Cameroon – Part 3 (Dimako, East Province)

We spent two days and three nights in Dimako, a town situated in Cameroon’s East Province approximately 200km from the Central African Republic (CAR). Dimako is an anachronistic puzzle. A place where people have cell phones (flip ones mostly) but no running water. A place where the heat tops out above 90°F (32°C) but young men wear winter jackets and ski caps – they believe Malaria is spread by the wind. It is a place not immune to the long arm of global capitalism; where the forests are plundered for wood but poverty remains endemic.  It is a place where alcoholism is pervasive, electricity sporadic, and where schoolchildren gush over a passing jetliner but have little hope of ever boarding one.

Our time in Dimako was limited to just two full days. To make the most of our visit, we tried to see and do as much as possible. This included a visit with the indigenous Pygmies (the Baka People), a walking tour of the town, and visits with a family of American missionaries who have made Dimako their home. I’ve described a few of the highlights below.

Accommodations

Michelle is the latest (and possibly last) in a long line of Peace Corps volunteers who have set up temporary residence in Dimako. Like her predecessors, Michelle lives in a concrete ranch-style house, a short walk from the center of town.

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Home

Several smaller houses are located on the same lot of land.

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Dogs lounging in front of the Peace Corps house

The house is actually reasonably large, with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a large living room. There is also a “shower” room adjoining the master bedroom.

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Old fashioned shower: bucket of water and soap

The bathroom, or outhouse, is located around back.

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Outhouse

In case you’re curious, here is a picture of the inside.

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But where does it go?

Cockroaches swarmed the outhouse at night, but it was reasonably clean during the day.

Transportation

The primary means of affordable transportation (aside from walking) is riding on the back of motorbike taxis. As soon as we left Michelle’s house in the morning (we were on foot walking along the road) moto drivers zoomed by speaking rapid fire French and offering us rides.

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Waiting for customers

We rode on these motorcycles just once, when we went to see the indigenous Baka people.

The Baka people

One of the highlights of our time in Dimako was visiting with the semi-nomadic Baka people. These friendly, but largely marginalized people live in the southeastern rain forests of Cameroon.

The motorbike ride into the jungle was terrifying and exhilarating. We had been told the French word for slow down, but our driver (Amy and I sat together on one bike) either ignored us or simply didn’t care. We drove fast; first on the highway, hugging the shoulder so trucks could fly by, and then, turning off the main road, we flew down dirt roads and around blind curves, leaving a trail of dust in our wake.

The Baka family that we met lives in a small clearing that is also home, surprisingly, to a family of American missionaries. These missionaries have been living in the African jungle for years and years. They were just loading up a van with their kids for an annual New Year’s retreat in Western Cameroon when we arrived. Unfortunately, we were not able to talk with them for long. I would have liked to have heard more about their fascinating lives.

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The clearing where the American missionaries live alongside the Baka

The Baka people speak their own language, so communicating with them can be difficult for many outsiders (although the American missionaries have learned the local Baka dialect). Fortunately, one of the Baka men we met with spoke French and was happy to talk with us (through Michelle).

The Baka people live in temporary huts made largely of leaves and sticks. The man we spoke with said his whole family lives in one hut that is reconstructed every three months or so.

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Temporary Baka hut – you have to stoop to enter

We were given a tour of the inside of the largest hut, where the remains of a fire were burning in the hut’s center. With three people looking around inside, I found the hut to be a bit claustrophobic, but we were told that eight people usually sleep there at night.

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Baka huts being constructed

Outside, a family was cooking over an open fire. The food did not look especially appetizing.  They were cooking field mice that the family had caught using outdoor traps.

 

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Gutting mice after cooking
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Waiting to eat

As we were preparing to leave, we saw this child coming back from the fields. He was dragging a large machete as he walked.

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Big knife

The Market

The open air Dimako market is a short walk from Michelle’s house. The best time to go is early in the morning, so we set out before the sun was fully up.

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Sun rising at the market

The market sells a variety of vegetables, meats (both fresh and not so fresh), fishes and spices. In addition, there were piles of clothing, shoes, machetes and African print dresses for sale (just to list a few of the things we saw).

The local butcher slaughters a cow every three days. We happened to visit the market on the third day and the remaining meat, such that it was, looked, without the benefits of refrigeration, like it was probably unfit to eat.

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Meat for sale at the butcher. This was “three day old beef”
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Fish and spices
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Fresh produce

The Missionaries

Michelle is not the only American living in the small town of Dimako. A friendly American missionary couple lives down the road with their four adopted children and a temporary home school teacher. They welcomed us into their home and we enjoyed talking about their work and their lives in Cameroon. Their work – to translate the bible into a language that has no alphabet or other written form – sounds both fascinating and exhausting. You can read more about them here:

http://haretranslation.blogspot.sg/

Other thoughts / sights

During our walking tour we visited the remnants of an old, colonial-era logging plant. Along the same tree-lined road we came across a half-dozen abandoned French houses.

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An old abandoned house

I would imagine there’s a lot of history behind these houses, not all of it good.

We also visited the local hospital which has intermittent electricity and no running water. Later we went for a chicken dinner that we prepared, with the help of a gracious local family, from farm to plate.

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our trip to Cameroon.

