Thursday, December 01, 2005

Getting Ahead (a Head) of My Thoughts

Dear all,

Sitting in the hot afternoon sun with Maman Magne, picking and shelling the beans she had brought in from the fields, I passed several calming hours in a sundrenched Bertoua backyard. It was not hard work, but the job required a new kind of patience and attention to be done properly – the full bean pods were hidden like treasures among a tangled mass of dried leaves, vines, and empty pods, and each one had to be delicately but efficiently pulled out, detached, and shelled. I found the work, mind-numbing and sense-stimulating, to be extraordinarily centering and calming. I was learning to think and feel with my fingers, to respond to the pods and their positions by touch only, to know just how to grasp the long rattling stems without giving the misplaced tap that could send all my sought treasures tumbling to the ground…

As the red beans fell into the pot at my feet, the family’s bounty grew from one small pile to enough for a week of meals: a red mountain! Very occasionally, two or three black beans would jump from the cracked pod in my fingers, and tumble like misfits onto the sea of their maroon cousins. In these moments, I thought about ninth grade biology class - Mendel and his green or yellow, round or wrinkled, tall or short peas, and how he might have been shelling peas for lunch one day when the thought occurred to him, “My, aren’t these wrinkled yellow peas so rare! I wonder why…?” Now sitting on a little stool in the isolated East Province of Cameroon, far from my professors and textbooks but six years down the road from freshman high school biology and over a century after Mendel’s thought, I could provide my own answer.

To enjoy so many lives and opportunities at once – like learning to think with my hands so my fingers can communicate delicately with temperamental beans, while reliving and applying biology lessons to explain bean genetics and phenotypic differences – has been my greatest satisfaction. Although I haven’t yet a plan for “living” Cameroon next semester (will I join a French-speaking club? frequent the West African market? keep in touch with friends looking for scholarship money for study abroad? give presentations about my experiences, scientific and sociological?), I know that this life experience has already put an indelible mark on my mind. Along with the pagne cloths and kitchen recipes I bring home, will be a way of thinking and understanding that I did not before possess. …And one day, soon perhaps, I will be sitting in a reproductive biology class wondering exactly how sperm cells fight and push to get to the egg – when a vivid memory of Yaoundé traffic will descend upon me, bright yellow cars with obnoxious horns colliding and clogging around large, cumbersome roundabouts – and life will make sense!

To the sacred sperm, traffic jams, beans, biology lessons, and revelations of this life – with love,



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