Tuesday, Jan. 6
At home — Albany, NY

I hate saying goodbye and dread writing conclusions.

That’s the real reason why I haven’t ended the blog. I wanted to do it before Christmas, but I allowed myself to get distracted by everything that makes returning to the States wonderful: lovely company, tasty food and quality hygiene.

I’ve written half a dozen “last post” drafts, but none of them satisfied me. How do I sum up so much I’ve gained during the last six months?

Today, though, a reprieve arrived in my inbox: a note from Benoit Ndi Wamba, the son in my Cameroonian village family who helped me use money raised by readers of this blog to pay school fees for all the school-age children in his poor family.

Did I mention he was serious about school? Those who donated money can know it went to good use with Benoit at the wheel, that he’s keeping close tabs on his studying siblings: he sent grades earned by each child during the first three months of this year. A report card for the Ndi Wamba family!

The grades itself mean nothing since I don’t understand the system well (in general, higher is better). But that’s not what matters.

What matters is that because of this gift of school tuition and books — more than $1,000 donated — the Ndi Wamba kids not only get to go to school, they’re also being encouraged to do well. Their marks count for something. They’re being pushed to succeed.

So I’m not going to end the blog today. Instead, I’m sending along the Ndi Wamba report card, so you know what a difference you’ve made. Thank you.

This comes directly from Benoit!

Resultats: first trimestre
*Moyenne = average

1. Mbeuguia tsekeng, Jean. Classe: première. *Moyenne: 11,16.

2. Mbeuguia fofack, Sylvain. Classe: première. Moyenne: 10,92.

3. Mbeuguia dadem, Janvier. Classe: 6eme. Moyenne: 10,24.

4. Mbouadia kenfack, Regine. Classe: seconde. Moyenne: 08,63.

5. Mbouadia, Nathalie Alice. Classe: 5eme. Moyenne: 09,87.

6. Mbouadia djoumessi, Duplex. Classe: 4eme. Moyenne: 11,00.

7. Mbeuguia nguefack, Lydie. Classe: 6eme. Moyenne: 10,47 .

8. Mbouadia zonfack, Stéphane. Classe: élementaire first year. Moyenne: 11.02.

9. Temgoua mbeuguia, Maurice. Classe: premiere. Moyenne: 07,52.

10. Folefack, Jean Racel. Classe: terminal. Moyenne: 09,00.

11. Djoufack kenfack, Mirabelle. Classe: seconde. Moyenne: 09,00.

12. Alomo, Stéphanie Blanche. Classe: 4eme. Moyenne: 08,79.

13. Sonfack, Christelle Cédiane. Classe: 5eme. Moyenne: 08,00.

14. Soufac ngossa, Franklin. Classe: 6eme. Moyenne: 10,00.

15. Mbassibi wamba, Boniface. Classe: 6eme. Moyenne: 10,00.

16. Soufack tchoufack wamba, Canis. Classe: 3eme. Moyenne: 08,21.

17. For mine, we begin in February (Benoit).

Tuesday, Oct. 28
Douala, Cameroon

Douala airport officials are known for demanding bribes from foreigners trying to leave the country.

But two South African men I met in the airport while waiting for my flight told me a story that trumps all the rest.

The men joined me in a small air-conditioned lounge attached to the airport’s lone restaurant, where I was killing time before my 2 a.m. flight to South Africa. We were the only three people there, and we chatted while I ate a plate of spaghetti, one of the few items on the menu. We quickly realized that all three of us were going to South Africa, albeit on different flights.

“I hope we get home tonight,” said the man who had told me his name was Abdul. He started to laugh. “God willing, we’ll get home tonight.” Then he turned to me and added, “They kept us here in the airport for a week, you know.”

I almost choked on my noodles. “What?”

“They wouldn’t let us leave,” Abdul said with an accent that sounded both South African and Indian. “We slept in this airport for a week.”

“What do you mean, they wouldn’t let you leave?” I asked, my eyes growing wide.

