Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Like an actual parent, I know that I shouldn’t choose favorites among the hordes of neighbor-spawn who regularly manifest on my front porch and clamor for my attention.  Like an actual parent, I secretly have. My absolute favorite is my neighbor Howa’s 5-year old niece, Habibatou.  A child of Howa’s older sister in the nearby village of Douroum, Habiba came to live in Mandama when Howa gave birth.  Howa needed help around the house and with the newborn, and it was decided that her sister Maimouna had enough to spare one—and so Biba’s entire life was uprooted, because children here are above all a practical consideration.
Habibatou has big, doleful eyes and a jutting lower lip.  Her face is usually composed in the glum, hang-dog expression of a retired bureaucrat, occasionally touched with self-conscious dignity.  This, along with her penchant for resting things on the shelf of her swollen belly—like so many of the children I see, she is massively bloated with malnutrition and worms—make me think she should be wearing tasseled loafers, drinking a gin and tonic, and shaking the Financial Times closed with a sigh.
Biba wears the same outfit every day.  Until recently it was a purple-and-orange pagne dress that was patently too small; the waist would ride up to her armpits over the swell of her stomach.  One afternoon her aunt impatiently demanded to know why she never wore the larger hand-me-down dress she had been given.   Biba hid her head, and when that method of avoiding response failed, burst into loud and dramatic tears.  Sensing that something was up, Howa ordered her into exile outside until she stopped crying and changed into the dress.  Howa and I tried not to laugh at the great, gulping sobs floating through the open doorway, which quieted into low keening.  Eventually she made a reappearance, pulling the door curtain aside solemnly.  The dress in question was destroyed; one sleeve was hanging by a thread, and a side seam had been torn open from top to waist.  She entered the room, head held high, pride and defiance writ large on her face and only slightly marred by tear-stained cheeks and the occasional sniffle.  She could have been Mary Stuart facing Tudor justice, or Marie Antoinette leaving the Bastille before jeering Jacobin crowds, such was her comportment before her aunt’s impending wrath.
Last night I ended up staying over with the volunteer in Douroum, having lingered at the market until nightfall. Since I was in town, we went to Maimouna’s for dinner—she inherited me as a friend and couscous sponge from her sister. A small figure came barreling out of her house and tackled me around the knees: her daughter, Habibatou.  I expressed surprise at seeing her here instead of in Mandama. Maimouna explained that someone from Mandama, headed to market, had given Habiba a ride to Douroum so that she could visit her nuclear family.
This morning my route home took me again by Maimouna, who flagged me down.  In fact, she explained, they weren’t sure who had given Habibatou a ride; the mysterious benefactor had just left her in the main market and she had found her mother, who sells beans and beignets, from there.  Whoever it had been, he was long gone now, leaving Habiba effectively stranded—unless, of course, I could give her a ride home? I immediately assented, and rode home with my charge wedged between me and the moto driver, thin arms threaded around his waist and head in an oversized helmet tucked under my chin, a grin plastered across her wind-whipped face.
The road home, from the back of a moto, driven by my stylish friend Moussa.

Safety first.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Things that still surprise me

1. Sunset and dusk here (gloaming? Is that the word I want? Is that a word?). No one warns you about that when you come to the tropics. The mosquitoes and the heat, sure-- but no one thinks to tell you about nightfall.

For one thing, it's the exact same time, every day, always. At home, the three-month span I've just traversed would have been marked by progressively shorter days; but this close to the equator, there is no external indicator of the calendar year's looming end. I could set my watch by it: 6:00 pm, every day.

For another, the whole thing has come and gone and night descended in about 10 minutes flat. In a country otherwise defined by the desultory heure Africaine, this is the outlier; this is the touch of Germanic efficiency to counterbalance the African narrative of interminable waiting.  The sun in Cameroon, unlike bureaucracy or the pace of development, doesn't drag its feet.

2. The contradiction between the ubiquitous trash here and people's extreme resourcefulness. Let's take this morning as an example. On my walk over to the elementary school, I stopped in the square outside my house to chat with Idi, who runs a small boutique that sells soap, candles, powdered milk, and instant coffee.  A tall, competent man with the delicate scars that mark most Northerners running down his face, he was engaged in skinning a small goat. As he skillfully slid a dull blade along the goat's side, tugging the hide from the inner membrane, he explained that he would eat the goat; the skin would be sold across the border into Nigeria.  As he was thus engaged, his friend drew my attention to a set of children's Storm Trooper footie pajamas. From whence they came, I haven't the slightest idea, but he solemnly suggested that I might be interested in puchasing them from him. He was so sincere, I felt bad laughing, and tried to keep a straight face as I responded that this was clearly a pretty special occasion outfit. I wasn't sure I could find anywhere to wear it around village.  Idi snorted with laughter, twisting a hoof off with a crackle of breaking joint and ligament. His friend eyed me, unsure if I was being sarcastic or if this was my white-man ignorance showing through. "You wear this to sleep in," he explained. Lips twitching, I thanked him for clarifying, but declined the offer-- although I couldn't blame him for trying to make a buck off of the rejected throw-aways Goodwill sends to Africa by the bargeful. 

