When I arrived to teach in Cameroon, other Americans told me I’d need a “houseboy.” I pictured myself in a white suit and Panama hat being served gin and tonic on the veranda. The image embarrassed me: I preferred blue jeans and beer. I told myself I’d find a laundromat, cook for myself, and clean my own apartment.
Two weeks in the capital, Yaoundé, changed my mind. It was October. Dry season had just ended, leaving every surface of my apartment deep in red dust. Rainy season had begun, and my entrance became a long smear of mud. If I stepped out into the street, even for a minute, my pants legs were speckled red-brown. Dirty clothes piled up. There was no laundromat. I ironed my first shirt and counted out the pairs of socks still clean.
The city had one supermarket, downtown. It would be weeks, maybe months, until the car I’d ordered would arrive. Three blocks from my apartment I found a sort of 7—11 and lugged home my first cartons of supplies. For fresh food, I’d have to explore the open market half a mile away. So when a friend told me that a foreign-aid official named Green was leaving Cameroon and looking for someone to hire his “boy,” I called him and planned to meet that same afternoon.
At the foreign-aid office, an African receptionist, her hair in a dozen looped braids, buzzed for Green. He was slight and pale, fiftyish, with greying hair. “Felix” was waiting in his office, so before we went in, Green briefed me, very precisely and systematically. Felix cooked plain lunches, he said, shopped, washed clothes, cleaned: a 7:30 to 2:30 day. Green paid him 100 dollars at the end of each month, high pay for a houseboy, but he said Felix was intelligent and absolutely trustworthy, He’d be able to start work in 10 days. First, he had his vacation time coming.
We went into the office. Felix stood waiting, a thin man, very dark-skinned, in his early thirties. He wore a plaid shirt and dress slacks, all neatly pressed. He seemed nervous and didn’t look at me at first.
Green left us alone, and I repeated to Felix the list of duties he’d outlined. Felix said, “Yes, sir, you’ll be satisfied. I do good work, I work hard.”
His voice surprised me. His eyes and stance had seemed shy, but his voice was strong, even cheerful. His English reminded me of West Indian accents.
“Are you married, Felix?”
“Oh, yes. I’m a family man. I have three children.”
His smile was warm and broad. It brought out the high cheekbones in his lean face.
“Where do you live, sir?” he asked.
“The new apartments at Grand Mesa. Do you know them?”
“Oh, yes, I know. Will you stay for two years, like Mr. Green?”
“No. I’m teaching at the university for just this year. I’ll have to go back in July.”
“I won’t like for you to go. It’s hard for me to find a new boss. It’s a hardship for my family.”
“Well, when the time comes I can help you, like Mr. Green. I’d like you to work for me. I can pay the same as Mr. Green. One hundred dollars a month.”
“Thank you, sir, I’m very glad. But, sir, Mr. Green’s house is right by my house. I can walk. For your house I have to take a taxi. That costs 70 cents every day.”
“Well, I could pay 110, but no more.” (Later, I learned that he kept the extra 10 dollars and walked the three miles each way.)
It was settled. He would start after his vacation.
“Where are you going for vacation?”
“I’ll go to my village. My wife and children are there. I’ll bring them back.”
“How long does it take to get there?”
“Four days. I take two bush taxis and then I walk. It’s very far.” (Later, this, too, turned out to be either exaggerated or misunderstood. The bush taxis took a day and a half, the walk 20 minutes.)
“Please, sir, the bush taxi costs very much for me and my family. Could you pay me 50 dollars ahead?”
He took me by surprise. “Well, I don’t know . . . if I give you 50, you’ll only get 60 for the first month.”
“Oh, no, sir. I can pay you each month a little.”
I was taken aback. I didn’t want to set a precedent of lending him money. But I was relieved to have found someone, and Green had said how trustworthy he was.
“All right, five dollars less each month until you pay me back. O.K.?”
The smile flashed broad and happy. “Yes, sir, thank you. You don’t have to worry, sir.”
So at five dollars a month we were bound for 10 months— the exact length of my stay.
