– Memoir by Ebede Ndi & Digital Art by Edward Cazares –
When I left Cameroon, I had only $30 US in my pocket. Technically, after my training in Atlanta, I was supposed to go back home. But in reality, I could not. I had to find a way to go meet Kirk in California. While I was still in Cameroon, working for the United Methodist Church, I had a crisis of faith. Being born and raised Catholic, I had felt like a traitor to my congregation because I worked for another denomination. I had been scouring the internet, looking for spiritual counselors and religious advisors, when a young Reverend by the name Kirk, pastor of Westhope Presbyterian Church in Saratoga, California, who described himself as a youth spiritual counselor, popped up on my screen. I emailed him with a plea to help me resolve my cognitive dissonance. He told me that I shouldn’t worry because church denominations were not important. What mattered was my personal relationship with God. Since 2005, we have remained friends and corresponded frequently. When I told him I was going to Atlanta for a Christian education training and wanted to visit him, he said California was pretty far away, but if I could find a way to go there, he would be happy to see and host me. So, throughout my two-week stay in Atlanta, I had only two things in mind: how to connect with Kirk and how to find money to go to California.
In the meantime, Tom was just happy to introduce me to different people in Atlanta. He took me to visit one of his church’s members, a very wealthy woman. We arrived at her house. Everything looked expensive: the furniture, the paintings, the electronic hardware, the rugs. “In this house,” the dark-haired woman said, “if you want something, you ask; if you don’t ask, you don’t get anything.” She was in her late fifties and looked like a well-traveled person. Was she serious to tell me I could ask for anything I wanted? I wanted a million things, but I didn’t know if it was a set up to see what kind of person I was. I looked at Tom. He seemed ok with what the woman had said. I looked at the woman. She was impenetrable. I had the gift of reading people, but here, in the South of the United States, I was not sure if that gift worked. Also, I couldn’t find the catch in the woman’s offer. Maybe there was none. I said nothing, and she continued showing me the house. “My daughter married an African,” she said. “He is Ethiopian.” I was happy that she was okay with interracial relationships.
Speaking of interracial relationships, I wondered what Tom thought about it, especially because he had a 21-year old daughter that he had never introduced to me. About five years ago, when I was 28 years old and still in Cameroon, I dated an English young woman, Annie. She was 21 and had come to do research at my university in Yaoundé. I believed then that she was the one but was concerned about what her parents thought of interracial relationships. Most of my African friends who lived in England used to tell me that there was a lot of racism there. One day I asked Annie if her parents were racist; she said no and called them to let them speak for themselves. They unequivocally said they were not racist, and her father even had a Freudian wishful dream in which I was invited to have dinner with them in England. However, when I asked Annie to invite her parents to visit us in Cameroon, they declined the invitation and said: “ignorance was bliss.” I didn’t know if her parents meant that they knew their daughter was dating a black man but preferred not to see it and just assumed she was fine, or if they meant that they didn’t want to know the conditions in which their daughter lived, since Cameroon wasn’t as developed as England. So, I wondered if Tom was like Annie’s parents.
I asked Tom what he thought of interracial relationships. Silence. Then: “I don’t really think about it that much,” he said. Not being sure whether to ask my next question or not, I remembered a friend telling me that people on the East Coast and in the South of the United States were blunter and more direct than people on the West Coast. Then, I launched my question: “How would you feel if your daughter fell in love with a black person?” Without thinking even for a second, he answered: “That would be her choice, but I would rather not.” Unsatisfied by his response, I pressed: “Does that mean that British people are more accepting of interracial relationships than Americans?” A little unsettled, Tom asked why I said that. I explained that I dated a young British woman, and her parents had no problem with it. He responded, “I wouldn’t say that British are more accepting of interracial relationships than Americans. We are just different,” he closed the topic.
We left the rich woman’s house. “We have to get you some clothes,” Tom said. All my clothes were in my lost luggage. I had been wearing my striped, blue marine suit since I left Cameroon. We went to a large clothes shop. Tom bought me two pants, one blue and one khaki; two shirts, one with white stripes and one with dark brown stripes; and two sweaters, one sky blue and one purple. He literally was dressing me like his sosie. I smiled at the idea of being a black version of him. As he chose those clothes, I picked a belt. “You don’t need a belt,” he said. I had an old and worn out belt and thought I could get a new one, but I didn’t want to have any unpleasant interaction with my host, especially because he was paying for it. Sometimes, Cameroonians can be ungrateful. When you give them a little bit, they want more. I felt bad and apologized to my host.
