Friday, November 27, 2009
I’m visiting Kumbo, a town high in the mountains (about 1,900 meters up) in the Anglophone northwest of Cameroon, where I’ve come with my colleague Dr. Leslie to assist in a microfinance workshop we’ve helped organize for an ongoing HIV and AIDS project. We’re here on another mission however, and it’s hard to say which is more important. We’re on the hunt… for goats.
Kumbo is known for its livestock market, held a few times a week, and we’ve been directed to pick up three goats for Dr. Kenneth, one of our Cameroonian project managers; he’s getting married at the end of this week, and as tradition requires, his fiancée’s family has insisted he provide three goats (as well as three pigs and other assorted livestock) as a dowry for their traditional marriage. This is interesting to me. Kenneth is a trained pharmacist, regularly attending conferences in Geneva, Mexico City, and the US. In order for his bride’s family to accept him though, he has to provide a goat? This in itself is something that has always struck me as interesting- I can understand why the idea of the dowry still persists among people living in the village, but the fact that it continues among urban, well-educated Cameroonians (and Chadians, and Ugandans, and Sudanese) seems a bit odd. Tradition is far stronger here, I guess.
The day before, for example, I’m sitting on an outdoor terrace with a Peace Corps volunteer I met in the middle of ‘Squares,’ the main intersection in ‘downtown’ Kumbo. As I sip my drink, I suddenly see four or five older men dressed in loincloths and carrying wooden spears, ceremonially making their way down the street. They’re dancing on either side of a figure dressed entirely in black, wearing a costume covering his face with nails protruding all over. He’s ‘surrounded’ by the men in the loincloths with the spears and ropes, and dancing his way down the street, lunging at people at random, and shaking the spear he carried.
“That’s the juju,” one of the Cameroonian men sitting with me explains, referring to the local black magic that’s still very much a part of life here . “They’re guiding him down to the royal palace for a ceremony.”
Nobody seems to find this even the slightest bit unusual, from what I could tell- taxis continue to circulate, women cook omelettes and fried potatoes in cast-iron woks over charcoal on the side of the road, and people chat on cell phones. I guess cultures everywhere like to showcase their traditions though - it’s why the St. Patrick’s Day parade exists, and why we light a menorah in the center of most major American cities at Hanukkah, right? In any case, the juju passes, I finish my drink, and Leslie and I continue to look for goats.
We arrive the next morning at the main livestock market, down a bumpy dirt road and in a fenced-off triangle. Leslie suggests that I should probably wait and follow him a few minutes later- if we’re seen together, the price for the goats we want will skyrocket- the fact of being white in Africa. I wait with Mahmane, our driver, by our truck, and watch. Sheep and pigs are milling around everywhere, and the chorus of maaah-ing and squealing is overwhelming, as is the smell. We don’t see many goats though, until we spot a truck on the edge of the market, where three teenagers are piling them into the back, at least 20 or more, most sitting in large woven-grass baskets. I decide enough time has passed, and I make my way over to Leslie, Mahmane in tow.
“That isn’t good,” Leslie says, gesturing at the truck. “Someone came from Bafoussam (the capital of the Western Province), and is buying all the goats to take back and sell. Now it’s going to be very expensive.” He does manage to arrive at a price with the seller though, 15,000 FCFA (about $33) each for two goats, and Leslie leads the animals to the back of the truck, where Mahmane ties them inside. Leslie goes off to find a third, and Mahmane and I wait.
“Il y a beaucoup des moutons ici; j’aimerais acheter un pour la fete de mouton vendredi,” Mahmane says. There are lots of sheep here- I’d love to buy one for the ‘sheep holiday’ on Friday.
He’s referring to Tabaski, a Muslim holiday known as Eid-al-Adha in most parts of the world. It’s meant to commemorate Abraham’s sparing of Isaac in the Bible, after which he sacrificed a sheep instead.