On the other hand, the road leading from my house to the school-- to anywhere in village-- is so absurdly littered with plastic bags, wrappers, and bits of nonbiodegradable trash, it looks like that advertisement from the 70's where an American Indian stands on the highway letting fall a single noble tear over the state of Mother Earth.  At first this raised my ire, but now I'm not sure the alternatives (bury it? Burn it?) are really much better. This goes, by the way, for trash everywhere; it's just that in the West we have the luxury of letting municipalities cart it away so that we get to forget about our responsibility in destroying natural resources.

Descending from my pulpit, I arrive at 3. The many uses of peanut butter. One time I ate four meals in a row with neighbors and friends, all of which incorporated local plants and peanuts, and all of which were distinct.  For lunch, I had follere, the acidic leaves of the hibiscus plant, in peanut sauce.  For dinner, my neighbor Howa (who is quickly becoming one of my closest friends) and her sister-wife had prepared tasbah, a different leafy green sauteed with peanut sauce and white beans.  Breakfast the next morning, also chez Howa, was Ham Ham, one of my favorite Northern dishes. It is made with dried peanut butter crumbles-- the waste material from the production of peanut oil, and therefore both healthier and bizarrely gummier than any peanut butter I was used to-- cooked in bitter green leaves, redolent with garlic and ginger. If it sounds weird, it is; but it's also meaty and satisfying and kind of addicting. Finally, my friend and community host Mairamou made me dinner: leaves of moringa, a tree good for everything from protein to vitamins to water filtration, cooked in peanut sauce.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Since my arrival in Mandama 36 hours ago, I have been given a new home, a new set of friends and neighbors, and a new name. Let it never be said that Cameroon is unwelcoming.

My first full day at post started early. I had just gotten up and was puttering around thinking coffee thoughts when a knock sounded on the door. "Who is it?" I called.  "It's me!" came the typically Cameroonian reply.  It was, as always, imminently unhelpful, as a steel door stood between me and my interlocutor. "Who is me?" failing both to be grammatically sound and to elicit explicitation, I caved and opened the door. An affronted face beneath a headscarf greeted me. "Meghan didn't tell you about me?" Well, that's an interesting question. Meghan, my predecessor at post, told me about many people. Why don't you start by clarifying which of this town's 2500 residents you are, and we'll go from there.

This was not to be the first time I would hear of Meghan. In fact, most of my conversations with Mandamans have been nothing short of a hagiography of Saint Meghan the Blessed. If my neighbors are to be believed, everything this girl touched literally turned to gold. The children and the small animals came unto her, and she did feed them the Cameroonian food she had learned to make, perfectly. She knew everyone in town, was friends with everyone, and hers is the model to which I must assiduously apply myself, because everyone will be Very Disappointed if I am not Just. Like. Meghan. I'd rather resent her if I didn't know she had gone through the same thing with her predecessor, Kauleen; indeed, that every Peace Corps Volunteer goes through to some extent or another. And so I merely smiled when asked pointedly why I don't speak Fulfulde ("Meghan spoke perfect Fulfulde!") and promised to work on it.

I will, too, because today showed me the necessity of speaking Fulfulde as well as French.  Everyone I met in public-- the school teachers, the vendors at the marketplace, the old men lounging under trees laconically eating peanuts-- spoke French.  But once I ducked back into compounds, it was a different story.  The traditional wives and young children whose lives are defined by the compound walls often speak only Fulfulde, which meant I spent much of my day smiling and nodding uncomprehendingly.  In my own defense, I always started by warning, "Mi wolwata Fulfulde" -- I don't speak Fulfulde, one of the few phrases I've got down pat so far.  The women would laugh and laugh, as though this were a great punchline-- and promptly proceed to address great discourses at me in Fulfulde, the very language whose knowledge I had so recently disavowed.  And so I would sigh internally, and smile, and say "Jam!" at periodic intervals.  The Fulfulde equivalent of salaam, or peace, jam is an appropriate response to most questions.  How are you?  How are your wives?  How is your compound?  Crops looking good?  Jam.

I think at some point while I was shelling peanuts with the senior wife of the lamido, or traditional chief, I must have been asked if I wanted a Muslim name, or perhaps told I needed one, as mine is just foreign and wierd.  I imagine I smiled, and probably nodded.  I don't know if I was given a selection, or merely asked what I thought of the name Adama.  In either case, I'm sure I grinned benignly, and maybe slipped in a "Jam!" All I know is the outcome of these diplomatic negotiations: everyone I've run into since, including people I've never met, has started calling me Adama, or Laura Adama.

I spent the evening with Mairamou, a friend of (you guessed it) Meghan's who has been acting as my community host, and several of her friends from village.  Several, including a couple of refreshingly sassy Southerners from Ebolowa, were posted here by the Ministries of Health or Education; nurses and schoolteachers are often sent all over the country with no say in the matter. A more highly educated crowd than the women with whom I had spent the afternoon, they are acutely aware of the needs facing Mandama.  I spent the evening listening as they told me about using soy flour to combat malnutrition and increasing gender equality in the schools.  To be fair, it's entirely possible that my landlord's wives were telling me about the same subjects this morning.  In response to which I smiled vapidly and said, "Peace!"