As you may have noticed, I’ve become mighty slack in updating this blog. The real reason for that is time. I love my job and work more hours than I should. Also, unlike my previous job, I don’t have time to surf the web, build websites and do other personal things while “working”. For these reasons I will be updating the blog in 2009 even more infrequently than I did in 2008. That said, here I can offer a huge entry to keep you going until I do get round to posting again.
This particular post has been a long time coming. It is a truly mammoth post and has taken a while to put together but I wanted to capture for my memories sake what I saw and felt while during those two short weeks.
It was with work back in March that I found myself flying into Cameroon for my first taste of Africa. Basically I was on a two week trip meeting with the charities that we are supporting and discussing the finer details of the event with the government there. I won’t go into details on the work side of things but the basic aim, apart from finding a finish location, was getting the government and various ministries on board and trying convince them to let us import 70 crap cars tax free with the aim of auctioning them for charity.
Leading up to the trip I was pretty anxious about what was coming. The travelling on my own to Africa was not daunting, I was just that I didn’t have a clue where to start with what I was trying to achieve. It wasn’t until I stepped out of the plane that that wonderful feeling of being somewhere new hit me. The excitement of seeing the place, the culture, the people, the lifestyle… I think what sparked that feeling off most was the smell. Similar to those distinct smells you get on arrival in Delhi or Bangkok, but subtly different. I was unable to put my finger on what exactly it was, but a mixture of the humidity, pollution, spicy fried food, open drains and body odour… evidently the distinct smell of Douala, the city of my arrival and the countries biggest.
Unfortunately, I had not done my research, and despite there being cash points, not a single one of my cards worked there. If you have Visa you’re OK, but nothing else will get you any money. I discovered this after walking some 15 km all over town trying multiple cash machines. I was later told that Mastercard was accepted at Citi Bank so I returned to my hotel, collected the card and headed off that way only to find that they did not accept Mastercard after all and that the only people that did might be the Hilton Hotel in the capital city some five hours away.
Thankfully the hotel for my first two nights was paid up in advance (a requirement to get a visa) and I was able to put food and drink on my tab until I sorted out some money. All this faffing around enabled me to see a large amount of the city and I have to say Douala is not a particularly nice place. Largely made up of shanty towns or ugly unpainted concrete. I didn’t feel particularly safe either, yet with no money I was unable to take taxis, and therefore got harassed by many a beggar, including lots of street children. Its quite hard to see such poverty, and although places like Delhi are much tougher, what put me most on edge here is the looks of resentment and anger I got from the locals for not giving the kids anything as they hung off my arms as I struggled to walk along the road. As a white man, you are by default considered very rich.
On the Monday morning I managed to get some cash via a Western Union transfer and set off in the direction of the Capital city. Far from what I expected I found myself on a luxury air conditioned coach with plenty of space and no-one sitting next to me. As Dan commented, “what Africa was I in?”
I had more positive feelings about Yaounde, the capital, firstly as the climate is cooler due to its altitude and secondly it was reportedly a much prettier city. To be fair it is, when compared to Douala, but it is still rather run down and ugly with not a great deal for the visitor to do.
One of the things that struck me most about the cities was the number of street sellers. It is incredible. There is no need to go to shops as pretty much everything you might need, and plenty that you would not, can all be found on the street. Best of all, much like in Thailand, was the street food. Barbecued fish with fiery spicy sauce and cassava being the standard dish coming in at about a pound. Fresh, chilled pineapple for 20 pence was also particularly good.
One evening while eating out with Celestian, a Cameroonian who I was working with, we ordered a particularly tasty looking fish, not before he haggled for five minutes on the price. Being the greedy bastard that I am, I was concerned that of the actual flesh there was not sufficient for the two of us. I needn’t have worried, as Celestian set about eating the head in its entirety, not in the least bit concerned about the rest of the fish, spitting out only the few bones and teeth. Devouring the head is actually very typical here (waste not want not) and just served to remind me how different cultures can be and that what is repulsive to one person is totally normal for others.
I think of the French language as being rather effeminate, which makes it quite amusing to hear it spoken with the really strong a forceful voice that is so distinctly African. Especially given the way a most Cameroonean conversation appear like a full blown argument to the likes of me. Although Cameroon officially speaks English and French, my lack of French made things a little tricky but the universal sign language always comes to the rescue. Often the faces of the local appear quite moody, angry almost, until this huge white grin spreads across the face revealing people as curious and as friendly as many other parts of this world.
