Photo included


Wednesday, Oct. 1
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

A few more interesting aspects of life in Fongo-Ndeng!

Villagers worship a God who lives on the top of the mountain just behind the Ndi Wamba house. It’s the biggest mountain in the village.

To the left, you can see the tree that marks the entrance to a path that’s used to climb the mountain. It serves as a shrine to the God.

When villagers pass, they leave gifts for the God, offerings like kola nuts and other small foods. In return, they hope the God will bring them good fortune.

Below, Mama Justine leaves an offering of fish at the shrine for the mountain God:

Religion here is deeply rooted in ancestral worship. When a person dies, their family members keep their head in a nearby room so they can consult the spirit for advice. Yes, the heads are covered. Here’s a bunch of them, under pots, in the kitchen of Justine’s sister.

Running with scissors? Try running with a machete! Lots of kids bring hoes that resemble weapons to school because they go directly to the fields afterwards to cultivate. Here’s Deuplace with his machete:

A photo of Cameroon President Paul Biya hangs in many homes, offices and schools:

(more…)

Friday, Sept. 26
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

Nearly everything the Ndi Wamba family eats, they harvested with their own hands.

That means there isn’t much variety in the food. Eating here isn’t so much for pleasure like it is at home, but for survival.

The diet revolves around starchy tubers or root plants that are boiled, mashed and served as a lump of mush, often in a banana leaf, alongside a sauce.

Yes, this is as bad as it sounds.

But once I learned to identify various forms of mush, I realized some taste significantly better than others. Same for the sauce. So if you luck out and pair decent mush with decent sauce, you can actually have an enjoyable meal.

Villagers cook one meal at night and eat it for dinner, then reheat it for breakfast and, if there’s any left over, as a late-afternoon snack before cooking again that night.

I believe this is mashed beans mixed with a spinach-like leaf.

I believe this is mashed beans mixed with a spinach-like leaf.

At the Ndi Wamba family compound, each mother cooks a meal in her open-fire kitchen for her children, and they added a plate for Father when he was alive. As a guest, I played his role, which meant four plates of food appeared before me each night, no matter whose kitchen I was sitting in.

Obviously I couldn’t eat that much. But food is an offering, and it’s rude to turn it down. So I ate a little bit from each plate — more from the meals I liked — and gave the rest to the kids.

In the morning, again, four plates of reheated food were delivered to Father’s house, where I slept. I ate what I could get down, then saved the rest for the children, who came scavenging for food after school. Some students buy lunch during the day, but this family can’t afford it.

Macabo and sauce.

Macabo and sauce.

So what exactly is the mush made of? The staple here is macabo, which looks pretty similar to potato when it’s harvested. I helped peel some the other day, and it’s so hard directly out of the ground that I wouldn’t have guessed it was edible.

But once it’s boiled and mashed, it can be consumed in the traditional Cameroonian way: grab a piece of the pile with your right hand, roll it around in your palm to create a ball and dip it into the sauce. Eating without utensils is fun, so long as you don’t think about how many people shook your hand that day. (Cameroonians shake hands with everyone they encounter.)

(more…)

Thursday, Sept. 25
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

UPDATE: Wow! I have such generous family, friends and readers. All the kids are covered! Thank you all for your help. I can’t wait to see their faces when I give them the news… Of course I’ll write about it here on the blog.

In the meantime, don’t miss out on reading more about the family in the three posts below this one.

To start the school year in Fongo-Ndeng, a child needs only a uniform, which costs the equivalent of $13, and a notebook.

Regine, Lidi and Sylvian on their way to school.

Regine, Lidi and Sylvian on their way to school.

But the glee of learning in a classroom — yes, for these kids it’s glee, because they don’t take school for granted — lasts only about a month. Come October 9, students who haven’t paid their annual tuition are no longer allowed in class.

Those kids stay home and spend the year gathering firewood, cultivating in the fields and hoping that there will be enough money for them to go to school the following year. Because once a child misses two years of school, it’s unlikely she’ll ever return.

Fongo-Ndeng has a good school. The kids hike up this mountain to reach it every day. See it at the top?

Fongo-Ndeng has a good school. The kids hike up this mountain to reach it every day. See it at the top?

In years past, the Ndi Wamba family hasn’t had to worry about school fees, which vary according to class, because Father’s pension covered them.

But this year is different. Not only does the family lack his financial support, they also have more school-age kids than ever before. Two of the four mothers have four tuitions they hope to pay.

So when I showed up in Fongo-Ndeng, one year after Father died, right around the time when school fees are due, the family saw me as a gift from God. They knew I would help in whatever way I could.

Blanche and Nicki.

Blanche and Nicki.

I set their expectations low, telling them I would return next week with money to pay for several of the kids.

