Taxis, primate parks and pirogues

I don’t think I could even pretend to be in Cameroon if I didn’t write about taking taxis here. For some basic visualization, the taxis here are yellow, ancient Hondas that probably shouldn’t still be on the road. The doors are often stripped on the inside so someone has to open them for you when getting out, wires and light fixtures are hanging out, the outside lights are DEFINITELY smashed in and the windows are often cracked or simply non-existent, so plastic wrap is a good alternative. They have seen better days. Cameroon imports all its cars from abroad and unless done privately, they are used cars. Watching them go by is a lesson in claustrophobia resistance and fitting many people into a tiny space. The five-seaters fit up to three people in the front (there is no shyness about sitting on a stranger’s lap) and up to five in the back with people literally sitting on top of each other. This isn’t including luggage strapped to the roof or tied to the open trunk. Keep in mind, it is 80 plus degrees out, humid and dusty, with cars, trucks and motorcycles pumping black exhaust into the air. Arjun and I, were nervous.

But we had to practice because taking taxis here is hard at first. A taxi will pull alongside the curb where there can be 50 plus people waiting, it will barely slow down and you have to yell where you want to go, how many people are going with you and how much you’re willing to pay. They may drive away, meaning you’ll have to raise your price or just keep trying, or they will gesture for you to get in, speeding off before you can even close the door. I had been warned by Ariane that people would strike up conversations, notably asking about my marital status. If I said I wasn’t married, the man who asked would try to convince me to marry him. If I lied and said I was, he would simply remind me that my husband isn’t in Cameroon, therefore I can definitely leave him and marry that man instead. Other topics of conversation include, Trump (apparently, we represent the entire American population) and homosexuality which is a strict no-go. Homosexuality is misunderstood in Cameroon based on a history that involved rich and powerful men luring young, poor boys into their homes to have sexual relations. Cameroon continues to be unable to detach the homosexuality of today, from the predatory acts of the past and so, no matter our real opinions, we were instructed to remind anyone who asks that America is a free country and Americans can love whoever they want.

We took taxis all over the city, through Niki Mokolo, a huge marketplace that is extremely dangerous due to the high levels of stealing and hands-down the most crowded place I have ever been in. We gave up trying to get a taxi from there when we witnessed a fist fight between two men trying to squeeze into an over-full van, the van moving down the street as then men hung off, fists flying. The market can be seen from almost any high location in Yaoundé.

Arjun, our history professor, Éric and I at the primate sanctuary
hand-made beads hung in the entrance to the village huts in the park
Our guide and friend Victoria beside an enormous tree.

On to the primate park. Mefou Primate Park is outside the city and was started by the English. Many organizations still support it, primarily Ape Action Africa. We took a tour through the large park, stopping to be shocked by an enormous millipede as long as our hands and as fat as two fingers together. Our guide relished our disgust as he told us that they are sometimes eaten here. It was essentially a hike through the dense rainforest, stopping at different points where the fences containing the apes made clearings. We saw chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons and an assortment of other native monkeys. The park works to rescue monkeys affected by deforestation or by the commercial monkey and gorilla market. We were within a foot of the animals which was amazing.

The millipede we saw at the park with Arjun’s hand to show the size.
One of the chimpanzees at the park.
This baboon was the largest male and the fur on his back was a fluorescent rainbow to demonstrate his position.
One of the silverback gorillas. These animals had a huge amount of space to roam.

Our day ended with a trip up the second longest river in Cameroon, the Nyong, in traditional, hand-carved wooden canoes called pirogues. We sat two to a skinny boat in dining room chairs with their legs sawed off and a guide paddled us up the river, showing us how the people in the village use nets to catch fish. We stopped to explore the rainforest and found a 100-meter ancient tree that the villagers’ ancestors used to consider a god. There were trees that whose bark acts as a Viagra (much of the bark was stripped!) and those whose bark is drunk by pregnant women.

Relaxing in the pirogue
The river Nyong
Cocoa trees were everywhere in the forest

Now off to meet our host families and to move in!

Arrival and Day One in Yaoundé, Cameroon

Yaoundé from the Middlebury Center when the electricity went out as the sun set.


I’m sitting in a hotel room in central Yaoundé, fresh from my “shower” which consisted of a full bucket of cold water and a drain open in the middle of the floor of my bathroom, barely able to keep my eyes open from the excitement of my first full day here. Last night Arjun and I were greeted at the airport by hundreds of taxi drivers gesturing and grabbing at us to get us to take their taxis. We were forced to ignore and often shout “Non merci!”, so our logical response was to do the same when another man began gesturing at us. After a back and forth, he broke out in a grin and whipped out a “Middlebury” sign. This was Olivier, our driver, who also dabbled in practical jokes. He led us to our car where we met Ariane, the directrice of the program. She enveloped us in hugs and presented us with goody bags full of giant water bottles and local snacks: peanuts, dried plantains and dried chickpeas. On the ride to the Hotel Diplomate, Olivier fell in behind a stream of cars driving diplomats from the airport. By keeping both his signals flashing, Olivier slotted us right in and all other traffic ground to a halt to let us by. This is an example of “Traffic d’Influence” or “Traffic of Influence”. We got to the hotel in record time, barely avoiding crashing into women pushing carts laden with fruit and fabrics and men stacked four to a tiny motorbike (Traffic lights are merely a suggestion). Safe to say we fell into bed.

