I am a grannies and babies’ person. I have always been that way. Especially with kids. Anecdotes abound in my family about my naughty tricks. I once got so attached to my baby cousin that, when summer finished and he had to leave, I hid him in big suitcase. Fortunately, they finally found him when he started to yell… This is terrible, I know.
Well, currently my grandma is at home with us, in Spain. She is above 70 and has no social coverage in her country because, as many women her age, she did not go to school and did not have formal work, and has no pension from whatsoever company. Obviously, a widow, well above life expectancy in Cameroon, after a life of child-caring, from generations to generations, her own, but also of her daughters and brothers who left much sooner than her… My grandma deserved a rest. And so, we decided to bring her to Europe, so that she could get to know her other grandchildren born or growing beyond the Mediterranean Sea. Also, we can all take care of her as a real queen, satisfying all her tiniest whims and desires. She loves acting out as a baby, complaining for every single malaise she may feel. Any pain in the back, in the arms, the head… the stomachache, toothache, so on and so for. It can be difficult at times, especially with her granddaughters who were born in Europe and do not speak their native tongue or Cameroonian pidgin English, which is very popular back home. Not being able to communicate directly with your grandma is the price you have to pay for being some of immigrants. My cousins and brother already speak Spanish and French as native speakers. Adding patois to this is proving itself difficult. It’s difficult because it’s hard to intend that they learn all the languages at the same time. Then, some kids are better at learning multiple languages, and every now and then my little sister says some work to her grandma. They have their particular language after years of seeing each other interruptedly. Another cousin has proven to understand pretty well after two years of living with her in France, yet communication is weak. They cannot speak. They don’t really need to; she is the only one that does not communicate fluently in French or Spanish around them. This generational gap has unavoidable emotional price. They don’t really get along. She tries. She yells. They are sure to understand what’s going on. They need inter-familiar translators. Globalization is crazy!
Being illiterate, she can only hardly communicate in French, which is an issue for international flights. She always needs someone to travel with her, or a flight assistant to make sure she does not miss the connecting flights! You can only imagine, every time grandma travels, everybody is in alert. She got lost in her first connecting flight because she did not wait for the steward and left the plane as everyone else, then got lost in the terminals of Paris. Second time, she got out of a coach for toilet and did not return in time, so the bus driver just left and did not remember there was a lady missing. These things are part of our recent anecdotes with grandma, things that now we can all laugh about, fortunately.
They are other perks of her presence: she brings tradition to Europe. Apart from her pressure so that everyone gets married and has as many kids as possible, apart from her plots to find me a wife I never asked for… she also tells us stories from our forefathers, our ancestors, as she calls them. She has a very animist side, which I rather love, that says we are to devote and keep our ancestors happy because they the ones who take care about us up there, once they die. She narrates stories about how to pay tribute to them, how she got married to the older son of her dead husband because she was the youngest and needed to be taken care of once she had babies and the dowry was made lawfully.
But last weekend I learned yet another heartbreaking family story. It turns out my Great-grandfather was a slave from a neighboring village. I could not believe it! My recalled quite naturally that they ‘bought’ him from another tribe, and that he was renowned for being a great traditional healer. He would receive suffering people from far away who came to our village to meet him. Apparently this practice was quite common and spread. People from different tribes would wage war against each other, and after war, those who won would take captives/prisoners/slaves from the defeated tribe. Henceforth the captive’s life did not belong to him or his tribe anymore. He could be forced to work for his new tribe, to marry there and settle with his family as a regular member, thus wining his place.
In our case, my great-grandfather was renowned and enjoyed and respectable life, he became wealthy and had several wives and children, as it was the norm back then. They told me, that from time to time, he would go visit his original tribe. They would come in his search, for healing or for rituals. People were more animist back then and believed mainly in the protection of their long-gone forefathers, who lived in a kind of limbo between heaven and earth, between dreams and newborn children who would sometimes reincarnate them to fulfill a mission under a kid skin. Our people believed in spirits and souls, hence the name of Animism. Ancestors were in charge of protecting the upcoming generation’s wellbeing and success. And we ought to show them respect by praying to them and giving them offerings as a tribute for their protection. That’s why each lineage had in their hometown, a house of cranes, where the living members of the lineage would throw food and beverage to feed the ancestors. That’s why, we tend to drop a bid of champagne and leave an extra dish on the table during celebration banquets: we have to share our wealth and happiness with our ancestors, for they are the hidden hands behind our success and fortune.
So yes, as I was saying, I have a difficult relationship with my grandma. Long time apart, a difficult bridge. That’s why, when she calls me ‘her husband’, although I know it’s a compliment, I don’t fully understand the traditional threat of thinking behind these words. She always says I very much like her husband. We look alike. He was reborn in me: isn’t it scary?
Now I understand more than ever this sacred status we African assign to elderly people, our elders and closer, if not yet, to that ancestral limbo, that place from which they can look at us like small ants wandering through life and making mistakes or triumphs. We ought to be in peace with them so that to ease their transition to their new status in our lineage, in our clan. Thereinafter, they are like demigods, who are close enough to us to understand our voluble souls, and their memories are fresh enough to have a vivid grasp of what is like today.
My grandma is probably in her last years of life. Should we believe this paradigm, it would mean that she won’t be offended when her next grandchildren can talk to her in our native tongue, because she, too, has live in this era of ‘voluntary’ emigration to foreign lands. She, too, has noticed that her daughters can work and raise a family, regardless of being under the protection of a man. That marriage is not the only path for women. Maybe, she will convince other skeptical ancestors who may be looking at us relentlessly right now.
I, personally don’t know how to feel. I never imagined I too could be a descendant of a slave. I may comfort myself by saying that he wasn’t sold to foreign lands, that he was well treated and allowed to prosper and have a family, but the fact is still there. And a friend of mine just told me that some people in his family participated in the transatlantic slave trade as a way of earning money. I know I cannot look at this with contemporary eyes, but I want to vomit. How do I know that some of my Black friends from the Americas are not the grandchildren of those men and women sold by us? Isn’t this terrible as story? How do I look at their face? This story is not as far as I thought. Only four generations before. A bit more than a century ago.