Thursday, April 23, 2009

While unpacking the trunks of things that we had packed away to make room for our renters, I badly stubbed and sprained my toe. After a few days of keeping it iced and elevated, I am recovering, but I still can't wear regular shoes. As I went about my errands yesterday, self-consciously wearing socks with my sports sandals (It's too cold to omit the socks), I found myself exaggerating my limp, hoping that people would rightly assume that there was good reason for my fashion faux pas. We Westerners are far more rigid in our dress codes than are Cameroonians.
I remember that when I was waiting to board my flight in New York, the woman ahead of me turned to me and said, rather testily, "I AM in line!" I wasn't sure what she meant, so I just smiled and nodded. But then yesterday, while waiting in a check-out line, I noticed that the woman ahead of me was giving me anxious little glances over her shoulder. I realized that I haven't yet re-adjusted my notions of personal space. Americans like for people to keep more distance than do Cameroonians.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

I am home. Home from Cameroon and home from the quick trip to Dallas that I made a few hours after my plane touched down in Charlotte. I spend a lot of my time in that strange world that exists beyond airport security, so it feels like a third home to me. I think that is why I rarely experience culture shock anymore. By the time I leave Airport Land, I'm happy to enter any real world that awaits. Nevertheless, when I look out the window of my home office, I am surprised to see the green grass, the azaleas in bloom, the clean, empty street. When I go out my door, I am struck by the eerie silence. No sounds of traffic, roosters, the chopping of wood, frogs that sound like everthing from slamming doors to screeching brakes, cicadas, loud music pouring out of bars. In Yaounde it is never quiet.
Karen sent me this link to an article in the English version of the Cameroonian Tribune:http://allafrica.com/stories/200904020706.html My sister, who has worked in editing and publishing for over thirty years, says that it's the funniest thing she's ever seen in print.

Monday, April 13, 2009

In a few hours I will board my flight to Charlotte, via Casablanca and New York. I am already dressed in my "goin' to America clothes." It is the first time in three months that I have worn long pants, and my crew neck shirt feels like a dog collar. It may be a few days before I have Internet access. I suspect that I won't have a lot to blog about anymore. In Cameroon, if I want to find something to write about, I need only walk down the street. Life in the US is too predictable. Maybe I'll have some interesting observations about the differences while I am still freshly back in the land of straight lines, friendly police officers and water fountains.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

This morning I went back to our old neighborhood to say goodbye to our former neighbor, Marie. She had asked me to get her a Bible, so I took that with me, along with some recent family photos. I left the Bible with her husband and told him to ask her to pass by my apartment. She came and we chatted and looked at the pictures, and I told her that I was leaving on Monday. Here is the conversation that followed:
Marie: When will I see you again before you leave?
Nanci: This is the last time. That’s why I came by to see you: to say goodbye.
M: Do you leave Monday morning?
N: No, evening.
M: Then I’ll see you Monday.
N: On Monday I have a meeting all morning, then lunch with a friend, then another meeting all afternoon, then I will meet another friend to say goodbye, then I have to go to the airport.
M: So you were just going to leave like that, without saying goodbye?
N: That’s why I came today, to say goodbye.
M: Hmph! (Long pause.) So you’ll come see me at my house tomorrow.
N: Tomorrow is Easter. I have things planned all day.
M: Well then when will I say goodbye?
N: I thought we could do that now.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Over the weekend we had dinner with our friend John Tangko. He said, “Here’s something that is strange about you Americans: you put so much importance on your names. You want people to call you by the right name and you don’t like it if they spell it wrong. It isn’t like that for us. I don’t care what you call me or if you ever call me by my name. You don’t even know my first name.” Then he turned to one of the other guests, and said to him, “What is my first name? I can’t ever pronounce it right.” His friend told him that it is Mjeung. We all, including John, practiced saying it for a minute. We then asked John how he came to be called John, and he said that it was the name chosen for him when he got baptized as a child.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Kennedy’s great-grandfather was very wealthy. He had twenty wives. When he died, his oldest son (Kennedy’s grandfather) inherited those wives, and added ten more. Needless to say, he had so many children that Kennedy doesn’t have any clue how many aunts and uncles he has. Polygamy is legal in Cameroon, but when you marry your first wife, you have to declare whether it will be a monogamous or polygamous union. One time a friend of ours was planning to get married, and he told us that he was going to declare a polygamous marriage, although he is a Christian and doesn’t believe in polygamy. We asked him why he would lie, and he said that his friends had told him it would be a good idea. That way whenever his wife caused him problems, he could threaten to take a second wife.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Our friend Kennedy told us an interesting story tonight. Like many Cameroonians, he had no birth certificate. When he was in elementary school, one of his teachers said, “Oh, you were born on the same day as my son!” So from then on he thought he had been born in July of 1965. A few years ago, however, his older brother came to visit. He told him that he had visited their home village, gone to the clinic where he had been born and got his birth certificate, learning in the process that he was older than he had previously thought. So Kennedy did the same thing. He learned that he had been born in November 1963, on the day that his namesake (or, as they say here, his "homonym") had been shot. In other words, when he thought he was 40, he learned that he was 42.

While we were at Kennedy and Emma’s house, a young man came in. Kennedy exclaimed, “Oh, you can meet my son-in-law! He is married to the younger sister of my niece.” We were happy to know what he meant.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Recently we had dinner with our friends Jennie and Fred (the head of Child Evangelism Fellowship of Cameroon) and their four children: Faith, Hope, Love and Peace.

Friday, April 3, 2009


Coneilia and Dieudonne in front of the house that she has been building for the past five years.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The racism that I experience here is very different from what minorities experience elsewhere, but it is racism nonetheless. Here are the comments that I can expect to hear from strangers during a typical 40 minute walk. Note that this is on a busy street and that I am being singled out in the crowd. (Ordinarily Cameroonians don’t call out to people they don’t know.)
Friendly: 10 – 20 people will greet me pleasantly (“Bonjour, Madame”, “Hello, Mother”, or even “Hey, White Lady!”, but said nicely.)
Unfriendly: 1-3 people (almost always young men) will greet me with an unpleasant comment such as, “What are you doing here?”, “Ntangan!” (Ewondo for “Foreigner”) or “Hey, White Lady”, said in a nasty tone of voice.
Sexist: 5-10 men will say, “Hey Honey” or “My baby!” or “Can I come along?”
Curious: Sometimes children will follow me, giggling and pointing. One or two brave ones might try to feel my skin or my hair.
Afraid: Upon seeing me, a child might burst into tears or run away in fright.
Greedy: 3-5 people will ask me for money, for my visor, for a trip to the US. Seriously.
Antagonistic: About once a week, a driver will deliberately veer toward me, as though trying to hit me.
I often wish that I could be invisible.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


We don't have KFC or McDonald's, but when I don't feel like cooking, we can stop by the local chicken grill and, for about $6.00 buy an entire (very small) grilled chicken. Grilled bananas are an extra 20 cents each.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Today a group of us were having coffee and discussing the problem of deciding when to give money to someone who asks. I turned to the only Cameroonian in the group and asked him his opinion. He said, “People know that white people had enough money to come here on an airplane and that you have jobs, so in comparison to them you are very rich, and that is why they ask you. For us Africans, it is normal to ask and normal to help. When those of us who have jobs are asked for help, we want to help. When you are asked for help, you find it annoying.” He didn’t say it at all judgmentally; he was merely stating the facts.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Although I didn't get a good picture of the Pope, one of my friends shot this one as he was passing by the road to CABTAL.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My friend Henny saved my life today. We were walking on the shoulder of the Dangerous Road when the drivers of two cars somewhere behind us got into a fight. As far as we can figure out, one of them rammed into the other. The latter decided to flee by accelerating and passing the cars ahead of him on the right, which put us in his direct path. Henny turned to look, saw the car bearing down on us and tried to pull me out of the way. I had heard a car coming toward us, but, not having looked, tried to pull Henny closer to the side of the road. Fortunately she won. The car side-swiped me as it sped off, but I’ll have only a bruise. Maybe I saved her, too, because the other car sped by on the other side of us, just missing her. We stood there for several minutes, shaking and crying, before we could continue on our way. As we passed by the people who had heard the crash and come out to look, some called out encouraging comments to us like, “Courage” or “Thank God who protected you.”

