I’m a mixed black african girl who grew up and lived most of her life in Cameroon, in Central Africa. My dad is half-white (french) and half-black (cameroonian), and my mom is 100% cameroonian. There’s little to no black african characters in popular fiction, which has always bothered me, and it would be so nice to read about someone like me for once.
Culture and food
Cameroon is a country created during colonization, with borders defined by europeans. Because of that, Cameroon is actually made of 200 ethnic groups, each of them having their own language and culture. So the culture and daily habits vary a lot depending on which region of Cameroon you are in. In the big cities, though, everyone is mingled no matter where they’re from. However, so many different ethnic groups cohabiting together often causes tension. There are also a lot of stereotypes about every ethnic group.
I grew up in the central and coastal areas of the country, and I’m Bassa. The Bassa are one of the main ethnic groups in Cameroon. If your parents are from two different ethnic groups, it is decided that you officially belong to your father’s ethnic group. My mother is Bakoko but my father is Bassa, so I’m the latter. When I meet another Cameroonian, two of the first questions we usually ask each other are : What are you (meaning, what’s your ethnic group) ? and Where is you village ?
Villages are very important in the Cameroonian culture. Your village is where your father’s ancestors were born. Even if you’re not born there, you usually have grandparents or great-uncles or family friends living there, and if you have enough money to do so you must regularly visit your village. And usually, when people earn enough money, they send money to their village so that people living there can have a better life, build more houses and schools etc.
Cameroonian food is very diverse, and varies depending on the region. The national dish is Ndolé, a dish made with ndolé leaves, stewed nuts, and meat (fish, beef or shrimps). Other common foods are bobolo and miondo (food made out of fermented manioc), soya (spicy grilled meat on skewers), and plantain. My dad is half-french though, so at home we eat almost as much french food as cameroonian food (crème brûlée, shepherd’s pie, beef bourguignon, A LOT of bread and cheese).
There are hundreds of different languages, but the official languages are French and English. Cameroon was colonized by France and England so Northern Cameroon mainly speaks english and central/southern Cameroon mainly speaks french. Most people also speak their ethnic group’s language. I don’t know how to speak Bassa, though, because neither do my parents. When me and my siblings were kids, our dad asked our baby-sitter to teach us, but she could only do so much and I only remember a few words.
Like most countries, there is a lot of colorism in Cameroon based on European beauty standards. When you’re a woman, the lighter you are, the prettier and more desirable you are considered. Dark skinned women are often mocked and considered not as pretty. A lot of people, mainly women but also men, use dangerous products to lighten their skin. Internalized racism and white beauty standards are very insidious, and a lot of people want to look like white people, including me when I was younger. As a kid I remember wishing i was a pretty blonde-haired blue-eyed white girl like the heroines of the books i was reading. Growing up I stopped wishing that, but I relaxed and straightened my hair a lot, wanting to have long straight hair without realizing that it was still an attempt to look like the ideal version of a white girl. I’m sure that if I had more black female characters to relate to when I was growing up, I wouldn’t have spend so many years hating myself without even realizing I was doing it.
Also, Cameroonians usually consider thick, curvy women to be the ideal beauty standard. But being thin is still an ideal broadcast by the media (especially that american and european media are heavily broadcast and consumed in Cameroon) so most women still diet a lot and go to the gym to lose weight.
Women wear a lot of skirts and dresses, be it casual or for work. Most cameroonian schools have uniforms and mandatory hairstyles (either cornrows or short shaved hair).
Elderly people often wear more traditional clothes and outfits. The most prominent traditional item of clothing is the Kaba. The Kaba is a long dress made of wax fabric and other materials and is owned by pretty much every woman. The dress looks different depending on the situation : the Kaba you wear when you stay at home is usually very long and very loose, the Kaba you wear during official/formal events is more tight-fitting and stylized, etc.
Dating and Relationships
I’ve never dated anyone, but when I was in high school none of my friends ever told their parents they were seeing someone. Having your parents know about and meet the person you’re dating after only a few weeks or months is something that just doesn’t happen (unless someone gets pregnant). It’s when things get serious that you introduce them to your family. Also, a lot of parents would prefer their children to marry someone from the same ethnic group.
