Learning a New Culture in Central Africa

I left the United States for the first time at age nineteen to spend a summer living with a family in Cameroon in Central Africa. That brief, intense experience determined the rest of my life.

Africa was portrayed then, in movies and on television, by Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and their female counterpart, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. These Euro-colonial fantasies featured lone white heroes, or a heroine, demonstrating their superiority over hordes of Black “natives” on their own turf, a hot steamy jungle in which the minimally, or strangely, clad “natives” performed bizarre rituals. Arriving in Cameroon in the early 60s, I found notably absent such figments of non-African imaginations.

My hosts, the family of Emmanuel Njoya Mombe, welcomed me “home” to the town of Foumban. Since they would be my parents for the summer, Monsieur Njoya Mombe immediately told me to call him Papa and his wife Maman. That felt normal and nice an ocean away from my family in New Jersey. It was also the beginning of my having a second home and a second family in Africa.

Foumban, the cool dry highland town where I would spend two months, was the capital of the culturally rich Bamum kingdom. It had two museums and a royal family with a palace built in the early 20th century by the legendary King Njoya.

My first clue to the profound meaning of my initial African experience, and the beginning of my Global African Diaspora consciousness, was a single comment.

“This furniture is Bamum. It is not European,” Papa said as he showed me around the family home.

I understood what he said, but had no idea what he meant, or why he was telling me that during my first hour in Foumban.

The above image of furniture constructed of natural materials is similar to, but is not, the furniture in question because I have no images from my first trip. As I remember, nestled within those Bamum frames were comfortable cushions covered with cotton handwoven by local artisans.

The meaning that I only understood decades later for Papa’s furniture metaphor was about the importance of having one’s own frame of reference for understanding and interpreting one’s experiences and creating appropriate surroundings. This was a particularly significant perspective at a time when Africa was freeing itself of eighty years of European colonization and the imposition of European worldviews.

Papa was teaching me that something as seemingly ordinary as one’s furniture could reflect and project both identity and ideology.