17 May 2011

Cameroon Tales: Two Cooks

For most of his recent sabbatical in Cameroon, my brother stayed in a big hilltop white-elephant of a house overlooking a small village on the busy main highway between Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, the main port city. The house was the ostensible headquarters of a personal NGO owned by an international businessman from that village, whom my brother had once helped get started in the business of importing cars from Europe into Cameroon. As village benefactor, he had later acquired overseas aid to build and maintain a village well, build a nursery school, and build his own seldom-used mansion.

My brother's housemates there were three men from neighboring Central African Republic, speakers of a Gbaya language called Suma who were working on documenting their language, on a project funded almost entirely out of my brother's own pocket. He has known the elder two men (now in their 50s) since the late 1970s, when he was working for the Peace Corps and then USAID in the then Central African Empire.

To feed himself and his team, my brother asked to hire a cook from the local village. The sleazy caretaker of the mansion, a childhood friend of the benefactor now in his 40s, recommended the 16-year-old girl living with him, who soon proved that she neither knew how to cook nor cared to learn, even when an older woman was hired to help teach her.

One day the young cook got a call from her elder sister telling her that the latter's baby was very sick, and asking for help. My brother offered to give her an advance on her salary, since it was so near the end of the month anyway, so that she could send some money to her sister. But her man (the caretaker) took that money, beat her, and forbade her to visit her sister. The cook then came to my brother and asked for more help, but the caretaker swore that he never beat her (even claiming she had attacked him), and that he never took her money, only "put it aside" in order to prevent her leaving to go take of the sick baby.

Although the cook threatened to leave the caretaker—just as she had earlier infuriated her family by running away from home to be with him—she soon relented, made up with him, and returned to work as if nothing had happened. Nevertheless, her enthusiasm for cooking never improved, and my brother finally fired her a few weeks before we arrived for our visit.

The replacement cook was far from a spoiled brat. She was the devoutly religious, 30-something mother of four young children whose husband had abandoned her in Kribi, on the south coast, whereupon she tried to find her sister, who had married into the village where we stayed. She ran out of cash in the market and crossroads town nearest her sister's village, but a taxi driver from the latter village was kind enough to give her and her brood a free ride to her sister's house, which had only one room to spare for her and her four kids.

Lacking land and a husband, she resorted to gathering forest herbs for sale by the roadside to earn a little cash. The village chief's unmarried son dallied with her for a while, but he was very likely scared off by the prospect of raising her four kids (although she blamed it on his inability to abide by her strict religious scruples). The chance to cook for a household of foreigners was a godsend—except for the jealousy it aroused among the other villagers.

She proved a diligent and capable cook who used her new supply of cash to rent some land and pay a crew to clear a field for planting—all just in time for the start of the rainy season. And she was finally able to pay the village medic to treat her two-year-old boy for worms.

When it came time for my brother and his team to leave the village, he promised her whatever food supplies remained in the kitchen. She didn't show up for the good-bye party, however. Instead, she waited out behind the kitchen until after darkness fell and all the guests had left—so that no one would see her carry the extra food to her sister's house, and then spread gossip about the passing good fortune of one of the most destitute women in the village.

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