On the road in Cameroon

Expectations, Experiences and Disappointments
April 2009

After several days of French pastries and hot water in my room at the Baptist Guest house in Douala, I was looking forward to a vacation in Kribi, one of the two beach towns on the coast of Cameroon. I had just spent six weeks in the farm country of northwest Cameroon teaching basic health concepts that most of us in the Western world take for granted. Because of horrendeous roads and inferior or non existent public transport, I knew I had to leave the countryside before the rains began. Having barely survived six weeks on the back of motorcycles the bike slipping on rocky dirt roads in the dry season, I could only imagine the nightmare on the back of an bike during the rains when all the roads turn to mud.
While I was living in Fundong, which is ten hours from the coast, I had asked many of the people I knew if they had ever seen the ocean. Sadly most of them had never been to the ocean and probably never would have the opportunity. A two dollar bus ride is two days wages. Some of the most pleasurable moments in my life were spent swimming in clear turquoise seas(non existent in Cameroon) and watching the sun slip below the horizon.

The bus to Kribi was modern, clean and left on time. As we traveled along the coast, we passed typical Cameroonian villages with unpaved roads, mud, and wooden shacks, and endless young children. Whenever the bus made a stop, young boys and girls would run to the bus carrying trays of packaged or cooked food and drinks on their head, hoping to make a sale. They waited on the road from early morning until sundown, approaching any vehicle that was stationary even for a few seconds. They were confused by the air-conditioned cars and buses that never rolled down their windows.
When the bus finally entered the outskirts of Kribi, I realized my expectations of turquoise water and eco friendly resorts were not going to be met. The beaches were up against the road and the ocean looked extremely dark. Most of the hotels near the road had a forlorn deserted appearance in desperate need of a paint job. There were no European or American entrepreneurs seeing potential for tourism on the coast of Cameroon. After spending over six weeks in Cameroon, I could barely come up with one positive thing to say about this country. There were times I thought I was not traveling in the same country described in my Bradt’s guidebook. Unlike Ghana, I rarely came across travelers in Cameroon except for the naive Peace Corp volunteers and the disciples of organized religion. So when I saw a Caucasian male sitting across the aisle, I was extremely curious as to what he was doing here. As it turned out he too was wondering what my story was. I had guessed him to be in his late twenties, European and well-traveled. My intuition was right on. We spent about 4 hours commiserating about the condition of the world, how we ended up in Cameroon, the unbelievable corruption here, our stock market loses, our dream destinations, and the strangeness we felt sometimes returning home and trying to explain to our friends how we experienced Africa’s magic and misery. During this long conversation, he confessed he worked for a foreign company that did manufacturing and exporting. In order to do business, people in high places were paid off, he being paid an extremely generous salary to keep everything in motion. By this time it was late afternoon and I needed a place to sleep. He was going to stay with friends but offered to help me find a hotel. We jumped on the back of two motorcycles, the speedometers hovering around 80kmm with the wind blowing and my bag hanging precariously on my shoulder. He recommended Residence Jully but I was set on Elabe-Marine hotel, hoping my Bradt guide was believable…Andrew Pape-Salmon, “for me the best things about Kribi include staying and eating at the beachside Elabe-Marine hotel”. After I had made my decision, my European friend waved goodby, zooming off on the back of the moto taxi.
Elabe-Marine was on the ocean, the restaurant facing the horizon.The hotel reception was a small room stuck at the end of the bar. The tall 30 something African male who greeted me offered me an air conditioned windowless room with a mosquito net hanging over the bed. The price tag for this unpleasant abode was $40. While I was sitting on the terrace eating a mediocre grilled fish, a very drunk extremely skinny Cameroonian almost fell on me as he wobbled over to my table. No I didn’t want him to join me I explained over and over in French. Within seconds there was a standoff between the waiter and the drunk who refused to leave me alone. I was obviously offending his manhood in front of his friends. I was expecting someone to pull out a gun and quickly moved inside to avoid being in the line of fire. His friends finally dragged him into their car and left. I spent a bearable night inside a mosquito net, chilled stale air blowing at me from the less than efficient air conditioner. I upgraded in the morning to a room facing the ocean, the sea breeze blowing through the open window. There was a ceiling fan which actually worked compared to the inefficient air conditioner. I finally understood why most of the air conditioners in Cameroon were barely operable. They had no concept of maintaining and cleaning equipment.
The next morning while I was standing and watching the fishermen pull in their mostly empty nets, I realized why the color of the ocean was grey black and why there were so few fish in the ocean. Exon Mobil had run a pipeline from Chad through Eastern Cameroon ending in Kribi where oil tankers transferred the petrol to Limbe for refining. I started asking the locals if they knew if oil had leaked into the sea. The usual nod of the head as if to say what can we do. Cest la Cameroon.

Postscript ……..The European guy I met on the bus to Kribi no longer lives in Cameroon. He has relocated to a safer, happier place in the world. The coast of Cameroon stretches about 250 km (175miles) from Nigeria to the border of Gabon. Most of it is polluted by oil seepage which is affecting the fish and polluting the ocean. China, Japan and the E.U. have paid the Cameroonian government for fishing rights . Between our governments and our corporations Cameroon is losing all its natural resources, the fish population is being disseminated, affecting the livelihood of the fishermen and the forests are being cut down, the wood shipped to the E.U. and other parts of the world.


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