Africa Dispatch: Cameroon

me@christophbangert.com
Cameroon cell: +237-96572516

Dear all,

The book is out. As some of you know my new book IRAQ:The Space between just came out and can be ordered in your local book store or on Amazon. For more details please click here: http://iraq.christophbangert.com/

Although many people already received their copy, even my mother got hers already, ironically Chiho and I were not able to see the completed book ourselves yet. The work proofed to be hard to come by in Africa. And although we were present during the printing of the book in China, both of us are suffering from recurring nightmares of finding the book horribly misprinted and of terrible technical quality on our return to New York.

We are both burning to see the final product but with equal intensity fear the moment of holding the book in our hands.

Yesterday I became a member of the Bird Watcher’s Club of Limbe, Cameroon. To be quite honest I don’t know anything about bird watching. The private Club that I just joined consists of a small yellow house that is placed on a dark volcanic rock overlooking the ocean. The house is surrounded by the vast Botanical Garden of Limbe, which is home to a large variety of tropical plants and trees and, well, birds. On a clear day you can see the massive Mount Cameroon in the background. The club, a small and homely place has a wonderful terrace and serves good and inexpensive food. There are only two simple, but very clean guestrooms, (I never got to appreciate a clean toilet more than after traveling in West Africa…) one of which Chiho and I are occupying since yesterday. The non-profit club was created by Hans, a wonderfully relaxed and hospitable Dutch man who likes to invite his friends and guests to this beautiful spot. Most importantly, though, he is providing us with a safe place to park our Land Rover for about one month as we will interrupt our long journey through Africa here in Cameroon. On October 23, Chiho and I will fly from Douala, about 70 Kilometers away from here, to New York. I will then fly on to Amsterdam on October 31, where I will take part in the Joop Swart Masterclass, before I’ll return to New York on November 10. The show opening and book launch will take place on November 15, one day after a lecture that I was invited to give at the International Center of Photography.

After some more promotional work for the book and accomplishing tasks as enjoyable as preparing my taxes, I will then fly back to Cameroon in the beginning of December to continue my trip to South Africa. Chiho will unfortunately not join me on this part of the journey, because she had been planning to travel to Japan around the same time.

At the moment we are both sitting on the Bird Watcher’s Club’s wonderful terrace, listening to the sound of the waves below and working hard on our computers. Although this would be the perfect setting to write an entire book, I will try especially hard to keep my dispatch short this time.

From Accra in Ghana, from where I sent my last update, we left after saying good-bye to our friend Jane, and drove along the coast to Lome, the capital of Togo. We only spent one night in this former German colony that has seen political unrest in recent years but held parliamentary elections last weekend where for the first time all major opposition parties took part in.

Togo’s neighboring country Benin is famous for its Voodoo culture and is, like Togo, francophone. After visiting Ouidah, a former major slave trading hub, we crossed the small nation of Benin, which is along with Togo squeezed between Ghana and Nigeria, from South to North.

The following days and weeks were marked by constant driving. The paved roads in Niger and Nigeria were mostly in good condition. Only sometimes there were terribly bad stretches of cracked-up tarmac with almost insultingly huge potholes. Avoiding these requires great concentration and a little bit of experience. But even after putting all available skill and effort into not hitting these often surprisingly fast approaching holes, you sometimes find yourself hopelessly slamming your vehicle into the deepest hole imaginable, shaking the car’s body to its bones and causing the axles and chassis to produce a heart wrenching, earthshaking thud.

A great defeat every time.

After crossing the border from Benin to Niger, where we had been earlier on this trip, we headed east towards the city of Zinder. We were happy to be back in the hot but dry climate of the Sahel after having experienced the tropical heat of the coastal areas further to the south.

After crossing the country Niger following its southern border from West to East, we entered Nigeria, just north of Kano.

Nigeria is a country of extremes. It is Africa’s biggest oil producer and its most populous state. The country is ranked the second most corrupt country in the world and it has a history of religious violence between its Muslim population in the north and Christian population in the south. Earlier this year I had the privilege to document Nigeria’s presidential elections as a photographer for the New York Times. The elections (locals referred to them as “selections”…) were widely rigged and marked by sporadic violence.

Despite the incredibly bad reputation that Nigeria enjoys, especially among Africans, we found ordinary Nigerians as some of the most friendly and welcoming people on our journey so far.