Friday, March 20, 2009

To add to my list of unusual objects carried on someone's head: a door. It may not have made the list had it not been on the head of someone who was riding on the back of a motorcycle.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In the Bible it says that “all of Jerusalem” turned out to see Jesus. Until I came to Cameroon, I thought that was a figure of speech. Yesterday all of Yaoundé turned out to welcome the Pope. Along with everyone else, I stood by the side of the road for an hour, just to get a glimpse of him in his Popemobile. (I tried to get a photo, but the police were scolding those with cameras, and my surreptitious effort failed.)
Here are some of the things that I saw as I walked along the main road from the airport to the center of town a few hours before the Pope arrived: lots of people still washing, whitewashing or painting their houses; flocks of women (church groups or cultural clubs) in matching dresses, meeting up in advance of the motorcade; several convoys of armed soldiers heading for the airport; banners over the street reading, “Cameroon will be eternally grateful to Pope Benedict XVI”; posters of President Biya standing next to the previous Pope; dozens of Cameroonian and Vatican City flags alternating every 100 feet (for miles); bands of soldiers standing over those who were still clearing away piles of debris; excited school children walking home from school, having been let out early.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tonight an acquaintance who works for Cameroon Television stopped by to greet us. He told us that he intends to send his daughter to the US for university next year, because “Now that Obama is president, he will open things up for black people.” We told him not to count on any big changes in that regard and added that Lexi recently told us that Obama has expelled tens of thousands of Haitians. Our friend said, “But they aren’t Black.” We said that they are. I don’t think that he was convinced, but he was undaunted either way. Paul pointed out that even if Obama wanted to make major changes in immigration policy, he is only one arm of the government. Our friend said, “Yes, but I’ve heard that the majority of the legislature supports him, so if he wants something, he will get it.” Finally we said, “We’ll just have to wait and see.” Our friend said, “Yes. We’ll see.” All of this took place in French, but as we walked away he shouted after us in English, “Yes we can!”

Friday, March 13, 2009

I just walked down a road that appeared to have been hit by a hurricane. As I passed through the area that was cleaned out yesterday by the police (see yesterday’s post), I saw piles of rubble where houses and shops used to stand. Sometimes people were standing in the rubble, weeping or just staring vacantly. One man was drunk, and he waved his arms and railed at whomever was passing by. I stopped to offer consolation and help to a woman who was digging through a huge pile of boards and tin. She said that she was a widow with children to support, and that the rubble represented both her home and her business. She kept staring at it blankly and saying, “What can I do now? What can I do now?” Not all of the shops along the road had been bulldozed, though. One of my friends said that her shop was spared when her landlord bribed the police. As with many traumas in the developing world, the initial blow is only the first. The landowners with rubble on their property are now charged with cleaning it up before the Pope arrives on Tuesday.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Pope is coming to Yaoundé next week. As always when we get important visitors, the city is getting a face lift. Everyone who lives or has a business along the route between the main cathedral and the airport is forced to clean up their grounds and put on a fresh coat of paint. In places where there are unsightly views (such as garbage dumps or slum areas), large fences are erected by the side of the road to hide them. Yesterday the police went through the city [Read more here], chasing away vendors and tearing down their stalls. We have been advised to stock up on provisions this week and lie low during the papal visit.
Sometimes I feel foolhardy when I walk along the road that leads to most of the places where I need to go. It is a dangerous road. People drive fast, and taxis (which comprise about half of the vehicles) stop, start up, and veer on and off the road with seemingly little regard for the rest of us. A few years ago Paul sent an employee to driver’s school. The first class was taken up with registering and paying the $50.00 fee. At the second class, the “teacher” passed out driver’s licenses and told everyone goodbye. Our employee tried to protest, saying that he hadn’t learned to drive yet. The teacher said, “You’ve got a license: why should you complain?” That explains a lot.
Recently the son of one of our friends approached us about helping him pay a “dot”, or bride-price. Here is what his father-in-law-to-be is asking of him: one pig, one goat, transportation costs for everyone who travels to the village for the wedding, and all of the food and drinks. He also sent a list of thirty relatives, noting the amount of money ($5.00 -$40.00) that must be given in person to each one. (They live in nine different towns, scattered throughout the south of the country.) This is all quite reasonable. The bride is from a very important and wealthy family, so her father could have asked for a lot more. The “dot” serves an important social purpose. It links the two families. If the young couple has problems, it is in everyone’s interest to help them work it out. The groom’s family wants to protect its investment; the bride’s family doesn’t want to have to pay back the “dot”. When a marriage does break up, it often creates wide problems. If a “dot” has been paid, the wife and any children belong more to the husband’s family than she does her own.

Friday, March 6, 2009


I used to buy African trade beads in the market and make jewelry to sell at an annual art sale, so the oldtimers at the artisan’s market know me well. I visited them a few weeks ago and received a warm welcome and many questions about Alexis and Karen. However, there are also many younger sellers in the market who don’t know me. Yesterday I was negotiating with a young man while helping a friend buy souvenirs. One of the older sellers approached and told the young man, “You can’t give her that price. That’s the price for tourists. She has been here for so long: she is Cameroonian! Give her a good price.” The younger man looked at me skeptically and sneered, “Cameroonian?” Then he got a sly smile and greeted me in the local language, which is spoken by very few foreigners. “Mbembe kiri,” he said. I responded, “Kiri mbeng. O ne mvoi?” (Good morning, how are you?) While the young man and his friends stared open-mouthed and the older men hooted and slapped each other on the back, my friend and I left. I didn’t want them to know that I had just spoken nearly all of the Ewondo that I can remember.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I’ve seen something else that I wouldn’t want to eat. As I was out walking I stepped around a parked car and nearly ran into a man who was selling the usual candy, matches and tissues…and two large dead rats.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Our friend Joseph hunts bats. The British American Tobacco Company has a compound (known of course as the BAT compound),where bats apparently like to congregate. Joseph has received permission from the company to hunt them on the weekends. We have eaten many things here that I didn’t relish: snake, porcupine, crocodile, grasshoppers, grubs. (The last were very well cooked. When we are offered the live, wiggling ones, I decline as sweetly as I can manage while trying not to gag.) The only time that I can recall when I couldn’t manage a polite response was when we tried Joseph’s bats. Coneilia loves them and is one of Joseph’s best customers. So one day she prepared them for us. The smell of them tipped me off that this was not going to be pleasant. I took a bite and almost immediately spit it out. I exclaimed, “Coneilia! Don’t you love your family anymore? How can you give us this terrible thing to eat?!” She and Joseph howled with laughter, but she never fed us bats again. Yesterday another friend showed me that the Cameroon Tribune had done a feature on bat hunters, and there was Joseph! He is a gardener and custodian, and I’m sure that he never imagined that he would see his own photo in the national paper. When I see him next, I will ask him when he is going to "arroser" [lit: to water]. (It is the custom, when one encounters good fortune or acquires something new, to "spread the wealth around" by buying drinks or food for one's friends.)
This morning I walked to meet Coneilia and give her some things for her trip. I didn’t see her when I got to the intersection where we were to meet, but I heard her call, “Mommy!” from a distance. She seemed oblivious to the astonished looks on people’s faces as she hurried to hug me.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Coneilia got a little bit more news. Her brother had been working (construction) overtime in the city for the past two weeks, wanting to earn some extra money for his family and to help Coneilia with Dieudonne’s expenses. On Saturday he received his pay and was heading for the village. Apparently someone – maybe some fellow constructions workers - knew that he had the money, because they killed him for it. For Coneilia, his death is a quadruple burden. She has lost her brother; she has lost the financial help he sometimes gave her; she must cover enormous funeral expenses (In her culture, the family of the deceased is obliged to provide food and drink to anyone who drops in over a three day period, and the entire village will do so) and because her own parents are gone, she must now take on the support of his widow and children. (The widow’s own family has no such obligation to her.) My words of comfort seem feeble.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Coneilia phoned me frantically this morning to tell me that her brother had been murdered. Last night he was found at the bottom of a well, with his head bashed in and signs of having been beaten. This brother is the father of Dieudonne, the adolescent boy Coneilia has been raising for the past twelve years. Although she has been sick for the past week with a large boil in her throat, tomorrow she must travel to Douala to purchase a casket, make arrangements to transport his body back to their village and prepare for the funeral. (She has other siblings, but apart from a sister who works as a nurse in the Netherlands, Coneilia is the only one with a steady income, and her extended family relies heavily on her in times of crises.) I was tempted to offer to travel with her, but everyone that she has to deal with would charge her higher prices if a white woman were accompanying her.

