Before leaving Douala, I was determined to collect oil from a restaurant that an eager French woman I met on the beach at Pointe Noire a couple of months ago had put me in touch with. The proprietor had been described as “une personne formidable” and, in the teeth of my husband’s scepticism, I insisted we should track her down. As it turned out, this woman, who had supposedly been saving oil for us for weeks, donated exactly the same amount as the people who had just been keeping for the last few days – 5L – which was about the same amount we used going up and down the road in the rain trying to find her place.
But those 3 hours were not in vain – if we were not so late leaving, we would never have been within internet connection range at 11pm (midnight SA time), which is when Sampson jumped out to buy a chicken kebab from a street vendor as a reward for his patience, and I went online quickly to email my Mom. As it was, I saw the news breaking on Facebook, just minutes after President Zuma made the TV announcement that Madiba had died.
I choked and sobbed, then Sampson and I clung to each other as we watched the aftershock ripple out from South Africa through the reactions of our friends. It was quite surreal to be ‘present’ in this way. In hindsight, I feel very privileged to have shared that moment.
By some miracle, our knackered old radio with the broken aerial managed to get a perfect BBC World Service signal as we drove a few kilometres north out of the city, so we heard Zuma’s speech followed by their obituary broadcast and emotional live chats with People Who Knew Him. To hear Jerry Dammers and co. blaring out from that little box in the dark was quite surreal; my life had suddenly come full circle.
I was crying over and over again. Why was I so upset? We’d done this once already: just before we left, in June, my colleague Cindy and I sobbed on each others’ shoulders when we heard a rumour from a reliable source that Madiba’s death was about to be announced. We’ve all been expecting it for months, for years. And yet, still, the wrench when the fact finally fell upon us.
I know some cynical British readers may struggle to understand what the majority of South Africans naturally feel. He was our Tata, the father of the nation, grandfather of us all and we loved him – for his sacrifice, for his dignity, for giving us ours. Sadly perhaps, I felt I knew more about him than my own grandfather, who passed on two years ago; now I felt more bereft. There has been too much death this year: dear friends have lost siblings, children, colleagues, all way too young. Our family has lost a brother, a mother and a grandfather in 6 months. Grief is, however, so much easier to bear when you can share it.
I lay on my bed into the small hours of the morning watching the banners on News 24 change from stark headline, to ‘picture of sobbing white woman’, to complete redesign of the page. I cried at that classic YouTube clip of Johnny Clegg doing Asimbonanga live when Madiba surprised him onstage. I have never been a fan of Twitter, and follow very few, but it comforted me greatly to see that Maverick journo Rebecca Davis couldn’t sleep either and was feeling exactly the same way I was at 3 in the morning; and to witness Binyavanga Wainaina, Kenyan author of the classic ‘How To Write About Africa’, getting slowly drunker and drunker and railing at CNN revisionism: “Mandela was not a teddy bear! Do not Rest In Peace Madiba, have a party with all those ancestors who perpetually refuse to status quo us!”
On reflection, I think my grief was supremely selfish: key moments in my life had been marked by Madiba’s presence, from watching his exit from prison in 1990 while I was fighting injustice at college in UK, to being sent to SA on a convalescent holiday just before the historic elections of 1994, to falling in love with ‘the New South Africa’ while watching a completely mixed crowd jumping as one in the street at the 1996 Obs Fest when he was, in the words of Ma Brr, our Black President. With two feet I jumped into commitment with the country with the most admirable Constitution in the world, and politicians who could dance with style. The decline in my faith began with the Arms Deal and HIV denialism, was accelerated by Soetwater, and cemented by Marikana, never mind Nkandla. All underline just how far the ANC has moved away from the principles Madiba came to personify. When he died, the idealism of my youth died with him.
I woke 4 hours later in the middle of a plantation Sampson had pulled off into the night before. I sat on my yoga mat so dazed, it was only when Ruby pointed it out, that I saw the lines of trunks stretching away in all directions were rubber trees, all cut and bleeding white sap. Old ones next to us were scarred like crucifixion pictures. I was so oversensitive from so little sleep, I felt their pain and winced. And all around me I felt these old scarred trunks intoning: a mighty tree has fallen, a mighty tree has fallen, a mighty tree has fallen.
