An Unusual Crime in Bonakombo

Note from the author: The excerpt below is not from Héléna and the Missing Papaya. This is adult Héléna reminiscing about events from her childhood.

In the summer of my ninth year, something very strange happened in Bonakombo, the small neighborhood in Cameroon where my family lived. Back then, most people knew me as Héléna the Detective, the kid who took her notepad everywhere and was always hunting for clues to some quest. I knew everything, or so I thought, and the things I did not know or understand, I sought to find out. I recovered and returned many a missing bauble to its rightful owner, and figured out what had become of vanished fruits and pets. But none of those adventures prepared me for what would happen that summer, and although I did not know it then, I would never be the same again.

A manual sewing machine, exactly as you would expect in Maman's shop

Maman was one to scream at the slightest thing. At the sight of a cockroach strutting to hide behind a pot, she would go “Waaah!” before taking off her sandals to attempt to flatten the creature. With mice or rats behind the cupboard, the scream was more vigorous, “Arghhhhhhh!” She would jump up and down as if trying to hover so the horrible rodent could not run over her feet with its disgusting little paws, and would grab whoever was closest to her at the time and command: “Find the broom, and catch it!” So I had heard plenty of Maman’s screams growing up. But on the day when my fateful investigation began, Maman’s scream was one I had never heard before, tinged with equal parts sorrow and anger. It ascended in the noontime silence, disturbing the torpor that usually enveloped Bonakombo around naptime:


It came from the sewing shop. I rose from the raphia mat on which I had been trying to nap, and ran towards one of the small rooms that adjoined the family home. We were Bamilekes, a tribe reputed for the ability to make Nkap, money. Papa had built three small shops at the back of the family house. He rented out two of them, and Maman’s sewing shop was the third.

Just as I was entering Maman’s shop, I bumped into Mma Ngassa and Mma Noumssi, the two ladies who lived across the street from our house. They had arrived to the shop fast. Those two were the main operators of the neighborhood’s gossip mill. They took neither leave nor vacation, and their enterprise flourished, constantly churning out bits about other people’s lives.

In the shop, Maman was kneeling on the floor, amidst a pile of various garments. In her hand, she held a bright red dress made of wax print fabric. She was turning the dress upside down and inside out, as if to solve a puzzle that only she could see.

“What is it, non, Mma Tagne?” Mma Ngassa asked Maman.

“Look! See for yourself! Wickedness! Someone destroyed my customers’ orders! My reputation is ruined,” Maman replied, throwing the red dress with the rest of the clothing on the floor, gathering a rough pile, and thrusting it towards Mma Ngassa.

The latter exchanged a quick glance with Mma Noumssi, before reaching for the pile from which what looked like a black suit jacket had fallen.

At that moment, General Essè, who rented one of the shops next to Maman’s sewing shop, walked into the room.

Et c’est…. What is this in the middle of the heat?” He asked no one in particular.

Chu chu chu…” He added, looking at Mma Ngassa and Mma Noumssi and mimicking their incessant chatter. “You’re adding heat with all that breath…What happened here?”

The two women turned their faces away, embarrassed. General Essè was the only one in the neighborhood who could lambast them to their faces for their talebearings. He was a retired army man. Everyone called him General. Sometimes the older men joked about his “retirement” as though someone else had “retired” him. He operated an electronics repair shop for transistors, television sets, and portable players.

Maman grabbed the edge of her cutting table and propped herself up.

“General, thank God you’re here,” she said with a quiver in her voice. Sadness had overtaken anger, and a tear rolled down her left cheek.

Et c’est…Mma Tagne, sit down, non. Tell me, what happened,” the General said as he led Maman to the wooden chair that stood behind her sewing machine. She was one of the few people who could make him let go of his gruff demeanor. They were good pals, like father and daughter. The General’s children had moved hundreds of miles away, and Maman was the one who helped the old man care for little but essential things like lunch.

“Take this to General Essè,” she would say every weekday at lunchtime, handing a generous plate of food to either my older brother Patou or me. The messenger would click his or her tongue, and exclaim:

Eh, Maman! You gave him plenty oh!”

Maman would invariably shoo the person away, as she mumbled about the virtues of sharing.

Mma Ngassa passed along to General Essè what remained of the bundle of clothing she had received from Maman. He grabbed the pile, and laid all the items side by side on the cutting table. They were a pair of men’s slacks and a suit jacket, two black dresses, and the red wax print fabric dress.

Breaking the sacrosanct rule in African households that children should remain out of the way when adults are engaged in serious matters, I wriggled my way between Mma Noumssi and Mma Ngassa and leaned against the cutting table, one of its corners poking against my chest. Large gashes ran across the garments. The edges along the lacerations were smooth in some areas, and jagged in others. The culprit had not cut along thread lines or zippers. There was no doubt that it would take a miracle to salvage the clothes before their owners arrived to pick them up.

I writhed my way under the table, pulled out my notepad, and wrote down: “In a hurry? Shaky hands?” I then emerged from my retreat, just as Mma Noumssi asked, pointing at the suit jacket:

“Wait, this is Pa’ Jacques’s suit, non?” Jacques Noumssi was her husband.

