It was at about 6pm, one November evening, a few months after I came to America. I was having a habitual fight with my aunt about who gave me the right to go to the Library of Congress without permission.
“What if something had happened to you? You know you are our responsibility and if we can’t account for you your parents will call us here and be disturbing our ears” she had spat, frantically.
She was standing in the room I shared with my cousins, her daughters. I sat on the floor by the closet trying hard to match her concern with my facial expression. Her eyes darted from one part of the room to the other. First to my school bag that was leaning on a foot of our reading table. The table was an old wooden table with tiny drawers where my two cousins stored their jewelry. It was parked with all the books they had used for the past three years since they moved into that apartment. She kicked the bag towards me and went on screaming
“What is your bag doing here? What sort of example are you trying to set for my children? This local behavior of yours I have warned you against. That stays in the slums you call home back in Africa. My house, my rules!” she walked into the room and went towards the bed I shared with my two cousins. It was a twin sized bed, more like double matrasses on the floor. They leaned against the wall by the window overlooking the front of the apartment. She pulled the sheets off the bed
“Look at all the nastiness? Before you came here, I had never seen so much dirt in my life. I don’t even like the fact that you share a bed with my children. You should sleep on the floor. I don’t want them getting sick.”
I felt my throat tighten. I wanted to say something back to her. But so many times in the past couple of weeks, she had made it clear to me that I was light years away from my home in Cameroon central Africa. Where anyone cared what I thought or how I was feeling. She told me I was too old according to American standards to still be living at home rent fee. That at 18, American children are either in college or out working and renting with their friends. But I didn’t know anyone I could go stay with. I had just started a CAN course because my aunt insisted that was the best thing for me to get a job and start paying rents.
“Take these bed sheets into the bathroom and wash them spotless. I hope you ate at the library of Congress because I have no food in this house for you.”
She then turned around to leave the room. I stood got up from the corner and picked up the bed sheets and headed for the restroom so she could hear me going in there. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. I quickly rinsed the soap off my hands, wiped them on the towel hanging on the door and ran to get the door. It was her best friend Mrs. Annan from the second floor of the same building.
“Amanda how are you?” she greeted me as she went walked in the door.
“Fine thank you aunty, good afternoon.” I responded
“Good afternoon my dear. Where is your mother?” she continued.
“She is in the kitchen aunty, do you want me to get her?” I asked, hoping she’ll say no. I didn’t want to see my aunt again for the rest of the evening. I only had enough resilience left to take the name calling and insults from her two “Princesses when they got home from the movies.
“No, go back to what you were doing. I’ll just head back there.” She smiled at me and headed for the kitchen.
Our living room was a normal seating area. It was overcrowded because my aunt and uncle were in the habit of collecting stuff over time from good will and occasionally good looking stuff from the dumpster so they could fill up a container and ship to Cameroon at least once every year. No one back home used the stuff they sent because they always made sure it was of the lowest quality. It’s as if they forgot in their 6 years of being in America that people can afford that kind of stuff in Cameroon. The first time they sent stuff home, everybody had travelled from around Africa to come and see the amazing stuff from America. When the container was opened,
My Grandfather, a very rich man with cars and the most outstanding clothes in my village was very disappointed. He ranted for hours because they had sent him a pair of slacks, one with a loose hem on one of the legs and the other with holes in the pocket.
My mother could not stopped laughing because they sent her a T-Shirt which according to her, she could get for “100 frs CFA” in our local market. That is about 1/5 of a dollar.
My dad did not get a thing and he thought that was a little more respectful that some rags from overseas.
The children, including me were excited to have something from America. It was a New Era in Africa and people were getting stuff from America every year. My friends in Boarding schools had all these exciting lotions and perfumes and T-Shirts with cool things of them like “Howard University” and “America”. I got Pajamas. The same kind I already had. But I cherished the pair from America because it was from the “White man’s land.” It was clearly a used pair so I secretly hoped it had been won by someone famous like Zach Efron or Michael Jackson. They were clearly male Pajamas.
