After spending our first night in Cameroon in a hotel in Yaoundé, we changed money with a friendly Nigerian Igbo at the Hilton, went shopping for food at the central market and for baguettes at a suburban bakery, then drove the two hours back to the village where my brother was staying in time for a short rest before the parent-teacher meeting for the local preschool (maternelle) that we were invited to attend that afternoon at 4 p.m.
We had been invited in order to thank my brother for his small monetary donation, which had enabled the teacher to buy some new and much needed school supplies. The meeting was held in the salon of the chief of the village, and my brother and I stopped to buy a half-dozen large bottles of beer and soft drinks for those who attended. We purchased them from the village patriarch’s store, waking him up from his afternoon nap on his front porch.
In the chief’s salon, we found about a dozen parents seated across from the sofa that the chief had reserved for us, and an open box of school supplies on the coffee table in the center of the room. As others were allocating the drinks we had brought, the chief told me my brother had never accepted his offers of homemade oil palm wine (there called vin blanc) but he wondered whether I would like to try it. After a moment’s hesitation, I said I would be happy to, rationalizing that the alcohol in it would help neutralize the residual bacteria. The chief then called for his palm wine and filled two stemmed glasses from his cupboard. The palm wine was palatable, though poorly filtered.
The president then rose to welcome us, asking first whether he could address me in French (rather than switch to English, presumably). My brother assured him I spoke several languages, neglecting to mention my poor speaking ability. In fact, I could follow the proceedings pretty well until they later gave way to more free-flowing conversation and storytelling.
Then the president introduced the maitresse, who did a show-and-tell of the supplies she had bought, which included various (French) literacy and language materials, workbooks and educational activities, and about a dozen rolls of toilet paper to be used in the brick outhouse that had been started behind the school building. She regretted only that she had not been able to obtain materials to teach numeracy as well as literacy. As she finished, she offered to turn over her receipts to my brother, as the donor, but he suggested she turn them over to the president, who had replaced a corrupt predecessor.
The president was a successful businessman who got his start as a chauffeur for Catholic nuns, and my brother’s regular driver would usually rent the president’s car when he hired himself out as a driver. The maitresse was a trained and dedicated teacher who had recently fallen victim to pickpockets in a shared taxi on her way home from a bank in Yaoundé with a loan of 1.5 million francs CFA with which to build a house. She was very slowly paying back the loan from her very modest teacher’s salary.
After the formalities were over, the conversation drifted to other topics. One man asked us why Obama was not (yet) intervening in Libya. (This was an overwhelmingly Christian village less concerned than a largely Muslim village may have been about the delicacy of American relations with the Muslim world.) Later, after somebody else told a story about an encounter with a large snake, this same man said he had seen a show on National Geographic about people handling poisonous snakes without getting bitten. He obviously had access to satellite TV and was concerned to educate himself as well as his children. He and I (and the chief) were the only ones drinking the chief’s palm wine instead of beer.We finally made our exit, explaining that our new cook had made a big pot of ndole, the national dish, to welcome us. This stew of bitterleaf greens, ground peanuts, and fish or meat takes a lot of time and effort, so everyone was impressed. In fact, we had hardly finished eating when the chief showed up at our door, with the village patriarch and another of his drinking buddies, saying they had come to sample our ndole, which their wives rarely made. They pronounced it very well prepared, at which my brother could not resist telling the chief that he could be eating it more often if his son had gone ahead and married the cook after romancing her. They finally left after finding out we had no more beer or wine on hand.
The tale of two cooks will be the next installment.