Having said that this positive impression of Nigerians does somewhat not include policemen and hotel managers.
Unfortunately people with precisely these two professions you encounter very often when you travel through Nigeria. The country is famous for its roadblocks and police checkpoints. During our brief three-day stay in this country we came across 30 checkpoints manned by police, military or customs representatives. 11 times we were stopped, questioned and our paperwork was thoroughly examined. We have a lot of paperwork. Passports, driver’s license, car title, customs forms, proof of insurance, vaccination certificates. The list goes on.

One might wonder why a local Nigerian policeman would be concerned about anybody’s state of yellow fewer and cholera vaccination, but the reason is obviously the hunger for bribes. If there is something wrong with your paperwork or vehicle it’s easy to settle the problem with a “present”. This “present” usually consists of a small sum of cash and will only partially end up in the individual policeman’s pocket, but will be collected and handed over to the local commander, who is required to send some of this income to his own boss and so on. The effect is that the most senior officers get the largest cut and the Nigerian or say, Cameroonian state gets nothing and looses out because there are almost never official tickets and fines issued that generate income for the country.

The local policeman is just the lowest link in this chain and can’t be blamed for this poor state of affairs. Not only the state, and thereby everybody in society, suffers from this system, but mainly the country’s poor population that has difficulties to afford constant bribes in order to use roads and run small businesses.

As a western traveler you are often spared. Although we are constantly asked for “presents” (some officers even ask for “souvenirs”, or an “appreciation of their work”) we almost always get away with a friendly handshake, a joke, or by handing over some sort of eatable.

In Nigeria the total of our paid bribes amounted to 8 pieces of candy, two Bic plastic pens and one fourth of a fried chicken from the day before.

Whatever you do, you should never attempt to single-handedly end corruption in Africa or change the ways this continent functions. Most people who decide to lecture European efficiency and honesty at African road checkpoints fail miserably.
Nigerian road blocks were numerous and time consuming, but to be fair almost all the officers were friendly to us, unlike the hotel manager of a run down hotel in Maiduguri, who insisted to charge us the full price for a double room, although there was no running water and electricity. We had asked him if we could camp in the large parking lot of his hotel for one night, which made him furious and he shouted at us: “What are you doing in this county!?!” As I timidly answered that I was a tourist he just produced a blank stare as if I’d just explained I came from Mars in order to experience Nigerian hospitality.

Well, it was late and we were exhausted so we swallowed our by then not so great pride and took the room. It was terribly hot and dark. The room was additionally inhabited by a huge swarm of starved out mosquitoes that attacked us mercilessly.

We did not sleep much that night.

In the morning, when we saw this ridiculous hotel disappear in the rear view mirror of our Land Rover we had a good laugh. It always feels good to get on the road, but especially so if you are driving off from an inhospitable place.

Cameroon greeted us with yet another endless succession of police checkpoints, although from now on “presents” were called “cadeaux”. Otherwise procedures did not change much.

We visited the Waza National Park in Cameroon’s most northern corner, just south of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad that I had been visiting in 2004. Although we came during the rainy season, when most of the park’s animals are hiding in the tall grass and are very hard to find, we enjoyed the untouched landscape of the area and spent a nice day cruising around the park in the company of an old and friendly park ranger who showed us a large herd of giraffes, some gazelles and birds. (Back then I wasn’t as fond of bird watching as I am today, though…)

From here on we slowly progressed to the south, passing impressive mountain scenery, steaming forests, beautiful volcanic lakes and truly adventurous roads. Several times we had to pass massive holes that were created by heavily overloaded trucks getting stuck in knee deep, heavy mud. Professional mud diggers, mostly young men from surrounding villages, were hard at work, in return for adequate pay of course, to dig out trucks, build firm ground with wooden planks and sticks and design detours for smaller vehicles like our Land Rover.

Once we had to wait for about two hours for a truck to be dug out who had attempted to pass one of the holes on the detour road, which is normally reserved for small cars and motorbikes. He got himself hopelessly buried, just next to a second stranded truck, which looked like he had been motionless for about a week. His 16-wheeler had literally fallen apart while he attempted to pass an especially deep stretch of mud hole. When we arrived at the site about 50 trucks and 20 vans and cars where waiting to get through with everybody standing around arguing and shouting. Nobody was working to get the truck out, which was hard to understand because there were about 150 men present, waiting. Maybe the truck driver that was stuck was short of cash, I couldn’t quite figure it out.