When he arrived a week later, the first thing Felix did was to disappear into the laundry room. When he emerged, he’d changed out of his handsome street clothes. Instead, he had on an undershirt, spotted with long holes and yellowed under the arms, red short shorts, and a pair of long canvas shoes with black socks. He was one of the skinniest people I’d ever seen, all elbows and knees. Evidently, this was his uniform, and I imagined how guests would react to being served by a grown man in his underwear. But I felt shy about criticizing his clothes. What should he wear? A white uniform? The present outfit looked cool and comfortable. So I limited myself to noting that his shirt looked worn, and giving him a few new tee shirts. I feared that he’d take offense, but he smiled and thanked me.
I told him that I wanted to be his friend and that I hoped I could trust him.
“You won’t have to worry, sir,” he answered. “I’m a family man. I do good work.” His tone was reassuring, as if to say, “I know I’m not lazy, I know I don’t steal, so trust won’t be an issue.” He said he would prepare an exact list of what he bought at the market, with the price of each item—just as he’d done for Mr. Green. So we made the first shopping list.
“Mr. Green liked steaks and chops. Should I get those?”
“No. They’re too expensive. I’d like it if you could make some Cameroonian food.”
He hesitated and looked at me. “What do you mean, sir?”
“It would be up to you. You could make me what you eat at home.”
“Oh, you won’t like those. Mostly we eat the corn meal and bitter leaves.”
“Don’t you have meat?”
“Sometimes, but only the kinds you don’t like, the stomach and the organs. I can make hamburgers and stew for you.”
“But I’d like to try some African food.”
“I’ll ask Florence. She’s my wife. Maybe she’ll know some things you will like.” I began to see that for Felix, cooking American food was a mark of dignity; cooking African food was woman’s work. We settled on a mixed menu. He’d buy meat and vegetables at the market, and bring some African spices from home.
When I came back from the university for lunch, he was sitting in the kitchen waiting. He had the change from shopping and a neat list of prices all totaled up. Lunch was already cooked, and I asked him to join me.
He hesitated. “Oh, no, I’ll eat at home. You can save what’s left for the evening.”
I told him that I’d like to hear about his family, so we sat down at the corner of the table. He giggled awkwardly at finding himself at lunch with me—it seemed like a game of make-believe, a strange pretense. His laugh squeezed out high and piercing, as much a laugh of awkwardness as of amusement. I think he tried to take small portions, but later he relaxed and took seconds. We had hamburgers, cabbage, and carrots. I praised the food and could see his pride. I was struck by the expressiveness of his face. It was lean and bony, like the rest of him, with high cheekbones and short hair that came to a widow’s peak. His eyes gave away his sudden shifts of mood—sometimes downcast and worried, sometimes quietly, almost slyly, observing me from the side, sometimes wide and amazed when he smiled and laughed.
So there we sat, at the corner of the table, and I made small talk.
“Didn’t you ever eat with Mr. Green?”
“Oh, no, sir!”
“Well, what was he like?”
“Oh, he’s a big man—he has many things.”
“Yes—well, I’m younger. I’m not so rich.”
“Not like Mr. Green. You’re just a small man, just starting out.”
He giggled. “You 32?” He squeezed out that piercing laugh. “That’s what I am, too!”
I told him I was a teacher. He noted my books and said he couldn’t read many books. I asked if he’d gone to school, and he said he’d gone to elementary school. “But no more. My father wanted me to work.”
Later I sipped coffee. Felix turned it down.
“I can’t drink coffee and no strong drink. It hurts my stomach.”
“Have you seen a doctor about it?”
“Oh, yes. They say I have a bad stomach.”
I guessed that he had an ulcer. I could see the nervousness in his tight frame, his anxious, intent eyes, his high laugh. He was a worrier.
While I had coffee, Felix took clothes off the line on the terrace. He worked fast, his bony figure all lines and angles in his skimpy outfit. I got out the iron, and we put a sheet over the table to make an ironing board. When he’d finished ironing he changed back into his sports shirt and slacks. I told him I liked his shirt.
“Oh, Mr. Green gave it to me. He gave me many shirts.”
He took his key and put on his watch. Before he left, he thanked me again for the tee shirts and assured me that his wife would like them too.
