Sunday, March 27, 2011

Christmas Eve in Cameroon With the United Nations

By Fran Cardwell
   To get a full understanding of our Christmas 2010, you have to understand that we were somewhat of a traveling United Nations. There was beautiful Cameroonian Rebecca Mbuh, my friend of twenty-seven years, her husband Mark who is a retired University of South Carolina professor of African studies and their five year old Rawandan daughter, Margarette, whose first language is Korean. Then, there were two of Mark’s Korean students, my roommates, Soo Yeon and Chae Eun, and joining us for the first of the trip and the holidays, were Hanna and Sami from Finland, who are spending two years backpacking through Africa. Finally, there was me, Fran, who brought Rebecca home from church to have Sunday dinner with us in Columbia so many years ago when she was an eighteen year old freshman at Allen University. She eventually got her PhD from USC, and she and Mark now teach in Korea. What a motley crew we were, and what an amazing Christmas we shared in Pinyin Village and Bambili with Rebecca and her large, extended Mbuh family, some of whom I've known for years and many who are now new friends.
   By the time we were headed for Pinyin on Christmas Eve, we had already been traveling the coastal region of Cameroon for several days, but Rebecca had spent that time with her sister Mary in the city stocking up on supplies and making arrangements for the house guests and many party goers who would be arriving in their village over the next few days.
   The heat and humidity on the coast that I’d been warned about were nothing compared to a South Carolina summer, and I found it quite comfortable. Our trip was a study trip, but Christmas week was to be family time, and we were in high spirits as we anticipated relaxing and enjoying the good life, African style, in Pinyin Village. I, especially, was so looking forward to seeing Rebecca’s brother, Tennu, who was my pen pal for many years, and Justice who had also lived in Columbia for a while. I was anxious to see their sister Mary again who had spent time years ago at our Edisto home with us. I knew Rebecca’s Mamma and Pa from Mark and Rebecca’s wedding and time spent in Columbia and Charleston, but that had been more than a decade ago. This celebration had been in the works for more than twenty years, and I could not believe it was finally happening and that I was here for it!
   We were many hours late getting started to the village Christmas Eve. One thing we had to adjust to quickly once we arrived on African soil is being on African time which is much, much slower than what I know as Edislow time back home. In Cameroon, nothing is efficient, utilities are unreliable, transportation often breaks down, government is corrupt, money is in short supply, and life is hard and confusing at best. One thing you can be sure of is that nothing will happen when and as planned. Stopping to pay bribes to officials when traveling by bus or taxi, is the order of the day. We traveled by African bus from Limbe on the coast to Bamenda, the nearest city to Rebecca’s home, and were relieved when the bus overheated on a steep grade, giving us the opportunity to escape to the bushes to use the “facilities” while the bus cooled down! I worried about the poor trussed chickens, little black pig and the dog in a basket that spent the hot seven hours crammed under the bus with the luggage and with no relief or water.
   So it did not surprise us too much on December 24th when it took Rebecca and Mary hours longer than expected to pick us up at the Baptist Mission where we had spent the night in Bamenda. They had frantically been procuring goods and services for the festivities, so I’m sure they were anxious and exhausted by the time they and their driver arrived after dark with some family member’s small car loaded down with supplies and with little room for us. Soo, Chae Eun, Margaret on a lap, Mary, Rebecca, the driver, and I crammed ourselves into the car with no room for Mark and the Finns or most of our luggage. Unwilling to leave my three large puppets behind, I squished them in with us like three additional children, and we headed off, waving good bye to Mark, Sami and Hanna, wondering when and how they would make it to the village but we, ourselves, were relieved to be underway. Plans were made to return for the three of them, but we hated to leave them sitting there in the Bamenda dark at the Baptist Mission.