“How much are the sheep?” I ask Mahmane, an idea brewing.
“Maybe 25 or 30,000 FCFA,” he answers, about $55 or $60.
One of my favorite parts of living here, and living as an ‘expat’ is the ability it provides to do little things that can mean a lot for people. At the moment I’m earning a stipend, instead of an actual salary; the truth is that it’s a very generous one, and coupled with the additional benefits, it means that I earn substantially more money than the majority of the people I work with in the office. On one hand, I can see why this isn’t particularly fair; on the other, I realize that if Cameroonians working in Cameroon were paid on the same scale as international employees it would wildly distort their lives, and make extended families even more dependent on them than many already are. It means that I probably am taking home more than my boss does every two weeks, despite his 15 additional years of experience in this job. And it certainly means that I’m bringing home more than Mahamane, probably 15-20 times as much as his driver’s salary, I’d guess. This disparity isn’t something I have the ability to change, so rather than attempt to do so, I like to do what I can to provide a bit of help and support when it’s possible.
“OK, Mahmane,” I say. “Do you have 15,000?”
“If we can find a sheep for 25,000 or less, I’ll chip in 10,000 for you.”
For the first time I can remember, I hear an adult Muslim man squeal with delight.
“Wow! Thank you so much!” he says, grasping my hand. I smile.
“It’s my pleasure,” I answer. “Now, let’s see if we can find you a sheep.”
We make our way into the market, where we see a few sheep tied up by the fence. We make our way over to one, white with long horns, and the seller appears. He’s an old man, wearing thick black plastic-rimmed glasses, dressed in a pinkish bubu, and sporting a bright purple cap.
“How now?” he says, greeting us in Pidgin English, the local lingua franca. Mahmane and I smile at him- neither of us are Pidgin speakers, and although normally Mahmane would take the lead, the fact that he’s French-speaking actually means it makes more sense for me to do the talking in this part of the country.
“How much for the sheep?” I ask, speaking as clearly as I can.
“You bring 33,” the man answers. Naturally the price is higher than it would normally be, simply because I’m standing there. I know how the game works though- after the initial offer, you generally offer half or slightly more, and get progressively closer from there.
“That’s expensive,” I respond. “We can’t do that- I can give you 20 though.”
The man shakes his head and clicks his tongue distastefully. “You bring 29.”
“22,” I reply.
“27,” he answers.
“23,” I shoot back. The man pauses for a second to consider. “You bring,” he says, gesturing with his fingers tucked into his palm. Mahmane reaches into his pocket and pulls out 13,000- I slip an additional 10,000 into his hand.
“Thank you again so much,” Mahmane says to me.
“Bonne fete,” I reply. Enjoy the holiday.
Mahmane and the seller pull the sheep out of the market and to our waiting pickup, where they half-wrestle/half-toss the animal into the bed. The sheep struggles at first, but eventually the two men are able to attach the woven grass rope to one of the metal rods holding up the canopy that covers the truck bed.
“Now that I’ll have a sheep this year,” Mahmane says, “our tradition says that I’ll need to slaughter one every year for the festival. It’s very important.”
I’m a bit concerned- I helped him to buy one this year, but when the next Tabaski rolls around, I almost certainly won’t be in Cameroon any longer- I wouldn’t want to put an obligation on him to buy something he can’t really afford.
“I hope I haven’t caused you a problem for the future,” I say. “I know sheep are expensive.”
“No, not at all- it’s important to have a sheep for the festival, and I’ll save up every year to be sure that I can afford one from now on,” he answers.
“Since you helped me to get it,” he continues, “I want you to join us this year- it’d be my honor.”
“If you’d like me to be there, I’d be happy to.”
36 hours, 500 kilometers, four goats and a sheep later, Leslie, Mahmane and I are back in Yaoundé. The livestock take to the journey surprisingly well, although I imagine the fresh carrots and cabbage we buy along the way in the home village of my boss, called Santa, help a bit.
