Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Les Dimanches à Bokito, C’est Le Jour de Mariage

While Sundays in Bokito have not thus far been wedding days (but bonus points for those who got the Amadou and Mariam reference), they have been interesting cross-cultural case studies.

Last Sunday the whole clan Biyaga trooped to church with me in tow to endure a little over three hours of singing, sweating, and exhortation. While I’m glad I went—it certainly helps me understand behavioral norms here, and my family in particular—it was a little fatiguing to feel the eyes of over half the congregation glued to me (La Blanche! She goes to church, just like us!) throughout the service.

After church we went home, where I assisted Mama Jeanne and Nanou with Sunday dinner—couscous de mais, or corn meal, and ndolè, a Cameroonian dish made with vernonia leaves and groundnuts. Like most traditional Cameroonian meals, this one was extremely labor-intensive. The corn had to be cut from the cobs, smashed with a grinding stone into a fine enough meal to pass Mama Jeanne’s gimlet-eyed inspection, and then boiled into the couscous, which is nothing like an American conception of couscous; it’s somewhere in between grits and polenta. A huge wicker basket of vernonia plants had to be de-stemmed, the leaves shredded by hand, and the whole thing soaked twice and boiled to rid it of bitterness (which I believe comes from trace amounts of cyanide. The nice thing about not having any Internet access is that I can make claims like this to my fellow trainees, and no one has any form of reliable external verification, so everyone kind of shrugs and takes me at my word. This may not hold up particularly well once I start broadcasting my baseless suppositions on the World Wide Web. Feel free to fact-check me and leave it in the comments; I’ll see in a few weeks and then we’ll all be the wiser about ndolè, which is the main point).
Mama Jeanne wielding a couscous baton

Once I had been deemed the less competent of Mama Jeanne’s assistants, I was shooed outside while nine-year-old Nanou, clearly the more capable—at least in the realm of crushing corn into flour both neatly and efficiently—took over. Muttering protests about my abilities being a little more evident in an industrialized society, I meekly submitted. I was not left to my own devices for long, however; Mama Jeanne’s sister, a hairdresser, soon arrived. Mama Jeanne had told her the situation on the back of my head was dire, and she had come to see what was what.

She took a long look, weighed a dreadlock pensively, and then nodded, face set. There was nothing for it, she declared, but to comb it all out and start again. Resolutely ignoring my feeble suggestion that this might not, in fact, be a possibility, she set to with vigor. The battle was short and indecisive. Less than a minute later, she had subsided; two largish chunks of my hair were on the ground, having taken hostage several teeth of her pink plastic comb on their way out. She called into the kitchen to Mama Jeanne, who appeared in the doorway, a formidable figure wielding a couscous baton. With much clucking and shaking of heads, they conversed in patois, then switched to French to deliver the ultimatum: we would have to cut them all off and start from scratch.

This was when I began to panic. I had jokingly told a friend in training that I would let Africa do anything it wanted to my hair, just as long as it didn’t shave me bald—and yet here these indomitable mommas stood, frowning at my head with much the attitude of Kitchener regarding the Germans on the fields of Flanders.  I had the sinking feeling that I might be sheared against my will.

I began pleading in earnest; Mama Jeanne argued hard for the prosecution. I would like it much better once these dirty dreads were gone. My head would be so light! I could feel the breeze on the back of my neck! And besides, it would look much better; this rastaman getup didn’t suit a young lady, not at all. I held my ground, and eventually the hand holding the couscous baton was thrown up in exasperation at my intransigence. I had won this round, and my hair was safe—for now.
Still slightly suspicious

This past Sunday took a different tone; I had my first truly productive day here, which was a good feeling. Twenty-one stagaires, a current Volunteer, and a driver met at the training center in Bokito to cram into a single van—no, you did not read that incorrectly; yes, This Is Africa—and begin the pothole slalom that is our twice-weekly venture into Bafia. We spent the morning being drilled by two more current Volunteers on mountain bike maintenance. After being put through the paces in a speed-repair race (patch a tire! Use the chain-breaker to remove a busted link from the chain, then feed it back through the gears! Bike to the crossroads and back, and for God’s sake don’t forget your helmet!) we were free for the afternoon. I met up with a friend in the Agro program, Grant, to help him build a raised bed garden behind his homestay family’s house. It felt great to get my hands dirty again.  I hadn’t realized how much I missed mucking around in the earth. It was fun to get some neighborhood kids to join in; once we explained the main idea, they set to with abandon, hacking at small banana trees with the ubiquitous machete that every Cameroonian from age three on seems to carry.

Sunday afternoon I got home to Bokito in time to begin making dinner for my family. I had promised them an American dinner, then realized I may have been too hasty; the only things available at the market were plantains, potatoes, yams, a different kind of potato, a lumpier kind of yam, manioc, and tomatoes. I decided to split the difference and make falafel from chickpea flour I had brought with me from the States. While it’s not the average American’s idea of a National Meal, it’s just as American as spaghetti or pizza—just stolen from a different Mediterranean culture, that’s all—and it’s certainly more personally relevant than either. When my host brother asked if all Americans liked falafel, I shrugged. “C’est très New Yorkaise,” I offered, which is certainly true, and we left it at that.

The meal was not a smash hit. The Israeli salad I made to go in sandwiches with the falafel balls seemed to perplex everyone involved. Mama Jeanne asked me about four times how I planned to cook the vegetables.  Each time I patiently said I wasn’t, they were part of a salad, we were eating them raw; she thought for a moment, then offered to heat some oil if I’d like to do them properly. Nanou and her best friend who lives next door shook their heads violently at the suggestion of salad, nibbled a falafel ball, then fled giggling to their chairs with a jar of mayonnaise, which they ate with a baguette each. Mama Jeanne and Daniel gamely made the sandwiches the way I had demonstrated, and seemed to like the falafel, commenting that it had the texture and taste of boulettes of meat, which pleased both. An elderly neighbor Mama knows from church was more suspicious. She eschewed the very idea of a sandwich, instead piling her falafel on fried plantains left over from Saturday. She eyed the stack uneasily, proceeding to drown the entire thing in mayonnaise. Ultimately, though, good humor prevailed; the family got a kick out of me cooking, and I think they appreciated me trying to share something that I love from my home. 
Daniel displaying my work

1 comment:

  1. Laura, this is fantastic. You've got a great writing style. Very entertaining.