But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begins.– Mitch Albom
In Cameroon, it is taboo not to love your mother. I have no sources to cite to prove the fact of this. But consider this, if one were to do a survey of songs written by Cameroonian artists, they would no doubt find that there is a tie between songs written in praise octogenarian president and those written in praise of mothers. I was in form three when I realized just how much of a taboo it was to express any disdain for one’s own mother. The only music channel our cable in Bamenda provided was finally airing the video of Eminem’s ‘Cleanin’ out My Closet’ and I was eagerly rapping along to the lyrics in those little M.A.D booklets we bought for five hundred francs during school outings. Pa and Ma, my adopted grandparents were out so I was comfortably sprawled on the carpet, the parlor the doors shut to keep out the dust Bamenda is notorious for. My cousin Stella had her friends visiting and one of them brought up the conversation. She hated Eminem, she said, it was obvious he was a bad person. Only bad people would hate their own mother so openly. If an ‘adult’ had said same I would have ignored it. I already knew they supported what suited them. But my cousin and her friends were different. I looked up to them, university students with their stylish clothes, more educated than their parents they knew how to manipulate things, and I depended on Stella for novels to read and interesting conversations to listen to. So if they agreed- and all three of them did- that only an evil person would not love their mother, then they were likely right. And I who understood Eminem, I who could relate with him as I rapped along, was likely wrong. Or evil for doing so.
My cousin’s friend had no clue what she had done. I would think about it over and over again in the weeks and months to come. To reconcile my understanding of Eminem and my admiration for Stella and her friends, I would conclude that it was just one of the differences between Cameroon and the US. In the US, having a bad relationship with one’s mother was generally expected. In fact, it can be seen as a staple of the teenage years, a stage all kids must go through. Is there any family T.V show where a teen has not slammed their bedroom door and shouted: “I hate you”? Definitely something not applicable in Cameroon. First, slamming a bedroom door requires that you have a bedroom of your own, and next, shouting ‘I hate you’ is an invitation for even more things that the child will hate.
My conclusion made sense to me. Motherly love was just one of those things the two countries I had lived in saw differently. A loving mother-child relationship in America was what was illustrated by Clare Huxtable and kids on The Cosby Show, or what Tia and Tamera experienced with Lisa on Sister, Sister. It was the regular hugging, the girls nights with popcorn the little talks about everything from peer pressure to boys and yes the scolding but more the makeups after the scolding. In the American version of motherly love, mothers said they were sorry just as much as kids did. And kids are reassured that no matter what they did, their mama was never going to stop loving them.
In Cameroon, that definition did not apply. Loving your mother was a different connotation altogether. It was allegiance to taking her side in fights she would have with her siblings, or between her and co-wives. It was promising to build her a house when you grow up and give her a reason to boast that my child is a doctor, engineer, lawyer or banker. It was a duty to be fulfilled and acknowledgment that she is always right irrespective of what may be…and if sorry ever left your mother’s mouth it would likely take the form of “come and take this meat and finish it”.
For a while, this differentiation would help me console myself for understanding Eminem, for being like him and not feeling like I loved my mother at that time. For a while, I would think the differences meant one society knew love more than the other. But later on, by the time I was a university student myself, Cameroon would have taught me to measure love by the number of sacrifices made and hardship endured and I would find that no one can top an African mother on that evaluation. And so, I too would come to pledge allegiance to the mother who is always right, and aspire to be the child who will be bragged about at CWF meetings…to love out of mindful duty if not the fullness of heart.
I would try to love like that and fail because I am one of those people who needs to know you to love you. One of those who need to be able to reason their love prior to expressing it. And that is why Mothers’ Day stumps me.
I will know my mother when [god forbid] she dies.
I have no recollection of my mother before the age of six. There is evidence of us being together, of course. But I don’t remember it. I recall being tucked to sleep by Aunty Susan. I recall being bathed and dressed by Franka, one of those distant cousins brought into town by relatively better-off family members to serve their households in exchange for their education. I recall there being a house with grey floors of concrete smoothed to a slightly glossy finish and low wooden chairs that formed a semi-circle around the T.V, positioning us as the audience to whatever was playing on TV. But I do not recall my mother.
I am told that house was my mother’s house, that she was one of few women who were able to manage the feat- to build a small house on marshland around University of Yaoundé I. And from what I’ve gathered she was most likely working at her salon while Franka was bathing me and Aunty Susan was cuddling with me. Then she would leave for America when I was three years old. I would join her at age six and leave six years later.