Friday, February 27, 2009

I have a friend, Monique, who takes orders for home baked, whole wheat bread and tortillas. The last two times that I ordered from her, an elderly man delivered the bread to me. Today I asked him if he is a member of the family. “Yes,” he said, beaming proudly. “I am Monique’s father.” I shook his hand and said how happy I was to meet him, and he went on, “Yes, I am her father: the younger brother of her mother. I was the one who brought her here to Yaoundé. I signed her marriage certificate, giving her to Olivier.” I smiled to myself, thinking of how confusing that would be to someone who didn’t understand that in Cameroonian culture, the mother’s brother plays a central role in a child’s life, taking on many of the responsibilities that a father would in American culture. But just as I was commending myself for understanding, he said in parting, “Yes, I am Monique’s grandfather.”
One time we were watching television with a roomful of Cameroonian friends. We were watching as Paul Biya, the President, and his French wife arrived for a diplomatic visit in Congo. They deplaned, made their way to the platform where there were to be speeches and sat down. Then Madame Biya crossed her legs, and the room where we were erupted. “What! Look at that!” “Who does she think she is?” “What will people think of Cameroon when our First Lady behaves like that?” It was a chilling reminder of the importance of respecting the culture where you are. (I hope that Michelle Obama has better protocol officers than Mme Biya must have.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The other day I spent some time with a French acquaintance. I noticed that as soon as we sat down, we both crossed our legs, and I wondered if she had had to think about it for a minute like I had. In Cameroon, it is rude to cross your legs (knee on knee or especially ankle on knee) in most situations. As I understand it, only the most important person in the room has the right to do so. This would only be a woman if there were no men present. (Yes, it galls me, but it would do me no good to give offense.) As a White male, Paul is usually pretty safe and doesn’t have to think about it much. (Yes, that’s upsetting, too, but we have somewhat adapted to the automatic status that our skin color gives us here.) I could do it when only women were in the room, but as a courtesy I try to do so only with good friends. The real problem for both of us is in Church. No one is greater than God, goes the thinking, so it is very rude – sacrilegious, even – to cross your legs in church. If that doesn’t sound so bad, remember that we are often sitting for hours on low, backless benches. Knowing that we can’t cross our legs makes the urge to do so almost unbearable.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Today I stopped in to see Rebeccah’s tailoring shop. She wasn’t there, but her nephew greeted me warmly and showed me around. (It didn’t take long: the shop is about 100 sq ft.) I asked if I could take some photos. He very happily agreed, then bustled around, arranging things and staging the shots. “Can you see me if I stand like this?” “Should she be over here or over there?” I suggested that they just continue their work and let me take some photos that way. A customer arrived to pick up his clothes, and the nephew excitedly told him, “She’s shooting a film!” Seems like I'm always disappointing someone.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Yesterday we went to visit our friends Constantine and Rebecca. Constantine attended the Bible study that we held in our home years ago, and when we left, they began hosting it. Sadly, it fell apart after we left. They told us that when they ran into former participants and asked them why they had stopped coming, many of them said that they had enjoyed going to the White man’s house. We learned a lot from that experience. Rebecca is a tailor, and she has opened a new shop. She told me that she has seen me walk past it on the other side of the street several times. I asked her why she hadn’t called out to me, and she said that if she had, people nearby would have known my name and would have been able to use it. Constantine is a payment collector for a government micro-lending division. It was set up to meet the requirements of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank when some of Cameroon’s debts were forgiven. We asked him what percentage of the loans get repaid, and he said about half of them. His job is very difficult, because when he goes to collect the payments, he often finds that people have moved away.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I had lunch with Coneilia today and told her about the erotic dancer on crutches. She knows him. She said, “He came to my house and asked me if he could dance for me in exchange for some food. I told him that any time he needed food, he just had to ask, but I wasn’t about to watch him dance like that.” I also told her about a meal that we had recently with some colleagues. I told her that the woman had talked almost non-stop from the time they arrived, and it was only after more than two hours that she asked anything about us. (She had asked what I was knitting.) Coneilia was aghast. “Do you mean she didn’t ask about your children when she arrived?” I said no. “And she never asked about your family?” I shook my head. She paused, then narrowed her eyes and said, “And was this woman Cameroonian?” I said no. She was only slightly comforted. She shook her head and said, “Well that was very rude, even for an American.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Some cultural differences are easy to learn. For example, once you hear that it isn’t appropriate to show your shoulders in church, it’s pretty easy to remember not to put on a sleeveless dress on Sunday morning. (Recently our pastor’s wife was looking at Karen’s wedding pictures. When she saw that I had worn a sleeveless dress and Lexi a strapless one, she sighed and said, “If a woman wore something like that to a wedding or church here, they would probably stone her.” She was exaggerating, but you get the idea.) But other things are ingrained and difficult to change. One of the hardest has to do with eye contact. It isn’t appropriate here for a woman to sustain eye contact with a man. After having spent my early twenties in the US, learning that a firm handshake while looking someone directly in the eyes inspires trust, it took me years to learn the Cameroonian art of eye contact. When talking to a man, I catch his eye very briefly, then I look away: over his shoulder, at the ground, off to the side – anywhere but at his eyes. But it’s important to sort of “check in” every once in awhile, looking at his eyes so that he knows I’m still engaged in the conversation. (I must say that knitting is a huge help in this situation, as it gives me somewhere obvious to look.) When I returned to the US after 23 years of this, it took me another few years to look a man in the eyes again, and I find it awkward to this day. It’s easier for me here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009



Today we were invited for a meal at the home of some of our former neighbors. It was a very typical setting, and I wished that I had a video camera to record the sounds as well as the sights. Here are some of the things that made it different from eating with friends in the US: We ate in the living room; our hostess and the children didn’t eat with us; the television and a radio were blaring in the background; people kept coming in and going out (at one point I counted twenty people in the house, mostly children, but many others had come and gone).

We were still eating when a young relative with a handicap entered the house on crutches. He said that he liked to entertain guests by dancing along with the television. They cranked the volume to ear-splitting levels, and he danced for a long time. The dance was mildly pornographic, and we didn’t know where to look. Our hostess (who had sat down with us by then) asked me if I dance. I said, “Not like that!” She laughed and said, “No, not like that.” She then asked me to give her a prayer book. (They are Catholic.) I told her that I don’t have a prayer book, but that she can talk to God without a book. She thought about that then said that she likes to read. I promised to bring her a French Bible. As we left, the young man was waiting for us by the door with his hand out, and Paul gave him some money. The most bizarre part of the afternoon was the show that was playing on the TV: My Sweet Sixteen (dubbed in French). The contrast between the spoiled families depicted on the show and my surroundings was too much to absorb and, by no means for the first time, I had the strange sense of having fallen through the looking glass.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

After our car died the other night, our friend Ray came across town to help. He towed us to the maintenance shop, then drove us home. On his way home from that, a woman stepped out in front of his car without looking. She hit the car, damaging the hood and cracking the windshield, then fell to the ground, unconscious. Ray thought that she was dead. He took her to the hospital, and it turned out that she was fine. However, he spent the entire night between the hospital and the police station. We feel terrible.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Last night we were invited to eat with Thomas and Virginie. A few years ago Paul spent 18 months training 11 men in the Air Force in aircraft maintenance, and Thomas was his star pupil. Their house is difficult to find, so we drove most of the way there to meet Thomas and go with him by taxi the rest of the way. We were just turning into the meeting place when our borrowed car died. This was of great interest to the many people who were passing by, and we had no lack of help either in diagnosing the problem or in pushing it to the side of the road. Everyone’s favorite part seemed to be when the White woman (that would be me) undertook to stop the traffic so that they could get it pushed safely to a nearby parking lot. I can still hear the laughter.

