I’m sorry for not posting for such an extended amount of time! Your email notifications did not stop working; I did in fact take a three-month hiatus from blogging, but not necessarily on purpose. Cameroon is at the height of rainy season, which means advancement for the fields of cassava, but frequent interruptions for the electricity grids. In the states, rainy days would always be my most productive when I’d complete paper assignments and even start writing review outlines days in advance, but rainy days in Lokoti have just meant a lot of false starts with work done on the computer – a few ideas for a blog post here, a few lines of a grant proposal there – before the electricity cuts out for a day, a week or even 20 days (that’s the record).
Leaving the excuses behind, these past few months have been great and characterized by spending a lot of time with friends and family. The setting of a lot of this time was spent at my friend Hadija’s house – more specifically, in her kitchen*. When playing the word association game with kitchen, my name would not come up in the first thousand guesses. I have never been one to spend much time in a kitchen (and the cooks I’m sure were grateful since I can barely tell a teaspoon from a tablespoon), but in Cameroon, women spend hours upon hours in their kitchens. As a result, so have I – the kitchen has become one of my social spheres.
One of the most memorable moments in Hadija’s kitchen was on my birthday in June. I was having a party later in the afternoon for some people in my village at my house, but my meager two-burner gas stove was no match for the amount of food we were planning on preparing. In the morning, I went over to Hadija’s house to start preparing the spread – plantains and spaghetti (yep, that’s a thing), beans, beignets, biscuits, rice, meat, sauce, etc. Just as I was peeling what seemed like the hundredth plantain and wondering how we were ever going to get everything prepared in time, a couple of my friends showed up to help and less than an hour later the chief’s first wife followed suit. Once I got over the shock that I was peeling plantains with the first lady of Lokoti, I felt a sense of normalcy in that this is what happens the morning of a big party in the states when you have a group of great friends – everyone contributes a little time so that no one is carting the burden.
In July, Hadija had to share the kitchen not only with me, but also with my mom, aunt and sister who were in Lokoti visiting. All five of us found a seat and the four of us watched Hadija prepare (in a room that size, the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” hits home, so we let the expert do her work). Meanwhile we talked, played with Hadija’s baby and in the case of my sister, had our hair braided by Hadija’s daughters. The best part was enjoying the meal together – tasba (a leafy green sauce) and corn fufu. Before my eyes she made a pile of leaves and some corn flour become my favorite Cameroonian dish.
It is now the Ramadan season meaning that Muslims in Lokoti do not eat or drink from sunup to sundown. As a result, Hadija doesn’t start preparing food until later in the day – around 1:00pm when she starts preparing for dinner (the leftovers of dinner being what is eaten early in the morning). In addition to preparing dinner, she also makes maasé, a type of rice/flour doughnut. A handful of children sell these doughnuts in the marketplace around 6:30pm when men are leaving the mosque after evening prayer and sunset (talk about knowing your consumer market). One of the many things that has been amazing for me is the fact that while cooking she cannot taste-test any of it. I’d be nervous that the sauce might not be flavorful enough or that I put too much salt in something else, but she just knows. I guess that comes with years and years of practice considering that she started learning how to cooking at 8-years-old.
In all of these cases, I cannot help but flinch and express my amazement when Hadija, bare-handedly, lifts a scalding pot from the fire and places it on the ground. She uses no pot-holder, oven mitt or simple rag. She responds in telling me that in two years when I leave Lokoti, I’ll be able to do the same thing. I’m not as confident that I will develop that same skill, but I see myself leaving here being able to do things I couldn’t have done before coming, many of which are from lessons I learned from Hadija while in her kitchen – like creating something from scratch without measuring cups or a recipe book (or in the case of work, excel spreadsheets or an assignment rubric). Her kitchen is at one time a classroom and a coffee shop where I am both student and friend.
* Some insight on the Cameroonian kitchen: The typical kitchen in my village consists of a small mud-brick room with a tin or grass roof. Inside is relatively dark, the door being the only source of light and the ceiling is covered with black soot from the smoke. Cooking is done over a fire with three mud bricks being used to support the cooking pot. Women normally squat while preparing and cooking or use low to the ground stools – there are no counters. The most common utensils and cookware are: sturdy pots, ladles, knives, a flat slab of stone and a rock (for grinding vegetables, spices, etc).