Abdul began recounting the tale, which had started two weeks prior when he and his friend Mahesh were on their way to the Central African Republic. The trip was for business; Abdul was a diamond cutter who planned to buy stones in the CAR, and Mahesh was going along as his partner. They had no plans to visit Cameroon and stopped in the airport only to change planes.

But when airport officials, while inspecting the men’s travel documents, noticed they had an invitation from a diamond company, the officials insisted they pay a fee in order to board their plane to the CAR. Not a small bribe: 4,000 Euros.

At this point in the story, Abdul paused to put his head in his hands, and then he began to laugh, as though he still couldn’t believe the absurdity of what happened next.

He and Mahesh refused to pay the bribe, he said, and the uniformed men wouldn’t let them leave. They missed their plane that day, as well as the next five flights that left the Douala airport for the CAR that week.

By now I had started laughing, too. This was just too ridiculous. I pictured them in the bare-bones Douala airport, with its lone pathetic restaurant, dirty floors, unbearable heat and hard, uncomfortable chairs. I thought of that Tom Hanks movie, the one where the main character is stuck in the airport for what, months? A year? Even spending that much time in the airport in the film, with all its amenities, would be preferable to spending a week in the Douala airport.

“Where did you sleep?” I asked, giggling.

“Over there,” Mahesh pointed through the glass. “There is one cushioned chair in this airport. I’d sleep on the chair and him on the floor until he started to get angry, then we’d switch.”

Now I was really cracking up, and since it was obvious the story amused me, the guys continued with more details. They clearly enjoyed relaying the ridiculous tale, probably because it was the first time they had talked about it with anyone other than each other. They hadn’t been able to communicate with most people in the airport because they didn’t speak French.

“Oh, everyone in this airport knows us!” Mahesh said theatrically. “The police, they kiss our cheeks! The women who clean the floor, they say hello! Let me tell you, before this fiasco I would have done anything to make love to a woman who spoke French, just to hear her speak to me in the language. But now, after this trip, if anyone, anyone speaks French to me, I will throttle them!”

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Sunday, Oct. 26
Limbe, Cameroon

The man working behind me at the Internet cafe confused me.

He looked African and he spoke Pidgin, one of the local languages here, with the owner of the shop. But when he conversed in English — we were in one of Cameroon’s two English-speaking provinces — he sounded American.

I wanted to know his story. And I didn’t have to look hard for a reason to talk to him; the two of us were the only clients working in a small, unventilated room designated for laptops when the power went out in the cafe. We sat there together in the dark, both of our computers glowing with battery power but no Internet connection.

“Guess that’s it for my work,” I said. And then, “So, where are you from?”

He was Cameroonian, he explained, born in the English-speaking northwest province, but went to high school in Scotland and university in the States, in Maine. Now as he spoke I could detect a bit of a Scottish accent.

But wait… backtrack. “Maine?!” I exclaimed. “I went to Colby!” I knew he would be familiar with my alma mater since he had spent time in the state. He had graduated, he told me, from the University of Maine.

And so I had found another Mainer. Mathew and I left the pitch-black cafe together, feeling our way along the walls to find the door, and crossed the street for a drink at a bar. Even without electricity, it was open for business.

There we reminisced about New England and talked about my experiences in Cameroon. It was odd, conversing with someone who sounded American, who understood American culture, who didn’t invite me for a beer solely because of the color of my skin, but who also understood the nuances of Cameroon. He had a unique perspective of his country and was happy to share it with me.

When I told him about the news story I’m writing on polygamy, he responded with tales of growing up in a two-wife household, explaining that even two women didn’t satisfy his father. The man also had two girlfriends outside the home.

Lexi and Mathews eldest daughter.

Lexi and Mathew's eldest daughter.

Mathew and I parted ways that night, but met up again in the morning so I could meet his wife and daughters and explore his side of town. It was one of my last days in Cameroon, and we spent it well.

First we drove to took to one of Limbe’s beautiful black-sand beaches to complete a fun errand, collecting rocks for a friend of Mathew who was building a garden. He had requested stones from Limbe specifically for two reasons: they’re a beautiful dark color because of a long-ago volcanic eruption, and they’re wonderfully smooth from the pounding of the waves.

