A trip around Cameroon (Part 2)

The mist from the falls

To continue with our trip…

We took a slight detour on day three and went to observe the spot where there was a huge landslide a few weeks ago that caused the deaths of around 50 people. It happened during the night when a section of the mountain fell away and took part of a village with it. Sadly, the victims included many pregnant women and children. These people were forced to build their houses on unstable land without enough money or available space elsewhere to build. The government here unfortunately doesn’t mark any areas off-limits for building, so this kind of thing can happen often since much of Cameroon is mountainous.

The site of the recent tragic landslide that killed around 50 people (some bodies still haven’t been found). People here are often forced to build on unstable land, but the government needs to step in to make such areas off-limits.

Day four started with a trip to the Ekom-Nkam waterfalls which were where Tarzan was filmed! The falls were insanely strong because the area had gotten a lot of rain over the past few weeks, so we got completely soaked from the vantage point. The mist and wind coming off the falls made it hard to properly see them from there, so we hiked to a different point above the falls and could see how tall they were (80m) and the river that continued at the bottom. It was in the middle of the rainforest, so the views were amazing. From there, we drove to Douala which is the economic capital of Cameroon (Yaoundé is the actual capital). We had heard horror stories about Douala as apparently people who live in Yaoundé hate Douala and vice versa. My host mom had said it was very hot, dusty and even more full of crazy motorcycles than Yaoundé is (I found that hard to believe!) We didn’t get the full Douala experience because granted, we were in an air-conditioned car, but we did feel a SIGNIFICANT heat difference when we got out to visit a few statues and monuments. It’s too bad that almost all monuments in major cities in Cameroon are dedicated to colonist powers and not to famous Cameroonians. The maritime museum was also very interesting to visit (our History professor got a kick out of the 3D experience) and definitely the most modern museum I’ve visited so far here.

View over the rooftops from my hotel room
Les Chutes d’Ekom-Nkam

The river continuing under the falls

We drove into the night to get to Kribi, a little coastal town in the South of Cameroon. Our first activity there was a boat ride on the river Lobe in a hand-carved boat called a pirogue. These are the principal boats used here for fishing which is so different to see. I’m used to harbors being filled with sailboats and motorboats, but these pirogues are paddled single-handedly by the fishermen. Our guide, André, took us upstream to visit a Pygmy village, but first, he wanted us to see wild monkeys. He paddled into a small cove and we watched as tiny monkeys jumped through the trees around us and came closer to investigate the boat. They were the smallest monkeys I’d ever seen (about the size of a squirrel) and they were very curious and active. We continued upstream before hiking through the forest until we got to the Pygmy encampment. The first thing that struck me upon arrival was that the ground was covered in empty plastic whiskey packets. We had learned in class about the growing alcohol problems in Pygmy villages and that pregnant women continue to heavily drink so that many of the children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or other disabilities. The children are given alcohol as they are growing up. It was sobering to see this with my own eyes and to see the ways in which modernization has really destroyed the Pygmy way of life. We greeted the local chief before getting a tour of the tiny village. Any artificial materials including buckets, clothes and dishware were presents from visitors as Pygmies never venture into outside cities. Most of the Pygmy people were hunting in the forest, so we only met a few. Unfortunately, we don’t speak their language so it was difficult to communicate, but it was definitely interesting to observe their way of life.

The pirogue used to take us up the river Lobe to visit the Pygmies
The river Lobe
Spot the tiny monkeys!

The Pygmy huts
The Pygmy village from the forest surrounding it

Next, we went to see the Lobe Waterfalls which were further downstream. Due to the recent rain, they were very powerful and we watched some fishermen battle in the rapids to catch fish and shrimp. The next few days we had free, with no concrete plans or things to see. So, we were able to relax at the beach (which our hotel was basically on), swim in the surprisingly warm and muddy Atlantic Ocean, and eat many coconuts which André knocked down from the trees for us. The beaches were all basically empty which was amazing so we could explore and hike around the little town. Before we left to head back to Yaoundé, our director filled up the trunk of the car with freshly caught fish we bought at the docks. This was to add to her collection of peanuts, dried and smoked fish, squash and more that she bought along the way, convinced that everything is better when bought directly in the villages that produce it.