My apartment was in a complex built to house teachers and mid-level government officials. I lived on the fifth floor. The living room was large and light, with white walls and white linoleum floors. Sliding glass doors led to a small balcony with a red awning.
In the early morning I’d take a cup of coffee onto the balcony and look across the rooftops to the hillside opposite, checkered with red- and brown-dusted tin roofs. The cool air held the cries of birds and the sounds of workers walking to their jobs. Yaounde was a city of walkers. In the morning and evening, the sidewalks, roadsides, and shortcuts down the hills carried a steady stream of men and women and a frothier stream of school children, shouting and chasing each other.
While I was in Africa, I woke early, with the equatorial sun, so I was dressed before Felix arrived. Even when I’d have liked to stay in bed, I got up to avoid looking frumpy and undignified in my pajamas. At 7:15 I’d hear his key scratch in the lock. He’d leave the key and his watch on the kitchen counter and quietly change clothes. Then he’d put out jam and toast and a slice of papaya for breakfast. While I ate, he’d do the laundry, washing it in the bathtub. Once I watched, amazed by his speed as he kneeled over the tub, his elbows flailing, his movements both wild and efficient, gawky and trim. He washed intently and systematically, then hung the clothes bright and dripping beneath the awning of the balcony.
Since I did not teach until mid-morning, I’d prepare classes while he mopped the red mud-tracks from the linoleum. Then, before I left, there’d be time to share a cigarette break. Felix’s one vice, cigarettes, was too expensive for him to indulge regularly. So he was delighted when I’d offer him one, and they soon became a morning ritual.
Sitting and talking, I began to learn more about him. He came from the northwestern mountains, 400 miles away. He considered his village his real home. There his parents raised coffee and vegetables. His brothers lived there, too, or in nearby cities. And there, as a schoolchild, he’d met Florence and later married her in the Catholic Church. He had left the village because there was no way to make money except for a small income raising coffee, and had come, alone at first, to Yaounde and found work with a British couple who’d taught him to cook European dishes. After they left, he worked for Green and then me. But he hoped someday to return to his village, and he’d already begun building his house there.
His constant worry was money. He complained about the rent for his house in Yaounde, the rising food prices in city markets, and the cost of tuition and school uniforms for his children. For the last three years, Florence had taken birth control pills he’d bought at the medical school. He knew the government and church encouraged large families, but he also knew he couldn’t afford another child. Florence worked weekends on local farms to bring in extra cash. He hoped she could get part-time domestic work, and eventually I got her an occasional job with another American professor. His own ambition was to leave domestic work. He hated having to find a new employer every year or two and asked if I could help him get on the staff of the American Club, cooking, serving, and cleaning. Several of his friends had jobs there, he said, and the pay was better than he could get working for one person.
At first we had a few Cameroonian dishes, but Felix soon shifted the menu back to the American and European food he preferred to cook. Sometimes we’d experiment with new stews and salads. Once I brought home cumin to try in a stew, and Felix assumed I’d been missing it terribly. He started adding it to everything, and soon I was eating cumin carrots, cumin hamburgers, and cumin salad dressing. Finally I had to ask him to halt the experiment.
He still felt awkward eating with me, and gradually I stopped insisting. He preferred to eat in the kitchen or wait until he could eat with his family. When he did join me, a formality lingered—a mutual effort to seem casual.
After lunch, if I had guests, we would talk at the coffee table while Felix used the main table to iron. Sometimes I would notice him watching us out of the corner of his eye and wonder what he thought, whether he was curious, or amused, or resentful. On other days, after lunch I’d work in my room while he ironed. The whole city was in siesta—I’d hear only an occasional car in the street. Then Felix would knock and come into my room, shirts and pants stacked folded in his arms, to announce that he was “all finished, sir.”
