Sunday, February 05, 2012

East Cameroon/CAR

I've still been very busy, moving fast and often, and have not seen much internet at all since I last posted. Either the network in the whole town will be down or I'm just too exhausted at the end of the day to go looking for it. I've even met a guy running an auberge (the cheap guesthouses in Cameroon) that didn't even know what an internet cafe was....
In Ngaoundere I met up with a handful of PCVs and eventually followed one, Emma, back to Meiganga, the town that she is volunteering in. Yes Shean another female host though I'll have you know I'm a perfect gentleman (covered in many layers of rough). Actually, it seems that the only couchsurfing hosts in northern Cameroon are foreign females and they have complained to me that there is a huge lack of male volunteers in the region which makes some of the work harder to do, as a single female culturally is severely hindered in what she can accomplish socially. It must be hard for the local strict Muslim population to start taking seriously all these very forward, independent, single Western females that come in and start tell them what's what instead of focusing on raising their 5th child... I do wonder a little about it all because the way a lot of the volunteering work goes on here is that there is a huge bias toward empowering women. That's all well and good, and certainly the women need to be educated and stop tolerating the abuse they get, but if you don't change the mentality of the men then you just end up creating even more conflict don't you? Men are the aggressor and have much more power in this society and as women are supposed to submit to men (this applies to the Christian men too, the other day I saw a 5'1 female come to blows in the bus with a big 6' guy when he took her seat and wouldn't give it back. I was shocked that he was actually physically fighting back and people were watching, though he lost in the end.), how much does it help to educate them about things like condom use, when they have no say over its use in practice? Anyway, you've got to start somewhere I guess but it'll be a long time in truly changing over here.
The road 3 hrs south to Meiganga was the beginning of a nasty stretch of bad roads for me though it is being worked on like many of the others throughout the country. I was in Meiganga for 3 days hanging out and generally getting covered in dust and fighting off a cold. There is not a single paved road in Meiganga and the red dirt creates an orange dust that covers everything. Emma is the most brilliant person ever, having gotten herself a water heating coil so she can have hot bucket showers. Why didn't we think of getting one of those before? Oh the simple pleasures in a simple life. Some of these volunteers are living it very, very rough. All of them seem to have some local kid running a lot of their errands for them though like getting water from the open well down the street or doing basic shopping. Volunteers supporting the child labour scene? Hmmm...
Meiganga was sort of the beginning of the end for my lungs unfortunately. With the constant dust, sand, wood smoke and exhaust they've been more or less a constant worry for me, right back from early on in Chad. As soon as I left Meiganga I finally cracked, bought a new inhaler and have since been living on it like some sort of junkie just to get by. From Meiganga it took 8 hours to get to Bertoua where I met and hung out with (but could not be hosted by) some more PCVs. Got some advice from them and the next morning took the roughest ride of this trip so far to Kenzou.
Kenzou is a border town 210km east of Bertoua on a dusty, washboarded road travelled mostly by logging trucks with huge trees heading in from logging operations in eastern Cameroon, CAR and Congo. The companies send their worst buses out on roads like this so we were actually on some old beat up thing that has the smallest spaces to sit ever. It was physically impossible to put my feet on the floor, so I had to have them wedged up against the cage in front of me separating the front cabin from everyone in the back. I was wedged in like this for the 8 ½ hr journey. They could've rolled the bus and I wouldn't've moved at all. Fortunately I'd been forewarned on the dust factor and had my cadmoul (my Chadian head wrap) on to protect me as much as possible.
A funny thing about the transport here in Cameroon. There are many different transport companies with their own little compounds scattered around the towns, all serving different destinations. When you buy a ticket (and they don't charge extra for luggage which is a nice change from most of Africa as I recall) they write your name on it and keep it, and then call out your name and give you your ticket to get on the bus when it's finally time to leave. The only consolation to arriving early and having to wait so long for the bus to fill is that your name is high on the list so you board first and can get a good seat. Once you've got the prime seat you just start praying that the big mama won't sit on your bench and the one guy that's going to get off early does... 5 across on these benches is actually ok if the 5 people are all little butts like me, but heaven forbid 2 big mamas get the same row. Sardines have it easy then. For me the amusing thing has been seeing all the funny variants of my name on the tickets. I've had anything from Amone to Herman, Edmond, Emon, etc. The one time I tried Richard instead I ended up with Wiltord on my ticket. Is my pronunciation so bad??? Another nice result of all the road construction here is that transportation is getting cheaper as well as faster.
I went to Kenzou because Julia and Geoff, the PCVs posted there, were able to tell me about the border crossing with CAR and had a contact on the opposite side. Kenzou would also be the first stop on the road heading down to the southeast of Cameroon, which heads to Congo and is the most remote and challenging part of the country to visit. Unfortunately by the time I got to Kenzou I felt so bad generally that I didn't think physically I could make it any further and I also had some concerns about the amount of time involved to do so anyway. Mostly though I was just unmotivated and stressed. So I didn't go any further into eastern Cameroon, and I only did a day trip across the border to CAR.
Maybe just a single day in the CAR border town of Gamboula sounds like cheating for the country count, but I've been earning the lines on my map and I do actually have a story of doing something in Gamboula.
In Kenzou, because the PCVs weren't there (they were still in Bertoua) they put me in contact with some local friends of theirs and I ended up staying at one guy's place for the night. The following day he arranged for a friend to take me the ½ hr moto ride to the border (which is the main method of getting there anyway). There have been numerous stops for police throughout Cameroon on all my journeys but thus far I have not had any problems at any of them. It's actually kind of funny but I give them my US passport, they look at it, see that I was born in Canada and say “Oh, you are Canadian” even though I just gave them a US passport. In the Cameroonian mind Canada is interesting because we are the only 2 countries in the world that are officially bilingual French and English. Of course that means they give me crap for not speaking French to them also. I refuse to talk to uniforms in French. I only try talking French to people I want to talk to. I never want to talk to the uniforms, they insist upon talking to me, so I make it hard on them in the hopes they'll give up earlier in frustration. They also sort of randomly look at the pages pretending they know which one has the right visa on it. I don't think they really check. The occasional one will also ask for your vaccination card in addition to a passport in the hopes of you missing something but nobody has actually asked for money or anything yet.
So the 2 Cameroonian stops on the way to the border were fine also. On the CAR side I had to do a little bit of work to get out of paying the police and immigration but I had enough time for that because my moto driver realized his tire was flat and had to pump it up while he was waiting for me! I did get through after explaining I was just going for a day trip. If you just go for the day to Gamboula you don't even need a visa and they won't stamp you in or out either. What happens is that once in Gamboula centre the police station there (which is normally where you would actually get stamped in) simply confiscates your passport for the day so you don't head further into the country. Despite having a visa and technically being allowed to go anywhere, they treated me the same as the PCVs when they come across and wouldn't stamp me :( I walked around a bit and dealt with these police while my driver changed his tire and found Gamboula to be more or less the same as everywhere else around here except smaller. It would've been a thoroughly boring adventure if not for the fact that it wasn't actually my destination. Once we had a tire again we continued another couple of km to a Swedish Evangelical Baptist (EEB) mission and hospital where Julia knew some of the missionaries.

