by Haley McLeod “The Cloudy Knight” (Cameroon 2013-15)
We call it “falling in love” for a reason. “Falling” because it is unexpected, perhaps with an entity previously unknown. “In” because you were previously “out.”
The majority of us speak of “falling in love” within the context of loving a person, usually with a romantic, mushy-gushy sort of undertone. But let us focus less on the love, and more on the process of “falling in.” Have you ever encountered a place, a person, a culture – any entity, really – that is so foreign, so odd, that you could never imagine liking it, much less loving it? It is a journey of transformation: from unknowing, to knowing but hating, to accepting, to liking, to loving. And finally, you finish by embracing this entity in its entirety, with all of its flaws, and all of its beauty.
This story is about falling from out to in.
I arrived in Cameroon in September 2013 as a young and naïve Peace Corps volunteer. Assigned to work in the agricultural sector, I would collaborate with the community to work on various development projects. I received my assignment to live in a rural village in the Western region of Cameroon, home of the Bamiliké people, called Bapi.
Emmanuel, or “Pa Emma,” was my guide from day one. A man whose unkempt hair slanted out from his temples to form an inverted triangle, his bouncy, youthful energy was only betrayed by his gaping bald spot. A cigarette in hand, he would pace back and forth and spew all of his ambitions for the development of the village and for the betterment of his family. Pa Emma intertwined himself in all of the village’s social events: every funeral, every meeting, he was present. His pocket was always bulging with Kola nuts, ready to hand out to whomever he greeted. Although, like most, he had no formal work, he volunteered with the local health center committee, helping to organize vaccination campaigns.
Bapi is a peaceful place where a meeting hour becomes a mere suggestion, and the passage of time is moderated by the planting and harvest of corn and beans. Corn, then beans. Birth, corn, and beans. Corn, marriage, and beans. Beans, death, and corn. This passage of time was not the only aspect that differed from my typical American experience. In my first few months, I was bombarded by all that was new, and was faced with a sense of hesitancy regarding how to speak and act. During my first couple of weeks, I had so many people yell “White Person” at me while I was walking down the road that I ran home, shut the door, and bawled for an hour. The third week I went and bought tomatoes at the market, only to come home and have my neighbor say, “What do you have for me?” She took one look at my tomatoes, and left with them in hand. And there was more – food that was mushy and goopy. Public transportation that never left on time, and might not arrive at its destination. Corrupt local police who would swipe your cash for any reason. This new place was strange, and I felt like the stranger.
Pa Emma helped me to learn to love the strange and unfamiliar. He welcomed me into his home, a three-room, mud brick house that he shared with his wife and six children. He took time to help me pronounce the unfamiliar tonal sounds in the local language, and shared a beer with me on my first Christmas away from the United States. He was the mastermind and force behind all village development projects, and accompanied me to all of the important village events. He taught me how to bargain, how to correctly eat the goopy food, and stood up for me when the occasional teenager decided to pick on the white girl.
With Pa Emma’s help, I discovered the quirks in the Cameroonian way of living that make it beautiful. I discovered that when someone asks you, “What do you have for me?” it is really a way of saying, “I am so happy to see you!” I discovered that when someone yelled “White Person,” they were usually just trying to get my attention (no harm intended). I found that the fermented cassava sticks (in French, baton de manioc) were the tastiest food in the entire world, especially when toasted and eaten with mayonnaise and hot sauce. I learned to love the bumpy moto rides to and from village, squished between the moto driver and sacks of fertilizer and a well-fed grandma, and the torrents of rain that would create little rivers rushing down the red soil. I learned that, when taking public transportation, the when and if of your arrival was part of the journey. I learned to accept what was bad, and love all that was good, discovering more and more to love until my heart was full.
In April 2019, Papa Emma sent me a text message. The message, arriving in its usual abbreviated form as to not go past the text message word limit, read, “I hope you are doing well. We and the family are thinking about you. Take care of yourself.” I thought about responding, about calling, but didn’t.
Over the next month, I continued with the everyday tasks of my work. On May 29th, I received a a message from Pa Emma’s cousin informing me that Pa Emma had been murdered. While riding his motorcycle to deliver the vaccine supply to the neighboring village, a group of bandits ambushed him and took his life.
Later, when I went back to spend time with his wife in Bapi, we both sat in silence, perched on bamboo stools, watching the breeze sway the plantain trees back and forth. “I miss him,” she said, a tear falling down her cheek, “and only God knows why his life was chosen to end in this horrible way.”
“I miss him too,” I replied.
She paused and spoke again. “But, you know … I must say, financially he wasn’t much help. He spent all of his money on cigarettes and gas money for his motorcycle, to go buzz around the village.”
We both burst out laughing.
Pa Emma taught me that one does not fall in love, but that we learn to love. Any person, any place, any entity you choose, you learn to love and appreciate its good parts. Cameroon is dear to my heart because it taught me to love something partially broken; it transformed from an unknown dot on a map, to somewhere that tested my nerves and mental sanity, to finally a place where I will always find a second home and family. Pa Emma transformed from a seemingly off-his-rocker, chain-smoking dreamer to someone that I called my mentor and father. We are all partially broken … and learning to love the beautiful dysfunctionality of someone or something or somewhere is what makes the world a place worth sticking around. Pa Emma was part of this magic for me and I know that, somewhere, he is off chain-smoking in the universe.
This blog item is from The Cloudy Knight, a blog run by (Cloud, or Haley McLeod, if you met her pre-college) dedicated to documenting her post-graduate wanderings and cultural explorations around the globe in France (European Adventures 2012), in Cameroon (Peace Corps Cameroon 2013-2015) Haley is reachable at @the.cloudy.knight) and the blog of the original source (www.thecloudyknight.