Salaam Aleykum – Aleykum Salaam came the response inviting us to enter. The compound has no doors; instead there is a labyrinth of pathways separated by mud walls protecting the privacy of its inhabitants. We have arrived at the home of Sali, the deputy chief of the village, and his wife Amina, on a Ramadan evening. Amina lays out an ornate guest mat for us to sit on under the shelter of the palm-leaf canopy, and two pillows for our heads if we wish to lay down. The thatched roofs of the village huts gradually disappear with the last light of the day and are replaced by millions of stars above the Sahel.
Although the family must still wait for the long final prayer before breaking their fast, Amina brings us a bowl of water to wash our hands and serves us our meal. A cornmeal soup and crispy white bean beignets (a Ramadan specialty), followed by a tray of fist-sized balls of steamed and pounded millet. This is served with a communal bowl of sauce made of different green leaves with either a bit of meat, dried fish, peanuts, or beans. Using only the right hand, one takes a bit of millet, forming it into a small ball and then making an indentation with the thumb. This serves as a spoon to soup up the sauce and the whole thing is popped in the mouth.
The atmosphere is peaceful, spiritual, and welcoming. They truly make us feel honored to share their food with them. Everyday, Alissa eats at the homes of friends. To understand the extent of this generosity, one must remember the cycles of the calendar year – the long desert dry season the short rainy season for planting, and the “hungry” season. This is the period just before the new harvest when the food supplies from the year before have been exhausted. Two days a week, the health clinic here in Badjouma has malnutrition clinics, such is the extent of the food problem.
|Amina and her daughter praying before the meal.|
|Madina serving the cornmeal soup to break the Ramadan fast.|
|Millet drying in the sun in the neighbors' compound|
|The back-breaking job of getting water from the well. There are actually many children who die by accidentally falling into these wells with little or no wall around them.|
|A community meeting that Alissa initiated to discuss money management - how to create a budget and ways to save.|
|Alissa's amazing counterpart, Moussa - a farmer who is a remarkable, energetic community activist.|
|Alissa's favorite spot along the rainy season river, where hangs her hammock in the shade. She watches the women and children wash their clothes and the goats grazing in the field.|
To Be or Not To Be or “When is the feast of Ramadan”
Hair has been braided and bodies decorated with henna designs. New clothes are ready, with brilliant colors undiminished by the intense Sahelian sun and successive washings. All the preparations are in place. Now, we just wait. Wait for the Grand Imam of Cameroon to see that first sliver of the new moon. An announcement will be made on the radio. It will be one of the two nights and may not be the same as that in another country. Here it is a determination made by the naked eye and not by astronomical calculations.
We had our evening meal under the stars with friends but there was no moon to be seen. At 6:30am, Madina called with the news: “C'est la fête!” Late the night before, the new moon was finally spotted, bringing an end to the month long fast and ushering in three days of fasting.
Before going to pray at the mosque, our neighbors surprised us with breakfast – a tray filled with the traditional feast meal of rice and sauce with a bit of meat, and tea. Then Alissa and I hopped on the back of a motorcycle in our fancy dresses (not an easy task in front of a crowd of people) and rode off through the countryside to the palace of the Lamidot, the Supreme Chief in the village of Be (Alissa's village of Badjouma is in the Kingdom of Be). The Lamidot's musicians and “griots” (storytellers) play, dance, and sing praises to him. As the musicians prepared to enter the palace, we were invited into the throne room for a private meeting with the Lamidot. He was seated on his throne in full ceremonial dress, surrounded by members of his court also in spectacular attire with long swords. The oboists, drummers, singers and sword-waving griots put on a wild show and we snapped photos.
We were then offered soft drinks (warm, of course). To our immense delight the royal aide opened bottles with the Swiss Army knife that I had brought him as a gift one week earlier, engraved with his name: Sa Majesté le Lamidot de Be.
In another part of the palace, a massive cooking project was underway. Later in the day, every Muslim in the village would receive a feast prepared at the palace.