Gamboula, CAR
November 14, 2018

Dear Co-workers,

[Slightly adapted from a letter Jan wrote off-the-cuff to family]

Some of what we do is so much fun it really shouldn’t be included in our job descriptions! Such was the case yesterday when we invited Aleta Danforth’s and Jan’s, Bible-Study ladies to our house for lunch! What a special and memorable event!

First off, Kim had gone to the police commissioners’ offices on both sides of the border. Both enthusiastically granted permission for the ladies to cross the border even through most do not have the right documents.

Yesterday, Kim left at 7:30, arriving at Hanna’s [all Fulani names are pseudonymous] in Kentzou, Cameroon, after an inevitable list of chores that included hauling 18 sacks of cement over 2 trips. All 4 ladies were present and decked out in their finest attire with fresh, henna designs applied to their hands and arms. On the way, Kim gave the Kentzou police commissioner a loaf of banana bread Jan had sent to thank him. The authorities were true to their word. Kim crossed the border twice with the ladies without a single hitch in spite of their having left whatever papers they had at home.

Once in CAR, Kim drove them around Danforths’ agricultural center so they could see the trees, Igor, [“IT”] the cow-herder’s place and Roy and Aleta’s house. All are related to Igor. Mostly, they were impressed with the cola-nut trees. The cola nut is the Fulani equivalent of candy or sunflower seeds. “To slip a person a cola nut” is the idiomatic expression for “paying a bribe” in the Sango language. In a mad rush, the ladies picked every lemon they could reach off Danforths’ tree! They use them to make a yogurt-like drink.

Jan began by serving the salad which was a plate of cucumbers, tomatoes and avocadoes. They weren’t sure how to serve themselves. Then, Jan told them about the vinaigrette salad dressing. Of course, they all wanted to try it. Zelda, Hanna’s daughter, who is young, lovely, spry and knowledgeable, helped serve it. Strangely, as the ladies handed Jan their plates so she could serve them, they wouldn’t take the plates back and put them in front of themselves. So, some of the ladies were eating with their plates in the middle of the table! And, since they are not used to sitting up to a table, they sat with their chairs way too far back which made the long, precarious journey with the spoonful of food even more hazardous!

We got through the salad and then came the main dish. Jan had made bowtie noodles which they had never seen before. Nevertheless, they thought these were the best tasting noodles they had ever had (to Jan, a noodle is just a noodle no matter what the shape)! The meat sauce was also a novelty for them: Hungarian Goulash with ketchup, vinegar, paprika, some sugar, tomatoes, celery, garlic, onions, Worchestershire sauce and beef chunks. They had never tasted anything like it. Listening to their animated discussion of it made Jan laugh. Jan also included some items they were familiar with: greens with chunky peanut butter and squash. The squash had a dab of butter melted on it with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Their surprise over the squash being sweet was a hoot! Fulani women are just plain exceptionally expressive!

Alice kept reaching over and scooping squash out of the skin on the serving platter, eating it from there instead of taking a second or third piece on her own plate. It was all such a foreign way of eating for them as they are used to a common platter in the center on the mat upon which they are sitting! Jan didn’t want to be instructing them all the time in Western etiquette. So, she just enjoyed the humor of watching them arrive at their own solutions to the logistical problems.

On the following, they had perfect consensus. They were all going to throw the “Fulani-reserve-and-politeness” thing aside and eat as much as they wanted. Jan reminded them of what their late ancestor, the patriarch, Thomas, had always said to us when we ate with him, “Do NOT observe ‘Fulaniness’ [Pulaaku = Fulani code of conduct] here! Eat up!” Whereupon he would heap more food on our side of the communal platter in spite of the fact that we were already STUFFED! Ouch!

Sometimes, when one lady wanted more food, Zelda would shovel it from her own plate to the other’s and then later she would take more onto her own plate. It was quite funny the way she deftly managed her aging kin. We placed Zelda’s son, who was just learning to sit, in a high chair for the meal. This ignited a vivacious discussion about his being a “king” on his elevated throne with the table before him. Zelda was so happy that he could be there. Jan had brought out plastic things he could play with. So he entertained himself the whole time so she could eat. She was indeed the mistress of ceremonies as she kept telling the ladies how to do things, how to eat the new things while continually serving them from her plate or the platter. None of them had ever heard of dessert so when it was offered, they said they were altogether too full to think of that and needed to wait a bit. So, we all left the dining room and went to chat in the jawleeru [Fulani gazeebo] which was a lot cooler.

Finally, we had banana cake and frosting with tea or coffee. The baby, who by now had had a cooling bath in our laundry tub, was sitting on a mat when he tipped over. He screamed in anger and was inconsolable. Finally, Zelda took the small pitcher of milk for the coffee, put a couple spoons of sugar in it and poured it down his eager gullet! Then she tied him to her back with a wrap and he promptly went to sleep for the rest of the time, including the hour-long trip home.

As the ladies were leaving, Jan gave each an aloe plant in a pot for treating burns, a can of lentils or beans and dried karakunji [roselle hibiscus] flowers with which to make juice and a bag of clothes. Most of the clothes were for children but they each got a skirt for themselves too. They took out each item and commented enthusiastically on it it to all the rest. One amazingly generous and locally contrastive aspect of Fulani culture is that if you give a gift to one and not the others, ALL will sincerely thank you!

Then, they all wanted a souvenir of us. So, at their suggestion, we gave them each one the plastic armchairs they were sitting on. They also wanted the Fulani gourd spoons hanging in the jawleeru. Hanna has known she will eventually get the small table that we eat on out there. Jan told her that ages ago because Jan wanted to express our appreciation for all the many meals Hanna has fed the Bible study in her house.

It was a day we’ll never forget! On the way back, the ladies insisted Kim take them to visit Igor’s wife and children, the Gamboula II marketplace, the Gamboula Center marketplace, Yeltsin [“Y”], a family leader in Gamboula Center, Igor’s place in Cameroon and yet another 2 markets! Kim feared he might miss the border closing on his return and have to sleep in the truck!

That covers the meal and the wonderful time we had. We are so thankful for these dear friends that have been special friends for years. Like they said, there never ever was an issue between them and us. When they are in the hospital, the knowledge that they can always come and get help from us “cools their hearts down.” They can share struggles and problems with us. When someone dies, we help them get the body to Kentzou or help bury them here. Alice ended her above expressions of gratitude with, “We are family”! Amen! Such a happy note to end on!

What is heart-breaking is that not all are yet a part of God’s family! The level of trust means that it has been possible to present the Good News over and over again! As the study progresses into the story of Christ’s crucifixion, PRAY that God’s Spirit would open their hearts!

Gratefully,

Kim and Jan Cone