Some men who were just lazily sitting around, watching, were shouting at me: “White man! White man! Help us! Look how we suffer! You Americans have to built a new road for us!”

The longer I travel in Africa the less I believe in foreign aid to countries that are ruled by bad, corrupt governments. But at mud holes similar rules apply as at police checkpoints, so I refrained from giving a free lecture about good governance and accountability and just smiled uncomfortably.

Later, after much arguing, discussing and some more annoying “White man!” shouting, two trucks were connected to each other with thick steel cables, like a road train. Together they pulled out one of the stranded trucks under loud cheering and clapping of the exited crowd.

After some days of further mud fighting we finally reached Douala, the biggest city in Cameroon and it’s economic center. We were extremely lucky to be allowed to camp on the parking lot of the excellent Seaman’s Mission, which was already fully booked when we arrived. Here we found an incredibly fast internet connection, which was a great relieve, because we had seriously struggled to find working internet connections in the north of the country. Several times we had spent hours driving around bigger towns in search of a connection. An open internet café does not necessarily mean that there is a connection and getting a connection up and running on our laptop computers, often a huge struggle in itself, does not necessarily mean that you are actually able to receive or send your emails.

One day I wrote in my diary: “African internet connections are a source of infinite frustration.”

At the Seaman’s mission we not only spend long hours paying our phone and electricity bills in New York, answering emails and sending out pictures. Manfred, the German protestant pastor of the mission introduced us to Hans, the Dutch man who seems to become our savior here in Cameroon.

Last night disaster struck. I was typing this dispatch. Great thought and poetry on my mind.

It happened without warning. After three and a half years of tireless and flawless service, after countless nights spend together, wars fought together, letters written together, and globes circled together, my dear computer died yesterday. It’s hard disk stopped turning at 9:28 PM and will never turn again.

The last backup I made about three months ago. No pictures were lost, though. Just some emails and texts he took with him to the grave. I had to re-write some part of this dispatch, but luckily I had written most of it on Chiho’s computer earlier that day, while she was video editing our newest video on my machine.

(Please check it out: http://africablog.christophbangert.com/)

So it’s all more or less under control. I was lucky that the computer did not brake earlier on the journey, but now, just days before I’ll go back to New York.

The sun spectacularly set over the ocean a long time ago. I’m alone on the terrace now, everybody has left. Lost in thought I’m watching the waves.

Good night everybody.
Christoph.

Christoph Bangert
-photojournalist-
currently in Cameroon,
on the way to South Africa
Cameroon cell: +237-96572516
Thuraya Sat phone:+88216-51071135
me@christophbangert.com
http://www.christophbangert.com/
http://www.iraq.christophbangert.com/
http://www.travelnotes.christophbangert.com/
http://africablog.christophbangert.com/
http://www.laif.de

5 thoughts on “Africa Dispatch: Cameroon

  1. Pingback: Cameroon » Blog Archives » Introduction: Joseph Ndong, Cameroon

  2. Siggi

    Bad break, Chris. Anyway, keep the hard drive if you have anything critical on it. The information can be recovered; albeit, by a professional service. But you know all that… Next: I’ve not seen the book myself but have it from (fairly) reliable sources that you’ve nothing to worry about with regard to images. As for proofreading the text for “typos”, grammar, spelling, context etc – have some aspirin on hand! Seriously, I wouldn’t know but you did have it printed in China. So…
    As always, best regards to you and Chiho!

  3. Heinz Gerrits

    Lieber Christoph,
    auch wir wünschen Dir und Chio ein gutes Jahr 2008 mit Gesundheit, Zuversicht und weiterhin so viel Glück wie bisher! Die Geschichte mit dem ersten Bild vom Krankenbett am gleichen Abend in New York habe ich schon mindestens 10 x erzählt! Heiterkeit überall….
    Deine Reise sprengt mein Fassungsvermögen! War froh gestern wieder heil vom Zillertal mit dem Toyota Corolla zurückgekommen zu sein !
    Wir sehen uns dann im Februar wieder…
    Heinz und Christine

  4. James McEntire

    Just ordered your book on Iraq tonight from Amazon, usually ships very fast to me here in Houston. Really enjoyed your Africa journal, getting ready to go to Cameroon. Thanks.

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