The name of the village makes me think- I suppose there’s something Santa-esque about my role in this; I’m being the benefactor, providing a gift to make a holiday possible. On one hand, it’s truly a privilege to be in a position where I have the ability to make someone so happy with something that’s so (relatively) small. On the other, there’s the law of unintended consequences… By buying the sheep for Mahmane, I’ve locked him into purchasing livestock every year; he assures me he can afford, but I still wonder. I know I’ve made a difference for him and for his family this year, and I know it’s a positive one. In the future, I know this sheep will have a lasting effect, long after it’s been prayed over and served with carrots, couscous and sweet tea. Next time though, I hope it’s still a good thing…
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
New Bell Prison is the central prison in Douala, Cameroon's largest city. I visit along with Dupleix, one of the program managers and Olun, our technical advisor. We're working on a proposal about prisoner's rights, and have come along with Sister Jacky, a Cameroonian nun who has devoted more than 20 years to working with people in the prison system here. Having visited San Quentin prison in California once for a story I was writing, I remember how intimidating and scary it felt being there. New Bell is that and more, as it combines all the same disturbing aspects of a prison in the US or Europe with the poverty, corruption, and decay that permeates much of the developing world.
One thing I notice right away is that the prison is practically in the middle of town, maybe three long blocks from one of the main markets in Douala. New Bell was originally built by the colonial authorities, and was probably on the edge of the city at first, but rapid growth has swallowed it up, and now it sits surrounded by warehouses, homes, and storefronts. The prison was originally designed to keep 800 people locked up, but now holds somewhere between 3-4000, depending on who you ask. We've been told that of the people inside, more than half have yet to actually be convicted of a crime, but are simply awaiting trial, often for months on end.
Before we go inside, Sister Jacky tells us to keep anything valuable out of sight, and leave it in the car. I take out the single diamond earring I wear, hide my wallet and phone, and take off my watch, burying it in a bag in the backseat. Two guards with olive uniforms and large machine guns stand at the main entrance. We walk in to find three more guards sitting at a table in a dark room.
"Les pièces!" They yell at us. Your IDs. I hand over a laminated and stamped copy of my passport ID and visa pages- no way I would risk bringing something like that here. Another guard frisks us, and swings open a metal door held partially closed by a chain. We squeeze through, and we're inside.
Just on the other side of the door, across a small concrete walkway, there's a large fence with barbed wire spikes at the top surrounding a large courtyard. A ring of buildings surrounds the courtyard with warped tin roofs and crumbling walls. A few tiny windows run along the top of each building, filled with thick and rusted bars. One of the buildings looks to be missing part of its side, and the gaping hole in the internal wall is covered by a collection of ripped plastic sheeting and blue tarps.
At least 50 men lean against the other side of the fence- they wear dirty, torn t-shirts, gym shorts, or less- apparently there are no uniforms in the Cameroonian prison system. As soon as they see us, they start yelling.
"Le blanc! Le blanc! Ça va?" Hey, white man, what's up?
An overweight guard unlocks the gate, and we pass through. Sister Jacky goes first, the veteran, followed by Dupleix, me, and Olun. Immediately, I feel hands start grabbing at me, wrapping arms around my shoulder, 20 voices talking to me at once, all of whom seem to be asking something. Instinctively, I reach out and grab ahold of Dupleix's shoulder, a way of staying together in the midst of the mob. We make our way across the courtyard, the four of us surrounded by the group of prisoners.
"These men are called 'taxis,' "says Sister Jacky. "If you need to find someone inside, you pay them 100 francs, and they'll find the person for you."
At the edge of the courtyard we duck under a small partition, and find ourselves in a market. Stands are set up along the walkway that don't look much different from your typical Cameroonian open-air restaurants and shops. People are cooking pots of beans, sticks of manioc baton, and pots of okra and vegetable sauces. Sister Jacky tells us that these 'café's' were set up by the prisoners, who can buy a plate of food for 50 or 100 francs. Again, she explains.
