Saturday, February 23, 2008

If You’ll Be My Bodyguard, I Can Be Your Long Lost Pal

I first met Guy at the family’s home in Douala. He was younger-looking and soft-spoken, with a faint mustache. Guy tilted back in his chair and loped around the house with a bit of an egotistical air, so I assumed he was a teenager. When word got around that I’d been robbed at the airport and near Limbe, phone calls were made and friends and family were called upon to ensure that I was protected from further troubles while I was in Cameroon.
This was never explained to me, I just started seeing the pattern. Over the first few days, I was given a local’s phone number and met them when I got to town, and handed off from one person to the next as other commitments came up.
Guy showed up again as I was leaving for Buya and when I thought he was seeing me off to the bus to the next town, he got in and rode along. From that point on, we were partners.
At first I thought this was great; I was in no hurry to be taken advantage of again, and I was a bit nervous based on my initial experiences in Cameroon. Guy spoke enough English and I spoke enough French to get the point across, and it was nice to let someone else do the negotiations with cab and bus drivers, to ask directions, and to explain the things I was seeing in the marketplace.
Within a day, though, the presence of my partner started to eat at me. I had learned a valuable lesson on my motorcycle trip across China: it can be fun to have someone do all the question-asking and negotiating for you, but a big part of the fun is the adrenaline rush of not knowing whether I’d gotten on the correct bus, or the moment where the few words I know in the local language suddenly click and I am able to string together enough to communicate myself perfectly. It was nice to have the protection, but I also felt I was being robbed of part of the experience.
Another lesson I learned on the China trip is that it is fun to travel with companions. Traveling alone, it is difficult to share the humor and internal commentary on the things I see every day. With my companions in China, we made up names and phrases to describe the things we saw, and the inside jokes still rattle around in my head and bring a smile to my face from time to time. Sitting at dinner our second day together, I looked across the table at Guy and we suddenly ran out of things to talk about. We’d hit the boundaries of our shared language and experience and suddenly my partner seemed even more of a burden. Over the course of the day, my frustration had increased as I noticed that Guy tended to mumble whenever he had something critical to explain or ask of me. It was probably due to a lack of confidence in the language, and a habit he just wasn’t aware of. In any case, continually asking him to speak up or use different French words was quickly getting on my nerves.
I was wondering how long this would last, and knowing that Guy was out of work until April, I had surmised that he intended to travel with me for the rest of my trip. I would be footing the bills for all of his hotels, transportation, food, mobile phone minutes, and so on. And Cameroon is anything but an inexpensive country to visit. Hotels firmly at the low end of third world standards can still cost $30 or more per person per night, mosquitoes or cockroaches included. So I was paying a high cost for my protection in Cameroon. In the past, I’d chosen my own travel partners; this one chose me, and there would be no easy way of declining his assistance.
I turned to my camera and started reviewing the photos I’d taken over the previous days. After a couple minutes, Guy slid over beside me and watched the slide show as well. When I got to a photo of some food I had eaten during a few hours alone in Douala, he started cracking up.
“You know what that is?” Guy asked me in French.
“Yeah, suya! I love suya!” Suya is meat slowly barbequed over a fire, chopped into small chunks, spiced with cumin and chili pepper powder and served with slices of onion. Apparently the idea of taking a photo of the man who prepared my food was too much for Guy. He laughed hysterically.

Suya for sale in Douala

“Suya, suya!”
“I love it! Maybe we can have it tomorrow!” I suggested. This sent Guy off even further.
“Papa Suya!” he exclaimed, pointing at me and giving me a new nickname.
“Papa Suya!” I hollered back.
Wik-wik-wik, Papa Suya!” Guy said, imitating scratching the name across a turntable.
The chorus from Run DMC’s song, Papa Crazy appeared in my head, and I started freestyling, changing the lyrics to describe Papa Suya and how much he loved suya. It’s a simple song and I was able to span some English and some French in the process. When I rhymed suya with Buea, a rhyme that was dying to be made, it sent us both into laughing fits.
Later that night, we both ordered some drinks. I grabbed a “33” Export beer, the pride of Cameroon, and he ordered a Guiness Stout and a Coke. I know this is going to sound like blasphemy, and it is in a way, but in Cameroon Coke and Guinness are mixed together. I’d never heard of such a thing. Guy gave me a sip. The tastes actually seemed to be made for each other, though still not what I would really want to do to a Guinness.
“It’s good…” I said in French, before explaining that my friends back home would think this was crazy.
“I love it!” Guy crooned, imitating my love declaration for suya.
“What’s it called?”
“Gi-Gi Co-Co!” Pronounced with a hard G and a long E, just like Guy’s name.
“Papa Gi-Gi Co-Co!” I declared.
So, names declared and applied to each other, Papa Suya and Papa Gi-Gi Co-Co had our first inside jokes together. Maybe we would find a bond between us after all.

