Sunday, February 24, 2008

I Go Chop Your Dollar

A clando car in Kumba

When Guy and I checked in at the Kanton Hotel in Kumba, I saw that the previous guest in the register was listed as Mr. Elvis. Having written witty or obnoxious things in foreign hotel registers myself, I joked with the steel-faced desk girl about how she had very elite and deceased guests. She failed to see the humor.
And the joke was on me, when we emerged from the hotel to be greeted by someone that recognized Guy.
“Hello! That was easy!” shouted a rotund, shaved bald man in a striped shirt as he shook hands with Guy. “My name’s Elvis,” he said, extending a thick hand to me.
It turns out that another one of those phone calls had been made and Guy had another connection in this town and he had just begun to look for us. Elvis was living in Kumba for his job, while his wife and child lived in another city. As we walked the town, full of the energy I got from my cold shower, I soaked in Elvis’ infectious enthusiasm as well. With this guy, everything was huge, from his belly to his laugh to his voice to his words.
“Can you believe this town?! There is so much damn dirt! How much do you love Obama? He is so god-damned the best!” Elvis shouted through the cloudy air.
Elvis loved the world and I loved Elvis for it.
“You know what makes me happy?” Elvis shouted to me while Guy went on one of his countless little chases after a solo girl.
“What’s that?”
“Girls! Man, I just love to see them, they make me happy!”
“Hah, yeah, me too! I think that’s something we all enjoy, though maybe no one does as much as our friend Guy here!”
“Man, I just love them! You know what I love the most?! Buttocks! Man, just like that! I love them!” We slapped a high five and then shook hands Cameroonian style, snapping our middle fingers together after the shake.
“You know what we have a problem with here in Kumba? Overpopulation—of churches! We just have so many god-damned churches!”
“I had noticed that!”
Guy howled with laughter.
“You wouldn’t believe it! They are everywhere! You see, it is a business, mostly coming from Nigeria, and I think it is just a scam really. You can’t substitute for hard work, and praying all the time for something to happen to your life will never get you anything. I see people they just give all their money to the church and what does it get them? The priests all drive nice cars and the people are still hungry and frustrated. What is the point?!”
At that moment, a cacophony could be heard down the street.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“Hah, a church of course!” We walked over and peered through the windows, watching a packed hall full of revelers led by a woman shouting over a screechy music track. The entire crowd was on their feet, clapping, singing, dancing.
“Can you believe it?! Incredible!” Elvis screamed, slapping me another high five.
“And they are all from Nigeria, eh?” I asked. “You know, my itinerary skips Nigeria completely because whenever anyone hears the word ‘Nigeria’ in America, they think of that email scam.”
“Oh, 419 scams! Yeah, they are all about that! Say, have you learned any Pidgin yet?”
“No, not really. I know that chop is food or to eat, and that’s about it.”
“Oh you got to learn this, it will blow your mind! You won’t believe it!”
So Elvis taught me the lyrics to the song I Go Chop Your Dollar. They go like this:

I don’ suffah no be small
Upon say I get sense
Povaty no good a all, no
Na I’m make I join this bizniss
419 na jus a game
You are da loosah, I da winnah!
Roughly translated, the singer is saying that he has suffered and turned to 419 scams as a way to make money. It’s just a game in his mind and he wins by stealing your money!
That night, Elvis taught me a handful of useful Pidgin words and phrases. Nigeria remained a topic of conversation. Being just a short drive from Kumba, Nigeria is a big trading partner and Kumba is a big trade hub in the process.
“Oh man, you know what you got to see? These cars in Kumba, you won’t even believe them! They will blow your mind! They import normal old cars from Europe and then they put extra large shocks under them, and use stacked up parts of old tires to make them very tall. They call them ‘clando’ and they pack eight people inside and then they can take anything on top or on back! They can carry up to 400 liters of oil!”
“No! I have to see that!”
“You got to see that, you won’t believe it! Incredible!”
And Elvis was right, he took me to the clando park a couple days later, and the cars were just as incredible as he described. Empty, the cars were so jacked up that the rear end was several inches taller than the front. Loaded down, the cars rode nearly level. The shocks gave them the smoothest ride available on the rough rural roads, as well as enabled the capacity needed for large hauls.
Elvis also took me to a tiny seaside town named Idenau at the end of my stay in Cameroon where people load up enormous wooden boats with more cargo than one could imagine. They put two engines on the back and two on the sides, weighted so the nose of the boat is far in the air, and they cruise off to Nigeria with more goods. It wasn’t clear how regulated the commerce was with Nigeria, but considering how dey chop me dollah, I no trust dem fatha den I tro dem.

Boy in front of boats at Idenau

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