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Published: August 15th 2011
It’s my first time in Africa, and now also my first travel blog. I'm carrying out fieldwork for my master thesis in Campo Ma'an region of southern Cameroon, for a period of around three months. We share the work and other experiences with Linda, another student from Wageningen university; a lovely, energetic companion. After actual work, there's maybe some time for travelling before returning to the Netherlands and producing a nice piece of text about the findings we do here, no matter what they eventually turn out to be. Even though I love to message with all the precious people individually during my travels, to write the stories here saves some time for me.. and gives me a chance to reflect on all sorts of things that I encounter here. Sometimes I may produce lengthy writings, but to those who come and read them, I hope you enjoy and thanks for the interest!
We didn’t have any idea exactly what we would do when we arrive in Cameroon, but we were informed that we would be welcomed at the airport by a driver who would take us to a hotel. After, we would spend a day or two visiting WWF office and meeting some people, discussing our projects etc.. Now we’ve been in the city of Yaoundé for five days already! But somehow from the beginning on I had the idea that I might never know exactly what we might be doing more than a few days ahead - our thesis projects in general have not been defined in such detail when it comes to timing - and so it feels just fine to be a bit unaware of things.
The first arrival on Yaoundé Nsimalen airport could have been a bit easier though if the driver had actually been there for us.. but they had forgotten, or something, and so there we were, tired (I had slept two hours in the plane during the last two days), faced by the noisy crowd of people, of which no one was carrying anything that would indicate him to be the driver we waited for. We had been warned beforehand that many people would be offering us rides and “help” with our luggage, but we should only trust the real driver.. It’s our first time in the country, and when I saw the shabby-looking taxis and dozens of taxi drivers outside the arrival hall, and the guards were telling us it was safer to wait inside, I didn’t really know who was to be trusted and who not. The first moments on African ground were slightly filled with apprehension. But I could feel that was just my mind trying to tell me something based on what I have learned and experienced before, and that now I should switch to a different gear and behave accordingly.. After all, we had been so silly as not to require the phone number of our expected driver beforehand, so we gave it a thought, called our hotel and confirmed there was a booking by WWF there for us. We then changed some euros to Cameroonian francs at an office that looked pretty reliable, refused several offers by drivers of those shabby taxis and agreed to be taken to our hotel by one driver of an equally shabby taxi, but the man at least was wearing an orange airport-taxi vest which to us at that moment indicated some level of trustworthiness.
I did feel rather stupid, being so suspicious about everyone, but I also thought if people warn you about something beforehand there is probably some reason for that. When I sat in the taxi I thought things were going quite normally after all. However when the driver started towards the center of the capital city of Cameroon, I had to reconsider my feelings.. the man drove way too fast in the lighted, meandering streets. He seemed like a nice guy, and after first stuttering attempts we managed to start a conversation in a french-like manner. So we actually had a lovely chat about us and his family in Yaoundé, while the car made it’s way through the outskirts of the city with a frightening speed. My first images of Cameroon.. people walking along the road in the warm dark night, lights, colors, music coming in through the open windows, women and men carrying and selling things of all sort and size.. and everyone had a different skin colour than me, which is simply one intriguing thing that I hadn’t yet encountered in such amplitude before.
We felt rather happy to get safely to the hotel. It’s a comfortable place to spend a few days, and we settled in quickly in our own rooms, put up our mosquito nets and went to sleep, both probably with lots to think about. Linda had been in Africa before, in Tanzania, but for me everything would be new.. that is just great, so much to discover and experience, but I was in the first night very happy that she was there with me, and I think I will be many times during our stay here!
In a way these first days I’ve felt like being thrown into a different world, where things look and feel different, time goes by in a different way and I feel I’m very different from the rest of the people. Still, I know it is, again, mainly my mind doing tricks to me, because it has only experienced that much before. It is constantly working with everything that comes across, trying to put it somewhere in my head with all the previous things, comparing and finding similarities, too.. that’s how my mind always seems to work, so much analyzing to do..! I feel tired in the evenings even if we don’t do much physically, because of all the mind-work. I wonder what it all will be in my head after a few months. At least I know that things won’t feel so weird and different anymore when we’ve been here for a bit longer, so for now I just have to accept that many things come as new and surprising to me.
WWF office is right next to our hotel, and we were taken there the first morning. We got to meet all the people who were there, working on different tasks and projects. Unfortunately our one main contact person was on holiday, but there were other people who were lovely with their kindness and willingness to help us. We had some interesting chats with people, about bushmeat as well which my thesis work is about. We got to use the library – a lot of literature about rainforests of Congo basin and sustainable use of natural resources, in English and French..! – and we could contact the person who should partly guide us when we go to the area of our field work. We will travel with him on Monday, towards Campo town and Campo Ma’an national park.
Other than that, the days in Yaoundé have passed with a slow pace. We didn’t go out in the evenings since it is supposedly a bit dangerous for two white girls (and we are very white together here, glowing in the dark like ghosts) without local companions. But that wasn’t even necessary, we were quite happy to relax at the hotel during the evenings, read, chat and study.
During the days we’ve experienced more of the city culture of Yaoundé. Some discoveries about food (that are, again, new to me at least): Linda suspected correctly that they eat lots of meat here, so I’m throwing away my vegetarian fashion of eating and have tasted already lots of different kind of meat dishes. As Linda pointed out, it’s not like the animal husbandry is of the intensive type as in Europe, so I don’t feel too bad about eating meat, as long as it’s not bushmeat.. The meat is tougher indeed, probably because when alive it’s exercising a lot more than the one you find in Europe. Chicken is good, but Linda tried roignon, she didn’t like it and only afterwards found out it was kidneys. They also eat lots of bananas here, plantain, and that’s simply delicious! By the streets lots of fruits and nuts are available everywhere.
I don’t know if I ever get used to the driving habits of people.. I’m just amazed I haven’t actually seen any accidents yet with my own eyes. All the yellow taxis have been damaged to some extent at least, and if there ever were rules of how and when to take over another car, or who can go first at a crossroads, they have been long forgotten.. I’d rather just close my eyes and not see all the scary almost-situations, but then again there’s always so much to see that I can’t do that either. So you just trust your driver, try to be tough about the price and try to pronounce correctly the name of the place you want to go to. Taxi seems to be the public transport here, it’s awful how many cars there are around. The cars regularly fit three in the front and four at the back, but with a bit higher price one can also have a private ride.
We met with another student from Wageningen who’s also here for thesis work. It was nice to share experiences! She had been bribed by police because of photographing; it’s not allowed to take pictures in the city, especially if you target government buildings or something else that could be considered politically sensitive. In the countryside it’s ok to photograph, but even then it’s better to confirm this with your local companion.
The city is interesting, can’t deny that. We got some work done, have learned and seen a lot already, and started to get a hint of the language here, as well. However it’s still a big city, not a place of extreme beauty and peace, and our stay here was already much longer than it was supposed to be in the first place.. I’m really looking forward to going out of here soon, to the countryside, and getting little by little started with the actual work we came here to do.
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