Guy, Jeannine, and Lucy, Buya's "Top Model"

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It’s Good To Be King?

My travel companion, Guy, and I eventually made it to the mostly Muslim town of Foumban. There, we stayed at what I deemed Hotel Sans Eau (Hotel Without Water) and were awakened every morning to the Muslim call to prayer. It had been a few years since I’d experienced that dawn ritual, and it served to remind me that, in addition to one god and 5 daily prayers, the Muslims seem to be steadfast believers in addressing the community through overblown and distorted PA systems.
In Foumban, Guy introduced me to Jean-Daniel, another friend of my Swiss-Congolese friend Jessica. JD was a genuine and soft-spoken man who lived in Douala but was in Foumban because his father just died from Meningitis. Over Cokes and beers that night, JD took moments to stare pensively into space and then engage me in conversation.
“It is time for me to make a change, Adam. I lost my mother before, now my father. I am finishing school for Communications, and things are to be very difficult.”
“How much longer until you finish school?”
“One more year. But with my father gone, I now have to care for my entire family. My brother and sister, they are still younger than I am and I must pay for their school. I need to make a change, and I do not know what to do. I am sad that Jessica was unable to bring me a camera,” JD sighed. “I wanted to take photos of my father, but now I have lost both of my parents. It is too late.”
As JD described his situation, and outlined the odds stacked against him, particularly the odds of finding a job in Cameroon after finishing college, my heart sank. Guy had finished school as an electrician a few years previous, but he is unable to find consistent work as an electrician, so he chauffeurs for a government employee when he is in town, and finds odd work in-between. Not the most hopeful of situations.
JD was so clearly intelligent, genuine, and sensitive that my mind raced for ways to help him. As I suggested he spruce up his resume so I could see if there were any possibilities at my company’s offices in France, he was very appreciative.
I felt bad though, as we talked about the abundance of jobs and the quality of life in the US. I felt guilty and as I often do when I talk with people in developing countries, I under-exaggerated our money and opportunities. It made me feel guilty thinking about the opportunities that are everywhere around me, and that it wasn’t JD’s fault that he was born into a much more difficult environment. These are the cards we’re dealt.

Evening Football, Foumban

The next evening, JD took Guy and I to the Royal Palace in Foumban. The palace is the home of a man who is at the latter end of a dynasty that has existed in Foumban since 1394. JD told the story of men leaving tribes and double-crossing other tribes in order to establish what is now Foumban, and passing down the role of Sultan of the Bamoun people from one generation to the next. The palace was enormous, and was encircled by several large buildings which housed the Sultan’s countless wives.
“So how does the Sultan decide when he wants another wife? Do women come to him?” I asked.
“No, he simply goes into the market or has his men speak to the woman. She comes by force,” JD explained.
JD took me to a larger-than-life bronze bust of the Sultan, who simply appeared to be a fat man with ugly glasses and military jacket.
“Want to take a photo?” JD asked.
I didn’t. I felt nothing but disgust. In my mind, I cursed the man whose image I was looking at. He was no better than the rest of the Bamoun people. There were people scraping together meager existences just outside his palace while he lived a life of privilege and had the power to acquire women by coercion, against their will.
The Sultan was just a man, lucky to have been born into his situation. As far as I could tell, no effort or work was required for him to obtain his position and his luxuries. His countless cars, his opulent home, and his opportunities were available to him simply by his birth. It wasn’t exactly the same, but I silently wondered whether JD ever thought the same of me.

Munching a carrot, Nkongsamba

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A Girl Gets Her Hair Cut in China…

…and the effects are felt across the world.
During my first day in Douala I noticed a Qingqi motorcycle, the Chinese brand that I rode with my friends in China in 2006. Now keen to see what other brands were represented in Cameroon, I started to keep track. Indeed, there were quite a few Qingqi K50s (as well as a knock-off, a Qyngqi), and looking around the city, the motorcycles read like any city in China: Sanlin, Lifan, Kymco, and Nanfang being the most common.
Many bikes are modified or given fake nameplates, including a couple Wonda bikes, whose font looks just like that of Honda.

