I define a “Mama” as any middle-aged or older woman who may or may not have children, but will treat you like one of her own, whether you know her as the mama who makes omelets in the market, the mama next door who offers to wash your clothes, or the mama who cooks you dinner whenever you show up at her house, often uninvited.
I’d like to talk about my first example – mamas who make omelets in the market. In cities and towns across Cameroon, you’ll find women and men, and sometimes children preparing food over a fire each evening in the central parts of town. Grilled fish and soya (beef kabobs) are commonly prepared on grills in carts by young men and women. All day, children walk around carrying buckets on their heads, offering boiled eggs, gateaux, beignets, corn cakes, and other fried goods, for prices equivalent to an American nickel or dime.
In the large city of Kumbo, we especially like to visit the omelet mamas in Squares, a downtown area that is always bustling day and night. We know them by name and they sit side-by-side, offering the same products: fried eggs and home fries, or “chips.” The volunteers who live in Kumbo will alternate which mama they buy from each time. Whenever I am here, I seek them out, as their chips are delicious and the omelets are always light and flavorful. During this trip however, I have rarely seen the mamas. Instead, there are young women set up in their place. These young women are university students, on holiday from school. One of them is studying psychology and communications, a fact we bonded over as I, too, studied psychology in college. They are the daughters of the usual omelet mamas, and they spend their late afternoons and evenings cooking in the cold, so that their mothers can have a break and stay at home. Their younger sisters are usually nearby, helping to cut potatoes and vegetables. A two-egg omelet with chips costs 500 francs, which is equivalent to about one American dollar. While there are constant customers, the omelet mamas do not make much money in their work. Yet, their daughters are able to go to university, an opportunity not afforded to many young women in Cameroon, who are typically married with children before their twentieth birthdays. Many families barely have the money to send their daughters to decent high schools. Every once in a while, I meet Cameroonian parents, poor and wealthy, who believe so much in the importance of education to give their children the opportunities that they may not have had themselves. Children will move away from their parents to villages or towns, and stay with relatives or friends so that they can attend better schools. Unlike in the United States, where many university students choose to spend their vacations working elsewhere or traveling with friends, the students here often return to their villages to spend time with their families.
These “omelet daughters” spend all term working hard in university, and then come home on their two-week breaks, and what do they do? They help the people who helped them.