22 November 2015

Crater Lakes and Waterfalls

October 24-28

Our “fall” break was upon us and, after a week of protracted “Book-O-Ween” activities, Andrea, Blair and I were eager to explore a bit more of Cameroon. This led us to visit the borderlands of Littoral and Southwest Regions, where there are a number of crater lakes and waterfalls to see.

We started out with a minivan from Douala to Nkongsamba. It left fairly promptly, although being in the flip-down seat made my ride a little less comfortable. Having five passengers per row instead of the four that there are seats for probably kept us from jostling around too much.

Nkongsamba central market. Photo compliments of Blair.

Once in Nkongsamba we ordered sandwiches and Blair commited the faux pas of attempting to combine fish with avocado, causing one lady to walk away suppressing a laugh. The vendor demurred so we settled on chicken meatball and avocado combinations. From Nkongsamba we continued to Melong then back south to Melong II, where we negotiated for transport down to Chutes d'Ekom Nkam. We'd been advised by Joseph, a school security guard, to bring a bottle of something for the chief before heading to the waterfall. We found a much more formalized affair, so we paid our entry fees and did not get to meet the chief.

Mist from Chutes d'Ekom Nkam.

Ekom Falls served as the backdrop for scenes of the 1980s Greystoke Tarzan movie (other rainforest scenes were filmed in Korup National Park, near the southern border with Nigeria). Since we're still in the last throes of the rainy season, the waterfall was very impressive, and we were unable to swim in, or even safely approach, the pool of water below. Serge, the Falls-provided guide, noted that the waters feed the Wouri River in Douala.

The waterfall!

After a drink and snacks back in Melong, where Blair got us roasted corn and “plums” (the latter not to my liking), we made for Mbouroukou to spend the night. We stayed at a little villa outside the town, at the foot of Mt. Manengouba. Among the other guests were Spanish medical volunteers who were performing surgeries at a hospital in Bafoussam for a couple of weeks.

Approaching the falls.

The next morning we set off for Mt. Manengouba's crater lakes with our guide Alain. Alain was recommended to us by a Peace Corps volunteer who recently finished her service; she was posted in Mbouroukou. As we strode past small coffee and banana plantations on the lower elevations, Alain stated that Mbouroukou's citizens were virtually all of the Mbo ethnic group (there are some 250 in Cameroon, along with sundry indigenous languages). Alain and his family grow maize, beans, tomatoes, cassava and lettuce. Given the long rainy season in this region, Alain just has to plant his tomatoes and leave them to grow. By contrast, women in The Gambia drew water daily to support their vegetable gardens.

The start of our ascent of Mt. Manengouba.

Further up the hill, the farms gave way to smaller plots as well as cleared land for pasture. Alain explained that these higher elevations were settled by Peul/Fulani people about 100 years ago. As they are primarily pastoralists and thus did not need extensive farming space, the Fulanis' arrival did not cause any conflict with the original Mbo inhabitants (according to Alain). The village is called, appropriately enough, Monts. Besides raising cattle, horses and sheep and goats, the Fulani also grow a little bit of maize, lettuce and cabbage.

The peak of Mt. Manengouba.

After a long hike up narrow muddy paths (which we routinely saw women carry 100 lbs of goods down) we reached the top of the crater (Manengouba is an extinct volcano, part of a range stretching from Equatorial Guinea's Bioko Island up through Cameroon's southwest). The crater was largely treeless, a result of being clearcut for pasture for the Fulanis' livestock. The descent to Manengouba's twin crater lakes wasn't much easier for us as the grass grew thickly in uneven clumps so the crater floor was not flat at all. Five hours after departing we passed the “man” crater lake (which is sacred and so people are proscribed from using it, although I suppose it's a good source of groundwater) and reached the larger “woman” lake, which people can use for fishing and swimming. We enjoyed some lunch, a good rest, and a swim in the lake.

That's the woman crater lake in the distance.

The sacred man lake - no swimming!

Given our rather slow ascent, Blair reasoned that we would likely be clambering down in darkness had we returned the way we came. So we continued 7 kilometres down the dirt road to Bangem, the next town. The road was of course washed out, but you can walk on it (gingerly in our case) as well as ride motorbikes up and down. I later learned the road will be graded in the dry season – an annual tradition? About halfway across the crater we passed our second school of the excursion, with a sign that let us know we had entered the Southwest Region – it was an anglophone school.

