Some days are just harder than others. Everyone has them - and we are not immune to them here in Cameroon. Ours involve the transition from one culture to another - and our challenges are rooted in linguistic differences. Today has been pretty typical with painters at the house, repairmen coming in and out, the pool guy cleaning, our guard helping with maintenance, our driver waiting and our housekeeper cleaning. The problem lies when I try to get involved in the process.
We have a housekeeper that worked for the prior residents. From what I understand, she cooked and cleaned for them. She does fairly well with the cleaning and with the laundry, but we are really struggling with the cooking portion. We were spoiled in our prior home in Lagos with Gabriel - who was truly the best part of Nigeria for us. He cooked 3 meals a day, had cookies and snacks ready when wanted and baked fresh bread every single week. He managed our household well and kept the refrigerator and cabinets cleaned and stocked. He anticipated our wants and needs and made our lives so comfortable. I do not know why I didn't offer him the moon to move to Douala with us! Julienne tries....but cooking is not a priority for her. She asks me to help her and then puts me to work cutting or stirring. She has NO idea what is in the kitchen and often finds me to ask if we have milk or bread, etc. A huge part of our struggle is language. Her Pidgin English is only slightly better than my French, so we only partially understand what the other is saying. I've tried to explain that she should manage the process of food in our house and she agrees. But when I open the refrigerator and find old vegetables that need to be thrown away because they were never cooked, it is frustrating. There have been a few times that she has pointed at me and said, "You cook?" and my response is always, "No, YOU cook." She replies, "D'accord" or Ok. I think we understand, but it is just hard some days - and it is frustrating. We are trying to make this work.... It would be easier to jump in and do it myself (which is my tendency), but it would not be good for our long term goal.
My biggest challenge here in Douala has been the food. Many of the products in the grocery store are new to us and the things that are common to me, are just not found here. I also need to go to multiple locations to pick up a small grocery list and many times the items that I need are 'finished". So, we adapt and most days we do fine. I am learning the substitutes for lots of items in the meantime - but some days, we need the real thing. I'm fairly used to most of these issues after living in Nigeria, but the language on top of it makes it tenfold more challenging. It is always an exercise in frustration to search the grocery stores since I can't read the labels and dependent on the pictures. Today, I was looking at soups and found "Soupe de Homard". Many of the soups look the same with pictures on the front of a reddish soup and I was looking for tomato soup. After studying it for a while and then comparing the other soups, I finally figured out that it wasn't what I needed and the Tomato Soup must be "finished". I later looked up the word and found out that it was Lobster Bisque. Going to the grocery store is just different. I need to remember to carry my own bags for the groceries, and go through a metal detector to get in (which I don't understand since half the time I beep and no one stops me). There is a full row of French jams and preserves and a full row of Juices, but I can't find crackers or syrup or sour cream. The meat is plentiful, but the cuts are different than I've seen before. The fish may OR may not be fresh, mainly because I get distracted by food LOOKING at me. There are parts of animals that many consider delicacies that I really don't want to eat (kidneys, brains, tongue...) and there seems to be a lot of goat, rabbit and dove mixed in with the beef and chicken. If I enjoyed culinary adventures, this would be a good one - but unfortunately, I don't really enjoy creative cooking and just can't get the excitement about preparing new food. My solution is Peanut Butter and crackers OR Pancakes and we have had far too much of both.
Back to today.... I left the house fairly frustrated after discussing the menu with Julienne and experiencing a gap in language comprehension on my part. I headed to the grocery store and found 50% of what I needed at the first location. The second location had closed for lunch (12:30 to 3:30), so I headed to the first produce stand. The main ingredient that I needed was 'finished', so I proceeded to the second stand. As went about my selections, the shopkeeper smiled and encouraged my French. There was a second Cameroonian lady behind me interrupting and correctly every single word I said - and then translating it into English for me. Since my French is limited to one word statements, grammar was not even an issue, so I tried to not let it bother me. I finished my purchase and started to get into the car - just wondering to myself why simple things need to be SO very hard. Then, the shopkeeper came over and popped open a mangosteen and handed it to me to eat with a smile. Somehow that small act of kindness just changed my day. A few weeks ago, I had asked about the mangosteens and purchased a few. She remembered and asked me if I liked them and I said that I did.
This sweet lady saw my frustration trying to select new foods in a new culture in a new language, on the side of the street and gave me fruit to replenish my soul. She understood that I am still struggling with the kilos and the CFA currency. She knows that my French skills are weak and that I don't know the names of all the produce. Her smile and her offering made me stop, quiet the anxiety I was feeling and take the time to savor the delicious mangosteen she offered. Living in a foreign land makes us vulnerable in ways that I would have barely imagined before. However, kindness transcends all cultures and all languages and makes a frustrating day....just a little bit better. Thank you Lord for sending a women with a pretty smile and a kind heart my way. Today I feel blessed living in a new land....