Wednesday, Oct. 8
Dschang, Cameroon

The Ndi Wamba mamas say God brought me here, one year after Father’s death, to help them when they most needed it.

Perhaps they’re right. But if God brought me here with purpose, he must have also had another goal in mind: to give me a lesson in patience.

I spent nearly a day and a half at the bank trying to retrieve money sent by readers of this blog to pay school fees. My Visa card, which has worked consistently at ATMs in the countries I’ve visited, including once in Cameroon, chose this moment to futz out.

After feeding my card to the machine more than a dozen times at different hours of the day — at the urging of the store manager, who insisted it might start working — I finally enlisted my parents to send the money via Western Union. Then I received it easily, a huge wad of bills handed to me amongst a crowd of people who peered at my receipt.

Money in hand, I figured paying the schools would be the easy part. But not in Africa. Haven’t I learned my lesson yet? Nothing is easy here.

It took an entire morning to get the fees in order, largely because Benoit, the family’s eldest student (he’s starting at university this year), who is helping me with the project, realized upon our arrival at the school that he didn’t know the last names of all the kids who live on the Ndi Wamba compound.

It sounds odd, not knowing the names of your family members. But with the huge size of families here, it’s understandable.

Benoit had no trouble with the names of his brothers, those who share, as they say in Africa, his “same mother, same father.” He succeeded, too, with the names of his half brothers and sisters, his father’s children who were born to one of the other wives. But when it came to the last names of the other kids who live with the family (Mama Suzanne’s four grand-children, the children of Benoit’s half siblings), Benoit was stumped. (You should be, too, if you read this paragraph.)

We called 21-year-old Regine out of class to help us identify all the kids. When their school fees had been paid, and I realized we still had a bit of money left, I asked Regine to pick a few students in her class who she knew would have trouble paying the pension. We would cover them, too, I said.

She and Benoit stared at me blankly.

“You want to pay for someone you don’t know?” Benoit asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

They looked at me like I had three heads, and Benoit started on a rant about how I should have told him sooner, he would have thought of a student he knew, a neighbor. But I interrupted him.

“Just pick someone,” I said, my patience running thin in our fourth hour at the school’s administration building. “This isn’t hard. Just pick.”

We left the school with our mission accomplished. School fees for all the Ndi Wamba children had been paid, plus fees for three other students!

But we still had one task ahead: purchasing school books for the children. We would buy them used from a road-side vendor in Dschang to get the cheapest price.

I had the list of books in hand when Benoit and I approached a vendor the following day. The purchase did not get off to a good start. Much to my frustration, Benoit insisted on re-writing the list in a different format, which took half an hour. I fumed the entire time, annoyed that we were making a simple task more difficult.

(It didn’t help that I already was in a sour mood, having received a package that morning that had been ransacked by an employee in the postal chain. The thief had helped himself to half the contents of my package, including a pair of pants my sister had sent to replace my hiking pants that had been stolen in Ghana.)

When the book vendor finally began picking the appropriate books out of piles on his cart, I figured we were on our way. Imagine my dismay when I realized the book seller and Benoit would bargain separately for each book. There were at least three books for each of the 18 children! Over the next three hours, they had the same conversation again and again. It went like this:

Benoit: “This book. Your price?”

Book seller: Suggests a price.

Benoit: “Oh, no. Not for this book. Give your real price.”

Book seller: Names a lower price.

Benoit: Thumbs through book. “For this?! You say you’ll give a good price, and then you do the opposite. If I want to pay that much, I’ll go to a bookstore.”

(Me: Shifting my position to avoid getting sunburned.)

Book seller: Shakes his head. “How do you think I make my living? I cannot take that for this book. It’s a new edition.”

And so on and so on, until the two either agreed on a price or realized they couldn’t, at which point Benoit would say something like, “Well, since you can’t offer a respectable price for this book, let’s move on.”

During one particularly lengthy negotiation, I became so agitated that I stepped in and said, “Give him 2,500. I don’t have all day.”

But apparently I did have all day. It wasn’t until the sun had started to go down, and I was chilly enough to pull my fleece out of my bag, that we finally left, having exchanged a huge sum of Cameroonian money for a carton of books.