One thing that also struck me was the lack of tourists and travellers. Never have I been anywhere so barren on the backpacker front. Douala or Yoaunde don’t even posses an Irish Pub! The great advantage of this though, was getting to meet many a local. Those that were able to speak English with me opened up massively and it was clear to see a population of intelligent but frustrated people. Before long, the same themes always came up: Government, corruption, education, jobs. Cameroon was reported in the 1990s as being the most corrupt country in the world, and from speaking to people it is clearly a massive problem. There is resentment of the President who has managed to retain his presidency by some rather dubious methods. The people I spoke to also have issues with those in power who they claim are always syphoning off money and taking undue benefits. This corruption is there to see throughout society though, with bribes being the norm at all levels. Of course as a foreigner I’m to expect it, but speaking to locals the bribe culture is present for them and it is the only way to get anything done.
Needless to say, working in such a place and trying to set up relations with officials is not easy, although, just by being white open so many doors. It was hard to comprehend such different treatment in Africa of what in my eyes are equal human beings.
Another area of much debate is the Anglophone / Francophone divide. After the First World War, the German colony of Cameroon was split between France and England, hence the term The Cameroons. After independence and reunification things have been harder for the Anglophone population who find themselves disregarded by the rest of the population, and unsurprisingly there is a big separatist feeling. From the people I met, there was a general resentment of the French, the way they ran ‘their’ Cameroon and the continued exploitation. Conversely, the Anglophone population have a lot of respect for the British and the way British Cameroon was run. They feel the country would be in a much stronger position today if the whole country had been a British colony, often sighting Nigeria as an example (I haven’t been there so can’t comment).
Of all the Cameroonians I met, Jean Marie, the night watchman at the hotel was the one I got to know best. With little to do at night (it is not safe to be out on your own at night here, as I was later to find out and besides there are few bars) many an evening I found myself chatting away to Jean Marie. An intelligent well educated chap who lived in Germany for seven years and speaks three languages fluently, who now finds himself working a 13 hour shifts six nights a week for a mere 35,000 CFA a month (around about Â£40). The real problem here, is without contacts in the right places, you can have the best education and yet struggle to find decent work.
In African terms the country is rich. It has many resources that if managed correctly would be able to provide for the whole population. The trouble is there is so much corruption, embezzlement and exploitation from Europe and Japan that many struggle to get by. As Jean Marie put it, those in power are only concerned about the food on their table and their properties and not one bit concerned for their people. What I found really shocking however, was Jean Marie’s belief that the problem would never go away as he claimed that corruption was in the black man’s blood. He even went so far as to say, with agreement from his colleague, that being born black was God’s way of punishing them.
The women here (who’s traditional dress is beautiful) can be very forward. If they are interested they will come straight up to you and start talking. The cleaner at the hotel for example, left me a note with her number saying that she loved me, which was then crossed out and replaced saying she wanted to get to know me. Another girl in the street came up to me to start a conversation. Both said that I seemed very special (which I am), but normally it takes people a while to realise that. I get the impression some of the women here see the white man as either very wealthy or as a ticket out.
All the attention only served to remind me how much I was missing Esperanza. She was going through a bit of a tough time, not at all helped by me gallivanting off to Africa. Somewhere which for her has always been a dream to visit.
Despite not meeting many other Europeans, one night I got talking with an Irish chap who was staying at my hotel. Popping out for a beer I discovered that, at over 50, Tom was a massively experienced traveller, especially when it comes to Africa. We actually whiled away many an hour swapping travellers tales and the following night went out to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, possibly the first time I’ve ever done this with a true Irishman and this was the first time I’d truly relaxed since arriving here. A fascinating fellow, and a true pleasure to have such great company while away on my own in such an untravelled destination.
All the advice is not to be out alone on your own at night in the cities, especially as a white man. One should always take a taxi between destinations, although that itself is not without risk. But after a week of being about in Yaounde and fed up with the prices and the food of the restaurant next door to the hotel I’d been trying a few further a field (the street food here is great and very cheap, but again at night this is not an option due to safety). On the Saturday night I ate in a place a mere 200 metres down the road. Heading back I was aware that it could be dangerous but with only 200 metres and no taxis about I walked back. Mistake… A rather large scary looking chap grabbed me, shouted at me in French, then frisked me, took my phone, my wallet and… get this… my shoes. Thankfully I’d had the sense to leave my watch, passport and credit cards back at the hotel. On top of this I was unharmed, but pretty pissed off, especially considering that this happened no further than 20 metres from my hotel!