"The prison provides food, but it's only boiled corn meal, with maybe six or seven beans. If they have money, the prisoners buy food for themselves."
Throughout my time in Africa, I've become accustomed to people staring at me- it's part of the reality of being a foreigner here, particularly a Caucasian foreigner. Inside the prison market/café though, I feel the stares much more than usual; the stares of bored and angry men. As we walk through I hear a few of them call after me.
"Père, père!" they yell. Father. Walking around in the company of nun, I guess I'm easily mistaken for a priest. We turn a corner, and duck into a small workshop. Three women sit clustered around large sewing machines, and are surrounded by crimson sweaters. They're making school uniforms for one of the local private schools. Sister Jacky explains that this allows the prisoners to earn a small amount of money for food.
On the way out, I notice a man laying prone on the concrete in the doorway. His eyes are red and cloudy and he's wearing a filthy light-blue sweatshirt.
"You're leaving him here?" Sister Jacky asks the other prisoners.
"Il est malade," one of them answers. He's sick.
"I'm going to the see the doctor now, and I'll tell him," she responds.
The doctor's office is on the other side of the courtyard. We make our way across, again being jostled and yelled at by the prisoners. I try to keep my face expressionless, responding as little as possible to the men on all sides.
"Tu es ici avec les noirs maintenant!" someone yells. You're here with the blacks now.
As we walk through, people come up to us, thrusting sheets of paper into our hands. I initially try to fend them off, but I see Sister Jacky taking them, so I accept one from one of the men. The sheets all have a similar format- the prisoner's name, date de condamnation (date of sentence), peine (sentence), amende (fine to pay), and the name of the sentencing judge. The crimes seem relatively minor- things like petty theft, although some list things like assault and worse. In many cases, the amende section has a number, perhaps 100,000 francs (about $220) or a time period, maybe 10 months. Sister Jacky explains that when a prisoner is sentenced, they're often given a fine, and if they're unable to pay it, it's converted into additional time to be served, something like 9,000 francs for every month.
We stop briefly at the doctor's office, where Sister Jacky tells him about the prisoner lying in the doorway across the courtyard. He nods, but doesn't seem like he's particularly interested. Just beside the doctor's office is another gate, which we pass through. This is the section for prisoners who have already been convicted. I can't exactly tell, but I think Dupleix says it may be some sort of isolation unit- there are only a handful of people in the section, and there are some vestiges of normality, with a television in the corner of one of the rooms. Two men sit on a low bench against the wall; a heavy chain with a padlock encircles their legs. A curtain parts, and I see something I'm not expecting, a white man. He's wearing a white t-shirt and ripped jean shorts, and has a several day-old beard. He looks haggard and weak. Sister Jacky seems to know him, and they talk for a moment. I can't make out their conversation exactly, as she moves away, I hear the last bit. "I'll contact the embassy," she says.
I remember hearing about foreigners are subject to local laws when they're visiting a country, but this is the first time I've seen it put into practice. I have to wonder what the man did, but unsurprisingly, he doesn't really seem to be in the mood to talk. I've been visiting New Bell for less than an hour, but looking around, I have a hard time imagining a worse place to be, particular as a foreigner. Perhaps he's in the isolation section as a means of protecting him from the other prisoners- I can imagine a blanc would be a pretty inviting target.
A guard opens another door, and we walk along the inside perimeter of the wall- looking up I see rows of barbed wire arcing inward, connected to what look like glass insulators- the wire must be electrified as well. We duck through a small door and find ourselves in a set of surprisingly nice buildings, freshly-painted and cream-colored.
"This is the juvenile section," Sister Jacky says. "It was built by the EU last year."
We step onto a large concrete porch, and see two large chalkboards. 'Controle de Français,' one reads. 'French test.' I look through it- there are a few questions on French grammar. A group of teenage boys sit on tables by the chalkboard, chatting. One of them comes up to me with a bright pink knitted hat- he gestures at me, seeing if I'm interested.
