Thursday, October 4, 2012

Entre la famille Biyaga

Today we left Peace Corps orientation in Yaoundé for the training centers where we will spend the next 10 weeks. For Youth Development, Agroforestry and Environmental volunteers, this is the town of Bafia; Health volunteers (or “the red-headed stepchildren”, an expression by which I heard us referred to) are a little further out in the boonies, in the smaller satellite town of Bokito. We dropped the majority off at the main Peace Corps center in Bafia, after which the few, the proud, the Health Extension chosen continued 25 kilometers to our new home and dispersed with our host families. My maman, Mama Jeanne, picked me up at the Peace Corps training center in Bokito.  We threw my luggage on top of a van and crammed four trainees and the six or so hosts that came with us into the car for a drop off. This was my first experience travelling Cameroonian style, and it did not disappoint. As there were more people than seats, I folded myself into the front between Mama Jeanne and the driver—the little seat positioned directly above the gear shift called the petit chauffeur. With my height, my knees were smashed uncomfortably into the control panel, and I had to crane my neck awkwardly to carry on a conversation with Mama Jeanne. Totally unperturbed, she pulled out her cell phone and punched in a number. When the receiver picked up, she held it up to my ear. “C’est Papa,” she announced, as nonchalantly as a parent might inform their actual biological daughter that her dad was on the phone, say hi. Taking my cue from her informality, I played along.  “Salut, Papa!” I sang into the phone. My host father, the coordinator of an NGO named Boyomo Isaac (who, mind you, I have not met and knew nothing of until this afternoon) told me he was in Yaoundé for the time being and was sorry not to be in Bokito to meet me, but he hoped I settled in well. As the van emptied out, I kept glancing back, expecting us to collectively breathe out and rearrange to fill the newly vacated space—but that did not transpire. The middle row empty, the four in the back seat stayed put, and Mama Jeanne showed no inclination to end the game of sardines up front.

We got to the house and I met two of the Biyaga family’s three sons, Daniel and Patrick. They are both in university in Yaoundé—Daniel is about to enter a master’s program and Patrick is in his second year of undergrad—but had come home to move me in and will be around for the next few weeks. A ten-year-old niece, Marguerite, moved in with the family a year ago. She began at a technical school, where she chose to study to be an accountant. She is apparently a little overwhelmed by the math homework, and spent all evening studying, assisted occasionally by her older cousin Danny.

The house where we sleep is next to an unattached kitchen; a path leads back to another house in the compound that a family that moved from l’Extrême-Nord has been renting for several years. “But they are family now, too,” explained Mama Jeanne with a shrug. “C’est Cameroun, nous sommes ensembles.” One of the mothers in the family has a toddler, who came waddling up on my arrival—then stared, suddenly apprehensive, and backed away warily. This amused Mama Jeanne inordinately. Chortling, she led me back to meet the baby’s mother, who was crouched over a pot of what is here called couscous on an outdoor wood stove, pounding the corn grits with a long wooden baton. “Votre petite bébé a refusé d’acceuillir ma grosse bébé!” she crowed, slapping her knee—your little baby refused to welcome my big baby.  The other mamas in the yard laughed, not unkindly, and chucked the toddler under her chin as Mama Jeanna repeated the story, still chuckling to herself. There are several girls in the backyard family, who sat outside our case in the evening, giggling and shyly answering my questions. Mama Jeanne nodded to the middle one, Jamila, who at age ten is already married- not something done by Cameroonians in the Centre province, explained Danny, but culturally acceptable in the Extreme- Nord. “She will be your Fulfuldé tutor.”

I followed Mama Jeanne into the kitchen case, where Danny had begun making dinner—potatoes sautéed with carrots and tomatoes (“Because you don’t eat fish or meat!” my mother exclaimed, shaking her head in disbelief), and a dish of fish and greens called coque, which Mama Jeanne prepared especially for her boys’ return visit, as it is their favorite. A few neighbors dropped by to visit, greet the sons—word had apparently gotten around that they were back—and meet me. They asked how many “enfants”, or children, had come with the Peace Corps group, and mused about the Corps de la Paix enfants they had hosted in the past. It is unclear to me whether they were simply referring to the average age of the volunteers—late twenties; not as old enough to be deferred to by an elder, but hardly children—or if it is our inexperience, blundering cultural gaffes, and naiveté that has demoted us to less than full adulthood.  I will be interested to see if, in time, we can earn our way into more respect. 

We ate in the living room, scooping our plates with batons of manioc. The process was explained to me—the manioc is soaked for several days, then taken to a mill where it is ground into a paste, then wrapped in large leaves, tied, and dried. The dried batons are boiled to soften them before eating. The texture was unfamiliar—not unpleasant, but hard to compare. Luckily, as they may be a large part of my diet here, I liked them, although I’m not sure I’d want to snack on one on its own; they don’t have a very pronounced flavor.
After dinner Danny dug out some photo albums, and I got to see pictures of the Biyaga family history, from Jeanne and Boyomo’s wedding and the boys’ births to the string of Peace Corps trainees the family has hosted in the past. I retrieved a small album I had brought and showed my family, friends, and past homes in return. Danny was intrigued by New York, particularly the pictures of winter snowstorms; Patrick liked the photos of Israel, and seemed surprised when I pointed out my mother in group shots—“But she’s so young!” (read: slender, which here is a marker of age. More on cultural values regarding size later). Mama Jeanne halted at one of my favorite pictures of my father, which I snapped in one of his sillier moments. He has an earflap beanie perched on top of a baseball cap, and is making rock on hands and sticking his tongue out. She gazed at the photo, perplexed. “Il porte son chapeau comme un enfant?” she queried, and I laughingly admitted that yes, he was wearing his hat like a child. She smiled and shook her head. “He likes playing the clown, then?” A wave of homesickness washed over me as I nodded, smiling, and I wished my parents could meet the Biyagas. I think they would like them.
After the photos were put away, our attention turned to the television, which had been on the whole time in the background. A Bollywood soap opera was underway, the dramatic lip motions not syncing very well with alternately breathy and gruff French voiceovers. Danny grinned apologetically. “Not for me or Patrick, but Cameroonian women…” He gestured at the female half of his family. Mama Jeanne was nodding off on the sofa, the work of the day catching her up. She woke up slightly as an old woman burst dramatically onto the screen, declaiming that someone was someone else’s true child, taken at birth (no, really, I’m not making this plot up).  “Ah, la Grandmère!” she murmured, eyes drooping. “She is a bad guy.” She began to incoherently summarize the plot, half-asleep, when Danny gently interrupted her to tell her to go to bed. Given the early morning I have tomorrow, I followed suit. It began raining fairly heavily about an hour ago, which is a boon; it mostly drowns out the Rihanna pumping from next door. My clothes are mostly unpacked on the shelves that take up any of the room not occupied by a double bed, table, and chair—I have to shuffle sideways to get to the window—so I think I’m going to crawl under my mosquito net and call it a night. 

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