Today, I will tell you the story of one of the bias breakers of my life: my grand-mother.
Let’s call her G. G is 86 today. She loves rock music and will dance the night away if you give her a chance. She cooks the best omelets in this whole wide world and enjoys playing the ludo – even dares to cheat sometimes ☺ –. She raised dozens of children throughout her life. Many people are still living under her roof and I am unsure in which way they are even related. She is a retired nurse and school director, a proud wife, a mum of 5, grandma of more and great-grandmother of many-and-counting. In a nutshell, that’s G, a phenomenal woman.
G grew up in the countryside, first born in 1936 of a polygamist father. She knows precisely her birth date unlike the majority of her age-mates born “around”. That’s because her father was a nurse turned surgeon. He honed his skills working along white practitioners as black folks were not supposed to learn too much at school.
G’s childhood dream was to become a soldier. Alas it was not possible for women to join the military. Those of them who wanted to study had only two choices: Education or Healthcare. She definitely didn’t want to be a teacher, so nurse turned out to be her only option. After a very competitive exam and thanks to a scholarship, she joined the 2nd promotion of students at an all-girl high school in Ebolowa. At that time, schools were not co-ed and there were only two high schools for girls in the country. Actually, girls were expected and encouraged to marry young, the widespread belief being that school was an enemy of marriage –for women - and motherhood.
The Ebolowa School was training girls to become teachers and all students pledged to work as such for at least 10 years after graduation. For the commitment to be valid, the fathers were to sign a binding agreement on behalf of their daughters. Of course, G never sent anything for signing to her dad, coming up with all sorts of excuses every time the school would ask for the agreement. Since the application for her certificate was already sent, the school couldn’t prevent her from taking her exam despite her failing to provide her signed commitment. She graduated and moved to the other girl school in Douala which had a prep class to study nursing in France.
Shortly after her arrival in Douala, she was summoned by the government when they realized that she was applying for a nursing school abroad: instead, she should have already been teaching like the other girls from Ebolowa. They warned her that they would never provide the scholarship for her to pursue her studies in France and that she had better toe the line, return to the path that was supposed to be hers in the first place. Months later, there was a government reshuffle and lucky her, the minister of education was replaced. The new one was someone she knew from her village. During Easter break, she mustered her courage, headed to the capital and requested an audience with the minister. She basically pleaded that no one should be forced to do a job that s/he didn’t want. In response to her audacity, the minister vowed to grant her a scholarship, as long as she got herself accepted in a French school. She aced her exams and in 1958, moved to Lyon, France. Before she left, her father warned her to focus exclusively on her studies – no men -: a revolutionary piece of advice at that time; in fact for a woman, G had already spent more than enough time on school benches.
She met my grandpa in 61. He was driving her and her friends back home after a wedding and at some point he asked them to pay for the ride failing what, he would hit a tree and they would all die. They paid. My grandma who always claimed she would never marry a yes-man fell in love with my grandpa, and trust me, you would have fallen as well had you known him – though we agree, certainly not at this particular point. My grandma wrote to her dad: She had her diploma in one hand, and the other one had been asked in marriage by the love of her life. My grandpa was a math teacher, a professional football player, a pharmacist and a writer/poet in his spare time. They literally married 6 months after their first encounter and at the black students meetings in Paris where they would gather to discuss the independences - she recalls at times a very silent person called Paul Biya would join - the students fell really sad for the lady who dared to attach her destiny to grandpa’s. They didn’t know better ☺.
It was 1961 and most African countries were independent, at least officially. Africans in France were all very excited about their new found freedom; they wanted to return home and build their country, they wanted their homes to be the prides of Africa; G and her husband were no different. They rode the boat back home and agreed to settle in Douala where G could open a clinic and her husband a pharmacy. When they arrived, the war of independence was still raging though and they realized that in big cities, tribes were starting to turn their backs at one another. My grandpa wanted to take no part in that tribal nonsense, and instead decided to return to his hometown where he could be of use. Besides, the only pharmacist there was leaving while the new imposed government and the French military were still bombing neighboring villages and killing people, putting their heads on display at marketplaces for children to see.
G was mad - though in hindsight, she wouldn’t have had it any other way -. My grandpa’s decision forced her to give up on her dream of opening a clinic and she ultimately had to join the village’s hospital in 1962. Even though they could have earned much more in the capital, my grandpa who was a man of principle, chose to move away and G followed, making the best of a bad job. That’s just the type of person she is, she doesn’t dwell. At my g-grandpa’s death he left G to lead his big family which was peculiar, as women did not inherit from their fathers.
President Ahidjo once came to the village which used to be a regional capital and pledged never to move the few remaining educational institutions – like the national school of agriculture - as they would be the base on which one day they would build a university. A few years later, the new ministers of agriculture and urbanism decided to move them all. When G heard about that, she went berserk: she gave up her dream of opening her clinic in the city for the sake of developing her hometown and she would certainly not stand still at any attempt to downgrade it. She commanded her husband to go to the capital, meet the president of the republic and remind him of his promise. The next day 2 am, she woke up, went to the driver’s house and demanded that he drove my grandpa to Yaoundé, then a 14-hour trip. My grandpa met president Ahidjo and the project was aborted. Today, the village is indeed home to one of the greatest universities in Cameroon.
Later on, G and her husband opened schools in the village, the first co-eds. Villagers started sending their girls to classes, being amazed at the way my grandma was carrying herself, how she could speak to men on equal terms, fight for change and development, be a professional and strict nurse, do her things, and still be an amazing fashionable wife and a caring mother. My grandpa became a mayor and contributed even more to the life of the village, adding infrastructures. All along, G remained by his side, relentlessly working to achieve the goals they had for their hometown, for their country.
Almost 15 years ago, we attended their golden wedding. My brother was my grandpa’s best man and a cousin - another phenomenal woman – served as my grandma’s. We all wrote poetries to celebrate their love and life but our grandpa bested us all with just a few words – I told you he was a poet -. We danced and drank throughout the day and my grandma swung her night away as if there was no tomorrow. When grandpa died 10 years ago, though G was devastated she stood still. You must have understood by now already that my grandma is of those who bend, never breaks.
For women’s day, she is the person I truly wanted to celebrate. She was Michelle before M. Obama. She is a leader in her own rights and she is a woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s her.
“Phenomenal Woman” is a poem by Maya Angelou I just can’t get enough of. Read it. Then close your eyes. Remember the time when someone told you that it wasn’t possible because you were a woman and still you nailed it like the badass you are. Bask in the feeling of triumph you experienced when you broke that bias. Let it sink. Open your eyes. You remember, right?