Spoiler alert! For those of you who go green with envy reading about tropical paradises: read no further, unless you want to be sick. Kribi is everything you could possibly imagine – white-sanded, warm sea-ed, palm-fringed perfection.
Google it because Sampson’s little underwater camera (the one I’ve been using since the disappearance of the Olympus PEN) couldn’t capture the depth of its blue gorgeousness. On any scale, Kribi is truly glorious, but our appreciation was keener because we really needed this respite. For the first time since we left on our travels in July, it felt like we were having a Proper Holiday.
Due to the delay accommodating the Cameroonian Cabinet’s entourage on the highway, we arrived in Kribi just after dark and celebrated with chicken and chips in a restaurant. Driving out of town to try and find a quiet place to sleep, once again we demonstrated our uncanny ability to home in on the president’s crib. Taking a random right turn we found ourselves in front of two guards with guns and a sign saying ‘Presidential Palace, entrance forbidden’…
Next morning, we drove further down the road south looking for the beach recommended by one of Sampson’s surf buddies. A rutted red dirt track opened into the wide vista of Tara Plage. Two men came forward to greet us warmly with handshakes: the hotel manager Serge and the owner, whom I later learned was the Chief himself.
Monsieur Thomas Mouri Ngouo is a giant of a man for whom the word ‘bonhomie’ was invented. His laugh is as big and generous as his widespread hands. After waiting for him to demolish an enormous lunch, I went in for a chat while the big football match played out on the bar TV. Much to the delight of staff and guests, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions thrashed Tunisia 4-1, a good omen. After I’d explained about Mark’s bad back and our cash-sponsor-less position, he agreed to let us stay for free. I mentioned 4 days. We stayed 12.
In our defence, the first 3 were mostly taken up with washing. I can add a footnote to Dr Schweizer’s comment about the fundamental divide between those who have known chronic pain and those who haven’t: there is another, between those who do their family’s washing by hand and those who never have. I think you can comfortably mark off one full day a week to that, which combined with a third of your life sleeping, doesn’t leave a helluva lot of time for much else.
All those idiots who wonder why African women are so underrepresented in business or the arts: try perfecting the art of handwashing – scrubbing ‘stubborn stains’ out with a stiff brush, wringing sheets and getting everything dry – in a tropical climate where 80% humidity and sudden rainstorms are all conspiring against you. It takes skill, capacity to strategise and a huge amount of time. My admiration for women who do it with babies strapped to their backs knows no bounds. I garnered a fair amount of respect from the women staff of the hotel myself; I don’t think they’d ever seen a white woman do her washing by hand, or teach her kids how to do theirs.
On our third night there was a storm so huge it rendered all previous ones ‘nathing’. I have always played down my kids’ fear of thunder and lightening, brushing off their wide-eyed enjoyable terror with “Come on, it’s spectacular, nothing to be afraid of” etc. But on this occasion, while they slept through, tucked up all cosy in the nose cone, I, marooned on the centre bed, at the mercy of the rain slashing through the mosquito net and pouring off the roof, the full sky sheet lightening flashes and apocalyptic cracks of thunder, was too frightened to get out of the truck and shut the door. On the equator it is far easier to appreciate the power of an angry nature. The sea was raging, and as the truck was parked at the top of the beach, it was only a small step to imagine how it would feel to be in the teeth of a tsunami: absolutely bloody terrifying.
Sampson spent the first few days at Tara Plage flat on his back in a lot of pain, hardly stirring from the truck. So it was quite remarkable, on fifth day, when the first sniff of a swell made its appearance round the point, that he was able to put in several hours jumping upright on a surfboard. He went out with Zola early in the morning and I could hear the whoops from our end of the beach. Local Peggi joined them whenever his hotel shifts would allow.
Meanwhile Ruby was asleep. A lot. Even the cockerels who would stand directly outside and doodle-doo their hearts out from 5.30am couldn’t wake her. She’d gone from regularly sleeping 10 hours to 12; when I let her sleep in she did 14 and was still groggy all day. In the last 4 weeks, she had morphed from grumpy to vicious to weepy and I began to be seriously worried about her – it just didn’t seem like our Ruby. Teenage moods are one thing, but this was something else; she was beginning to seem clinically depressed.
I checked back and worked out she’d been on the anti-malaria medication Mefliam for four months; in the package insert it advises no longer than three. In consultation with our invaluable friend, the ever-patient Dr John Parker, we decided to swap her off the once a week Mefliam to the daily Doxycillin – which we handily have a complete extra supply of because I couldn’t handle taking it. It’s not recommended for children under 12 because it affects growth, but as Ruby is now over 12 and as tall and heavy as me, it seemed the lesser of two evils. It has the added bonus of soothing her skin, which had also become viciously angry in the last couple of months. I’m so glad she’s not at school being teased to death.