Before he was given the name Nelson by the missionaries at school, the young Madiba’s isiXhosa name was Rolihlahla, ‘he who shakes the branches of the tree’ i.e. troublemaker. It’s a brilliant name, and I was very tempted to give it to my Xhosa son, but had to concede it was just too much for most whities to pronounce. In the end we plumped for Zola, ‘the calm one’, which suits the lad better anyway.
I did the first driving shift, as I knew I wouldn’t last into the afternoon. The road got steeper and steeper and more and more beautiful as we moved into the mountains through the Cameroonian equivalent of Ceres, miles and miles of fruit orchards bursting with bananas, papayas and pineapples – I had no idea they grew like that! The children’s ear infections were persisting and we had abandoned all idea of school, waiting as we were for the end of term exams to be emailed to us. I was remembering my Dad crying when John Lennon died and him trying to explain to 10-year-old me why he was so saddened by the death of a stranger.
Sampson drove through Bafoussam and other grubby towns in the rain, bouncing along a broken tar road while I cooked supper in the back ‘stand-up surfing’ style. My Mom phoned to say they were at the Bayside Galley having a meal and the staff had just done an all-singing, all-dancing tribute to Madiba. You gotta love Fish Hoek. We finally found a place to pull off and slept in long sleeves – for the first time in months it was COLD!
In the morning I woke up at 7 and reflected the stress would just be kicking off at the eMzantsi office at 8am on the morning of Carnival 2013. The sun was streaming down onto the schoolyard we’d parked in, and I felt decidedly less bleak. This was Bafacdjiu, one of the last Francophone villages on the way to Bamenda.
I greeted curious neighbours who approached and explained our mission. Hearing we were from South Africa, Mr Charles Mekontso expressed his sympathies for our loss. When I said “Thank you, the whole country is in mourning today”, he took my hand and said “Not just your country, all of us”. I nearly burst into tears again.
After shocking the crowd with our exercise routines, Sampson stunned them with some magic. They were completely thrilled and some were physically taken aback. But nothing compared to the reaction of an old lady who had asked if we had a container when I handed her a spare 5L plastic one. She was utterly delighted, as if I had given her an expensive gift. Sometimes this rural innocence is so humbling; I doubt many people in the ‘developed’ world could find such joy in such simple things, or even in far more sophisticated ones. When exactly did it become cool to be cynical? As we got into the cab, my husband said to me “You know, Mandela’s made me proud to be a white South African, something I never thought I’d want to be identified as. People here in Cameroon are less prejudiced against white South Africans than I am.”
We drove on through the mountains, the air so fresh it tasted like chilled water from a crystal glass, and tall purple foxglove-like flowers on all sides. We began to see collections of very pointy roofs, which all seemed to be for show, marking the Fon’s palace in each community along the way. I snapped a couple of pictures in passing of murals on one, but when I saw the completely sculptured walls of the following, I insisted Sampson stop.
This was the Santa Akum Fondom, and when we asked if we could take some photos, we were welcomed into the presence of Fon Fru the First himself. In English, he apologised for being in a tracksuit instead of more formal attire, but he said he was about to leave to travel to a funeral. He expressed his condolences for our bereavement and exclaimed “Mandela, SUCH a nice man! We have all lost a Father” before instructing his majordomo Georg Abam Mukong to act as our guide.
When I got back from the Fon’s Palace, Sampson said he keeps expecting the Chief to come out in a leather jacket going ‘Heyyyyyyyy’…
After climbing 2000m, Sampson steered down a spectacular winding road into Bamenda, heart of Anglophone Cameroon. We had no luck getting oil from restaurants on Commercial Avenue, but passed a lovely hour sitting in the rain drinking hot chocolate and getting news of the success of the eMzantsi Carnival parade while downloading pictures of the Madiba puppet our mapiko crew had made that made my heart sing. We were waiting for King Armstrong to arrive.
King Armstrong Fombillon is a friend I met during an intensive Arterial Network Cultural Leadership Training course in Cape Town in 2012. He’s only in his early thirties, but has extensive experience in the arts, as he was a child singing star and currently has his own TV production company. By painful coincidence, his grandfather, who was a year older than Madiba, died the day before him; and as King was taking a leading role in the funeral preparations, he could only spend an hour with us – but it was a very special hour. He had not met my family before, but was so charming a host, he insisted on jumping out to buy snacks for everyone, roasted peanuts and fizzy apple juice, which the children loved.