But what I’d really like to do is pay for all of them. It sounds like an excessive gift, but it’s school.

Everyone should get to go to school. We all did. Now I realize how lucky I was to have a free primary and secondary education, plus parents who could afford to buy me textbooks.

Anybody want to sponsor a child or teenager and send them to school this year? This is a great way to give because:

* You know exactly where the money is going and how it will be spent. I’ll pay the schools in person next week.

* What may be a small sum of money to you makes a huge difference for this family.

* I’ll make it easy for you. All you have to do is let me know which child you want to help and send a check to my parents in the States. They’ll deposit the money, and I’ll withdraw it from here.

* These are good kids. They want to learn.

I’ll travel to a big city on Sunday to visit an ATM, so we’ve got to work fast.

Here’s a list of the Ndi Wamba kids (including grandkids that live on the compound — you wouldn’t know the difference) and their fees for this year:

Regine, 21 years old, (female). When it pours, she dances on her porch!
Needs tuition and some books. $90. Sponsored.

Lidi, 18 years old (female). Looks after her ill mother.
Needs tuition and one book. $60. Sponsored.

Janvier, 13 years old (male). I wish I had the energy of this kid.
Needs tuition. $43. Sponsored.

(more…)

Wednesday, Sept. 24
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

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.

Regine begins dishing up spaghetti.

Regine begins dishing up spaghetti.

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.

Just one of the many pasta-eating photos.

Just one of the many pasta-eating photos.

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.

(more…)

Monday, Sept. 22
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

Suzanne beckoned, and I followed her around the side of her house, toward the outdoor toilet. I had just arrived at the Ndi Wamba compound, and I figured she was giving me the tour, in case I had forgotten where to do my business.

Instead, she stopped short in front of a huge slab of concrete. The small, frail woman gave no explanation, simply clasped her hands together and turned in my direction.

It took me a few seconds to recognize what I was looking at: Father’s grave.

Papa Ndi Wambs tomb.

Papa Ndi Wamb's tomb.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to react. I mumbled something in French about it being a nice spot — right next to the building where several of his children slept — and I moved closer to examine the tomb. At the far end, where I imagined Father’s head would be, someone had carved words into the cement. I couldn’t quite make out the entire inscription, but the date of his death was clear: August 7, 2007.

It had been more than a year since Father died, and his four wives still wore black. All black, all the time, unless they were at home, out of eyeshot of their neighbors. They now were permitted, since a year had passed, to shed their dark blouses and skirts, but they first needed to gather money for a small ceremony to mark the occasion. And so they continued to wear black.

Marie, Justine, Suzanne, Lucienne (the village chiefs first wife) and Katherine. In case you cant tell by their faces, its chic in Africa to remain serious for photographs.

Ndi Wamba wives: Marie, Justine, Suzanne, Lucienne (the village chief's first wife) and Katherine. In case you can't tell by their faces, it's chic in Africa to remain serious for photographs.

Father’s children, too, had donned black clothes, but only for eight months, as tradition dictates. They now dressed normally, some in faded African cloth, others sporting second-hand pants and t-shirts.

(more…)

Monday, Sept. 22
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

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.

The moto taxi that took me to Fongo-Ndeng.

The moto taxi that took me to Fongo-Ndeng.

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.

Villagers here cultivate crops on the mountain-side.

Villagers here cultivate crops on the mountain-side.

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.

(more…)

Friday, Sept. 19
Dschang, Cameroon

My bus arrived in Dschang after darkness had fell. But unlike my night-time arrivals in other African cities, where I felt uneasy about getting to a hotel with all my belongings, here I wasn’t nervous. In Dschang, someone was waiting for me.

I threw my stuff into a taxi and the driver made his way through the town, stopping after just a few minutes at a house on a corner. I squinted in the night to see whether it looked familiar, and then a figure with a flashlight approached.

“Alexi?”

It was my host mother from my stay in Dschang six years ago, when I was a university student on a semester abroad.

“Ca va?” I asked, giving her a quick hug before paying the cab driver. Maman took the smaller of my two backpacks and led me inside the house where I had slept years before. Light flooded the staircase that led to the second-floor entrance, and finally we could see one another’s faces. She cupped my cheek with her hand and smiled. “C’est bien,” she said.

The house was quiet. All four of the kids who had lived there years ago had grown and moved out except Marie the youngest, now 18 and in her last year of high school. She was in bed when I arrived — the bed she would share with me during my stay — but she got up to give me a hug. Her dad, too, emerged from his bedroom to greet me.

My host sister Marie makes French fries in the kitchen.

My host sister Marie makes French fries in the kitchen.

We spent the next few days catching up. I helped Maman make sandwiches for her catering business, looked online at colleges in the States where Marie might apply and talked to my host father about his job as a professor at the local university. It has been fabulous to see them.

