From the hospital, United States, today.
She reached her hand for mine, gentle clasp, and shook it. Simplest human contact.
I almost cried.
Over a month ago – 6 weeks – she couldn’t have done that. She could barely hold anything. Barely speak intelligibly. And we didn’t know if it was ever going to get better. Today, she was dressed in her own clothes, not a hospital gown anymore (strange what a hospital gown does to a person. More on that later). Six weeks ago she didn’t want to live.
Yesterday I was laughing with her and her friend about how she owes him money, has to get back to work and overtime, fast, to make it up.
And today she shook my hand.
And I almost cried.
Beaming, dazed, I – again, it’s not marked! – opened the stairwell that sets off an alarm. Ohwell. Wandered around to find the staff exit (you’d think I would know, by now, what was where). It didn’t matter. I have been so sad about this patient, so desolate, and over the past few weeks, I have spent so much time beaming. And laughing. Laughing with her.
Today I almost cried.
From Mvangan, Cameroun, today.
And today I almost cried.
I don’t cry enough, I think, maybe I’m numb to this sort of thing.
Email from good friend in Cameroun: Alice la commercante est morte suite d’un incendie dans sa boutique au marché. Megan était malade mais ça va un peu. Régine ne cesse de penser à toi.
« Alice, the one with the boutique, died from a fire to her boutique at the marché. »
“Megan (friend’s niece) was sick, but she’s a little better.”
“Régine (another friend) thinks of you all the time.”
And this is how the news goes.
I have been so, so incredibly lucky. I am so incredibly lucky – born here, basically things are going to be okay. (with my circumstances of birth/family/etc). But there…not even that matters. None of my close friends have died since I left (that I know of). Friends of friends. Young friends of friends. Babies. And no, no – that’s not true – I think I had heard that the boutique owners near my house, the ones where I went in the mornings sometimes for breakfast or just to pick up something quick from the ‘corner store’ – died. One or both. When I was back a year ago in Mvangan.
Alice, the one with the boutique, died.
“MON AMIE!” She exclaimed every time I walked by. My friend. Every time. I walked past her old boutique at least once a day. At least. Alice was anglophone, but mostly she spoke pidgin and not anglophone English, so we communicated best in French. Some Bulu (hers was much better than mine, of course). I bought things from her – kerosene (I stayed faithful with that) and various others. I realized after a few tries that her bags of pasta were so old they had weevils in them, which I wouldn’t see in the dim light of the kerosene lamp or flashlight when I was cooking. They floated to the top, and after the first, disgusted viewing (very, very early in my service), I would skim them out, no bother. Kerosene, candles, other. She ended up buying the boutique that had better hardware (nails, basically, rope, locks). I would get those from her when she moved to the marché. I didn’t see her as much then. There wasn’t much I went to those boutiques to buy, except on days I did manage to get up early enough to go (ie before 6 am. Funny, now it sounds pretty relaxing… ). Occasionally tomatoes from the girls there during the week, and I’d look at kabbas or babouches (the only ‘window shopping’ available in Mvangan, on those wooden stalls).
I do miss living there.
Alice died. Alice had a goiter – no iodized salt, probably. Maybe hypothyroid, maybe not. Alice with the three little kids running around – third born when I was there, but I hadn’t even known she was pregnant – kabbas, larger woman. Alice taught me to make beignets. There. I must have bought those from her, in the mornings I would brave crossing the mud. I sat in her kitchen. After awhile, I would just stop, having nothing to buy, feeling slightly guilty that I did so much of my shopping at other boutiques, now. But I would sit with her. Mon amie.
Mon amie taught me to wrap pagne. I walked by one day, early on, with pagne around my waist tucked in the way any Westerner might imagine. Somewhat like a towel.
It doesn’t stay.
(I also realized soon after that…who the hell wears pagne into town? no. At home, sure. Au quartier, sure. Then again, I could get away with just about anything. But in general, you don’t wear that into town. I learned. Ca ne se fait pas).
So she taught me. She called me (yelled me) over – I may have been a bit annoyed, I was probably on a mission to get somewhere with as much of a goal as I could have managed – "MON AMIE!" – Alice pulled me into her shop and started taking my clothes off.
The pagne, I mean.
(oh….Cameroun). I hadn’t been in Mvangan very long, maybe a month. So it was strange, a bit, and I had no idea what the *&$# she was doing… but, okay. (and no, it’s not so strange).