"What would I do with that?" I ask?
"You could buy it," he says.
I decline as politely as I can. Looking inside the rooms on either side I see several rows of bunk beds, each of which is sealed off with mosquito netting. Relative to the rest of the prison, this is luxurious. Dupleix has a small group gathered around him, and they're talking quietly. I go over to listen.
"Yes, it's true you made a mistake," he says. "You're young though, and you still have a chance. You need to learn from this, and when you get out, you need to follow the correct path." The boys nod. One of them passes along a phone number to him, saying he's an uncle in Douala. Dupleix promises to call.
We leave the juvenile section, and a guard lets us out through a side door- suddenly we're back in the main reception area; I'm grateful that we were able to avoid the crowd this time. We collect our IDs, and make our way out the door, where the same guards are standing with the same machine guns. Mahamadou, our driver is waiting across the road, and we quickly climb in and head off.
"Mon dieu," Dupleix says, shaking his head. My God.
I agree. I'm not particularly religious, but I think in this case, a little divine intervention at New Bell would be a good thing.
It's been said that the measure of the civilization of a society can be seen in how well it treats its prisoners. We have more than our share of problems with the prison system in the US, of course, but New Bell is something totally different. I've seen my share of disturbing things in the years I've worked in Africa, but the sights, smells, and sounds from today are something that will stay with me for years- it's scary to think what we're capable of as humans. I know we can't do much in the way of change for inmates of New Bell, but our visit there was meant as a way to get an idea- now that we understand the situation, at least someone, hopefully we can help...
We launched the project at the Palais des Congrès, the main conference center in Yaoundé. It was a big deal, with almost 1,500 people, the Minister of Education, one of the main Catholic bishops in the country, and more. It was fun to get dressed up as well, and see all my co-workers in their Sunday (or Wednesday, I suppose) best.
To see a larger version of any photo, click on the slideshow... enjoy.
When we arrive at Nadegbe, a crowd is already gathered. We’ve come to help Nadebe and two other villages- Mama and Pandi- prepare a community development plan, basically a list of priorities of things that they’d like to see built or bought to help them develop the area. These villages will begin earning money from so-called ‘Community Forests,’ a section of the rainforest surrounding the villages which the inhabitants are given unique license to harvest and exploit, selling the wood to companies and collecting the profits, which are then used to buy the things they need. It’s a smart idea, and one that the Cameroonian government has been managing for the past 15 years- few communities are aware of it, however, and part of our work here is to spread the knowledge of this opportunity, and hopefully improve people’s lives by providing basic services.
The chief of Nadegbe greets us under a tin-roofed shelter, where a few padded chairs and a couch have already been set up. As the guests, we’re entitled to the seats of honor, necessary or not. The chief is wearing a shapeless olive felt hat and a white tunic with long purple stripes running down the side. He greets us formally, we introduce ourselves, and we get started with the plan.
The village is divided up into three groups: men, women, and young adults, each of which gets a marker and a sheet of butcher paper. We’ve asked them to prepare a list of what they think are the most important needs for their communities, in the order they’d like to see them built or bought. The women gather around a small classroom desk someone has brought; many of them are carrying babies on their back or toddlers lurching around at their ankles. They discuss amongst themselves, at times shouting at each other, but generally seeming to come up with some sort of agreement. The list begins to take shape; schools, followed by a well or a water pump, and a corn mill. The young adults have set up camp on the hood of our pickup, spreading the paper across- they’re also talking, coming up with a similar list, except this one also includes a generator and soccer uniforms. Interesting to see the priorities…
When each of the groups have finished, they assemble as one, and we start going through the lists. Certain things, like schools and water sources are unanimous, and come to the top of the priority list. Other items, like the soccer uniforms, get pushed to the side, something that might happen someday, but it won’t be a priority.
