I remember the morning I arrived back into Cameroon from the UK like it was yesterday. It was 5 a.m, and I was waiting for my mum to come and collect me from Yaoundé Nsimalen airport. I felt uneasy; I'd come home with nothing, no money, no job and no prospects. As we were driving back, the car engine suddenly cut out and since there was no money for repairs we had to get out and push. My mum asked me for money for food, and I felt so guilty when I told her I didn't have any that I couldn't even look her in the eye.
My feeling of unease worsened upon arriving back at our house, I’d not expected the state of disrepair it was in. Despite sending money home regularly, there had been no electricity for three months, part of the roof was caved in, the stairs were cracked and the entire place was damp. The thing that upset me the most, however, was when I saw that my mum was sleeping on a plank of wood with a sheet over it. I was in utter disbelief, there were now 11 of us living in a crumbling property without any income. My mum worked, but her boss had not paid her for more than 14 years. It isn't the same in Cameroon as it is elsewhere; there are no laws to ensure that you are treated fairly and paid regularly. I had no idea how I was going to survive; I had no idea how we were going to survive.
Before I left the UK, I'd given a friend £300 to hold on to, with the understanding that he'd transfer the money to me in Cameroon. I waited, but it became clear that he didn't intend on giving me my money back. The final straw came when I asked my uncle for a loan, but he said no. Feeling defeated I sat and cried... I'd never wanted to end up in a situation where I was at the mercy of others. Africans are very proud people but at that moment I felt deeply ashamed.
I'd studied hard for my Master's Degree, sleeping no more than four hours every night so I could keep my head in my books and work hard to send money home, whilst looking trying to take care of myself in London. Yet my family were living in poverty; we were lucky to get just one meal a day. Michele told me that our mum's boss had claimed that as I had been in the UK for a year, I should be a rich woman, and therefore able to provide for my household. It was heartbreaking; people had expected a success story, but the reality was that I had nothing and had returned home empty-handed. My sister ended up not wanting to leave me alone because she was scared I'd have a breakdown. People kept telling me to just get a job, but the best I would get would be entry level, which would pay about £150 a month. If I took a job like that, it would be at least ten years before we could live comfortably.
(Life in Douala, Cameroon. Source.)
I had no one to turn to for help, I felt scared and alone but looking back it was the push that I needed. If I’d had anyone to help us it would have only been a distraction from my own personal responsibility to provide for my family. I had no choice but to just push forward.
I had a very vivid dream one night. I dreamt that I started a clothing brand and when I woke up I knew what I had to do. I decided that I would sell clothes, I had always had a passion for fashion. The issue was that in Cameroon the only place you can sell clothes is at auction, and people don't have disposable income. It was clear that I'd have to sell out of the country.
My only option was to sell online, but PayPal doesn't operate in Cameroon. I had to ask a friend back in London to set up an account for us. This wasn't easy, as she's Romanian and her English wasn't the best at this point, talking her through it was hard work indeed! My days and nights blended into one as I searched tirelessly for a platform to sell my clothes on.
This is when I discovered Etsy, and that is how Grass-Fields was created!
Feeling like I had let my family down really spurred me into action. I wanted Michele to one day be able to experience what I had whilst I was abroad; to show her a place like the UK, with a Government that was set up to help people who needed it most. Travelling abroad isn’t within most people’s means in Cameroon. Only one person in my family had travelled out of the country before me.
Throughout my darkest days my mum had always had compassion for me, and I was determined to make her proud. I had to believe in myself even when I had no reason to, and find a solution to a problem that felt as though it would not go away. It is truly amazing what a supportive family, perseverance and hard work can achieve!
Check back next Monday to catch up with Michele!
Thanks for reading,