Between two worlds
It was, as I would learn in the weeks ahead, an easy impression to have in Cameroon. If ever there were a country that seems to revel in its own abundance, it’s the one nicknamed “little Africa,” so rich and varied are the landscapes one encounters there.
Behind tranquil Limbe and the imposing haunches of Mount Cameroon lies the beautiful, mountainous terrain of the country’s rugged southwest; skirt the coastline and you enter a tropical fantasia of coconut palms and feather-soft beaches; farther south is a sprawling savanna that would not seem out of place in the Serengeti; and finally, to the far north, is the arid landscape of the Sahel, where even the goats siesta beneath 18-wheelers, so merciless is the midday sun.
After a month-long tour of Cameroon, I felt as if I’d seen a microcosm of the continent I’ve spent the past five years traversing. The landscapes were diverse, but so too were the lifestyles I encountered, as if all of Africa had indeed cozied up inside the country’s borders.
Placid Limbe had all the trappings of a colonial mission town. In free-wheeling Douala, young hedonists danced until the wee hours to the latest bikutsi club tracks. In the patisseries of Yaoundé, well-dressed men nibbled at the corners of pains au chocolat and discussed Parisian politics. And every evening in Maroua, in the heart of the conservative Muslim north, wrinkled paterfamiliases spread their sleeping mats under the boughs of the ubiquitous neem trees, playing card games with a general spirit of contentment and mirth.
Various colonizers have staked their claims to Cameroon through the years, and all have left their footprints — some deeper than others — behind. The Germans planted the flag for the kaiser in 1884, but their colonial experiment was short-lived. During the First World War, the British invaded from their neighboring protectorate in Nigeria, and in the war’s aftermath, the colony was divided between the victorious British and the French. The British influence continues to be felt in the narrow southwestern region bordering Nigeria, but the French enjoy a far greater presence throughout the rest of the country, with the effect that to a casual traveler, Cameroon feels like an extension of Françafrique.
One of the results of this cultural partition is that Cameroon is better known to French- than to English-speaking travelers; Routard and Petit Futé guides outnumbered the Lonely Planets I saw by a considerable margin.
Crossing between these two worlds is one of Cameroon’s distinct and curious pleasures. In Bamenda, an Anglophone stronghold, I good-naturedly argued at a taxi stand over the latest results from the English Premier League. Hours later, in the commercial capital of Douala, the grand boulevards and rond-points, or traffic circles, suggested a tropical Champs-Elysees, and the patisseries were stocked with croissants, mille feuilles and forets noire: sugary enticements that looked as if they’d arrived on the morning’s Air France flight from Paris.