School on the French side of Mt. Manengouba.

Muanenguba government school on the anglophone side.

Once in Bangem the first course of action was to put our feet up and have a drink. As we were getting settled in, an American guy invited us to join him and, per Cameroonian norms when inviting others, promptly bought the first round. It emerged that he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon several years ago, and was back in the country to conduct Ph.D. research on the fish populations of various crater lakes. We learned from him that the fish in Manengouba's woman lake were actually introduced by PCVs in the 1970s for either subsistence or income generation. He reckoned that he'd take several hundred ziploc bags of preserved fish back to the U.S. While he's been able to visit many of the crater lakes in Southwest region, the fons (local kings or chiefs) in Northwest region were less accommodating so he's not studied as many of them.

The walk down to Bangem.

As dusk was approaching we decided to look into transport back to Mbouroukou and our hotel. Given the late hour, the moto drivers tried to take advantage and hike their rates so we were at an impasse. This was broken suddenly by a heavy downpour of rain which forced us to seek refuge under the nearest vendor's awning. Once the rain ended we decided it was too dark, and the roads too muddy, for us to leave. Alain was a good sport and agreed that we'd have to stay in Bangem. After procuring a couple of cheap rooms at the Prestige Inn we returned to the bar for meat brochettes, beers and grilled fish and batons (rubbery boiled cassava sticks). In addition to our Ph.D. candidate and a couple of Cameroonian friends of his, we were also joined by Bangem's current Peace Corps volunteer.

We had an enjoyable evening chatting about fish stocks, Douala (the researcher disliked its relative unfriendliness, while the current PCV thought there were fun places to check out), francophone vs. anglophone Cameroon (with anglophone CamCam being described as more laidback), The Gambia and the Peace Corps. The current PCV's tenure is quite different from ours was – he is able to stream American football games. By contrast, I had to text Yusupha Touray in Kombo (the more developed, coastal region of Gambia) for sporadic updates on the 2006 NBA Finals.

After a not particularly restful night at the Prestige Inn, we began to make our way back to Mbouroukou. After an hour or so on the dirt road we reached Melong, where we enjoyed egg and bean omelettes and sweet (on account of the condensed milk) tea and wandered around the market for a while as Alain greeted people.

Our Mbouroukou lodgings.

Back in Mbouroukou we went to visit another Alain, who is the proprietor of a small cheese-making outfit, Le Bon Fromage. Alain buys milk from the Fulani women who bring milk down to the village from Monts, then makes a cheese which is similar to the Tome style of French cheese (I was not familiar with this variety). Alain learned about cheese-making from a Cameroonian woman who had a yearlong internship with Land O Lakes, after meeting some Land O Lakes people in her village near Nigeria (where her family owned cattle).

Fromagerie Alain said that his business is small at present (there's not much of a local market for cheese) and he hasn't found anyone interested in apprenticing with him so it's hard for him to ramp up production. A few outside visitors have expressed an interest in getting involved, but nothing's come to fruition yet. Anyway, his cheese is tasty and he was kind enough to call and greet Blair recently, a couple of weeks after we returned to Douala.

Once we said our goodbyes to Alain the guide and got back to the hotel we cleaned up and relaxed, mainly at a (much smaller) waterfall on the grounds. The rest of the day was uneventful aside from switching rooms after our first boukarou/hut had a few leaks.

The next day we began with a taxi to Melong (and another stop for egg sandwiches) then caught a minibus to Mbanga. From here we could take the train through farms and plantations (the closest road to the west, from Loum, is impassable presently) to Kumba. As we bought our tickets (“deuxieme classe omnibus”) the ticket agent noted with a chuckle that there weren't assigned seats on the train. I laughed too as he wished us well, but the train pulled up a mere 20 minutes later and, after the engine switched ends, everyone scrambled aboard. It wasn't too hectic and Blair managed to secure seats for the three of us without difficulty. The slatted wooden benches were more comfortable than many of our recent modes of transportation, although the frequent stops near isolated villages along the way made for a slow and sweltering trip.