We had established a cozy household. Felix fit snugly into my days and hours and became part of the small habits that form “home”: idle moments lounging or going for a glass of water, observations of the weather, plans for what to pick up at the grocery, my visits to the kitchen to sample what was cooking, my return at lunch with news to tell and hear. We shared the details of life. When water was to be cut off the next day because of road repairs, Felix knew about it ahead of time, and we filled buckets and pans to use during the crisis. When I got hold of window boxes and soil, to put on the balcony, Felix brought in a blunt machete from home (blunt so his children wouldn’t cut themselves), and we chopped up the soil and planted herbs and garlic. Often I amused him. He’d laugh in his odd, high way at the strangeness of a boss who was too young, too informal. Once, when I went onto the balcony to watch a thunderstorm, I turned back to see him pausing over his ironing, shaking his head and smiling to himself at someone who had nothing better to do than watch rain.
He was flattered and delighted when I offered to take his picture. He made me wait until he had his good clothes on— then his smile was spontaneous and happy. But another time, when the neighbors were there and I asked him to join in some pictures, he was bashful and awkward. He was excited by the camera and proud to be photographed, but he was slightly embarrassed, slightly amused to be in a picture with white people as “part of the family.”
However, he was delighted when the pictures came back from the developer. I laid them on the lunch table and called him. When he saw them, he seized them and turned around gazing at them and squealing with laughter, then took them into the kitchen to examine, and came back full of thanks. The next morning he said his children had “danced around and around” when they saw his picture. He hoped I could make copies for his parents, and that I could come to his house and make pictures of Florence and his children.
Earlier, I had said that I’d like to meet his family, so I took him up on the offer. On a hot Saturday in December, I drove across Yaounde’s modern downtown and met him at an intersection near Nlongkak, his neighborhood. He climbed in, and we headed down a dirt road, dusty and rutted now that dry season had returned, and bordered by bushes coated with red dust. We jolted from side to side, avoiding or straddling gullies. Half a mile in, Felix pointed to a cluster of houses on the right, and we pulled into a dusty yard. The houses were built of mud bricks, plastered over, with rusty tin roofs. Felix’s porch was crowded with children and neighbors standing under a clothesline hung with bright shirts and towels.
Florence greeted me shyly, a plump woman in a print skirt and tee shirt. The three girls, in dresses, clustered behind her, dark and pretty in their short haircuts. Various neighbors stood by, one from Felix’s village who shared the house and rent. Another man looked like Felix, and I guessed that he was a younger brother. He had the same strong cheekbones, widow’s peak, and wide smile.
Inside, the house was dark, lit only by the door and one window. The gray-blue walls were speckled with red where the mud bricks peeked through. We sat at a coffee table, African style—the cane chairs facing each other in two rows like a booth in a restaurant. Felix offered no food or drinks, but he did go into the bedroom to get the photographs I’d taken. When he sat down, his daughters wanted to climb on his lap, and he held the smallest while the others stood next to him. He looked proud and fatherly. I asked about the girls’ school, but the conversation didn’t catch. Everyone smiled and obviously meant well. I asked his brother about his visit, asked Florence about the markets. Finally, it was time to take pictures. Eagerly, everyone lined up for portraits: Felix with the girls on his lap, then with Florence, then with the whole group outside on the porch. Last of all Felix’s brother took a picture of Felix and me.
Lurking in the back of my mind all year were the stereotypes of white “master” and black “servant” that I tried, awkwardly, to avoid. I was mortified when, early in the year, Felix actually called me “master.” I corrected him and made him settle for “sir.”
His own view of the stereotypes I glimpsed one morning when an art dealer came to show me some wooden statues. He stayed a short while, unwrapping them in the living room, and left when I left for work.
When I returned at lunchtime, I went to my room. A minute later Felix came to the door. He was trembling.
“I have a bone to pick with you. I’m not a slave here. I do my work, but I’m not a slave.”
“Of course, you’re not a slave. What happened? What’s going on?”
He said that just when he’d finished the floors that morning, that man had arrived and set out his statues, all caked in red dust, on the fresh white floor. He had had to rewash it completely.
I felt terrible. I could imagine Felix watching in silent outrage as we dragged out those old carvings. I apologized and said he should have left the floor dirty—he didn’t have to wash it twice. It wouldn’t have bothered me.
