Why at All?



As I approached our rundown mud house in Yaoundé’s Mvog-Ada valley, my heart beat fast and hard. As always, I tried not to let my eyes release their tears. I hated it when they dried on my cheeks, leaving tiny white lines that revealed my emotions. With no strength to look up, I walked head down, unable to face my friends and neighbors. I knew they were staring at me, but I did not want them to glimpse the fear and sorrow in my eyes. It would hurt more than what I was about to endure.

I must have been eight, nine, or ten—I had no idea about my real age and only guessed it by comparing my height, strength, and grade to that of my friends. The day had started as usual. I had slept relatively well and continued to rest in my little room. I did not want to hear knocks on my dilapidated door, as they always felt like the lashes of a whip to my soul. I never liked who or what was on the other side of that door waiting for me: most often one of my parents holding a torture tool and ready to lash out, ready to squash my frail body and hear my screams until I had no energy left to continue. But soon enough the smack of approaching flip-flops hustled me out of my bed.

“What are you still doing in there?”

“Nothing,” I shouted.

samplechapterquote1I stumbled into the living room and found the Sunday load of bananas waiting for me. As I grew older and stronger, it grew bigger and heavier.

For a fraction of a second, I stood silent. I then put a little cushion on my head, and with my mom’s help, set the load of bananas on top of it. They were big, healthy, and bright yellow. I opened the front door and proceeded to head out. It was time for work, time for me to bring money home and most of all, time for me to be free for a while. I would be free from feeling hated, free from being hurt by my parents, free to smile, far from my mother’s terrifying eyes.  Selling bananas was my door to freedom; so as always, I did not mind at all. I was free for the time.

The day was sunny, hot, and horrifically smelly. As I crossed the small makeshift bridge battling flies buzzing around me, I tried not to look at the sordid stream of human sewage on beneath. 

the-bridgeAs I rounded the corner and passed my sweaty friends playing soccer in the tiny courtyard, my big toe began to throb. I had hurt it running away from bullies a week earlier. I had never been the biggest kid around, but I was one of the fastest. Speed was my best defense. That chronic pain reminded me of my need for shoes.

Though I was limping and still about five miles away from Bastos—the wealthiest quarter of Yaoundé—it was worth the pain. In that part of town, I had loyal and more generous customers, from Europe for the most part, who would buy a banana for the price of two. I never knew whether they purchased my bananas because they wanted to help a miserable-looking little kid or because they liked my merchandise. Who cared? Either way, it worked for me. I would ring the bell when I got there, and they would come out of their fancy houses with their children sometimes.

So I started my barefooted journey as usual, focusing on my final destination and hoping to make some sale on the way.

I had forged a secret friendship with one lady and her son. They were everything I wanted to be, and had everything I wanted to have. Seeing them gave me a taste of hope. I would picture myself dressed in the nice clean clothes they wore, smiling, and playing just as they did. They were the only people who called me by my first name, Joseph. It was a big deal in the Bamiléké culture to call a child by his or her first name. Doing so meant the child was appreciated and loved. It was like giving that child a hug or a kiss. I never heard my first name until I got to my friends’ home.

I was very excited as I arrived at their gate. The smile on my face hid my exhaustion and hunger. That home was my dreamland. I breathed the rosy smell of the pink and red flowers they grew inside the tall white fence and around the porch. This aroma, spread by the soft breeze, was in complete contrast to the stench I had left under the bridge in my neighborhood.

I placed a finger on the bell and pressed. Soon, I heard footsteps approaching. The lady opened the gate. Even though she was a white, European woman, she wore a traditional African dress and her long hair was tied up in a ponytail. One of her sons held her hand. Her smile instantly sprinkled some glitter onto my somber day and caused me to grin in return.

“Oh, Joseph! How are you?”

“I am well, madam.”

“Are you tired?”

“No, I am not, madam.”

I looked her in the eyes for the first time and was amazed. Her eyes were green, not the usual brown or black color of all the eyes I’d seen. The color was so captivating that I couldn’t stop staring. I might have noticed them weeks or months before, had I had enough confidence to look up. This woman was radiant, with an unforgettable expression of warmth on her face, an affectionate voice, a gracious walk, and a gentle touch. I had grown to trust her and was very slowly coming out of my shell.

