Mami Asta

The morning is lively. I can hear brooms sweeping, pots clanging, and children playing behind the walls of the concessions nearby. The clouded sun still gently warms my arms and the top of my head as I pass by the familiar homes on the way to my friend’s compound, a cheery skip in my step.

“As-Salaam-Alaikum!” I greet as I stroll into Asta’s compound.

“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam. Ahh…Phoebe!” Asta replies. “A wari naa? Djabbama! Sannu, Phoebe!” her daughter, niece, and co-wife chime in. Diabia, Faicel, and Djenabou run towards me, bodyslamming my thighs with their enthusiastic hugs and cheers. Familiar greetings ensue, as I take place on a small bench amongst the women and their pots of mashed pumpkin seeds, dried fish, and banana leave wrappers. They’re making mell, one of my favorite local snacks.

So many days, I come to visit Asta while we crack open the small seeds with our teeth, freeing the pliable, smooth grains inside. I will always remember the shells falling around us to the floor, our laps, or sticking momentarily to our lips as we talk about things near and far. These moments define my service. It is here that I told Asta about my challenges making friends with other volunteers, my insecurities with how my work is perceived in town, the sometimes stressful encounters with Da’a, my trepidation towards a third year. Sitting under the orange tree, I told her about my trips home, my visits to Ngaoundere, the good news and the bad.

When I first arrived in Danfili, I would watch her work, not quite sure what to say, encouraged to speak by her insistence that I “cause.” Now conversations flow from one subject to the other with ease. She tells me about her niece’s fat, happy baby, and the neighbor’s approaching due date. She tells me how her brother in the army is near the Nigerian border and he doesn’t know how to get phone credit. She asks me how the volunteers are doing as they return home to the United States. She laughs when I notice that she works twice as fast as me cracking pumpkin seeds.

Today is market day, an important day for her family. She sends her kids out with mell to sell on the street, balancing trays of wrapped bundles on their heads, chatting away as they go. This weekly ritual is just one of the ways her family makes money. The rest of the week they work in their fields of cassava, peanuts, and corn. She also spends a few hours a week collecting deposits from community members for their accounts at the local microfinance bank. It is rare to find her sitting with nothing to do. Her hands are always doing something.

We talk about how Danfili has changed over the two years I have been here, about how the kids have grown, the season’s resembling when I first arrived. We reminisce about other times we have sat in this same spot while the kids danced around, I ate my first couscous, we planned out how I would help Adamou in school.

It is my last week “living” in Danfili, and I can’t believe it. I want to pick this day up in my arms and squeeze it tight, carrying it with me everywhere I go. So often during my service, I rushed through the day, not really concentrating on anything, thinking about everything at once. I would swirl into Asta’s compound, my head spinning with thoughts about what I saw at the health center that day, the news I heard from home, the anxiety about traveling to another part of Cameroon just as I settled back into the rhythm of my life in Danfili. Resistant to stay too long, I would, of course, accept Asta’s invitation to sit, and after a minute or two, my brain would calm. My rapid thoughts would slow to a gentle stream, as I watched her steadily work. Here, sitting on the small benches, taking in the sights and smells, sharing my thoughts and feelings, everything feels manageable.

Asta is incredibly patient, accepting, and calm. She has a solution for every problem and often helps me see through the gray areas to make (probably unimportant) decisions. She listens to my stories and laughs at my stupid jokes. She puts her kids, her husband, and me, before herself endlessly. I admire her work ethic, tolerance, and consistency daily. I only hope that when I am a mother, I have half as much patience, dedication, and love for my family as she does for hers.


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