Taking Refuge

Picture: CC BY-SA 4.0, Coco Lago (Disclaimer: This photo is not of Paulette's recipe.

Building Memories Through Food And Games

April 8, 2015

At the age of twenty-eight, Paulette Mpouma faced one of the most difficult decisions a person ever has to make: Join her husband in America, securing a better future for herself and the children she hoped to have; or, remain with her family in Cameroon, risking a life of poverty, unemployment, and a hostile political climate.

Following careful deliberation, Paulette chose America. She packed up her belongings and, in 1998, speaking barely any English, she left her home country of Cameroon and embarked upon "the American dream" as a refugee.

Because Paulette's family remains in Cameroon, she feared going into significant detail regarding her reasons for leaving. She vaguely mentioned the country's political situation and high rates of unemployment, but retaliation for freedom of speech is a reality and can cost one his or her life. When I asked Paulette if there was anything else she could tell me about her life in Cameroon, she didn't feel she could discuss it. We left it at that.

Still, Paulette says that "home is home." She has positive memories from her time in Cameroon, especially of her family.

And while Paulette has built many happy memories in America too, seeking refuge in any country is no easy feat. Seventeen years later, Paulette says she is still adjusting, but does so while looking forward:

I learned to create a door where you have a dead end. There is always a possibility and a person who can help you somewhere, somehow.

And, create a door is exactly what Paulette did. After landing her first job in the Pentagon City mall at a store that sold African art, she took note of how eager Americans were to buy such items. Intrigued, Paulette launched her first business: a small enterprise connecting African artists with American consumers. With her newfound success, Paulette's entrepreneurial spirit was aflame.

Since arriving in the United States, Paulette and her husband have had four children. In an effort to teach them about their heritage, she created a bilingual, English and French, game that focuses on African history, geography, and culture. In 2009, Paulette officially launched the African Memory Game (Afriqu’enjeux) to the public. She has subsequently scaled up her business, expanding to include African dolls and stuffed animals, as well as card games focused on other regions, such as the Caribbean and Hispanic countries.

According to Paulette:

The board games are my passion now. It start[ed] just as an instrument to teach my children about Africa. But after we start[ed] creating several trivia [games] to increase people's knowledge, they were well-received and some of my products are sold at Smithsonian Museum stores.

In our conversation, Paulette expressed her love and appreciation for America, especially "the spirit of generosity and acceptance." Today, in addition to her dedication to her board game enterprise, Paulette takes refuge in her children. She said:

I have all my children here [in America] and it was a learning experience for me too…It is always painful to leave your country, but if you are more secure in another place, that place can also become your home. You have to think about your future, about your children.

Paulette recalled a quote by Michelle Obama from the January 2012 issue of Reader's Digest, in which the First Lady stated, "Everything we do must be for our children."

"I totally agree with that," Paulette told me.

Before, [when] I was single with no children, I was offended by a lot of injustices in my country; [now] when I have children - it's not that I am less offended - but I have a purpose I can pursue to make their lives better. I create games with them. I train them when I am doing my designs, the rules of the games, the packages, and even in the marketplace - how they need to take care of any client, how to answer questions. And I like what they are becoming, more aware of their creativity and the impact knowledge could have in the world.

There is no question that Paulette is a strong, resilient woman. But, when she does find herself in need of a respite from life's pressures, she resorts to baking and praying as her escape.

Paulette's favorite Cameroonian dish is Ndole and Cassava, traditionally eaten with rice or plantains. Here, in America, she enjoys burgers, steak, and French fries.

Many thanks to Empowered Women International who introduced me to Paulette Mpouma.

CC BY-SA 4.0,

This is a photo of cassava leaves, the traditional bitter leaves used in the making of this dish.

CC BY-SA 2.0, Cary Bass-Deschenes

Boiled peanuts

CC BY-SA 4.0, Coco Lago

Ndole served with plantains

CC BY 3.0

Ndole with pieces of meat instead of shrimp and crayfish. Served with rice and plantains.

Ndole and Cassava

This traditional Cameroonian dish is similar to a spinach/bitter leaves and peanut stew. For all the vegetarians out there, try substituting extra veggies, such as carrots and peppers, for the meat and fish.

  1. In a deep pot over medium heat, combine the beef, half of a yellow onion, Afro fusion seasoning, bouillon cubes, and salt. Add water and bring to a boil, cooking until the meat is tender. Set aside.
  2. Place the peanuts in a large, heavy pot and cover with water. Add the ginger, half of a yellow onion, habanero, leeks/scallion/green onion, celery, and garlic. Bring to a boil and stir every few minutes. If the peanuts are tender and the nut easily comes out of the shell when opened, the peanuts are done. This process can take up to about 30 mintues, depending on the type of peanuts you are using.
  3. Drain the peanut mixture and place it in a blender (be sure to remove the peanuts from their shells). Blend to a paste. Set aside.
  4. In a new pot, add the peanut oil and saute 1 onion with the previously cooked meat (removed from the stock) over medium heat. Add the peanut paste mixture. Cook for 25 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes. Re-add the stock from the meat as necessary to maintain a paste while preventing burning.
  5. Add salt, seasoning, and bouillon as needed.
  6. Add the crayfish and shrimp
  7. Add the ndole (bitter leaf) and cook 10-15 minutes until fish is cooked and you obtain a thick paste.
  8. Fry the final onion and use it for garnish.