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Showing posts from 2009

Our Daily Bread (or Plantain)

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In earlier blog posts , I wrote about the variety of Cameroonian food. In this post, I'll delve into the daily life of the household in Douala, and the efforts put into getting a meal on the table. Douala is situated 4 degrees north of the equator, near the coast, at the estuary of the Wouri River. The climate is tropical. Humidity is extremely high and temperatures are most often in the 90-degree Fahrenheit range (30 Celsius). Plantain There is a rainy season that lasts about two months every year, when it gets slightly cooler (in 12 years I managed once to wear stockings, not really because I needed to), but humidity goes through the roof, and it can pour nonstop for several days in a row. In the first months, I used to go to the food market several times a week to buy groceries. Deido market was the closest (Deido is the Douala neighborhood where we lived, and my husband's ancestral home). It was not a very large market, but you could get everything you needed fo

Ma Emilia, our Bankon (Abo) grandmother

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Ma Emilia was my spouse's maternal grandmother. Unfortunately, I did not get to know his paternal grandmother, as she died when my husband was a teenager. I did, however, have the good fortune to spend many years with Mama Emilia. Emilia was from Abo, a group of villages in the Littoral region. The Abos are of a similar ethnicity as the Dualas. Unfortunately, it was very difficult to get there, and in 12 years, I never visited. She spoke Abo, Duala, and Pidgin English, but no French or English. We communicated through sign language and translators, until I learned enough Duala to get by. She was raised in the village of Besunkan, in the Abo region, and moved to the village of Banseng when she married. Her husband spoke fluent German; at the time, Cameroon was a German colony. After WW I, Germany, having lost the war, also lost its colonies, and the French took over Cameroon as part of their mandate. Those Cameroonians who spoke German were not dealt with tenderly, speaki

The dead are not dead (Part 2)

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From time to time, my posts will feature a person who is not with us any longer. This is not meant to be morbid, quite the contrary. I write about them because they are alive in my memory, and because otherwise, they may be forgotten. Of course, I'll be writing about those I remember with affection. We still laugh out loud thinking of my father-in-law's expressions, and imagine what his reaction would be to some of the new configurations in the family. Love lives on, all over the world.

Learning the language

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Having been raised in a multilingual household, and encouraged early on to learn the language of the country I happened to be living in, I planned on learning Duala, my husband's native language (albeit not his mother tongue, as his mother spoke Abo, and taught it to all her children). It turned out to be a different kind of endeavor than in countries which have one main native language, such as Germany or Italy. Anyone could live their whole life in Douala without knowing a single word of Duala. Cameroon boasts about 200 languages, and the official languages are French and English (former mandate administrators). Most Cameroonians speak one of these two languages. Moreover, Douala is now home to members of just about every ethnic group in Cameroon, as it is the commercial capital. The political capital is Yaoundé, further inland; it has about half the population of Douala. Less than a hundred years ago, many Cameroonians (from the southern part) spoke Duala, which was the li

Visit to Brooklyn Museum

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Recently, I visited the   Brooklyn Museum   to see the new show, Who Shot Rock & Roll. I couldn't resist a quick re-visit of the African section.  I've attached a couple of photos from the Cameroon collection, as well as a a general view of the African galleries. The elephant mask is a new acquisition, however a well-known item in the Grassfield area.

From a lost kitten to a new friendship

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In Douala, people's doors used to be open during the day, and only locked before bedtime. Anybody, or in some cases anything, could roam in, almost anytime. One morning, a small Siamese-looking kitten entered our home through the back door. I love cats, so I was not going chase it out. Everybody else, however, was urging me to "get rid of it," telling me "it could be dirty," and "who knows where it came from."  I told them the kitten was very clean and certainly belonged to someone who had lost it. Amina in 2012 At lunchtime, we were sitting towards the back yard, the cat peacefully snoozing on a chair. I noticed, through the window, a young girl on top of the roof across the alleyway, so I got up and called out, in French: "Miss! Miss! Did you lose a cat?" She looked up and said "yes!" I scooped up the kitten and went out to her house (in the meantime, she had climbed down from the roof). As it turned out, it was her

Tribute to my brother-in-law, the model maker

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Unfortunately, since my past post, my brother-in-law (the same person who helped me with the avocado tree ) , Ndoumbe Ellong, passed away suddenly, and far too young. Rather than delve into his life, I'd like to put up a few photos of his workmanship, as he was a talented model maker, whether for architectural models or using traditional materials.

