A Traditional Cameroonian Wedding

The night before my flight back to Boston, we attended a traditional Cameroonian marriage ceremony and party. We had been invited by M. Boniface who is a very good friend of Professor Ngabeu’s. We had spent some time with M. Boniface (who is incredibly welcoming and generous), so we were very excited to be able to attend his daughter’s traditional wedding. They will have another less traditional wedding after Christmas. We had been fitted for our wedding attire months ago because a seamstress makes the clothing. Here, everyone attending the wedding wears the same cloth that the family picks out, and then each guest can choose what style they want to wear. I think it saves a lot of stress over what to wear to a wedding! Serena Ngabeu and I were matching.

In our traditional wedding outfits which had to be handmade months ago for the occasion. All the guests wear the same fabric in different designs.

So Friday evening we headed to Bastos which is where M. Boniface lives. We were lucky enough to be attending the actual ceremony, as well as the party afterwards. Neither Arjun nor I had ever seen a Cameroonian marriage before (although we had learned about it in class), so we were very excited. To briefly outline what went on during the ceremony:

The welcoming family (in our case, the bride’s family) sits on one side of a room, leaving space on the other side for the groom’s family who haven’t yet arrived. Once the groom’s family gets there, they sit down and are welcomed by the bride’s family who asks them why they have come. Now, everyone is aware at this point why they have come, but it is all part of the traditional ceremony. The groom’s family then says they have something missing from their family and they believe they can find it at the bride’s house. The bride’s family then plays along by presenting bottled drinks, food, etc. asking if this is what the groom’s family has been looking for. The groom is seated at the back, and the bride isn’t present at all yet. The groom’s family continues to say that nothing they have been presented with is what they came for. They are invited to look into the kitchen to see if they can find what they want, but they still can’t. Then, a group of women from the bride’s family find someone in another room and drape them in a long veil so they are difficult to recognize. The groom’s family finally says it is a woman they have come for and the bride’s family have to be sure that the groom’s family can recognize the woman they want. If not, it can be a sign of infidelity. The women begin to come in with the veiled figure (not the bride), pretending to be a car that is driving her. The act out running out of gas, so the groom’s family has to “pay for the gas” or else they can’t see the figure. The groom’s family has to continue to give money for a mechanic, then a helicopter and finally a private jet to get the figure to the groom’s family safely. Without looking beneath the veil, members of the groom’s family (not the groom himself, although I saw him giving some hints!) have to decide whether or not it is the bride. At this particular ceremony, the groom’s family failed twice (once finding a man dressed up as a woman under the veil which is worse case scenario), so they had to continue to give money. This is called “la dot” or the dowry.

Arjun with Professor Ngabeu’s children: Serena and Franklin.

Finally a figure is brought out a third time and it is the real bride. So everyone gets up and dances with her saying something along the lines of “Jolie, je ne peux pas la laisser” which means “Pretty, I can not leave it” while placing money on her head. Later, the money will be collected and counted to see if it is sufficient and accepted by the bride’s family. The same is then done for the groom, who appears from behind the rest of his family. This is followed by traditional rites like the fathers and grandfathers giving the couple advice and sharing mixed drinks (representative of the two people now joined together who can never bee separated) and eating Kola nuts (representative of the eternal nature of marriage- the father’s can only eat the Kola nuts once as divorce isn’t accepted).

After the ceremony, the couple are traditionally married! We then eat a big dinner (at midnight!) and there are lots of performances from singers, DJs, comedians and poets before the dance floor opens up and everyone dances until dawn. We ended up leaving at 5am! All in all, it was an amazing, very fun night where I feel like I also learned a lot about the Cameroonian culture.

I can’t believe tonight I will be getting on a plane and leaving Cameroon! It has been an absolutely incredible 4 months here and I am just as sad to leave as I am excited to see my family and friends back home. I know I will be back soon (with many a family member in tow), but it is definitely hard to say goodbye to the wonderful people I have met here. I have had some unforgettable experiences and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to live in Cameroon.

Je dis alors, à bientôt, Yaoundé!

Billy Kacyem (brother of the bride) and I. Billy actually lived near one of my good friends from Holy Cross in New York growing up! It’s such a small world.

