Hyla Etame, age 16
This poem was written in honor of Black History Month.
A clap of thunder.
We’re leaving “Africa on the Bay” —
the little African store in Tampa
with skin-bleaching cream and canned sardines
next to a Yoruba religious store —
where my grandmother
waits on the couch, watching Nigerian films —
even though we’re Cameroonian.
I take it as a sign:
We — my sister and I — are meant to cook
for the first time
on this day
a meal from our Fatherland.
From the Atlantic shores our toes have yet to take a dip in
to the tea and coffee leaves on our great-grandfather’s old farm
we have not yet grasped.
I think of palm trees,
conversations in Bassa or Douala.
Distinct markings of a country I have yet to touch
and that colonizers of centuries ago failed to understand and respect.
We come home and I find my grandmother at the kitchen counter:
She lists the ingredients using her fingers.
Bitter leaf. Ground nuts. Tomatoes.
I use my fingers to memorize things too.
Onions and celery. Bell pepper. Plantains.
She tells me to take notes.
Shrimp. Egusi. Dried barracuda.
My sister’s neon green acrylics tap against the countertop.
I finish cutting the onions and celery.
“The onions are too big,” she tells me.
I chop chop again.
Dad stands in the corner
with his arms crossed and an impish smirk on his face.
“You’re doing it wrong,” he says.
She waves him away like he’s a seabird.
“Mine is better,” he insists.
We tell him to leave the kitchen
— he doesn’t.
The plantains are boiling in a pot
instead of frying in a pan like I’m used to.
In one pan, a red paste is sizzling;
in another, garlic and ginger paste are heating up.
The shrimp is intermingled with the celery and onion,
and suddenly the kitchen is a melody of savory flavor molecules
floating in the air.
My mouth waters when I sniff.
“We wait now,” she says.
“African cooking takes a lot of time.”
My stomach grumbles.
I want to dig my teeth into the mushy plantains,
tear the shells off the little shrimp
and take another bite of that barracuda
that tastes like Heaven in my mouth.
“You like cuda?” Dad asks and I nod.
“I’ll pack some for you to take back to L.A.,” he promises.
Grandma stirs one of the pots and nods: “It’s time.”
My sister and I watch, in awe, shock, surprise
as the contents from every pot and pan
are dumped into the biggest pot on the stove
then stirred by my grandma.
My sister and I share a look of unease:
our weak Western palates are accustomed
to the division and separation of food.
As I grab a bowl and help myself to a modest serving,
I hope that I will like it
and tell myself that I will because it’s from my Fatherland.
It’s ndolé: the national meal.
What hamburgers and apple pie are to America.
Grandma leads us in grace.
Though my relationship with God is tricky,
I bow my head and close my eyes anyway.
She thanks God for this meal,
for her grandchildren,
our interest in learning about our culture.
Amen. Amen. Amen.
I take my first bite —
bitter leaf is foreign to my taste buds
and will take more than one meal to get used to.
My dad hums.
I picture him as a youth
coming home from boarding school on a weekend
and devouring a bowl of ndolé prepared by his mami.
Grandma can tell that the meal
isn’t “hitting the spot” — as we say in America.
I feel like a fraud,
like this identity,
this culture I was born into isn’t mine.
That I’m not worthy,
Too confused …
“All that matters to me,” she interrupts my feelings of insecurity,
“is that my grandkids have learned
and tried the food of their father’s country.
That’s what makes me happy.”
I wrap my arms around her after I’ve finished eating,
clinging to her as if I’m a boat and she’s the anchor.
I can feel the energy of love transferring from her to me
I never want to let her go.
I want to cry, out of intense feeling,
but I don’t.
The sky is weeping for me
as the downpour continues outside the window,
adding moisture to the swamplands
just as it does to the tropical landscapes of Cameroon.
Though I may be an ocean away from my Fatherland,
the tether between us is deeper than distance and ndolé.