Sunday, 3 May 2009

25: Into the clouds in Cameroon

10.30 a.m. Wednesday 22nd April - thunk thunk - a smile spread across our faces as we heard the faceless, nameless clerk in the consular office at the Angolan embassy in Abuja pound the embossing stamp onto our one-month long tourist visas. With only a visa for Gabon left to collect in Cameroon, and visa-free passage through southern Africa guaranteed, it looks like the great African visa hunt may be drawing to a close for this part of the trip. With the bureaucratic barriers enroute to the Cape cast aside, we were back in business. All we have to do now is cycle there.

Beyond the thoughtfully planned and comparatively pristine streets of Abuja, lay the sprawling eastern satellite towns of Nyanyan and Mararaba, where many hopeful souls have gravitated to, aspiring to urban fortunes. Minibus taxis and okada riders wove perilously close as they tried to attract clients by honking their horns. Soon the urban din receded, however, and we were passing through the agricultural states of Nassarawa and Benue. We camped in fields that had been washed green during our layover in Abuja. The rains had now begun in earnest and the occasional thunderstorm broke out during the night, sending us out to hammer down tent pegs. Strong winds usually give warning of impending downpours. Then the rain starts and shortly thereafter the water typically breaches the first and only line of defence, my outer fly-sheet. From then on I'm confined to a the small dry portion of an already rather small tent. Tucked up into a fetal position I avoid the worst of the inundation. Tomorrow there will be sun. Before nine the evidence will have evaporated into another hot day.

The beginning of the rainy season also heralds a return to the fields for the farmers who are now busy ploughing and planting next season's harvest. Makurdi marks our midway point to the border from Abuja and we stopover for Nigeria's answer to McDonald's, Mr.Bigg's, and a couple of bottles of Star to celebrate life on the road. As we search for a guesthouse at sunset, Peter is accosted by a member of Nigeria's notorious State Security Service (SSS), as Peter asks for directions at a junction. The man has no identification, however, and encouraged by passersby, Peter rides off. Moments later we're both pulled over by several motorbikes and a crowd gathers as our documents are examined and we're asked several inane questions that only the truly suspicious, truly bored, or truly dumb could ask. The encounter is brief, however, and soon we're on our way again.

Leaving Makurdi a mangled motorbike lays in two separate sections across the road. The driver couldn't have survived. We find out later that he didn't. Twisted metal carcasses lie all along the roads in Nigeria and the combination of ancient trucks, fast cars, overloaded minibus taxis and often poorly maintained roads, leaves conditions ripe for wholesale carnage. Later on the same day we find ourselves caught out in the darkness, trying in vain to find a secluded spot to pitch our tents. We're invisible to the oncoming vehicles, overtaking two or three at a time. We roll down a lane as lightning over the mountains to our east sporadically lights up the night sky. We find a clapped-out Peugout pick-up parked under a mango tree and Jacob is talking with a neighbour as we ask if we can be put up for the night. Of course it's no problem and once the rain arrives, a couple of other passersby also run into the compound to seek shelter. Jacob farms oranges and dinner consisted of a biblical quantity of vitamin C. The following morning we're served up with pounded yam and a piece of tender, unidentified meat. Such kindness and generosity. We're sent on our way with the blessing of God.

The road to Bissaula

From Takum, in Taraba state, we begin our final trek out of Nigeria. A rough 80 kilometre track brings us to the small border village of Bissaula. We stamp out in the evening at the candlelit immigration post. Then we're asked to produce our international vaccine certificates. After meticulous examination of the yellow book, including the Gaelic script, the officer announces with great authority and a swelling chest that our certificates are indeed valid. Peter tells the man we realise that and if he's done there's a UEFA semi-final starting in a few minutes. "What can you give me?", the officer asks with a greedy smile breaking across his face. "Our friendship" Peter quickly adds, using a now well-tested phrase, as we grab our yellow books and go to seek a hot and airless room to rent for the night. Peter wanders off to see if he can watch the football in a nearby house where a generator and satellite dish brings the match live to this small, remote outpost in west Africa, while I chat with Sunday, a Cameroonian living in the village with his young wife and daughter. His daughter dribbles on my shoulder and cries when I smile at her.

Lizard for dinner?

The official border is a few kilometers further down a progressively narrower track. After a mango and banana break in Agabi, the last settlement in Nigeria, we splash through the shallow River Donga and into Cameroon. The first settlements we pass through appear no different than those on the other side of the river, except for more tattered Cameroon football tops in evidence. Like many of the borders that resulted from the colonial carve up of Africa, the same ethnic groups found themselves divided by an international border that means little to the people living in the area. Shortly after crossing into Cameroon we begin to climb into the north western highlands, beginning a three-day epic journey that marks the toughest stretch of the journey so far. The track rose up at gravity defying angles making cycling impossible on the steepest sections. Initially we could push or pull the bikes, but then I settled for removing the bags and carting items up, then the bike, and then doing the same all over again. Progress could be measured in inches per hour. Descending was no less challenging, down the deeply rutted and boulder-strewn track. Bemused and friendly villagers greeted us with benches in the shade and asked about our trip, while we asked about life in the village. "Why were we doing this?" Damned if I know.

