The Intrepid Starling
Chapter 5: A Whole New World
Watermelon slices in hand, Sam and Barkatou walk arm-in-arm through the business district. The jumble of activity on the street reminds Sam of childhood cartoons where only the character’s feet move when he’s running. The rest of him stands still, just like the austere and unblinking office buildings in the city center. So much hustle shuffles around them, but they remain unmoved.
Sam’s favorite part of the frenzy is the fruit vendors. Carts roll by with glistening stacks of sweetness—coconut, mangoes, pineapple, and passion fruit with its slippery, Sourpatch-Kid seeds. A few coins are enough to buy a taste of paradise.
“Our Costco sample days in college got nothin’ on this,” Barkatou smiles as they pass a man selling miniature bananas. Gently tangy with a mellow sweetness, Sam could eat ten.
While their hunger is being satisfied, she considers her unrelenting thirst for discovery in the midst of all this newness. Being here is the best way to quench it, but after this short visit to the country, she knows she’s had the smallest taste of Cameroon—each day only a sip toward the satisfaction of really knowing a place.
Though her time has been remarkable, it also feels abbreviated—like settling for a preview when one wants to watch an entire movie. It isn’t exactly more time she needs in each country. It’s more lifetimes she needs in the world.
After crossing a few streets, they find the hall where Barkatou’s community meeting is to be held. Many of her peers have left the North to make a life in the capital and these monthly gatherings provide a space to discuss news from home and plans for helping family still living there.
The greeter is the only person in the room when they arrive. Barkatou looks at her phone to find they are two minutes past the scheduled meeting time. “Uh-oh! I forgot to update to local time,” she teases him.
“We begin in only a few moments, sister,” he responds calmly. “Please, have a seat.” Half an hour later, the meeting begins.
Both Muslim and Christian prayers are offered to bless the discussion. As seamlessly as everyone switches from English to French here, so too is there an easy blending of religious faith. It’s one of the things Barkatou and so many others are proudest of—the country’s longstanding peace and tolerance.
As they begin to discuss the affairs of their beloved village, Sam wonders again about the question she’s been posing to herself and others along her path. What makes home?
When one leaves his birthplace, where does he cradle his heart? Is it in objects he carries with him, or in traditions of his fathers? Is homesickness ever cured or only soothed with medicine of the familiar found elsewhere? Perhaps Barkatou’s closest resemblance to home is here in this room with so many comfortable faces in a city of two million strangers.
When the meeting is over, Sam asks her if this is true. Barkatou looks around at her community and considers the question, but before she can answer, a friend emerges from the crowd to join them. “Maimouna, this is Sam,” Barkatou makes the introduction. “Sam is curious about how we make home here,” she explains.
“How we make a home?” Maimouna pouts at the question. “Well, first you need everything for cooking, don’t you? Then comes the TV and the armoire. Oh, and the bed! That is really the most essential, isn’t it?” she giggles and nudges Barkatou who smiles back.
“Yes, but I think the question is more about how you make a home away from home, right Sam? Is there something you bring with you or any special decoration you use to say—yes, this is my home and my heritage? Something that is typical from northern Cameroon?”
Mamounia furrows her brow. “Really I can’t think of something. For me, the most essential is to feel at ease. A home is where you can do anything, isn’t it? At my parents’ house I feel completely free. Even more than with my husband!” she laughs again, holding Barkatou’s arm.
Issa signals to them across the room. He has a private taxi waiting. Barkatou gives her friend a hug and Sam shakes Mamounia’s hand goodbye.
While they walk to the car, Barkatou reflects on their short encounter. “You know, I think we are different than Americans on this. I think you see the home as an extension of yourselves, as a way to express your personality. For us, the home is more about function than decoration. If you have the essentials, you are good to go.”
On their drive home, however, they see a sign that will flip Barkatou’s theory on its head.
“Art” reads the Dr. Seussian advertisement on the side of the road.
“Can we stop?” Sam squeezes her friend’s arm and Issa in the front seat tells the taxi driver they’ll be getting out here. He shares her curiosity. The sign is eye-catching against the green and brown hills. It reminds Sam of the pagne shops in its florescence and flamboyance.
They make their way down a dirt road until an alleyway opens up to their right. The entirety of it, save the open sky above, has been painted—or, better said, decorated. The patterns are whimsical like a child’s, but with the symmetry and detail of a master’s hand. It looks like stained glass reinterpreted in cartoon. It’s as though Pollock and Kandinsky spent their teenage years doing graffiti here.