Gamboula, CAR.

I didn't even know their names or what I was getting myself into and just wanted something to do so I went over there and started asking for the Americans (it's pretty much all American now and the Swedes are more or less gone these days). Eventually directed to a very nice set of homes I met first Ellen, a young Swedish woman who had recently arrived and was staying for 2 months as a volunteer after just finishing med school. She then introduced me to the Cones (Jean and Kim), an older American missionary couple who had first been in the DRC (until evacuated 10 years ago) and then CAR since. They were very welcoming and invited me to stay for lunch and chat.
The stories they had to tell were incredible. They work with the cattle-herding nomads in the area, the hospital, some agricultural experimentation projects and other things in the region. The stories of banditry were kind of scary as well. The bandits mostly target the nomads because the nomads are a low class in the region and nobody cares to help them, and because the nomads have a large potential wealth in the form of all their cattle. Their herds have been decimated over the last decade or so, having to sell them off to avoid torture or ransom back their kidnapped children. Many are now being forced to settle down to a more pastoral way of life because they don't have the number of cattle necessary to continue their way of life. Sad.
In 2003 the Cones and their mission group lost literally everything to bandits and were forced to move to their present location working with the Swedish Baptist group so they could be close to the border and able to run if anything more happened. In the last 2 years the area has been getting more stable though. As I have heard also in Chad, they said that the most likely people to steal from you are your own guards and that the Muslims are more trustworthy generally than the Christians. Kim is also an avid hunter and has even done elephant and hippo culling for the CAR government. The things I never thought I'd hear a missionary say....
As further proof that the missionary world over here is small, they actually used to work with Grace Brethren (which later became ENVODEV in Chad though not in CAR) and they know (from a long time ago) the guys running ENVODEV now. Maybe I jumped in a little too deep when I did that bit of name dropping because I got a full history of major missionary players, groups and events in the area for the last 20 years or so, like I was supposed to know all of them. Oh well, it was interesting to once again be fully welcomed in and openly spoken to about what's going on. Kim showed me around the agricultural experimentation project (not actually run by the mission) nearby and Ellen gave me a tour of the hospital before lunch. The hospital was an eye opener, as they usually are in the third world. This one is apparently not too bad as far as these things go because they don't actually have to recycle their needles. Having said that, all nursing care is provided by family members, which means that outside the small one-storey buildings with the rooms for the patients it looks a little like a camp-out with families cooking, cleaning and sleeping outside all the rooms. There are even pigs and chickens running around on the grounds...
Surgeries are basic but they do what they can, though often too late. As I have always suspected, hernias are a common problem here and it's no wonder when you see the size of the loads they carry around. While I was there I saw a young woman who had been in active labour all day and having trouble with it. As I was leaving the compound in the late afternoon, I ran into Ellen again as she was on her way back to the hospital to the surgery. Apparently the baby had already died and the mother was a surgical mess....