“Maybe it wouldn’t bother you, but it would bother me. I’d feel ashamed if someone came and saw dirty floors. They’d say I don’t keep things clean.”
I could only repeat my apologies. But I had seen another side of him—his sense of his rights, of the limits of what I could ask. Those rights separated him from being a “slave” or a “boy.” So did his pride in how well he worked and his pride in his clothes and other possessions. He had gone beyond his parents and brothers in the village. He had done it at the price of servitude, but it had made him a city man with position and money.
Yet, though he saw himself as an employee with certain rights, Felix did not see me simply as an employer who paid a set wage for set work. I was also something like a rich uncle who might do him favors. He hoped, waited, asked for money. He knew bosses occasionally gave houseboys gifts, and he’d converted the unexpected “gift”—supposedly spontaneous—into an expectation, nearly a right. He was like someone who reminds you that his birthday is coming.
He was always mentioning that Mr. Green had given him shirts, weekly tips, and a large gift when they parted. Mr. Green assumed mythic stature in Felix’s conversation. The hints that he hoped I’d be as generous could hardly be called manipulation, they were so direct and obvious. Perhaps he thought I would live up to an African standard of magnanimity—a man showed he was “big” by giving to those who had a claim on him. Those with less had the right to ask from those with more, as Felix’s relatives in the village regularly asked of him. Perhaps he did not know that he appealed to guilt. When all was said, the fact remained—embarrassing and unavoidable—that I earned nearly 20 times his salary, and had only myself to support.
And yet paydays weren’t joyous for Felix. I always deducted the five dollars that repaid part of his debt. Felix hoped, and hinted, that I’d excuse the debt. And the pay-check itself never seemed quite enough. Felix didn’t smile or rejoice over money. It was too serious for him. The thought of it never left him for long. He took his pay, parsed it out, and dug in to earn more.
The goal of his financial finagling—beyond supporting his family—was to finish his house in his native village. He told me about the house in detail. It was built of mud bricks on a frame of sticks and would cost, with friends providing the labor, a total of 500 dollars. Because the journey home and back cost 35 dollars, he could work on the house only once a year. Although most of the work was finished, he figured he would need two or three years, saving 10 dollars a month, to complete the job.
I wanted to help him, to save him the agony of setting aside 10 dollars a month for years. I planned to give him 100 dollars when we parted. And at Christmas, I gave him 50 dollars toward the house. I handed him the money in an envelope after lunch and went to my room. A minute later he knocked. He was nearly crying with joy. He thanked me and thanked me again for his wife and children. I asked whether he’d move to his village when the house was ready.
He didn’t think so. “There are no Americans or British men there—no work.”
“Bamenda’s not far from there,” I said. “Maybe I could help find someone who’s going to live there that you could work for.”
“No, sir, they don’t pay enough in Bamenda. I make more in Yaoundé.”
So I realized that his house, which figured so centrally in his plans, would be used only for brief visits and perhaps for retirement in 20 years. Later I learned that building the house was also a mark of status in the village: in Africa you are not a man until you have brought children into the world and raised your own house.
As spring recess approached, I planned a vacation in northwestern Cameroon, and offered to drive Felix home to his village and to pay his way back to Yaounde. I hoped to meet his parents and see where he came from. He invited me to stay the night.
So at seven in the morning on Good Friday, we met at the intersection near his house and set out. At first, pedestrians, often with bundles on their heads, lined the road. But before long we left the city behind, and the road became “track”— gravel and red dirt. Felix was quiet, looking out the window at the thick forest, its undergrowth dusted red by traffic. We would chat briefly when we passed through a village, a string of mud-brick houses, but the conversation always died out.
At the Sanaga River, the traffic was backed up waiting for the ferry. We got out of the car, and Felix started dusting himself off. His right side was red with road dirt. I couldn’t figure out what had happened.
“The door was not closed right, I think,” he explained. He had been too shy to say anything. This probably was his first long trip in a car, and he wasn’t sure of the etiquette.