Our move back towards Southwest region and anglo Cameroon was made clear by the vendors' presentations, all conducted in pidgin English. First was a man extolling the health benefits of the ginger lozenges and medicinal soaps he was hawking. Next and at points throughout the journey was a lady selling snacks and tissues. After her came a woman who focused first on dental health, selling carrot and aloe vera toothpaste (separate varieties – not a melange) and toothbrushes. She then moved on to discussing the virtues of a menthol rubbing ointment and finally shea butter. After all this focus on physical health, it emerged that our spiritual side would not be neglected (to be fair, the lozenge/soap salesman did begin with a prayer for our safe arrival). An elderly gentleman began a sermon that I didn't follow on account of the heat, our early start and his rather thick pidgin (although he did throw in a not-uncommon remark about being covered in Jesus's blood).

As mentioned before, the frequent stops are a boon for small communities with limited transportation links, especially in the rainy season. As Kumba was not a big administrative centre during colonial times I was curious as to why the train winded its way there. Clearly resource extraction played a role and Raymond, our friend from Edea who met up with us in Kumba, said the main export was bananas (cocoa and coffee are also widely grown in this area).

We had eru (cassava fufu with a palm oil and leaves sauce) for lunch across from the train station then dropped off our bags at a gaudy hotel that has met an inexorable decline – the lightbulbs in the mouths of the golden lion statues standing sentry have not been replaced in a long time – and made for Barombi Mbo, a crater lake just outside town.

The route to Barombi Mbo.

We got off our transport outside the entrance then proceeded to trudge up to the lake. The road was largely impassable by vehicle, with the exception of a Hilux pickup truck that gradually spun through the mire. It carried crates of beer, which gave us hope that the small restaurant was not only open in the dry season. It turned out that the beer was fated for across the lake, with the driver collecting empties and sacks of cacao to take back down to Kumba. The roads to/from the village cannot be used at present so the lake (which is 2.5 kilometers long) serves as a transit and freight route in the meantime. We got a short pirogue ride on the lake then walked along a track near the shore, enjoying views of skinks and a wide variety of butterflies.

Lake Barombi Mbo, Kumba.
Cacao from across the river, along with empty drinks bottles.

Back in town we wandered around the market and ate Cheese Balls/puffs (imported from Nigeria) then went to a bar for, yes, beers and brochettes of grilled meat. They were out of Beaufort and Beaufort Light so Blair tried the Beaufort Tango, which was a light beer filled with citric acid (or the synthetic equivalent); none of us managed more than a sip.

Later on a man asked if we were from the U.S. It turned out he was an RPCV who served in Mali and is now working with the UN. He and his Cameroonian colleague are visiting Regional health centers (the American is barred from their Far North trek) to train them on data submission by SMS/text message. The national Ministry of Health will send monthly texts, each separately address pregnancy, MCH, malaria, HIV/AIDS, etc. The health workers submit the amount of patients they've seen, materials distributed, procedures carried out, etc. Pretty cool stuff, although some of the older health workers weren't as comfortable with the technology yet.

The lightbulb in this lion's mouth (standing sentry outside our Kumba hotel) hasn't been replaced for some time now. Photo credit: Blair.

The next day we walked around Kumba with Raymond. We wandered through the market, where a lot of Igbos (from Nigeria) worked, as well as contingents of Malians and Nigeriens.

The conduct of the minibus touts should have tipped me off that we were in for a contentious day. After walking past some pointless tussles for our services we hopped into the fullest minibus and set off an hour or so later.

Fairly early on in our journey, we stopped at a police checkpoint and had to walk a short distance and show our Karantes (cartes d'identite) then rejoin the minibus. One traveler took exception to her “professional card” receiving greater scrutiny (particularly as several others did not bother to get out of the van and yet weren't accosted further), and began berating a young police officer, calling him an imbecile among other choice words.

Once we were back in the vehicle a younger lady exclaimed that she disagreed with the first lady's combative approach. (Most of the other passengers appeared to be a combination of amused and apprehensive that we may be detained further.) There followed a lengthy discussion of the merits of police stops (with the angry lady exclaiming that Boko Haram was just an excuse for the security forces to harass ordinary Cameroonians) and the generally poor behavior of the police. Despite generally agreeing on this, the ladies still yelled back and forth for a while (I think mainly about the wisdom of calling the police idiots to their faces).

