One evening last summer, as I strolled along the promenade in Limbe, a small, scenic port town in southwestern Cameroon, I was stopped by a well-dressed young man who greeted me warmly and took me by the hand.
He introduced himself as Jonas and told me that he worked in marketing, going door to door selling American skin creams and hair care products. This was his first time in Limbe. It was a new, strange, wonderful place for him. Behind us were the muscular foothills of Mount Cameroon, West Africa’s highest peak, before us the small bay that opened onto the Atlantic’s wider waters. The day’s heat had diminished, and a cool sea breeze blew against our cheeks.
For a few minutes, we stood silently gazing out to sea, where an oil derrick sitting a few hundred feet offshore did little to obscure the view. Jonas wondered aloud whether the derrick belonged, like so much in Cameroon, to the Chinese. “In this country, we believe everything is privatization,” he said. “We now believe the sea is owned by the Chinese.”
On the beach below us, a pack of teens was playing a rough game of soccer, their bunched-up T-shirts serving as goalposts; a young girl approached us, carrying a tray of hard-boiled eggs. I had spent a few peaceful days in Limbe, strolling along the promenade, eating grilled fish and cassava, drinking chilled bottles of “33” Export lager at sidewalk cabarets. It was a blessed sort of life.
Jonas told me the story of his brother, also a salesman, who had once traveled to Burkina Faso. It was a bad place to do business, he said, because the people were so poor. “Here we have the natural resources, so we don’t have to rely on the government,” said Jonas, as if the oil and the palm groves and the forests were something Cameroon had created itself.
“Well, you didn’t put the natural resources there,” I told him. “That’s why they’re natural.”
“That means God bless us,” he said.
It was, as I would learn in the weeks ahead, an easy impression to have in Cameroon. If ever there were a country that seems to revel in its own abundance, it’s the one nicknamed “little Africa,” so rich and varied are the landscapes one encounters there.
Behind tranquil Limbe and the imposing haunches of Mount Cameroon lies the beautiful, mountainous terrain of the country’s rugged southwest; skirt the coastline and you enter a tropical fantasia of coconut palms and feather-soft beaches; farther south is a sprawling savanna that would not seem out of place in the Serengeti; and finally, to the far north, is the arid landscape of the Sahel, where even the goats siesta beneath 18-wheelers, so merciless is the midday sun.
After a month-long tour of Cameroon, I felt as if I’d seen a microcosm of the continent I’ve spent the past five years traversing. The landscapes were diverse, but so too were the lifestyles I encountered, as if all of Africa had indeed cozied up inside the country’s borders.
Placid Limbe had all the trappings of a colonial mission town. In free-wheeling Douala, young hedonists danced until the wee hours to the latest bikutsi club tracks. In the patisseries of Yaoundé, well-dressed men nibbled at the corners of pains au chocolat and discussed Parisian politics. And every evening in Maroua, in the heart of the conservative Muslim north, wrinkled paterfamiliases spread their sleeping mats under the boughs of the ubiquitous neem trees, playing card games with a general spirit of contentment and mirth.
Various colonizers have staked their claims to Cameroon through the years, and all have left their footprints — some deeper than others — behind. The Germans planted the flag for the kaiser in 1884, but their colonial experiment was short-lived. During the First World War, the British invaded from their neighboring protectorate in Nigeria, and in the war’s aftermath, the colony was divided between the victorious British and the French. The British influence continues to be felt in the narrow southwestern region bordering Nigeria, but the French enjoy a far greater presence throughout the rest of the country, with the effect that to a casual traveler, Cameroon feels like an extension of Françafrique.
One of the results of this cultural partition is that Cameroon is better known to French- than to English-speaking travelers; Routard and Petit Futé guides outnumbered the Lonely Planets I saw by a considerable margin.
Crossing between these two worlds is one of Cameroon’s distinct and curious pleasures. In Bamenda, an Anglophone stronghold, I good-naturedly argued at a taxi stand over the latest results from the English Premier League. Hours later, in the commercial capital of Douala, the grand boulevards and rond-points, or traffic circles, suggested a tropical Champs-Elysees, and the patisseries were stocked with croissants, mille feuilles and forets noire: sugary enticements that looked as if they’d arrived on the morning’s Air France flight from Paris.
Approaching Douala, our crowded bush taxi abandoned the agrarian calm of the countryside for the rough hustle of the city. This, too, was Africa writ small, an example of the dizzying speed with which the people of the continent are migrating to its urban centers. The lovely forests and palm oil plantations slowly give way to the usual grim indicators of urban African sprawl: industrial wastelands of breweries and cement plants, long-haul transport trucks belching clouds of exhaust into the hazy sky, seething open-air markets that stretch for miles along the congested roads.
In Limbe, locals speak of Cameroon’s economic capital almost mythically, as of some Biblical kingdom of hustlers and Sodomites, a city of violence and avarice smothered by a pall of muggy tropical heat. But Douala, like all great metropolises, draws migrants in search of a better life. And though the city appears rough and unburnished to a traveler, it’s not without its charms.
Douala is best known for its night life, and the clubs, once filled, do not empty until dawn. In the stories of Cameroonian author Janvier Chando, set in a fictional village in the country’s rural west, a recurring theme is the corrupting influence of the Coast, where a good village boy could end up losing his traditional values, falling in with the wrong crowds, and — in the case of one wayward youth — returning to the village in an Yves St. Laurent shirt. After a few nights in Douala, my own shirts reeked of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume, and I studiously avoided eye contact with the stoic freres who presided over the Catholic mission where I stayed.