Coconuts in a pirogue
One of the beaches in Kribi
Pirogues on the beach
The Lobe waterfall

Freshly-caught shrimp on the dock
A fisherman right under the Lobe falls

So that marks the end of our trip! It was not only a lot of fun, but I feel like I really learned a lot and got to appreciate the diversity that Cameroon has to offer. Sadly, certain areas where students have gotten to travel to in the past with the program, are now off-limits because of the ongoing Anglophone Crisis. These areas include the North, Far North, North-West and South-West. Now back to our “normal” life in Yaoundé!

Some of the many lizards that are EVERYWHERE here!



A trip around Cameroon (Part 1)

We just got back after a week spent exploring the South, West and Littoral parts of Cameroon. We have been living in Central Cameroon, so it was amazing to see the diversity in culture, people, language and climate that the rest of Cameroon holds. The country is said to be a “Miniature Africa” with everything from desert in the North, to mountains and jungle in the West, to grasslands, to ocean. We spent a PACKED week travelling by car and jumping in and out of cities and villages to try and cram in the most learning as possible. We started at 4:30am on Friday morning (gotta avoid that workday traffic), and stopped so that our Muslim driver could pray in an empty parking lot in the dark. Drivers, called “chauffeurs” in French, are absolutely necessary when renting a car as we did. Rental companies don’t rent cars without drivers, as there have been too many cases of people driving off, never to be seen again. Our driver, Abdul, was super friendly and funny so we enjoyed chatting with him in the car or over meals.

First stop was the village of La Reine Blanche (The White Queen), which is in the West near a town called Banganté. Njike Claude Bergeret met us outside her tiny hut, standing barefoot in the dust. She showed us around her house which is a circular room with her bed, a table where she eats meals and teaches the village children, a couch and bookshelves. Outside is her outhouse. We sat down to talk with her and to ask her any questions we had about her way of life. She is an incredibly inspiring, interesting and strong-willed woman who has written several books in French and who has been living in Cameroon for over 40 years now. She was born there to French Missionaries, but she grew up in France. She became disillusioned with the Catholic church and so left her religion at 16. She moved back to Cameroon and fell in love with a local chief, becoming his 26th wife. This was a shock to everyone as there had never been a white woman who willingly decided to join a polygamous Cameroonian family. The chief died after 9 years and Claude chose not to re-marry, instead she built her own village from scratch and now teaches all the village children; the only formal schooling many of them will ever know. She gave us a tour of her vast plantation behind the village where she grows literally every fruit and vegetable I had ever heard of from avocados, to plantains, to peanuts, to pineapples. She lives entirely off the land, making her own bread, jam, honey, even chocolate. The rest she sends into the town to be sold. She struck me as someone fiercely independent, self-reliant and strong enough to resist the media attention she has been given over the past years. She has been offered large houses, financial support and more, but has always refused as she believes she has all she needs to live and to be happy.

Professeur Fofack testing out La Reine Blanche’s homemade bread
The tiniest avocado I’ve ever seen!
Digging up some ginger and turmeric for us
I had never seen a pineapple plan before and for some reason I though they were so cool
La Reine Blanche outside her house
View of the magnificent plantation
Showing us the inside of a palm nut (used to make wine, oil, etc.

After spending time with La Reine Blanche, we went to visit the Chefferie Batoufam, or the Batoufam Chiefdom. The chief was at a funeral celebration (November is the month of funerals here and funerals take place whenever the family has enough money to organize them, so it can be many years after the person’s death). We explored his kingdom with his cook as our guide. The buildings are intricately decorated with paintings, wooden carvings and metal weapons that all have specific meanings and significance to the chief. Interestingly, the kingdom is built on a hill so as you enter it, the different rooms have doors that get smaller and smaller which was to make it difficult for enemies to rush through. We hung out with the chief’s pet monkey, Arthur, who was very friendly and proceeded to immediately groom me and climb all over us.

Arthur and I!
One of the entrances into the Batoufam kingdom
In the Batoufam chiefdom

That night, we ate dinner at a tiny restaurant near our hotel where a girl at least as young as me ran the whole show, cooking and dishing out food in the pitch black after the electricity went out across the city. I am consistently amazed by many of the young people I see here who do jobs that in Europe and the U.S. are only for adults.

Day two we met the King of Bangoulap, a chief who has 8 wives and 20 children. We got to pick his brains on everything from local politics, to his relationship with the state government, to his opinions on modern religion. It was interesting to hear the ways in which some catholic missions of the past have destroyed local traditions, causing kingdoms like this one to have very negative, bitter feelings towards Catholicism in general. We had to do a special hand gesture in greeting, as you don’t shake a chief’s hand, and couldn’t cross our legs when sitting as it is a sign of disrespect. He was very welcoming of us and all our weird questions (like “Do you consider yourself to have magical powers?” His answer was yes.)

