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The Things I didn't Find by Awanto Magaret

"Will I give up a few years from now?
Will I be strong someway somehow?
Tell me that I should keep holding on” – Dreamer Girl by Asa

I came here to find freedom. To flap my wings and fly wherever the winds take me ― to go with the tide even if the tide meant loosing myself. I came here to live the life I dreamt of through my high school years: have a room to call mine, a set of keys to carry around and flaunt like an engagement ring, monthly allowance, the liberty to skip school, skip meals, sleep in and not get called out for it and the hope of a romantic adventure. I came here to see the worldand have it see me.

I have only been here a week and this place is hell. Yes, I have been handed the keys to my freedom ― but it is not as liberating as I'd imagined ― not as thrilling. Perhaps not even a little thrilling. I am beginning to believe Mando Diao’s song give me freedom give me fire. Since mah left after paying my rents, buying my provisions and cooking my first meal in this room I have come to call mine, everything has crumbled. I do not like this place: the biting cold, pitch black nights, gloomy days, dirt paths. Or maybe I am just homesick. I do not want to call bread pain, or wear my all-stars without laces as is the trend here or braid my hair with multiple colors of hair extension (which will be considered outrageous in my home town) or prepare banane melaxé during weekends. I don't want any of it. University is a disappointmentor maybe I am the disappointment.

I am in class and the only thing I can do is wonder why I am here, why I am seated here; lost.  A lecturer is in front, giving lessons, which I won't understand, which I secretly do not want to understand. He is a visiting lecturer based in France and only comes to Cameroon once a year to dispense lessens on History and its Methods. His French is twisted and fast and sounds like Spanish and I can barely make sense of the words. He is a stunt man,with dark-skin and thin lips. He wears a thick rimmed glass and has a baldness peculiar to professors; a mark of true intellectualism.Or so.  My mind drifts in and out of class. I try to focus on his face, the movement of his lips, how they twist into shapes forming words, but my mind is an untethered sheep and won’t keep still. I think of my mother, my friends, and how our neighbors and random well-wishers had tried to dissuade her from sending me to a French University. "She may not cope with the language there,"they had said, "And the system of education is too hard." My grandmother too was against, she folded her brows in a way she did when distrustful of something and stayed on her soapbox all through my parking. "Just be careful"she had croaked, "Dschang (my would-be university town) is legendary for witchcraft and mystery and I don’t want you in any kind of trouble."

The girls (and guys) in class call me Meg, short for Margaret. I like Meg better than when they call me babes. Well, I call them babes too(the girls), but only because it's how uni girls are supposed to address themselves or a kind of fraternity or something like that.  A fourth night ago, I was an 18-year old living with my grandma and uncle, spending my days with family and friends. In a blink of an eye, I am in an unfamiliar area with unfamiliar faces feeling unfamiliar feelings.

Back in the hostel, I acquaint myself with neighbors, we chatter, and gossip and share our meals. We spend evenings hopping from room to room gathering and spreading gista gossip or two. Other times, we sit around the cemented yard, jarring music filtering from K's room, and comment about whose girlfriend has big boobs, or who cooks better than who. Tell, how come you don't have a boyfriend? They probe.  Maggie you are lying (in the hostel, they call me Maggie). As fine as you are, yellow pawpaw like you, no boyfriend?  Go and tell that to an ignoramus. I try explaining to them that there is someone I like from high school and we are good friendsmaybe more and he likes me back but we both passed our A levels and moved to different University towns. I try to tell them of the twinkle in his eyes, the music in his occasional stutter, the warmth of his effeminate smile, the sweetness of his body colon... the charm in how he says my name. But they won't hear of it. They say if we've never had sex, I can't call it areal relationship. Webicker and quarrel and I rest my case.

When I arrived as a newbie, the guys in the hostel and neighborhood had set out on a scramble for me and other newbies alike. They catcalled, spewed pickup lines and offered unsolicited help. It went on for some time before they settled into the idea that I was only going to sign up for friendship, nothing more.