Cameroon – Part 1 (Travel to Douala)

Amy’s sister Michelle is in her final year as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Eastern Province of Cameroon, Africa. This past July, Michelle traveled back to the United States for our wedding in Washington D.C.  It was during our time together in D.C. that the three of us, along with Amy’s dad, made our first tentative plans to visit Michelle in Africa. Six months later, after lots of planning and many vaccinations, we were finally ready for our trip.  This is our story.

This is part 1 of my experience: travel to Douala, Cameroon.

Getting there:

Amy went home to Boston for Christmas but I stayed behind in Singapore. Consequently, we were not able to travel to Cameroon together. Our plan was to rendezvous at the Douala airport on the 27th of December.

Getting to Cameroon from Singapore is neither cheap nor easy. I booked my round trip flight on KLM / Air France (the only airline that flies to both Cameroon and Singapore). My itinerary to Cameroon included a long daytime layover in Amsterdam and an overnight stop in Paris.

My fully flexible, but also very expensive economy ticket was the only option available when I booked my ticket in late October. However, the ticket came with certain advantages including the ability to upgrade to business class at steep discounts if availability existed at check-in. This came in handy later on my flight back to Singapore (a flight that was much longer than expected due to an emergency landing in Romania – story to follow).

There were other, cheaper options to get to Cameroon from Singapore, but they generally included even more stops (in not so nice cities) or otherwise long flights on small, uncomfortable planes. One option that I considered but ultimately dismissed was to fly from Singapore to Istanbul and then from Istanbul non-stop to Cameroon. However the second leg of this journey included a 9+ hour flight on a single aisle 737. I decided to pass on the Istanbul route.

Finally, I had never been to Amsterdam and the KLM / Air France route would give me almost a full day in the Northern European city.

My flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. The half empty plane left just after midnight on December 26th. After takeoff I moved to an empty row, stretched out along three seats, popped a prescription sleeping pill and slept for almost nine hours (a personal record). The sleep was neither restful nor relaxing but it made the 14 hour flight far better than I’ve come to expect from similar long-haul trips.

After waking up I was served breakfast (I was starving after sleeping through the earlier food service), watched several episodes of How I Met Your Mother and before I knew it we were landing in Amsterdam.

We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning and EU customs only took a few minutes. I had done a poor job of planning for my layover and had little idea of how to get to downtown Amsterdam or what I should do once there. I had, however, read about the luggage storage area at the Amsterdam airport and found the large lockers in the airport’s basement extremely convenient. After storing my bag I headed out of the main airport. Luckily the airport is connected directly to the train terminal and I quickly bought a ticket and was on my way into the city.

Amsterdam was cold, overcast and largely empty when I arrived.  I tried to make the most of my time in the city though: I visited the Anne Frank house, took a canal boat tour and wandered through the red light district (although it was still early and the streets were largely deserted).

 

Not many people out the morning after Christmas in Amsterdam.
My flight to Paris did not leave until after 8:00 pm but around midday my jet lag began to catch up with me and I decided to head back to the Amsterdam airport. At the airport my exhaustion and fatigue were overwhelming and I did my best not to fall asleep and risk missing my flight.

Thankfully, I had booked a room at the Charles de Gaulle Hilton in Paris. My flight from Amsterdam was unremarkable and after arriving in Paris I stumbled to my hotel, took a long shower and fell asleep.

The flight to Douala, Cameroon was scheduled to leave Paris at 11:00 am.  My father-in-law was flying from Boston via Paris.  After suffering through the long customs lines at Charles De Gaulle I found him already seated at the gate.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat and it was soon time to board.

I had, somewhat naively I suppose, assumed that Douala would not be a popular destination and I expected a somewhat empty plane.  I was wrong. Every seat on both the flight to Douala and the flight back was filled. The Air France entertainment selection was good and the six plus hours passed in a blur of movies and TV shows. In no time the pilot came on the intercom to announce that we were beginning our descent into the city. My seat was in the middle section of the two aisle 777, but I did my best to strain to get a view of the city through the window as we approached the airport. The first thing I noticed was the smog and smoke. It looked, from the air at least, like there were fires throughout the city. A not so auspicious first impression.  Later, I learned these fires were from people burning their own garbage, something that happens not just in Douala but throughout the country.

As the plane was continuing on to another destination, the flight attendants announced that passengers would have to show their tickets when exiting the plane to confirm they were at the correct destination.

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Our Air France plane at the Douala airport
We disembarked through a dark jetway and emerged into a very basic airport gate. The walls were corrugated and opened up to hot outside air.

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First view of the Douala airport
I had no real expectations for the Douala airport but I had read and heard from Michelle that it serves as an intimidating and not so pleasant welcome to the country. We quickly passed through a health inspection station where a woman took only a cursory glance at our WHO vaccination books to confirm we had the requisite yellow fever immunization. There was no real line for this, so it would have been easy to circumvent this check.

The customs “line” was next. This resembled more of a crowded concert, with people pushing to the front, than any sort of organized line. While waiting to pass through customs, the flight from Brussels arrived and guess who we ran into. . .

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Amy waiting for her luggage at the Douala airport
The baggage claim at the airport was chaos.

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Luggage was piled up all over the place
After more than an hour of waiting, Amy and her Dad finally retrieved their bags (I had not checked mine) and we headed outside.  It was a relief to escape the airport.

Just outside the Douala airport, first night in Africa
See part II of our trip to Cameroon here.