The Djoukams are quite a modern family, living in a home with soft couches, a fridge, televisions, the works. Their living room looks like it could be in America.

But even middle-class Cameroonians have to deal with the infrastructure problems that plague cities in West Africa. The electricity sometimes cuts out at night, and water runs through the pipes only a few hours each day. When the water does come on, Maman fills every bucket in the house so the family has water when they need it. There’s no hot water, but they heat water on a gas stove for warm bucket baths in the cold season. (I bathed with warm water yesterday for the first time in three months!) And while the Djoukams have a car, it was only two years ago that the government paved the road in front of their house.

(more…)

Tuesday, Sept. 16
Buea, Cameroon

Driving the road that connects Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, with the western part of the country is a lesson in Cameroonian agriculture.

Plantations take over the roadsides: Rubber trees in perfect lines, with little buckets attached to the trunks; Palm trees, which produce the palm oil that Cameroonians use to fry anything and everything; Banana trees, each hoarding a large green bundle of fruit waiting for harvest; And hundreds and hundreds of plantain trees.

Agriculture is such a driving force in Cameroonian economy and way of life that I wanted to visit one of these plantations. So I hired a guide to show me a tea plantation in the town of Buea, at the base of Mount Cameroon. Sam, an American I met in Buea who is studying mother-to-child transmission of HIV, joined me. (Check out Sam’s blog.)

The “tour” was pretty disappointing, since we saw the tea plantation only from the road. Tourists no longer are allowed to enter the property or the factory. Still, it was a pretty sight:

Buea tea plantation.

Buea tea plantation.

Our guide, Ferdinand, ended up being worth the pretty penny he charged because he offered knowledge about how the tea industry has changed and insight into other aspects of Cameroonian culture.

For years, Cameroon’s tea plantations were run by a branch of the federal government called the Cameroon Development Corporation, which owns plantations of various crops across the country. But the government sold the tea fields to a private company a few years ago.

“We thought privatization would make the working conditions better,” Ferdinand said as we looked out over acres of lush green tea plants. “But instead it made them instantly worse.”

Since privatization, wages have dropped and workers no longer live in housing on the plantation, he said. Instead, they rent homes in town.

Cameroonians don’t see much of what’s produced here anymore. Under government ownership, the tea was available locally for purchase. But now, most is exported, and the rest is sold in-country in mass quantities that aren’t practical for the typical store owner. So Cameroonians stick to (imported) Lipton tea, coffee or Ovaltine.

(more…)

Quality Internet connections have been hard to find in small-town Cameroon, so these entries are a few days behind. Thanks for your patience!
* * * * *

Saturday, Sept. 13
Limbe, Cameroon

Someone stole my pants in Ghana. They were drying on the clothesline, a light-weight pair of hiking trousers, and they disappeared.

They were my only pair.

My replacement pants!

My replacement pants!

Luckily for me, tailors are as common in West Africa as Starbucks are in Seattle. So I played like a local. I went to the market and bought fabric, then took it to a tailor and described how I hoped the end result would look. The tailor took my measurements, and a day later I picked up these pants. They’re not quick-dry or high-tech, but they’re fashionable!

A few more photos of Limbe:

Family photo shoot! Bea, her baby Lona and 8-year-old Terrypaul.

Family photo shoot! Bea, her baby Lona and 8-year-old Terrypaul.

Beas family parlour. Decor in Cameroon requires hanging family photos up near the ceiling, even if theres nothing else on the wall.

Bea's family parlour. Decor in Cameroon requires hanging family photos up near the ceiling, even if there's nothing else on the wall.

(more…)

Friday, Sept. 12
Limbe, Cameroon

Monkey meat is a delicacy in Cameroon.

It’s illegal to kill most primates, including endangered gorillas and chimpanzees, but there’s still a market for bushmeat. So monkeys and the like are taken from the rainforest, destined for the dinner plate.

The lucky ones end up alive at the Limbe Wildlife Center, a primate refuge that houses animals confiscated by authorities, as well as orphans left behind when their parents were killed. In the wooded sanctuary, various endangered species live in groups until they’re ready to return to the wild.

I visited the center last time I was in Limbe, but I was too exhausted to enjoy it. During this visit, I took my time walking around the place, listening to monkey cries and watching gorillas swing around their playgrounds, showing off for me.

Apes amaze me for one simple reason: they look and act so human. They even pose man-like threats to visitors, as this park sign warns.

Some visitors to the park end up adopting a primate, pledging enough money to feed them for a year.

But posters at the center offered some less costly ideas for how concerned citizens can help victims of the bushmeat trade, including this suggestion, my favorite:
“Don’t eat endangered species!”

Maybe now you’ll think twice the next time you consider ordering gorilla for dinner.

« Previous PageNext Page »