Maureen Chacholiades came to Cyprus as a student in 2006 and has now become the bossy but concerned ‘mama’ of the Cameroonian community. By Theo Panayides
Ogbono soup, says the menu, “wild mango seed powder, cooked in a broth of beef, smoked fish, baby shrimps and palm oil, garnished with fresh spinach”. Njama njama, it promises, ndole – the national dish of Cameroon, where Maureen Chacholiades is from – jollof rice, achu soup, fried plantain. The amazing egusi soup, which is made from dried melon seeds but comes out yellow and fluffy, looking and tasting like scrambled eggs.
It’s 44 degrees as I sit waiting for Maureen to arrive, but the shaded backyard at African House restaurant in old Nicosia is still very pleasant: whirring fans pointed at the eight or so tables, posters of Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba and Bob Marley (an honorary African) looking down from the whitewashed stone wall. One other table is taken, a man hunched over his phone who doesn’t really look like a customer – and indeed, when Maureen arrives they talk briefly about “your case”, and he shows her a sheaf of documents before taking his leave. She works extensively with NGOs, and is often a first port of call for Africans trying to navigate government bureaucracy. After all, she’s been here for 14 years.
She arrived as a student, embarking on an MBA at a local college after a Bachelor’s in African Literature and Linguistics back in Cameroon. (‘So you’re a book person?’ I ask, but she clicks her tongue and reclines in her chair with a faraway look: “That was then. That was then…”) She’d heard of Cyprus from a Greek friend in Africa who worked for a construction company and was married to a Cypriot; she was “looking for greener pastures,” she explains, “and to get to England or Germany was not as affordable for my parents as Cyprus was”. She knew very little, didn’t even know there was a north and south side until she got here. Was it roughly what she’d expected? “No. I was not expecting what I found.”
For a start, the college wasn’t up to scratch: the course “was child’s play,” she scoffs. “I mean, the quality of what we were getting was – not it. And we were still paying thousands.” She didn’t even get to defend her thesis, having taken a year off when she married Mr. Chacholiades and became pregnant with her now-11-year-old daughter. She tried to return but the college demanded money, claiming that interest had amassed over the course of the year, so she quit in disgust.
There was another bad experience early on, in her first few weeks (though it should be noted that she’s not here to complain about bad experiences; she’s not the complaining type). There was another African restaurant at the time, offering exotic delicacies like crocodile and charging accordingly. Maureen got a job as a waitress, but soon made herself unpopular with the owner: “What caught my attention was the meat of the crocodile, which didn’t look like what I had eaten before. I questioned the guy, like ‘This is not what crocodile looks like, in my experience’. Even if it’s frozen, crocodile meat is not red, it’s not dark. He was like ‘None of your business, stay out of the kitchen’.” She was fired a few days later.
I’m a bit surprised, I note. You wouldn’t expect a student who’s just arrived in a foreign country to be so confrontational in her first job.
“I am very – not confrontational, I am very truthful… If something is not right, I say it.”
Very direct, in other words?
“Kind of. I think I’m a leader.”
She’s 40, with close-cropped hair and a breezy, take-charge manner. When she ran the African shop down the road, she was always helping people: “I was always surrounded. Most of them called me ‘Mama’”. The shop is still hers, but she’s had to hire an employee since opening the restaurant a few months ago – and she actually has big plans for African House, hoping to add live music and a kind of “African museum, with arts and crafts… I want to sell the African image, to give a taste of what it can be. I want to bring Africa to Cyprus”.
It’s a challenge, for all of the well-known reasons – above all the image Cypriots have of Africans, especially given the surge in asylum seekers over the past few years. When it comes to being political, she is and she isn’t. The front of the shop is emblazoned with ‘Black Lives Matter’, but Maureen isn’t fanatical about it. “All lives matter,” she asserts firmly – but “speaking as a black person, let me tell you: if a Pakistani, an Indian, a Nepalese, a Filipino and a black person go to look for a job, the first person to be denied is the black person. Every single time!… Every time a migrant is mentioned, the first image that comes to mind is black people. We suffer from a lot of prejudice”. Look at delivery boys in Cyprus, the young men scooting around on their motorbikes; why are they almost always from the Indian subcontinent? “The customers will not be happy to see a black person,” she explains. “My husband is not racist, but there are times when they send Pakistanis that are really, really dark and he’s like, ‘Oh my God, he was so black!’.” Maureen mimes the gesture she presumably makes in response to that – shaking her head and holding up her hands, as if to say ‘Hello? I’m right here!’ – and laughs uproariously. She laughs a lot, despite the sometimes-heavy issues we talk about.
Her energy is cheerful, brash, outspoken. She’s always been encouraged – or forced – to be resourceful, to look for solutions rather than whine about problems. She’s one of seven siblings, born in Bamenda in the English-speaking part of Cameroon (where the civil war now rages). Her dad was a soldier (now retired), so the family moved around – she’s always felt a little bit of an outsider – then all seven kids went to boarding school from the age of 11. Her mother was a nurse who later took a job with the UN – though she’s now had to flee Cameroon and seek asylum in the US, having become a target in the conflict: “She’s a diplomat, so they think she has money. They tried to kidnap her three or four times”.