Here is the dinner that Virginie had prepared for the four of us: eggplant greens, two large grilled fish, a braised chicken and two sauces, rice, Egussi pudding, “batons de manioc”, two kinds of yams and fried plantains. Oh, and slices of papaya for dessert.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Paul had a day off today, so we spent it downtown, wandering in and out of little shops, seeing what’s new. I found the yarn shop that a friend had mentioned to me. The good news is that it’s all local yarn, made just a few miles from the shop. There were many colors and three different weights: fine, very fine and extra fine. The shop keeper told us that he doesn’t know any women (or men) who hand knit, but that there are people with machines, and they are the ones who buy the yarn. It all comes in one size skein – about 100 gms. The bad news is that it is ALL 100% acrylic. As we were walking down the street, we had just commented on how few foreigners there are here. When we first arrived, there were a lot of French people, but most have left. And about that time, someone called out to me, “Hey – a White! The last one left in Cameroon!”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Recently we ran into our good friend Tangko when he was with his wife, two of his daughters and three of his grandchildren. I was holding the baby, chatting with them, and decided to tease Tangko. I started to walk away, saying over my shoulder, “Since you have so many fine grandchildren, I think that I’ll keep this one.” Paul joined in the teasing, saying, “Let’s get a boy this time. I like this little one.” If only we had known…Tangko and his wife went home with very heavy hearts. Which child would we choose? How long would it be before they would see him or her again? They spent the next few days in long talks with their daughters, trying to decide which child to give us. Never once did they think of refusing. As Tango told me today, when we got it all straightened out, we have helped them a lot in the past, so they would never refuse us anything that we might ask. Even his two daughters were each prepared to give us a child. Sigh. Just when I think that I’m truly at home here, I do something that points out to me how much I have yet to learn.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Today we visited a small church that is pastored by Roger, the first Cameroonian we ever met. We met him in France when we were studying French and he was studying math at the University of Strasbourg. He was happy to see us sitting in the congregation and immediately asked Paul if he wanted to preach. Paul declined. Roger insisted; Paul declined again. Finally Roger offered a compromise, asking him to come forward and “give a testimony.” We have scarcely used our French for the past six years, but I thought that under the circumstances, Paul did a fine job of telling how we hadn’t had the money for our tickets here, but the Lord had provided it just in time. He sat down, then Roger said that I needed to come say something, too. Surely I had some news of the girls that I could give them? So although 95% of the people in the room didn’t even know us (let alone Alexis and Karen) I dutifully went forward and talked about them, then sat down. I was still reviewing my own French in my head when I realized that I was being called upon again, but this time to provide translation for another American who happened to be attending. I was horrified. Oral translation into a language that isn’t your mother tongue is very difficult, and my French is more than just a little rusty. People were nodding and patting me on the back while I protested. Finally Paul whispered, “I think they just want you to whisper a translation of the sermon to her." Oh! That I could do. Whew.

Friday, February 6, 2009

If there is ever an award for “The World’s Best Person”, I will nominate Coneilia. Here is the kind of person she is: Last Saturday, she got home from work around 1:00. She was tired and wanted to rest, but it is the only day that she has free for housework, so she started doing her laundry (by hand, of course. She has no machine, and couldn’t afford to run it if she did.) Almost immediately she got a phone call from one of her neighbors. The neighbor and her daughter had been in a car accident and were bleeding by the side of the road. They called Coneilia (as every one does when they’re in trouble.) She dropped what she was doing, took a taxi to meet them, took them to a clinic and waited. And waited. Eventually she went in to see what was going on. She found her friends still bleeding, albeit through some bandages. She asked if they were going to get stitches, and she was assured that it wasn’t necessary. So she tried to raise some cain. “You can’t just leave them like this! They’re still bleeding! If you don’t stitch them up, I’ll take them somewhere where they will.” The clinic staff told her that she couldn’t move them: they needed to stay for at least three days, for observation. Coneilia got them out of there, into another taxi and to another clinic, this one a very good one operated by our church. Her friend had a total of nearly thirty stitches in her stomach and head. I said, “So they might have bled to death in that first clinic without you.” Coneilia said, “Yes, those lazy people would have let them bleed to death.” I told her I hope that if she is ever in trouble, all of the people that she has helped will help her. She seemed surprised and assured me that they would. That’s the kind of person she is.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Today I go for my walk early, in the cool (maybe 85?) of the day. Although Yaoundé is a big, noisy city, when you get a few hundred feet off of nearly any secondary road, you find yourself in what resembles a village. The pavement ends and the road diminishes to a web of paths that wind among small, mud brick houses. I walk through such a neighborhood, happy to be out of the traffic, the noise and the pollution. White people don’t often walk here. People stare, and sometimes a man will call out, “Hi, White lady!” I smile, wave and call out, “Hi Black man!” This gets me a laugh and sometimes a handshake from anyone who happens to be nearby. (Note: Do not try this in Detroit.) Eventually my “village” ends near the large Catholic University, and I find myself in a neighborhood that has come of age with television and the Internet. In a country where women my age are just beginning to be seen wearing pants in public, it is startling to find myself among trendy university students. One young woman is wearing white pants that have large horizontal slits cut all the way down the legs, forming stripes of white cloth and black skin. She reminds me of the time we traveled to the States when Lexi was about three. We were changing planes in Germany, when suddenly she clutched my hand and said, “Mommy! Look at that woman! What’s wrong with her?” I saw an attractive woman wearing a skirt and black tights. Lexi went on, “She’s half Black and half White!”
Several of us are eating lunch at CABTAL when David, a CABTAL employee, joins us. Marie congratulates him, then announces, “He has taken a third wife!” The conversation stops. Polygamy is legal and common, but not among Christians and certainly not at CABTAL. David smiles shyly and says, “Yes, we have a new person at our house.” Someone remembers that his wife was pregnant and says, “Oh, yes, you have a baby girl!” We breathe a collective sigh of relief and join in the congratulations.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The little thermometer on my backpack says that it’s near 100 degrees outside, and the humidity is probably around 70%. Nevertheless, as I walk to CABTAL in my cotton sleeveless dress and sandals, here are some of the things that I see other people wearing:

Suits, most of them black
A nylon windbreaker
A corduroy jacket
A black velvet suit
A school jacket (the kind you would put a school letter on)
A wool stocking cap, pulled down over the ears

I read one time that black skin has more sweat pores, making it more efficient in the heat. Surely it’s true.

Monday, February 2, 2009


Churches in Cameroon often receive used supplies – hymnals, choir robes, communion sets – from churches in the West. Etoug Ebe Baptist here in Yaoundé is no different. I suppose that the choir robes that they have now came from a church with a high school, and that the gowns were sent after graduation. We had been used to seeing the mortar boards and tassels, but seeing them again yesterday made us both smile.
After church we visited our former neighborhood, where we were greeted with great excitement and many questions about Alexis and Karen. We are glad that Cameroonians don’t use names in the same way that we do. It is quite acceptable to spend an entire evening with someone without using his or her name. The down side of that is that we don’t hear names very often, so it is hard to learn them. We spent about an hour and a half with the wife of the neighborhood’s chief, whose name I have long ago forgotten. She asked us if we have AIDS in the US. I said that we do, but not as much as here. I said that I don’t know of any friends or family members in the US with AIDS, but that I have known of many here. She told us that AIDS is different here. In other places, you know how you get it and you can take pills that help you. That kind exists here, but there is also the kind that people can “throw at you” [through sorcery]. This kind can only be treated through traditional means [sorcery again]. She said that it’s obvious that there are two kinds, because some people take pills and get better, and others don’t. She is a Catholic, so we talked for awhile about sorcery and faith in Christ. Like many people here, she believes that Christ and Satan are locked in a struggle. When good things happen, Christ has won. When bad things happen, he has lost. It is a difficult worldview to contradict, because everything that she sees around her feeds it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

When we first arrived in Cameroon we were in our mid-twenties and had been married for several years. It was difficult for our Cameroonian friends to understand why we didn’t have children. They would sometimes tease Paul and say, “Is she your wife or your sister?” At first we would try to explain about family planning, but it was too much of a stretch. Cameroonians value children over anything else: education, money, life experience. No matter what reasons we gave for choosing to wait to have children we sounded cold and selfish. Finally I learned to say, “Someday I am sure that God will give us children” and let them think that we had been unable to conceive, rather than that we had chosen to wait.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

This morning our friend Joseph stopped by to greet us. Joseph was the first friend that we made in Yaoundé, and he has been a great source of cultural enlightenment. He had only been here for a few minutes when he picked up where we had left off a few years ago on a recurring discussion. He said, “Madame (There is no way on earth that I could ever get him to call me Nanci), your own children, who you raised just like you did, when they have their own children, would you not like to take those children so that you could raise them again?” I explained to him for maybe the fourth time that it doesn’t work that way in our culture; that parents are expected to raise their own children. They would give them to the grandparents only if they were unable to raise them well themselves. He can’t get his mind around it. “But Madame! You raised them fine. Don’t you want to just look and see a child there again?” I tell him that I hope that I raised my children well enough that they will also raise their children well, and that I will enjoy visiting any grandchildren that I might have one day. Finally he exclaims, “But then you and Uncle Paul will be just two, all alone like that?” Before he leaves, he turns one more time and says, “But Madame…if Alexi or Kari gave you their child for just two, three years…You would care for him, send him to school, would you not like that?” Paul ends the discussion by saying with a smile, “Yes, we would like that.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

Taxis

In Cameroon, every second or third vehicle that you see is a taxi. They are easy to identify, because they are all bright yellow. (We once had a yellow Jeep for a year. It became very tiresome, having people try to flag us down, then either getting angry because we didn’t stop or watching us pass in astonishment, having never before seen a White taxi driver.) Taxi fares are very cheap. We can go several miles, from the SIL center to downtown Yaoundé, for about 40 cents. That isn’t the only difference from American taxis. Here we don’t call for a cab. Rather, we stand by the side of the road and wait for one to pass that has room for us . The notion of having room for us is also different. It simply means that it’s still possible to squeeze us in. It may mean taking a child on my lap, sitting half sideways, or sharing the front passenger seat with a stranger. The taxi doesn't take us to our destination. Rather, we get off at the point on the taxi’s route that is nearest to our destination and walk from there. It is possible to hire a taxi to take us to a specific place, without picking up other passengers. However, this costs about ten times as much. The $4.00 seems decadent here, and something we would rarely consider doing.

