Approaching Douala, our crowded bush taxi abandoned the agrarian calm of the countryside for the rough hustle of the city. This, too, was Africa writ small, an example of the dizzying speed with which the people of the continent are migrating to its urban centers. The lovely forests and palm oil plantations slowly give way to the usual grim indicators of urban African sprawl: industrial wastelands of breweries and cement plants, long-haul transport trucks belching clouds of exhaust into the hazy sky, seething open-air markets that stretch for miles along the congested roads.
In Limbe, locals speak of Cameroon’s economic capital almost mythically, as of some Biblical kingdom of hustlers and Sodomites, a city of violence and avarice smothered by a pall of muggy tropical heat. But Douala, like all great metropolises, draws migrants in search of a better life. And though the city appears rough and unburnished to a traveler, it’s not without its charms.
Douala is best known for its night life, and the clubs, once filled, do not empty until dawn. In the stories of Cameroonian author Janvier Chando, set in a fictional village in the country’s rural west, a recurring theme is the corrupting influence of the Coast, where a good village boy could end up losing his traditional values, falling in with the wrong crowds, and — in the case of one wayward youth — returning to the village in an Yves St. Laurent shirt. After a few nights in Douala, my own shirts reeked of cigarette smoke and cheap perfume, and I studiously avoided eye contact with the stoic freres who presided over the Catholic mission where I stayed.
Moral waywardness is one thing, but corruption of a more quotidian sort was the prevailing theme in the newspapers and in conversation. It’s the reason many Cameroonians believe that a country that once enjoyed one of the highest per capita gross domestic products in Africa has failed, after the collapse of commodity prices devastated the economy in the 1980s, to pick itself up again.
Beneath the smiling surface, I often encountered bitterness about the fact that most Cameroonians are considerably worse off today than they were a generation ago. Though Jonas, in Limbe, was right to bless Cameroon’s natural endowment, the fruits have not been evenly shared.
Cameroon is a country, a taxi driver told me, “pour les riches seulement.” Only for the rich. Another man complained bitterly that his father had been a powerful man and had aroused resentment among his neighbors. Envy poisoned his relationships; when his father died, the once-flourishing family business died with him. The man was now broke and broken, betrayed by the jealousy of his kinsmen.
“I hate this country, but I cannot leave this country,” he said.