This is the story of a woman, told by two of her children on the 21st of June, 2014 in Yaoundé, Cameroon. The two hour interview was inspired by many conversations I had with them throughout my stay in Cameroon, and how all of the hard work that they have done thus far in their lives was inspired by their mother. The more I learned about her, the more I realized how important her story is, not just for her family, but for all of us, American, Cameroonian or otherwise. Through her life we can learn about challenges that many face with limited means, but how with determination and hard work, anything is possible, no matter where you come from, and who you are.
Nsoh Felicia Tawah was born in Santa, just on the border of the Northwest region of Cameroon to Mambo Mangui, a disciplined, no nonsense woman who encouraged her children to work hard. Traveling from home to home, Felicia spend most of her childhood living with different stepbrothers who were the children of the other wives of the family.
Although a brilliant student in school, Felicia was unable to attend past standard 6 due to her responsibilities at home. Despite the encouragement from her teachers who tried to persuade her family to keep her in class, Felicia was removed from school and worked, keeping the house, or helping to run the businesses of her stepbrothers and their wives, including providing food for prisoners. Through her hard work cooking, cleaning, and selling food, she was able to financially contribute to her family, which allowed her brothers and cousins to attend school. Throughout her adulthood, she regretted her lost opportunity of getting a formal education, and through this determined to ensure that all of her children would be given the best opportunities at no matter what cost.
Throughout her childhood, however Felicia learned many useful skills through her informal education at an early age. Starting with her mother, she learned how to farm. Even at a young age the two women would wake up later than other families, and only head to the field “after the dew had dried,” so as to keep their clothes clean. She equally learned marketing skills by selling food to the prison or to those in town.
Throughout her life, Felicia learned to pay attention to the “eye of the market,” paying attention to her customers, and what they wanted, how and when. Through her observations she learned to clean her groundnuts to perfection, picking out any that were not perfect, so much so that her groundnuts became the best in town. She would observe which vegetables were needed in which market, and for example bought tomatoes in Bamenda to sell in Bali, and would turn around and sell her gari to those in Bamenda who wanted it.
As a strategic entrepreneur she constantly calculated how to make the best profit, starting a business such as sewing, only to abandon it for another more profitable profession, such as a baker. Throughout her life she worked as a farmer, a baker, a seamstress, and caterer, among other jobs. She never wasted time, and would wake up early every morning, staying up all night if she had to. She was successful in harvesting and cook sugar yams late into the night so that they would arrive at market the next morning hot and fresh and ready to eat, placed in the best spot of the market which she reserved as her spot early every day. Her work was so popular, that others tried to copy her ideas, only to discover that she would change her goods to something new and different.
Felicia’s hard work ethic came from her desire to see change for her family, and to provide them with the means to live good lives. She worked because she had to, especially when she had a family of her own.
Felicia met Daniel Nsoh Sufor when they were still very young, and he moved to her village. They first saw each other at the same well, where they collected water to bring home to their families. Daniel soon became a policeman, and would constantly tease her if she came by the barracks to sell groundnuts. Over the course of several years, Daniel spent time courting Felicia, begging her to marry him because he respected her as a hardworking woman, someone with power and drive. Against the wishes of his sisters, Daniel married Felicia, who eventually consented. Their marriage was an unconventional love match, in that they chose each other for love rather than being placed together by their families.
As a young couple, they enjoyed a life of leisure, free from the demands of a large family. They had many friends, and would go to football matches or the cinema, enjoying their time together. They were accomplices or friends, with pet names for each other, such as “Philly” and “Mr. Dan.” Throughout their married life, they completed each other. “If I had one word to describe my mother, it would be propeller, someone with drive and force. My father was tolerant, honest. They complemented each other perfectly,” explained Michael.
Felicia and Daniel had eight children in their family: Julius, Jude, Michael, Emmanuel, Divine, Janet, Quinta…Eight children was a struggle, especially since each one of them was sent to the best school possible. “I really don’t know how she did it,” explained Janet, especially since normally boys in the family at that time did not do work. With the eldest six children being sons, Felicia decided to put gender norms aside, and instill her sons with hard work ethics instead. Rather than sit around the house or just play with their friends, they were put to work in the kitchen, at the farm, or even in raising their younger sisters. “My brother Mike carried me everywhere,” said Janet.
Regardless of where they lived, the house was always spotless, and every child attended to their chores, at no matter what cost. “Even if you had not yet fetched water at midnight, you were forced to go at night, and during the dry season that could be very far,” said Janet. Every child was expected to help with farm work, or other demands as well, and Felicia set a strict schedule for every child to follow, to ensure that what needed to be done got done, no matter what. Thanks to these strict demands, however, there was always food on the table, and each child enjoyed a certain standard of life: receiving money to buy good new clothes, or money for going out with friends.
