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.
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.
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.
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.
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.