Friday, February 15, 2008

The Grand Pecking Order

As I flew the final leg of my two days' worth of flights to arrive in Douala I met a half-Swiss, half-Congolese girl named Jessica who had previously lived in Cameroon and was willing to give me a few pointers on changing money and decent hotels. In the end, she suggested I check in to the same hotel as she, and introduced me to her local friend Julio who had picked her up.
As I caught my first glimpses of Cameroon through the windows of the taxi—work crews exercising along the road in the day’s first light—I was invited to Julio’s family's house in Douala. Their home was just around the corner from the hotel, a humble one-story cement structure tucked behind the overall din of downtown Douala. As we arrived, Julio's Mama jumped up from the ground where she had been hunched over a bowl, squeezing the moisture out of a white putty I later learned was starch for pressing clothes. The family was ecstatic to see their friend Jessica and were very welcoming to me, offering snacks and a local hibiscus and juice drink called folera right away. I struggled to resurrect the remains of the French that has rotted away in my brain for the past 15 years, and got my first tastes of the dizzyingly fast transitions between comprehension and seemingly gibberish as the family traversed English, French, their local dialect, and pidgin.
After a lunch of omelettes and baguettes with tea, Julio, Jessica and I left to get cash and my bearings. Stopping by the hotel on the way, I discovered that the crooks working the baggage at Royal Air Maroc had relieved my backpack of my small digital camera, my Chinese cell phone, and 3 Clif bars. Not the best way to start a trip and I had really been looking forward to getting audio and video on this trip. Getting over it, I was taken on as the adopted tag-along and invited back to join the family for beers that night. I had heard that Mama was particularly fond of Amstel.
When we arrived at the house, Mama had changed out of her loose, bright green patterned dress and into a black, better-fitting one. She'd put on a wig and lipstick and was clearly ready for a night on the town.

So the whole entourage walked to the bar about 10 feet from their front door, down the same alley, and took a seat at a table made from a giant wire spool, under a thatched roof, lit by one bare green bulb, illuminating the dusty football posters and Guinness ads that adorned the walls. A barrage of makossa music and the latest local hits such as Seka Seka and Don't Matter surrounded my jet-lagged and drunken head. Jessica and an extended array of family and friends gathered around. Mama and I tipped back Amstels as she declared that Amstel stands for “Aime-moi si tu es libre." Love me if you are free. Occasionally, the joyous Cameroonian music would overtake Mama and she would stand, clapping the first three beats of a measure and leading the rest of the gathering crowd in loud “eh-eh-eh”s on the polyrhythm. Just like that, I had arrived in Cameroon.


Having been taken under the family's wing, I was in their care for my first couple days. I had a few hours here and there to explore the city on my own and shoot some photos and venture into the cuisine. Douala struck me as a little tamer than I expected for a bustling West African capitol. The smells weren’t as pungent, the heat not quite as oppressive, and the noise not nearly as assaulting as I have come to expect from my travel destinations.
Douala, and indeed all of what I have seen of Cameroon is incredibly musical. Local and regional music is heard everywhere; the uplifting and lilting guitar lines that have always entranced me from Paul Simon’s Graceland
are brought to the fore in Makossa music. Seemingly every shop, every taxi, every restaurant has music playing and as opposed to so many people in the world, the Cameroonians generally seem to have a grasp on what a reasonable volume level should be.
With music playing everywhere, I've seen perfectly sane people take to dancing on street corners or in shops. It still impresses me that people constantly just decide to sing along, whether walking down the street or hopping in a cab. This too is just one of the many forms of community and shared experience that I have seen here. For example: taxis are always shared, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. One simply puts their finger in the air or makes a kissing sound and a cab will pull over. The desired destination and price is suggested and the driver honks his agreement. A moment later another passenger joins in, two in the front seat and three in the back. It is customary that a new passenger greets everyone in the car with a “bon jour” or “hello”. As I was later explained, if one doesn’t offer verbal greetings upon crossing any stranger, people think that the person is upset or doesn’t like the people they didn’t greet. This is vastly different from anything I have experienced before, and takes a lot for me to get used to, coming from the impersonal and individualistic West.
Aside from greetings and singing, the forced community of having to touch strangers while sharing taxis and buses seems to create a unity and solidarity that I have never seen elsewhere. I have heard multiple Cameroonians mention their "African solidarity" which I believe comes from these shared experiences. In China, where I have seen their indifference to injury or even death of their fellow countrymen, I wonder whether they'd be more prone to caring about one another if they had such intimacy together.
The reactions I get as a tourist in Cameroon are totally different from most places I have visited as well. There are moments of immense interest in my presence and astounding hospitality once I get into a conversation with a stranger, but as I walk down the street, I seem to be viewed with indifference or even suspicion. I’m still learning to read the local body language, but it is really discomforting to not have my smiles returned when we make eye contact. It’s not the unbridled wonder I got from Tibetans or the oppressive attention from Ethiopians, but is taking some getting used to.