Why couldn’t I tell her that I was miserable, hungry, and exhausted? Looking into her eyes seemed to show me her thoughts. I could tell she was worried about me. But being only a stranger in her front yard, I was uncertain and nervous about how to handle my emotions. I expected her to buy some bananas and close her gate behind me as I left. Instead, she invited me into her house. It was strange but wonderful, unusual but idyllic.

Her son, Henry, stared openly at me with the same curious look I secretly gave him. In contrast to Henry, I felt like the poorest and unluckiest child on earth. I was nervous but eager to play with him, to let some of his good fortune rub off on me. Henry and I were about the same age and could be friends.

As his mom sorted through the bananas on the paved walkway of her front yard, Henry walked right up to me. I had never been this close to him. I gathered all of my courage and forced my eyes to meet his. He held a little silver car so close to my fingers that I was sure he wanted me to touch it. Ignoring my pounding heart, I reached out with my right hand and finally held it! Though Henry looked pleased, I was confused. What now? As if he understood me, he pushed a little button between the two front wheels and shouted, “Joseph, put it on the ground,” excited.

As I bent down, Henry slipped his hand into the pocket of his khaki jacket and took out a little rectangular device, from which he pulled an antenna before handing to me. It then occurred to me that maybe he wanted me as a friend—too. But it seemed unbelievable, surreal. He was everything I wanted to be and had everything I wanted to have. He was clean, while I was filthy and had forded a stream of human waste to get there. He had a smiling mother who cared about him and I was the very last thing on my mom’s mind. He owned toys, the likes of which I could only dream about. His life was certain and whole, and mine was a puzzle with many pieces missing. How could he ever want me as a friend?

Keeping my focus on the toy, I used my thumb to press a button on the rectangular device. To my surprise, the little car sped away! I felt my eyes grow wide with excitement. I was having a blast and was never going to stop playing with that car! I forgot about my throbbing toe and my hunger. Bananas? Who cared?!

Henry’s mom called out, “Joseph, please come here.” I wasn’t sure what she wanted. Maybe she wanted me to leave; but why did I have to go back to my home? I wish I never had to.

“Yes, madam.”

The sun was high in the sky, and the temperature had risen since my arrival. Wet with sweat, my thin, torn shorts stuck to my skin. As I walked toward the lady, her eyes took me in from head to toe. I concealed the pain from my toe and held my head up to show that I was just fine. I would lose my little boy’s dignity if I let my true emotions out.

Though I did not want her to inquire about my injury, she asked, “What happened to your foot?”

I wanted to find an acceptable answer so I could get back to my car. I just wanted to play, play, play, and just be a little boy with Henry. The joy of pure play had overtaken my craving for care and affection.

I decided to concoct and tell a little story but surprisingly, my chapped lips wouldn’t allow a single word out. Maybe something inside me had wanted her to ask that question after all. Maybe the answer was as important as driving the car. As I struggled to speak, the lady continued looking at me. At home, a long stare usually meant big trouble. But the compassion I saw in her eyes was something new. It conquered my tough-boy act, and my eyes welled up. Steamy tears ran down my cheeks. I wanted her to see the feelings floating in them, my years of fears and pain. I wanted her to see me drowning in this ocean, one hand slightly above the turbulent surface, ready to grasp anything—maybe her—to survive.

Without another word, she wrapped her hands around my wet and warm little body and hugged me hard, rubbing my head softly. Many long seconds went by, during which I could hear the rhythmic beating of her heart. I wished the moment would never end. I heard a reassurance of safety in her soft chest. Then she let go, kneeled, and we came face to face. Realizing she was crying cut me open. She put her lips to my sweaty forehead, gave me a reassuring kiss, and then left the yard and went into her house.

