There was a confused silence as I looked quizzically at the hotel’s receptionist. Clearly, I’d misheard him, after all it had been a long drive from Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, to its second city, Douala, and it was now well after midnight. Reading the bewilderment on my face, “Are you from Douala, Mr. Bell?”, he repeated. Cameroon was full of surprises, but a white British person being asked if he was from this West African coastal city was just odd.
“It is a famous name in this region,” he said, “I thought you might be a relation.” My Cameroonian namesakes aren’t just any old Bells, they are royalty. Despite his family being allies of the 19th century German colonial regime in Cameroon, the tribal leader, Douala Manga Bell, became a hero leading the resistance to German attempts to strip him and his people of their lands.
The son of Manga Ndumbe Bell and grandson of Ndumbé Lobé Bell, both Kings of the Duala, Douala Manga Bell was hanged in 1914 for his role in the insurrection. The Bells of Cameroon are part of a Bantu ethnic group that have inhabited this coastal region for as long as anyone can remember. They traded with Europeans along this coast for centuries, including in slaves, before it was claimed as German Kamerun in 1884.
The signing of the 1884 Treaty of Protection that King Ndumbe Lobe Bell agreed with Germany launched the German colony in Cameroon. In an historical twist, three years later Douala Manga Bell was sent from Cameroon to Germany to gain a European education, and in 1902 he visited Berlin. Over a century apart, we may have walked the same city streets on two continents.
I arrived in Douala after a late night drive from the temperate climes of Yaounde to the heat of the coast. Even at midnight the climate felt oppressive. Douala was home for the next few days as we visited hospitals and clinics, and I came to understand why it was called ‘bike city’. Thousands of Chinese-made motorbikes weaved chaotically through stagnant traffic blaring their horns.
My days were spent in neighbourhoods of the city that aren’t on any tourist map, and I didn’t get to see any typical sights. My Cameroonian colleagues made sure we at least saw some live music at night. It’s a humbling experience to visit areas blighted by poverty, poor infrastructure and limited opportunities, and to be privileged enough to be invited into people’s homes.
Despite relative stability since independence, Cameroon is beset by challenges only too obvious in the areas we visited. Endemic corruption and a failure to invest in health, water and sanitation, and education, is painful to see up close and personal. Thanks to an army of professional enablers in the West, the wealth looted from these communities frequently ends up pushing up house prices in the swankier postcodes of London, Paris and Brussels.
The night I left Douala was almost my last on earth. We were driving at speed in hilly terrain through the darkest night imaginable when, without warning, we swerved violently to avoid a collision with an ancient truck crawling at walking pace up a steep incline without lights. It was terrifying. I spun round to check on my colleagues who’d been slumbering in the back seat. My pulse rate indicated a likely heart attack yet they didn’t even wake up.
I’d arrived in Cameroon to extraordinary events, and my departure the next day was accompanied by one of the most powerful storms I’ve ever witnessed. Lightning ripped the night open and rain poured in sheets delaying my flight by six hours. I drank beer with my colleagues in a makeshift bar across the parking lot from the terminal and pondered the inevitability of this dramatic ending to this surreal trip.
This is a lockdown blog based on recollections of my 2008 visit to Cameroon.