Cameroun is our favourite country so far. As soon as we drove across the wide river Ntem we felt an instant change. In the scruffy Immigration shack the other side, the official got up and leaned over his table to shake hands. The noticeable drop in the quality of housing was matched by a marked rise in the quality of greeting. Does friendliness always increase in direct proportion to a decrease in wealth?
There was an immediate upturn in the amount of motorbikes, and people waving, often simultaneously. The forest was breathing out a scent of something like jasmine, perhaps from this yellow flowering bush? And there were three games of football in first three kilometres. Welcome to Cameroon!
We spent the night by the side of road, and woke to find we’d parked next to a rubbish tip. And what a tip it was, less landfill as land pile. It looked like villages for miles around brought their plastic refuse here. But at least they weren’t throwing it in the rivers like in most villages in the rest of the Congo basin, waiting for the rains to come and wash it all away elsewhere.
As we finished doing T’ai Chi, I greeted an upright man who was passing carrying a panga. Ten minutes later, Abdullai returned to offer us four enormous avocados as a gift. Bienvenue à Cameroun! He told us he was a third generation farmer, as his grandfather had come here from Senegal to buy land. He was 60 years old, strong as an ox and off to spend the day harvesting his cocoa plantation.
The warm feeling this wonderful gesture inspired could not even be counteracted by a diametrically opposite experience at the first roadblock. After an officer had already waved us along, a young policewoman came skipping over in front of the truck and coyly asked Sampson for a gift. I moved in and held out for 10 minutes against her wheedling applications for “a juice”, biscuits, or the Bakali rice cakes hanging in the net off the cab ceiling. So she ended up asking if I had a brother who might want a wife? I told her my brother’s taken, but offered to take her number and publicise her wish for a “white husband”; feel free to apply…
Cameroun takes education seriously: I’ve never seen so many schools. Every single settlement has their small école publique with a smiling skipping bunch of kids outside. The first day, we saw a rainbow array of school uniforms: pink, purple, royal blue, maroon or mustard yellow. The kids look simply gorgeous.
At Ebolowa, the first major town, we pulled over to buy new SIM cards for our JCB cell phone and internet dongle. This turned into a marathon couple of hours as the MTN bloke couldn’t work out how to configure it and in the end Sampson had to do a bodge job himself with Orange. But thank goodness he’d had to go in to sort it out, as on the way out of the shop, he just happened to catch sight of the gelatinous oil hanging off the diff. It was only our first day in country number six and already we were on Breakdown #8. SIGH.
Celestes, the manager at the Oil Libya service station, spoke to his friend Promise at the grocery shop, who called his mate Serge at the garage, who came down in his car. In between calls to our truck fundi Martin Graham in SA, Sampson worked out that the expensive synthetic oil donated by Sandown Motors, which was due for a change only in another 5000km, must have mixed with some original motor oil and reacted. Serge needed to strip and clean the engine sump but it was getting dark and starting to rain. We couldn’t – mustn’t – move the truck in that state so we had to stay the night right there. On a ringroad, slap bang in the centre of town.
Considering it was the equivalent of parking in the middle of Long Street, we slept quite well. We were surrounded by wonderful happy street vibes, with mamas under umbrellas all around us selling chicken brochettes until the early hours of the morning to bantering moto-taxi drivers. It was like there was a permanent party happening – and this was only Wednesday, so it must be a riot at the weekend. The music went off at midnight, and came on at 5am when the shops reopened for business.
Monsieur Fred, owner of the Ouila Bar we broke down outside, was very magnanimous about the truck blocking his custom: “You don’t choose to break down; it’s no problem”. A mechanical crisis always makes me feel calmer, as it puts more intangible stresses, such as mutinous daughters, into perspective. It becomes evident that you can’t push to make things happen; all you can do is go with the flow. I was just so relieved that Sampson had spotted the drip – we could easily have been on the dirt road to Kribi when the engine blew up.
