Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
Where to begin, that is the eternal question particularly when there’s so much to be said and so much to say it about. I could, of course, start at the beginning, but then that would be clichéd. But then to start at the end would be contrived. Perhaps somewhere in the middle … of a sentence.
… 1,600 you say, in 2 days! That’s a whole lot of parrot it would be fair to say.
Then again, perhaps the beginning would be best. I should at least be able to keep track of things then.
So it all started with the Fête de Mouton on the Thursday before Christmas. A time, as you will all be aware, when it’s great to be an omnivore with a penchant for sheep but not great to be the sheep. Abraham’s willingness to off his oldest son, and Isaac’s subsequent ovine reprieve means that every house in these Islamic parts becomes an abattoir. And not just every house.
Godola has no shortage of mosques (15 at the last count) but none of them are substantial enough to hold the full body of the town’s devotees of Allah and so it is to the dry river bed that the boubou clad throngs flock; men, women and children decked out in their finest holiday garb with incongruous festive accessories of the novelty sunglasses variety. Everyone grabs their patch of sand and makes sure that it’s pointing in the right direction and then they await the arrival of the head Imam and the village chief. Their appearance brings about the mass bowing, scraping and mumbling that interrupts even the most pompous of occasions in these Muslim quarters.
After the prayers have been said, and the Koranic council have done whatever it is that Koranic councils do, the sheep, who had until recently been permitted to gorge on the most succulent of shoots, is prayed for, pointed in a Meccaly direction and terminated by the unsteady hand of the aging village chief. More prayers are said as the last drops of blood seep into the sand and everyone wends their way home to perform a similar ritual for them and their families.
And this happens every day for a week … not on quite such a large scale as for the Fete itself but a hapless beast is slaughtered and consumed each day for 7 days. As I’ve said before, Fete de Mouton, the only Fete where it does you no good being the subject.
Photos were taken by the memorycardful but, alas, technology has once again intervened in the guise of what I am hoping is a blown adapter. If not then it’s a blown computer which is infinitely more tiresome and not to say expensive as well as disappointing for those who took part in the massacre and who are all eagerly waiting for their copies of the myriad snaps I snapped. I was hoping to put some of the more gruesome action shots up but they’ll have to wait too. I’ll let you know as soon as I do.
A day of overeating naturally followed and, on dropping in on the chief to wish him a happy Fete de Mouton, I bumped into his oldest son who was up from Yaounde for the festive season and who proceeded to not only translate for me – my Fulfulde being a little rusty to say the least – but also to ply me with those parts of a sheep that are usually reserved for haggis. Very tasty they were too. I have to say that I was simply astounded by the number of saucepans the man had: an entire wall of his house was concealed behind innumerable stacks of garishly decorated culinary ware, all of it seemingly unused.
Headed back to the building that is currently referred to as home and had been here for 38 whole seconds when various students arrived armed with pots and pans of dead and subsequently cooked sheep in various shapes and guises. All of it very tasty even if the sheer quantity alone was erring a little on the side of overkill.
The evening saw a tripette back to the site of the ovine adieu as the younger members of society frivoled away their evening in clouds of dust and laughter while the unattached and oversexed older youths busied themselves doing the spooneristic alternative.
Friday came and went in a rush of frantic cleaning and tying up of loose ends before the journeying started in earnest, or at least its prelude. On the Saturday, at that time of day when all sensible people are still gurgling into their pillows, eyes welded shut and thoughts concerning how best to deal with a marshmallow derived rodent infestation using nothing but the power of suggestion, industrial quantities of colostomy bags and thirty nine cubic litres of molasses - or is that just me? – I was girding my loins, hoisting aloft the luggage and weaving a bleary eyed, slow paced amble in the direction of the bus depot.
Mr Murphy has a lot to answer for when one finds oneself, the only man on the bus with legs of above average length, squeezed for 8+ hours into the seat above the wheel arch; a seat that should be reserved for those either with detachable legs or contortionists. That said, it could have been a lot worse, and access to the window and air purporting to be fresh, as well as various pray/pee stops did mean there was a modicum of respite. “A modicum,” incidentally, in these sub-Sahelian climes, is a mote more than a smidgeon.