Buses

Yesterday we took our friend Vince to the bus station so that he could travel to Bamenda. Here is how the buses work: The first bus of the day leaves at 6:00 am. Enough people are there to fill that bus and have some leftover. From then on, buses leave whenever there are enough people to fill one. Vince hit it just right. We arrived at the station around 9:30. By the time he stood in line for his ticket and made sure that his luggage was loaded, the bus was revving its engine to go. He wasn’t so lucky from there on out. First the bus was stopped for a police check. Everyone on the bus had to produce papers (a national identity card, residence permit or passport with a current visa), and those who couldn’t were escorted off of the bus and to the police station. Then the bus driver decided to make some money on the side. When they would arrive in a town, he would stop to pick up people who were by the side of the road, waiting for taxis. He would drive them down the road a bit, then let them off near their destination. All of the stopping and starting made the other passengers very angry, and they shouted at the driver until he stopped his taxi service. Vince phoned to tell us that he had arrived around 6:30 pm, making the roughly 250 mile trip in about nine hours.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Top Five Things I’ve Seen Carried on Someone’s Head:

5. Three lidded buckets, stacked one on top of the other to a total height of about 4’.
4. A stuffed armchair
3. A 4’ x 4’ dresser
2. Six large potted palms on a board
1. A large tree

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I don’t know which impresses me more: how many people can fit into a van, how much cargo can be carried on top of a car or in a pick-up, or how much can be carried on one’s head.

Paul is back on his feet. Yesterday we visited the construction site of the new mission high school, where we came across several old friends, working on the crew. We discipled Johannes at the weekly Bible study we held in our home. At the time, he was a security guard. Now he is the crew foreman, and the project head speaks highly of him. Almost daily the Lord allows us to see some bit of fruit from the years that we spent here, and we are humbled by it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

When we first arrived here, we spent two months living in a Cameroonian village home, learning Ewondo (the local language) and the culture. One day someone told me that the head of the school had fallen from his palm tree and died. I said in French, “That’s too bad” and then asked how one said that in Ewondo. The response that I got seemed awfully long, but I wrote it down phonetically and practiced it every time that it seemed appropriate to express sympathy. It was a few weeks before I learned enough Ewondo to realize that I was saying almost daily not, “That’s too bad”, but rather, “The schoolmaster died.”
Paul has discovered that walking helps his stomach pain, so after dinner (He’s only eating about a third as much as normal), we went for a walk. We headed down the hill, past the brewery that is Cameroon’s largest industry. (When the wind’s are right, the smell of hops fills our offices.) We passed a bus stop that was full of people, sitting on the bench and on the ground, laughing and chatting boisterously. We were surprised, wondering if buses run in the evenings. On the return, we realized that someone was selling palm wine there – a sort of informal bar. We once read that Cameroon has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world. We don’t doubt it, but we wonder how they can calculate such a thing. Although beer sales are very high, most drinking occurs in the villages, where many men have their own palm trees. They climb the tree, tap the liquid and let it ferment. A tree gives a good-sized bottle daily.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Paul is no longer vomiting, but he still has a fever. He fears that the violent vomiting has given him a hiatal hernia, because he has severe acid reflux whenever he eats anything at all. He has eaten very little since Saturday night.
I have decided among the various possibilities and chosen someone to help in the house. Her name is Charlotte, and she works with little two-month old Jesse either on her back or sleeping on a mattress on the floor of our guest room. Charlotte was fired for stealing from one of her previous places of employment. That served as a wake-up call. She got serious about her faith, and the Lord has made some tremendous changes (according to friends who have known her for a long time) in her life and even her personality. When we prayed together on her first day here, I was touched to hear her thank God for giving her a second chance. I told the guard that I had chosen someone other than his “sister”. He said, “Madame, it’s no problem. I like the way you Americans are. You pick the person that you think is best for the job, and not the one that pays you something or knows someone you know. It’s really a good way to choose people.”

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paul is sick. He has spent the day – his birthday, yet! - alternately vomiting, sleeping and doubling over with stomach cramps. I have spent it searching out the “pharmacy de garde” (The pharmacies cooperate to make sure that some are open on Sundays), reading the relevant chapters of Where There Is No Doctor, phoning around to find some antacids and making him a birthday dinner of – what else? – chicken soup.

It Takes a Village

Paul and I went to Coneilia’s today (Her own house – not the hostel where she works.) It’s rather difficult to get there, so she sent her friend to get us in his taxi. It was a typical taxi: a 15 year old Toyota Carina that, well…it’s still drivable, anyway. The road to her house is so bad that were it in the US, even people with SUV’s would think twice about going down it. (It was too bumpy even for garter stitch.) The road doesn't go all the way to her house, so at the end of it the driver told us to walk on, while he stayed back to roll up the windows. He then got out a screwdriver and proceeded to do so for the next five minutes or more. The house is hard to describe, so I won’t try until I have gone back for photos. (Halfway there I realized that I had forgotten my camera.) The land around it is taken up with her “farm”: seemingly random plantings of manioc, sugar cane, pineapples, papaya trees, chili peppers, red beans, cocoa, cocoa yams and plantains. She is particularly proud of the plantains that Ben and Lexi helped her plant when they visited two years ago. Chickens run freely around and in the house. While we eat, her thirteen year old nephew tries to fix the television. He has lived with her for the past eleven years. His parents are living, but they are poor and have other children, so they sent Dieudonné(“God-given”) and Blessing to Coneilia, who has no children of her own. They call her Mother, and in every practical sense of the word, that is what she is. This arrangement isn’t unusual, although I think it is even more common for children to be “given” to a grandparent. Dieudonne and Blessing see their birth parents once every year or two.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Excuse Me, Did You Say “Goat”?

Last night on BBC I heard about something that just happened in neighboring Nigeria. Two thieves were caught in the act of robbing a business. One managed to run away, but the other was caught by bystanders. However, according to what they told the police, the thief turned himself into a goat. The bystanders took the goat to the police, who are holding it in custody.

Some Illogic Is Universal

I was sitting at CABTAL with two friends (I’ll call them Helen and Sophie), waiting for lunch. Sophie watched me for a minute and uttered those words so annoying to knitters, “I wish that I had time to do that.” Rather than point out the illogic directly, I told a story: “One time I was waiting for a doctor. In America, they put TV’s in the waiting room so that you don’t notice how long you have to wait. I was knitting, and another woman was watching a stupid game show. She kept looking over at me. Finally she gave a big sigh and said, ‘It must be nice to have time to do that.’” Helen got it first. She laughed and said, “She’s right, Sophie. You could be knitting right now! You have the time; you just need to carry your knitting with you. “Sophie laughed, too, and held out her hand for me to shake.