The kids and I put in some serious study time, catching up on school projects that couldn’t be done on the road, like this one:
and trying to load blogs that I’d drafted weeks ago in Gabon but hadn’t posted due to poor mobile connection. The internet was loading at a snail’s pace but that kind of suited the Kribi vibe and I became less and less bothered by it. ‘Just breathe, just be’. I was thinking a lot about Emmanuel, my brother-from-another-mother, who died in the same week in July as Sampson’s Mum, and wondering how my team was coping without him in the final few hectic weeks before the 9th eMzantsi Carnival. Intermittent email left me unable to bug them with my reminders, which was probably a good thing all round.
Ruby and I sat in the shallow river water, warm as a bath in the last heat of the afternoon, watching our boys surf at the far end of the beach. A chic young woman with dreadlocks – very unusual to see – arrived, went into the river up to her waist and started doing the most amazing thing I’ve witnessed on this trip so far. This slip of a girl with powerful arms was pounding on the water, first on the surface and then making cupping and slicing swipes below. She was giving a lesson to another woman, purposefully producing the most extraordinary percussive sounds, with definite bass and treble registers, and cymbal tops! The rhythm was hypnotic, and the deeply satisfying sounds quite entrancing.
This was Lois Geraldine Zongo, better known as Tata (Auntie) Zongo, with her cousin Merreille. According to Tata Zongo, the art of water drumming, Abutuk, is unknown to 98% of Cameroonians. It is practiced exclusively in the Kribi district, and only by a handful of families who jealously guard the secrets of the form. It is not to be undertaken lightly, as it is a ceremonial honouring of the spirits of the water, and is passed down from women to their daughters during those long washing days. Young boys can take part only until puberty, when the vibrations of the practice are considered too dangerous to their manhood. Paradoxically the vibrations are apparently good for people with wombs.
Zongo has revived the art in Paris where she now lives, but she was here giving her cousin, who hadn’t done it since she was a girl, a refresher course, because they were rehearsing with their aunts for a show promoted by the Chief in the second week of December, sadly after our Nigerian visas expired. But you can see examples of Zongo playing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsKtxThzZL0 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qlGyzVoFy8 How incredibly lucky were we to witness it live? Who will help me find sponsorship to bring it to South Africa as part of Africa Clockwise the theatre show in 2016?
Tara Plage was a fabulous setting for water drumming, where a tributary comes to meet the sea. Sampson loved surfing in near ‘fresh water’. The river changes radically daily – sometimes it’s just a trickle, a skein of water over the beach, building up, as Zola and I witnessed one morning, to a torrent that gouged out a gorge too deep to cross within an hour. A day or two later, the ebb and swell had snaked across the sand, carving a lovely run for his new favourite game ‘motorboat’ – dragging his racing car up and down on a string inside his sandal. Those HiTec shoes sure wear well…
On the first day at Tara Plage, the kids and I walked down the beach and came upon an idyllic scene: a rustic beach restaurant of faded mauve-painted chairs, decorated with coconuts, sprigs of fuchsia bougainvillea and red and yellow hibiscus blossoms. Paulo the fisherman/beachcomber/chef offered to cook us a meal that night and very kindly did some veggie shopping for us at the same time. He and his brother Joseph whipped up delicious shrimp, bar and barracuda in a garlicky, spicy sauce with fresh herbs, rice and fried plantains. We gobbled it down by the light of a torch.
We decided this was a perfect setting for the satellite dish-like solar cooker that had been donated to us by SunFire Solutions. It works brilliantly, but it is just too big for us to unstrap and use regularly so we wanted to pass it on to someone deserving. The next day, Paulo and Joseph came to help us get it down off the back of the truck.
We had to wait a couple of days to give Paulo his solar cooker lesson because it was cloudy. He was late, but that wasn’t a train smash as it’s good to practice the technique at 3-4pm when the focused rays are not fierce enough to burn your hand in mere seconds. Sampson did a demo and cooked an egg, and then the fishermen had a go with a shrimp and a small fish. We made a date with Paulo for the next day, promising to invite hotel guests along for a solar cooked lunch.
