Memories of Aunt Jessie in Douala

A couple of months ago, my aunt through marriage, known as "Tantie Jessie" to the nephews and nieces, passed away in Douala at the age of 80.

I was thankful to have seen her a while ago in Paris at the home of one of her daughters.

She was a big part of my daily life as the spouse of a Cameroonian in Douala, at the start of my career and later of motherhood, trying to fit in. She and her husband had us often over for delicious Sunday meals. She would tease me about my attempts at speaking Duala (although later, she was proud of me).

I'd like to pay a personal tribute by writing about one of our adventures, which we could laugh about in hindsight!

When I moved to Cameroon, the country still had its first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo. However, in 1982, the French president, François Mitterrand, convinced him to leave power and the then Prime Minister, Paul Biya, became president.

We managed an architectural firm, and one morning in April 1984, we started our morning and noticed that the radio wasn't playing its usual programs. Little by little, we found out that the former president, none too happy with having no say in the country's affairs any longer, had decided to stage a coup. Fighting was happening in the country's capital, Yaoundé.

Now it just so happened that we had invited the American Consul General, Charles Twining, to dinner that evening. In those days, there were very few US citizens in Douala, and it was before the advent of terrorist attacks in Africa; I could enter the Douala consulate as I pleased, so this was not an extraordinary occurrence; however, he was still an important person, and an extremely gracious man to boot, and we didn't want to disappoint him.  Aunt Jessie suggested that we host the dinner in her home, in a better neighborhood, across town from where we lived in Deido. Also, she had better china and cutlery than we did. 

But here we had a very unexpected situation on our hands. Aunt Jessie decided we should just move ahead with our plans, and so off we went to the market to buy the ingredients for the dinner.

We put the groceries in the trunk of her (small) car and set off around noon to her home to start cooking. The problem was that she lived near the former airport, and apparently it had become a staging area for the military. We were stopped by a soldier as we neared her home. Aunt Jessie opened her window. We found a bazooka pointing straight at us. I was terrified.

The soldier ordered us to open the trunk of the car. I thought it wasn't an unreasonable demand, viewing the circumstances. But Tantie Jessie deemed this unacceptable. She refused. He insisted. She continued refusing while I begged her to give in (a bazooka! pointed at us! I had never even seen a gun in my life!). Believe it or not, he gave in and waved us on. Such is the power of a woman, especially when she's not a youngster. 

Mr. Twining came in the evening (I'm assuming that no bazookas were pointed at his head), and we had a great dinner. But I'll never forget that day! 

Farewell Tantie Jessie. 

Aunt Jessie in Duala traditional dress


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