I came here to study history but the history being taught is not mine. Not that of my father or mother or ancestors.It is not even that of my country and I cannot fully relate to it. In-between I snoop around law and psychology lecture halls with hope of swapping my major to one of them, but I do not find the spark I’m searching for, so I quit.
Better stick to History Meg, History is better.
We study Egyptology and I dream of pyramids, and stretches of deserts and men in caftan speaking Arabic and mounted camels and pharaohs and Moses and the Red Sea. I want the course to run a whole semester but it is only a few chapters and we move to Greco-Roman History: A much broader course. I am thrilled by the bravery of king Leonidas, the Savagery of Draco, the  loyalty of Spartans. Still, I would have preferred studying Egyptian pyramids all year round, digging into the legends and archaeological findings.

Mah sends my allowance every month accompanied by sacks of garri, rice, beans and Irish potato. The money is not much, if every franc is carefully planned, it could take me three weeks or sobut, I am not carefulI am not reckless either;  just naive. I have been buying lunch and handouts for some classmates and receiving no refunds or reciprocal gestures. I spend the next weeks eating pasta and poorly cooked beans and rice. I learn the first rule of campus life: only look out for those who lookout for you.

Thursdays are for ladies. We are granted free entry at the club. We spend the daythe girls and Ishopping for frippery shorts and crop tops. We do not find most of what we need, so we sulk. But T has an idea. "Tell, why  don't we go find pairs of our used jeans, cut them into shorts then rip out strands of thread for style?" She asks."We could even do some hand made beads for the culture"She winks. In every crew, there is an idea machine; one genius, and T is ours. She once led us to apply cooking oil on our hair when we ran out of dark and lovely.
We are at the club. Me at a clubfeeling completely vulnerable. Mah's advice to avoid parties or drinking spots plays in my mind. For a moment, it's the only thing I can hear; my mind replays tales of good girls gone bad and how it always began with them seated in a club sipping Malta. I become dizzy, nervous, my stomach churns with unease. I look around and T is on the dance floor, Killin it. She moves with such ease her body seems to have mastered the rhythm of the music. The other girls are a little like me, unsure of how to sit or smile, or where to place their hands. I down my insecurity with a bottle of Malta and tell myself that I am here to learn; observe. Though I find my way home before the rest of the girls after muttering something about having a headache, I write this in my diary as Introduction to breaking the rules: clubbing 101.

I tell the girls (and guys) "Do not call me babes." I can stomach baby but not babes. Do. Not.

My grades are horrible; I have never repeated a class in my life, ever. But if this goes on, I may. I have flunked so many courses already that for a moment,I consider dropping out. I study hard but it doesn't seem to be helping. I sink into depression, smart about having to resit over three courses. It gets better the following semester when a course mate takes me through the process of answering questions. He demonstrates to me the French system of answering and interpreting questions; how easy it is. "See, you've been answering right all along, you just didn't stick the rules", he beams.
Life gets better, friendships grow strongerfonder. I start to fall in love with this place. The lazy days, the chatter of my hostel mates, the smallness of my room, the murky bathroom wall. I find love in this place.

I graduate, a BA in History. Not honours, not Second class upper, but I graduate. I look back on all the time spent here, learning to love myself. Trying to find myself. Fightingagainst myself. I realize that for somelike meuniversity is a baptism into the worlda first taste at adulthood. It is here that [I grow out or into my shell,where I wean myself from a certain degree of childishness.Some days, I feel like I earned much more―like it was never about History or gradesbut about life.

I came here to find freedom,to live as I pleased, to understand the way of the world. I came here to get an education and make life-long friends. Yet,all I truly needed was some good advice; someone to tell me I was enoughsomeone to say "Meg, you're doing ok."

Awanto Margaret is a Cameroonian. Her Poetry has appeared in the Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine and African Writer. She lives and writes from Bamenda-Cameroon.