Our driver eventually fell under the sway of all this combative behaviour. Initially he was quite friendly and greeted multiple fellow drivers on the road and sundry other people as we stopped in various car parks to pick up new passengers. Over the course of the journey, though, he became increasingly terse and was soon yelling at people who asked for their change, and berating people who hopped out to relieve themselves while he collected passengers. But we reached our stop in Bonaberi then got across the bridge and through rush hour fairly quickly. We then spent the next couple of days relaxing after our enjoyable though mildly strenuous holiday.

30 October 2015

Train to Yaounde for Afrobasket Women's final!

Gare Bessengue, Douala. The nicest lawn in the city!
After hearing about the train as an option for travel to Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, Blair and I dropped by the quite beautiful train station. (As sensitive sites cannot be photographed the station images are from an online search.) In early October we elected to buy the “1st Class Plus” tickets as it was only 9,000 CFA (about $16) for the 4 hour trip, and competitive with the posher bus companies (more on that later).

Douala's Gare Bessengue interior.
It was an overcast morning when we set off (around a half-hour late at 6:30AM), but the rain cleared up later on. We had a few stops to make way for other trains, but we generally move along rather steadily. The train was rather bumpy so my initial thought of writing letters had to be dropped.

Luckily we had onboard entertainment. This began with a cooking show where our chef fried and then pounded almonds. This eventually was turned into a paste which was smeared on people's arms to treat wounds.

Preparing almond lotion.
Next came Cami, (national rail company) Camrail's mascot, to tell us how to purchase tickets and other important tips. Most importantly, Cami proclaimed “Non, non, non! C'est dangereux!” - don't use the toilet when stopped in a station. More on this travel rule later.

"Non, non, non! C'est dangereux!"

Among other programming features were a promotional documentary on the train company's maintenance techniques, regional music videos and Cameroonian stand-up comics, and an informational interview on prostate cancer.

The surrounding countryside provided additional diversions, as we got enjoy the undulating hills as we went (Douala is very flat). We also enjoyed the perks of “1st Class Plus,” which included complimentary drinks and pain au chocolat.

Once we arrived in Yaounde we headed for the Palais du Sport to purchase tickets for the women's Afrobasket 2015 tournament – Cameroon had made the final and was playing Senegal that evening. Again we plumped for more expensive seats (or rather the right to push aside people in the closer sections in a bid to improve one's seats and view of the action), going with the 5,000 CFA ($9) option.
Yaounde's central mosque.

We then booked into a rather humble hotel and proceeded to explore this hilly city. We began with a walk around Bastos (a northern neighbourhood with a rather cheap hotel for us), where we dropped by the WWF office to get their phone number to inquire about possible trips to Cameroon's national parks in the East Region, before heading back to town to grab some food and check out some of the local architecture. A lot of the ministries and other government buildings are quite nice looking, but of course photos are interdit.

Play and win American citizenship!

Next we headed up to Mont Febe to visit a monastery with a collection of Cameroonian art. The art was quite good, but especially impressive was the guide- cum coffee-table book explaining the origins of all the various pieces. Afterwards we enjoyed nice views of the city below.

View of Yaounde from the Benedictine monastery. You can see hints of the German heritage below.

We were able to chase down a taxi outside Hotel Mont Febe and headed to the Palais du Sport. Angola (winners of the last two women's Afrobasket tournaments and longtime continental heavyweights on the men's side) was in the midst of a collapse against Nigeria. The departure of the disappointed Angolan fans and their brass band left a vacuum that we and others rushed to fill, and we were able to upgrade our seats for the final. It was Cameroon's first ever appearance in the gold medal game; the previous best results were a couple of bronze medals in the mid-80s. Senegal, by contrast, has only missed out on a medal in the biennial tournament twice since it began in the 1960s.

Senegalese fans, with talking drums, cheering on their team.
Given this pedigree, the Senegalese fans (there are large contingents of Senegalese, and thus good Yassa poulet, in both Douala and Yaounde) were confident, singing and drumming away with djembes, talking drums and empty water bottles. The Cameroonians were equally boisterous, and the Indomitable Lionesses were able to keep the game close in the first quarter.

