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Published: June 23rd 2018
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” - Martin Buber
What’s in a language? This is a somewhat unusual question to be asking and one that hardly ever is. Language is just something that we all use without much thought but at the same time is also something that is easily taken for granted. It’s inherent that we rely on it to communicate, get things done and to socialize with our fellow human; but what if this was not so. What if tomorrow one lost the ability to speak the same tongue as their peers, how would this impact one and the others around them. For most this is not a situation one is faced daily so its not a concern, in fact its not even a thought. However as a traveler this is the reality of everyday life. Almost hourly you are confronted with a barrage of misunderstandings and issues due to lack of common tongue. There are considerable frustrations from both sides but also lost opportunity for kinship which is one of the joys of just being. As a traveler spending large chunks of time with non English speaking people I have had my
fair share of problems but this can also manifest itself into feelings of isolation and loneliness. To a degree you can be ostracized and looked down upon as inferior, even stupid. Now my problems are easily overcome by lots of sign language, accepting that problems will occur and just weathering the storm, not a large deal. Now what if the gap in language really meant something significant? What if by not speaking a common thread the consequences were not frustration but that of altered lives and tragic outcomes. This is the situation that I found myself walking into in Cameroon where a difference in communication is causing conflict, fighting, displacement and ultimately deaths... not because of disparities in race or religion or tribes but due to something much simpler; language. However firstly a note on my favorite topic, hotels; namely grotty African hotels.
For some, hotels are a place to go extravagant. A place to go wild and seek the optimum of luxury. From carefully crafted furniture pieces to silky smooth service. This comes with a high price tag but generally a lack of character. Now at the other end of the scale it is simply a place to
rest ones head, the condition does not really matter as long as it’s cheap and maybe cheerful. No problems if the ceiling is falling in, you are only there to sleep and you won’t see the hole when your eyes are shut. For me I am right in the middle, a flash packer if you will. A bit of both worlds give me something clean enough, safe but don’t lose the character. Now as I check into my first nights accommodation in Cameroon tests my nerve as the scale applied to Africa can be somewhat different from our western standards. Upon arriving into the city of Douala I make my way to my hotel that looks like it’s about to fall down. The first thing i notice as I try to check in is that they have an hourly rate, ok not good; we know what that means. Secondly as I head to my room it’s shaking from the disco below. No matter I can deal with that, I have earplugs. Then as I am taking a shower out of nowhere a rat the size of a small cat runs across the room and out the window! Ok too far
to the cheap scale, need to ramp up the price a bit more. Cue a quick yelling session with the manager and after a few more dollars I am escorted to the top floor. Here I am away from the noise and hopefully away from rodent life. For in Africa more of the flash part of the equation is definitely needed. “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember and remember more than I have seen.”
Cameroon is a place where it is fair to say I was tragically unprepared for. My reading on this country was limited to a few pages of the lonely planet and I fell for the “just another French colony” trick. A place where you will find good food, snotty French expats, some nice scenery and that is about it. In this case I was proven wrong and thrown into a situation I was definitely not expecting. My first sign of difference came about when questioning my dodgy hotel manager about my trip to the west to climb the 2nd highest peak in Africa, Mt Cameroon. The look he gave me was not that of enthusiasm but of horror. He
states that the people there are very bad and not to head there under any circumstances. Ok what’s the problem seriously I ask. My French is poor so maybe I missed something. All I get back is again that the people are bad, very bad. No explanation. Now for those who don’t know me my first instinct is to listen but disregard all opinions until proven otherwise. It’s a ploy that normally gets me past the bias influenced views that people carry so I can slowly piece together a view for myself. Sure sometimes it backfires but that’s only one in a million (ok maybe less); most times it is a catalyst for opening up ones world and mind. Now in this case I decide to trust my internal guide and ignore the warnings for the meantime. This was a fortuitous step for the situation in the west of the country is more complex then I could ever have imagined. Better still, in hindsight I would have actually “missed” Cameroon if I had gone with the local opinion of my manager and avoided it. Maybe it was an easy decision, he sold me a room full of rats; how trustworthy
can the guy really be. Now into the west and the seaside town of Limbe.