In the six years I spent in America living in America, there would be no Franka, no Aunty Susan, but also very rarely would there be my mother. The life of a single mother in the US is hard. The life of a single African-immigrant mother with no higher education seeking asylum is even harder. And because a mother’s life is hard, their child’s life is hard. I can say I saw my mother in shift-breaks, the breaks she took between the three jobs she had to work for us to survive in America and still have something to send back home. The longest ‘shift break’ was on Sundays; on Sunday morning prior to church, she would cook meals by the bulk which would last us till about Wednesday after which I’d resume making my lunch and dinner of instant noodles and sardines.
It is hard to get to know either mother or child in ‘shift-breaks’; during shift breaks the mother wants to rest her feet, warm up food, do laundry, and make international calls home. During shift breaks the child wants to present a consent form that needs to be signed, ask for money, and ask for permission to visit a friend. Is it any wonder therefore that I barely know my biological mother and she does not know me? Is it any wonder that we lived together, sharing a bed for four out of the six years I lived with her and still did not know each other’s dreams and fears? Beyond knowing who we called friends based on visits and what meals we each liked- based on the frequency with which either of us requested it- both of us knew less than what a character in an American sitcom might share on their first date. Favourite colour or musician, future ambitions, who hurt you last week, worst teacher/colleague at work, unfulfilled needs? Sorry, we would be the worse contestant on a family game show.
Perhaps we are not so odd. I’ve tried to reason that familiarity not only breeds contempt, it also blinds. That the closer you are to someone the more you take for granted their acquaintance. You ask your first date things you likely wouldn’t be able to answer about your father “so what’s your favourite movie”?And you would not ask your father such introspective questions because you know what he ate that morning. Because you are already fed up with what they tell he tells you to do and be, why would you inquire or dig into the why?I can sell this argument, such reasoning makes sense to me now as an adult, and I am more likely to question TV and conclude that in reality there are more mothers like mine than Claire Huxtables and Lisa Lowrys.
I would be able to push this perspective; if I hadn’t lived in other households after six years with my mother, if I hadn’t witnessed other mother-child relationships that proved the likes of Clair and Lisa were not so far-fetched, and if I had not developed two other mother-daughter relationships that and became more knowledgeable of those women than I am of my mother and them more knowledgeable of me. If it wasn’t easier for me to celebrate these other women, mother number 2 and 3 on Mother’s Day than it is for me to celebrate my real mother, mother number 1
Similar to how immigrant students learn more about their own country when they are researching it ensconced in a foreign country far from it, what little I know about Mother Number 1 is what I have gleaned from periodic visits with her, or heard from her friends and siblings- facts of their own memories. It is from the backseat of a car that I would learn that my mother was traumatized by her own mother’s passing and suspected that it was witchcraft, she was not speaking to me but to the person driving her to her hometown on one of her visits home. It is from a family-friend that I would learn that my mother was a founding member of the church I attended while at university, that she had taken commercial studies and not the traditional grammar subjects eventually dropping out in Form Five. It would be someone else, who would finish that story, explaining that my maternal grandfather had decided that he would invest in the education of his daughters only to a certain extent, after which they could continue on their own or find husbands to help them. It was from a distance that I would learn my mother’s full names courtesy of my now having to keep my birth certificate for myself. It would be then that I would learn that her father had made mistakes in spelling his own children’s names such that three different versions of the family name exist…
It is from afar and the mouths of others that I would learn that my mother grew up roasting corn from her father’s farm beside the house, that she could tap palm wine something I thought only men did, that she was so enterprising that she would live the plantation town of Tiko for the capital and succeed by the age of 28 when she had me to have a house and a hairdressing business. It would be a distance in both time and place that would allow me to appreciate that this woman in 1989 achieved what many could not despite the odds, to comprehend that though born out of wedlock, I was not an unplanned pregnancy- my mother had intentionally sought her pregnancy. She’d calculated which of her suitors, married or not, would offer her intended child the best genes, finally settling on the Barrister she knew she would not marry. It is from a family friend that I would learn the meaning of my mother’s names and learn of the care with which she selected mine- one English name, one French name, one name in Baleng her mother tongue, and finally her own family name which meant stripped the barrister of any paternity rights.
And still, of all these bits of her history gleaned, I cannot say I know her enough to confidently order a personalized gift online.