Avocado Tree Adventures

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In Douala, soon after starting my life in Cameroon, I planted an avocado tree from a pit, in the back yard, in the empty area between the two houses in the family compound. Fulfillment of a dream, after years of trying to grow plants from avocado seeds as a student in Paris. A couple of years later, the tree was as tall as me, and thriving. Unfortunately, my father-in-law decided he needed the space to build an annex to his house. I protested. He informed me that my tree was none of his concern--just a silly little tree, in a country where many plants grow very fast and very tall. However, this avocado tree had enormous sentimental value for me! While I was stewing, an American agricultural engineer, Ben, on a business trip to Douala, came to our house for lunch. Upon my inquiry whether there was any way of saving my tree, he instructed us to cut off all the leafy branches, dig a large hole around the tree, and gently remove the tree with its roots in order to re-plant it elsewher

Duala Men's Attire

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In daily life: work, parties... Cameroonian men usually wear the same clothing as in Europe, the US, Australia, and much of the Middle East and Asia: shirts, slacks, and so on. Traditionally, however, Duala men wore, and still wear for specific occasions, a large fabric fastened at the waist called a Sandja . Originally, sandja fabric was made of tree bark, beaten till it was fine and soft enough to be draped. In Congo, a woven style of tree bark fabric is still made today, called "Kuba" cloth. There were three different ways of wearing the sandja: Held up at the waist to form short sherwal-type pants*; knee-length; and the ceremonial style, still worn today, full-length. That is the style I saw the most, often called "Sandja Ngondo" because it is worn for the Ngondo celebration (which had not been celebrated for 20 years when I arrived in Cameroon). My first experience of men wearing a sandja was at funerals, when men wore a black velvet cloth, with a white shi

Wildlife in the city

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Margouillat in a tree Beyond the irksome insects and other home invaders, there are also interesting animals that live in the city, but outside homes (most of the time--sometimes a creature might get lost and enter a home by error.) The most fascinating were the big lizards, called "margouillats." The Douala margouillats were blue-greenish, about 6 inches long, and I could stay for hours just watching them (of course when I arrived in Cameroon, there wasn't much to do. No TV, and the Internet didn't even exist yet). There was something about them. Every now and then you'd see an egg, and try to find out when it would hatch. Other lizards were the little semi-transparent ones that you also find in the Caribbean islands. They often were found crawling on the inside of the house walls, toward the ceiling. Before living in Douala, I didn't know there existed land-based frogs: they lived in the yard. It was hard to catch a glimpse of them, but you could hea

Cameroon Street Fashion: Ladies First

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Women on the streets of the towns I visited - and I visited quite a few - wear a mix of styles, and the same woman may wear the latest Parisian fashion to the office one day, and a traditional outfit the next day. A woman may not have the means to have a fancy house, but often you couldn't guess that by looking at her. If there is any money to spend, after basics such as shelter and food, she'll try to look her best. Seamstresses are usually the means to look good. It is much cheaper to have an outfit custom-made, than to purchase at a boutique, even a non-luxury shop. However, more and more used clothing is arriving from the United States and elsewhere, some of it in excellent condition, and many people rely on that option; it is often very cheap. That is how you'll find someone in a remote village wearing a "University of Maryland" tee-shirt (possibly donated to a charity somewhere in Oklahoma). Traditional dress differs depending on the lady's ethnic ba

Tarzan movies

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The NY Times recently had an article about a Parisian Tarzan-themed exhibit at the Musée du Quai Branly. The article reminded me of the 1984 movie starring Christophe Lambert . The Africa scenes were filmed in Cameroon. However, that fact was the not the reason my husband's cousin (an incurable romantic) and I were so infatuated with the film: we just adored the love story. The location shown in the movie, if I am not mistaken, is near Kribi, close to the seashore.* There is an area with a series of waterfalls, flowing into ponds of brackish water. It is absolutely gorgeous, as are many other places in Cameroon. Cameroon is called "Africa in Miniature" because there's a bit of everything, geographically, from the south to the north, that you'd find in other African countries: Rain forest, green hills, savanna, waterfalls, as well as many animals such as monkeys, gorillas, lions, hippopotami, and the list goes on. Photo of a waterfall in Western Cameroon * As

All the Pretty English Words

My husband's maternal grandma never learned English or French. She spoke Abo (her mother tongue), Duala, and Pidgin English (similar to Creole, but English instead of French). We had trouble communicating, and it was mainly for her that I went to class to learn some Duala. (My husband's paternal grandmother died when he was a teenager.) One morning, Grandma came by our kitchen and said something I couldn't understand. She repeated several times and I still couldn't get it. Finally I realized she was saying "Good morning," but it sounded like "moni"! Many English words made their way into the Duala language. The English Bible was the first to be translated into Duala. English words were used for items that did not exist prior to European settlers arriving in Cameroon.* Some examples: Furniture/home: kobati = cupboard tebedi = table frypan = frying pan pan = pan mattrassi = mattress Building: winda = window briki = brick Clothing: drosee = draw