Now that I had new clothes, Tom thought it was time to enjoy southern cuisine, and we headed to a restaurant for dinner. The couple that picked me up at the airport was there waiting for us. We ordered food and when it came, I was shocked. I had never seen such a giant hamburger in my entire life. In fact, I didn’t even know it was a hamburger. The two big halves of bread were on their own side of the tray; meat, lettuce, tomatoes, and all the other ingredients were on separate sides. I looked confused and didn’t know where to start. I grabbed one half of bread and ate it plain, then ate meat, and finally started with tomatoes and lettuce. I was eating everything separately. The tall woman of the couple looked at me, bemused. “I have never seen anybody eat a hamburger like this,” she said. I looked at her and noticed that she had already put everything stuffed inside the two halves of her bread and was about to bite it. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t even eat a large hamburger properly. But I thought, why do Americans always have to do everything so big: the streets, the cars, the buildings and now food? I said I was sorry to not be able to eat a hamburger properly. “You don’t have to be sorry. In fact, we should all eat like that.” To make me feel better, she started to eat her bread, meat, lettuce, tomatoes and all the other ingredients separately, and everybody followed her lead. Soon after dinner, Tom went back to his house and the couple took me to theirs. I was to spend the night there, and they were to take me to church in the morning.
Once at the couple’s house, I was shown my bedroom. After a quick shower, I joined them in the living room where I answered all the questions they had for me. The first thing that caught my attention was the big cat and the big dog. The two mammals would cuddle and walk peacefully in the house. I just could not believe it. Where I come from, cats and dogs don’t get near one another for one, and for two, they don’t live in the house. Our cats and dogs are svelte and athletic, although some would say they are skinny and starving. The dogs stay outside, go hunting, and chase the bad guys. I remember when our dog, Banco, killed a porcupine and brought it home. He was a mess: his nose was almost bitten off, he limped on three legs, wounds and blood were all over his body. We hadn’t eaten meat in ages by then. Banco was aware and wanted to change that. So, he went on a solo hunt, almost sacrificing his life for us during the deadly fight, and brought his catch to us. We cooked and gave him the porcupine’s head to eat as a treat. Eating animals’ heads in my tribe is very honorable. The cats also stay outside, go hunting, and usually sneak into the house to rid us of mice. Our cat never shared her catch with us. Sometimes, we had to fight with her to get our share. When I was still in Cameroon, a Cameroonian woman who lived in the United States would come and visit us with stories from America. One of the stories that stuck with me was when she told us that she saw a woman letting her dog lick her mouth, and she would lick back. Everybody listening to the story was grossed out and disgusted.
The interesting thing was that both the dog and cat at the couple’s house looked well fed, furry, and healthy. I couldn’t help thinking about the stereotypes about how many Americans are said to be obese and couch potatoes. I wondered if this lifestyle was good for those pampered animals, because they looked lazy and could hardly move. I wasn’t sure if my hosts had children or not. I could only see that they treated their dog and cat like their own children. “Are you married?” the woman asked, leaning toward me. I said no, quickly trying to assess where this conversation was going. “Do you want to get married?” she charged on. I said yes but I have to find a woman I love first. “That will be easy.” I asked why. “The way you look. You are very handsome.” I explained that was relative and didn’t guarantee anything.
She stretched her hand to the table near her and grabbed the picture of me they had brought when they picked me up at the airport. I did look good in that picture with my nice black suit, sitting in my spinning office chair behind a large desk, the computer in front of me, and African paintings on the wall behind me. That was my favorite picture of myself.
The husband was not impressed. He told his wife he was handsome, too, when he was younger. That was true and could be seen on the photos of him on the wall, when he was much younger. He then moved away from us, isolated himself on the other side of the living room, and started reading a book. I followed him and wanted to know about the book. He briefly explained that the book was about the intersection between science and religion, and when I said I liked it, he gave it to me, or rather threw it at me in the form of a gift. I was shocked to think that he might be jealous. Shortly afterward, we all went to bed.
At church the next morning, Tom took me to the senior pastor’s office for a brief meeting, where they informed me that they would call me during the sermon to talk about my lost luggage experience. I was told that the congregation had about 2000 members and was a little nervous that I would have to speak in front of so many people. After greeting a few more people, I went to sit in the pew closer to the front row so it would be easy to walk to the stage when I was called.