Henry and I got back to playing. This time, I drove the little car with less enthusiasm. Not that I didn’t care about it, but I was very confused. Why was the lady crying? I couldn’t find one reason other than that she felt empathy for the dirty, scrawny little boy wearing ripped and soiled clothes. I suddenly heard my name from Henry’s mom now sitting on the porch.

“Did you call me, madam?” I asked.

“Yes, Joseph. Would you please come here?”

“Yes, madam.”

I walked cautiously to minimize the risk of further injuring my toe. The lady asked me to have a seat in front of her. She then opened a little white box and began removing some materials from it. She set a bucket full of water in front of me, moved closer, and took my foot in her hands. After a very close look at my injured toe, she said, “Please, wash it very well in here.”

As I dunked my foot in the water, I started to shiver, not because it was cold, but because I was not used to cleaning any part of myself. Even worse, I was afraid. What was Henry’s mom going to do to my toe? I wanted to yell, “Please do not touch it!” Instead, I anxiously said, “Madam, it does not hurt anymore.”

She looked at me, certainly a little amused. Then she bent down to dry my foot with a white towel. I had never seen my toe so clean. It had emerged from thick layers of dried brown mud, dirt, and debris. She started clipping my overgrown toenail with a tiny pair of scissors. The pain was overwhelming and I was scared to death. I was squeezing my chair so hard that I thought I heard it crack. My usual reaction to extreme fear or pain was wetting my pants when I could not take it anymore. So I felt the warm sensation trickling down. The fear and pain had once again gotten the best of me and forced me to pee, lavishing me with deep shame. How could I ever look Henry in the eye again?

After Henry’s mom clipped deep under my blackened toenail, a sudden and steady flow of dark fluid stained the white cloth she held. As she applied gentle pressure to empty my toe of its poison, I held my breath to avoid inhaling the foul odors emanating from the wound. Fortunately, the good smell from the white box gradually predominated, as she cleansed my toe several times with alcohol. She wrapped my shrunken toe with a light brown bandage and I felt immediate relief. Enduring the pain had been immensely difficult, but worth it. Had I not urinated, I would have said I felt great.

The lady shook her head and gave me a reassuring smile. “Joseph, you should go now.”

I knew that moment would come. It had been too long since I’d arrived and I still had to sell the rest of my bananas. I reluctantly said my good-byes and Henry’s mom helped me load the tray of bananas back on my head. She had bought about a third of my load; so I was delighted for the good sale and the fun I had. It would take a painful walk throughout the city to get the remainder sold. As Henry opened the steel security gate, I heard his mother calling me again. I looked back and saw her waving. She wanted me to come back! In a fraction of a second, I stood in front of her, praying she would invite me to stay as long as I wanted. I saw her eyes focus on my toe. Her raspy voice revealed her concern as she said, “Your parents should take you to the hospital.”

My eyes then followed her movements as she reached into the box she was holding. She pulled out a pair of brand-new sneakers, white with red stripes and laces! My heart raced and I wanted to snatch them out of her hands and kiss them. I tried them on and they felt marvelous. As I took a few test steps, I pictured myself looking like the other kids—with shoes! For once, my toes would not be exposed. For once, I would fit in and not be an outcast. I would play soccer uninhibited, without fear of injuries.

But she had just mentioned my parents. I did not want to think about them. Doing so always brought back memories of my fears and tears. This was my moment. Knowing that they would never let me keep these beautiful shoes, I began taking them off, trying hard to hide my sadness.

“No, Joseph, don’t… they are yours. Keep them on.”

“Thank you, madam. But I cannot keep them.”


“I cannot, madam. I want to go now.”

She certainly understood that it was useless to argue, and once again helped me transfer the bananas back to my head. As the gate closed behind me, I felt terrible for having turned her gift down; but I had no choice. I could not have brought those shoes home. My parents would have been furious. I thought about taking the shoes and hiding them somewhere between my home and my school. I could wear them on my way to school and hide them on my way home. But it would never work. My entire neighborhood would talk about me and my parents would surely get the news. That wasn’t a price worth paying.

And yet, I didn’t mind. I had been transformed. I had experienced compassion and something much stronger. I had received the very first hug of my life.

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