Waiting for passengers, Foumban

The Chinese connection didn’t end there. As I explored the markets of Douala, Kumba, and Nkongsamba, it was obvious where most of the goods were coming from. Truckloads of brightly colored plastic sandals are for sale in the markets. A Chinese specialty. Soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, tissues, shoes, luggage, fans, televisions, VCD players, speakers, plastic chairs, and of course the ubiquitous knockoff football jerseys and name brand clothing, all made in China. A handful of “Chinglish” shirts seem to have made the journey as well, which seem to be worn with as much pride and innocent ignorance as they are in China.
I’ve been stunned by the seemingly infinite patterns, colors, and styles that Cameroonian women wear in their hair. The braids alone are woven into countless intricate and physics-defying styles that I have never seen imitated on the streets in America or on television. As my Congolese-Swiss friend Jessica later explained, the hair artists seem to forget how to create some of these styles when they leave Africa. Braids are just part of the picture, however. Woven into the braids, or woven into normal hair, are countless other styles of hair. Some of them seem to be made from plastic, but others are so downright convincing that it seems perfectly plausible that the funky flip the woman on the bus is sporting is her natural hair. In the marker, it was apparent how this all works.
Sure enough, in the markets, I've seen shops with large varieties of packaged hair extensions for sale. Looking at the packaging, the more expensive offerings are labeled with the assurance that they are 100% human hair. And all of the packages are labeled as Made In China.
It only stands to reason. With 1.6 billions heads of stick-straight, black hair, it seems a natural industry to take the longer clippings, style them as needed, and sell them to the thriving market in Africa.
The forced community of more than a dozen Cameroonians sharing a single mini van to get from one city to the next leads to some fascinating conversations. On the trip from Limbe to Buea (pronounced Boo-Yah!) a cop at a routine traffic stop took a particular interest in my passport. He never asked for the expected bribe, but took quite a bit of time paging through the booklet and examining every page, despite the protests of the crowd on the bus.
“Please, we beg of you to allow us to leave, we’ll be late!” shouted one woman. The cop finally returned the passport and as soon as the van door closed, the entire crowd got into a heated discussion about what had happened. Every person had something to say and offered it up to the rest of the bus. Some spoke in Pidgin, some spoke in English, some in French, and others in their local dialects. Two men carried on long after the others, mainly in English, discussing Cameroon’s corrupt government and police force, and centering the debate on whether “this is inevitable or whether we have done this to ourselves”. The men seemed to agree on their own country’s poor leadership in creating a difficult living situation despite a country rife with natural resources such as rubber, pineapples, bananas, timber and their port.
Engaging me, the man asked why I was in Cameroon.
“Well, just to see it, really.”
“And so you came to swallow some dust with us!”
It was true: we were on an abhorrent road, pitted every few feet and filled with loose, red dirt. With most of the windows open to add some moving air to the tightly packed bodies which were sweating all over each other, the dirt breezed right through the vehicle and stuck to the wet surfaces of our skin. The man explained that the road was under construction, based on new innovations the Cameroonians were trying to adopt based on work they'd seen by outside companies that had recently done major road construction in Cameroon. Where were those companies from? China, naturally.

Roads wreak havoc on cars

It turns out that Chinese road construction crews were contracted in to create high quality roads. Rather than employ local resources, they brought their own men, trucks, tools, and materials. “They even brought their own tar,” he explained.
It was unfortunate that the deal was arranged that way. I would guess that the Chinese knew their efficiency would be reduced by having to employ or mentor the locals, though it would have benefited the Cameroonians better if they had. As it happened, the man explained to me that only a few Cameroonians were able to learn the Chinese methods of road construction, and that they were to pass it on to the local crews for future work.
Later, in Kumba, I met a man named Elvis who explained to me the relationship of the Cameroonians and the Chinese.
“Well to be honest with you, they help us, but I really do not like their policies. They come to do fishing near the port in Limbe. In the past, we had small boats and all the fish we needed. Now they come with huge boats and there aren’t enough fish remaining for people to eat anymore. The prices are now huge, imagine paying 2000 CFA ($4) for a fish! How can someone feed their family?!”
Once again, it was apparent that Chinese efficiency has both positive and negative effects. For the benefit of Cameroon, and for the world at large, I can only hope that sustainable relationships are developed that have positive impacts down the road. In the meantime, in case you needed a reminder about whose millennium this is fixing to be, once again it is China that is cashing in at the moment.

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