All alone in an unknown country

What is life in Brussels like for an international student? Mandela moved to Belgium right in the middle of the pandemic. I met her on the train in Brussels. To me she’s a very good example of why people should be less afraid of talking to strangers. If she never came up to me, our paths would have never crossed and therefore we would have never been friends. She told me about her very interesting past in Cameroon and her life today, in Brussels. Dig further into her story below and enjoy the read.

Could you tell me more about yourself?

© Mandela Lauretta

My name is Mandela Lauretta. 23 years ago, I was born in Douala. Douala is the economic capital of Cameroon. I grew up in a big city, together with an amazing family: my mother, father, 2 brothers and 2 sisters. I absolutely loved growing up in Cameroon, it was wonderful. When I was younger, my friends and I would always play in the neighborhood. At the end of every day, we would run away from our parents because we didn’t want to go home. Friends were like family.

Being the last born of a family with 4 other siblings was often quite difficult. My parents would often pamper me, which is great of course. But my siblings would get really jealous. They would sometimes steal my belongings, or they would even beat me. For western people this is very shocking but in Cameroon it is quite normal. Our parents would sometimes beat us. This is a way of teaching us a lesson when we didn’t behave or had bad grades. Now that we are older. My mother has told us that she feels sorry for being so harsh on us as children, but she did it because her mother had done the same with her. It’s passed on by generation and a very normal thing in Cameroon.

We often went to visit my grandmother who lives in the countryside of Western Cameroon. She had 2 farms and I adored spending time with her there.

Growing up I spoke French just like the rest of my family and most people in Cameroon. During my studies I also learned English because all my courses were taught in English. I became the only member of my family that was bilingual.

Are you religious?

I believe in God, but I don’t have a religion. What I mean by that is that even though I am baptized. I don’t really believe in Christianity anymore… It was mainly because everybody in my family and country is Christian that I used to go to church together with them. When I got older, I didn’t want to join them anymore. I stopped believing in their ideas and theories.  Personally, I think pastors are liars and I often don’t believe what they say. For me what you preach to others, you have to totally practice it yourself and I often noticed that they don’t do that. So, I don’t want to obey them.

But I do still believe in God. I believe he is the creator of life. God could be anything. Now I just pray in my room. It’s very personal, nobody else is involved.

Out of all the countries and cities in the world, why did you choose to come to Brussels?

So, making the decision to come to Belgium wasn’t a hard one to make. I choose to come here because I wanted to become more independent. In Belgium I have no family, I’m on my own to figure things out.

Why do you want to be independent so badly? Was it worth leaving your friends and family behind?

Everybody has to be independent at a certain age. The sooner the better. I had been depending on my family for way too long, so it was time to start living my own life and grow up. It was definitely worth it coming all the way to Belgium. My studies in Belgium have way more value than if I were to do the same study in Cameroon. If I go back to Cameroon with a Belgian certificate, I will find a job easier.

How does the social life/standards differ over here from Cameroon?

© Rania Bidani

I’m still trying to adapt to the Belgian lifestyle it differs a lot from what I am used to. I’m loving the differences though. For example:  The weather is totally new to me. There are 2 seasons in Cameroon. We only have the rainy season and the dry season. It is amazing to see the weather change slowly.  Back home we mostly ate spicy food. Here not so much. I remember cooking some traditional Cameroonian food for my roommate, but it was too spicy for her. She did love it though, and after every bite she had to drink some water.

Here some people can be really cold and mean. One time I went to the market, just to have a look around. A market vendor got really offended when I didn’t want to buy their products.

In Belgium all the houses are packed up to each other. There is no space between buildings. But in Cameroon, even in big cities the houses are separated. Every house has a garden and a front yard. Another thing is that in Cameroon everybody knows their neighbors pretty well. I remember as a kid the whole neighborhood would play outside together and have a great time. In Brussels I don’t know my neighbors, I have never seen them.

But overall, no changes really shocked me. I did a lot of preparations and research before coming to Belgium. Such as watching a lot of movies and tv shows set in the western world. So, I did kind of knew what I was getting into. I have 3 other siblings that also live abroad. My brother lives in France and 2 other siblings live in the USA. So, whenever I had a question, I could ask them for advice and tips.

What is your opinion about Brussels?

What I love about Brussels is that it’s so multicultural. I live in a student house together with 12 other students and almost everybody is from a different country. There are people from Portugal, Italy, France, Spain, Rwanda, … I love meeting people with different backgrounds and getting to know their culture. But with 12 people, the house can get pretty loud sometimes. So hopefully next year, I can find a place with fewer people.

Another thing I really enjoy in Brussels is that the city is so convenient. I can go to the African neighborhood ‘Matonge’ and buy African products. But I could just as easy go to a different part of Brussels and the vibes will just change immediately.

Brussels also has some really beautiful places such as Bois de la Cambre or Flagey. But I have only lived here for around 6 months so there is a lot more to explore.

How do you see your future?

The future is still uncertain. Next year I want to go to college. The study I choose, will determine a lot about my future. But of course, I would love to stay in Brussels, when my boyfriend from Cameroon comes to Belgium next year, we can finally start a life together.

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