On the Road in Cameroon, 2008


This piece was written in 2008 and since then has languished on a hard disc. It has been rescued after turning up in a disk search for another file entirely, so has been converted to HTML and made available online for historical interest! Processed in Somié March 2016

Fieldwork Diary

It was all going so well. My meetings in the capital had finished and I had managed to get out to the village for three nights. Once there I had been able to get much more done than I had dared hoped for and I had even managed to make some linguistic recordings for a colleague. The final task was to deliver a text book and a memory card to a PhD student 100 km to the north. This is not too far to travel even on the dirt roads of Adamaoua Province so we set off mid-morning.

It all started with a noise and a vibration as if we were bouncing over not ordinary corrugations in the dirt road but specially deep ones. Then there was a bang from under the car and series of loud thumps. Dieddonné the driver stopped hurriedly. The drive shaft had broken (strictly, as I was told later, a joint had broken so the main shaft disconnected itself and fell off).

We walked back along the road for several kilometres looking for fallen nuts in the dust but couldn't see any so we called for roadside assistance. This consists of flagging down the first motor bike or vehicle which passes and sending someone to the nearest town to return with a mechanic. It was Friday and the mechanic was at prayers so it was mid-afternoon before they returned. The mechanic was able to remove the loose connecting piece once he had flagged down another motorbike to borrow the correct spanner. Then we were able to engage four wheel drive and limp into Banyo using front wheel traction. I was dropped off to keep out of sight since my presence would increase the price, and Dieudonné took the car off to be repaired while I drank beer with the student and tried to help him with his research. I had hoped that that was my breakdown for this trip. All that remained was to go drinking with my Mambila friends and we had all of Saturday to get back to Yaoundé in time to meet a colleague flying in from the UK for my second meeting. So we set off at 630 am in order to get off the dirt road back onto tarmac before it started raining. But 10 km out of town the engine started racing, and producing clouds of black smoke. Worse, it wouldn't stop when Dieudonné turned off the ignition. We stopped he opened the bonnet and ripped out the battery cables and told us to run. The engine carried on racing. We grabbed the bags out of the back and waited, fearing the whole car would catch fire. Eventually it stopped. I still have no idea why. Once it had stopped we started scratching our heads about what caused it. We called for help by stopping the first motorbike and sending for help. When it returned with a mechanic he sorted us out incredibly quickly. It was either a broken piston or piston-ring (although how that could produce the racing we experienced is part of mechanical etiology which escapes me). He explained what to do if it recurred but said that we could get back to Yaounde . So having lost only an hour we set off again.

Five minutes later we hit the cow.

So here I am back back in bush taxis with plenty of time to think about what I've done and all the things I've not done. The taxi might go in 5 minutes or 2 hours, it is impossible to tell. There is no one who can say. I have learnt to enter an odd state of mind in which I try to sit and let the journey happen. The fear and discomfort are apiece with the scenery, random thoughts or childhood memories. Motorbikes often carry three or sometimes four people. What I had never seen before until today was another motorbike being held between the driver and the pillion passenger. As long as I continue I am making progress. The car is behind me so I have lost nothing. Yesterday a team of water engineers visited the village unannounced. They are going to bid for the contract to repair the water supply. So we had an entertaining time trying to explain the complexities (and the beautiful simplicity) of the gravity water system, and what the outstanding problems are. No sooner had they left than the forestry delegate arrived with his entourage which included the incredibly venial local forestry officer who wanted to be paid for his travel. I refused and later he didn't want to shake hands with me when they left.

The Fulani, FulBe or Peulh are famous not only for the complexity of their nomenclature (I wont even start on the Pulho vs Mbororo distinction). Over the last millennia they have spread from the far west to the centre of Africa (crudely from Senegal to Chad) along the southern edge of Sahara. There is a not inconsiderable amount of work_ that has been done on different aspects of their life and culture.* Closely associated with pastoralism and cattle, one of the FulBe stereotypes (held by both them themselves and their neighbours) is of a nomad following their cows, going north with rains, and following the rain south in the dry months around New Year. Cows are also walked still further south to the major conurbations, to market. Roads make good droving tracks and it is not uncommon to drive round a bend and find a small herd being driven along the road by a couple of young lads who will walk their cows to market then ride a bus home before starting all over again. Some of these herders are paid in cattle; this is how a young man can get a break and establish his own herd.