Ngaoundere, Cameroon’s most northerly railway terminus, a mere 12 hours by road short of the actual northern most end of the country, is as glamorous as any railway terminus in this part of the world could ever be. Habitually festooned with those elements of society who graze unbidden on the contents of other people’s pockets and the debris of other people’s lives, the station is a monument to the 20th century’s early, ill-advised love affair with concrete. Were it to be found in an uncharted backwater of Eastern Europe it would not appear so misplaced but surrounded, as it is, by a ramshackle collection of huts that seem permanently on the point of collapse it looks more like the burnt out remains of one of the spaceships that those nice men, Messrs Smith and Jones (Will and Tommy-Lee that is, as opposed to Mel and Griff Rhys), are protecting us all from.
A nice place to spend an afternoon? It could be worse especially given that Ngaoundere is renowned for it’s dried meat and that the ramshackle huts, about which I was just so disparaging, purvey, among other things, ((n)ice) (cold) beer. As I said, it could be worse. Even the fever that usually afflicts travellers, convinced as they are by the inaccuracy of every time piece at their disposal and indeed those of anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity, is conspicuous in its absence. There’s no fear that you’re going to catch the wrong train as there is only one a day and it can only leave once it’s arrived from whence it was already meant to have done. The train timetables in India were footered by a disclaimer that said: “The times advertised above are not the times at which trains will depart but the times before which they are guaranteed not to,” which, when you think about it, is true for any timetable in the world.
Here a timetable is more like a decoy to entice the time-conscious traveller and guarantee him or her a thorough shoeing at the hands of fate than an accurate prediction of departure and arrival times. The only solution is to kick back, relax, and wait until you see a) a train, and b) people trying to get on it. If you see the former but the people are getting off then you can relax; the inbound train that is to be your outbound purveyor is running a mere 10 hours late. There’s time for another beer.
No station in the world would be complete with the garbled squawk that is the station announcer. In most places you are guaranteed to hear nothing except the *bing-bong* and the name of your station, neatly sandwiched between a string of Slavic expletives and Klingon bedroom banter.
Here you get all of the above except the name of your station, which is a foregone conclusion given that it’s the only place the train’s going. Why do they bother?
Why does anybody?
As we rocked and juddered, jolted and jostled our diesel powered way south, shunted to sleep by the clacketty-clack of the rickety train on rickety 80-year-old tracks, fed on board to the tune of fish or chicken and the hope of a not too late arrival in Yaounde, the adventure was well and truly underway. Three weeks of galavanting loomed; three weeks of merry making, sightseeing and being a tourist in a country that’s about as prepared for tourism as I am to take control of the IMF. Woo, and if I may be so bold, hoo.
The anticipation was palpable; the guide book pulpable. I know that they go out of date, but there’s going out of date and there’s making it up. It might be a fine line but somehow I doubt it. The Bradt Guide to Cameroon should come with the type of disclaimer that only The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy should contain, which is to say:
“though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian works in two important respects.
First, it is slightly cheaper; and second …”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Pan Macmillan, 1979
... it is the only guidebook dedicated to the subject.
The question on everyone’s lips: Has the author actually been here? I could rant for an age on the uselessness and inaccuracy of the information contained therein but that would be a rant and we don’t want that do we?
Yaounde arrived after a mere 15 hours which, at the time was something of a record and not least a relief. Two of our voluntary number had been hoping to catch the train on Friday evening which, in the end, didn’t leave till shortly before ours on Saturday. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued, if reports are to be believed, but I can say with some certainty that it will have made little difference at all.
Yaounde station is as ramshackle as its northern counterpart although it tries to conceal its aesthetic and functional shortcomings behind a sea of knackered taxis and delusions of grandeur. Bundled out into the clawing arms of a sea of hawkers, gawkers, porters and habitual loiterers, abandoned as I was by my two travelling companions, themselves going in a different direction I carpe taxiem and headed towards the ironically named Guarantee Express for the next leg of the journey.
Can’t say what the Guarantee part is referring to, nor indeed the Express part as it singularly failed to achieve either in a manner that anyone would instantly recognise. Still, it got there in the end. There being Limbe and the true end of the introduction to the following weeks of frenetic to-ing and fro-ing, coming and going …
TO BE CONTINUED ...
[A P.S. of contemporary culinary advernturing to add to the already substantial amount written about food: Queue de Vache it said; Ox Tail I thought. Why euphemise when you can tell it like it is. Cow's tail it was, complete with everything but the swish and even then I think I could taste hints of that in the murky broth with which it came.]