Thanks to this hard work ethic, the family was very close, with the parents at the center of all life. During holidays or weekends the entire family would visit the fields together, Daniel bringing his radio to listen to the “BBC,” “This American Life,” along with any football match that was playing, allowing everyone to discuss the topic of the day. The children also enjoyed talking about school, or any films they had seen. “I had learned about Chuck Norris way before I saw any of his films,” Janet laughed. “My brother had seen one of his films at school and told us everything.”
At home, the family would always have the same meal together, with everyone rallying around the kitchen, helping in the process. Even Daniel contributed in his own way with his own hobby: “My father was a tea specialist, with his own kettle and his own types of tea,” explained Janet. Since the family was very central, the children are still very close to this day.
Since Felicia was unable to go to school pas 1956, she was determined to give her children the best opportunities possible. Instead of sending them to public schools, she ensured that they could all be put in the best private schools in the area, or as Janet described, “schools for the rich.” Instead of buying a TV for the family, like all of the other families had in their neighborhood, Felicia and Daniel calculated that one television was the same amount of money needed to send one child to school for a year, and waited for a long time before spending money on their first set. Even during times of economic struggles, Felicia found ways of paying for their tuition.
Homework was a major priority and Felicia found ways of ensuring that every child was given the supervision and support they needed. While she sewed, she would oversee her family’s studies, and even would have children help each other, or would find tutors if need be. She believed that every child should be given an education to the extent that they are capable, and even encouraged other children in the neighborhood to strive for more. She was often the one to provide financial support for students who wanted to write exams, and would act as a coach, filled with a wealth of real life experiences. She always coached children that anything was possible, even if it is difficult and you have to work hard, you can do anything if you sent your mind to it.
Breaking Societal and Gender Norms
With this belief that anything is possible, Felicia challenged her community and those around her to question societal and gender norms. Even as a child she and her mother took a pragmatic approach to their positions as women in the family, refusing to let the step brothers to take their land away, just because as women they had less right to it. Instead, she started acquiring land strategically, and continued her entire life, looking forward towards the future of her family, at no matter what cost.
As the wife of a policewoman, Felicia was able to fit into any social class. Whether she was eating with the governor’s wife, or sitting at the market with her friends, she was influential in many different groups, and had strategic friends in strategic places. Additionally she had many international friends, some she hosted in her house for long periods of time. As an open minded listener, she was someone people wanted to talk to, and gain advice from. Decades later, when Janet visited her childhood friends who now live in Belgium, they told her how inspirational Felicia had been in their lives, helping them secure food by farming, and encouraging them to go to school. When families were in need, she found ways to help support them, until they were able to bounce back.
In her own family, she proved that gender norms were barriers that needed to be broken in order to be successful. The boys learned tasks that were normally done by girls, whether it was cooking, cleaning, or childcare, and held her boys and girls to the same expectations. All were given equal access to education, regardless of their gender. Having an open minded husband made a huge difference to her. Despite taunting and teasing from the village, Daniel would leave and return from the fields at the same time as his wife. As a result, their family was able to make a more reasonable income, and as he allowed her to do whatever work she desired, Felicia proved to her community that women too could significantly contribute financially to their families.
Her Last Days
Eight years before Felicia’s death Daniel passed away from a liver disease. While in pain, his wife also had fallen ill, and was struggling to recover. In his last days he begged not to let Felicia die before him. “Let her be the one to live,’ he said,” Janet explained. “He said, ‘she is a better caretaker than I am.’” His wish was granted, leaving Felicia and her family alone, to grapple with his passing.
In her last years, Felicia spent time with her family, even traveling to the United States to visit two of her children. Although her children were always happy to see her, Felicia herself never stayed long, because she would get “bored,” or “restless, with nothing to do.” Nevertheless she was a fearless coach, mentoring her grandchildren, even visiting them at school to ensure they were working hard. In her final years she reflected on her life, and would go to public events, proud of the work she had done. “She told me at a Jubilee festival once, before she died, ‘I have worked, God knows I have worked.’ It was as if she was saying, ‘I have no regrets.’”
Eight years later, Felicia started to feel unwell. She spent three days alone in her house before she decided to go to the hospital, using her own money and telling her children she was there after she had been admitted. When she finally did ask for help, her children drove her from Bamenda to Yaoundé, to get better help, but unfortunately did not arrive in time. Felicia, who had always wanted to die living and working got her wish. “She didn’t have to say anything special her last few days,” said Mike. “She had already said it all.”
After 60….years of life, Felicia left behind a legacy. Through her determination to see change, she changed the way her family and those around her viewed women, society, and education. Even though she came from humble beginnings, she proved that even in poverty, she could succeed, with determination. Through her encouragement, her children learned the importance of doing well in school, and the importance of learning from everything you do. Her skills, intelligence, and creativity drove her to become a brilliant entrepreneur, who influences the businesses of her children today. Through her marriage with her husband she showed many that love can make for a very successful family, where when all are committed, the family can thrive. Even today, her children think of her impact on their lives. Mike smiled when he said, “When I look at my newborn daughter, who I named Felicia, I see my mother in her eyes, and feel a sense of responsibility. Not only in how she is educated, but how she gives back to her community.”