After leaving Douala in my dust I start my trip to Limbe, theoretically a short 3 hour ride away. In Africa it’s really easy to find a ride anywhere. Just locate the station and there’s normally a van, car, bus, horse, whatever to take you wherever; it’s just a matter of waiting. However the case of finding a ride to the west of the country turns out to be impossibly hard even though it’s close. I ask multiple people where the station is for Limbe and no one knows. Maybe it’s my bad French again but no they then begin to openly discourage me from going. Now I am really enthusiastic about heading there so I consult my Lonely Planet and across town there is a possible station. Three moto-taxi rides later and I have found a van that can take me part of the way then change. This is strange, I have never encountered a situation in Africa where a ride was so hard to find. Either Cameroon is different or the people are actually right, maybe I should be avoiding this spot.
Of course with all that mystery and the thought of not climbing Mt Cameroon running through my mind there is no way I am not getting in that van. So with my senses on high alert I board and we are away.
The first thing I notice is the high spirits of the van. The music is up loud and people are laughing and conversing. This is the opposite of what I expected. Normally when approaching a bad area an air of apprehension and quiet engulfs the group. It has happened a few times to me notably when approaching problem border areas, everything just goes quiet. Not here, the volume is on full noise and it’s more like a group approaching carnaval rather than Auschwitz. After not one but two changes I am now in a small taxi and the guy beside me turns and in perfect English asks me where I am from. After speaking French for a few days this strikes me as weird so i ask him from where he learnt; from here of course. What do you mean, at school; privately? No from my mother and father. And French? I don’t speak French. Ok now
this is super weird how do you function here if you don’t speak French. His response, we speak English in the west; don’t you know what’s going on here? Obviously I don’t, so my taxi friend gives me a history lesson.
Prior to colonial times the land and its people in the Cameroon area were not so dissimilar from other west African nations. Tribal law ruled but with the introduction of slavery, colonial powers started to conquer first the coast and then into the interior (the colonizers in this case were the Germans). Then when Germany lost the Great War in the early 1900s the territory was cut up and went to the victors. Britain took the west and France the much larger area to the upper north and east. It was at this point that the paths of each region (technically the same people) were divided and altered forever. Fast forward to January 1st 1960 and French Cameroon managed to gain independence and became The Cameroon Republic. The British-controlled side was due to achieve its own independence on October 1st 1961. However instead, through some UN and British meddling they were integrated as part of the french speaking
Republic. It was supposed to be a partnership of equals however as negotiations were concluded at the Foumban Conference in 1961 the outcome did represent this stance. The delegation from the Cameroon Republic, accompanied by French advisers, got everything they wanted; the English speakers received none of the support promised by the British or the UN and their needs were sidelined. So the new federation was born but it was under this misalignment that marked the beginning of years of division and exclusion. Since then the dignity and statehood of English speakers (Anglophones) was silently destroyed – not by the French-speaking (Francophone) community at large, but by the government led and dominated by Francophones. The regions were centrally governed but none of the presidents since unification spoke nor read English. Since then the Anglophones have complained that their language and culture are being marginalized. Government officials either intentional or unintentionally have taken steps that erode the values and rights of the Anglophones. For example magistrates being sent to the region only speak French, same with the teachers, police and army that they have been assigned from the capital. This doesn’t sound so bad but it is the beginning of a
systematic dismantling of their culture. Since 2016 the levels of frustration have escalated and sparked into a full scale war where now the Anglophones are seeking their independence. Some even calling this a genocide. (For more info: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/may/30/cameroon-killings-escalate-anglophone-crisis)
As my taxi companion spells this out I am shocked. Firstly that I hadn’t heard about this but their was persecution against Anglophones. As English is my primary language this initially got me worked up, it’s almost an attack on what I know and depend on. Secondly almost suprisingly is that the shoe is on the other foot in this case. Normally the English language is the aggressor, the language being pushed on others; in this case it’s around the other way. Now before we get too deep with this my taxi companions makes an acute point. There are large oil wells off the coast of the English speaking area and these generate over 60% of Cameroon’s GDP. He emphasizes that the general view here is that the majority of profits are taken from the area and flow straight to the capital Yaoundé and Francophone areas. This is why they are angry here, not only is the essence of who they
are being ripped away from them but also the proceeds from their own land. A division created by language and compounded by the human thirst for oil, this is not what I expected from this sleepy country.