Boarding school made Maureen independent – maybe even too independent: she had a child at 17 (the father was one of her schoolmates), passing her ‘O’ levels while heavily pregnant. Her “first daughter” is now a nurse, having been raised by the extended family – though the school did allow the baby to be near her mother in the first weeks (“If she cried, they would call me from class”). Maureen recalls her first year at university: her dad had just retired, her mum was in Sierra Leone, she had two little brothers and a daughter in kindergarten; she needed money. “I was cooking and selling food from my room,” she recalls (she’s always loved to cook; she does all the cooking at African House), or else she’d go to nearby villages and “buy a bunch of plantains, hire a car, take it to the economic capital which is Douala, sell [the fruit] wholesale – then buy cosmetics and girl stuff, bring it back, sell it to the students. Just to have money to sustain my junior brothers, and my daughter.”
It’s a long way from Cypriot students living with their parents and hanging out in coffee shops, I note – and she laughs in agreement. Her own daughter won’t be like that, vows Maureen. “I wish there was a boarding school in Cyprus, I’d send my daughter” – and, in the absence of such a school, she’s already teaching the girl how to be independent, African-style. “Right now she cleans the house, does the dishes, puts her clothes in the washing machine. Fair enough. At 11, in a Cypriot family, she’s doing good!”.
But why did Maureen even end up with a ‘Cypriot family’? After all, she wasn’t planning to stay here (the plan was to go to America, where she has relatives) and it’s not like she was overly impressed with the place. “I remember when we came, in 2006, there were people who, when they met black people, would make the sign of the cross!” So why stay on? Why did she decide to get married?
“I didn’t ‘decide to get married’. I found a husband who was –” she shrugs eloquently – “my dream husband”. Klitos Chacholiades doesn’t drink, likes to stay home (Maureen loves to party, or did in her younger days), and has strong views on borrowing money (he’s against it). He’s also 28 years older, which she assures me is “very comfortable… With an older man, he’s like a guide. He’s like a father, he’s a husband, he’s an elder brother, he’s a friend”. After all, she muses, “if I had married someone in my age group, we’d be fighting all the time!”.
She’s half-joking, but she has a point. Maureen is effervescent, and good company – but she’s also, as already mentioned, quite direct, and bossy in her way. What if someone came to her restaurant drunk? “I am no-nonsense,” she replies, “I don’t take it. If you’re drunk, you’re not welcome. If you do not respect my rules, you’re not welcome.” It’s not that she’s prudish, or naive; she doesn’t judge, she knows how the world works. Did she have bad experiences with men, I ask, before she met her husband? – and she throws her head back, positively rocking with laughter: “A lllllot! Oh-ho-ho, yes, a lot!”. It’s okay, she adds magnanimously, for them it was normal: “When we came [to Cyprus], black girls were exotic, it was like ‘I have to have one, it’s just for sex’… And most of them, most people that I met and turned their propositions down, we became friends”. Her no-nonsense attitude isn’t priggish or self-righteous, it’s pragmatic – because she knows what damage bad behaviour can do, and how it can poison relations between Cypriots and Africans.
Back in the day, she recalls, “it took us – the black community, the Africans – to struggle to portray an image of law-abiding migrants, who are ready to respect the laws and integrate. And we built a certain image that Cypriot society actually got to accept. The racism went down, psshhh!” – she makes a downhill gesture – “opportunities were open to so many of us. It was not like when we came in 2006, with ‘Den theloume mavro’ [‘We don’t want a black’]”. Maureen sighs: “Fast-forward to the people we have now: drinking in the streets, fighting – I mean really bloody fights – parties in houses with loud music, driving cars without licences…”
African House is a special kind of restaurant, coming at a very special time: a reminder of the ‘first wave’ of African migrants (who were mostly students), trying to stave off the disaster-in-the-making that’s the second wave (who are mostly asylum seekers). Young men idling in the street and living five to a room, scores of young African women pushing prams; it’s nobody’s fault, of course – except the traffickers who hoodwink these people, and sell them fake dreams. “‘If you come to the occupied areas [though of course they don’t say ‘occupied areas’] and you take a bus and get to Solomou Square, then you take a train and go to Paris’. That’s what was sold to them. And they took a lot of money from them.” Don’t they even look at a map before they come? “The despair,” replies Maureen, shaking her head. “The despair and the anxiety of people to leave Cameroon. To go to greener pastures. You just believe.”
Maureen is a veteran, the ‘mama’ of the Cameroonian community – and, like all bossy mamas, she gets on her children’s nerves occasionally. It’s gotten to a point where she seldom hangs out with other Africans, she admits, “because I’m the kind of person who, if you’re doing something, I’ll tell you, ‘This is one of the reasons why they don’t want you in Cyprus!’”. It’s true, she sighs, they’re not wanted. Africans can feel it when they go to a bar or boutique, “the looks”, the feeling of not being welcome. It’s sad for someone like her, who’s tried so hard and done so well, raising a child and opening a restaurant – and it’s sad because Cyprus, too, is missing out.
Sure, she concedes, “sometimes black people can be so provocative”; all that pain and suffering has to come out somehow. But so many migrants have qualifications; so many could be an asset, given half a chance. “I promise you,” says Maureen Chacholiades: “If Cyprus would stop looking at them from the perspective of parasites… If Cyprus would look at them from the perspective of resources, they would have a lot of benefit. Culture-wise, labour-wise, knowledge-wise…” I wish her well and make my way back to the office, toting a takeaway bag of fried chicken, plantain, and a bowl of that amazing egusi.