You know, in the course of life it’s not often one gets to call two places home. It’s less common for these two places to be separate countries, let alone to have drastically different cultures and contrasting ranks on the development scale. And yet, that is precisely my experience having lived half my life in Cameroon and half in the United States. About 15 years ago, my family had the good fortune to leave Cameroon, a third-world country then and now, to immigrate America, the land of opportunity. My father, having studied in the U.S. three decades prior, had the foresight to bring his wife and their five children to the U.S. so that each of us, but especially my siblings and I, could lead a better life for our ourselves.
So, in 2003 I moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 and hadn’t looked back since, until now. After well over a decade, this holiday season, I had the opportunity to finally return to the country where I was born and raised. My experience, as you might imagine, was a mixed bag of anxiety and excitement, pride and disappointment. Not to mention the relative culture shock born of what felt like a lifetime away from my first home and, having become as some would say, Americanized. My first head-scratching moment would arrive not long after I landed at Douala International Airport in the largest city in Cameroon, the capital of Cameroon's Littoral Region and the nation's economic capital. As I traversed a confusing road network including a still-under-construction bridge heading for my uncle's and aunt’s home where I’d spent my final year in Cameroon prior to emigrating, I noticed that the road infrastructure seemed to have improved. However, that hope would dwindle the moment we turned from the main street (ancien route) into the neighborhood.
The street leading to my uncle's and aunt’s home was a microcosm of the lack of progress the country of my birth had made in well over a decade—it was exactly as I had left it, beleaguered by countless potholes as wide as the SUV we drove, with some containing apparently permanent still water, a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The short ride through that neighborhood street was so bumpy it felt like we were experiencing pretty bad turbulence. Eventually, the mini roller coaster ride would end and we ’d arrive at the gates of my second home in Cameroon during my teenage years.
As the days would go by, I would come to learn from taxi drivers and motorcycle riders just how dire the circumstances remained for the vast majority of Cameroonians. They lamented the fact that they routinely paid taxes and tolls and yet, the roads remained in horrendous conditions. Even the new bridge that led from the neighborhood where my uncle and aunt lived to other neighborhoods across town was incomplete and taking forever. I witnessed the consequences of this unfortunate reality as I spent two hours in the passenger seat of a childhood friend’s vehicle just to travel a little over two miles. This, I would learn, was a daily reality for commuters along the bridge with some logging three hours or more in their daily commutes during peak hours.
Moreover, I witnessed shocking alternatives the motorcycle riders would take to combat the traffic. On multiple occasions, the rider and his passengers (sometimes, up to three adults) would literally get off the bike, carry it over the divider to the other side of the bridge, mount the bike once more, and proceed to head to the town against oncoming traffic. That literally made my eyes bulge and nearly made my jaw drop. As the days wore on, I would increasingly become a daredevil, choosing to ride a motorcycle across the bridge in spite of umpteen forewarnings by my family about their dangerous driving. They wore no helmets and weaved between cars and trucks with reckless abandon, sometimes coming to within inches of thrusting your shoulder into the side mirror of an adjacent vehicle. Thankfully, four successive nights taking motorcycles to and from the town later, I managed to remain intact from limb to limb.
Interestingly enough, the road networks and frequent abysmal traffic are but one area where the infrastructure had remained unchanged 15 years later. Another area of grave frustration for the people of Cameroon lies in economic opportunity, or rather, lack thereof. Gainful employment remains scarce; some of the taxi drivers and motorcycle riders I met admitted to being educated or possessing one or two technical skills. Nevertheless, the system remained far from a meritocracy when it came to finding a decent-paying job or gaining access to a higher education to procure a well-paying job. These are realities I recall hearing about 15 years ago while I was still a teenager with little regard for or knowledge about the political climate or disheartening corruption endemic in Cameroon.
Not to sound as if my homecoming trip was nothing but a dismaying experience, I must admit that, in spite of all of these grave conditions, Cameroon remains a country with tremendous potential and an intriguing culture. Most of the people with whom I interacted were welcoming and friendly, glad to help me and/or my taxi driver by giving us directions to the next nightclub or lounge I sought to explore. The country, being heavily agricultural, has plenty of food so, at the least, famine is not something Cameroonians have to or will ever have to contend with. Not to mention Cameroonians have arguably the best, most delicious foods in sub-Saharan, if not all of, Africa. I truly relished in the nostalgic moments—the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, the ability to negotiate the prices of just about any good you wished to purchase or service you wished to use including your taxi fare. I also relished the opportunity to carry out full-blown conversations in French, my second language growing up, and came away satisfied with the feedback the francophones gave me regarding my fluency speaking the language even after 14 years with little practice.
Moreover, as a relatively young socialite who thoroughly enjoys the nightlife, I was particularly impressed with Douala in that area. The truth is, I left Cameroon too young to have experienced this scene and my understanding is that it is exponentially better today than it ever was. Some of the lounges and (snack) bars I frequented were reminiscent of the likes of modern U.S. cities featuring bottle service, beautiful, elegant women, spacious dance floors, and music that compelled every inch of your body to move passionately. Maybe that last part is just me and my penchant for a good dance but you get the point—Cameroonians have and will always love what we call l’ambiance.
I would like to offer the caveat that all of the above represent solely my observations derived from a relatively small sample size of about two weeks, so perhaps they would have been different or more encouraging had I visited other parts of the country. That said, most of my observations turned out to be reinforcements of those shared with me by my peers and others in my family and networks who have visited Cameroon multiple times since leaving themselves as well as multiple cities besides Douala. Furthermore, if these observations about Cameroon’s largest city and economic capital are accurate, then it doesn’t bode well for how the rest of the country has fared over the past 15 years.
In conclusion, I found that, for all the thrills Cameroon might offer a passing voyager or tourist, the Central African nation remains a third-world country stuck in the mud one might see on its broken roads in the rainy season, beleaguered primarily by a government that has done its people little to no favors when it comes to ascending the ranks of developing nations on this planet. The notion that Cameroon aspires to “emerge” in 2035 just speaks volumes to a general lack of ambition and complacency among its leadership because honestly, by 2017, the country of my birth should at least be emerging.
P.S. See the gallery below for more of my experience and adventures as told through pictures.
Kenny, Chief Wordsmith