Intrigued by this debate I make my way from the transit town of Limbe onto the stunning black sand of Seme beach. My new taxi mates are again larger than life. They all speak this crazy pigeon type English that I can barely understand. They have me laughing my head off as they make fun of themselves, these people definitely don't appear to be the monsters I was warned about. However as I mention the Francophones a soft hush falls and a look of despondency comes across their faces. Its the thought of we are stuck here with our culture being ripped away from us, what are we to do. My friend next to me says that we are unhappy with the situation but we have to try to keep living our way. I can really relate to this, that feeling of being trapped and out of options; a horrible situation. He mood soon lightens again as we switch topics to soccer
and we finally arrive at Seme and it’s beautiful palm lined beach. I jump between swimming in the warm Atlantic waters and into a crystal clear fresh water lagoon that is freezing. It reminds me of Samoa as the lagoon is framed by black volcanic rock that filters the water to give it an outstandingly clear quality. After swimming for a few hours and eating fresh fish I head for the capital of the English speaking region Buea, kickoff point for my trek up the mountain.
The main town of the area Buea does not appear to be the center of a major conflict. There are no hushed tones, people hiding from view. There are people everywhere having fun, drinking at the local bar and generally just getting on with their lives. All the scenes of conflict a few 100 kilometers from here are a world away, people just want to retain their way of life. I even get accosted by a television crew not for an interview on the situation but for a bloopers reel where i had to recite a limerick. For the record I was fantastic but everyone was having a laugh at my expense which
was of course strange given how well I did. After refueling at the local bar I meet the owner of my guiding company Charlie and we go through the details for the three day 4095m climb. This is a serious undertaking and Charlie outlines that because it’s the start of the rainy season they cannot guarantee the weather will be favorable for the summit. I acknowledge this but of course in your mind you are already planning your victory celebration at the top, all in amazing sunshine. Charlie is again a outwardly fun character that is trying everything in his power to get his business profitable again. He is however a bit despondent as his once thriving business is suffering due to the war. He states that tourists are avoiding the area now; the next two groups after me cancelled this morning. This is unfortunate however I cannot blame the tourists, if back home you were being told by your government that the area is at war then putting yourself in the conflict zone is not the best idea. So you cancel your trip, even if the places are as safe as I believe it is. This of course doesn't
help Charlie but what is he to do? He either shuts up shop or does what is is doing right now; he keeps trying and fighting for what he believes in.
The next day I am introduced to my team of guides, porters and cook. I am a bit taken back by the size of the group but this isn’t a pleasure cruise; to make it to the top all this support is needed. Once away our gang ascends through the town and straight into the jungle. Due to altitude we have to take it super easy and be careful not to overdo it. For those who have been into high altitudes before I'm sure you know what I mean, slowly, slowly no matter how good you feel. Go too fast to be first to the top, you will be first to be sucking in the big ones and back down to the ambulance. By lunch we are at the tree line and that’s when the rain starts to fall. It’s torrential and we have nowhere to hide. What was supposed to be taking it easy goes straight out the window and we gun it. The three hour trek
from the lunch spot is done in half that time and we finally emerge at the hut totally soaked and shaking. The lodge turns out to be one of the most beautiful in Africa however I don’t have time to savor the view as I just rush to the fire to warm up. My guide states that was the worst rain he has ever seen on the mountains. Not good signs for the summit attempt tomorrow but we are hopeful that it has rained itself out.