With the Roi de Bangoulap on his throne (it is a crime for anyone but the chief to sit on it)
The entrance to the Bangoulap kingdom with a sign naming all the past chiefs, the pointed roofs make it clear that this is a chiefdom.
Paintings on the wall in the king’s court

From there we went to Bangam for a traditional funeral. Funerals here are a BIG deal so they can have hundreds of people in attendance. We took part in one of the dances which was to ask the local chief for permission to hold the funeral on his land. It was lots of chanting, playing the tam-tam (or drum) and admiring the costumes of the important people who wore vibrant, red parrot feathers and carried long whips made of horse tails. We watched another dance which involved frightening masks, playing an instrument much like a xylophone and shuffling in the dust with hollow nuts attached at the ankles. We also had to go up and put money on top of someone’s head during the ceremony. Less festive, for me at least, was watching the pig slaughtering. We were told it was essential to see, so we watched as they blessed the big and each other, sacrificing it in the name of the person who had died. However, the sacrifice itself was not quick, nor was it in any way painless as it is important that the animal bleeds, which made it hard to sit through. That was done a total of ten times throughout the funeral. At least you can be sure all the meat was eaten. Another interesting “tradition” to do with funerals, that kept us and our professors cracking up all through lunch, was the sneaking of food. Many Cameroonians attend funerals with the intention of stocking up on food so they don’t have to cook for the coming week, until the next funeral. So, during lunch, women were slipping meat, plantains and bread into their handbags, along with entire bottles of wine. A physical fight broke out over the party favors; bags filled with…you guessed it, more food. This was a sight to behold.

The blessing before the pig sacrifice
One of the traditional dances

Playing the hand-made, wooden xylophone, these guys were super talented! They played really fast.

A woman wearing a crown of parrot feathers, very controversial outside the region as it requires killing many parrots

A dance we took part in

Day three we stopped at a tiny café which serves locally-grown coffee. The coffee here is always served the same way: black with loads of local honey and lemon. We headed to Foumban, the village of the Bamoun people where we visited a museum shaped like the Bamoun symbol: a spider (symbolizing hard work) in the middle of a double-headed snake. We enjoyed stopping along the way at some of the many toll stops where the car is bombarded by people trying to sell everything under the sun and where a spiked metal pole is lowered if you try to drive through without paying. I tried sugar cane for the first time (AMAZING), ate crispy roasted corn, grilled plantain and grilled beef coated in spices. We stopped at the Metche Waterfall, a sacred and historic site. It was stunning, especially with a perfect rainbow over it and we watched as Cameroonians made sacrifices on the rock overlooking it, in the names of their relatives who had been killed as punishment by French colonists at that very spot. We finished the day with a visit to the Dschang museum and went for a kayak on the lake.

The Bamoun symbol
Buying sugar cane on the side of the road: you basically chew on it, suck all the juices out and then spit out the wood that’s left.

At the Metche Waterfall

Stay tuned for part two of our incredible trip!

Highlights from the Past Few Weeks

It has been SUPER busy the past few weeks here in Yaoundé; finishing up our Middlebury Program classes, struggling through our university class, exploring even more of the city and gaining more confidence and experience at my internship at Promhandicam. It’s nearing (if not already) the end of the rainy season, which, contrary to popular Cameroonian opinion, I am happy about. The rain here is torrential and is always accompanied by flash floods, the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard and lightning, which creates a real fear of being struck since Arjun’s house was struck as was a taxi right in front of him. Not too many lightning rods here… But the dry season has it’s own problems, including dust which is everywhere and gets into everything, and heat as there is no break from the sun. However, I stand by my preference because the sunsets here on clear days are unbelievable! It always looks like the mountains have been set on fire.  I wanted to share with you some highlights from the past few weeks, before a big post in a couple weeks after we get back from our trip! Definitely stay tuned for that, I will have some awesome pictures and stories.