Mathew (right) and his cousin collect stones on a Limbe beach

Mathew (right) and his cousin collect stones on a Limbe beach.

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Saturday, Oct. 25
Kribi, Cameroon

Good data gives us journalists a buzz. A high. A feeling of glee!

So I was on cloud nine this week when I found statistics to go with the story I’m writing about polygamy in Cameroon.

Not just any statistics, but numbers that support the exact point I’m making with the story, data that shows polygamy here is dwindling.

Since, as some of the expats I’ve met here in Kribi say, Africa is 400 years behind the rest of the world, I didn’t expect such data to exist.

The average reader may skim over this line in the story: “Eleven percent of men had at least two wives in 2004, down from 26 percent in the early 1990s.” But to me that phrase elicits a feeling of accomplishment, a fist pump in the air — POW! — because my story, which originated from anecdotal evidence, now is backed by statistics!

I went a bit overboard in the office of Cameroon’s National Institute of Statistics, photocopying everything I could get find on polygamy so I could dissect the French literature on my own time.

Amongst the other data I found interesting:

* More than half of Cameroonian women marry before age 18. Nearly 90 percent marry before age 25. (2004)

* Men are, on average, nearly 12 years older than their wife (or wives). For 29 percent of couples, the husband is at least 15 years older than his spouse. (1991)

* Level of education affects whether a man is polygamous: 28 percent of those with little to no education are polygamous, 11 percent of those who completed primary school are polygamous and 6 percent of those who finished secondary school are polygamous. (2004)

Now I’m cuddling with that data in a beach-resort town called Kribi, no doubt one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Prices here have been driven up by tourism, but knowing now that everything is negotiable in Africa, I convinced the woman at one hotel reception to let me pay half price (CFA 15,000, or about $32 per night) for a room with a broken air conditioner. A fan is all that’s really necessary this time of year anyhow.

I’ll leave you with the same image I woke up to early this morning, a photo I took while still standing in my room. Kribi. Is. Heaven.

View from my room in Kribi.

View from my room in Kribi.

Friday, Oct. 24
Kribi, Cameroon

Such is the spontaneity of independent travel
that ocassionally you’ll find yourself
at 2 a.m.
dancing in a Cameroonian nightclub
intoxicated by the swankiness of the place
too-loud techno music pumping through your veins
a version of “Who let the dogs out”
that makes you throw your head back
and howl with laughter
as the room spins with colored lights.

You move alongside “les noirs,”
a handful of Spaniards — no longer strangers,
and a French man who wants to take you home,
relishing the way Cameroonian men swivel their hips
and the randomness
of Christmas decorations that dangle from the ceiling.

Santa’s watching over this after-hours party.

Sunday, Oct. 19
Yaounde, Cameroon

Men have hassled me far less in Cameroon than some of the other countries I’ve visited. Until, that is, I arrived in Yaounde.

Here in the capital, men hiss at me from the side of the road, yell “Cherie, tu es belle!” (My dear, you’re beautiful!), or ask if I’m married without even bothering to say hello. My white skin apparently has dollar signs all over it.

But it doesn’t much bother me because these Cameroonians aren’t hassling me in a threatening manner like some of the other West African men I’ve enountered. Most of the would-be suitors here aren’t persistent, and after I ignore them once, they usually leave me alone.

In fact, for many of these guys, approaching me seems to be a game, simply to see how I’ll react with the slight chance they’ll get lucky. So when I’m in the mood, I play back with them, particularly those who ask for my hand in marriage.

“Oh, you want to be my second husband?” I reply, turning the polygamy that’s so popular here on its head. “I’ve already married one man.” That dissuades a whole lot of the bunch.

Sometimes, at their urging, I tell them about my (imaginary) husband who is waiting for me in the States. I’ve talked so much about him on this trip that I half expect him to pick me up at the airport when I arrive home.