At 7.30am, Serge’s apprentice Gustav got the sump off and showed us the state of the oil: it looked like Marmite jelly! The filter was completely blocked, and 70% of our oil was hanging like treacle toffee stalactites from the diff. They cleaned it all out there in the middle of the street, while I did T’ai Chi on the sidewalk, almost causing a couple of motorbike accidents due to gobsmacked drivers. We waited in the truck for a few hours while Serge’s cleaning product did its work in the engine, Mark on the bed resting his back, the kids doing schoolwork at the table, and me in the corner cursing, failing to load the blog. Cameroon’s internet connection turned out to be worst than Gabon’s…
We were kept entertained by passing Men With Shops On Their Heads. This is not a solely Cameroonian phenomenon – we’ve seen plastic hardware balanced in a bowl before – but here they take it to new heights: 5 giant sheepskin cushions; 20 pairs of jeans; 25 towels stacked sideways; piled flipflops, hi-tops or high-heeled shoes… I don’t take pics without asking permission, but later managed to snap a photo of this man who kept sticking his tongue out at me, so he deserves the exposure.
Serge returned, rinsed out the product, put new oil in and we drove a 2km test run to his garage. We were lucky that Cameroon shares the FCFA currency with Gabon (and Congo) so we already had cash in the safe to pay for his services. We filled up with water at Oil Libya on the roundabout and Sampson did a quick magic show for the huge crew working there to say thank you to that fabulously friendly bunch of people.
We decided that the dirt road to Kribi was too much of a risk at this point – what with the state of Sampson’s back and the unconfirmed stability of the oil in the engine – so opted to take the roundabout route via the tar. It was more than 400km instead of 170km but would probably take the same amount of time with much less fuel, wear and tear. It was raining heavily and we really couldn’t face another bouncy slog; we decided to get an early night and start again in the morning. I finally got some blog text loaded but gave up wrestling with the pics.
The kindly Reverend Pastor Eyenor allowed us to spend the night outside the Cameroonian Orthodox Presbyterian church. At dawn, I woke myself up sobbing. I’d been dreaming about telling someone what a life force Emmanuel was. It made me realise I’ve been neglecting my own grief amidst the concern for Sampson dealing with his. A moto-taxi driver called Daniel who’d been wanting to practice his English when we wanted to go to bed, was outside again ready for a chat at 5.45am. Sometimes keeping up this cheery traveller lark can be a challenge.
We took it in turns to drive. It was my shift through Mbalmayo so unfortunately I was unable to take photos of the surprisingly large brick cathedral, a huge sculpture of an Aslan-like lion and buckets of the biggest juiciest plum tomatoes ever by the side of road. At last bananas were cheaper and more delicious than at home 🙂 There were eagles soaring everywhere, circling in front of us, swooping over us every time we stopped, majestic, all-seeing, like the eyes of guardian angels.
Ruby sat next to me discussing Dr Christiaan Barnard and Zola wrote a brilliant story about a champion runner and was very pleased with himself. Sampson took over just before entering the capital, so thankfully was at the wheel when the truck got clipped by a lorry full of planks that was trying to overtake us on a hill. We were Very Lucky to escape with just a scrape and a mashed bumper. I think it adds to Big Reg’s charm.
Yaoundé is COOL. In every way. It sits amidst breezy hills and compared to all the capitals we’ve visited so far – Windhoek, Luanda, Brazzaville, Libreville – it’s the greenest city we’ve seen. It’s quite beautiful, with a town feel, but a city’s energy. Everywhere there are modern buildings with dynamic designs, interspersed with parks. Even the ring roads had sculpted green bushes, palms and benches inside them.
You could feel the excitement in the air for the upcoming match of the national football team the Indomitable Lions in 2 days’ time, with flags for sale on every corner and banners cheering the team on. There were tantalising adverts everywhere for cheap food. There was even a sprinkling of sexy young men with funky hairdos, one carrying a guitar slung over his shoulder. I recall something similar was a factor persuading me to stay in Cape Town in 1994; if I was 20 years younger, I’d be tempted to try Yaoundé.