Feeling pretty low the following day I was lifted by a gesture from one of the ladies at CWAF, the charity we are supporting. I was supposed to be meeting them for a beer on the Saturday night and they had been calling me and were a little surprised that I didn’t answer but assumed I’d gone to bed. Trying to get through in the morning she suspected something was wrong and so sent her security guard round to check up on me (who happened to be the coolest, hardest man in Cameroon by my reckoning). Upon finding out what had happened I was taken round for breakfast and just the company of other people did wonders to lift my spirits.
Earlier in the week I’d been taken to the Cameroonian Wildlife Aid Fund sanctuary to meet the staff and see the work they do. I was shown around the various enclosures that are used to rehabilitate bush meat orphans and animals that had been captured and kept as pets. There were all sorts there, monkeys, baboons, chimpanzees, but the animals that left the biggest impression on me were the Gorillas.
Watching them in their enclosures, I was transfixed. Their hands eyes, faces, are all so similar to us. They would come up to me and stare, slap their chests in that stereotypical way, play on hind legs, drum on table, juggle stones, and rather bizarrely after eating, one vomited into his hand only to eat it again. This is going to sound very cliche, but looking into one particular Gorilla’s stare I couldn’t can’t help but wonder what he was thinking. They were so clearly curious as to who I was and what I was doing there. There almost seemed to be some kind of understanding between us too. They are wonderfully fascinating animals and seeing so many so close was a magical experience.
These particular gorillas are an endangered species, threatened by the bush meat trade (where the sale of gorilla meat which, although illegal, commands a hefty price) and deforestation which not only removes their habitat but also due to logging routes, make hunting Gorillas easy in previously inaccessible areas.
Deforestation is a whole other rant. One night while out with Tom at a big roundabout in town, we witnessed a massive logging convoy. About 30 trucks passed us in one hour, each one loaded with three or more massive trees strapped on, which even in a quick growing climate like this must have been more than 300 years old. This, especially after a few beers made me quite angry. Reading up on it later in my Bradt Cameroon book, seeing the facts and figures I found it even more distressing. I was hoping to quote here, but the book was stolen from a work colleagues bag on here trip a few months later. A quick Google search later however and can inform you that between 1990 and 2005, Cameroon lost 13.4% of its forest cover, or around 3,300,000 hectares. And as if that is not bad enough, the rate of deforestation is currently increasing.
Coming to the end of my trip and with a bank holiday weekend to play with I headed down to Kribi to see the town, soak up some sun on the beach and go for a swim. The five hour journey was hellish, and a complete contrast to the journey to Yaounde. With 36 adults and four kids crammed into a 20 seater bus things were more than a little cosey. Add to this the fact that I was above the wheel arch so had my legs folded up for the entire journey, this was all pretty uncomfortable. And then there was the heat, ok at first but as the day warmed up and we headed south things became unbearable, and pretty smelly, yet I managed to upset the locals who didn’t approve of having the windows open while we were moving, God forbid should it take away some of the smell and heat…
Still, having arrived in Kribi, the first 30 seconds in the sea more than made up for the discomfort of the 5 hour journey. I got talking with a French chap, Guillaume, once off the bus. He had a cheap hotel booked, and was meeting up with a whole host of ex pats from Yaounde and I was invited to join them. I’m not much of a beach person but with the right crowd it can be great. I was welcomed by this group of French, Egyptian, Greek and German expats and had a great day and night talking, swimming, playing volleyball and football, drinking beer and eating fresh seafood. An absolutely excellent finish to two quite tough weeks. Unfortunately I had to leave my new friends playing volleyball on the beach the next day to catch a bus up to Douala for my flight.
This bus journey was shorter and there was more space (three of us spread across a row of five seats rather than the other way round) and I got chatting with the guy next to me who was from the Anglophone part of the country. Another interesting chap with the same opinions and frustrations of most of the local I’d met. Despite his education he is unable to get into a decent job and currently teaches English for around Â£35 a month. He is applying for a role within the governments customs department. He has a chance as his cousin already works there, yet it is still expected that he put down around Â£100 with his curriculum just to get it noticed. Apparently this is normal practise and provides no guarantee that he will get the job as others will be doing exactly the same. Now do the maths and you will that that is a huge sum of money for him (the average monthly wage is less than Â£50), and something he was having to visit his aunt for to see if she could loan him the money. It all seems so unfair, but the country is so corrupt there seems little hope for short term change. When asking what they think the solution is, most reply that God will provide, but even some of the most devout Christians believe that blood will have to be shed before anything actually changes with the current government.