After a cold nights sleep and with sun still not up we are already on our way climbing. This is summit day and to be successful we must leave early as it’s a 12 hour round trip. What dawns as clear however turns to grey and at the 3000m level a big raincloud sits. We try to go past and the weather turns nasty so the summit is simply not possible today. This is one of the unfortunate things about traveling in the rainy season that I have to accept. The rain can affect your plans true however it also keeps a lot of tourists away. I have to be happy that I
am the only tourist in the park and as a bonus the views on the way down are stunning. So with the summit out of the question me and my guide start the trek back down. Maybe due to the rejection he loosened up a bit and tells me about his life here. Again as an Anglophone he reiterated what others are saying about them being a forgotten people by the government and worse still, trying to make them Francophones. I can see why he is unhappy but given the situation described I wondered whether it is really that bad. All this over language? It’s hard to see how something so small could reach the point of an armed conflict. Well I suppose it’s much more than that. Being Anglophone or Francophone in Cameroon is not just the ability to speak, read and use English or French as a working language. It is about being exposed to the Anglophone or Francophone ways including things like outlook, culture and how local governments are run. It is the language that first separated them and when company is parted, family and friends will slowly become strangers as their cultures move in different directions.
Now although the separate peoples do not hate each other it is easy to see why they don’t know each other and become strangers. We see it all the time in the differences between religions and races. However here the proof just goes to show it’s not about skin color or what god you worship, the same people can be forced apart purely by language. It seems it’s just human nature to push those that are different away. What is also easy to see is how money is diverted from the region into the French side. If a politician only has a set amount of money (after they pocket some of course) it is natural to think their first inclination is to sink it into his local area, not some far off place where they speak an alien dialect. It’s the simple brutal truth of something so simple snowballing and ultimately starting an armed conflict. All started over language, a people in conflict even though they were one in the same less than one hundred years ago. “One's destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things.” - Henry Miller
Now with my summit
attempt out of the way its time to say goodbye to this side of the country. It’s been a fantastic adventure and am really sad to say goodbye. They have a lot going for them, beautiful places, people and a great atitude of just trying to do the best with the hand they have been dealt. So now I part ways with my treking team and head to the capital Yaoundé via the next bus. Unfortunately for me mid trip it rains and due to a leaky roof I have to wear my jacket inside the bus which is a first. I cannot believe it, there is a gush of water coming down from the ceiling on the seat next to me. However as the locals do I just continue to sit there and get collateral damage from the deluge, trapped. As the bus pulls into dusty Yolande I check into a great Airbnb with a expat working for the UN by the name of TA. I have stayed with a number of UN workers over my travels. They always have the best apartments in the best part of the city and their stories always make me feel that maybe
my life is somewhat normal. So in my nice surroundings I sink back some serious good food, look after my damaged walking legs and most importantly collect my Congo Visa at the local embassy.
Yolande is just like any other West African city, a bit of a mess of chaos, confusion and rubbish but one with a heap of character. What really struck me was that the locals had really no concept of what was going on in the West. For them they are just going along with their lives. Of course when I mention it to them and ask for an opinion I get the same response that they are just bad people. I wonder if someone took the chance to sit down with them and detail that they were all originally from the same people. That through the diversion of language and then the influence of English and French customs you grew apart and that ultimately led to such a division. That through a process of long term neglect that the people of the west now feel trapped and abandoned. It is an interesting thought experiment but I think they would just shrug their shoulders, we are
hungry and struggling too.
On reflection, my trip to Cameroon was definitely an experience I was not prepared for. I came here expecting a standard french speaking country but what I witnessed was not this at all. It is a stunningly beautiful country but to see such a division created by language it was hard for me to not feel saddened by it all. By no fault of either the Francophone or Anglophone populations a massive rupture has ripped its way through this once united kingdom. It started with colonial conquest and by the process of different languages their cultures diverted. The francophone people are struggling to survive as well however worse for me was that on the English speaking side they are out of options. Slowly being marginalized by the government, oil profits being taken away, cannot move to the french areas, tourists avoiding the place; what are they to do. This is a tragic situation and for me personally not having options around how to lead my life is one of those things that scares me. For in the Anglophone area they are trapped, backed into a corner with no means of escape. Now if it was me in their situation it would be hard not to be resentful and shut down completely. However what I did see was that the personality of the human spirit there was to not give up, to keep trying to protect what is most sacred to them, their culture. This really stuck with me and it’s a lesson about being true, never giving up and fighting for what you hold most dear. Of course in real Cameroonian fashion, they do all this and still manage to put a smile on. An inspiration and example to follow. Travel has many unexpected destinations.
Thanks for reading. Next up I transit Gabon and the Congo into the totally off the tourist map country of Angola.
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