(Or: Thirty Percent of This is True)
Ghost stories exist in Cameroon although I doubt they’d call them that. They might call them something with less of a note of dismissal. They may just call them family stories, histories, spiritual realities. Cameroonians, to generalize broadly, have a belief in spiritual beings and sorcery that us Americans have “intellectualized” out of our common story. We find excuses for the unexplained; shadows, breezes, science, religion. Cameroonians though, they believe the most obvious answer, the one that we ignore in trying to find ways to make it less frightening.
I spent last night in a neighboring village, Bamena, with some friends due to a split decision to make some chili and drink some wine. Villagoise is a term we use in Cameroon to describe those who live in the most remote areas (Bangagte is a “town,” I don’t get the honor of talking about life in village) and live a certain lifestyle that includes drawing water from the well, living by candle-, lamp- and torch-light and spending one’s time in between mountains digging in the orange dirts. We stayed in a house with cement floors and walls, three bedrooms, a bathtub in the front yard that collects rainwater from the roof-spout, and a squash garden in the front yard. All of the doors were numbered. We were specifically told not to open door number five as it had been locked by the landlord and was none of our business.
After a couple of bottles of shitty French red wine, a marmite of chili, and a round of Scrabble (which I lost miserably by a great margin) we decided that room number five had to be opened. The downpour outside which cast electric flashes through the windows had brought out a mischievous side in us. Of course we waited until after our host had gone to sleep, ignoring his explicit instruction to leave that room be. Haunted rooms are the fodder of campy teen movies and predictable King novels. They have no place in rural Cameroon.
The room contained, which we observed by lamplight (spooky, right!), a six-foot tall picture of who could only be the patriarch of a long-since gone family, a twin bed (sloppily made in that style of you just coming back into your apartment with a male caller whom you did not expect to bring home with you and so while he’s taking his shoes off, you quickly throw your comforter over your tangled sheets), and some sort of bamboo crib.
We closed the door, feeling as though we’d disturbed someone else’s space – no matter how far since gone – and went back out to the round dining room table which shown beneath the lamp and candles offering light. Things started to get weird now.
Midway through a round of a game called Cheers Governor (hey! Emily! it’s global!), prompted by no gust of wind, the candles extinguished, followed immediately by the lantern. I felt nothing, saw nothing, and felt my way through the blackest darkness to find matches. Your ideas become supernatural when your hands become your eyes and I tried my hardest to ignore that a mere eight minutes had passed between opening door number five and our light being burgled from us.
We went to sleep shortly thereafter, me on the couch cushions that I had moved unto the floor, my postmate beside me on a blow-up mattress, and the other two volunteers in a bedroom about nine steps away. We were awaken some time later, five minutes or three hours, by the sound of a shovel scraping and penetrating hard earth. This was followed by a banging, as though on the front door of the room in which we slept. The banging became louder and we heard a woman mumbling, “Maccat! Maccat!” Maccat is a local patois word for white man and we can’t walk down any street without hearing it hissed at us. There are several words here that people hiss at us that mean white man, but this one carries the most venom in the mouth of its executor.
We’ve grown somewhat used to hearing this word, usually muttered by old, crazy village dwellers and we figured it must be some neighbor that our host had forgotten to warn us about. My postmate got out his torch and made sure the doors and windows were locked and we went back to sleep serenaded by the lullabies of some windy woman as I quickly fell into a wine sleep. It’s funny what you learn to sleep through here.
We awoke in the morning and acerbically thanked our host for warning us about his crazy neighbor woman and he wondered why she was here, she hadn’t been around since they locked room number five, he informed us. When we ashamedly mentioned that we might have opened the door to room number five using a head lamp and a bobby pin, our host decided to tell us the story of some previous tenants of the house. Not that it has anything to do with what happened last night, he kept saying.
Twenty or thirty years ago a middle-aged couple lived in this house, they were the average Cameroonian village couple save for the fact that they had an incredibly difficult time having a baby. Most Cameroonian couples simply can’t stop having babies. But this couple became village-famous for their infertility and four previous miscarriages. They must be cursed, the villagers thought who quickly shunned the couple for there must be some sort of hex upon them.
Her fifth pregnancy was the one, she knew it, she could feel that this one would be different and so she took liberties. She stayed home, she allowed herself to be doted upon by her husband, she avoided leaving village or straining herself physically. This was going to be the one. She knew it. She could feel it.
When the baby came, she delivered in a bathtub that was kept in the bathroom, not wanting to make a mess in the room she had dedicated to her precious, lovely number five – the one that made it. When the baby came, it was white, it was cold, it was still. It was born still.
She carried her stagnant infant outside to show it the house, the garden over which she had labored to provide the house with some privacy, the front porch where she planned to nurse and lullaby her precious baby number five. Upon seeing her with her still, white infant, which had yet to be given a name – how does one give a name to something so perfect and flawless and magical – a neighbor began calling it Maccat, a cruel joke making fun of the color the little one had turned in death.
Unable to defend herself or her lovely new bundle, she returned into the house where she remained. Her husband watched for days as she attempted to nurse the infant, she sang to it, slept with it, and swaddled it in robes to try to warm it. After five days of this, the smell, the desperation, the utter devastation of the scene finally affected her husband and while she slept, he snuck the baby from her breast and left the house.
He returned hours later to a frantic wife who knew immediately what he had done when he lay his shovel in the corner of the common room and walked into their room staring at nothing but the hard, cement floor. For another week, they said nothing to one another. She sat in her chair on the porch, singing to nobody. He lay in bed until the tenth day when he stopped breathing and remained still. Grief, the traditional healer of the village attributed his death to grief.
Mother remained in the house until she became desolate and was removed. Unable to provide for herself or maintain coherent thoughts, she retreated to the mountains where she is rumored to spend all of her time digging, digging for Maccat. Occasionally she returns to that house where room number five is locked up, the porch is empty, the bathtub collects rainwater in the courtyard, and white people – maccats – are spread out along the floor of the living room wondering what kind of imperceptible gust of wind had stolen their light hours earlier.