   We took off at breakneck speed through this large, third world city which is wild at night, roaring with motorcycles and revelry even when it is not Christmas Eve. Just as we were approaching what we felt must be the outskirts of the city, we pulled up in front of a tiny dressmaker’s shop, and Becca and Mary climbed out and went inside. No explanation. We locked our doors and sat with the driver, tense and uneasy in this questionable neighborhood, but after a few minutes, got out ourselves to find out what was going on. They had stopped to pick up Christmas clothes, only to find out one dress was still a work in progress. The frantic dressmaker had a cluttered shop the size of a bathroom filled with anxious women and active, small children all wanting their new holiday clothes as she desperately worked an old sewing machine. I sat down with Becca and Mary to wait. Through an open door in an adjoining shop, a toddler screamed as chemicals were slathered on her little head and her hair was pulled and forced into a tight “do.” Kind-hearted Cheun went in to try to distract the poor child. It was a zoo. And then the lights went out! In that whole district of Bamenda, everyone was now in the dark.
   For the first time on the trip, I began to sweat sitting in the darkness of that tiny shop, wondering about Becca’s family waiting at our destination, wondering when we would ever get there and concerned about my friends waiting back at the mission. But this little snafu, we found, is typical of life in Cameroon. Someone produced an open cell phone and the poor seamstress, now under even more duress, began to sew by cell phone light, this time using, instead of electricity, the back up pedal device on her machine. The light was pitiful, so a small candle was lit and stuck with wax to the table, as the desperate woman continued to sew in the semidarkness. After about twenty-five minutes or so, the lights came back on, the group heaved a collective sigh, Mary’s dress was done, and we jumped into the car for our long ride into the remote Bamenda countryside and beyond.
   We drove for approximately an hour before turning off onto a dirt road. Or was it a road? The Koreans and I weren't sure. It felt like an assault as we jounced and bounced our way over the rocky, mountainous track through the darkest heart of Africa. “Mary and Joseph,” I thought, “could not have had it so rough on that long ago eve.” On and on and on and up we went into inky blackness. We could see none of the landscape, and what little we could see of the road up ahead in the headlights of the car, made us want to close our eyes. It seemed impossible that any vehicle could traverse it. And then my two Seoul friends discovered the stars overhead! Despite our being crammed so tightly into the car we could hardly breathe, they were straining out the windows to see what residents of Seoul seldom see, a beautiful, starlit, countryside sky! They ooohed, and they aaaahhhed. We laughed. This was all unbelievably crazy to me!
Then, as we wound through the African night, stars overhead, a true Christmas Eve miracle occurred. God sent me what I firmly believed at the time was a Christmas present to keep me from feeling homesick. Above the din of the rocks over which we careened, and squealing Koreans, I heard…. could it be? It could not! Surely not! Music from the car radio was playing all of my favorite oldies from the sixties and seventies. “What the heck!” as Soo Yeon would say, in one of her favorite American expressions, was this doing coming out of the radio on Christmas Eve here in this place in the middle of this continent at this time? Even the DJ sounded like “back home!” It sounded like, well, it sounded like Columbia, SC to me! Now, I was shouting with joy and singing along!
   When after about twenty minutes of this, the DJ said he was coming live from Cayce, SC, I, dumbfounded but not silent, began to exclaim, “I cannot believe this! What an amazing satellite feed! I cannot even get this radio station in Orangeburg!” There were tears in my eyes. Our driver with his poor mastery of the English language, could not explain it and probably could not understand me. Truly, this was a Christmas miracle and, yes, it did occur to me briefly to wonder why, when radio stations begin playing Christmas music right after Halloween, this familiar Cayce station was not even playing carols on Christmas Eve. For the rest of that wild trip to Pinyin, I don’t believe I stopped talking about this wonderful gift and the truly unusual radio station that reached a remote region of Africa but not Orangeburg or Edisto.
   Post holiday, a few days later, we had a different driver. My steadfast, dear friend, Tennu, this time chauffeured us back to the city. I heard the same sweet, rock music of my youth playing on the car radio again. “Ah, Tennu,” I sighed, “what an amazing satellite! How God has blessed me with this gift of home in a foreign country!” He burst out laughing and told me that many years ago, during his time living in Columbia, he had made multiple cassette tapes for family and friends of his favorite radio station. Well, the joke was on me, and now I laugh every time I think about it! But it will always be my Cameroon Christmas Eve miracle with a little help from technology and Tennu!
                                                                         ...Next: Christmas in Pinyin Village

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