Friday, January 23, 2009

One Sad Tale Among Many

Tonight our friend M. came to visit us. Paul last saw him maybe six years ago, when he brought his fiancé to the hangar. M. had been married before. His first wife had died, leaving him with an infant daughter. To add to the tragedy, her family kidnapped the baby, and our friend had to go through a fair bit to get her back. Then he discovered that she had HIV. He wanted to remarry so that he would have someone to care for the child while he worked. But when Paul met the woman of his choice, he counseled M. against the marriage. It didn’t seem to Paul that she was interested in raising another woman’s baby, let alone one with HIV. M. didn’t listen, married the woman, and told us tonight that Paul had been right. His wife doesn’t want anything to do with his daughter, so the girl (now 10) lives with some people from M’s church. Recently he decided that it was time to have her meds reevaluated, so he went to an HIV clinic to have her tested. But when he went to pick up the results, they demanded about $200 for them. (They should have been free.) M. is basically a subsistence farmer who has nowhere near that kind of money. Implicit in his telling us this was a request for help, but Paul and I don’t knowingly participate in corruption. We sat with him for quite awhile, listening to further tales of financial burdens. Finally Paul said, “You need to go bother those people at the clinic.” M. seemed puzzled. “You need to go back, over and over. Tell them that you don’t have that kind of money, that she is just a child, that they have the results and they gain nothing by not giving them to you. Just keep going until they give them to you.” Paul is very wise when it comes to helping Cameroonians. We prayed for M. before he left. We would like to give him some money to help with his farming needs, but we suspect that he would take it straight to the clinic.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Presidents

In Cameroon, travel between the towns and the rural areas is done mainly by bush taxi: nine to twelve passenger vans (which carry up to twice those numbers here). Most bush taxis are painted in bright colors and have a religious or otherwise meaningful slogan, like “The Truth is Mighty.” Yesterday I saw the first of what I am guessing will be many that read simply, “Obama.” In Africa, when a person goes off to the city and makes it big, he or she will usually stay connected to the home village. Many water projects, schools, clinics, improved roads, etc., have come about in rural areas because of that ethnic group’s “elites” – the people who have succeeded financially. It seems that most of Africa views Obama as one of its elites. On inauguration day, I listened to a radio broadcast in which one person after another spoke of the changes that Obama will bring to them: better roads, scholarships, health clinics, etc. (Finally someone came on who said, “All of these people are forgetting that Obama is the President of THE UNITED STATES.”) At the same time, Bush is respected and even revered. A little-known fact of his presidency is that he gave more to Africa for HIV/AIDS research and prevention than any president since the disease was discovered.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I have realized that the reason I’m feeling so relaxed is that I have hardly worked since arriving. I enjoy my work, but it feels like it belongs to my other world. I spend the morning chipping away at the backlog of emails, but it feels a bit forced, and I am glad when it’s time to walk to CABTAL for lunch. (It’s ndole day again. This time I give Marie, the cook, about $3.00 to buy the leftovers to take home.) On the way back, I stop at the pharmacy to stock up on a few things. Armed robbery is a problem, so the pharmacy staff and inventory are behind bars. (Our apartment has bars on its windows, too.) No prescriptions are needed. If you know how to pronounce it in French, you can buy it. Between the pharmacy and home, I hear a man calling out "Madame! Madame" This is pretty normal, and it's best to ignore it, but he is so insistent that I turn just as he runs up to me. He points to a vehicle across the road and says in broken French, "The car - there. Come." I smile and say no thank you. He says, quite insistently, "No, I help you. Come. No problem." I again say no thank you and tell him that I walk for my health. At this he grabs my arm, hard, and says almost angrily, "You come. Where you live? Where you live?" People passing by are turning to stare. I wrench my arm away and continue on my way, while he continues to shout, "Where do you live? Where do you live?"

Tuesday, January 20, 2009



From there, I walk back a half mile to CABTAL (Cameroonian Association for Bible Translation and Literacy), which is a close partner mission to our own. One of my American friends has invited Paul and me to have lunch with her there. Another friend, this one Cameroonian, cooks food and brings it to CABTAL to sell at noon every day. (She serves it in an outdoor classroom that is used for training literary workers.) Today is fish and plantains day. When we eat fish here, we don't eat chunks of fish - we eat a fish. Paul has even learned to eat the heads, but I figure there are a lot of other things I can learn before I get around to that one. Paul arrives late, so I get in some knitting time while waiting for him to finish. (Knitters, I'm nearly done with the back of Elektra.)
As I'm walking home to prepare dinner for guests (missionary friends who have just returned from furlough in the US and who are leaving in the morning to go back to their village in the far north of the country), I pass a photocopy shop (of sorts) and decide to stop and chat. I ask him how business is, and he tells me that it isn't good: his machine is broken. I commiserate. When I ask if I may take a picture, he hesitates, then says that it's okay as long as he isn't in it. It doesn't occur to me until I arrive home to wonder why he sits in the shop all day with a broken machine.





Food

I go to visit Coneilia while she is at work, and find her (as always) in the kitchen, surrounded by cookies and breads. I tell her that I rarely eat white flour or sugar (dark chocolate and cheesecake exempt, of course) any more, and try to explain about cancer feeding off of high blood sugar. She clearly doesn't like to hear me talk about cancer, so instead I tease her about how she likes to make everything except tortillas. She tells me that her uncle died recently. I ask her if it was her father's brother or her mother's brother. She thinks for a minute, then says it was her father's cousin. When I leave, she gives me a package of Snickerdoodles for Paul.




Timing

I am falling back into the timing of life in Yaounde. Here are some examples:
- Laundry is best done and hung up before noon, so that it can be fully dry before evening dew. When it is wet, little flies lay eggs on it. If you wear the damp laundry, the eggs hatch and get under your skin, and you end up with a mango worm (aka screw worm) in your body. When Karen was small, we once pulled one the size of my little finger out of her thigh.
- A lot of stores and offices close at noon for lunch and naptime. Many open again by 2:00; some stay closed until 4:00.
- If we are around the one of the mission centers we try to not make noise from 12-2, because many people are resting ("la sieste").
- At three degrees from the Equator, Yaounde has very direct sun. It’s best not to be out for long from 10-2.
- Africans tend to be more event-oriented than they are time-oriented. If you invite someone to your house for dinner at 7:00, you need to be prepared for them to show up anytime between 7:00 and 9:00 or so. To them, what is important is that you invited them, they come and you eat together. The exact time isn’t important at all. What this means for us time-conscious Americans is a bit of a guessing game. For example, when visiting a church that starts at 10:00, we know that if we come at 10 we may have to sit around for 20 minutes before anyone else shows up and 30 before things get started. But if we show up too late (say, 10:45, although it varies from church to church), we may provoke an admonishment from the pulpit, reminding us that services start at 10:00.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cameroon is linguistically diverse to a degree that is difficult for Westerners to grasp. Geographically, it is about the size of California, so to understand what it's like here, imagine a California in which every major town or city spoke a different language. Cameroon has nearly 300 distinct languages. Although French and English are the official languages and are used for much of commerce and education, few Cameroonians claim either as their mother-tongue. In the small church that we visited yesterday, the members of the congregation came from many different linguisitic/ethnic groups, some in the French speaking part of the country (where we live) and some in the English-speaking part in the Northwest. Thus the church is bilingual. Parts of the service were in French and translated into English, but occasionally there was a bit in one language or the other, without translation. Cameroonian English isn't pronounced just like American English, so amusing misunderstandings take place. For example, when I heard yesterday, "The Lord has many ships and cares for them all," it took me a minute to realize that he was talking about sheep. (As a knitter who also cares about sheep, I should have caught on right away.) I was reminded of a sermon I heard preached years ago. One of the differences between Cameroonian English and American English is that here they sometimes vocalize an s or soft c (making it sound like a z) when we wouldn't. So it seemed to me that the sermon in question was about world peas. For forty-five minutes, the speaker expounded on the topic: what the world needs more than anything else is peas; only God can truly give us peas; we should pray and work for peas. At first I kept from laughing just by biting my lip, but soon I was covering my mouth, and eventually I had to pinch my nose while covering my mouth. All hope was lost when he ended the sermon by raising both hands to the heavens and crying out, "Lord God, send us peas!"
The sermon at church yesterday brought out a huge difference between Western and African cultures. The general topic was the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation on Scripture, and fellowship. In the West, the first two are usually thought of as private practices. Although many Christians attend Bible studies or pray regularly with other believers, having a private devotional life is what we assume to be the key to spiritual growth. This entire sermon was about the need to meet with others for those two activities, and individual practice wasn’t even mentioned. I’m reminded of the reaction of Cameroonian friends when Paul used to go on overnight flights. They would sometimes offer to stay with me or send one of their children to do so. It seemed incomprehensible to them that I didn’t mind and even enjoyed having an occasional day or two alone. This is why, when I greet friends on the street, they will never stop with a simple, “How are you?” That is quickly followed by a second question, “And your family? Is everyone well?”