We walked down to the water, past a row of ladies selling bananas and boiled peanuts. The river, bordered by forest, stretched still, gray, and misty. The ferry was approaching. Everyone got back into his car, paid his dollar, inched on board, and climbed out again. There were young men returning from a visit to the city, mothers with their best wraps and scarves, truck drivers, and ferry workers smoking cigarettes and calling to each other. Felix stood quiet and distinguished in his dress slacks and sports shirt, holding the long wallet where he kept his money and papers. Compared to most of the passengers, he looked well off. I remembered that he earned more than beginning teachers. His pay was not “working class,” and I could see his pride in his clothes and cosmopolitan status.
Toward noon, I found a grassy place to eat the picnic I’d packed. Felix was perplexed. Why were we stopping? He asked where we were, and I couldn’t really say. “The woods. This is a picnic—we’re eating here.”
The whole idea was a new one for him. He’d never heard of people stopping in the middle of nowhere, with flies and itchy grass and the sun blazing down, to eat a meal. You ate meals in a town. I tried to explain, but he just laughed and came along shaking his head.
After lunch, we began climbing into the western mountains. The country became rolling, vast grasslands. At sundown we overlooked Bamenda and descended the hairpin turns leading to the city.
Felix needed to stop at the market to get gifts of palm oil and corn meal for his parents. We drove through the city’s dusty streets, past rows of one-story shops and gas stations. At the market, we locked the car and entered a labyrinth of stalls. I realized I’d never shopped with Felix. We found the cornmeal vendors, a group of women, and Felix began bargaining in pidgin English, a blend of English and various African tongues. The ladies, seeing me, asked five dollars for a large sack, but Felix assumed an angry tone.
“I know the value. I’ll pay one-fifty.”
He got the meal for the price he offered. He was much more aggressive than I’d ever seen him—both insistent and good humored, arguing and kidding. Watching him was a lesson in the art of bargaining. Because he was both humorous and unafraid, the women liked him, and because they liked him, they gave him a good price.
We moved on to the palm oil dealers, who dipped the red oil through a funnel into a gallon jug Felix had brought. I paid for the oil, as my gift for his family.
After we loaded the meal and oil into the car, we split up. Felix went to stay with a friend in town, while I took a room in the Ideal Park Hotel; the following morning we would drive the last three hours to his village.
At first, the village of Nkar appeared to be merely a coffee warehouse, a store, and a few houses behind a hedge of pink and yellow lantana. But beside the store, a road branched to the right and led toward the heart of the village. Approaching it, we drove along a ridge, with corn and coffee plots sloping down on either side. Paths led through the fields to family “compounds,” and beyond in the distance were the valley and the mountains. The center of the village was marked by the stone steeple of the cathedral.
We drove to Felix’s house—the one I was helping to finance. I was surprised. It looked almost finished. The mud bricks were stuccoed over. There was a yard with a rail fence, and out back the hillside farm swept down and away into a view of the valley and mountains. Inside, the unpainted living room was light and fresh. But except for a bed in each of the two side rooms, there was no furniture. Felix was confused. He said he’d left a table and chairs. Maybe his father had them.
We carried in our gear, and then he showed me the work that remained. Electricity had to be hooked up and the ceiling wasn’t in—only poles stretched across, under the roof. Outside, the cement porch and back stairs had to be built.
Next to the house was a separate kitchen building and a lean-to of sticks and grass that served as a temporary latrine. I asked if he planned to get a water-line, but he said no, water would come from a spring.
We walked down the hill to his father’s compound, smelling the sweet orange blossoms and the grapefruit scent of the lantana bushes. A steep path descended to two stucco houses, his father’s and his brother’s and further down the hill his mother’s mud-brick house and kitchen.
Felix’s father was tall and skinny with a weathered face, a small mustache, and nostrils widened from taking snuff. He didn’t have much to say to me, speaking no English, and didn’t really greet Felix—no hugs, no exclamations. Instead, they began an earnest conversation in Banso. Soon it seemed to become unpleasant. Felix’s face grew baffled, then guilty and downcast, as he said less and less. Later he explained to me that his father’s first news was that he’d lent Felix’s furniture to some neighbors. He’d then asked Felix for 15 dollars and complained that he owed 35 dollars of a hospital bill that he expected Felix to pay. That kind of greeting from a father he hadn’t seen in six months seemed hard enough, but I could imagine how it galled Felix to be asked for large sums of the money he had struggled to get in little bits.