The EEB hospital in Gamboula.

I returned to Kenzou for the night and have since made my way to the capital, Yaounde, via another night in Bertoua, thus finally linking up the lines on my map. My first thought on getting back on real roads again was how much I missed them. My first thought on entering Yaounde was how much I have not missed big African cities. I'm not in the same area that we were in the first time we came to Yaounde in 2008 and am getting a much closer look at how grungy it can be, by couchsurfing with a local in a poorer neighbourhood. I recall it being not all that bad as far as African capitals go, but really it's a sprawling mess and I could live without it.
It has been interesting to undergo the gradual transition from a hot, sahel Muslim area through all the intermediate stages to a now very Christian, tropical, humid region. It's the same country but feels completely different. There is a lot more fruit on offer here, it is cooler and cloudier and the people even look different physically in addition to their clothing, cuisine and architectural styles. The changes have not been subtle at all and I think it's only because this is the same country that there is overlap making the changes more gradual than they should be. I think if you took the train from Yaounde to Ngaoundere the abrupt change would make you wonder if you hadn't crossed a border in the night. Cameroon has been described as the complete Africa in miniature and it may be true. It feels like it has a bit of most major African ecosystems, and a huge diversity of peoples, cuisines, cultures, wildlife, etc. It's actually a wonder that this country hasn't experienced more tourism development than it has.
But then again, maybe it's not so surprising given the isolation it has experienced because of the turbulent history of all of its immediate neighbours. It has been comparatively quite stable but not without its own problems. Corruption is rampant but the police hassle of foreigners is slowly getting better now. I think things can and will improve starting with the improved road infrastructure being built. I have talked to many that also feel things are starting to improve, at least here. They seem relatively optimistic but I've talked to a bunch of locals in different areas that have expressed anger at the French and don't like Sarkozy. Figuring Obama would still be popular in Africa I was surprised to find out that they'd also cooled off on him a lot too. The reasoning is interesting. They are mad at Obama for allowing the French to kill Gaddafi in Libya (as they see it) because Gaddafi is/was apparently quite popular with his pan-African rhetoric over the years. You still see Obama everything anyway. Obama jeans, Obama hair salon, Obama cafe, etc.
One thing Cameroon has going for it is that it doesn't have the same sort of religious intolerance and extremism problems within its borders, like those that have plagued Nigeria and others recently though Nigeria has accused many extremists of coming from Cameroon to cause problems in Nigeria.
I read an interesting book the other day called Dead Aid. It's by a Zambian lady (I can't remember her name but I think the last name was Moyo) and is basically anti-aid in nature. I think she doesn't argue her points as much as she should've but I tend to agree with most of what she says about the overall effects of all the aid we pump into Africa as a whole.
Crime remains a problem here also. The PCVs have told multiple tales of armed robbery of their people here. One of my hosts was robbed with 22 other PCVs at gun point in a bar in Kribi last year and in December 10 other volunteers were also robbed at gun point after their home was broken into by a group in the anglophone northwest region.
Hopefully my lungs will start to recover but with the pollution here in the capital, they may not. I really need to do laundry but haven't been anywhere long enough, nor been in conditions where it would really even be practical to attempt it. I'm an idiot for bringing only one pair of pants and now they've become mostly orange instead of dark blue... My next destination and goal will be to briefly enter mainland Equatorial Guinea though I think it will probably end up just being another day trip type of crossing in the end. I really don't have that much interest in putting much effort into countries whose official policy is to make things impossible for visitors....
Sorry for not as many photos this time. I find I no longer even try to take photos out the window of buses really. I've probably got thousands of them already anyway and they just don't work out very well. Never mind that you can't move anyway when squished in the big mama row....


At 9:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love to read your posts.

At 11:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats on making it into CAR. And wasn't it handy to have that missionary connection? Keep up the good work. You're the best aspiring missionary I've ever met.


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