Cameroon, memories from a trip to remember

It was the moment I was asked if I was visiting my relatives that I knew this trip to Cameroon was unusual. There were near death experiences while driving at night. There were nights being kept awake by over enthusiastic fans while sharing a hotel with the national football team. There was even a cataclysmic storm that hit Yaounde and delayed my return flight by six hours. Long enough to ensure I made my connection but my luggage did not.

Yet, it all started upon arrival. As I emerged from baggage reclaim I saw my name on a handmade sign held by the man who had come to collect me. I walked towards him, but was stopped in my tracks by a beautiful young woman in a yellow dress running towards me shouting greetings in French. She leapt into my arms wrapping her legs around my waist and her arms around my neck.

Market, Yaoundé, Cameroon
Douala, Cameroon
Douala, Cameroon
Yaoundé, Cameroon

This is not the sort of thing that normally happens to me. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. It was 2am and the flight from Brussels to Yaounde, Cameroon’s bustling capital, had been long and sleepless. This unlooked for greeting had two immediate outcomes. I dropped my bags to catch the leaping woman, and the throng of waiting Cameroonians burst into laughter sprinkled with applause.

I was utterly confused. As she took my hand to lead me out of the arrivals area, I tried to explain that there must have been a mistake. As it started to dawn on her and the rest of the arrivals hall that my would-be paramour had got the wrong man, the laughter became more raucous. Letting go of my hand, she sheepishly apologised, and walked back to the crowd of onlookers.

Douala, Cameroon
Douala, Cameroon
Douala, Cameroon
Yaoundé, Cameroon

Samuel, who’d been waiting for me, watched this scene in hysterics. As we drove to Yaounde, he explained that the woman was meeting a man she’d ‘met’ online for first time. It’s quite common for Belgians to try to find a Cameroonian wife he said. Samuel and the driver, Charles, could barely contain themselves as they imagined the reaction of the unhappy beau as his potential future wife leapt into the arms of a stranger.

A crowd was gathered outside the entrance to my hotel. Had news of my airport humiliation reached the city so soon? Was I suddenly famous? It transpired that the Cameroon national football team was staying in the same hotel ahead of an Africa Cup of Nations game. The crowd grew in size and and noise throughout my stay. I just wanted to climb into bed and sleep.

Yaoundé, Cameroon
Douala, Cameroon
Douala, Cameroon
Yaoundé, Cameroon

The next day I shared an elevator to the lobby with Samuel Eto’o, one of the best footballers on earth at the time. I was still talking about it when the other Samuel walked me into the office where I’d be based for the next two weeks. It quickly became clear that events at the airport were well known to my new colleagues. The day was punctuated with reassurances that I’d leave the country with a wife.

Amusing as the airport incident was, it underlines a tragic fact of life. Cameroon is a country with extraordinary geographic and cultural wealth (at least 250 different languages are spoken, not dialects, actual languages). It has unimaginable beauty and an abundance of natural resources. Yet, all are blighted by corruption and misrule, embodied by the kleptocratic president-for-life, Paul Biya. A third of the population live below the poverty line.

Yaoundé, Cameroon
Mask, National Museum, Yaounde, Cameroon
Mask, National Museum, Yaounde, Cameroon
Yaoundé, Cameroon

It leaves plenty of young women with a binary choice: poverty and hardship or marriage to some old bloke from Europe. An unsavoury reality served up during a confused early morning airport arrival. It’s a lesson that has stuck. Proof that irony is sometimes layered on thickly, I was working in Cameroon with a local organisation dedicated to empowering women and girls. As for my relatives, that’s for next time…

This is a lockdown blog based on recollections of my 2008 visit to Cameroon.

17 thoughts on “Cameroon, memories from a trip to remember

    1. Thank you, that’s much appreciated. All the best!

  1. I thought Cameroon might be the mysterious destination you mentioned recently.
    ‘ts’all right. Nice to see images of Africa. Still the same. Apparently.
    Kleptocratic? Isn’t that redundant when speaking of – almost – any African president?
    (Makes me angry every time I think about that)
    A bientôt Paul.

    1. I’d love to spend more time in Cameroon, Brian, alas, it’s not the mystery country – that’s quite a bit closer to Berlin. Africa is changing fast, especially in cities, but some things do seem timeless. Sadly, kleptocrats are quite easy to find, but they seem to dominate the political landscape in many parts of the world these days.

      1. LOL. Mystery country sounds like België? 😉 A fine country. Fine people. Great food and beer. Plenty of places to visit. let’s see.
        Africa? To me it’s a heartbreak. Matata mingi. Lots of trouble.
        And kleptocrats? We’re all putting them in power. Maybe we have all become lazy?
        Be good, “Mate”.

        1. Spot on, Brian. It is indeed the home of Tin Tin! Probably not until mid-summer though at this rate, never relocates in the middle of a pandemic and don’t want to take unnecessary risks. Hope you’re keeping safe?

        2. Great news Paul. Very happy for you. it will be a nice change for you. Not that Berlin isn’t nice. I’m sure it will, but Tintinland is a good place. Good people, despite their linguistic issues, which fortunately they don’t drg foreigners into.

        3. I’m greatly looking forward to the move, Brian, and I have already located the Hergé museum!

        4. There is that. There is also a comics museum. Plus la Grand-Place, plus, plus… (Love that place)

  2. Great story!

    Too bad that we usually don’t react quickly enough in such situations.
    You could have gone home with the lady, be introduced to the whole family, enjoy lavish meals, and break so many hearts that you could never return to Cameroon again.

    1. I was very bleary-eyed when I arrived in Yaounde, quick reactions were definitely not on the cards. Sadly, even if they had been, I don’t think my French is good enough to carry the charade through!

      1. I have sometimes toyed with the idea, when arriving at an airport where lots of people wait with signs, to go up to someone, all smiles, shake hands and say: “Oh, thanks so much for picking me up”, just to see how long it will work.

        But I am not that cool. Nor that brave.

        1. That’s definitely the opening scene for a thriller or horror movie, or possibly a light comedy. I suspect if I did that it would end up being a horror movie.

        2. You know, as I wrote the comment, I was just thinking to myself: I should try to make a short story out of that.

  3. Excellent photography and storytelling! You’ve given me an insight into what these women are facing. My favorite shot has to be the little boy in the doorway, looking longingly for something — anything — to unfold that day.

    1. It was definitely a trip that lent itself to stories. Quite bizarre really. A beautiful and fascinating country though, I wish I’d had more time to spend there.

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