An American in Douala

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One day a new American woman appeared in Douala, Tilda*. She did not arrive with a Cameroonian spouse, nor was she with the Consulate or the Cultural Center. From what I was able to gather, she had left corporate life in the United States to come live in Africa. Hearsay was that she had been swindled out of her savings by an African man (not a Cameroonian, but I don't want to sully any national reputation by saying which country he was from). She created a (in our eyes) modern chicken farm: sheds with many chickens living in them, across the river in Bonabéri. She delivered to our homes, minimum order: 5 chickens; she also sold eggs. After several years eating what we called "Bicycle Chicken," i.e. chicken that has lived its life running around and pecking earth, with muscles as hard as the winner of the Tour de France, we were quite grateful to have tender, albeit small and more expensive, chickens. I perceived that Tilda was struggling financially. She certainly d

Africa T-shirt graphics

Recently, thanks to @ Design_Junkies on Twitter, I discovered Skyler Vander Molen's graphics for an "Africa" T-shirt. I loved the creative, and found Skyler's website, to email him that I'd like to share the graphics with readers of this blog. This is the link to the graphics. Skyler explained that he had created the T-shirt to raise funds for a humanitarian trip to Rwanda. From the website: "Global Peace Exchange is a student founded and run non-profit begun at Florida State University. In 2008, GPE took a team of 20 volunteers to Rwanda to help build an IT school and teach English. As a volunteer, it was our duty to raise money for the trip. As part of my contribution, I designed a t-shirt to raise awareness about Africa as well as raise money."

Don’t call out my name.

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The dead are not dead. In many African cultures, the dead are not dead—they have just gone somewhere else, not too far, but invisible to us, the “living.” In Duala culture, before colonization, and still the case in many families, every person had a given name that was followed by the father’s name. For example, Ebélé Billé is Ebélé, son of Billé. However, nobody ever calls the person out loud by their name. As most probably a forebear held that name previously, to call that name out would unnecessarily disturb the deceased forebear. Instead, he’ll be called by a series of nicknames: “ Tété ” (ancestor), or the sound of the name on the horizontal wooden log (“ Elimbi ”) used as a local telegraph. For example, my husband’s telegraphic name was Koloto. Other Elimbi names: Dimbion, Toki, Tékélé...

Cameroon food: part 4 - everyday food

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On any given day, a “regular” stew is prepared. There is no individual portion in Cameroonian food, because you never know who may pop over for a meal; you have to be prepared to share whatever is in the kitchen. You don’t prepare 3 steaks (not that steaks exist traditionally, anyway) for your spouse, child and yourself; you may have not seen a guest for a month, but on the day you make individual portions, that’s when someone comes over unexpectedly, and try sharing 3 steaks between 4 people. (I have tried; it isn’t pretty.) The usual everyday stew might be: - Groundnut (peanut) sauce with either meat, chicken, or fried fish cut in pieces; - Ground pumpkin seed sauce, same as above; - A dense tomato and onion sauce, same as above; - Okra stew with smoked fish or beef… The stew is served along with a starch, such as boiled rice, boiled plantains (green or yellow), miondo, yam… A less common stew is made with kiling-kiling – a slightly slimy leaf, chopped, and cooked with cra

Voyages outside of Douala: Ndom

We often had to make business trips out of town to visit sites. One of our clients wanted to revise the layout of a home he had already started building, in Ndom, about 128 km from Douala, towards the northeast. Part of the road was highway, and the other part was on dirt roads, the infamous red laterite,* otherwise known as “tôle ondulée,” i.e. “wavy metal roofing”: very, very bumpy. It took six hours to reach our destination, by which time I felt like I had been shaken around in a salad wringer for several hours. We were to stay overnight at the client’s brother’s home, a more rudimentary style of housing, with no inside plumbing. There were only 2 rooms, so as we were a large group, the men slept in one room and the women in another. In the middle of the night I felt like going to the restroom: however, I was scared stiff of going to the outhouse, which was located several yards behind the house. I was convinced that a pack of wild animals would find me. I preferred to wait till mor

It takes a village…

"It takes a village to raise a child." As hopefully most people know, this is originally an African saying. It certainly was true when my husband was growing up. The village in those days was still very close-knit, and many inhabitants were related to each other, either through blood or through marriage. Late one evening, my husband and I were returning from a stroll in the neighborhood, and noticed a teenager still outside. My husband told him to go home immediately to his parents, and kept an eye on him till he was sure he was on his way home. I was surprised; in Europe and in the United States, other people's children are none of our business. However, this was, and still is, not the case in many areas of Africa. If you saw someone’s child, even if that child was already 6 feet tall, doing something he/she shouldn’t be doing, you had the duty and the right to scold the child. The parents’ child wouldn’t think of telling you off for it (and there was a good chance the

