Far from home, finding the confidence to be oneself.

By Mara Horwitz | Week 1—Dschang, Cameroon. I should have known to expect the afternoon rains—it was, after all, the wet season. But instead I set out on my first market trip, on my first day in Cameroon, with nothing more impermeable than a cotton T-shirt and worn sneakers. I stumbled all the way back, as sloppy droplets pelted against me and drenched clothes pulled me down, like burdens from the weight of ignorance. Somewhere on the top of that mountain was my destination. My new home.

Finally I arrived in the empty courtyard. So as not to disturb Thérèse’s work in the kitchen, I quieted my shivers from the cold and watched as, just barely in view, she twisted green basil swirls into a bubbling peanut sauce. For two days, this continued:  I silently followed scents and cautiously leaned in doorframes. My young host-siblings scampered about without disturbing a drop, but I believed that their lightness in movement was an acquired skill. It was something parallel to their ability to peel dusty potatoes and produce gleaming white gems; my peeled potatoes, on the other hand, were always so dirty that by the end of the job, they resembled their freshly unearthed, unpeeled state. Fearing that I might be a liability to the delicate mixtures of color and taste stirred up in the kitchen, I kept my awe at a distance.

On day three, Thérèse put me to work sorting one or two thousand beans. It was menial labor, but not boring; I seized upon this task with the same pleasure that an affectionate orphan child feels around prospective parents. Soon Thérèse promoted me from the bean pile, and in the following days I learned to deftly stir thick pastes, prepare spice mixtures myself, and taste-test scorching liquid drops with an unflinching tongue. With every successful meal (and if I could just learn to peel a potato!), I knew that I had found a way in.

Actually, I had many strategies for getting in. While meal preparation was a delicate and carefully timed process, meal consumption was much more strenuous and pressured: a chef’s pride put to test. Piles of peppered red beans and thick cornmeal grew before me as quickly as I could shovel them down, and not until sweat trickled over my temples could I refuse my hosts the pleasure of refilling my plate, just one more time. Everyone applauded my appetite, and so I went to bed feeling stretched and heavy, but satisfied.

One morning at the end of the week, when Thérèse and I were headed to market and host-dad Thomas was running late, he offered us a ride to town. According to my own family’s time-crunch procedure, I clambered into the high jeep and strapped on my belt as quickly as possible. I then remembered that Cameroonian drivers take offense at seatbelts—and so, as quickly as instinct had put it on, I went to undo it. Too late. Thomas turned and gave a wide toothy grin. “You are too afraid of malfaits, Mara. You always think to mistakes, and you should not!”

That day, I wound aimlessly between market stalls until I forgot my way. I mixed up directions, came back late, and felt sorry for having missed that day’s culinary lesson. After forcing down three rice mountains that night, just to see Thérèse beam, I still felt lost and far from home.

Week 2—Yaoundé, Cameroon. After one week in the village, I moved to Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital city, to begin a lab job at the university. But from the moment I entered my new house, with its missing walls and unconnected plumbing, I longed for the functional village house and family.

On afternoons when the mother went missing and the father stayed out late getting drunk—that is, every day after the first—I did my best to step in for both. With the young boys, I reviewed English language exercises in halting sentences; with the two older girls, I discussed African history between quarrels over who-licked-who-first and reminders to please-put-your-underwear-back-on-before-you-sit-on-my-lap. Later the girls prepared some stringy and watery stew from our rotting stash of food. We slurped, spilled, and cleaned up, then dragged a few mattresses into the living room to play until bedtime.

After kisses, but before I turned out the lights, a peek into the kitchen revealed the glaring problems that I hadn’t managed to tackle: walls streaked with dirt; counters crawling with bugs and littered with mouse droppings; still-dirty dishes, scrubbed in buckets of brown oily water amid chunks of food, which we would eat from the following day; and a single loaf of bread for breakfast, hard and graying with mold underneath. I wanted to hurl. But there was no water left in the buckets to flush the toilet, so I just went to my room and closed the door.

The nights were as long and unsettling as the afternoons. I sagged in my bed and waited for Jonas to come home and to whisper-call me out of my (locked) room. Then I would cover my legs and stomach with a secure robe before opening the door to greet him, yawn rudely, and try to look as tired as possible. But, despite my disinterest and his own stinging alcoholic breath, Jonas always leaned in close. “You look beautiful,” he purred one night. “Let’s go away.” I understood that the only way to avoid this man’s affections was to be as absent as his wife.