The needs seem so basic, and it’s interesting to listen to the discussion. Cameroon is a far more developed country than most of its neighbors, but judging by this village, and the others nearby, you’d never know it. It seems odd that this is the same country where I see Cameroonians exercising on Precor elliptical trainers at the Hilton and using fiber-optic internet at their houses, while just a few hours down the road, people are struggling to get things as simple as clean water and a school that isn’t made of wooden poles and grass. I know that these people live a rarefied life in the capital, but still this disparity seems more pronounced than anywhere else I’ve worked so far. In Chad and Niger, by comparison, villages were still desperately poor for the most part, but even N’Djamena and Niamey weren’t all that much better off; they were certainly nowhere near as developed as Yaoundé, with things like overpasses, functional traffic lights, and a few genuine skyscrapers.
It feels ridiculous that things are this undeveloped in this part of the country, considering what’s available. Eastern Cameroon is one of the largest rainforest zones in the world, and the logs coming out of here to make floorboards and armoires for people in Europe and Asia sell for tens of the thousands of dollars each, in many cases. Considering this, why aren’t people better off? Unfortunately it’s the same answer that it always seems to be in this part of the world- corruption and greed. When most of the profit from the logging operations is skimmed off to buy larger villas and another Mercedes, the people from the source areas get ignored, unsurprisingly. And when even a small portion of the profit finally does get directed to the community, to do something like grade the road or install a few power lines, the people are so grateful that they aren’t likely to remember just how much they’re being taken advantage of. Without a change in the nature of society here, I’m not sure how things are likely to get much better; I hope the work we’re doing is a start though, at least to the people of Nadegbe.
Click on any photo to see a larger version, and check out the journal below as well...
Getting out of town for a trip is difficult anywhere, and Yaoundé is no exception. Rush hour is in full force, and in addition to all the private cars, buses, and trucks, taxis and motorcycles are everywhere, swerving in and out of traffic, running the few traffic lights that exist, and generally causing roadway chaos, the flies and mosquitoes of the road. We catch the brunt of the ongoing downpour as we leave, just after 7:00 AM, stopping first at Mathieu, our driver’s, house to pick up a suitcase, followed by a stop to collect Aurèlie, the Program Manager responsible for our work in the East, and finally Serges, a Cameroonian intern who has been working with Aurèlie for awhile on this project. By the time we actually get on the road it’s close to 10:00, and we have a seven-hour trip ahead of us. Fortunately the road opens up, and it’s (mostly) well-paved, making the trip a smooth one, for the moment.
One thing I notice as Mathieu and Aurèlie chat and we fly down the road- Cameroonians (or at least these two Cameroonians) TALK REALLY LOUDLY. I attempt to listen to last night’s Rachel Maddow Show podcast on my MP3 player, and even though it’s at the highest volume and the headphones are jammed into my ears, I seem to be hearing more of their practically-shouted conversation than anything else. I try not to get annoyed, and chalk it up to a cultural difference, but it’s challenging not to feel at least a bit frustrated. I can manage though- if I can’t handle something like that, I probably shouldn’t be here to begin with.
About two hours into the drive, we make a stop at Ayos, a larger town on the way to the East. Mathieu needs to take a break, and we all take the opportunity to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. It’s orange season, and women are lined up along the edge of the rest area, with piles of green-peeled oranges sitting in pyramids at their feet as they sit under umbrellas blocking the otherwise fierce sun. I’m loitering by the passenger door of the pickup (our ride), when someone suddenly slams their hands on the hood. I spin around to see what’s happening, and I see a little boy, who looks to be about 12 years old. I stare at him for a second, puzzled, and look at his face. His features are locked into a permanent sort of half-smile/half-grimace, an expression that reminds more of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings than anything else. His ears protrude, and he wears a faded black t-shirt printed with a lipstick kiss colored like an American flag. He scrambles around the side of the car with a shuffling-type motion, grabs a rag out of his back pocket, and begins scrubbing away the mud and dust that are caked onto our fender.
