Tuesday, April 15, 2003


Stacey Greenberg

I spent two years in a small, rural village called Lokoti when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa. I shared a compound with a young, Muslim family. Siddiki was extremely tall, thin, and soft spoken. He kept his distance and was a decent, hardworking tailor. His seventeen year old wife, Mairamou, pretended to be shy, but she was a force to be reckoned with. Not long before I arrived, she gave birth to her first child, a girl named Fiza. When I entered the compound for the first time, I tried to introduce myself to Mairamou, but she just giggled, shook her head to inform me that she didn’t speak French, placed her newborn baby in my arms, and ran off to hide. I tried not to panic. I had never held a baby before.

During the two years that we lived together, Mairamou taught me everything from Fulfulde (her language) to how to wash clothes, dishes, myself, my dog, and her baby in a bucket of water. (Not at the same time, of course.) With a wardrobe and location change, Mairamou could be a typical American teenager. She liked to wear my headphones, dance around my livingroom, ride my bike (with Fiza strapped on her back), henna my hands and feet, braid my hair, and unknowingly get me to eat unusual food. A typical conversation: “Do you like cow stomach?” “No. I don’t eat cow stomach.” Laughing, “You liked cow stomach yesterday!”

It didn’t take long for Mairamou and Fiza to become permanent fixtures in my house and in my life. I woke up every morning to Mairamou shouting, “Umu! Umu! Umu!” (Get up! Get up! Get up!) outside my window. We spent our days hanging out on the porch, playing with Fiza and Donc (my dog), sometimes visiting neighbors or going to the market, and doing chores. I had dinner with them every night. I referred to Mairamou as dada (mother) and she called be her bingel (baby).

When I was in Lokoti, I was quite a spectacle. Not only for my skin color and my nationality, but because I was a woman over the age of 18 who didn’t have a husband or any children. I knew nothing of having or raising babies, despite my title of “Maternal/Child Health Volunteer.” Looking back, that was probably a good thing. I didn’t have a preconceived notion of how things “should” be. Granted, I had seen pictures of babies wearing diapers and sucking on bottles in their cribs. But I quickly adjusted to seeing small girls carrying a sibling on their back, mothers nursing on bush taxis and in the market, and parents sharing a bed with their children as completely normal and natural. After a while it didn’t even seem strange to have a Cameroonian woman come up to me, grab my breasts, and tell me how “good” they were. Meaning, I could and should nurse many, many babies!

It is only now that I am a mother that I am realizing how much I learned about parenting from Mairamou and other Cameroonians. Had I not spent two years living in Lokoti, I don’t think the idea of having my baby at home would have ever occurred to me. If I didn’t know that Mairamou and millions of women before her had done it, I never would have had the courage to even try. I may never know if my being in Cameroon had any effect or did any good. People often assume that Peace Corps volunteers are selflessly out saving the world, but I feel like I got much more than I gave. I hope I can return one day and tell Mairamou that knowing her has shaped who I am today. I’d also like to tell her that she and the other women were right about my breasts!

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