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Orphans in the Kitchen


Orphans in the Kitchen

Surrounded by trauma and heartbreak, one refugee finds a new calling: cooking and caring for children who have lost their parents in wartime.
24 November 2014
Mariamou finds comfort in Adama's kitchen.

The mist clears over Gado-Badzere, the largest site in Cameroon for refugees from the Central African Republic. It is 6:30 a.m. when little faces begin to emerge. Big dark eyes open wide, tiny bodies stretch and slowly make their way to a towering hut open to the four winds.

This is the realm of Adama Hamadou. As Gado's resident cook, she is already busy with her cauldrons. But this 31-year-old refugee will not neglect her other mission: to look after her 10 wards, whose parents died or were separated from them in the course of a brutal war back home. As young as 18 months and as old as 16 years, they have found a new family in Adama, the woman they call "Mama Ada."

It is hardly a coincidence that this kitchen is located smack in the centre of Gado. It's time for morning porridge and a crowd quickly draws in from all sides. Some come sporadically. "My mother is sick and can't cook for us," says 12-year-old Hama, carrying her school backpack. Others are just greedy. "I already had breakfast but that porridge is too good!" exclaims seven-year-old Ibrahim, a slate under his arm. Add to these the needy and the old, all of them regulars.

Nothing seems to have destined Adama for this work. "In Centrafrique I used to trade in gold," she says, calling her country by its French name. But the war turned everything upside down and she had to reinvent herself. "UNHCR was looking for a cook and after a two-week trial period I was hired," she recalls proudly. "One day the Red Cross coordinator came to see me with a baby in her arms whose parents had been murdered." The divorced mother of three did not need to think twice. And so a new adventure began.

Adama swaps her veil for an apron and in no time the scent of spices mixes with the aroma of burning wood.

From the moment she wakes up at 5 a.m. until she goes to bed, children dominate her daily routine. Today, Adama must also cook for 62 refugees arriving from a transit site near the border, since every newcomer to Gado is served a hot meal. She brightens her eyes with kohl, dons a robe and hurries to the market. Before long an overladen motorbike rolls back. Adama swaps her veil for an apron and in no time the scent of spices mixes with the aroma of burning wood.

"Bendi!" announces the chef: It's cooked! The older children obediently flock in, load the pots on their carts and off they go. Adama is not one to spoil her charges; she has rules and she's not afraid to challenge convention. Thus, boys must also help in fetching water. And, when she's away for a few days, they cook their own food. "They are refugees. If they don't want to get bloated bellies" – a sign of malnutrition – "they'd better learn to manage by themselves," she insists. "And then I also get tired. I can't do everything."

Especially since her dedication often takes the form of a struggle for survival. As a cook, she earns a mere CFA 1,500 per day, less than three dollars, "not enough to feed them." They receive from UNHCR nothing more than any other refugee: a monthly food ration. But the UN refugee agency and its partner in charge of community service, IEDA Relief, are spread thin assisting more than 18,000 refugees in Gado. Some of her wards have to lend a hand and become occasional soft-drink vendors.

Adama has rarely time for herself. Just the occasional moment to pray or listen to music on her phone, she explains. Late in the afternoon she can sit and relax with the children. "So, did you go to school or have you been playing football again? Tell me what you learned," she teases the kids. Or put an end to some teenagers' fight. But dinnertime approaches. "Come on then, little devils, leave me alone now. This is a kitchen!" she exclaims in French. They scatter and Adama relights the stove.

"I comfort them" before they go to sleep, she says. "I tell them stories."

As night falls, her role takes on another dimension, she explains. "We chat over dinner. I listen. They tell me what they went through in Centrafrique, the atrocities, the flight to Cameroon . . . " And before going to sleep, "I comfort them, I tell them stories." The boys sleep in one hut; Adama and the girls share another. She, too, goes to sleep early, "to skip the dark memories that come with the night."

Adama has brought a new balance to the lives of these children. So much so that, a week earlier, UNHCR officials were reluctant to return eight-year-old Hamadoua to the care of her parents, who live in dire conditions. But the joy on the girl's face when she saw her parents made it clear that she should go back to her family.

But Adama alone can't do everything. Feisty Mariamou, eight, persists in her silence, and only yesterday Suleiman, 13, tried to run away. Adama describes him as a stubborn, lonely and rebellious child. He justifies his flight as an attempt to find "his real family." A UNHCR staff member persuaded the boy to return to the flock, where he now carries out his chores with renewed enthusiasm. "Mama Ada considers me as her son," he says. "I will do everything to deserve this. I owe her so much."

Adama finds strength somewhere deep within herself. She will need it: four new siblings have just been assigned to her. Adama does not believe in miracles, but she hopes to return to Central African Republic one day. In the meantime, "I'll do anything to help my children start a new life." Among humanitarians, such everyday heroines are known as mamans lumières – light mothers. She is the only one here in Gado.