Promptly at noon the next day, us four, three young Frenchies, and another couple were waiting at Paulo’s place. We’re used to African time, so we’d brought schoolbooks. At 1.30pm, the others gave up and went elsewhere for lunch; at 2 we went back to the truck. It was the second time Paulo had let us down, as a few days previously he’d taken money to buy us “a fish as big as your arm” which had never materialised, though he had turned up completely drunk with a small frozen specimen, which we’d declined. This was one too many for Sampson. At 2.30pm, Paulo turned up outside truck remonstrating, but having railed at his wife for being slow to buy provisions, did admit the fault lay with him. We shook hands. Sampson gave the solar cooker to Serge.
With the cooker removed, we could also get the bikes down more easily. We’d been looking forward to arriving somewhere we could park off long enough to make it worthwhile to unstrap the Merida bikes, somewhere safe enough where they wouldn’t get stolen. I was amazed to find that Zola is now tall enough to ride the smaller one.
So the next day, Zola and I set off to town to get much needed supplies. We cycled about 5km in intense heat, slaloming round potholes while being constantly overtaken by zooming moto-taxi bikes. I had to keep reminding myself to check right for oncoming traffic despite a lifelong habit of checking left. My heart was in my mouth as Zola went ahead of me, his toes barely pressing the pedals at full stretch. I think he was as scared as I was, and I was very proud of him for keeping his cool.
We stocked up with our current staples: tomatoes, onions, peppers, cabbage, bananas, plantains, eggs and yoghurt, and sorted out my internet connection in a blissfully icy Orange shop. Zola had cow’s foot soup for lunch – “It’s good for children” according to Michelle at the bar minding our bikes – and he was happy to dip his baton of manioc in the soup but we couldn’t work out if you were supposed to eat the gristly pad. We were too overloaded to bike back, so took a tri-moto taxi: a motorbike with a box on the back into which we managed to squeeze both bikes, both of us and two bags of shopping. The driver told us that the policeman who sits at the guard box and waved us tourists past when we arrived, takes 500FCFA off every taxi, every day.
We met some real characters at the Tara Plage Hotel, whose clientèle encompasses European tourists – the first we’ve really seen thus far – as well as locals and foreigners from Douala and Yaoundé coming for a break. The latter were mostly French, with some Americans celebrating Thanksgiving.
After doing his stretching exercises one morning, Sampson was accosted by Monsieur Jean-Pierre Tosi who congratulated him on his fitness and said he too was a “vrai yogi”. Currently organising horseracing in Cameroon, M. Tosi was a champion clay pigeon shooter in his youth and said he’d introduced yoga to the French Olympic team. He still does it every day and asked us to guess how old he was – what do you think?
He’s 73! M. Tosi insisted on giving Sampson 2 bottles of vin champagnoise – one for now and one for Xmas – as well as chocolate bars and biscuits to the children. You got the feeling he always has a supply of champers on hand, just in case.
Unlike fit M. Tosi, we have seen many examples of a particular brand of Frenchman in Africa, often portly and balding, or with bad teeth, in the company of a stunning, much younger woman who happens to be black. We first noticed this discrepancy in Point Noire; so far there’s been no evidence of it happening the other way round.
Sampson christened these chubbies with supermodels on their arms ‘Scrumpers’ as they are taking something that doesn’t rightly belong to them. Not because they’re not handsome enough, or because they have a different skin colour, but because they’re appropriating the young lives of their consorts. I’d like to think they all have sparkling personalities, but it’s far more likely it’s their chubby wallets that attract. I found it unutterably sad, empathising as I do these days with young women not as peers but as daughters – what on earth do their mothers think?
 like those who steal ripe apples from orchards.
On Friday night, we treated ourselves to a proper meal at the hotel restaurant. The children asked the long-suffering Serge what the meal with the biggest amount of chicken in it was. The resultant enormous tomatoey herby casserole baked with plantains, carrots and grean beans was scrumptious. We thanked Serge by giving him some of his favourite mango sauvage. We’d bought a lump from one of the women who throng the payages with goods to tempt drivers. It was a hard waxy mound of a pungent cross between parmesan cheese and dried fish made from the insides of the mango nut amande. You grate it into your sauce for flavour and it is considered a delicacy, somewhat like truffles. It’s the only new food on this trip so far that all four of us have found equally revolting.
That night we met the gorgeous Beatrice, a young mother of three from Yaoundé, and proponent of modern African chic, displaying a vivacious and colourful style with bold prints, large earrings and superfly glasses. She was selling costume jewelry, but is a high school geography teacher, and was here with a large crowd from her husband’s company who were having a teambuilding weekend. Beatrice was so interesting and interested, I felt I’d made an instant friend and wished I had time to get to know her better.