The service went well and when the sermon time came, the senior pastor majestically invited me and officially introduced me to the church. The room was full to capacity. I took a deep breath, briefly closed my eyes, thought about Cameroon and what my older brother, Barry, had told me. Many years ago, I started studying English very hard. In the French speaking parts of Cameroon, speaking English was exotic. My guardian, when he saw my dedication to learning the new language, thought I was wasting my time. He told me I was going to speak my English to the banana farm. That mockery made me feel bad until my brother put it in context. Barry told me: “Your guardian thinks he is mocking you, but he is actually making a prophecy. Banana trees symbolize the multitude because they never grow alone. They grow in colonies. Speaking to them means speaking to the multitude.” Ten years later, I was about to speak to the multitude. I thought about my family, my flight, and then opened my eyes and started talking. Words began to come out of my mouth effortlessly. I looked at and past the people in front of me. I felt carried and supported by my community in Cameroon as I faced complete strangers in a foreign land. At the end of the speech, I received a standing ovation.
When the service ended, I stood by the door as people would greet and congratulate me while walking out. The last person who came was an older man. He walked toward me with his right fist stretched in front of him. He put his fist in my hand and when I opened it, I saw a $100 bill. My heart bounced. I said thank you. I now had $130 in my pocket and wasn’t sure how much I still needed to buy a plane ticket to go visit Kirk in California.
Tom had a lot to do after the service. He handed me over to a man I had not seen before. That man took me to the after-mass meeting where church members discuss policies, issues, and politics related to their congregation, city, and state as a whole. A few hundred people sat in the room, and I was invited to talk about Cameroon. I talked about everything: the political system, the economy, the tribes, culture, tradition, history, geography and more. Many raised their hands with more questions, and I tried to answer them all. At the end, they unanimously said that Americans take so much for granted; after hearing me, they felt humbled. Some of them gave me their business cards. I was impressed to see that they ranged from lawyers, doctors, and pilots to factory workers.
When Tom returned, my temporary chaperon was exuberant and told him how I had handled the audience brilliantly, answering their questions in clear and articulate English without any help. Tom looked proud of me and took me to another member of the church who had been actively calling the airline company to check if my luggage had arrived. Many at the church had been calling on my behalf. The man, in his mid or late thirties, with his cell phone stuck to his ear, quickly waved to me. As he was talking, I heard him say “echo, bravo, echo, delta, echo.” I became suspicious. I thought he knew my situation and was giving coded messages to the immigration officials to watch out for me. I was aware that Americans were very good at intelligence gathering. I worried and tried to know what he knew about me and my plans. I looked at him inquisitively until he stopped talking on the phone and asked me, “Your name is Ebede, right?” I said yes and he resumed talking on the phone and repeated, “echo, bravo, echo, delta, echo,” and asked me to spell out my full name and details of my flight from Cameroon to Atlanta with all the stops and plane changes and also gave them the address of the church to mail my luggage.
The next day, Tom drove me to the greyhound bus station to go spend a few days with Celine in Nashville. In the car, he was on the phone with her. She asked questions, he answered. He asked questions, she answered. A lot of humor seemed to animate their conversation. We were all happy that our triptych project had succeeded: I had arrived safely in the United States, could attend the training, and spend some time with them. “The sun is shining. The birds are singing. Children are playing.” I heard Tom say on the phone with an air of satisfaction. I could see no birds and no children, but I understood the metaphor. The sun was shining indeed, but it was too freaking cold for me.
We arrived at the station. He had already made the reservations. “I told Celine what time the bus will arrive in Nashville, she will pick you up,” he said. He helped me check in, gave me $60 pocket money for the long trip to Nashville, and left. That was the first time I had been left on my own since I arrived in Atlanta. Part of me was nervous because of how big and intimidating everything around me was, and part of me was excited to have a chance to explore things on my own.
The Greyhound took off. I was sitting next to a fellow African from Kenya. He was relatively new in the United States and was only going to stop in Nashville on his way to South Carolina. I wondered what he was going to do there; because I heard it was really rough for black folks in that state. At least, I thought, he wasn’t being chaperoned around like me. He was tall and skinny like myself, but darker than me, which was weird because I always thought I was the darkest person alive. Dark skin for some Africans is like a curse. There was a pervasive disease on the African continent called “The White Skin Syndrome.” The darker you were, the lower your level. It was even a shock for most people to see a smart person with dark skin. A lot of Africans wanted to be white or at least light skinned. Some used bleaching soap and lotion to lighten their dark skin and turned into what we called “Chocolate-Milk.” I knew a woman who injected heavy doses of chemicals to kill her melanin. She became like a zombie. Her skin was so pale and thin that one could peel it off just by touching it.
