Cameroon Journal: Dschang and Fontem

More on Cameroonian food, and my first encounter with Malaria


A nationwide view: The locations of places mentioned in the first 3 journal entries. The "A" pin marks the location of Fontem, Beth's post village. Click for larger version.





5 June 2006

People here shake hands—a lot! The same person will shake your hand 3 times in a five minute conversation.  Today one woman on the street shook my hand and then transferred it to her other hand so that she could hold onto it while we talked.  We are in Beth’s village, Fontem, now. We stayed here last night.  The previous night we stayed with a woman named Lindsay, an independent (self-funded, non-Peace Corps.) American volunteer in Dschang, a moderate sized Francophone city, about two hours by bus from Fontem. Staying at Lindsay’s was fun. She had coffee and tea and a generally well stocked kitchen.


Lindsay's Kitchen. Note there's a faucet on the left wall, but no sink.

People here commonly drink tea with sugar, powdered milk and Ovaltine in it.  They grow coffee here, but not many natives drink it. When they do, they put lots of sugar and milk in it too. I made my tea plain, but Beth prepared hers with the Ovaltine and milk. It’s better than I expected it would be.

We helped Lindsay proofread a letter abut her project and “development” and dependency theory. She went to the market and we had a box of red wine in stainless steel cups, poisson braissé (grilled fish) and bâton de manioc (sticks of gelled starch from cassava root, tied in banana rolled banana leaves and boiled). The fist was very tasty. The bâton didn’t taste like much and took some getting used to.  I had tried some on the bus in Dschang, too. Beth bought it from a vendor through the bus window at a roadside stop.  Also on the bus a native woman gave me one of the mandarin oranges she bought from the street vendor (delicious), and I bought two grilled plantains, which came wrapped in a piece of newspaper. A lot of food here comes in either newspaper or used notebook paper (with notes on it).

Laundry Hanging in Dschang

The view from Lindsay's Door: Laundry Hanging in Dshang

I should mention that it is normal on bus long rides here that the bus will stop and street vendors will come up and wave their wares through the windows. The offerings commonly include peanuts (called “arrachides” in French or “groundnuts” in English), plums (which are not plums at all, but a tangy, cooked, cylindrical  green fruit with a big pit), mandarin oranges, green oranges, bâton, cola nuts, grilled maize, melons, candy, tissues, bananas, coconuts, and grilled plantains.

This seems like a good system. The bus trips can be long, bumpy, and very crowded. Tasty snacks help to pass the time. Sharing food also seems like a good way to socialize with those around you on the bus, and by around you, I might sometimes mean “sitting on your lap”.

Odilia and Beth

Odilia and Beth with matching dresses in front of Beth's house

Today Odilia and Agi, two women from Beth’s village, came over a little before noon to cook fufu and eru.  Fufu is cassava playdough. You knead with your right hand and break it into little balls to dip into whatever oily vegetable sauciness you happen to be eating with it.  Agi laughed at my poor fufu eating technique. I’ll need to practice. There was so much food.  Beth finally told me that I did not have to finish it right then, and I was hugely relieved.

I drank some coffee. Odilia asked me why I drank it. I explained that I like it. She asked if it would make me small—if it would help me “cut down,” meaning lose weight. Odilia says that Cameroon is rich in food, but poor in money.  I said that maybe I’d look for a job as a professor here. She said, “No, it is better to stay where you are. You will suffer here.”  She thinks people used to America suffer while they are here.

Odilia also said that eating here I would get fat like her, which seemed to be meant as a compliment, even though she was earlier asking me about how to lose weight. She mentioned wanting to lose weight several times through the course of the day, but also spoke favorably of getting fat. Based on my experience thus far, Cameroonians seem to love making contradictory statements in rapid succession. A commonly cited example is the following dialogue:

Me: “Do you have rice?”

Waiter: “Yes.”

Me: “I’ll have rice.”

Waiter: “We have no rice today.”

I don’t think that the waiter was not able to tell where my original question was headed. However, not wanting to disappoint, many people here will wait as long as possible before giving you a negative answer about anything.

My first experience with Malaria

Yesterday we traveled to Fontem from Dschang. When we were about 40 minutes out from Fontem, the bus picked up a very sick girl and her relatives. At first I thought that she had just hurt her ankle.  She had trouble walking and had to be lifted onto the bus.  BUt very shortly she began raving and flailing, having to be held down by three people.  A man behind me, and next to Beth (Beth had to move a row back when the sick girl got on) quietly guessed that the girl had bad, bad malaria. It was scary. I’d never actually seen anyone totally raving mad before.  She was screaming about loving to speak French and English (screaming in both languages), and about loving Jesus, and loving books, and a few other things I could not understand. When we got near to the hospital, she started shaking and saying she was on fire in French.  Then she became completely unable to talk.  They carried her to the steps of the hospital where she convulsed for nearly a minute before a stretcher came out for her. I hope they were able to help her. I am now much more concerned about malaria and had some trouble sleeping because I was remembering the girl.

*              *               *

This evening we went to mass. There was very good harmony singing from the whole congregation with no written music at all. After mass we went to Odilia’s house/compound and watched a Nigerian movie with 25 of her relatives. They brought us sodas and very good boiled corn and “plums”.  I really like the plums. They are purple on the outside, with avocado colored flesh. They tastes kind of like pickled grape leaves. Most houses here have no refrigerator. So, to offer guests cold drinks, a small child is sent out to run to the nearest bar and bring back the glass bottles of soda or beer. After eating, someone brought us some cola nuts, which are SO bitter. I don’t know why they chew on them, but it’s very common.  The Nigerian movie, which involved gangsters, was slow and boring.

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