Since I hadn’t really gotten a true impression of Yaoundé last night (streetlights and electricity in general are scarce and unreliable here), I was excited to open my curtains this morning. What greeted me was a city of vibrant color. It is so green and lush with fruit trees, vines and thick bushes everywhere. Ariane says that if you planted something in the city, literally in the middle of the red dirt roads, it would grow. The sky was hazy with low clouds and it was hot, although not as hot as I had expected. We went to eat breakfast at Ariane’s house, fried plantain, pineapple, omelets, avocado and baguette with soft cheese, and met the rest of her extended family who live in her small, one bedroom apartment over the school where she teaches French and where her two children, Serena (10) and Franklin (5) go to school. She also has her mother, her older sister and two local children living with her. Plus, a young woman from the university who helps cook. We then headed to exchange our USD for CFA (Cameroonian Francs). This was an adventure for sure. We pulled into a parking lot, Ariane cracked her window and handed all our money to a seemingly random man. He then handed back CFA and we drove away. It took less than three minutes. When asked why we don’t use the bank Olivier and Ariane roared with laughter. “The BANK?!”, they asked, “They would give you such a bad rate that they would be stealing your money.” That was good enough for us. “L’informel ici c’est mieux que le formel” or “The informal is better than the formal here” is Ariane’s motto. The police are too corrupt to help and no one gets paid enough to encourage them to do their jobs with much gusto.

Yaoundé in the daylight! The city is so vibrant and always busy. The mountains are usually covered in a layer of mist.

We drove to get SIM cards next which took a while since we had to hand in our passports and be fully checked out before getting the cards. Unfortunately, my phone was locked and so I had to get that sorted at home first (what a nightmare, unlock your phones before going abroad, people), but eventually we were off to the Middlebury centre. Along the way we drove through the Muslim quarter, the most dangerous part of Yaoundé. Ironically the main street of the quarter is named after St. John Paul the Second which Olivier said shows how the Catholics and the Muslims in Cameroon get along very well, unlike in Cameroon’s neighboring country of Nigeria. I was impressed by the balancing skills of the people in the street. A man balancing a stack of at least 15 folded chairs on his bare head darted nimbly across the street, avoiding traffic without disturbing his load. The streets here are crowded, but smell amazing with street food being cooked everywhere. We stopped to buy fresh peanuts which were in soft shells and tasted nothing like any peanut I’d ever tasted. They were more like a bean. If I had been blindfolded while eating them, I would have never guessed they were peanuts. At the Middlebury Center, we had a mental health talk with a psychiatrist who had spent a lot of time in Maryland and New York. He talked to us about settling in, culture shock and homesickness. He assured us that he is at our disposal any time, which was nice and reassuring. We then had a huge lunch chez Ariane because it was her daughter’s 10th birthday. We had chicken stew, rice, spaghetti, an amazing black bean dish, papaya and teardrop shaped donuts which we helped make by squeezing dough through our fists into hot palm oil. We had bakery cake and champagne and sang happy birthday in French and English (Ariane’s family has spent a lot of time in the states). Then it was back to the Middlebury Center where the electricity promptly went out. Not a surprise since in the last two weeks there have only been two days when the city has had power. It was crazy to look out over the city and see only darkness. Luckily, a while later the electricity came back on and we watched it spread towards the hills. We were pretty exhausted by then so it was back to Ariane’s house for a light dinner; boiled plantain and sweet potato, more papaya and rice, before we came back to our hotel. Tomorrow promises plenty of more firsts and wild adventures!

Introduction to my Study Abroad Adventure!

Hi Everyone! My name is Grace Manning and I am an English and French double major with a Peace and Conflict Studies concentration. My family currently lives in Dublin, Ireland, but is in the process of moving to London, England. Having gotten the opportunity to live around the world with my family in places including France, Canada, Ireland and most recently, the United States, as well as the chance to travel to over 20 countries, I developed a love of exploration and discovery. I hope to be able to share with you my experiences as I study abroad in Yaoundé, Cameroon, West Africa. I am writing this just a few weeks out from my first trip to Africa which seems insane to me! I have never been to the continent, much less to the coastal country of Cameroon, so I am trying to go in with as few expectations as possible. I recently was given my host family, Sandra and Kennedy Muluem and their three children, nine year old twin girls and a two year old girl, and I am overjoyed to get to spend my time in Cameroon with a family similar in structure to my own. I have been dreaming of going to Cameroon since my freshman year, so the program I have chosen through Middlebury’s partnership with Holy Cross is an incredibly exciting one. I can’t wait to meet the other student on the program and to arrive in Cameroon’s capital city, Yaoundé.

Wish me luck and be sure to read along as I start this adventure on the other side of the world!