Across the Equator

Published: March 6th 2011
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Left off the last blog promising to leave Cameroon soon, and after two more weeks, a highly entertaining funeral, more lessons in African "business", and a good Valentine's Day party (here it was a lot less flowers and chocolate, a lot more bar-hopping 'till 5 a.m.), it was finally time to leave the capital, equator-bound.

Seeing as both my Cameroonian and Gabonese visas were expired, my plan was to avoid the heavy immigration control at the main border crossing and head for the dirt roads of the bush, where showing up on foot as a single female with a passport full of African stamps can go a long way. At first it seemed the plan had backfired, as upon arriving at Sangmelima, the last city southbound in Cameroon, the military checkpoint saw the expired date. I lost my hitched ride, and had to sit for an hour listening to the chief soldier detail how I would be arrested, taken back to the capital and repatriated to Canada; however after a few vivid descriptions of the "severe malaria" I'd had, along with a clear indication that I wouldn't be handing over any bribes, they fed me bread and candies and helped me hitch a ride onwards.

At first the whole thing seemed to have been a waste of time, but soon the "it's meant to be" theme came through, as usual. Passing through the town, my ride decided to stop to buy drinks at a bakery where, as if perfectly planned, the mayor of the town also stopped by. We were introduced by my driver, and after explaining a little of my plan to head southbound through the bush, he gave me contacts in villages all along the way, including a bar where drinks were on his tab, a village halfway where I could spend a night, and the contact of the mayor of Oveng, the last small town on the map before the border. All three turned out helpful, the latter especially. It took a long 50 km walk to get to Oveng, but upon arrival I was warmly welcomed by the entire family - it's days like that when a cold bucket-bath and a hot meal go the furthest. To top it all off, surprised that I was on foot and impressed by the 50 km, the mayor offered one final token of the greatness of Cameroon - a motorcycle and his nephew to take me the 60 or so kms along the tiny, winding, jungle-dirt track leading to the frontier. And of course, being the guest of the mayor meant no more questions about my expired passport. Just to think, none of that would have happened without that briefly annoying stopover with the military, combined with the perfect timing of the mayor's need for a croissant. Meant to be?

The one night in Oveng turned into two, thanks to a rainstorm that flooded the route to Gabon, but it was worthwhile because I got to experience a different version of central African funeral. The first I had attended, in the West of Cameroon with the Bamilinke people, had been a "second funeral", much more of a 3 day party with plenty of food and plenty more drink than a sad goodbye. This was with the Fon people of the jungle and was a much more solemn event, alhough it is possible that the mood was different based on the circumstances. The first had been a respected elder, this was a 16 year old boy who died of malaria. The first night, no one slept - they stayed up to keep the body company before burial. The boy's mother and other women of the village wailed long into the night, with lively Cameroonian Makossa music turned up in the background to blot out their cries. The second day the kitchen started buzzing in the early morning, and pot after giant pot of rice, taro, cassava, plantain, and a variety of tasty sauces took their turn over the fire all throughout the day. The grave was dug in the morning, and the long speeches and song comprising the funeral service started in the late afternoon. From what I could gather, it was a mix of Christian and animist prayers, in French and the local language. In the evening the feast commenced, followed by the obligatory beer, and elders' meeting (taking advantage of the opportunity of the different village representatives being localized). It was an interesting event, and a fitting and relaxing way to pass my last day in Cameroon. In the morning, Guyel and I loaded up, and after 3 hours and a few repaired tires I was in Gabon.

Crossing the border, not much changed from southern Cameroon except prices, which were three or four times higher in the border-straddling Gabon. Their economy has grown (relatively) fat off oil and political 'stability', but the only people who benefit from this are the politicians and higher level government employees. Almost everything is state owned meaning getting ahead without being part of the government is next to impossible. But as I've found everywhere in Africa, it's a country filled with good people, regardless of circumstance.

Had to pass Gabon a little faster than I would have liked - it's a beautiful country filled with thick jungle less exploited than that of its neighbors (economic focus up until recently was petrol instead of mining, unfortunately that's now changing). Apparently those lucky enough to head up country find a green, mountainous world of waterfalls and chimpanzees. As for me, I passed four fast days en route, highlights being crossing the equator, visiting the Albert Schweitzer Hospita in Lambarene, and a lucky hitch with the former Gabonese ambassador to China. The other interesting thing about Gabon is that in the south, where the landscape changes from jungle into savanna-like plateau, the roads end. Everywhere else I've been in Africa, I have been able to stick to paved roads if I choose, here that is not possible. From southern Gabon all the way to Brazzaville in the Congo, and probably further onwards from Kinshasa to middle-Angola, there are no paved roads outside of the cities. And dirt roads in the equatorial rainy season are often just big puddles of mud. All of that will soon change though - in southern Gabon I seemed to see more Chinese road workers than Africans themselves, and I was told within five years all the major routes in the Congo would be finished too. That means that soon, one will be able to drive from Europe to South Africa, via the west, almost never having to leave the pavement. Africa's development is coming a long way, unfortunately it is mining and lumber interests - not governments - that are getting things done. Paved roads just mean exponentiating the rate at which resources can be hauled out. Hitchhiking in remote bush areas is often made possible solely thanks to mining and logging companies - in northwestern Congo, for example, I had spent 4 hours walking down the "national route", yet having seen only one vehicle - a heavily laden motorcycle. I was finally saved from the hot sun by a Malaysian hauling 8 huge trees to a processing plant which then sends them straight to Japan. Riding with him for 3 hours, the only other vehicles we passed on the road were about ten other big trucks belonging to the same Asian-African company, all empty and heading for the bush. Yes, companies like that are willing to pay to get roads built in exchange for big exploitation contracts and fast routes to access resources, but at what cost?

Traveling the mud roads in the Congo, rides were slow, but after another series of lucky coincidences the truck who'd picked me up ended stuck in a 6 car pileup in a mud pit at the same time as an SUV with an extra place slipped it's way through. I asked, and they generously offered a lift, and afterwards offered more help than I could have hoped for. First off, two comfortable nights with a/c, Wifi, hot showers, and three delicious meals a day, but more importantly was travel help. My two problems in the Congo were (once again) my visa was expired, and secondly the last 200 km of road before Brazzaville were reportedly 'not under the control of government forces', and these rebels weren't friendly (unlike in Cote D'Ivoire). My new friends Mikhail and Jean-Paul solved both these problems, getting me a secure lift on a train to Brazzaville filled with gendarmerie and police, and better yet, the contact of a colonel who walked me through customs and onto the boat to Kinshasa, without problem.

So now I'm here in Kinshasa, a city 15-million strong and with a sad history and rough reputation. Getting out of here might be more difficult than getting in, and tomorrow I'll be deciding between waiting a week for the Angolan visa, going overland (which everyone says is impossible), and taking Mikhail's advice to try hitching a ride on a cargo plane - he says either Russian pilots or the UN might be able to help. Either way, should be fun!


8th March 2011

The adventure continues
Well, sounds like you have now seen the heart of Africa, with all the good and some of the not so good. Heed (at least some of) the advise that the friendly strangers you meet are giving you, and look for wisdom in unexpected places! May your travels take you on more amazing experiences with, by all of your accounts, some of the friendliest people in the world! With love your dad, be safe :)

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