Things got steep

We stumbled into Ako at sunset, the first immigration post into Cameroon. At the police station, a man with a large tooth on a chain around his neck, and scars from numerous fights that deformed the right side of his face, told us he would fetch the chief. The commissioner was a jovial fellow and after a cursory glance through our passports, said there was no problem if we wanted to camp outside the station. Later in the evening, while Peter caught the second UEFA semi final, I sat under the night sky, drinking a beer with the commissioner as we discussed topics from Chinese imports to what the Obama administration might mean for relations between the US and Africa.

After a breakfast of rice and kidney beans we were on our way to Nkambe, one of the larger towns in the highlands, and at 1770 metres one of the higher ones too. We were assured that the road between Ako and Nkambe wasn't too bad and the distance was approximately 40 kilometres, but we would be climbing over 1200 metres. After a couple of hours of cycling it was clear that the previous day's exertions had taken their toll. As the road rose once more into gravity-defying ascents, it looked increasingly unlikely that we would be able to make to Nkambe before evening. By 2pm we had collapsed beside a water pipe in the hillside village of Jeyu, wincing at yet another vertical slope that lay before us. There was no food prepared in the village, but I was able to buy some rice in a shop that someone had in their bedroom, and a smiling girl offered to cook for us. By 5pm we were staying the night and we spent the evening chatting with worldly men who farmed the steep slopes of the surrounding tropical forest. Our host, Exodus, was a carpenter who had returned after a decade in the cities to his native village to raise his family and grow the best pineapples in Cameroon. He studied our map of west Africa and then we went through all of the African heads of state, pictured on a tattered poster on his wall, trying to decide which were still in power. Most of them are.

Kids in Jeyu village, Cameroon

It was with dismay that I noticed the hill was still there when I looked outside into the slowly brightening morning the next day. A couple of hours later, after a breakfast of pounded soya beans and cooked bananas, we'd said our goodbyes and were waved off by a group of villagers who stood to watch our progress up the hill. We pedaled about ten metres before being reduced to pushing the bikes again. Several more kilometres of vertical ascent and the shouts of Polish swear words began to die out as the road levelled out. We'd made it. We looked back down the green, mist-covered valley and I marvelled how similar it looked, albeit on a grander scale, to landscapes much more familiar to me.

Wicklow or the Cameroon highlands?

We finally rolled into Nkambe on an overcast and chilly first of May. Labour Day was being celebrated with unbridled fervour and the shebeens and bars around town were filled to capacity and pumping out loud beats. A taxi passed me in the centre of town, its engine on fire and the driver oblivious to the warning shouts of bystanders. We've taken a couple of days off to see if our legs will work again and yesterday, as I began checking my emails and typing up this posting, Miina and Kristiina sat down beside me in the small internet cafe. We had actually passed them by on our way out of Ako, returning their wave, but not stopping to talk. They had been visiting the Ako area from Finland, in order to assess the needs of disabled children living in the area. They downloaded the photos they'd been taking over the previous couple of weeks and they told a much different story from my own. Untreated infections that had been left for years, causing kids to live with great pain. Whole families almost blind because there were no glasses available for them. They represented a Finnish organisation, Jaatinen, that was set up to monitor the rights of the disabled, and they were setting up links with a Cameroonian partner, but it was their first time in Africa and the two weeks had clearly taken a great toll as they realised the scale of the problems that they faced. They spoke of searching for a clean bandage in Ako, so that a child's leg that had been left infected for three years, could be dressed before they arranged surgery for him. They were only able to find one bandage after visiting the two pharmacies in town. There were two hospitals in Ako but only one had running water and neither had any electrical power.

When such stories are told and I recall the scale of problems that many communities face in the areas I pass through, I often find myself questioning the value of travel in such regions. What purpose does travel provide in such situations? Is it merely voyeuristic to pass through such places? Would it not be far better to work in a capacity that could help make change rather than merely being a silent witness? Ultimately, however, regardless of the unease that I sometimes feel, I still believe that travel has a higher value than simply being an experiential activity and that the interaction that occurs between cultures can, in its own small way, be a positive force for greater understanding between people. Or perhaps not. Yet Stevenson was right, the great affair is indeed to move. Even if there is the odd tempest, it still floats my boat.

Nkambe, Cameroon

Trip distance: 14,266 km

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