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  • Nkwanui Wilson Hollyfield, Open Dreams Schola

The Identity Strive


August always came with new feelings for me because on that month, my family and I would retire to the pastoral solitude of our village. The trip was usually long and tiring but the convivial and exaggeratedly warm welcome was quick to remind us that it was a journey worth undertaking. In the usual traditional style, one had to begin greeting the family from the oldest to the youngest. Every old woman was called, “Mama” and every old man, “Papa”. This tendency was in sharp contrast with the formal manners of town life, yet, it made one feel safe; a kind of safety that was apparent but blurry to my “modern” vision. Soon enough, time came for the conversations. Though they were held in the Bambalang native language, which I did not understand, they resonated with an inexplicable familiarity to me. I enjoyed the unconventional mixture of vowels and consonants that was unapologetically African. My grandmother always told me that it was because my umbilical cord had been buried in the village.

The homestead at the village was embellished with a meandering cluster of mango trees that ran from the hilly regions and disappeared into the rocky valley, which bordered my village with the neighboring one. The rocky valley; now that was my favorite spot! At night, rain would fall and fill the cavities in the rocks that were large enough to serve the purpose of swimming pools. My cousins and I always went swimming but before we reached our rocky paradise, we would have to pass through a thick layer of vegetation, green and wild that will cause my skin to itch viciously. They never missed the opportunity to laugh at me. It was usually a gentle mockery that had an undertone of admiration. The type that was loaded with inferiority complexes, which seemed to envy my fragility. At the “pool”, there was no stranger. We interacted with unknown people as though we had known them for ages. The solidarity was almost instinctive. We laughed, lazed and loitered about the beautiful premises of the rocky hills until dusk. When we got done living our best lives, we would pace back home sluggishly while watching people’s farms and debating whether or not the plants had tasseled too early and estimating how much each farm will yield.

Open Dreams Scholars/Pre-Scholars in a Yaounde gathering - brains optimizing!

From afar, one could hear the captivating melody that echoed from the village square. It was the Sha’atang Annual Dance. If it were during the day, one would be able to admire the colorfully designed traditional attires that the men wore and the beads that rattled around the women’s hips and ankles as they stamped their feet vigorously against the sunbaked earth in song and dance. Deep within my heart, I felt the strong urge to identify with the culture that was mine but I would shy away for fear of mockery from my mischievous cousins. Consequently, I would choose to be contented with watching the villagers as they cavorted and swayed to the epic rhythm of the cow-skin drums.

September was always quick to interrupt my beautiful holidays. I was reluctant to leave but there was also a little part of me that longed for the lifestyle that I recognized. Besides, I was eager to meet my British friend, Robert, who schooled in Yaounde because his parents were expatriates. Robert’s Englishness was highly stereotypical. His lips were barely visible and he accentuated words like water with his nose. When we had time to spare, we would talk about the adverse effects that street cameras had on people’s privacy in Britain and life in London. It had never occurred to me how strange it was that we never talked about Cameroon. One day, we went on an errand to a supermarket that had a faulty elevator and so we had to take the stairway to get to the floor where groceries were sold. Annoyed by the tiring walk, Robert complained about how sad it was that Cameroon did not have elevators. I could feel the aura of disdain in his tone. My reaction was automatic and spontaneous. “Didn’t you see the signpost on your left? We do have elevators. They just happen to be faulty today.” I ranted in a nationalistic defensiveness.

Later that night, I began to wonder why I had to feel defensive about elevators. They were not a marker of authenticity. What if I had asked Robert if they had beautifully designed hand-made fabrics like the ones back at bambalang? What if I told Robert that we did not have elevators but we have a wonderful festival in which masquerades of every size, shape and appearance performed? Maybe I could not because I did not recognize these things. Then did it occur to me how vulnerable I was without my native identity. I desperately needed to be authentically Cameroonian and African and so my circumstances affected me so badly. At about one p.m. that night, I was able to sleep after having read some beautiful lines from my friend’s poetry. They ran as though: “I will not say, had I known, to the native soil because it is not too late. Optimism will forever be my song as I strive to identify with that identity that had long been alien to me.” I found comfort in these beautiful fragments and I slept drowsily hoping that people with similar circumstances will find hope in them too.

-TO ALL MY “MODERN” AFRICANS.


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