But my Kenyan dark-skin friend was handsome in his darkness. And that made me happy, because I had been working on myself to go beyond the stereotypes of blackness being a curse and feel comfortable in my skin. On the other side of the aisle of the bus, a little bit in front of us, a tall, lean, and good looking African-American woman, just like the ones we only see in movies or advertisements, was sitting peacefully. My friend was drooling over her. “I will give anything to be with her,” he said. I started assessing his chances in my head. If we were in some parts of Africa, I thought, the chances of a dark-skinned man dating a light-skinned woman were usually slim, except if he had a lot of money. This was not true only in Africa. Frantz Fanon, a black Martiniquean psychiatrist said: “It is always essential to avoid falling back into the pit of niggerhood, and every woman in the Antilles, whether in a casual flirtation or in a serious affair, is determined to select the least black of the men.” But we were in America, things were maybe different. I didn’t have a good knowledge of African-Americans. The history books I studied were only about white America. When they mentioned African-Americans, it was about slavery, the civil war, the Civil Rights Movement, rap music, and violence in the streets. I had no insight into their day-to-day lives or their unique culture, if they had one. All I knew about the African-American family system was through the Cosby show, and that didn’t give me enough information to predict my new friend’s chances.
The drive was long, and we had been sitting for hours, driving through the immaculate landscapes, the enormous highways, which looked alike, and the sometimes empty and sometimes populated areas. We arrived in the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The bus driver parked next to a store, “You’ve got ten minutes to use the bathroom, buy some snacks, and come back. If you are not here in ten minutes, I won’t wait for you, I will go and still get paid,” he barked. Everybody rushed out of the bus as if we were being chased by a swarm of bees. I walked to the store. A young white woman was serving at the coffee and tea area. I ordered a cup of tea. She gave it to me. I asked for sugar. She looked scandalized, asking me if I put sugar in tea. I was scandalized by her scandal. I had seen many Americans drinking their coffee or tea without sugar, and I thought it was weird. Now that woman thought I was weird. I wanted to scream at her that I was African and ask her how many Africans she had seen eating or drinking something without putting sugar or salt in it. She saw that I was shocked and showed me the area where I could find sugar.
I came back outside and found my African brother eating his snack. “Please, have some,” he broke his hamburger and gave me a piece. I was happy to reconnect with African manners: sharing and socializing. The African-American woman was pacing in front of us. I told him to go talk to her. He declined. She was dressed in expensive clothes, wore jewelry on her fingers and neck, and her hair was well done. I thought he didn’t have a chance but didn’t tell him. Maybe he knew, and that’s why he didn’t even have the courage to make that move. I wanted to make a move for him, just to test my theory. But I was afraid to crash badly from her rejection. We both sat there, imagining what it would be like to date this beautiful African-American woman. Then the driver started honking, and we all rushed back in. On the bus, there were just three black people, a Latinx couple, and the rest were white. “Are you going to stay in the U.S.?” my friend asked. I said I didn’t know. “What is your story?” Every African in the United States has a story. So, his question didn’t need any clarification. I told him part of my story. “Wow!” he screamed. “You should definitely stay.” I listened to him like a child listening to his father’s advice.
Ebede Ndi is an independent researcher and writer with a keen interest in psychology, culture, cross-cultural communication, and geopolitics. Always sitting on the margins to observe humanity’s complex psyche as it manifests in intricate behavior. He is currently finishing The Museum of Empty Talk, a memoir about a transitional journey from his native Cameroon, West Africa, to the United States of America. He currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow him on Instagram at @ebede.ndi and Twitter @ebede20.
Edward Cazares is a Brooklyn born, first generation Mexican artist, who works to infuse his art with both cultures and heritage. His primary focus is to convey emotion through a myriad of colors, which is the only constant in his work. “I never plan a piece, I just allow my raw state to reflect in the work. Not everything I’ve created is perfect but each piece I create has a huge part of me.” Follow him on Instagram @edmonster.