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!"

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