“Non, comme ca!” I don’t remember what she said. She redid it for me, showing me.
And that is how they do it – so miraculously, it doesn’t come off. I can walk, dance, carry water on my head without it slipping. Without safety pins, without anything else holding it up (the elegant, subtle, confident brilliance of African women).
So chastised, I walked the rest of the way into town (she was half-way). I know how to wear it now.
She probably fixed clothes for me a few other times. Mon amie.
Never Ntangen. Never la blanche. Or la whaat. Whiteman! No. But not my name, either – and she did know that. She had her own name for me (and no, it's not what she called everyone).
Always. Mon amie. Always.
Alice, mon amie, slept in her shop. Most people do that. I’m not sure if she had a new room behind the marché one – her old one was much bigger, lots of space to walk around. The marché one was more of a counter crowded with many, many items. I bought locks there. The mugs I coveted for months – then bought, matched set. Probably cost me about 1000 F CFA ($2). Maybe more. The comparisons to life here. Online shopping. Amazon storing my credit card number.
Mon amie slept in her shop. Her mother was there, not when I first met her but later. Her older mother – we didn’t have a language in common. I would alternately ask things in English, French, Bulu, my broken pidgin – probably asking where Alice was, or that’s what she was telling me. Her mother did more of the cooking. I learned with them.
I should have sat more.
I should have been more.
I wonder if I have any photos of her. Probably not – the dailies, the true fixtures of my life, I didn’t. Alice. Ma’a Monique. Pa’a – still forget my Fulani boutiquier’s name. I learned it eventually. We spoke a lot, though. Pa’a Jerome. Ma’a…Dorothee, I think.
Names are slipping. And yet – and yet – when I was there, last summer, things came to me that I didn’t think I remembered. Bulu. People’s names. So many people I remembered, that I can’t recall now. As if the memories are stored in a particular place. I got in a taxi in Limbé, and until I got in I had no idea where I was going. I knew exactly where, but couldn’t think of the name of the town. I started to describe it, and a few words in I remembered the name. It was there. It was I needed it. That is enough.
Mon amie died. Megan was sick and got better – she’s three now, maybe. Sick doesn’t always get better, there. I know she’s in good hands. Régine thinks of me.
Régine’s sister died, TB. Other....? AIDS? Probably. Maybe. Most likely. She was coming back from Gabon – seemed that was always the story, or so often. Gabon as a source. Not that Cameroun didn’t have its own sources. But travel, travel of any kind…
I took photos of Régine’s dead sister in the morning – that’s tradition, before the burial. Morning after she died. I got up, went to take pictures, and bought avocadoes in the marché. Must have been a Wednesday, then. The photos are on Régine’s wall.
One of the strongest women I have ever known or will ever know.
Régine thinks of me often.
Mon amie died.
Megan was sick and now is a little better.
Mon amie died.
Régine is there – and in health – that’s what he means, he would say so otherwise. Régine has been sick and almost not gotten better, before. Malaria. Yellow fever. Etc.
No news of her soeur (another sister) in the Camerounian sense, or of her soeur’s daughter, who was named for me. Her môn-a-minga . Little girl. My mbombo. Namesake.
And the friend who emailed me has email now, has a job, and has a facebook page. He has skype too. All of this at the government office where he works, and internet cafés.
He has all of this (and may be reading. Mbamba mos, N! Akiba.)
Some people are doing well.
Alice, the one with the boutique, died.
And some people are doing well.
As in the hospital. Some people are dying, have died. And some are doing well. Some will go home, some even better than when they came in.
There are things doctors try to do, maybe, that work, maybe.
In Cameroun – things happen as they happen. People are fatalistic – don’t often think or plan past tomorrow, which or what will happen dieu voulant (god willing). A Zambe.
A Zambe wôm.
Because you don’t know. Shops burn down – might have been burned.
Children die. Crops die. Not enough food or water.
Some people – so few people – get lucky, get jobs or opportunities to go to school, the 10% (maybe) of the examinees who get by on merit (the rest on corruption).
Probably less than 10%, most of the time.
(Things that stop being shocking, surprising after awhile. They shouldn’t).
Alice, the boutique owner. Mon amie, always smiling and with the voice carrying out to me, she heard/saw me somehow from the inside of the shop and would come out to greet me. I don’t yell or project as well – but I would do the same thing to her. MON AMIE!
And some people are doing well.