I heard my name mentioned, and later Felix told me his father wanted the money I’d promised for Felix’s return trip, if he could meet me for the ride back! Ordinarily, his father expected Felix to bring a gift of cash from the city, but now Felix had done a greater thing: he had brought the source of cash, the white man himself, and his father didn’t want to lose the opportunity.
Cash was hard to come by in the village: Felix’s father earned about 100 dollars a year raising coffee, and depended on his sons in the cities for more. He worked hard during the coffee season, but for the rest of the year, he took it easy, packed snuff, and nursed his stomach problems. His wife raised the family food, working as long as the sun was up, and then cooking dinner. Right now she was on her farm outside the village.
The conversation dragged on, dour and sad. I rarely heard laughter or the tones of storytelling. Most of the dialogue had the perfunctory tone of brief exchanges of information or the harsher tones of complaint, argument, and self-justification. I tried not to stare and waited for a chance to ask for something to drink. The father, and other people who drifted in, asked me no questions and made no effort to include me. They must have wondered why I stayed after I’d brought Felix, why I wanted to sleep in a mud-brick house when I could go to a hotel in Kumbo. They didn’t know what to make of me, so they ignored me and talked to each other.
But after perhaps half an hour, Felix announced that lunch was ready. His father had donated a chicken. A sister-in-law served it—tough and wiry from running free and eating lean—with foo-foo (corn mush) and bitter leaves (greens, like spinach). Foo-foo and bitter leaves formed the staple diet of Nkar—at least we ate them at every meal.
After lunch, we headed for the house of Felix’s best friend Francis. He and his wife had a small, pretty house. They spoke no English but were friendly to me and glad to see Felix. They served palm wine and kola nuts. Then they brought out three shoe boxes full of family photographs. As in other homes I’d visited, photographs were prize possessions, I looked at cousins and school friends and listened to detailed explanations of who was who. When we left, Felix told me that he wanted his house to be like Francis’s, with the inside walls painted. “Francis,” he said, “is a big man.”
While we were visiting Francis, Felix’s mother had arrived. She greeted me with a big smile and a burst of thanks, in Banso, for helping Felix. She was very short and stocky, perhaps four-and-a-half feet tall with a bent back and sturdy legs. Her face was a broader, coarser version of Felix’s face, with wide cheekbones. His skinny frame came from his father.
The sun was setting, so we went to his mother’s kitchen, where Felix built a fire. For a pleasant hour we sat watching the flames while Felix and his parents talked, more calmly than before.
But as we walked through the dark to Felix’s house, he asked, “Does your father come to you for money?”
“No—he makes more than I do.”
Now he told me all the things his father had demanded from him that afternoon. “Whenever I go to the village, they all want something. It’s very hard. Even in Yaounde, they come and stay and need money.”
“They” meant relatives. I saw that Felix was in the same bind with them that I was in with him: in Cameroon, having money meant being pressed by those with a “right” to a portion of it—or something between a right and a request. I could understand his mix of guilt and irritation—I’d seen the guilt that afternoon, with his father, and now I heard the irritation.
We had to get to sleep early—Easter services would start at 6:45. Felix went to his room, and I rolled my sleeping bag onto the bed he’d assigned me.
At dawn I heard voices on the path outside. Orange light flickered between the mud bricks of my room. Felix was washing with a bucket of water. I took my turn; then we joined a stream of people following a path through the corn and coffee. We saw Felix’s mother, bowed under a basket of vegetables to sell after church, and greeted Felix’s oldest brother, his “senior brother,” John, who’d arrived the previous night.
Perhaps 400 people were inside the church. The priest, a Dutchman, preached in Latin and pidgin, and an assistant translated into Banso. The children danced, waving palm branches, and the women sang in thin high voices over the deep resonance of the balafons.
