Mama, in French spelled Maman, but still pronounced as mama, is a term of respect, endearment, or friendship here in Nkongsamba. While I am nowhere close to being a maman, I get called it often. Usually by older, sweet, Cameroonian men who greet me on the street, and use that term to address me because they probably don’t know what else to call the random white girl. I much prefer maman over ‘la blanche’, which literally means ‘the white’.
Knowing that maman is an appropriate name for many women, and that it is considered to be an endering or affectionate term, it has helped Shaun and I get closer to some of the women in our community. When we first arrived in Nkongsamba, and even now a month later, when I am greeting a vendor at the bar, market, or in the street, I address her as maman. “Maman, ca va?”, maman, how are you? or Maman, je voudrais …, maman, I would like… it works. And, it fits. They like it, they like that the white people are addressing them as their mothers. I had it explained to me during training that it means you do not see a separation between you and them. Clearly, they are not my mom, I am thankful to have a great mom back in Portland, but, I am showing respect and showing that there is no distance between Shaun, myself, and our community members. Within the last month in Nkongsamba, we have accquired more mamans than we can count.
But, there are a few mamas that stand out.
Maman Claudine. Claudine started an association in Nkongsamba that works with children and women. It started helping families with school supplies and books when they could not afford to buy them during the school year. It has slowly transformed to be a major advocate for the rights of widows in Nkongsamba, and she organizes meetings and programs to help this ever-growing group. Additionally, she runs a month-long summer camp for the youth in the town. Shaun and I are working with her to hopefully start Nkongsamba’s first resource center. Not only is she a great maman for the community, she is our juice maman. On the side, she makes 100% natural fruit juice when the fruit is in the season, and freezes it to sell during the year. The juice is delicious! Today, after a planning meeting for the resource center, we bought 1L of guava juice for $2. She is a great maman to know.
Maman Sarah. We met maman Sarah our first night in Nkongsamba. She sells poisson braisse (grilled fish) outside of one of the local bars. When we had just arrived, and had nothing in our house, we went into town for dinner and she sold us her fish. It is delicious, and probably my favorite Cameroonian dish. The fish comes with baton de maioc (cassava boiled and wrapped in green leaves, some volunteers say it tastes like swiss cheese, I don’t think so, but it is good) and codiment vert, a spicy green sauce. After chatting a little with Maman Sarah the first night, we learned she is a widow who sells fish during the day to support her kiddos. She greets us every day when we walk by her usual corner, and is always quick to wave, smile, and say hello as we pass.
Market Maman. I literally don’t know her name, she has never told us, as she must be ok with Shaun and I calling her maman! She works in the indoor, or main, market of Nkongsamba. She sells, as you can see, tons of dry goods and some produce. Her produce tends to be a little expensive, meaning she gives us 4 tomatoes for 40cents, where others give us 6! But, she is super friendly, great to chat with, and we use her for lots of dry goods like rice, pasta, and tuna. She is always very eager to ask how much we have paid for other items already in our market bag to make sure we have received the fair price, and will help us if we need a referral to a vendor or store for something she doesn’t sell. We have tentative plans to all go out for a beer after her market day is finished one day next week.
Our newest maman is our tailor. One of the other volunteers in town referred me to this tailor, and I just picked up a dress from her this week. She has a shop in town, and I am eager to get more clothes and gifts made from pagne, the traditional African fabric!
As you can see, they are all mamans. We very much enjoy the communal and inclusive aspects of the Cameroonian culture such as this. Other older men greet me as their daughter, or their sister, they greet Shaun as their son or their brother. While the men our age greet me as their girlfriend, I am quick to inform them that is not the case! It is fun having many Cameroonian mamans, and we always have someone asking if we slept well, are eating well, are healthy, or if we need anything. I guess there is something universal about being a mama, and we appreciate all the care we receive from our mamas here, as well as our real mamas at home.