But I could neither replace the parents who failed to provide the children with love and support, nor act as the uncaring woman I needed to become for my own protection. It seemed immoral, and besides, I was growing physically weak. My stomach ached for good food. My body woke up exhausted and went to sleep afraid. And what if Jonas had a second key to my room? My head reeled with visions of break-in and rape.

Jonas was the good friend of a good friend, and people are all that matter in Cameroon—money-loaning, job-giving, and hand-lending are the main strategies for survival—but I was beyond the fear of of committing cultural wrongs. After one awful week, I climbed into the door of the first car headed into town, strapped on my seatbelt, and went on my way.

Week 3—Yaoundé, Cameroon. Sometimes you get bounced around so much, from one place to the next, that you end up lying breathless, bruised, and disoriented on the ground. Other times, maybe you were lost to begin with, and it’s as if the bumps knock all your kinks back into place. Two home-stay bounces landed me on my feet, with a clearer head and a straighter gaze.

The car dropped me off in Bastos, the flashiest and most flowered quartier in Yaoundé, at the gate of my third family’s house; but I looked past the decorative gates and pruned hedges for more telling positive markers. Habiba was at home cooking, and the interior looked plush and comfortable. My bedroom door didn’t have a lock and didn’t need one; the water was so clear that I could see the bucket’s bottom; and the girls all wore underwear and pants, all the time, voluntarily. Just before dinner, Ousman came home with fresh fruits and bread—the clincher of all good signs prior—and we ate without stealing each others’ plates or dumping meat into my vegetarian dish.

From that first pleasant evening, I looked forward to the month of Ramadan, which would start in my second week of this new home-life. I envisioned rising early with the other fasters, suffering in parallel with them during the day, and coming home to total inclusion, even admiration, at each nightly meal. It was the perfect bonding opportunity! I announced these intentions the following morning, only to receive discouraging comments like, “You don’t even know Mohammed!” and “But you fast for no reason, I’m telling you not to do it!” Undeterred, I resolved to stick to my plan.

Throughout the month of fasting, there was solitude and spirituality. My lab work was more efficient, now that I could not use lunch and snack breaks to divide up the day. And the pre-dawn feasts of fresh whole milk, avocado, and fried dough beignets united us early risers, as we sealed and savored this pact to wait until sunset for our next meal together. Most of all, I admired Habiba and Ousman together. Their solidarity took the form of hushed whispers in the dark and knowing glances in the day; and for all of Ramadan, the marriage seemed mystical and other-worldly.

To my disappointment, the break-fast celebration broke this delicate bond, just as definitively as it broke the fast. Visitors poured through our open door, all expecting to be fed. Habiba and I, hungrier than the rest because we hadn’t yet sat down to eat the final meal, sweated in the kitchen to refill overturned trays and drained soda glasses. Meanwhile Ousman ate, entertained, and waved in more strangers from the street.

With my hands deep in the suds of someone else’s dirty plate, and my stomach empty though food was piled high on every counter-space around me, I realized my mistake. This was not my Ramadan. It was time to leave the kitchen and fill my plate.

Over the next three months, I continued to appreciate the generous family and underwear-ing of Bastos; but simultaneously, I found a comfort of my own creation. First, I declared to Ousman that the Ramadan dishwashing duty had not been as spiritual as expected, and that I would never do it again. Later at the market, when he voiced preference for the purple-grape polyester outfit over the azure cotton dress, I walked away, happily, in blue. I returned to Dschang for a weekend visit, during which I chewed my food thoughtfully and actually tasted the swirling basil. One heaping plate satisfied. And even though I had made a guilty promise to keep in touch, I never punished myself for ignoring Jonas’s phone messages.

From my pocket I gave Habiba coins for cell-phone minutes and taxi fares, so that she could enjoy the freedoms denied by her husband’s strict ideas about gender roles. And from a pocket deeper inside myself, I found the confidence to invest in a space and time of my own. Finally, far from home, I had found not only a way in—but also, really, where I wanted to stay.

Mara Horwitz, a senior biology major from Pittsburgh, spent the Fall 2005 semester in Cameroon, West Africa. You can read more about her travels at http://maraincameroon.blogspot.com.

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