Wednesday, Sept. 24
The Ndi Wamba children — the youngest eight, plus five grandchildren, still live on the polygamous compound — have been talking nonstop about the “American” meal I cooked for them during my last visit.
It was simply spaghetti with tomato sauce, a meal that’s familiar to city-dwelling Cameroonians, but I used thick canned sauce, which is unlike the thin, oily sauce that’s common here, and I added vegetables. The kids reminisced about the meal — six years later! — so I decided to make it again.
One of the older kids, Sylvian, helped me figure out how many heads I’d have to feed: 20. Plus anybody who happened to wander onto the compound while we were eating. So 25. That made for a heavy load of provisions: five kilograms of macaroni, four huge cans of concentrated tomato paste, onions, green peppers and tomatoes.
We planned the feast for Tuesday night. That morning, the kids, even those in their early 20s, were so excited that they left for school gossiping about the tasty meal they would have that night.
I put 18-year-old Sylvian in charge of the macaroni, and 21-year-old Regine offered to look after the sauce. She wanted to learn how to make it.
We threw all the ingredients into a huge vat over the fire in Mama Suzanne’s kitchen, and used the other mothers’ kitchens for the macaroni. (I use the word kitchen here loosely; all they’ve got is a dirt floor, an open fire and three large rocks to balance the saucepan.) There was so much pasta we cooked it in three large pots.
When dinner was ready, everyone brought their plates to Mama Suzanne’s smoky kitchen and placed them on the floor, and we added plates for family members who hadn’t yet returned from harvesting in the fields. Regine dished out perfectly equal portions, with backseat directions from the rest of the family, who stood around watching intently.
There was food left over! That was a necessity, since villagers usually eat for breakfast leftovers from the previous night’s meal.
Sylvian suggested we eat in his father’s parlor, so everyone crowded excitedly into the room with their full, hot plates, bumping into one another while vying for seats.
I took out my camera to document the moment. Before I knew it, one of the older kids was acting as a photographer while groups of kids and moms took turns sitting next to me, posing with their plates in their laps, their spoons held up to their mouths.
Jean, the self-appointed photographer, took ever-so-long preparing each frame, stepping towards the group, then back, then close again (so much that many of the shots came out blurry). When the flash finally lit up the room, the group hollered and cheered, and the folks who had been sitting with me jetted towards the digital camera to see the photo. Then a scramble began for the next group to take their places beside me.
This fete went on for at least half an hour, and just when my cheeks started to hurt from laughing, someone suggested we take a group photo. “Outside!” I cried, thinking the natural light would make for a better shot.
The group lumbered outdoors. I was the last to leave the parlor, behind Mamas Suzanne and Katherine.
“You know,” Katherine told me, as Suzanne nodded in agreement, “this is the first time we’ve entered Father’s parlor since he died.”
They eyed me cautiously to see if I understood the significance of the statement. I did. For them, the celebration had also served as a sort of healing.
But there wasn’t long to ponder how much death can change life, for outside the rest of the group had lined up in front of Father’s house. Regine prepared to photograph the loud group, but I had a better idea: to use the camera’s automatic setting.
I knew this would cause a delicious reaction, the fact that the device could take its own photo. I placed it on a stool in the yard, and set it for 10 seconds, then hustled toward the group to get in the shot. Just as I crouched, the flash went off, and the Ndi Wamba family roared.
Within seconds, the kids had dashed from their spots toward the camera to see the family portrait that included me, their American sister.