After looking for another second, I realize that he's clearly mentally challenged and rather than try to create a problem, I stand back as he goes about his business, frantically scrubbing the dust off the truck. From what I can tell, having a disability is challenging enough in places like the US or in Europe- I can’t imagine how much harder it is in a place very much still in the developing world, like Cameroon.
Mathieu comes back to the truck, and sees the boy.
“Tu as vu le fou?” he asks, laughing. Did you see the crazy kid?
“Yes,” I answer.
I don’t say anything, but the fact that he’s laughing disturbs me. I know I’m not going to change it though. I know I come from a place where political correctness is enforced far more strictly, but this just seems wrong to me. Over the years I’ve heard that in many places in Africa, laughter can be used to cover an uncomfortable situation. I don’t think that’s what this is though- it simply seems mean-spirited, like the taunting of a bear in an old-time circus.
I understand that Mathieu is a driver, not a professional, and that he probably hasn’t had the experience and the perspective that others might. Still, I’ve seen this sort of thing in other Cameroonians I wouldn’t expect it from, people with PhDs, who have lived and worked in places like France, Belgium, and the US. With someone like Mathieu, I can almost understand it, but for some of the others, it’s shocking to me- they’ve seen enough of the world to know that that really isn’t OK.
Maybe it just comes down to the fact that no matter how educated or well-traveled you might be, at the end of the day you’re still a product of your culture and your society, and if that society has raised you with the idea that mental disabilities are something to be mocked and laughed at, advanced degrees and thousands of frequent flyer miles aren’t likely to change anything.
I understand that some might say this is simply a case of me attempting to impose my ‘Western values’ on a situation I don’t really understand. I’ve been living in Cameroon less than three months, and it feels like I’m learning something new constantly. Still, I don’t feel like that this case in this situation- maybe I am projecting my own values, but laughing at the unfortunate circumstances of a mentally disabled kid in a small town feels messed up, no matter who you are or where you come from. The truth is that saying something to Mathieu or to any of my other colleagues with whom I’ve witnessed this would do nothing, aside from making things awkward. Maybe that’s the lesson to be learned from this, one more in the continuing tales of acceptance that come from living in a foreign place. The world can be a complicated place, and sometimes it takes the least fortunate among us to bring that to light…
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Click on any of the photos to see a larger version, and view the whole album. Also make sure to look below for the landscapes and a journal on the trip itself...
Click on any of the photos to see a larger version and the full album.
I’m sitting in a hotel in Bamenda, the largest city in the northwestern region of the country. It’s about 400 kilometers from Yaounde, and much higher up in the mountains, at least 1,000 meters. The city itself is surrounded by incredible scenery; sharp green mountains jut up at crazy angles, waterfalls pour off the hillsides, and things I never expected to see in this part of the world, like pine trees, are everywhere. I knew that places like this existed in Africa, of course, but most of my experience in this part of the world has been in scorching-hot, barren, and utterly foreign environments. Differences in the city itself aside, you could drop this territory down anywhere in the Appalachians or the Pacific Northwest, and it might be hard to tell the difference.
Of course the similarities end once you get to the people and the city, however. Mountain scenery aside, this is definitely still sub-Saharan Africa; the infrastructure is crumbling, goats wander the streets, motorcycle taxis carry four people at a time with enormous suitcases strapped to the back, and people run to approach passing cars constantly, selling plantains, carrots, kola nuts, cookies, and tissues, all balanced on their heads. Fortunately, the government seems to have had the foresight to pave the roads on the most treacherous of the mountain passes, which I’m certain has helped to prevent at least a few of the horrific accidents that happen on Cameroon’s roads on a daily basis.