Down Beach, Limbe


When I arrived in my second town, Limbe, a friend of the Douala family, Guy, had phoned ahead to have his friend Babi to meet me there. Babi took me to the nicest hotel in the town, implying it was the only suitable option for a foreigner, and took me around to the beach for fresh braised fish, poisson braise, eaten by hand with the black sand between our toes.
In the morning, I was actually a bit relieved to have a couple hours without an escort, so I decided to walk north from my hotel to shoot some photos. I walked along a rural road surrounded by plantain trees and with the ocean crashing along the shore below.
About 30 minutes away from my hotel and only about 3 photos in, I was called over to someone's front stoop.
After an initial first few questions about my origin and reason for visiting Cameroon, things went awry.
“So you is just walking around snaffing (snapping photos) in dis village?”
“Yeah, more or less,” I said. I didn't see any reason to lie.
“You can not jus do dis. The chief may get very angry.”
I'd heard about chiefs. I had read that it was generally polite to check in with them upon arrival. It hadn’t even crossed my mind to find one yet, since Babi had taken me around Limbe.
“Oh, then let me meet him then!”
Mobile phones were punched, loud talking in another language. I heard the word blanche, French for white.
As we walked down the street, one of the men filled me in. “Our chief is dead, and we not appoint a new one yet, but you meet da Chairman.”
We crossed the street and on the wooden front porch of another small home, I was directed to sit down, across from an older man with yellowed eyes and a plaid shirt sitting on a wooden chair;
“Dis de Chairman.”
I removed my sunglasses and greeted him with deference. I was excited at the opportunity to forge a bond with a person of stature.
“So ah hear you snaffing in (the name of his village, apparently no longer Limbe). Dis is not OK. You cannot jus do dis."
"I'm sorry, I didn't know that it wasn't OK. I have come to talk with you and make sure that it is OK for me to look around your village."
"No, you can not. Are you a journalist?"
"No, photography is just a hobby."
"Who you show them to?"
"My family, and friends who are not able to be here to see the beauty of Cameroon."
"No, you make money from them. You then send photos of naked children to your home and they think we are poor and naked!”
I assured him that was not my goal; that I am so much of a shutterbug that I end up covering all aspects of a place I visit and that I have no interest in making a place appear poorer than it is. After a fair amount of discussion led by the Chairman about the relative wealth Americans compared to Cameroonians, the Chairman laid down the law. He told me that my appearing in his village and “snaffing” was a crime in his eyes, that I could make money from my photos and that he needed to be compensated. He asked for CFA50000, about $100.
“Your choice; I will hold you here until you pay." The Chairman sat back in his chair and stared off down the road that ran through his little kingdom.
I protested, I negotiated, but I really had no leg to stand on; I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to properly deal with a Chairman. In the end I handed over the equivalent of $50, was treated to a nice cold Coke by his cohorts, and was invited to take all the photos I wanted. I wanted none. And I had to meet Babi in mere minutes.
When we met, he was distraught, and as we talked with more people, it was estimated that the Chairman was probably nothing more than a man on a chair. I'd been fleeced. With that story and the camera story plying the, mobile phone lines, friends and relatives of the people I met in Douala have accompanied me at every turn since; striving to ensure that I get a safe and positive impression of their country. They are doing a great job. So, counter to my past travel habits, I've been traveling in a pair or group the entire time and will do so for the duration of Cameroon. I've learned a few things about dealing with chiefs and men who sit on chairs, which I hope to not need in the next countries. In a moment, I'll be taken to a place where passenger cars are loaded up with unimaginable amounts of cargo to be driven to Nigeria. That’s right up my alley and I can’t wait!


Diving into a lake near Kumba (not naked)

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