There are lots of roadblocks here but, unlike Congo, you don’t get a sense the police are pulling you over just because they can. The first cop on the way into the capital greeted us most cordially, in the manner of one well versed in welcoming foreigners, and said, in English, “We’re all here. Cameroonian, South African, Chad, Guinea – we’re all as one, unite”. With so many cultures, religions and languages already in this country, it seems Cameroonians don’t need monuments to remind themselves how to treat each other.
Average number of people on a motorbike: two and a half. We have seen families of five. Have often seen two toddlers wedged between driver and mother. Most Cameroonian 4 year-olds seem capable of steering. Average number of helmets: zero. Things we have seen being transported on motorbikes: a bushel of bananas; a live goat; an enormous wriggling pig; an entire gardening service crew plus implements (hoes etc); and to top it all, another motorbike!
It was extremely hot and we spent a nightmare hour and a half driving in circles looking for the Nigerian embassy to ask about visa extensions. There was a bizarre exchange when a group of fireman and police stood around arguing about which way to send us. In the end sapeur de pompier Raoul jumped in and came with us, but the embassy had closed at 3pm on this Friday afternoon. After witnessing a chaotic scene involving five lanes of cars ignoring a traffic cop in the middle of a circle, Sampson pulled over in agony with his back and refused to go any further till after rush hour.
We ate and watched a ‘Carry On’ film before driving out of city at 8.30pm. It was a surreal juxtapositioning, to come out of late 60’s Britain into West Africa 2013. I subsequently had some very interesting conversations with my 9 year-old son about sexism and Barbara Windsor; hope he’s not going to be warped for life.
Once again, we witnessed how an African city comes alive at night, the streets packed, the markets buzzing. Yaoundé is a vrai café society. On every side there were people enjoying the evening, with chat and chilled beer in large bottles. And right in middle of it all, under a white awning, I saw eight rows of plastic chairs, two candles and a man in a surplice conducting Mass!
For the second time that day, I was grateful that Sampson was at the wheel when a huge articulated lorry in front of us had a back tyre blow out right in front of us on the dark road out of town. We slept that night on the forecourt of a petrol station called Green Oil. No really. It’s a local brand with the pay off line ‘Let us build a green world’. You can’t make this stuff up. Since then I have also seen a petrol station called Blessing. I’m just waiting for Nirvana and we’ll have the full set.
On the road to Edéa, we had that juddering problem with the fuel supply again, which was worrying as Sampson had replaced all the piping in Pointe-Noire. We turned back to Yaoundé, but running on bio-diesel for 50kms cleaned it out. At about 2pm, Big Reg had only got another half an hour down the road when I was waved down by a red-bereted gendarme. He told me to pull over because the road was temporarily blocked to all trucks. I drove up small road packed bumper to bumper with transport lorries and we all got out and flopped on the grass, watching the eagles circling around us overhead.
We played cards, Mudcreek, UNO, and then got chatting to fellow driver Jean-Bosco. I asked him if he knew what the cause of the delay was: a pile-up or a collapsed bridge? No, he said, the President had had a meeting with the whole Cabinet in Douala before flying back to Yaoundé, but the ministers were all coming back by road so trucks had to stay off the highway until 6pm.
Now, many of my readers know how quiescent I am in the face of blatant power abuses. Unsurprisingly, I armed myself with a sheaf of papers with ‘Official’ stamped on them, popped my cap on and trotted off down the road back to the gendarme. He referred me to the Chef, wearing a De Gaulle hat and an air of assured superiority, and we parlayed.
The Chef explained that the arrangement around the meeting of the President was “la loi” and I graciously conceded its inevitability. In French, I told him my husband was due to perform a small show in Douala this evening, organised by the SA Embassy. He reiterated about “la loi”. I said “Between you and me, my husband has a terrible bad back today and he won’t be sorry to have to call the Ambassador with a valid excuse.” He ruffled Zola’s hair, smiled and said we were good to go. At 3.30pm we were back on the road, and it was so empty – apart from the phalanx of flashing tinted vehicles driving four abreast that had to move over to get around Big Reg – that by 6.30pm we were in Kribi!
Written on 19th Nov