  1. Climbing Mont Eloumden

Ok so this was my favorite hike so far. It was also the longest and the most wild as Mont Eloumden is the tallest of the seven hills surrounding Yaoundé. We started from our host families’ houses in Montée Jouvence and headed out of the city, passing through small villages which gave us a real taste of village life. We had lots of cute kids follow us, always with the typical greeting of “Bonjour Blancs!” or “Hello White people!”. We had to cross a rickety bridge which was hairy because it had poured rain the night before and the river was so high it was touching the bottom of the bridge (bridge meaning several cracked boards nailed together). We successfully crossed the river only to be confronted by men wielding machetes who were cutting the high grass and “cultivating” the road, meaning chopping up the dirt to start a piece of land to farm. We have come across this before; people deciding a piece of road was a good place to try and plant vegetables. Most of the hike was following a narrow, red-dirt path through the rainforest, but upon reaching a certain point, we could see no path whatsoever (we later found out this was because the path isn’t used during the rainy season so no one cuts it). We were forced to literally bush-whack our own path through the jungle, getting very dirty, scraped and mosquito-bitten in the process. But the view from the top was well worth it and we felt like we were in the total wilderness of Cameroon which was very cool.

Bird’s-eye view of Yaoundé
Mont Eloumden before we started the ascent

Enjoying the view
Near the base of the mountain, where the path was more defined


2. Teaching by myself for the first time at Promhandicam

This was something that I had really wanted to do since I started at Promhandicam. The teacher who is my impromptu advisor (mainly because he has been the most helpful in helping me navigate being an intern there), M. Jules, informed me on a regular Thursday during morning break at 10, that he had Malaria and so was going home for the day, so was I ok to teach the class until school finished at 2? Safe to say, I was really nervous at first, mostly because on such short notice, I had nothing planned to teach the students. But I had been with this class for a while and I felt really comfortable with the kids. I made a quick lesson plan which consisted of, vocabulary that describes a village, followed by a labelled drawing of a village (the theme of the week was villages, if you couldn’t already tell). After that, I took a vote to see what they wanted to learn, and they all wanted me to teach them Christmas vocabulary in English and then sing songs. So we spend the afternoon doing that and it was a huge success! I thought at first that without their usual teacher, no one would listen to me, but the kids were great and attentive, for the most part. We had a couple of sleepers, but that happens even when M. Jules is there. The most difficult part was definitely having a class of 50 students, 11 of which were blind and many of which were learning disabled. I had to spell our everything I wrote on the board for the blind students and they weren’t able to do the drawings so I had include them in other ways, like having them sit next to a seeing student so they could describe their picture. Working with a group of students of all different ages and abilities (from as young as 6 to as old as 16) certainly has it’s challenges, as some can’t read or can’t express themselves orally and it made me all the more impressed by M. Jules who does this every day. Teaching is so exhausting! But I left feeling rewarded and like a lot had been accomplished. Plus we all ended up having tons of fun!

Josen is one of the blind students with whom I primarily work
Me with some of my students!
Two girls looking on during a competitve dance game at recess

“I say no to corruption”
Working away

Part of the class I was teaching
Cuties!!! They are obsessed with having their picture taken

3. Eating our goat

This title is an odd one at first glance, less odd here in Cameroon. For some background, my host family was given a live goat as a present (as you do) by one of my host father’s patients (Kennedy is a surgeon). It was tied up outside my room and lived there for over a week, being fattened up. It enjoyed such pastimes as bleating loudly at 3am, scaring small children who live in the apartment (including my 2-year-old host sister who had to run by it every time she needed to get in the front door), and breaking it’s rope several times in an attempt to escape it’s fate. Eventually, a man came over and killed it for us. This was a slightly traumatizing experience as I had considered the goat quite cute (much to my host sisters’ disgust), but as it is part of the culture, I swallowed my animal-protective instincts. We ate it for Sunday lunch with Arjun and Sandra’s mother because it was a big deal to be able to eat a whole goat. We had it with couscous and veggies and I have to say, it was pretty tasty. I could also vouch for the fact that it was VERY fresh. I did not miss being woken up at the crack of dawn the next day, but it’s little empty corner made me sad on my way to school. This experience did teach me a lot about appreciating our food and about the way people eat here. Meat is so fresh because the electricity goes out so often that nothing can be kept in a refrigerator or freezer. I am not a huge meat-eater and have gone through phases of being vegetarian, but I think that if people want to eat meat, it should be eaten the way that Cameroonians eat it. There is no hiding what animal it is or where the meat came from, everything is on your plate and you are expected not to waste anything (although I couldn’t quite chew the bones like my family can).

The goat in it’s corner

I hope you enjoyed this little update on my life, stay tuned for the next post on our adventures in Western, Littoral and Southern Cameroon!