Greetings

I walk into the mission’s office at break time. First I go around the room, shaking hands with and saying hello to each of the seven people seated in the lobby. I sit down, turn to the person next to me and shake his hand again, holding it for a beat longer than during the initial greeting. I avoid eye contact. (It took me three years in the States to relearn eye contact with men, but it immediately feels natural to avoid it here. In a few small ways like this, I am more comfortable in Cameroonian culture than in my own.) I ask him how he is; he replies and asks me how I am. I reply, then ask how his family is; he replies and asks me how my family is. I reply that they are fine, then say, “So. The family – they are all fine?” He nods, says again that they are fine, and adds a detail or two. His younger son has succeeded in his exams. His daughter is learning how to sew. He then asks me again if my family is fine. I say yes, they are fine, and pull out some pictures of Karen’s wedding. “Karen is married? Wonderful!” He claps his hands together once, and we shake hands again, enthusiastically. Someone next to him says, “I am remembering when Karen was born and you brought her just here, to show her to us.” He laughs, and I laugh and shake his hand. The pictures go around the circle, with many remembrances and handshakes. When the photos have made the complete circle, I rise to go. Of course I shake hands with everyone before leaving.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Nanci's Internet Is Down Until (Maybe) Monday


When I walked into the fabric store and saw all of the colorful pagnes (lengths of cloth), I thought about Alexis and Karen and cried a little, missing them. They would have loved to have been there with me (until I started crying, at least.) I didn’t buy anything, because I still have at least twenty pagnes at home, having overdone it a little on previous trips.
We conclude the day at the market. I’m tired and don’t work very hard at getting a good price, which will cause me trouble the next time I go. While Paul carries the big bag full of papayas, tomatoes, lettuce, oranges, onions, carrots, lemons and melons, I count out the last of my change to a woman who sells me a pile of grapefruit. Another woman, selling nearby, calls out, “What, you aren’t going to buy even one little thing from me?” I tell her that I have spent all of my money, then joke that I haven’t even saved any to pay the porter. She glances at Paul, winks at me and says, “You can pay him when you get home.” The other woman laugh as we drive away.

Shopping in Yaounde


The new mayor of Yaounde has undertaken a clean-up program. Little green spaces have sprung up, and there is even a nice park in the middle of the downtown area. Many of the street vendors have been chased away and relocated in stalls. The little boys who used to clamor to “guard your car” (i.e. not puncture your tires) for a few francs have all disappeared. It made today’s shopping trip less of a hassle than we expected, but it also made it less interesting from a cultural standpoint.
In the grocery store, I was looking over a wall full of imported (mainly from China and France) household utensils and saw an odd looking one. I asked an employee what it was. He looked surprised and exclaimed, “Madame, I have no idea. You’re the one who should tell me what that is!” At the spice rack I bought little packets of coriander, thyme and oregano, while wishing that I had brought other spices with me from the States.
We ate lunch at a cafeteria where we have eaten in the past. Prices have gone way up. The meal (salad, curried fish, plantains and fresh pineapple) that cost us nearly $20.00 would have been half of that in the past. But it was very good.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Hangar Has All of the Essential Equipment.


It Always Takes Longer to Put Back Together

Paul is disappointed that they don't have the inspection done on the 206 yet. Today they lost some time by attending the funeral of a former commander of the air base where the hangar is. He and his son, a medical doctor, were killed in a car accident. The better roads here are more dangerous than the bad ones, because people drive so fast.

Euphrasia


The woman in the center of the photo is my friend Euphrasia (with two of her daughters and their children.) Her husband Tangko works with Paul in the hangar. He came to the States a few years ago for mechanic's training and lived with us for a few months. Euphrasia was one of the first people who taught me that knowledge and wisdom are vastly different. She has only a sixth grade education and has probably never had the occasion to read a book cover to cover, but her wisdom about the human heart astonishes me. She suffers a great deal with various physical ailments, including rheumatism. I asked her tonight if she drinks enough water (dehydration is a common cause of fatigue and illness here.) She said that she doesn't, because it makes the bottom of her feet too hot.

Walking to the Hangar


This photo and the next were taken along the path that we use to go to the hangar, which is on the outskirts of the city. I felt like a spy, trying to get the photos. Whenever I found myself alone on the path, I tried to quickly compose a shot and take it before anyone else came along to wonder why I was out there alone, taking pictures. Then I would walk along with the camera dangling in the folds of my skirt so that no one would notice it. Eventually (It was right after a policeman appeared on a hill in front of me) it got so nervewracking that I gave up.

Yogurt

This afternoon I had about five minutes before I had to be out the door (to go to a "Welcome Cookout" at the hangar), so I decided to make yogurt. If you eat yogurt and don't make it yourself, you should know that you can do so faster than it takes for the grocery clerk to check you out with it - or in my case, faster than I can find my keys to drive to the store. Here's how:
Combine two cups of very warm water (so your finger can stand it, but barely) with one cup of powdered milk. Add 2-4 tablespoons of plain yogurt and stir well. Pour into clean containers, put it in a warm place (like a kitchen counter in Cameroon) and leave it alone for a few hours. Then , from time to time, tip it very gently to see if it has set. When it has, refrigerate it. C'est tout! If you don't have a warm place, it will still work, but it will take a little longer. Make it at night and it should be set when you get up.

Harmatan

During dry season, which is from approximately December to mid March, fine dust blows down from the Sahara. At times it is so thick and visibility is so poor that Paul has to delay take-off until mid-morning, when the sun has had time to burn it off. It gets into everything, which is why we cover our computers and keep things in plastic bags. The problem is exacerbated by the poor air qualty. (The UV index today is 9 out of a possible 10. By way of contrast, the UV index in Charlotte today is less than 2.) The pollution is due to both vehicles without emission standards and the pervasiveness of burning as a way to get rid of garbage and clear fields. Sometimes after I've been walking, I find black guck in the corners of my eyes. And if I happen to blow my nose after spending a lot of time downtown, well, you get the idea. There were times during our years here when I toyed with the idea of bringing back a gas mask. (But see previous post about trying to avoid looking suspicious.)

Almost Done


You can't see me, but I am sitting right here in my home office, typing this post. Behind me there is nearly an entire wall of shelves, which is ironic because we have little to put on them here, but a month ago Paul was figuring out how to put extra shelves in our house in Waxhaw. My Internet access is limited to this room by a very short cable. (We hope to get a longer one this weekend, or maybe even a router.) The funny thing sticking up behind my closed computer is Paul's open one (covered with a dish towel.) One of his hinges broke, and he may have to wait weeks for the part. Paul offered to move things around so that I'd face the window, and our patch of yellow-green lawn, but it's cooler to leave the curtains drawn, anyway. The door angles weren't very good for pictures of the bedroom or bathroom, but we do have both.

Kitchen

You can't see the stove and fridge, which are to the right. The three little pillars on the far side of the sink are the water filter. It somehow looks bigger in this photo than it really is.

Dining Room and Library


You can also see a bit of the kitchen. This room is really just the other end of the main living space - one big room. The two doors lead to a pantry and the bathroom. Note the random floor tiles. The tile place must have run out of blue. The funny thing is that I hadn't noticed them myself until I saw this photo and tried to think of what to write about.
Note also our rotary phone. I remember the days when the entire mission had only one phone. Now we have these inner-office phones in our apartments, as well as personal cell phones. (It costs money to make a call but not to receive one, so it's pretty normal for people to call and hang up before you answer, obliging you to call them back.)

Main Living Area

Otherwise known as the knitting and reading room. I love how open and light it is. (Knitters, note the two baskets. Nearly my entire three-month stash lies therein, protected from the dust by plastic bags. Non-knitters, I haven't had THAT kind of stash since the seventies. The baskets contain yarn.)

Is There An Easier Way?


Surely there is a way to upload more than one photo at a time? Anyway, here is our back door. I know that it looks more like the front than the front does, but because people arrive at the other door first, no one uses this one. Knowing that everyone who enters the house will walk through my kitchen is good for me.

The Third One Gets Closer to Home

Our front door. Paul was happy to see living plants in the little planter (and two others like it.) I am trying to remember to water them.

Taken from the guard booth, here are the general administrative offices of our mission. We have another center where most of our linguistic activities are headquartered and where we give classes to Cameroonian linguists, literacy workers and translators. Both of the centers have some guest apartments. Ours is at the bootom of the hill, hidden behind the building.