Northwestern Cameroon borders Nigeria, and is home to the largest portion of the country’s English-speaking (Anglophone) minority. I knew before I came here that it existed, but it’s still bizarre to hear even small children speaking to each other in English, or at least a form of it. ‘Pidgin English’ is the lingua franca here, and it’s fascinating to listen to my colleague Leslie, originally from the area himself, communicate with people in the patois as I attempt to make out what he’s saying. “How be de day, you do go market for buy? OK, small time?” I had no idea that something like that could mean ‘How are you, are you going to the market? OK, goodbye.’
I’ve been traveling through this part of the country with Leslie, and we’re visiting local health centers in the Bamenda area and some of the surrounding communities. We’re visiting these places to get an idea of the needs of the various health centers. The idea is that by meeting the doctors and nurses who run these facilities, we can get a sense of what they lack (which is plenty), and use that information to write proposals targeting donors who might be interested in providing some of the supplies and equipment.
The places truly run the gamut. Yesterday we went to see a small clinic outside of Kumbo, a town much higher in the mountains, more than 2,000 meters (about 6,500 feet for the Americans) up. The clinic had two small rooms, a couple shelves of basic anti-malarial and diarrheal medications, and a few beds with mismatched sheets. The Catholic nurses there try valiantly, but they’re limited by what they have, which isn’t much.
Contrast this with the hospital we visited in the village of Shisong today, just outside of Kumbo. The hospital was built in collaboration with the Catholic church in Italy, and honestly, it’s an amazing facility. Hundreds of beds (from what I could tell); radiology, ultrasound machines, skilled nursing for people with HIV/AIDS, and a cardiac unit equipped to perform open-heart surgery. The brand-new buildings looked like something you could drop down in the States, and it wouldn’t look much different. And all this in a mountain setting that feels like a living postcard.
What’s amazing to me though, is that this facility is located at the end of a dirt track in a small mountain village, along a rocky path that could wash out at any time during the lengthy rainy season. I think it’s wonderful that this place exists, but if someone is having a heart attack, all the defibrillators in the world won’t save them if the road to the hospital is washed out.
This is part of a larger issue from what I can tell though, and something that strikes me about Cameroon as unique. As opposed to other places I’ve worked, such as Chad, Niger, and Sudan, this place has such incredible potential, and could be so much more than it is. This is not to say that places like Chad don’t have anything going for them, but the degree to which it exists is far more in Cameroon, I think. The mountain scenery, for example; with a functional road, decent network of hotels, and the right amount of promotion, people would come from around the world to visit here, I’d imagine. Its green year-round, the temperature is always pleasant, the air is clean, and the views are truly stunning. If it was done right, this could be a tropical version of Switzerland; instead, it’s a collection of villages and towns stuck in the mud on the way to paradise, figuratively and literally.
This place could be an economic powerhouse for the country, and could play a major part in catapulting Cameroon not necessarily into the industrialized world, but something much more together than it currently is. Due to short-sightedness, ethnic politics, corruption, and what often feels like a lack of imagination, this doesn’t seem to be happening. This part of the country, as the Anglophone minority region, has always been somewhat marginalized, and has been a stronghold of the political opposition, such as it exists here. Because the Anglophones have generally been opposed to many of the policies coming from the Francophone leadership in Yaoundé, this region has often been starved for funds by the central government, a tactic obvious in the decaying roads in the center of town, the regular power outages, and the lack of opportunity for most of the people here. It’s best not to discuss politics too much as a foreigner here, but looking around, it’s hard not to notice this sort of thing.
One thing Cameroonians are known for, for better or worse, is being ready to take advantage of a possibility where it’s presented. One person’s opportunism is another’s entrepreneurial spirit, I suppose, depending on how it’s approached. Visiting the cardiac center in Shisong today, it’s obvious the potential to do incredible things here exists. Driving the pitted streets of Bamenda and Kumbo, and the lakes of mud separating the two, it’s easy to feel like there’s not much hope. The question, I guess, is which way are things going, and which side will eventually win.