After church, everyone greeted each other outside, and I was struck by their warmth—and their friendliness to me. I realized that the cold, perfunctory tone of my greeting by Felix’s father was unusual. Many of these people spoke English and had traveled throughout Cameroon to study and work. We walked home with Felix’s “senior brother,” who explained what was in the gardens and how coffee is processed, and I wished he’d been there the day before. Before I left, he promised to send a chicken with Felix and to visit when he came to Yaounde in a few months.
It was time for me to leave—and time for picture-taking. We had to wait for Felix’s father to put on his formal costume: a red fez and black and white embroidered robe. He stood stiffly and scrunched his face for the camera, like a child being given an injection. For Felix’ family, as for Felix, photographs were serious. I had to sneak informal shots: I snapped the stern expressions, then waited a few seconds to catch the laugh, the relief that followed the intensity of the portrait.
Felix rode with me to visit a brother in Kumbo, a few miles further on the Ring Road. When I left him there, I gave him $17.50 for the bush taxi, but he complained that the fare had gone up to $19.00. His wheedling angered me, but I added in the difference.
When I returned to Yaounde, only weeks remained before I’d leave Cameroon. Felix had mentioned many times how Mr. Green had “helped” him when they parted. One day after lunch, he came to my room.
“This is the paper Mr. Green gave me. It tells about the pay for separation.”
He handed me a typed sheet, a list of accounts. I was shocked. Green, besides giving Felix the customary severance pay, had canceled debts of more than 150 dollars—and added in extra cash. I just looked at the paper and said nothing. I was irked to be compared with Green, to be measured in dollars. More than irked, I was angry, in a way that couldn’t flow. Felix was pushing, and it made me want to push back. But I didn’t want to leave him with nothing. He hadn’t found another job, and I’d had no luck locating one with other Americans or at the American Club. I knew he might have to live for weeks on his savings. In the end, I decided to give him enough to help him through the next month—but not nearly as much as Green had given.
When, on the last full day, I gave him the gift, he was disappointed and downcast, but he came to help me pack and clean up the morning of my flight, a Sunday. He asked if I had anything I didn’t want to bring home, and I gave him some towels, sheets, and shirts. When I started out to do some last-minute errands, he came running downstairs after me and caught up with me by the car.
“Sir, I’ll be going home early today,” he said. “I’ll be gone when you come back. I want to thank you for the towels and shirts.”
I had forgotten he wouldn’t be there for lunch and felt ashamed that I hadn’t made a proper good-bye.
“Felix, thanks—thanks for helping me so much all year.” I took his hand. “I’m sorry the money disappointed you. I’m sorry I made you feel bad.”
“Oh, no, sir, I am happy with the money. I hope you will write me a letter. I will send you the address of my new boss.”
I was struck by his warmth and magnanimity. He wanted us to part in friendship.
“Yes, I’ll write. You have my address. Say goodbye to Florence for me.”
We shook hands and hugged, knowing it was our last sight of each other.
It was not, however, the last word. A few weeks later, back in the states, I received the following letter:
Dr. Mr. Silverman,
Happy to write you this my few words. Before I go on, how was your journey back home? I hope it was a safe one.
I want to let you know since you left here I really suffered before I could get something doing. I could not get work with the Americans again. My boss is a British man.
Sorry to tell you that my house was robbed by thieves one Sunday evening. The shirts you gave me were all stolen, my wife’s clothes and some children’s own too were stolen from the door after Florence washed them and went to the market. By her returning she could not see them. I don’t know how I will replace all that things.
I beg you as my former boss if you can help me like $75 or $100 I will be very happy. You are still my master, my boss, my friend and you can still help me as the time you were here. I will be waiting a letter to see how much you can help me.
Warm greetings from Florence and the children and myself. When we sit down we only talk about you and how you were good to me and took the photograph of us and the one that you were with me together. Greet your parents for me and tell about your friend myself, the bad condition I am living. They also might send me a gift which can help me.
I am yours faithfully,
I answered and sent 20 dollars for Christmas, and he wrote again asking for help repairing a cracked wall in his house. The work would cost 250 dollars.
He hasn’t given up hope for gifts. But in that respect, we were not so different. We were both seeking gifts, each hoping all along for something besides the work and the pay, a surprise beyond the contract.