Occasionally a man asks about my absent wedding ring. It’s not safe to wear it outside of the house, I explain. I’m afraid someone will steal it.

Very seldom — but it does occasionally happen — a man propositions me politely and is so good-looking that I have to kick myself internally to reject him like all the others. Cameroonian men, I must admit, are a hot lot.

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Friday, Oct. 17
Yaounde, Cameroon

(Click here to see an updated map showing where I’ve been and where I am now.)

Eating grilled fish in Cameroon is an art, and I haven’t quite mastered it yet.

But it’s so tasty that I continue to struggle, taking the yummy fish as a meal every chance I get.

Cameroonian fish mamas, or cooks, start grilling early, setting up on the side of the road in the early afternoon. They work from the same location each day, usually next to a bar so clients have a place to sit and can order a drink, too.

Fish mama Rose grills her goodies.

Fish mama Rose grills her goodies.

I love choosing the fish I’ll consume while it’s still on the grill, the skin slowly browning. I usually pick a small one, which, for the equivalent of less than 2 bucks, is a steal for me but on the expensive side for the average Cameroonian family. I often find myself eating amongst men, who tend to have more disposible income than women, and no doubt have left their wives at home to feed the children.

The fish is served whole, still too hot to eat when the fish mama lifts it from the grill to the plate. So I start with the side, usually fried plantains, if I bothered to order one. The fish is all I really came for.

Some Americans lose their appetite when they look down at their plate and an entire fish stares back at them. But I’ve come to enjoy this moment, for it means I’m about to chow down.

I dig in with my right hand — no utensils necessary — and the flesh falls easily from the bone. The skin, seasoned with spices, is the best part. There’s always hot red pepper sauce on the side, too, but I avoid it at all costs, not wanting my lips to burn for the rest of the evening. I order a cold Coke, and it comes in a glass bottle, which makes it that much more enjoyable.

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Wednesday, Oct. 16
Yaounde, Cameroon

After traveling through a handful of African cities during the past three-and-a-half months, I figured the traffic in Yaounde (Yah-ewn-day) wouldn’t terrify me like it did the last time I was here.

But the roads are just as scary as I remembered, with taxi drivers darting in and out of imaginary lanes, driving just inches away from one another, creating a traffic free-for-all. Within seconds of climbing into the front seat of one yellow cab, I reached hopefully for a seat belt over my right shoulder and breathed a sigh of relief that it was there. I was probably the first person in weeks, possibly months, to use it.

I have a habit in Africa, kind of a morbid one, of looking for an escape route every time I’m packed into a vehicle. I check for windows that work – or, even better, ones that are stuck open – and people who are small enough to climb over if we get in a wreck. Sometimes, in un-Lexi-like fashion, I pray.

But in Yaounde, there’s rarely time for all that. If a taxi driver accepts the location you shout at him as he passes, and the price you’re willing to pay, you jump in quickly before he changes his mind. So when the driver hits the accelerator when he should hit the brakes, I find the best strategy is to close my eyes.

During one of those closed-eye moments today, I realized I had gone about a month without riding in a car, since motorcycle taxis have taken over as the main form of transportation in Dschang.

Before traveling to Yaounde, I detoured to Bafoussam to visit a bank, then back to Dschang, which I have used as my homebase for the last month. There I delivered, courtesy of an over-generous reader of this blog, enough money to pay for much of my village family’s school fees for next year! Benoit, the family’s eldest student, is opening a bank account so it can gain interest until next fall.

For the entire duration of the ride to Bafoussam, I held a tiny black baby in my arms. I had noticed her mother struggling to hoist herself into the van while holding the newborn, and I instinctively held out my arms to help her, like I had seen so many other women do in Africa.

She handed me her child, but when she got settled in her seat she made no effort to take the baby back. Instead, she put my red backpack on her lap. So I craddled the sleeping thing, shielding her face from the hard corn kernels that flew in through the window from an open bag on the roof.

When we arrived at the mother’s stop an hour later, she retrieved the baby, gave me my bag, and left without a word, like the baby was as much my responsibility as it was hers.

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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.

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