In fact, the riots that hit the international news shortly before my visit started of as quiet strikes and protests against the huge costs of living and constitutional changes that the president wants to apply so that he can stay in power for even longer. Things got out of hand when opportunists started rioting and looting. Army intervention calmed things down, but the anger towards the government is clear to see and things could easily flair up again. Apparently the president is fully aware of his unpopularity, but fears that if he were to step down that he could be arrested and tried for many of his misdoings. Some say that as a result he will have to die in power.
Desire, this chap on the bus, was (like me) concerned for my safety in Douala. My flight wasn’t until midnight, but many recommended getting to the airport before dark. Desire offered to pick me up from the centre of the city on his bike and then take me to the airport (to prevent me getting ripped off or worse, robbed by a taxi driver). As it transpired he lived close to the airport and we figured it would make more sense that we get off the bus together and then he could drop me back to the airport. This was what we did, but not before he showed me to his home, introduced me to all his neighbours (the kids were immensely curious at seeing a white man and were touching my skin an hair to see what it felt like) and offer me the use of his shower after the hot an sweaty journey. This bucket of cold water with a cup was the best, most welcomed shower I’d had all year, and these experiences of seeing how the locals really live are what make these trips so special.
It was upsetting to see someone so clearly intelligent have to work for so little and hence live such a hence modest life (his home consisted of two concrete rooms that combined were smaller than my bedroom), yet at the same time so lifting to meet such nice caring people. Desire dropped me to the airport (the roads felt even more hectic on the back of a motorbike) and I felt pretty relieved to know that I’d got there without having to go into the city centre and that I was little more than half a day away from being home. Or so I thought…
Checking in turned out to be a complete fiasco as the computer systems failed so it was all done manually. Due to this and lots of queue jumping it took me three hours to check in. Once through and onto the plane we sat there for quite a while, the crew announcing that they were just performing some additional safety checks. After an hour on board they announced that the plane could not fly as it had a hole in the fuselage (interestingly it had made it from Yaounde to Douala with that hole in it).
More chaos, shouting and queue jumping ensued and a couple of hours passed as the ground staff tried to arrange hotels for us all. Despite being about 20 back from the front of the queue at the start I was probably one of the last twenty to be dealt with. After exchanging frustrated looks, I got chatting to an English girl, the lovely Lorna, who had as it turned out heard about me. “Ah, so youÂ´re the guy sorting out the rally that is supporting CWAF”. It turned out she was filming “Going Ape” for Animal Planet and had spent a lot of time with CWAF. Quite amazingly she was out there on here own with all the gear and had been in the country for six weeks. We got chatting while waiting for our luggage about her experiences in Cameroon (which were quite incredible – the sort of tales that even the most hardened backpackers would struggle to come up with) and travel in general. Just sharing the stress, exhaustion and rarity of the situation was a huge relief.
The following day while sitting around in the Hotel waiting for news from Air France we got chatting with several other passengers including a Swedish Expat who’s name escapes me and Mike, a English chap who had spent six months on VSO project in Cameroon.
Thinking that the previous night had been utter chaos, I was not prepared for the madness of this night. With little information of what was going on, we (all the Friday night passengers) were queuing up as were all the Saturday night passengers. With rumours circulating that there was only one plane for all of us, and that only the first ones to check in would get on. The carnage that ensued as people pushed, shoved and shouted their way was a sight worth seeing. The very fact that I was sharing this experience with my new friends made it all the more bearable, as did the regular trips one of us would do to the bar to stock up on beer. I was amazed at how well I tolerated it, but unlike others, I had no urgent appointments to get to. Our Swedish friend however, was trying to get to Paris for the weekend where some friends were throwing an Abba party especially for her. At this rate it looked unlikely that she was going make it.
After the six hours of waiting and mysteriously drifting back in the queue we finally checked in. This time we did take off (only 25 hours later than scheduled) although I wasn’t home free yet. We missed the connection at Paris, and when we did finally arrive at Heathrow (as we jokingly said that all we need now is our luggage to be missing) myself and Mike were called on the tannoy to go to the lost luggage desk. At this stage it truly was a laugh or cry situation. Yup, my bag was not in England, but somewhere between France and Cameroon (it did turn up a few days later, but not before someone had been through it and stolen various things out of it). Again, sharing the situation with others helped me take it calmly and I was impressed with myself that after the whole ordeal I had not got angry once.
Saying goodbye to Lorna and Mike I stepped outside of the airport to find it snowing! Dressed for central African climate, and with all my warm clothes in my missing bag, unable to reach my parents to find out if they were in (my keys were also missing) I finally had the sense of humour failure that most had had on the Friday night with the check in chaos. Thankfully the heated 140 bus arrived and took me home where I slept for quite some time.