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By Nick Welman

First impressions

I have been stuck in the intention to take the stopping train from Cameroon’s port city of Douala to the provincial village of Kumba. At douala’s extinct main station, I hear that departures have been postponed today from 4:00 p.m. to late at night. The station staff give me a mattress in an office space around 8:00 p.m., so I can at least take a nap. Once the train leaves, it is now by midnight, an elderly woman and I are the only two passengers who have been faithfully waiting.

The train has only one carriage, which has no light. During the entire 84-kilometer ride it is pitch black in the third class carriage. Sometimes there’s screaming through the open windows. Then somewhere there are travelers along the track, hidden in the black tropical forests, and the train stops abruptly to let them in. At quarter past three at night we arrive in Kumba, a station far outside the village centre. In the company of five unknown men, I walk, groping through the darkness, along an unlit dirt road. In the dead of night, Kumba is empty and abandoned. One of my companions wakes up a taxi driver, who drives me to the Shamrock hotel. Finally, at 3:30 in the morning, I’m exhausted, lying on a clean bed. I’m done, but I am well aware that during this perilous, lonely night-time adventure, I really didn’t have to feel unsafe or uncomfortable for a moment.

Tourism

For a country the size of France, Cameroon has a limited number of tourist highlights, so there is a remarkably one-sided trail of popular destinations. The renowned rock formations at Kapsiki, the Waza Logone National Park, Mount Cameroon and the beaches at Kribi are the most special and visited tourist destinations. Away from these attractions one rarely encounters tourists. Cameroon’s notorious corruption is playing a role in tourism almost exclusively in these tourist attractions: there, prices suddenly skyrocket and local tour operators, as happens in many African countries, can make trips below any quality level. Off the beaten track, visitors in Cameroon tend to find honest and reliable people.

However, the current state of tourist infrastructure is a huge problem. Douala International Airport was once a showpiece, but is in a miserable state of repair. The Mountain Hotel in Buea, which has a national-historical value in addition to being a tourist-advantaged location, is neglected and impoverished. From the sight of mountain huts on Mount Cameroon you become instantly depressed: dirty, full of graffiti, decrepit. In Bafut, a village just north of Bamenda, unique wooden statues and other works of art of the Palace of the Fon are stored in a damp barn: under the fungus, infested by woodworm, slowly rotting away. This list may continue for a while. If anyone ever wants to develop sustainable tourism in Cameroon, a huge financial injection into large-scale renovation of existing facilities is the first condition. At the Fon Palace in Bafut is a majestic ex-German residence – overlooking the traditional palace complex. If this residence was in good condition, the structure could still be transformed into a magnificent tourist lodge. Now this monument from the colonial past only seems ripe for demolition.

In addition to tourism along the tourism circuit, religious tourism is flourishing in Cameroon. Everywhere in Cameroon you will regularly encounter such tour groups: from America, Italy, United Kingdom and countless other rich industrialized countries. This religious tourism is well-intentioned and idealistic: groups divide their time between getting to know the country and voluntarily participate in projects of mission posts. People help out in a local hospital or work at the local school.

Cameroon as a destination

Cameroon is a country of exuberant, graceful and happy women – and bee-hearted, helpful and shabby men. That was my first impression of Cameroon – and it held. Cameroon experts confirm to me that Cameroon has a matriarchy. It is the women who invest in the survival of their families, which is why they are constantly forced to keep up the appearance of success and progress, while they see the marriage commitment with a man as an incidental opportunity to build the financial postage of the family. Women are fashionable, self-aware and have a strong position in society. It is also hard to deny that Cameroon has a sensual charm. When it comes down to it, Cameroon is a woman’s country, not a man’s country. 

Cameroon sells itself in the tourism business as a “miniature” of Africa. There’s every reason for that. From deserts and savannas to tropical rainforest and high mountains: everything you can find in Africa is somehow present in Cameroon. Whether profiling Cameroon as the “Madurodam” of Africa is a good commercial strategy is questionable. Apart from all the positive aspects of Africa, the visitor may also experience all the negative excesses. The Europeans I met living in Cameroon always asked me, in a conversation, whether I felt “at ease and safe” in their country. A question I could invariably answer no to. But that doesn’t have to apply to everyone.

For example, on arrival at Douala airport, all official bank offices may be closed. The traveller then has little choice but to exchange money on the airport’s black market. Dealing with such a situation cheerfully requires some adaptability and “travel-savviness”. By the way, exchanging in euros is more convenient than dollars – that applies to both cash and cheques. Moreover, if you visit Africa for the first time, it is wise to choose not Douala but Yaoundé as the place of arrival. Situated on hills, Yaoundé in the evening is one of the nicer cities of Africa, certainly compared to the “gloomy” and oppressive character of Douala.

For those whose dream trip to Africa means looking up african nightlife, Cameroon is the right place. In the cities there is almost always a place to go in the vicinity of your hotel where local bands perform. However, travellers must be able to deal with these situations very wisely and consciously: sex tourism is also common here. Click here for more information on sex tourism.

It must be of the heart that I feel more at home in English-speaking, peasant and unpretentious Cameroon than among the French speakers with their somewhat geoketted nonchalance. But this is purely subjective. Others may have the opposite opinion. Cameroon is for me a country where I can have hours of pleasant conversations with men and women in an atmosphere of friendship, equality and trust. Anyone who can be annoyed by the fiddling with small sums of money may realise that this practice brings a greater ballast for Cameroonians themselves. When I visited their home village of Bafut from the city of Bamenda with my acquaintances Cedric and Cleitus, I witnessed how both city men spent their weekly wages within a few hours handing out tips to their poorer village family.

Last impressions

I’m in a restaurant in Wum.

“Waiter, where’s the toilet here?”, I whisper discreetly as soon as the service comes along.

Waiter (loud clearly to all guests): “Do you need to urinate?”

I (reply embarrassed): “Indeed, I have to urinate.”

Waiter (loud, full volume): “Urinate, then you must take the first door on your left there.”

In Bamenda I often drink coffee at Chez Katino, a small café. The owner, Katino, runs the business. One afternoon, a saleswoman of clothing comes in. There’s a blouse katino likes. Upon enquiry, the blouse appears to cost only one and a half euros.

Me: “Katino, please, i’ll give you that blouse as a gift.”

Katino: “Great! All whores will be jealous of me!”

At the Victoria Guest House in Limbe, a sign hangs above the reception:

“Do you have a complaint? If so, we will immediately return all your money, fire the manager and close the hotel for good. Are you finally satisfied?”

When I show up for breakfast on Sunday morning at the dining room of my hotel in Bamenda, everyone is sitting there having a beer. It’s barely 7:30.

“This is the weekend,” I’m excited, “then we party for 48 hours in a row!”

The King Beer brand had a prize festival. Under the cap of the bottle you were able to see what you have won. The top prize was a mobile phone. The other prizes to be won were:

– a bar of soap

– a can of tomato paste

– 1 litre sunflower oil

– 1 kilo of rice

– 2 kilos of rice

– a pharmacy gift card

That’s Cameroon!

Interesting links:

Limbe Wildlife Centre

Responsible Travel
Tree planting holiday in Cameroon

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