Saturday, December 19, 2009

Our Daily Bread (or Plantain)

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).
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 for regular household needs: meat, fish, tubers, fruit, condiments, etc.
Market in Bonabéri
If it was raining, it was very muddy: if you didn't have lightweight rubber boots (rather hard to find), you wore flip-flops, which you could wash when you returned home. Flip-flops are called "no fear water" for good reason; the name for closed plastic shoes is "Dschang shoes," after the name of a town in West Cameroon.
My mother-in-law accompanied me the first weeks so I could get the hang of it. She was able to carry home, balanced on her head, a whole cluster of plantain bananas ("régime de plantains"). I wish I had a photo of her carrying this load!
The merchants sat or crouched at tables with the wares piled on them. If they were sellling flour, grains, powdered condiments... the measuring tool would be old metal cans of various sizes. Condiments such as fresh ginger root, which you couldn't pour, were sold by size. The only item that was weighed was meat. Even fish was sold by size, as only whole fish was sold; nobody had ever seen a filet, or even imagined a fish stick!
Plastic bags were a scarcity too. We'd wash them several times to re-use them, and hang them to dry in the yard. The garbage pail had to be emptied every day, because of the heat and humidity.
Planning meals was different from Europe and other "Western" countries, because you were never sure who might show up. One of the first advice I got was to never cook for a determined amount of people. Stews were the way to go as you cook serve them to a variable number of people. If you had the idea of cooking up 2 little steaks for yourself and your spouse, that would be the day 3 relatives would arrive, and try to cut up two steaks so 5 people can eat! This habit was due to the tradition, in the "old days" (pre-colonialism), to have a cabin available for travelers to stay in. The cabin would have a jug of water and a cluster of plantain bananas, so they could restore themselves before continuing their journey. The custom has remained alive to this day, insofar as a visitor is first offered a beverage (soda or an alcoholic beverage), and if it is meal time, food.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ma Emilia, our Bankon (Abo) grandmother

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, speaking euphemistically. The couple moved to Douala to escape persecution, to Bona'Ntone, part of Deido (one of the original three villages forming Douala). Emilia brought along her two younger brothers; their parents were deceased, and she acted essentially as their mother.
Both brothers received an education; the eldest was one of the first "clerks" at the SHO French commercial organization. The second brother studied medicine, and had almost finished, when he had a health setback.
My father-in-law noticed Emilia's older daughter, who was very pretty and fashionable, and fell in love.
By the time I arrived in Cameroon, Ma Emilia was living in our family compound, in my father-in-law's house. Her second daughter lived in another neighborhood; my mother-in-law was her eldest.
I'd try to grow some plants in our rather thankless garden; I'd come out in the morning and find her pulling out my shoots. We'd get into an argument with whatever language and hand signs we could muster; Bello, my brother-in-law, would come running over to translate, and told me she considered my plants "weeds!"
Her "vices" were her little tobacco pipe, and having a small glass of vermouth ("Martini") in our living room in the evening.
During the end-of-year holiday season, she would sit under the mango tree, in the front yard, and put her chin in her hand. When I'd ask her why, she told me that holidays saddened her, because that was the time of year both of her parents passed away.
The first time I had malaria--I took anti-malaria pills for a couple of years, but it's not very healthy to take them for your whole life--I was alone at home, and it was like a terrible flu, with someone beating you up, all at once. I was also sick to my stomach, and had to drag myself to the bathroom. She came over and remained by my side every minute; unused to company in such an embarrassing situation, I asked her to leave for a little while. She refused, saying that when she'd be ill, I'd be around too, to care for her.
When she was about 75, she decided to start a small plantation on a plot of land behind the one we were living in. She'd go every morning around 5 a.m., and bring back various tubers.
She never appeared to care that I was "white," her only concern was communication. When I learned a little Duala, she complained that I hadn't learned Abo!
It was great that she was able to enjoy a couple of her great-grandchildren. We had 4 generations in our compound for several years. That is the nice side of the African extended family (as in other parts of the world, too): no nursing homes where older people are far away from their families.
I hope Emilia is still watching over us as she used to, with the eyes of her spirit, now.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The dead are not dead (Part 2)

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.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Learning the language