Cameroonian food – part 3 – steamed in leaves

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Some dishes are steamed wrapped in banana leaves—the old-fashioned, eco-friendly, and tasty version of aluminum foil—the Dualas make Ekoki (from the sound of the pestle -  Mboloki - pounding in the mortar - Eboki ) The basic Duala Ekoki is made from ground beans similar to black-eyed peas, mixed with red palm oil. Another version is made with ground corn with Mbaa leaves. Another banana-leaf-wrapped loaf is Ngondo nya Mukon (pronounced Ngonda’Mukon), most often made around the holiday season at year’s end. It is a cake made of ground pumpkin seeds, ground dried shrimp ( Dibanga ), and filled with beef or shrimp, sometimes smoked fish. Wrapped Bekwang with Kiling-Kiling sauce  at Madame Njoh restaurant in Akwa-Nord A Duala leaf-wrapped stew is Suwé nya Dibomba – fish in banana leaves. My personal favorite is Bekwang , ground Makabo (similar to a dense potato) wrapped in leaves, served with a Kiling-Kiling leaf   sauce (slightly slimy, similar to okra). The Béti make a st

Cameroonian food – part 2 - taste surprise

Before moving to Cameroon, I thought I knew all about the world’s foods. I was raised on American and Middle Eastern food, and was later introduced to a variety of European, Asian and North African cuisines. At the beginning of my life in Cameroon, I’d often have lunch at my in-laws, who lived next door (we shared the same compound). One day, there was a heaping dish of light orange-colored sliced plantains. I thought to myself, “I didn’t know they used curry here!” and helped myself to a plateful. At the first bite, however, I realized my error: these plantains had nothing to do with curry. The orange-colored seasoning was red palm oil, and it tasted unlike anything I had ever eaten before. At that point, I really didn’t like it, and I thought I was not a fussy person! The dish is called Miellé ma Sésé . The plantains are boiled and then mixed with the palm oil, and shaken till the oil has coated everything.

Cameroon food - part 1

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Ndolé with fried plantains Food in tropical Africa, as everywhere in the world, is mainly made with local products. Notable exceptions: tomatoes have become a staple, after being imported by the Europeans who had themselves imported them from South America. Tomatoes are not quite as ubiquitous as in southern Italy, but are the go-to item for sauces when a cook is in a crunch. Another import is salt cod, also known in the Americas as Bacalao . Cooked with what else... tomato sauce! Onions are also very popular, and I don’t think they are originally from the African continent. Ndolé plant Food, traditionally, is cooked. Well cooked. Salads used to be an unknown entity, and older people still call it “goat’s food.” Raw, or insufficiently cooked, would have been—and may still be—dangerous, in the hot and humid equatorial climate, where bacteria thrive, as it is never cold. Snow is a completely unknown entity. Even after a third of his life spent in temperate climates, my hus

All the irksome critters

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Insects reign supreme in equatorial climates. Amongst the most aggravating during my 12 years in Douala: - very large flying cockroaches. You'd feel "whish!" go through your hair; look around; and see a big fat -- UGH -- cockroach in the room. - very tiny ants: nothing could be left out in the kitchen. Even closed jars of sugar and flour had to be refrigerated, otherwise the ants would find a way to get in. - and the kings or rather queens of them all: mosquitoes. Anywhere I go mosquitoes feast on me, while I'm still exotic meat. Cameroon's mosquitoes are especially voracious. My husband called them the B-52s.* I learned to wear cotton socks and slacks as soon as the sun went down. I can control what's flying around my arms, but not my legs and feet; mosquito bites on the feet are the worst. An additional disadvantage is having to worry about malaria. Other invaders from the animal kingdom: - at one point, for a few months, we had a millipede invasion. E

Terminology for skin color/race

In the Duala language, black, i.e. local, with no visible European or Asian heritage, is "Moundo" ("Mindo," Pl.). A Caucasian is called a Moukala (Bakala, Pl.).

The extended family

In Cameroon, and as far as I know in most of Sub-Saharan Africa, the notion of family is much more extensive than in Westernized countries, and a little more extensive than in Middle Eastern countries. A first cousin is often called "brother" or "sister;" cousins to the nth degree are just "cousins" (whereas in the U.S., very often, a second cousin is barely considered family anymore); same for aunts and uncles, there are so many you can't count them!

First glimpse of Douala

I visited Douala , Cameroon, for the first time in 1980, for a short stay. Both Bob (future husband) and I had just completed our degrees in Paris, France, where we had met, in school. Bob’s uncle had a car – not a regular occurrence in Cameroon, even nowadays – and took me for a tour of the city, which had about 1.5 million inhabitants at the time. At one point, we drove by some rundown-looking buildings, and I commented: “Oh, look, tenements!” Uncle looked shocked and retorted: “That’s the housing for Customs employees!” That was the first time I realized what a disconnect there was in my understanding of Africa.