Of course, the nice wide roads or droving tracks leading to the conurbations tend to be busy with other road users and conflicts and accidents do occur but mercifully few. One Catholic missionary who worked with nomadic Fulbe spent a long time trying to persuade them to follow the highway code and walk on the 'other' side of the road. There was something wonderfully bizarre, old fashioned and completely ineffective about an aging white man telling professional herders how to drive their cattle. They habitually drive the cows on the right so that they are not facing the oncoming traffic. Except the roads are generally used as if they are single track: you drive where there are the fewest holes, and traffic is still sufficiently light that it is normal to drive in the middle of the road and then to pull over when a vehicle arrives in the opposite direction. All in all it doesn't seem very important or to matter on what side of the road the cows are driven. Come what may they will face some vehicles and not others.

In our case they were facing us; there were just three cows and two herders. Not a herd at all, but a few stragglers. However, one cow behaved as if it were a chicken, and as we were passing it made a break from one side of the road to ours, it very nearly got across but caught our off side, breaking the radiator, horn and headlights as it did so. One herder fled with the cows the other produced his mobile phone to call the patron when the driver stopped him from running as well. In the end I left them waiting for the cattle owner, Mr Big, Monsieur le Patron. I had to get to town for the next morning so we flagged down a taxi bus which slowly got me southwards but not after itself being in an accident - overtaking it pulled in too sharply and clipped the truck it was overtaking. There followed another half hour of shouting as is customary before we continued. Eventually we got to the tarmac by dusk after a pause to catch up with one of my friends who I would not otherwise have seen when the taxi stopped for an hour in a small town on the way. I continued on to Bafoussam where there were people waiting for me hoping for a ride to town. Having disappointed them by traveling in taxis I got a night bus to Yaoundé, arriving soon after midnight. Everyone tells tales of how dangerous Yaoundé is at night especially around the taxi parks, I got straight into a legitimate taxi and get to the hotel safe and well albeit frazzled. As I write this I am about to leave for the airport. The car and most of my luggage is somewhere on the road limping towards Yaoundé.

Coda. Yaoundé is full of roadworks to improve the arterial routes. Of course while these works are underway the traffic just gets worse. In the rainy season there is always congestion after a downpour when everyone who was waiting until it has passed tries to get going again. As my luck would have it, it turned out that Cameroon is hosting the regional gathering of Heads of State (CEMAC). So the evening I was booked to return to UK, four heads of states were flying in to Yaoundé airport (closing it to air traffic). The Hilton hotel was full of glamourous shapely women standing (svelte in red dresses with starched white shawls) for hours by a red carpet, waiting to applaud as a president walked by. I got a taxi to the airport in the early evening after rain had fallen. We got about half way to the airport when we struck gridlock. The main road to the airport was closed so all the side roads leading to it were blocked solid. Both plane and passengers arrived hours late. To my delight Dieddonné was waiting for me with my bags so I was able to sort out my baggage although the bags had got soaked. Since I had gone off in taxis he had had more breakdowns and then two tyres had burst near to Yaoundé. But he was there in one piece and unhurt. So we shook our heads and were thankful for what we had got away with. The cow owner had refused to fix the car, so he had used he petrol money I had left with him to braze the radiator and then the extra money I had sent enabled him to get home. No question of any being left. The important thing was that we were in one piece and back where we started.

* An interesting example is Moi un Mbororo translated from the French by Phil Burnham (Bocquené, H., O. Ndoudi, P. Burnham & G. Gorder. 2002. Memoirs of a Mbororo: the life of Ndudi Umaru, Fulani nomad of Cameroon (Cameroon studies; v. 5. Oxford: Berghahn Books).