Homosexuality is still illegal there, and you can go to jail for being gay.
My parents are still happily married, and I have 3 siblings. My parents are both close to their siblings, and I’m close to mine. Me and my siblings grew up with our cousins, we were always at each other’s houses. I pretty much consider most of my cousins as extra siblings. We have a very big extended family and every day I discover new distant cousins, aunts, great-uncles etc. My dad being half-french, when I was growing up we sometimes went to France during summer to visit his relatives living there.
In Cameroon, most people who have enough money to do so send their children to study abroad once they’ve graduated high school. I’m currently living in France for my studies, and most of my high school friends are also going to college in France, England, Canada, Brussels, South Africa etc.
Despite being only ¼ white, I’m very light-skinned. My siblings being much darker skinned, when I was a kid I thought I was adopted (i’m not, it’s just genetics). Cameroon being a black country, when someone is visibly mixed and light-skinned as i am, most people just label them “white”. A lot of people would refer to me as “the white” and it always really hurt me. My family wouldn’t understand why i was so angry and hurt, they’d say “they don’t mean anything by it, it’s just that you’re light” but the fact is it made me feel like i don’t belong. I’m cameroonian, i’ve lived in Cameroon almost my entire life, i’m black, and still some people see me as “other”, they see me as white. And so for a long time, I didn’t dare to call myself black, I’d say “I’m biracial” or “I’m mixed” instead because I somehow felt like a fraud. But I’m black and not white-passing at all, and I still experience racism abroad (but I’m aware I have a lot more privilege than dark skinned people).
So I’m currently living in France. On one hand, sometimes white people are racist toward me, or just totally obnoxious and ignorant, trying to touch my natural hair and thinking that people in Cameroon don’t have computers or whatever. On the other hand, when I randomly meet other cameroonians and we start talking, they always assume that because i’m mixed i’ve lived my entire life in France and i don’t know anything about Cameroon. And there’s nothing wrong with being a child of immigrants and not knowing the country your parents or grandparents came from, but i know that if i wasn’t visibly mixed they wouldn’t question the fact that i know Cameroon and lived there my entire life.
Because of how the media depict African countries, a lot of people think that everyone in Africa is extremely poor and starving, that we don’t have electricity and internet and that everyone lives in huts. Which is so false. We have rich people and poor people, we have huge modern cities and regular cities and small villages with huts, almost everyone has access to a tv and internet, etc.
Things I’d like to see less of
Cameroon and other african countries being depicted as poor unfortunate countries where everyone is starving and illiterate and waiting for the generous white people to save us. What we need is for people to see us as the humans we are, and to allow us to grow in peace.
Things I’d like to see more of
Black african characters being written as the complex human beings we are. Shy black african characters. Nerdy and hella smart black african characters. Mixed black african characters who struggle with their identity. LGBTQ black african characters.
Tropes/Stereotypes I’m tired of seeing.
The “savage”, “uncivilized” african. African characters who are aggressive, dumb and shout all the time. The poor africans in need of saving by white people.
This was posted by one of my counterparts (I edited a little), but highlights a serious problem in communities here in Cameroon. Education is an incredibly important part of life and Kabiru, like many other young Cameroonian boys and girls, is not given the opportunity to attend school due to, among other things, cost, ignorance, infrastructure, and tradition.
The STORY of KABIRU
Kabiru is a 9 years old Mbororo boy who lives with his parents in one of the remote areas in the NW of Cameroon. Kabiru takes care of his father’s cattle every day by following behind the cattle up hills and down the valleys. His parents have never seen the four walls of a classroom.
RDF, on the way to supervise her activities on the field, encountered Kabiru. We greeted Kabiru in the local dialect (Fulfulde) and asked which class Kabiru is in.
“Kabiru does not understand the meaning of the word “Classroom”. In his entire life, Kabiru has never head such a “strange word”.
I then ask myself, is it Kabiru’s fault that he does not know the meaning of a classroom or his parent’s? None of them I think. We are all educated today because our parents or someone sent us to school but Kabiru’s case is completely different and only someone somewhere can help him understand the meaning of a classroom one day.
That someone is you and I who have read Kabiru’s story.