Moral waywardness is one thing, but corruption of a more quotidian sort was the prevailing theme in the newspapers and in conversation. It’s the reason many Cameroonians believe that a country that once enjoyed one of the highest per capita gross domestic products in Africa has failed, after the collapse of commodity prices devastated the economy in the 1980s, to pick itself up again.
Beneath the smiling surface, I often encountered bitterness about the fact that most Cameroonians are considerably worse off today than they were a generation ago. Though Jonas, in Limbe, was right to bless Cameroon’s natural endowment, the fruits have not been evenly shared.
Cameroon is a country, a taxi driver told me, “pour les riches seulement.” Only for the rich. Another man complained bitterly that his father had been a powerful man and had aroused resentment among his neighbors. Envy poisoned his relationships; when his father died, the once-flourishing family business died with him. The man was now broke and broken, betrayed by the jealousy of his kinsmen.
“I hate this country, but I cannot leave this country,” he said.
Leaving was no easy task for a Cameroonian man, but a traveler’s life is full of departures. I bade adieu to Douala and boarded a bus for Kribi, a pretty resort town where Frenchmen of a certain age are known to whisk their young Cameroonian lovers for weekend trysts.
If Douala comes at you with a switchblade, Kribi approaches bearing a long-stemmed rose. So seductive is the town’s spell that a barmaid in Limbe had warned me not to accept any food from local girls, lest I succumb to whatever potent juju they had used to spice their dishes.
The town is a ramshackle collection of curio shops and cabarets. Whatever secret rendezvous transpire on the weekend failed to break the weekday torpor. The lovers, I suspected, were still sitting in their far-off offices in Douala and Yaoundé; I had the beaches to myself.
In the evening, I rekindled my love affair with “33” — “three-three” in the local parlance — and feasted on fresh prawns and the bitter-leaf stew known as ndole. From the terrace of my beach shack, buffeted by a balmy sea breeze, I watched the lights of fishing boats twinkling far off at sea. That means God bless us, indeed.
I’m accustomed to the hardships of African travel — I had arrived after a two-month slog through Nigeria — so I found Cameroon an easy country to navigate. After Kribi I made my way to the capital, Yaoundé, a green, hilly city with a bracing springtime climate.
Here the cheerful commotion of Cameroonian life seemed of a kind with the bright, sun-splashed hills. Pavement chefs presided over small propane burners, dishing out avocado salads and spaghetti omelets to crowds of hungry laborers. Stocky women in colorful dresses arranged their mangoes and oranges on sidewalk blankets, calling out in a cheery singsong. And young men wove through all the clamor selling secondhand shoes, a high-top sneaker or loafer balanced precariously on their heads. In the cool evening air, with the couples languidly strolling hand in hand past the crowded cabarets, it was possible to imagine a happy life here, a joyful procession of days and nights as gentle and pleasing as the city’s rolling hills.
Yet the open road always proves to be a more powerful seductress for me. Amid the clamor and din of Yaoundé’s central train station one morning, I boarded the Camrail train to N’Gaoundéré, the gateway to the northern Sahel. Settling into the cramped quarters of my premiere-class carriage, I fell into conversation with my cabinmate, an older man of serious but pleasant comportment.
He lived in Douala and was traveling with his 2-year-old son to visit family in the north. The boy sat on the edge of his father’s bunk, eating chicken with grave determination and spitting the bones and gristle into his father’s palm. A brisk contingent of waiters bustled along the hallway, rapping on doors and taking dinner orders. The mood was festive; music played. As the night deepened, I could hear my fellow passengers going through their ablutions and retiring to their cabins. Before long, the boy was curled like a comma into the crook of his father’s arm, his little chest rising and falling with the train’s rhythmic clatter.
In the morning, we awoke on the outskirts of Makor, a village of tidy mud-brick houses sitting on a small hill overlooking the tracks. The mist was just beginning to lift from the valley floor. It was a beautiful landscape of forested hills and plots of land cultivated by women who were already in the fields at dawn, bent at the waist. We pulled into the N’Gaoundéré station at 8 a.m., barely an hour behind schedule.
The platform was crowded with local officials and policemen and a few low-level dignitaries. An important delegation, I learned, had arrived with us on the train from Yaoundé. A marching band struck up a welcoming tune. A chorus line of singing women, wearing identical blue dresses emblazoned with the smiling visage of President Paul Biya, serenaded the arriving VIPs.
But the welcome was “pour les riches seulement”; the station was shut down to make way for the morning’s eminent arrivals. The rest of us first- and second-class plebes were shunted down the track, dragging our suitcases across the gravel. We pushed and shoved our ignominious way through the service entrance. Young touts were waiting to greet us outside, calling out destinations — “Garouagarouagaroua” and “Marouamarouamaroua” — in the far north.
Maroua. Yes, that sounded about right. Just as one journey had wrapped up, another was beginning. I stopped to buy some fruit for the long bus ride ahead — 10 hours, at least, into the dust bowl of the Sahel. I carefully counted out the change in my hand and gave it to the fruit vendor, who smiled and deposited a few plump mangoes into a plastic bag. As I turned away, he called out to me and offered one more.
“C’est un cadeau,” he said, a gift. Then he wished me a safe journey.
Vourlias is a writer traveling in Africa and working on his first book.