Mrs. Annan made her way through the living room following the runner that had been laid out from the door to the kitchen by my uncle. They didn’t want the now brown looking, originally cream colored carpet to be dirtied by people moving in and out. I heard them greet and I went back to the restroom to continue my assignment. I finished hand washing the bed sheets and could not figure out where to dry it. After thinking unsuccessfully for a few minutes, I decided to go ask my aunt without wasting time so I don’t get in trouble for not drying it on time.
“Your local, village, primitive fool!” she yelled.
“Who asked you to hand wash bed sheets? Have you not heard about washing machines? Don’t you know we have one?”
I was very confused. She had told me about washing machines when I arrived in the US and was getting a tour of the house. But she told me never to touch it because it was too expensive to operate.
“Shut up, fool!” she interrupted before I could finish.
“Get out of my sight you dirty thing.” She shouted, looking at her friend for approval.
Her friend had what almost looked like fear in her eyes. I could tell she felt sorry for me. That brought tears to my eyes. I hated when people felt sorry for me. But nobody cared how I felt in America.
“You cannot believe her mother called me yesterday to beg for money. As if her daughter is not enough of a baggage already, these people who have twenty children with no idea how to take care of them…” I heard her tell her friend as I walked away. I rushed to the room and put on headphones before she could say anymore.
Yes my mother had called to ask her for money, but money to prepare for her father’s funeral. Her father passed away a few weeks earlier and they wanted to give her a chance to chip in for his funeral. My parents had three kids whom they were very capable of catering for. My dad was a Delegate of forestry and my mom was a secondary school teacher. We went to boarding schools which was very expensive for the average Cameroonian. My dad asked my uncle how much it would cost for him to take care of me and he said nothing. He told him he had sent him to school when their dad gave up on him and had made his coming to America possible. Taking care of me was his thank you. But even he tormented me about giving him money.
About an hour later, she pulled the headphones off me ear and I screamed because it hurt. She had walked in without my notice as I was lost in thought.
“Were you trying to embarrass me?” she started again. “By the way, who did that to your hair?”
I had taken off my hat and she noticed my hair had been straightened.
“Lilian did it last night.” I told her.
“I told them never to touch your hair so they won’t get your nice into theirs. You are lying. You have money you are hiding.”
“No aunty, where did I get money from?” I Cried genuinely hurt.
“I don’t know you tell me. A boyfriend. However, we are out of salt. Go to shoppers and get me some. Surely you have a $5 don’t you? Don’t come back till you get salt.”
I had no money. I knew she did not care. She dragged me towards the door, pushed me out and I heard her turn the door knob.
“I need to see you step out of the building, I’ll be watching.” She shouted through the closed door. I ran towards the stairs and tool the stairs to the first floor and out the lobby. I hoped she would see me out there and call me back in. at least before my uncle got home in another 2 hours.
As soon as I stepped outside, a strong wind swept my skirt up and I felt the bitterest cold I had ever felt in my life. I then noticed it had been snowing. I was happy to see snow for the first time. I put a hand out and caught some of it. The snow melted away quickly on my palm. I picked some off a car and tried to feel it. I took in a deep breath and I was so happy. It smelled great for a change. All the smell of engines, weed from the kids who smoked around the building, tobacco, sweat, assorted African foods and several other things was gone. There was no smell. Just fresh air. But there was a problem. My legs and fingers and feet were beginning to feel really painful. The tears that were running down my eyes when I stepped out the building froze to my face and I had trouble opening my eyes because I felt like they were freezing. I could barely hold my mouth steady enough to cry out “Help” before my legs gave in to the shaking and I dropped to the ground. A few people ran towards me. I heard someone say
“Somebody call 911”, I felt someone touch my arm and it hurt like hell. Then I stopped feeling.