As I strolled towards the boarding gate for the first of four flights taking me to Yaoundé, Cameroon, I felt a skip in my step I haven’t felt for some time. The excitement of traveling somewhere entirely new finally flooded through me, and I found myself unexpectedly grinning, joy bubbling up. My worries about visas, travel insurance and leaving things in order at work and home fell away, and only as it lifted did I realise how heavy the load had felt.
The lightness with which I had left South Africa soon dissipated in the long and uncomfortable hours of travel ahead. Lacking adequate food, water and sleep, I wandered tiredly through one airport after another, finding benches on which to steal moments of sleep in between flying north, then east, east to west, and a little further north to step out into the sticky humidity of an afternoon thunderstorm about to sweep across Yaoundé.
The long drive through the city to our hotel quickly re-awoke the pleasures of travel, breathing in the abundant sights and smells, delighting in the smallest glimpses into the unique flavour of this lively, chaotic city. After the rich, tropical lushness, the most striking feature of the city was the herds of dilapidated yellow taxis and flocks of young men on motorbikes, all overflowing with brightly-dressed bodies and communicating with loud warning hoots as they overtook straight into oncoming traffic, which swerved out the way at the last second, unperturbed. There was a proliferation of partially-built concrete structures all over the city, ranging from abandoned foundations to three-story giants lacking windows or doors, towering over the small café’s below with their brightly-coloured plastic chairs and tables inviting local customers in for huge quarts of locally-brewed beer. There were piles of mattresses for sale along the roadside, intricate wrought-iron gates being soldered, piles of local fruit and vegetables, and the many small, informal plant nurseries consisting of endless rows of local species in striped plastic packets, creating small bursts of unexpected greenery.
After days in the city, discussing land governance challenges with land activist colleagues from twenty two countries across Africa, our final day contained an eagerly-awaited journey north-west of the city, to a field near Bafia to meet a community of Mbororos grazers. A long bus trip took us cheerfully out of the city, and across the surprising width
of the Sanaga river before I had the unfortunate luck to take a photograph out of the bus window of what we could only later guess was a police officer accepting a bribe or undertaking some activity for which he needed there to be no record.
While taking photographs in public places – including of police officers on duty – is not illegal in Cameroon, and we were nowhere near a military installation of any kind, and I had committed no official crime, a furious police officer pulled us over and demanded my camera, which I was quite sure he intended to smash on the spot in his rage. A calm local member of our team took the camera from me, reassuring me it would be okay, and walked back to the policeman’s car while an angry young man continued to shout at me in rage. Local residents used the unexpected opportunity for commerce, selling locally-grown peanuts, dried plantain and other snacks to my companions and I waited with an anxious knot in my stomach.
After a long delay, the camera was eventually returned, the last two pictures I took having been deleted but the others remaining untouched, and we continued at little way further before pulling over where a smaller dirt road branched off to our left. Here, a pair of 4 x 4s waited to shuttle us in small groups down a smaller dirt road, until we reached a hardly-visible path where a large gathering of young men on motorbikes waited to transport some of our group up the narrow path to our destination, those of us remaining following on foot.
We were welcomed to the village with loud cheers, handshakes, and a dish that tasted
like phuthu soaked in fresh, sweet milk, served in an odd assortment of traditional and plastic cups and bowls with small half-calabashes as spoons. While we ate the speeches began, sharing prayers and stories, and making us feel like very honoured guests indeed.
As the rest of the group moved off to a shelter where the beautiful white cow that had been killed in our honour the day before, and cooked over the fire that morning, was being served, the one part of their traditions in which I had no desire to partake, I had my arm excitedly pulled by one of the colourfully-dressed women towards a further set of huts, where I could see women and children coming and going busily while the men sat with their guests. I, delighted, followed with my camera still in hand, which was as much an item of interest as I was.
The women and children crowded quickly around to gently stroke my foreign white skin in fascination before asking me to take their photograph, and then pose with them to be photographed using the one phone that was owned amongst the group. We could communicate only by touch, smiles, and hand gestures, and mother after mother pulled her family together, grasped their beautiful hand-crafted bowls and gestured urgently for me to please capture their impromptu family portraits.
The pure joy of the moment was broken by the heavy clouds, as the thunder which had been threatening in the distance for some hours was suddenly all about us, and the rain swiftly increased from light drops to solid downpour. We raced from all different directions to seek shelter in the small, round thatched huts.
Hunched on woven grass sleeping mats, dodging the leaking drops of rain, scattering chickens and goats, we gathered in steaming comraderie until the rain had reduced back to a light shower, and then said hurried goodbyes and trekked back down the path, which had now become a flowing stream, a few slips and bruises picked up along the way.
By the time we eventually reached the road the sun was emerging once again, and we
decided to begin walking the roughly twenty kilometres back to the the tar road where the bus awaited us, knowing we were down to only one vehicle which could shuttle only seven of our 31-person delegation at a time, and that the muddy road might well have become impassable. We set off, covered in mud, without food or water but cheerily determined and hopeful, and spent a solid hour and a half making our way past small busses – one of which was being pushed out of the mud by its occupants – sending cheery ‘Bonsoir!’ greetings to the locals inhabitants in their run-down houses between tracts of forest and bright yellow flowers, wandering in happy companionship with conversation flowing back and forth across our lives and work.
As the sun drifted slowly towards the horizon, we were grateful to be collected and driven in comfort for the last few kilometres, to be greeted with loud cheers and over-sized bottles of beer by our companions, some of whom had been collected by another vehicle and others of whom had taken a short-cut through the forest. Sitting in a shanty hut on the side of the road with loud local music and the bustle of a normal Cameroon evening all around us, we felt tired and triumphant.
As I lift off from Yaoundé airport soothed by Miles Davis, I survey the green spread of Cameroon below me and find that, despite my joy at flying towards home and loved ones, I am sorry to leave this complex, diverse and beautiful country where I was made to feel so very warmly welcomed, and the many friends I have made here.