Indomitable Lionesses' supporters, and one of several brass bands in attendance.

By the end of the first half, though, the Lionesses of Teranga were ahead by 9. After some legends of Afrobasket were feted at halftime Cameroon's ladies rallied in the third quarter but Senegal pulled away at the end and then rolled away with the game in the fourth quarter. It made for a relatively subdued end of the game, with the notable exception of the Senegalese partisans.

Afrobasket's MC/Ring Announcer.
The Senegalese team was much better (and significantly taller across the roster), but hopefully the Cameroonians will address their game plan before the Olympic qualifying playoff. They frequently had two ladies trying to post up and they ended up cramping each other's space so many possessions devolved into long jump shots as the shot clock was running down. The Senegalese Lionesses, by contrast, passed the ball around quite a lot, and occasionally deployed a 2 to 3 person press which completely flummoxed Cameroon's guards when they crossed halfcourt.

Former stars of Afrobasket Women were honoured at halftime.
Indomitable Lion outside le Palais du Sport.

We headed back to Bastos area to perch above the roundabout in the bar Partenaire. We then got some smoked fish and batons (long boiled manioc/cassava noodles) from a vendor on the roundabout.

View of Rondpoint Nlongkak, Bastos, Yaounde.

Then it was off to bed, where we watched a dubbed Melissa McCarthy running around in Spy, which we greatly enjoyed when we saw it in the U.S. Much of the physical comedy translated, but the French was too fast even for Blair. The picture quality was terrible, but Blair stuck with it then we had a fitful night's sleep as the fan wasn't strong enough to blow away all the mosquitoes or drown out the noise outside.

Blair watched "Spy" for far too long given the reception quality and the fast dubbed dialogue.
For breakfast we enjoyed egg sandwiches cooked by a Fulani gentleman. Due to the mutual intelligibility of many words across the various strands of Fulanis from The Gambia east through northern Cameroon, we were able to tell him it was “sweet” (tasty). We then walked around downtown a bit more before taking one of the posh buses back. It too featured interesting content, including a video where a corrugated tin door got most of the screen time, a Cameroonian comedian going back to school (consisting mainly of him screaming at teachers in a high-pitched voice), and City of Blood, which had darker themes (and a man who could punch the air near a cup or bowl and send it flying). Instead of Cami, we had a bus attendant who had to repeat her request that the onboard toilet be used only for urinating after a couple of passengers flouted that rule.

Passing the hills around Yaounde on the bus home.

Hydroelectric plant on the Sanaga River near Edea.
The trip back went quite smoothly and we got home to Douala early enough to take a couple of beers at our favourite secluded spot down on the water, Marina 2000. It was a little more crowded on a Sunday, with a number of our students and their families, owing to the fact that there's not many places for kids to romp around freely in Douala. We enjoyed the twin visual treats of the sunset and of the salvagers cutting off a few more pieces of metal from the old shipping vessel Arctic Voyager (which is clearly lost).

Sunset in Youpwe, Douala.

Welders salvaging portions of the Arctic Voyager.

08 September 2015

Edea and Lac Ossa

Our dirt road from Edea didn't make it to Google Maps.

For our first weekend in Cameroon, we decided to go on a day trip outside Douala. After a shared taxi to Terminus, we promptly joined a station wagon travelling the 50kms to Edea. With traffic getting in and out of the city, it took us about 2 ½ hours to reach Edea.

Once there we admired a couple of small hydroelectric plants on the Sanaga / Bras Mort river, as well as a hundred year old bridge built by the Germans. Photos were “interdit” but after chatting with Blaise (no relation to Campaore!), the soldier on the town side of the bridge, we were permitted to take a few pictures.

After reading a sign commemorating German-Cameroonian relations (put up for the 100th anniversary of the bridge) and checking out a statue of a former chief, we started heading north out of town as our guidebook described Lac Ossa as being near Edea. Further inquiries revealed that it was in fact 20 kilometers off the main road so we headed back to town to negotiate transport.

