Hopeless in Cameroon
The first day in Fundong I spent riding around on the back of Leos motorcycle, searching for a decent living situation. Leo still could not understand why I was not satisfied with the dark, damp basement he had chosen for me. The places I wanted to rent where all taken by government officials or rich Cameroonians who visited their family village once a year. The majority of the population lived in different variations of mud huts with dirt floors. I was extremely jealous when I saw the apartment the Peace Corp volunteer, Kim, had been given, located above my poor dwelling. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction, she was from Portland and recently had been living in Seattle. When I offered to share the 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment, I had forgotten the Peace Corp forbids their volunteers from living with foreigners. This would distract them from integrating into the rural community. While we were looking for rentable places, we ran into Kim again, who was meeting with her Cameroonian peace corp supervisors from Yaounde, the capitol. I mentioned that I was desperate for a comfortable place to live, at which point, a well dressed, tough looking man who was with the two women supervisors, offered a house he owned in the next village. I assumed from the way he was carrying himself, he held a position of responsibility. Leo was so relieved that we had found something, he didnt mention how far from Fundong I would be.
We met them a few hours later in Njinikom, a distance of only twelve kilometers that takes twenty five minutes on curvy mountain roads. The house was located at the bottom of a dirt road, surrounded by high walls and a locked gate. The distance bothered me and once I was in the house, I was less than satisfied. The house was filthy, the bathroom barely functioning and the kitchen less than that. The owner Mathias, and the two women officials from the Peace Corp, kept repeating that he was doing me a favor and I should be appreciative for the offer. Being very desperate, I thought once he had it cleaned I could survive there. I was stunned when he asked for $150 a month rent but being in town one day, I was still learning. Stupidly I gave him $100, feeling pressured to make a decision since they were driving back to Younde, six hours away. Leo seemed relieved. I had found a place but within a few hours after, I realized it was a bad decision. Leo,obviously never dealing with an American woman like myself, suddenly began blaming me for not asking his opinion before I gave a deposit. I realized that besides the living situation, I also had to deal with a strong, macho male who was not used to an outspoken female.
The next morning Leo called Mathias and told him that we had decided against the house because of the distance and would he please return the $100 with Western Union. At the same time, Matta, the owner of my basement room, a woman who had been so gracious and charming when I arrived, became hostile and nasty when she found out I was moving . Leo, feeling pressured and responsible, remembered he had a distant cousin in the town of Bamenda, who owned a nice house in Fundong that he rarely used.
Saturday we decided to make a trip to Bamenda to see if this idea was viable. Without your own vehicle there are two choices of transport in northwest Cameroon, both extremely unpleasant and unsafe. The well worn, crusty public bus which leaves only when it is full(up to a two hour wait) and the taxi brousse (shared) which also leaves when its full with 7 passengers and a driver. It is hard to compute how 8 people can fit in a car for five, it is also extremely unpleasant if you are in the car. I always buy two places for myself and demand to be in the backseat. In the front seat, one person sits between the driver and the gear shift and the other two are extremely intimate. Besides the seating arrangement, the brakes and clutch are barely working, the front window is usually cracked in several places, and the side windows do not open. After this unpleasant 1.5 hour excursion, we went to the mobile phone company MTN to inquire about the possibility of adding the internet to my computer. The office was just closing so I knocked on the window to see if I could get some information. I was immediately confronted by a hostile guard who told me to come back Monday. When someone finally opened the door, they too refused to give me any information. Service of any kind is nonexistent in Cameroon. If you are sold something that is damaged (half the things you buy are broken) or buy the wrong thing, you can never return it.
Before we visited the relative who owned the house in Fundong, I had to deliver a package to a family in Bamenda. A week before I had left the States,I had called to buy a mini video cam and mentioned that I needed it sent quickly because I was leaving for Africa. The man taking the order asked where I was going as he was from Africa. By the end of the conversation, stranger than fiction again, he was from Bamenda in Camroon and I offered to take a package for him to his parents. His father met us wearing a traditional caftan usually worn by Muslims but he also was sporting a large cross. He wanted us to come back to his house but we were both in less than social moods so we declined and promised to call him on the next visit.
We took a taxi to the home of my potential landlord, hoping that he would agree to our proposal. We arrived while he was taking a nap and his wife, a much younger woman, made no offer to wake him up. We sat for almost two hours waiting for him, without being offered even a drink of water. The brief bio Leo gave me on this guy was that he worked in some capacity for the government and was a teacher of gymnastic teachers, as well has owning a restaurant and various houses in the northwest of the country. When he finally woke up, he walked into the room barely acknowledging our presence. Arrogant, condescending and a definitely macho, he nodded in agreement that I could probably rent the house for a month and that he would be in Fundong on Monday. After leaving his gated, walled compound, I received a phone call from Mathias, screaming that he would not return my $100 because I made an agreement with him and he knew that in the States you can never get a refund on anything. Rather than argue with him, I told him I would report him to the Peace Corp at which point he screamed louder and said he didnt care at which point I hung up.
Back at my cold water flat, the landlady was threatening Leo that we would have to pay 84,000 cf francs to compensate her for the sheets, blankets and bed she had bought for the apartment she owned. Finally the gym teacher jock never came to Fundong, stopped answering his mobile phone and after our second visit to his house, when we were told by his wife that he never mentioned renting their house in Fundong, I realized he had been disrespectful from the first day I had met him. After seven days, we finally found a place I could deal with for a month. It had a bathroom and kitchen, the only drawback being I had to buy a mattress, a cook stove and a propane tank. Martin, the guy from Wales who had recruited me, never mentioned the dire conditon of this village or that rentals come un equipped. I am still trying to get my money back from Mathias, the driver and Matta,the hostile landlord. I was told recently that Cameroon was the most corrupt country in Africa until it bought its way to second place. This is more than a joke and I am a witness.
Yes, Cameroon is a very trying place – one that I considered leaving almost as soon as I arrived but eventually fell in love with the place. Sorry Lois, I’d read in plenty of places before hand about the difficulties of the place and assumed that you would have done the same. Amazing blog though!