Her husband Christopher Sone Nkoke was no less fascinating. He works for LAGA, the Last Great Ape Organisation, as a wildlife law enforcement officer, and has written the most beautiful book documenting Cameroon’s Class A endangered animal species. He spends much of his time undercover, infiltrating illegal smuggling operations, making on average one arrest per week. His job is very dangerous, and I can’t include his photo at the risk of revealing his identity. Now there’s a smash hit African TV series just waiting to happen: ‘Conservation Cops’ – I’d watch it, wouldn’t you?
The next morning, Sampson seized the chance to interview Anglophone Christo before he left, and while they were talking, I had a chat with a group of his colleagues. Elvira (who did her Masters on comparative online attitudes to HIV amongst youth in SA and Cameroon) and Brenda from the Anti-Corruption Organisation especially impressed me with their intelligence, passion and commitment. The discussion ranged from the challenges of educating the population about how important it is not to kill bush meat, to how the strategies of President Biya continue to undermine any credible opposition in the country.
Brenda was telling me about how a threatened general strike in 2008 was quashed within 24 hours with a massive government crackdown by his secret security force. She dislikes the President but can’t help admiring him for his shrewdness in continuously manipulating so successfully that any potential opposition is hamstrung within weeks. President Biya is 85 and has been in power since 1982. After 30 years, most Cameroonians are beyond weary and cynical about the whole situation, but Brenda can’t understand “why we just take it, let it happen?”. Several people have said to me “Cameroonians are not like Congolese – we like peace”. Apparently the majority is not wired to challenge the status quo.
I spent many hours on the hotel stoep, watching the sea and the lizards scurrying across the tiles. They start pale with green speckles but, as they get older, their bodies grow increasingly black and their heads increasingly orange, so as they age they seem to get more angry, especially as they bob their heads aggressively before chasing off other punier specimens. They reminded me of my Dad in one of his more fuming moments. (Love you Dad). I dropped my laptop on those tiles one heart-stopping morning: it just slipped from the cushioned carrying case directly onto the marble floor, and bounced – which is why it’s called a MacBook Air I guess. The lip got rather dented, but the workings are unaffected. Bless you Steve Jobs.
We had wonderful news from our dear friend diagnosed with cancer, who thankfully got the all clear after her procedure. On our second to last day at Tara Plage, while Sampson was repacking the roof, the kids and I walked an hour and a half down the beach around three bays, to a famous waterfall that drops directly into the sea, les Chutes de la Lobe. I was surprised how touristy it was, with touts offering pirogue rides into the forest to see “monkeys and pygmies” and painting and trinket stalls. Ruby took advantage of the early Christmas spirit and snapped up a rather nifty bikini and a turquoise print dress her Fairy Godmother would be proud of…
To show our appreciation for his hospitality, we had promised to give un petit spectacle to some of the 18 children of the Chief, the self-styled ‘sorcièr bantu’. After several days when it was too windy for messing with fireclubs, the family Sampson managed to perform a half hour show. I opened with Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’; Sampson did some of his juggling routine from busking days circa 1996; the kids had learned a magic trick each; Sampson did his magic then the Walk of Death, translated by me as ‘Le Marche de MORRRRRRRRRRTE’ with poor old Serge as the victim/volunteer underneath his fire clubs. The kids and I did the Parafina closer to Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ on the balmy beach by night – not quite the setting Liam had in mind when they wrote it, I’m sure, but I daresay he would approve.
We also did another SIAT Green Oil Swap with Chef James Edo from the Tara Plage kitchen, who as well as donating 5L of used oil, was so kind as to chop the tops off some fallen coconuts, perhaps the very best thing to drink when you’ve been sweating buckets repacking the roof for hours.
We were all set to leave the next day, but while packing, I made a grim discovery: rain from the storm ten days ago had poured off the roof in through the big window just long enough, before I could pull it shut, to leave a small puddle inside the tinned food locker… and now the inside was all covered in mould. Likewise in the storage space under the table. Everything was in plastic bags but the water had seeped in, so we had to hang all the big towels and spare sheets to air. However, on the bright side, this day’s delay allowed Sampson to interview Zongo when she came back to the river to rehearse with her aunts.
While he set up the camera and chatted with her, cousin Merreille explained to me how sad she is that her 15 year-old son speaks only French, and not her mother tongue Bulu. A former airhostess who has travelled widely, she respects the north-western Cameroonians who jealously guarded their culture and heritage against colonial infringement. She told me that some still so venerate their king or ‘Fon’, that if he spits they will run to gather it and smear themselves with his saliva. They believe the blessing of his water will bring them good fortune.
Written around Dec 1st