As we asked around at the car park, we learned that the deleterious state of the road made for limited options for traversing the route to Lac Ossa. (Blair was asked for her phone number during one of these exchanges.) So we ended up renting Raymond and his moto-taxi's services, and began our journey after some negotiation (it turned out neither Raymond, being new to the area, nor we were quite aware how long the trip would be).

We set off but were quickly met with rains (it is the rainy season) so we occasionally stopped until the rain stopped and the dirt track would be easier to maneuver on. We passed a few outfits that were dredging sand from the river (some Chinese, some Cameroonian), and were soon on a large concession owned by SAFACAM. SAFACAM is a French agricultural company that received its mandate before the end of colonialism. We passed many acres of palm, banana and rubber tree plantations. The latter reminded me of my travels through Firestone's land in Liberia in 2007. Firestone ran its own checkpoints within its vast concession; it was akin to a separate country.
The rubber plantation (with umbrella). These trees hadn't been tapped yet.

After several rain stops, and one for repairs in SAFACAM's workers' village of Dizangue (the company provides housing and other facilities so that they can keep their workforce near their workplaces), we completed our 20 kms journey after about two hours when we arrived at “Club Ossa.” A large veranda looking out on the lake, Club Ossa's didn't see much business (although perhaps it is tied to the payday of SAFACAM's workers, many of whom live in modest company housing with their families). We proceeded down the hill to the lake, where we admired the shore and sought shelter from the rain once more.

A fisherman's pirogue and Lac Ossa.

We came back uphill and enjoyed a beer (the waiter was not keen on Raymond's selection of Isenbeck) and a nap at Club Ossa while we waited for a heavier rainstorm to subside. We got to learn a bit more about Raymond, who is new to the moto-taxi business in Edea. In October he expects to return to his cocoa farm in Kumba, and apparently also has a cafe in Buea. Raymond also made a trip to Sokoto, Nigeria a couple of years ago – a two day car journey from Cameroon.

View of Lac Ossa from Club Ossa.

We then headed back down the hill. Once we got to the end of the dirt road, we were met by several entrepreneurial young men who washed down our vehicle and shoes for a nominal fee (and one request for a kiss – these men in Edea are fast!). Once back in town we said our goodbyes to Raymond (who we've since gotten together with in Douala a couple of times) and hopped on a minibus back to Douala.

Raymond and Blair wait out the rain at Club Ossa.

We read, and also talked with people in Edea, about the Douala-Edea Reserve. This would also be an unpaved excursion to explore a forested area – a trip we'll save for the dry season!

Motorcycle and "bumster" lizard.

Lac Ossa.

13 August 2015

Nous sommes arrives!

We are now ensconced in Douala, gradually getting settled in before starting staff meetings on the 17th (school begins on August 24).

As a city that has a larger population of the entire African country I last lived in (The Gambia), Douala is a busy place. We are in a relatively less crowded neighbourhood, although it still pretty built up. Travel within the city is quite easy (we missed some rains that flooded parts of Douala earlier in the rainy season), and within walking distance we have discovered preferred vendors of fruit and veg, hardware, and liquor bottles of nuts.

While French is the official language of most of Cameroon, there are large numbers of English speakers (many from the Anglophone, formerly British-administered west) and many people are bilingual. We are still getting plenty of French practice, though. While Douala was originally settled by the Douala people (fancy that!), urbanization and migration – and Cameroon's cosmopolitan population with nearly 300 different languages – mean that there is no local/indigenous lingua franca. So people in the largest cities tend to speak French or English with one another.

Germany controlled the colony of Cameroon until World War I and the Treaty of Versailles when it was split between Britain and France. Approaching independence, British Northern Cameroon opted to join Nigeria while British Southern Cameroon merged with French Cameroon. This was meant to be a federation but over time the French portion of Cameroon (the seat of national government) has centralized authority, thereby marginalizing Anglophone Cameroon. Many of the school's staff are of Anglophone extraction so I will solicit their thoughts on the arrangement.

Proof that we are “being treated like kings” (with a nod to my friend Alicia):

 We procured a Louis Vitton
individually-crafted wooden ironing board.

Further innovations: Flip-up umbrellas on moto-taxis for when it rains (which is often).