Looking back on the past few days, I feel like I have barely had time to let it sink in that I am in Cameroon. I am writing this post in the dark, my electricity having gone out shortly after a thunderstorm began. The torrential rain is so heavy that it often dislodges power lines and since we are in the midst of the rainy season here, I am mentally preparing for many more dark evenings. Luckily, the rainy season only means a few minutes of heavy rain and dark clouds a day. The rest of the day is hot, misty and humid because we are in the Forest section of Cameroon. The country is split into four people based on the climate: The forest people, the water people, the desert people and the grasslands people. Hence why Cameroon is called miniature Africa; this country has it all. I woke up at 4:30am the other morning to do a traditional Cameroonian activity. Ariane led us up Mont Fébé, one of the seven mountains surrounding Cameroon. It was a tough hike, mostly uphill and in the pitch dark. We were surrounded, however, by hundreds of other Cameroonians doing the same thing. It was an experience like no other. Some people were even descending the mountain as we ascended meaning they started their hike at 3am. Ariane does this hike every day. It was wet (due to the constant mist) and noisy with birds, monkeys and frogs. The view from the top was a panorama of the entire city and the six other mountains – well worth the early morning.
During one of our first days here, we were invited to visit the United States Embassy and to have a meeting with the American Diplomat. It was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone originally American, who has spent the majority of his life outside the United States, often in African countries. He stressed that in order to criticize and discuss issues in Cameroon and in Africa in general, one must understand the context and in order to really do so, one must have experience living in Africa. The media is so biased and often mis-informed as to what goes on here, that those abroad have skewed ideas of Africa. We also met with the Cultural Affairs Officer who had served in the Peace Corps and we got to pick his brains on current affairs. Although interesting and informative, it was disheartening to learn how little contact American officials such as these have with the people of the country in which they are living. Provided with all they need within the walls of the Embassy Compound, they rarely interact with the ordinary people of Cameroon – an aspect that should be changed.
On a lighter note, lunch that day was my first experience eating fresh, Cameroonian fish. While Ariane considers the head the most delicious part of the fish (Cameroonians even eat the bones), I preferred the body of the fish, sans bones. Ariane laughed at her experience with other American students, “you feel guilty about eating fish so you eat the eyes first and then they can’t look at you!”
The next stop was the new quarter of Yaoundé. It has apartment buildings and houses built by the Chinese which stand empty and which Cameroonians can’t afford. A four-lane highway was built (which seems enormous after driving on only unpaved, dirt roads) and we were the only car on it. We were gestured out of the ghost town by a man wielding a long machete and by a herd of longhorn cattle being corralled by another man. Driving around the city is constantly entertaining and stimulating. Every time I look out the window, something new and exciting is going on. Someone is carrying something insane on their head, someone is holding a litter of newborn puppies for sale, someone is carrying enormous rats by their tails in one hand and the leash of the dog used to catch the forest rats in the other.
To talk to the people who live here, there is an incredible amount of pride about Cameroon, as well as discouragement and disheartenment as to the President (Paul Biya) who is 87 years old and has been in office for almost 40 years, yet who never leaves his palace and never speaks to his people. There is a desire for change, but a corrupt system which makes such change almost impossible, even for those who are educated and worldly. There is an incredible amount of suffering and like Ariane said, the misery is right out in the open where everyone can see it, not in hospitals or homes. To get to spend time here, I’ve already learned, is the privilege of getting to understand and see first-hand why violence and poverty exist in Cameroon. One can only read and watch so much, being here is entirely different and has opened my eyes in more ways than one to the struggles of a people to succeed and overcome when their own government seems to be working against them.