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 lingua franca in the area. Historically, Douala was the entry point when the first Europeans arrived. However, in recent years, the Duala-speaking population shrank to about 300,000 people. The lingua franca now is Pidgin English.
It was difficult to practice the language, as nobody would spontaneously speak to me in Duala, as I didn't need to open my mouth to be immediately perceived as a foreigner. Except for the people I knew personally, it was difficult for me to know who was a Duala speaker or not. My father's constant advice not to fear ridicule while learning a language was my mantra.
First I tried learning by listening and asking questions. However, this didn't work, as the structure of the language was unlike the languages I was used to and as my in-laws had not learned grammar, they couldn't explain what seemed to be inconsistencies to me. I started attending Friday evening adult classes at Collège Lieberman, a Catholic high school (in France, a Collège is a school that goes from 7th to 9th grade approximately; however Lieberman took its students all the way to the Baccalauréat, i.e. end of high school in the French system).
The students attending class were either foreign wives like me (mostly French), or members of other ethnic groups who wished to learn Duala. We had two teachers, and a slim book. It was not easy! Bantu languages are structured completely differently than Latin or other European languages. Singular and plural happen at the beginning of a word instead of the end: for example, an onion is "janga," onions is "manga." The rest of the sentence follows the same prefix, so you'll have sentences where all you hear is a series of "m," or "j"... unfortunately, I never reached a high enough level to be able to figure it all out, as I didn't get a lot of practice.
After 2 years of classes,  I acquired a general understanding of the language. I purchased the books for Bassa and Ewondo, also, out of curiosity. The structure for these languages, all in the Bantu family, was the same; Abo, my mother-in-law's language, was also similar; the vocabulary and the consonants used were different. I did not get a chance to study Bamiléké, which is a group of "semi-Bantu" languages, or any other the languages from North Cameroon, which were closer in nature to those of West Africa.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Visit to Brooklyn Museum

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.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

From a lost kitten to a new friendship

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 wedding festivities I had been admiring from behind our back gate a few weeks earlier: after 6 months living in Africa, I finally heard a drumbeat! A man was playing on a small drum (tam-tam) with what looked like a spoon, and a group of women were dancing, wearing North-Cameroon-Muslim-type outfits. My neighbor introduced herself, told me she was newly married, and thanked me for taking care of her runaway kitten. As a token of her thanks, she gave me the next day an entire leg of lamb!
We became good friends, and remain so, even though communications are not easy since I moved back to the US. My father-in-law considered her part of the family. In the meantime, her life took many twists and turns, but the rest of her story will have to wait till she gives me permission to share it. 

Sad update in 2021: I found out recently that Amina had passed away. I don't know what the 
cause of death was. We did meet again, in 2015.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

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

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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Avocado Tree Adventures

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 elsewhere. So one hot afternoon, post-lunch, when everyone else was napping, my brother-in-law followed the instructions and together, we moved the tree to another available space near our office (which was in the same building as our home).

2012: the avocado tree
(or the descendant thereof) 
Fast-forward a few more years: the tree was 10 years old, and was towering over the roof. However, it had yet to produce a single avocado. I went to ask my mother-in-law why the tree was still barren after so many years; the tree seemed to have recovered from the transplant trauma a long time ago. After listening to the story, she took out her machete, went to the tree and started hitting its trunk with the blade. I was flabbergasted--and worried. Then she threatened the tree out loud: "If you don't bear fruit soon, I'll cut you down!"

Lo and behold, the tree grew a couple of avocados a few months later; and the next year we had so many avocados, that we were giving away bags of them to people. They were delicious and plentiful. As far as I know the tree is still producing to this day a yearly harvest.

2020 update: Unfortunately the mayor's office decided to enlarge some streets (without compensating homeowners) and as the tree was close to the edge of the compound, down it went.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Duala Men's Attire

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 shirt, and 2 black scarves: one around the shoulders, and one around the waist. If the deceased had suffered a violent death, a red band was also worn around the upper arm.  (The women wore kabas, the Duala traditional dress inspired by the Protestant missionaries' influence.)

