As I sit here, an itchy, pink mess, whiling away the minutes before wending my way to school for another day of temporal assassination - the norm in these the twilight days of the school year - there is just time to begin to compose what could potentially be the last installment from this torrid west African back water. Time enough to gather a few thoughts in readiness for the ten lights of Cameroon. Doesn’t, admittedly have the same ring as “top ten” or “highlights” but given than I’m writing this senza preparation, just for a change, I can neither guarantee that they will be top, nor particularly high. There may not even be ten ... would hate to be accused of misleading my public!
So, in no particular order: Things That Sum Up Cameroon; snappy title or what?
“NASSARA!” - It would be fair to say that I’ve been around a bit, and everywhere I’ve been I’ve usually been labelled as either foreign or white, usually both: “Inji” in India, “Weigook” in Korea and “Nassara” here. It’s understandable; it’s not like I blend in. Here, the name calling reaches unprecedented levels.
In India and Korea people, particularly smallish child type people, will often turn to their fellow urchins and in sotto voce undertones point you out to their friends. Here people will scream across the street for no other reason, seamingly, than wishing to remind you that you are white. Old, young, rich, poor, men, women, strangers, ‘friends’ ... pretty much everyone. They’re not trying to get your attention, or initiate a discussion on Tibetan freedom or, indeed, exhange recipes for carrot and coriander soup. They’re not even saying hello.
Don’t get it; never will. Have taken to either agreeing or looking around in mock surprise and asking “where?” ... they don’t get it. Do I care?
La Chaleur - They said it would be hot; I suspected they were probably right. Didn’t think they’d be this right.
There’s about a week and half in late December / early January when the temperature is just about perfect. After that the mercury just keeps on rising to its current level; eternal damnation’s departure lounge. You drip from every pore and there are times when you feel like the sweat is forging whole new outlets just to satisfy your body’s demands for perspiration.
Everything drips and you come to a point when eyebrows usurp opposable thumbs in the rank of finest evolutionary outcomes.
Life grinds to a halt under the incessantly watchful gaze of our nearest star. Shadows melt away, life is put on standby; even mad dogs give it a miss. Give me a steady light drizzle any day of the week.
Eating out - There’s something deeply decadent and generally quite pleasing about being able to go to your favourite drinking establishment and then go and get your food from somewhere else.
Can you think of anything nicer than sitting in [insert drinking establishment of choice], cold [insert liquid measurement of choice] of [insert tipple of choice] resting comfortably in hand and sitting in front of you is a freshly cooked [insert carry out of choice]. Give me that over [insert overpriced, sub-standard, disappointing and generally bland bar meal of choice] any day of the week.
E and its magic numbers
CES de Godola - 521 “children”; 5 “teachers”, 4 “classrooms”
children /’t∫ildr∂n/ n.pl. - anyone between the ages of 11 and 35;
teachers /’ti:t∫∂z/ n.pl. - untrained person, usually male, aged between 18 and 30, paid approximately £30 per month for 25+ hours of teaching per week;
classrooms /’kla:srumz/ n.pl. - unlit, poorly ventilated, cramped enclosed space akin to a battery farm, in which learning is expected to take place.
The weekly shop - In a world of vacuum-packed, chicken gall-bladder fattened gooseberry’s from Murmansk and mutant Martian mange-tout at all times of the year, it’s been an often rude shock to discover that carrots are seasonal. A dozen onions for 5p; the same of tomatoes for 10. More [insert seasonal fruit of choice] than you could waggle Epping, New and Nottingham Forests at should you have the time, energy or inclination.
Itchy and Scratchy - Insect life. It comes in all shapes, all sizes, remarkably few colours but all in all there’s far too much of it. From the tiny whatevertheyares that snow down from my light every evening after their stolen moment of neon passion, through to the cockroaches who waggle their tenticles at me every evening while I ablute. Some of them bite, The Ladies Anopholese go without saying and the whatever they weres in the rainforest that kicked off the evening with a measure of ARhD+; others merely have too many apendages and too little control over them. Still haven’t eaten any of them yet, not intentionally at least.
Nature’s Call - Optimal bowel alignment’s all very well but if your limbs are incapable of adopting the required posture, it never makes for a particularly relaxing undertaking; add to it the neighbours’ predispostion to setting up breakfast camp in full view of the ‘stage’, their and their children’s inability to hit the target and the excitement that is seeing the hole fill up during the wet season ... I have fantasies involving a dead-bolted door, Messrs Armitage and Shanks’ finest porcelain and a selection of reading material.
Not sure I’ll ever get used to the Cameroonian view that “the world is your toilet”. Everyone drops their shopping wherever the feeling strikes; the morning walk to school is particularly pleasant, the route, as it is, festooned with semi-naked children doing what they must. Fine. Get on with it. Save your “Bo’zoor Messiah”ing for the end of the performance.
Top Down - There’s something peculiarly decadent about the journey from Maroua to the bright lights of Yaounde. There are many who’d disagree with me, and granted it’s not all plain sailing, but it has a certain hon-he-hon-he-hon, as they say, mainly in France, admittedly. The bus is invariably hot, chaotic, uncomfortable and slow but at the end sits cold beer and dried meat in Ngaoundere. The train element of the trip has all the hallmarks of a James Bond adventure albeit without agents of SPECTRE trying to off you during dinner. Your feet might have to dangle out the window and you might well be delayed to the tune of days but it’s all part of the adventure.
The ‘C’ word - That’s to say the one that rhymes with eruption. I posted this image way back when and it still is about as accurate as it gets.
Never have I had such little respect or trust for people in uniforms. Corruption is the stone in the flipflop of progress but one that no-one seems to want to address. Sure people talk about how it’s destroying the country, but everyone’s compliant. The bureaucratic lunacy that is accumulating stamps from a thousand and one different people who invariable can’t be arsed to be there, and the ‘cadeaux’ that each stamper demands means that it’s less hassle and more cost effective not to bother with the paperwork and just fork out the bribe should the need arise.
Inspectors, ministers, delegates, you name it .... none of them would do anything if each ‘official visit’ didn’t mean a chance to squeeze cash out of the people who depend on them. Schools that have no money but need to pay the local education delegate to come and see them every year and not only that but pay for his/her petrol, driver, food and then a little something on the side. It’s ridiculous and it’s genuinely hobbling this country.
So there you have it ... Ten Lights. Cameroon in a nutshell through the eyes of a road-weary Scotsman, 2 weeks away from being hosted by Air France on the journey back to more northerly climes.
Twixt then and now lies an ocean of inactivity upon whose brackish and still waters I’m bobbing. The wind has stilled, waves there are none; I’m in the hands of time’s all too predictable tides.
Tuesday, 3rd June 2008. There begins more living.