. The sun was hot on my naked arms, but I welcomed the heat after two weeks of cold and rain. While the driver navigated the muddy road, I leaned back on my bag and admired the scenery.
Until we hit a police checkpoint. I couldn’t believe it. On this dirt path that barely passes for a road?! We were waved through and continued on our way.
Everything around us was green from the rains. With hoards of banana trees and rolling hills, it looked just like one might picture Africa, wild and alive. Houses with shiny metal roofs dotted the mountains in the distance, as did plots of cultivated land, distinguishable by their perfect rows of brown soil.
My mind wandered, and I remembered the faces of the family I was about to surprise with my presence. There was Father, who the rest of the family calls just that, with knees that wobble with age. His four wives: Suzanne, the eldest who used to heat water over her kitchen fire for me to bathe; Marie, the one who had lost so many babies to sickness; Justine, with her contagious laugh; and Katherine, who still had a toddler at her feet during my last visit.
Katherine, oh, Katherine! How I missed her! She was the youngest and sprightliest of the wives, and we had immediately connected. I tried not to show it, but she secretly became my favorite wife, and we spent many evenings talking over the open fire in her kitchen about the hardships of African life. When I left, Katherine, who has so few possessions of her own, sent me off with two bracelets for my mother, a woman she had never met.
“We’ve arrived,” the driver announced as he pulled into the village.
It was market day, so the Fongo-Ndeng that I remembered as tranquil and sparsely populated was busy with visitors from nearby towns buying and selling. I hopped off the bike and waited while the driver untied my backpack. Did I know where to find the family I had come to visit? he asked.
I shook my head, no. I knew how to get to the house, but since it was market day, the women, no doubt, were somewhere amongst the crowds hawking their goods.
So I did what one does in African villages, the same as I’d do in small-town America: I asked the first person who passed me.
“Do you live here?” I questioned an older man in French. “Do you know the Ndi Wamba family?”
“Ndi Wamba?” he repeated. I nodded in agreement.
“He no longer lives,” he replied.
So it was confirmed. My host father had died. I hate to admit it now, but I thought perhaps the family, who had written me via post with the news, had fabricated it with the hopes I would send money.
“But what about his wives?” I said. “Are they here?”
The man disappeared into the crowd, and I scolded myself for not taking better note of his appearance, hoping I’d recognize him when he returned. I hoisted my backpack to the ground, feeling the stares of the villagers around me who wondered about the white woman.
Then, already, I saw the man again; at that moment I recognized his red cap. He was coming back toward me, dodging his neighbors. And behind him — my heart jumped — was Katherine, her eyes wide as saucers.
“Alexi”! she cried, before she even reached me. She leaped into my arms and hugged me, American-style, a great big bear hug that encompassed my entire body. We stood there, holding each other tight and swaying back and forth, until she pulled back to look at me. Surprise was plastered all over her face.
“Alexi! I’ve dreamed about the day when you would come back to see us! Some days I wake up and ask myself, ‘When will Alexi come? When will she think of us?’ Stephon (her youngest) looks at your photo and asks about you, and when a plane passes overhead he says, ‘Stop! Come and get me and take me to Alexi!’ And now, God has sent you to us! God has sent you back to be with your African family!”
She went on and on, speaking so quickly in French that it was only because of her Cameroonian accent — the accent that’s most familiar to me — that I could catch everything she was saying. My face already hurt from smiling, from laughing.
“You don’t remember where I sell my beignets?” she said, more a statement than a question. I didn’t have to answer. She led me through the market to her spot and I greeted her mother, who sold beignets beside her.
And then it began, the flux of villagers who welcomed me with lengthy handshakes. Suzanne, the first wife, approached Katherine, and I watched her jaw drop when she noticed me sitting beside her. The family’s children, too, began to come, one by one, to greet me, and I struggled to figure out who was who. They had, after all, grown up during the last six years, and the youngest ones looked significantly different than when I last saw them. I had a good reason not to recognize some of the children, I would later learn: they hadn’t lived in the village during my last visit. Yet, despite the dozens of village children who approached Katherine’s stand to buy beignets, I knew who to greet warmly just by the way they looked at me.
By the end of the day, I was exhausted. When we finally climbed the mountain to the Ndi Wamba house, me porting my backpack with several children at my heels, I realized memory had shrunk the climb, and I cursed the mountain under my breath.
The family’s compound, though, was just as I remembered, with Father’s house in the middle and the wives’ kitchens and living spaces in the surrounding buildings.
Suzanne fumbled with a set of keys to open Father’s front door and I shoved my bag inside. I would sleep in Father’s room, she said.
It wasn’t until after she left me to unpack that I realized his shoes were still under the bed.