Reflections on my last weeks and cooking for a crowd, Cameroon-style

Arjun with his host sisters Morgane and Lucresse

I honestly can’t believe I’m writing this blog already, less than a week away from heading home, from seeing all my family again and from leaving my life in Yaoundé. This experience has taught me a lot of things, one of them being that humans can adapt to any climate, culture or situation no matter how different it is to those they knew before. I have been here for over 16 weeks now, and I can say that I am completely comfortable squishing myself into the back of a packed taxi as it goes weaving down the street, the back bursting with bunches of plantains and hands hanging out the window to hold onto giant pieces of metal piping that are balanced precariously on top. I can say that I have discovered my love of buying food off the street: grilled corn is my favorite, fresh mandarins, greasy beignets, spaghetti omelettes, black coffee like the Cameroonians do it with plenty of dark honey and lemon, meat skewers, fresh juice and of course, the amazing pineapples and papayas. I can say that I have hiked all seven of the mountains surrounding the city, many of them practically requiring a machete to hack your way through the dense jungle. I have loved getting to know this amazing city and even occasionally seeing people I know waiting in line for a taxi or buying food at the markets. It’s fun to see other Cameroonians’ surprise that an American girl knows people in Yaoundé!

It is definitely strange when I think about leaving a place that now feels like somewhere I live. One of the hardest things to get used to mentally has been the lack of changing seasons, so I really would have no idea what time of year it was, if it wasn’t for my calendar. Sure, Christmas is in 10 days, but here it is scorchingly hot, sunny all day long and the dust hangs in a constant cloud over the city. Hearing Christmas songs blasting in the street or seeing taxis adorned with Christmas ornaments, is a strange contrast to the climate.

My adorable host sisters! I will definitely miss them.

We have been spending our last few weeks here frantically trying to do all our favorite things, visit our favorite places, hang out with our favorite people and just soak in the reality of studying abroad here. We have been preparing for our final dinner which we are having with our host family and anyone else who made our time here so incredible. This party requires a full day of preparation, as we each have to choose a Cameroonian dish which we will be cooking after buying all the ingredients at the market. We then have to present our meals and the reasons for our choice. Luckily we have lots of help from our host parents and siblings!

Me with my host sisters Manuella and Genévia (twins). I will miss these two so much!
The spread!

On the day of the party, I got up at 5:45am to go with my host mom, Sandra, to the market near our house. First stop was the man selling chickens. We bought three live chickens and I was happy to hear that the man would kill them for me because a) I have no idea how to kill a chicken and b) I’m not sure I want to know how to kill a chicken. We then spent two hours buying all my other ingredients from various vendors: tomatoes, onions, garlic, various spices to crush at home, carrots, green beans, TONS of plantains and more. I was preparing a dish called Poulet DG (or Poulet Directeur Général) which was a request from my host sisters and which was originally reserved for Cameroonian officials, but is now a crowd favorite. Once home at 9am, we started cooking right away. Cooking here is a process for sure. Even if the actual cooking doesn’t take super long, the preparation takes ages because of processes that we take for granted not having to do in the western world. For example, we had to wash absolutely everything we bought because it is all sold on the ground under the hot sun with flies swarming and people touching it. Since I was cooking for around 40 people, we had bought a lot. After being washed, we had to chop up all the veggies and then re-wash them before I started frying plantains. Fried plantains are one of my new favorite foods, but after yesterday, I’m not sure I ever want to see a plantain again! Butching the chickens was another hurdle as I had never cleaned or butchered a chicken in my life. Sandra showed me on the first one and then decided I had had enough instruction and left me to do the last two. Hopefully I didn’t tear them up too badly! I was surprised by how much strength it took and I was physically exhausted afterwards. We cooked the chicken outside over coals and then mixed it with the various spices, fried plantains and veggies. Sandra also made a fruit salad which is the typical dessert here with the fruit cut into the tiniest possible pieces.

Arjun and I with Serena and Anaëlle-Celia
Two of my host sisters and I

The party itself was a blast. It was so nice to be able to say thank you to our host family, our friends and our professors who made our stay here so  memorable. Plus there was lots of delicious food! Arjun made a Melon Seed Sauce which sounds weirder than it is, with fried fish and rice and his host mom, Maman Lisette, made beignets and black beans to start and yellow sauce with taro. The kids all loved running around with my camera, meaning I found a lot of very blurry photos! The whole experience of preparing a Cameroonian dish really showed me the differences between cooking here which takes an entire day and cooking in the states which usually doesn’t take more than an hour. It made me appreciate all the dishes that my host family or Arjun’s host family has prepared for us over the semester because I know how difficult and taxing it is! We have really met some incredible people here. Now (sadly) on to our very last few days here in Cameroon!

Professor Ngabeu’s adorable son, Franklin, otherwise known as “Beignet-Man” for the sheer quantity of beignets he can consume!
Party on the patio! It was SUCH a hot night