He shared with us his dream of an independent Anglophone Cameroonian state free of borders arbitrarily imposed by the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 and the shackles of an unwilling union with the Francophone South. The planned UNO State of Cameroon will stretch from Lake Chad to Limbe, including disputed parts of eastern Nigeria. King is passionate about the cause, and admitted he may be in line to be the new state’s first Minister of Culture! Before we left, he asked us to hold hands around the table and said a prayer for our journey; may he likewise be protected in all his endeavours.
Between Bamenda and Mamfé was the most beautiful scenic road but it was like motoring round Chapman’s Peak Drive for three and a half hours straight: relentlessly spectacular. My left thigh felt overdeveloped from constantly clamping down on the exhaust brake and I was exhausted from having to focus so hard. Zola was the best company in the passenger seat, reading gems from the Puffin Joke Book out to me. His favourite of the day: What do you get if you pour boiling water down a rabbit hole? A Hot Cross Bunny. My favourite: What colour are hiccups? Burple.
It was a Sunday, and we noted how whole families on their way to church were clothed in outfits made from the same print, like a team. Dresses had been looser in Southern Cameroon than in the Congo region, with an Empire line flow rather than fitted, but the closer we came to the border, the tighter they became. They were also more showy, with more sequins and more gold detail. Houses were equally more ornate, with a preponderance of curlicues. In Bali, a man in front of us stacked 30 plastic chairs on the back of his bike before setting off. Zola and I just looked at each other opened mouthed.
We stopped to buy the most delicious fresh carrots we’ve had on the journey so far, being sold from a huge bowl perched on a woman’s head. They were a fifth of the price we paid in Congo, as were local plantains, avos, and – treat of treats – potatoes! This is by far the most fertile area we have seen – why is Northern Cameroon succeeding agriculturally where other Central African countries are not?
Mamfé was the last town before the border, so I spent all our remaining cash on yoghurt drinks, dodgy cornflakes, powdered milk, biscuits and bananas. We all sat together cosy in the cab sharing a bottle of our favourite TOPS bitter lemon pop as I fulfilled the ritual reading of the Lonely Planet section on the history of the next country coming up. We were truly sad to be leaving Cameroon, especially as I had wanted to tour the Ring Road – a trip around the Fondoms of Northeastern Cameroon – but that was the week we lost to Sampson’s sore back in Kribi. Ah well, it’s another excuse to come back 🙂
That night, down from the mountains, it was back to hot and sweaty. Our Nigerian visas expired the next day, but we only had another 30km to go – how hard could it be? Cameroonian roads had been exemplary up until this point but I never count my chickens, so was working hard on ‘just breathe, just be’-ing.
Of course, today the road got progressively worse. We got to a spot where another truck was stuck in the mud and Big Reg pulled him out backwards. Half an hour later, we reached a far worse section, with traffic backed right up behind more than 100m of wet clay. I sat sweating in the truck trying to write this while the Sampsons went down to check it out. Zola’s eyes were very wide when they came back – an articulated lorry twice our weight and full of fruit was stuck fast with spinning wheels pouring smoke despite many logs shoved underneath them. Cars were sliding all over the place to get around it. Persistent digging by four strong men finally paid off, and after another hour or so, it was our turn. Zola and I went ahead with the cameras, Ruby sat with her Dad in the truck. We were all shitting ourselves.
That GoPro footage is possibly the ‘gnarliest’ (as the surfers say) of the trip so far – watch out for it on the Facebook page soon. I don’t know whether I was dripping more from the humidity or the adrenaline. Sampson made it look deceptively easy navigating the knee-deep clay, but Zola had seen earlier how others were struggling. As the Big Green Truck pulled through, our normally quiet son surprised me with an explosive whoop of triumph! I know the sticky mud was knee-deep because I fell into it afterwards trying to take a picture of where the truck had passed. This day was also Joy’s birthday – Sampson felt she and Reg were definitely up there, cheering us on and giggling.
Earlier in the morning we drove through a vast area where some brutal logging had recently taken place. The hill stretching to the horizon looked like an open wound, with red soil gouged by industrial diggers and remains of roots ripped out with great force. Sampson stopped the truck to film it, and there was an eerie silence, which felt funereal.
I was reminded that somewhere between Ebolowa and Kribi, I saw this proverb written randomly on the side of a van:
Quand un arbre tombe, on l’entend. Quand la forêt pousse, pas un bruit.
(When a tree falls, we hear it. When the forest grows, not a sound.)
May the echoes of Rolihlahla’s fall continue to haunt us; may his principles continue to light our way through the dark forest of challenges to come.
Written around 9th Dec