Notes from a West African Wake

Last weekend, my wife and I had just come home from grocery shopping and were in the process of unloading the car in our garage when our neighbor Nelson, who is from Cameroon in West Africa, came trotting up from across the street.

We know Nelson only peripherally, and have only had occasional contact with him since he and his family moved into the neighborhood last July.  He always smiles and waves to us at those times when we’re all out in the street getting mail or mowing the grass, but we’ve never really seen his wife and we’re not sure how many children they have.  We invited them to our Obscenely Big Barbecue Bash last summer, but considering they had just moved in, it’s understandable that they did not attend.

He explained that his wife’s father had passed away the week before, and that there were a bunch of friends and family coming over to their house that evening for a wake at 8pm.  We offered our condolences, and told him that he could have his visitors park in our driveway if need be, since we presumed that that was the reason why he came over to talk to us.  Instead, though, he invited us over for “some beer, and some coke, and some songs”.  We told him that we would be glad to come over, and that’d we’d finish up dinner and come by later.

So, at 9:30, we decided to make an appearance and walked across the street.  We met his wife, conveyed our condolences on the loss of her father, and entered the house.  As it turns out, Nelson had gone up and down the street knocking on doors, trying to invite people over, but we’re the only ones that showed up – the rest of the party was strictly friends and family, all recent immigrants from Cameroon.  A number of covered dishes were assembled on the kitchen island, but it was apparent that they had not begun to eat yet, as people were still arriving.

Over the next hour and a half, we sat there and watched various friends and family members arrive while the television played videotapes of West African Christian music videos.  Small talk was limited, as, surprisingly, we do not speak a single one of the dozens of languages presently in use in Cameroon, and the friends and family were deeply engrossed in conversation with one another in their native tongue.

At around 11pm, Nelson’s wife gathered everyone together and said a few words about her father (who, until his death, was still a police officer in Cameroon, and she was to embark on the 16 hour journey there the next day), read a passage from the Bible, and then we all sang a hymn.  At around 11:30pm, she invited everyone to partake of the food that was in the kitchen.

Which brings me to the point of this post, at last.

This was a fascinating experience, as I had never had the opportunity to try West African cuisine before, and this was even better because it was not restaurant-prepared.  As I made my way around the table, I could identify plantains, small bags of white stuff, a platter of barbecued goat, various beignets and other baked goods, roasted chicken, greens, and a tureen of soup.

I tried to get a little bit of everything, but in a respectful this-is-a-wake kind of way and not, say, in a Old Country Buffet kind of way.  The goat was excellent, as tender as pork and not at all dry.  The plantains were very bland, as was the white stuff which I later discovered to be Fufu, and then later I realized that these bland foods are supposed to be paired with spicy dishes, serving as the starch base much like rice, grits, and pasta – all bland base foods of their own cultures.  I eated them wrong.

The greens were not unlike the greens that we find in the South, a little bitter and prepared with some bits of meat (ham, maybe?).  The roasted chicken was the most familiar food on the table, but with its own spice that clearly indicated its cultural origins.

Before we left, and at Nelson’s urging, I went back and got a small bowl of soup.  It was a simple broth, made a little cloudy by the spices and meat that was simmered in it.  I took a spoonful and found it to be incredibly rich due to the fat that had come off of the meat…and also spicy as all hell.  It was, at this moment, that I realized that there was a small group of people watching me experience my first taste of Pepper Soup.

It was amazingly hot, and amazingly good.  One of the family friends remarked that she felt nothing when she tasted it, and that the soup was what they would give to children in Cameroon.  As my mouth burned with the fire of Africa itself, I wondered to myself whether West African children would really give us Americans a run for our money in buffalo wing eating contests.

I soldiered on and finished the bowl, declining Nelson’s continued entreaties to get more soup, this time with the wiggly bits of fatty meat.  I would have loved to, but by this time it was well past midnight, and I’m trying to cut back on wiggly meat bits after midnight.