This is the view from the upstairs offices of the center where we live. If you look at the center of the photo, you will see a little red booth, which is the guard station.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Camera Shy

Now that I've got the camera problem solved, I can start working on the next difficulty related to posting pictures, which is that it's very hard to get them. Unlike anywhere else that I have been in the world, Cameroon is not friendly to casual photography. Some people say that it's because people are superstitious and think that if you have their image you can somehow harm them. I think the more likely explanation is that they feel exploited when some stranger takes their picture. They think that you are getting something from them while giving nothing in exhange. (This is supported by the very common response when you ask permission to take someone's picture. He or she will usually do one of these: 1. refuse 2. ask for money 3. agree, but only if you promise to get them a copy of the photo.) It is extremely unwise to, for example, pull out a camera in the market. Chances are good that it will get ugly. One time Paul took a picture of a "bush taxi" (a van that hauls people in and out of town) being piled high with colorful baggage, banana stalks, etc. A plainclothes policeman happened to be passing by. He angrily confiscated the camera, and Paul spent the rest of the afternoon at the police station, trying to get it back. (He did, but only after agreeing to expose the more recent photos, to ensure that none that might include the policeman were still on his film.)

My Famous Pastor Derwin

During the lunch break at the workshop today, some of the board members were huddled around a computer, laughing. I went over to see what was funny. To my delight, I saw my very own Pastor Derwin! (If you haven't seen The Evangelism Linebacker, you should.) I started jumping up and down, saying, "That's my pastor! That's Pastor Derwin! Right there - that's him, the linebacker guy! He's one of my pastors!" The school director told me that she used that video clip at the school's retreat last year. We all commented on what a small world it is, and enjoyed the rest of the video.

How Many Bananas Can You Get for Ten Cents?


Today I gave a workshop for the board of Rain Forest International School. It seemed to go well and they were appreciative. On the way home, I stopped to buy bananas. I told the woman that I wanted 50 francs worth (about ten cents.) She held out two bananas. I knew that if I weren't White, she would have offered three. The American in me feels cheated and wants to insist on three. My Cameroonian experience (or maybe it was the Lord?) reminds me that I can easily afford to pay five cents per banana and that it is better to be generous than not. As I put my two bananas into my backpack, I'm glad that the right side won.

Digital Blessing

Our friend Vreni told us about a young man who sells cameras at a good price. I phoned him, he came to see us, and I now have almost the same camera that I lost in Morocco. The young man, Sylvain, lost his father at an early age, so some missionaries that we know helped him get through school. Now the son of those missionaries (who is one of my former students) has helped him to establish this business. He is a Christian, so he has special rates for missionaries. We were very happy to help him in his business, and I was delighted to get this camera. Here is the part where it feels like God was smiling: after I lost the camera, I said to Paul, “You know what’s silly? I feel just as sad about that cute little case that I bought for it as I do about the camera.” We could hardly believe it when Sylvain pulled out the camera, in an identical case. Paul asked him if it had come with the camera, but of course it hadn’t (nor had mine.) Given that we are in Cameroon, thousands of miles away from the nearest store that sells cases like this, we feel very blessed by the whole thing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Convenience Shopping

Here is a partial list of the things that I saw for sale by the side of the road, on my last walk: peanuts in whisky bottles, little packets of sugared peanuts, assorted hardward, hard boiled eggs (sitting in the sun alongside a jar of hot pepper sauce and one of mayonnaise), foam mattresses, leather flip flops, plastic flip flops (with colorful feathers attached), huge slabs of spicy beef jerky, batteries, candy, cigarettes, phone calls (people with cell phones set up a table under an umbrella, and for about 20 cents you can make a call on their phone), phone cards, dried fish, papaya, tomatoes, umbrellas (used more for sun than for rain: when it rains, it's often too hard for an umbrella to be of use), cups of water, garlic, manioc, pastries, matches, bananas and more bananas, palm oil (bring your own container), palm wine (by the cup).

I could go on and on. I had taken a little notebook with me to jot down things as I saw them, but when I passed a policeman, I put it away. It's better for foreigners to avoid looking suspicious.

Two Sad Images

The other day I saw a woman sitting in the distance by the side of the road. She had a wide assortment of plastic bags tied around nearly every part of her body. That was her only clothing. Then I saw something even more heartrending: a man dressed similarly, but in cloth rags rather than plastic bags. At first I assumed that he was mentally ill, because he kept lifting up the rags, exposing himself. Then I saw that he had a flask of water in his hand and was doing his best to bathe without completely undressing. I saw a bundle nearby and realized that he was homeless and keeping clean as best he could.

Closing up and Going out

When we first came to Cameroon in 1981, security wasn’t much of an issue. Over the years, however, violent crime became more pervasive. Eventually our mission took the difficult and controversial (among the missionaries; it was quite acceptable within the culture) decision to put up walls and hire guards. Foreigners tend to be targets, because of the logical assumption that all foreigners have jobs and the observation that foreigners tend to have more stuff. For our previous 23 years, Paul and I lived in a Cameroonian neighborhood. Our yard had a wall around it, but we never had a guard. We felt safe because we were part of a neighborhood that watched out for itself. This is our first experience living on a somewhat high-security center. Here is what I do when I go out: unplug the computers (in case of a power surge), turn off the fans and radio (electricity is expensive); close the windows (This is dry season, so I can skip that step for the next month or so); put on my sunscreen; put on my insect repellant; bolt the backdoor with its seven, hard-to-work bolts (I’ve put that on the “Honey-do list”); go out the front and lock that door. You can see why I was annoyed when the guard insisted that I come out right away.

Chips, Part II

Chips, Part II
This morning I got a call from the guard mentioned above, saying that he is here with the chips. He is excited and wants me to come now to get them. Somewhat annoyed but not wanting to offend, I get my wallet and close up the apartment (see below.) As I do, I realize that my assumption about his motives may mean that jadedness is already kicking in. I ask God to give me wisdom. Just then I see Philip, the young man (a former student) who lives in one of the other apartments on the center. I tell him the situation, and he says to me, “Oh, he gave me chips when I moved in, too.” I am greatly relieved. Nevertheless, when I accept the chips, I tell the guard that he has to understand that I am still going to interview the other women and pray about whom to hire. He seems genuinely confused, and protests that the chips have nothing to do with that. We shake hands and I go home with my chips.
Being an overseas missionary is sort of a two-part thing. We’re here to do certain jobs that we believe will contribute to the translation of the Bible into Cameroonian languages. As a pilot/mechanic, Paul maintains and flies the airplane that transports missionaries, church workers, medical staff, medical emergencies, supplies, etc. I work with the boards in the mission (here and elsewhere) to help them govern effectively. But probably the more important part of our work is to live out Christ among the people around us. We’re pretty comfortable and skilled with the former, but the latter reminds me daily how little I have to offer unless the Lord leads and enables me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

As If I Could Be Bought off for Anything Less than Dark Chocolate

Last night a very pleasant woman came to the door. She said that she needs a job and that our friend Vreni had told her that we might be looking for house help. We invited her in and chatted for a bit. She has several children and has been looking for work since her previous employer, another missionary family, left a few months ago. We told her that we would think about it. This morning when I was leaving the center, the guard (All of our centers, like most office compounds, have guards to keep out thieves) stopped me and asked me if he could ask me for a favor.
- Of course you may ask.
- My sister (see above post about sisters) came to see you. I am asking you to please give her some work.
- Well, we liked her, and we may decide to hire someone for a few hours a week, but we have also been given some other names and we want to meet those women before we decide.
- Please, Madame, I am truly begging you. She will work well for you. Please do this.
- I will pray that the Lord will show me the right person to offer the job. How is that?

What could he say? He nodded a bit sadly and let me out. But when I came back, he looked much more chipper, and asked me if we like chips (fried plantain chips.) I love fried plantain chips, but I try to avoid fried foods. Thinking that his wife or another “sister” probably sell them, I told him that my husband likes them very much. He then said that he would bring me some tomorrow. Ohhhh, now I get it. He is offering me a bribe to hire his sister. So when he brings the chips, I will ask him how much they are. If he says that they are a gift, I will tell him that we accept, but that he must understand that I will still be praying and interviewing the other women before deciding whether or not to hire his sister.
Uncles, Aunties, Brothers and Sisters
The notion of family is quite different here. Family members are those who are in your same ethnic group or, to use the politically incorrect term, tribe. If someone tells me that his sister has just died, he might be speaking of a biological sibling, or it may be what we would call a third cousin. All of these relationships are hugely important, and less importance is put on the nuclear family. Uncles take on a special role, acting in many instances (for example, negotiating a marriage) as a father would. Aunts or “aunties” are also important. If a daughter has bad news, she will often go first to her mother or father’s sister (or even some other trusted adult) with it, so that the aunt can deal with it as she sees appropriate. Thus years ago, Coneilia came to me with the tragic news that her sister’s (Patricia) fiancé had died unexpectedly. When I asked her how Patricia was doing, I was informed that she didn’t know yet, and it was my task to inform her.