Another tear rolled down Maman’s cheek, and she stood up, clasped her hands, and implored Mma Noumssi:

“Please, please, I will do everything to make this right. I won’t sleep until it’s repaired. You know how I value my customers’ satisfaction.”

Mma Noumssi’s face dropped, and she placed both palms over her head.

“Jacques is going to Yaoundé tonight,” she cried. “He has a big job interview at the Ministry of Education. Where is his suit?!” She still had her hands over her head, and her bottom lip was now quivering.

“You know Pa’ Jacques just lost his job,” she said, her voice breaking. “You know we need to feed the children and pay our bills. How could you be so careless? Is that how you protect your clients’ property?”

Mma Ngassa pulled on Mma Noumssi’s arm, steering her towards the front door.

“Let’s go Mma, let’s go!” she repeated. At the entrance, she glanced over her left shoulder and mouthed to Maman:

“Fix it!”

About Ladumo

We make story books, games, and activities around the world, designed to be fun and accessible to any kid right here in the U.S. Our work is uncompromisingly authentic to real modern life, while being lighthearted and fun. We have just started work on our first children’s book, set in Cameroon. We also have connections with authors and artists that will make it possible for us to do this work in many other countries. We’re moving next to Trinidad & Tobago and El Salvador.

Our mission: (1) make the study abroad experience, which is often only for privileged college students, accessible to all kids; (2) empower children from countries across the world by having them share stories of their daily lives, their dreams, adventures, etc…without stereotypes or caricatures; (3) expose young readers to all kinds of foreign languages from French, Portuguese, Spanish, to Arabic and Mandarin; (4) provide beautiful original artwork done by painters from countries around the world; (5) make an ebook with unlimited classroom reprint licenses available to teachers; (6) provide jobs in countries where the stories take place with fair contracts that reward and value the artist’s intellectual property and talent; (7) fund libraries in poor neighborhoods in countries where there is no access to literature; (8) teach kids how to be creative and imaginative by showing them how to use common household items to make DIY toys.

Study Guide

Inside page showing grandma and the kids gathered around the fire.

After we have published our first book, Helena and the Missing Papaya, our next project will be the accompanying study guide. The book itself encourages language absorption with its dual English/French text. In addition, the guide will include enough activities to turn this fun book into an educational unit study on Cameroon. Ideas include:

  • Songs: Explain the cultural meaning and history of children’s songs in the book.
  • Foods: Recipes to cook some of the foods mentioned in the book.
  • Mazes and Puzzles: Built out of details in some of the artwork, will focus a child’s attention while explaining things like what certain farm tools do, why so many people use motorcycles, foods you can make out of certain fruits.
  • Crafts: For example, how to make the toy that Helena’s brother Patou plays with, and how to make similar crafts out of found materials in your own environment.
  • Journaling: Helena takes nature journals – how to examine the plants in your own neighborhood the same way!
  • Language: Back and forth between English and French – find words and phrases that match, or match phrases to objects in the art. Do a treasure hunt, where you find the object that matches a certain word, which prompts contextual learning to identify where the word fits in the story and what it means.

Click here to help Kickstart us now!

About the Art

dante_besongOriginal artwork is created by Dante Besong.

Dante Besong is a self-taught visual artist based in Douala-Cameroon. His works explore and highlight the beauty of the African diversity and at the same time critiques the mediocrity that plaque the continent. He expresses his art form through illustrations, paintings, videos, cartoons/caricatures as well as graphic design. He uses different media to attain his creative goals while appreciating the ever-evolving paradigm of creativity. He is best recognized through his abstract expressionism and figurative style of painting.

Dante has participated in a few collaborative exhibitions:

  • Ebony Art Annual Exhibition – 2016
  • Alliance Cameroun Francais workshop/exhibition -2008
  • Cross River Gorilla workshop/exhibition – 2007

Meet the Characters

HELENA_smHelena is a little girl with a big imagination. She sees many interesting things everywhere, even where others don’t think to look. She takes a little notepad everywhere, and looks for clues when something simply does not look right. When Helena grows up, she wants to write her own books and newspapers. She enjoys reading all kinds of books, and because her neighborhood does not have a public library, she usually saves up her lunch money to buy new books. Helena also likes crafts. She collects leftover fabric from her mother’s sewing shop to make hair bows and finger puppets. Helena’s older brother, Patou, is ten years old and just wants to play. Often he joins in on games with the neighborhood kids. But when he plays alone, he likes to make his own games and toys.

CECILIA_smCecilia is very friendly and has many friends in her neighborhood. She loves comic books and enjoys drawing on paper and on a computer screen. Cecilia wants to become a cartoonist for a movie studio when she grows up. She has an old bicycle that she rides to places, from the market to her mother’s print shop. Cecilia’s sister, Elisa, is only a baby. Cecilia enjoys reading her favorite stories to Elisa.

ABOU_smAbou is a young boy with an easy smile. He enjoys learning how to do business and likes playing and watching soccer. He has three younger siblings, whom he helps care for after school. On weekends, Abou helps at the crafts and gifts store that his father owns or plays soccer with his friends. They have teams in various neighborhoods, and they enjoy watching Africa Cup of Nations and the European Cup and UEFA Champions League soccer matches.