With Mother Number 2 it is different. No, we did not have girl’s nights asking each other introspective questions, nor can she tell you my favourite celebrity or colour. But in the family game show, she would be able to read my face and guess correctly. See, my knowledge of her was learned via experience, for survival. Like a child memorizes their mother’s phone numbers, she would teach me to memorize the way she bargained for prices in the market, responded to various people, the tone of voice she uses in different situations, and what she needed to soothe her anxiety. What I know of her was learned at her side, the things she endures but doesn’t really like- like Papa’s relatives who would use the excuse of bringing food from the village to stay for weeks. She is the one who taught me to cook, who taught me how to wear a sanitary napkin, who would visit me at school. And with every meal cooked to together, with every trip to buy things for the house, with every evening of eating corn and watching Filipino telenovelas or trips to the seamstress I could only know her better. The difference between mothering in shift breaks and full time is outstanding, let no one tell you different.
But perhaps, it is my relationship with Mother Number 3 that is most like what I had grown up admiring on TV, a mother that is your sister too. This one would adopt me as an adult, she has said herself that this may be why we are closest. She did not have to put up with the naughty child Mothers Number 1 and 2 did. She did not have to financially support a dependent like Mother Number 1, or run after a lazy student who lost all their things at school like Mother Number 3. At least she did not have to experience that with me. She claims she would have disowned me back then, but I watch her do same for others today so I doubt it… With Mother Number 3, loving is easy, reasoned, backed by experiences of trust built and lessons taught, prayers prayed, confessions shared. My knowledge of her is freely given, she is an open book- what her fears are? Multiple and for her children. What her dreams are, her childhood trauma, the cracks in her marriage, what she favourite scripture verse is, what she looks at in the mirror and would like to change about herself, the story of her miscarriages, what memories haunt her sleep, how she prays, she is likely doing now… all these questions and more I can answer. Forget a gameshow we’re ideal candidates to lead couples therapy.
The Cameroonian social media sphere, to the dismay of many Cameroonian men, celebrates three Mother’s Days and barely gives one Father’s day attention. It begins with the UK’s Mother’s Day, the fourth Sunday in Lent, typically in March. The Cameroonians in the UK share the flowery messages via WhatsApp encouraging recipients to forward to ‘all mothers and aspiring mothers’, and just like that a national celebration is forwarded as received. The next Mother’s Day is American, the 2ndSunday in May, and once again our diasporas celebration spills over convincing us that this is it- the day to ‘show off your mother’. We have even more Cameroonians in the U.S- some would say our loudest Cameroonians in the U.S- so this one is most popular. Even more popular than the legitimate Cameroonian Mother’s Day, the last Sunday in May.
Mothers’ Days are a commercialized performance, I know, but this knowledge does not negate the need to partake in the performance in the spirit of that obligatory filial love and ensure your mother does not feel unappreciated and left out. It is this year that I have realized just how I love my mother’s differently, some would say one better than the next. So, I am trying, with this realization to do better. Buy a better gift, write a more heartfelt message, and partake in the performance with an equal commitment to each mother. And in this, I am grateful that we have three Mother’s Days, a day for each of mine. Mother Number 2 is not social media friendly so she gets the UK one. Mother Number 3 is the only one left in Cameroon so she can get the last one. This leaves me where I am now; racking my brain wondering what to get Mother Number 1 for Mother’s Day this year.
I write to my friend and share the difficulty I’m experiencing buying my own mother a gift. As we chat, I tell her writing her a message that is not superficial or trite is near impossible when expressing the love you don’t feel, can’t feel because the experiences you have shared with this person are inadequate for evoking feeling that deep…
She tells me it is not uncommon, that she knows of many like me, now in their thirties struggling to build relationships with their mothers. Because while loving our mothers was expected of us all, knowing our mothers were not. Because for various reasons many of those mothers were unable to be just mothers, either struggling to fill the role of absentee fathers or because they had to leave their children to others to take care of while they sought greener pastures to provide. As we converse, I am reminded of other friends, who are now mothers themselves, and how they are trying to rekindle relationships with their own mothers after years of separation in hope that they can trust the women who birthed them to be good grandmothers to their new-borns. I am reminded of my friend Marie who would discover the extent of her mother’s health problems, the numerous visits she made to the hospital, and the sleeping pills she bought without prescription, only when her mother died and she had to go through the documents and journals in the dressing cupboard. I would recall sitting next to Marie at the wake and hearing her say “I never knew her eh…” and selfishly thinking of how that may just be me in the future.
The friend I am chatting with laughs at my idea of buying a gift card for Mother Number 1 and sending a recording of the song Sweet Mother by Prince Nico Mbarga. And she in turn makes me laugh when she says: “you know, this generation of ruined maternal relationships is yet another thing we can blame Paul Biya for”.