Placid faces of two saints and an all-seeing eye greet them on the outside of the door. Issa calls out to see if anyone is home. Within moments, the saints’ faces are replaced by that of a soft-spoken, middle-aged man with inquisitive eyes and easy smile. Ndofoa welcomes them like old friends.
“Please, have a seat,” he says after they introduce themselves, pointing to a low alcove in the home’s narrow courtyard. “I need just a few minutes to put some final touches on a piece.”
Issa and Barkatou take the moment to return to the main road and buy phone credit while Sam stays to take everything in with wide eyes and dropped jaw. Every inch, from the overhangs to the floorboards, is decked out in color and pattern. Small white stars sparkle on a teal sky, a golden mask pouts in green lipstick and a rainbow of peacock feathers flows across the ceiling. If the pagne shop felt like stepping into a kaleidoscope, this place feels like stepping into a dream.
Ndofoa finishes the final strokes on a small corner of his canvas and wipes a few smudges of paint off of his hands. “Welcome to my own little universe,” he sits down next to Sam.
“So sorry to bother you in the middle of your work,” she apologizes.
“You are welcome here,” he assures her. “I only needed to finish a few details.”
“This place is extraordinary. How long have you lived here?” she asks, wondering how much time it might take to build such a world.
“Seventeen years. First, there was only the salon,” he points to the room down the hall. “Then, I was blessed to do a commission and buy the rest of the land.” He motions across to a large alcove studio and bedroom above it. “God is good.”
They both pause, Sam to take in more details of the home-cum-collage and the artist to relax for a moment.
“It’s good you don’t have a landlord!” Sam remembers her final days in the United States spent returning her apartment’s walls to white. “Imagine putting this all back to the original!”
Ndofoa smiles. “You know, my old landlord really loved it. She never wanted me to leave.”
“It is such a beautiful place.” Sam looks up. “It’s so wonderful how everything is open to the sun and the sky. But what do you do when it rains?”
He gently shakes his head. “When it rains, I’m not bothered. Rain is a sign of life. When it rains, the plants grow and I am happy.”
The siblings return and Issa notices a gold relief of The Last Supper by the door just above a painted mask that resembles a cross between the band Kiss and Ronald McDonald. “Amazing contrast here,” he laughs.
“This place is better than the Sistine Chapel,” Barkatou adds after taking in the ceiling with its decoupage of Hannah Montana photos, a wooden hunting scene and plastic insects.
Ndofoa chuckles at the comparison. “It’s like a chapel to me, but I’ve been to Italy and I wonder what they would say about your observation!”
Sam pictures the artist wandering past the Colosseum in his soft saunter and tossing a wish into the Trevi Fountain. She can practically hear the sound of his gentle laughter trickling down the Spanish Steps.
“When were you there?” she asks.
“Some years ago I went for a month as a visiting artist,” he leans against the alcove as if to rest in the memory. “With the opportunity to travel I learned to be very open. I don’t believe in boundaries anymore. Wherever you go, a mango tree is still a mango tree. We all breathe the same air. Our bones are the same color.”
Issa and Barkatou grasp his hand to show their agreement. Sam rubs the small gold skull hanging around her neck—a gift from her father who always told her the same thing.
When she was small, children at school teased her about her dark complexion and warned her not to slip in the mud or no one would find her there. Upon hearing this, her father kissed her on the forehead and then knocked gently on the same spot. We are all different shades of beautiful, but we are all the same in here. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
Sam returns from her memory to hear the artist speaking to the siblings. “When people come here and say they never want to leave, I tell them ‘Stay!’ They have a choice in the matter, after all. It is up to us how we are going to live our lives.” Her father would love Ndofoa and his straightforward contentedness.
Suddenly, they see a couple walking down the alleyway coming for a visit.
“Oh! Here are more visitors.” Sam announces. She feels guilty about taking Ndofoa’s afternoon and a pair of newcomers means he won’t be able to work for the rest of the evening.
“Oh, that’s neat! How cool!” is his pleasant response. Of course it’s not a problem, Sam realizes. There is room in his life for everything he loves.
The three of them thank Ndofoa for his time and Sam tells him again how much she appreciates the chance to share his home on her website. It is exactly the kind of place she was hoping to find in her journey.
As they drive away, Sam thinks about Barkatou’s observation earlier that afternoon—her theory that home here is not so much an extension of personality as simply a place to lay one’s head. Then came Ndofoa, his house a literal extension of his canvas and creativity. “Where there is extra paint on the brush, I find a place for it on the walls,” he’d told them.
This is one thing she especially loves about travel—its ability to flip one’s suppositions on their head. If she only has one lifetime to experience the world, at least she has the chance see it from an upside-down view every once in awhile and, in doing so, experience it again and again with new eyes.