*For a short explanation of what a sherwal is, click here

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wildlife in the city

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 hear them chirping at night. Crickets were heard, but not seen, also, as in the summer in other parts of the world.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cameroon Street Fashion: Ladies First

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 background. Or everyday purposes, however, almost all favor the North-Cameroon style, of which variations are also seen in other African countries: a wrap-around long skirt, matching blouse (usually short-sleeved) and headscarf. Tying that headscarf in an aesthetic way is much harder than it looks!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Tarzan movies

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 per Bimbia, Southwest Province, Cameroon

Friday, July 31, 2009

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:
kobati = cupboard
tebedi = table
frypan = frying pan
pan = pan
mattrassi = mattress
winda = window
briki = brick
drosee = drawers (i.e. underpants)
trosisi = trousers
breti = bread

*The name Cameroon comes from the Portuguese language. Portuguese explorers were the first on record to arrive in the Douala area, and they came at a time of year when the estuary was full of shrimp-like crustaceans, the mbeatowa. The Portuguese called the area "Rio dos Camerões" (River of Prawns).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

An American in Douala

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 didn't seem to lead anything even close to a comfortable life. However unenthusiastic and even bitter about her life in Cameroon, however, Tilda indicated that she was unwilling and/or unable to return to the U.S.
After I left Cameroon, I did not hear anything about her, until last year, when a common friend wrote me that she had been run over by an automobile while riding her bicycle. Rest in Peace, Tilda.

*Not her real name.

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."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Don’t call out my name.

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...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cameroon food: part 4 - everyday food

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 crab, served along banana leaf-wrapped dumplings made of ground makabo. Another less-everyday dish is Mandja Moto - tiny whole fish (about the size of a little finger) - stewed in a tomato sauce.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

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 morning.
In the morning, as I brushed my hair, I hoarded any hair that was in the brush, as I had been warned about “white people’s hair” being quite a prize for the local witch doctors. True or not true, I wasn’t taking any chances!
After the site visit the next day, we regrouped into different cars for the way home. Our client’s brother convinced us that he knew a shortcut. Of course we trusted him; after all, he had been raised in the region. We drove along winding roads and precipices, to finally reach Douala well after everybody else. After that, our code name for that brother was “shortcut” (“raccourci” in French).
A less humorous fact in Ndom was that a local farmer was about to lose an entire harvest of pineapples, because of the lack of decent roads to transport the merchandise. We heard that, in the meantime, a paved road has been built.

* For more information on laterite:

Monday, July 13, 2009

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 child might not even dare tell them, for fear of being scolded again!).

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cameroonian food – part 3 – steamed in leaves

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 stew called Ndomba (fish or game) which is also cooked in a banana leaf wrapping. 
Mbongo Chobi with boiled plantains
The Bassa, from south-central Cameroon, make a very tasty leaf-wrapped fish stew called Mbongo Chobi, whose sauce is green-black.

A nice rainy day dish is Pépé Supi, a thick soup made with Makabo (a type of very dense local potato), basil (called Kotimandjo in Duala), spiced with hot Scotch Bonnet, Djangsang (a local spice that looks like a chickpea but has a very distinctive taste), and Pébé, another local spice in a hard shell.

Djangsang spice. You only need a spoonful (crushed)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

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.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Cameroon food - part 1

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 husband will not touch a piece of fish sushi with a ten-foot pole! Meat and fish are either stewed, grilled over a wood fire, or fried.

Miondo and N'dolé with shrimp
 The most famous Duala dish, and arguably the most famous Cameroonian dish is Ndolé. It’s a stew of groundnuts (finely ground), ground dried tiny shrimp called Dibanga, finely chopped Ndolé leaves, and a protein: meat, dried fish or shrimp, usually. Ndolé leaves are from a bush, aptly named “Bitterleaf,” in English-speaking African countries, because before the leaves are boiled/washed in water containing kaolin clay, they are indeed unbearably bitter and are used to treat stomach ailments. Ndolé is served either with boiled or fried plantain bananas, or with Miondo, otherwise known as cassava sticks: fermented cassava wrapped in leaves*, and boiled. To eat the Ndolé with Miondo, you unpeel a Mondo (singular), which is a little sticky, fold it, dunk it into the stew and bite a piece off.
Miondo are typically Duala; however, the Béti, from the center of Cameroon, have something similar, Ebobolo, much thicker than Miondo.
*Leaves are either Bendomban – a plant growing in the wild; or banana leaves, when Bendomban is not available.
Making Miondo 

Saturday, June 27, 2009

All the irksome critters

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. Every morning, we'd find them all over the bathtub.
- Field mice found their way easily into homes, and nibbled on just about anything: food, of course, but also dish towels, cookbooks, and even paper money left on the dresser (unforgivable! After that, I had to declare war).
This "margouillat" lizard stuck to the garden!

* For more information about B-52s:

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!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

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.