Ever since originally planning this Africa trip I had wanted to see the highlands of Cameroon. The guidebooks say it is beautiful. My map shows the roads as ‘scenic’. My map is flat. The countryside is definitely not. But I didn’t have to worry about that in the comfort of my own bedroom in England.
Finally I was there. Or nearly. All I had to do was get from the Nigerian border lying little above sea-level to the highlands. Which as the name hints, are at some altitude.
But before I battled it out on the dirt roads slowly leading me upward, I had a rest day in the Cameroon border village of Ekok.
Am I married?
It was getting late when I crossed the bridge into Cameroon. I was tired. Worse, I was hungry. But I put a smile on my face and patiently answered the questions of the border officials. No, these weren’t official questions. These were questions that African men ask young (I still feel young, even if I’m not really anymore), white females. Am I married? No. Everyone is always surprised when I say this. Africans, because in their eyes I am old. Other tourists, because surely it is easier to say that I am married. Earlier in the day I thought I would try this. Am I married? Yes. I hadn’t made any vows or got a wedding ring on my finger. I was just bored of saying that I was single. So today, I thought, I will say I am married. But this is not an acceptable answer either – If I’m married, where is my husband? In England. And he let you go away? Yes. He let you travel by yourself to Africa? Yes. If I was your husband, I would never let you leave me. And often, no subject out of bounds… but what do you do when you know, ‘need things’? What do you mean I ask innocently… but sex, you need sex. And there you have it. The male mentality. It doesn’t really matter if I am married or not. Surely I must need sex. And so, they still think they are in with a chance. It turns out to be easier to say you’re single, take their mobile number or exchange emails and be done with it.
One Man and his Dog
So having crossed the border to Cameroon, I became single again. This sped up the questioning with the border officials. And there I met Christian. He was in charge of immigration. He said he would walk with me up the hill to immigration to get my passport stamped. As I wanted to stay in Ekok, he said he would show me to the best guesthouse. Since I needed to change money before I could pay for a room, he said he would introduce me to the bona fide money changer in town. Christian was uninterested in whether I was married or not. He was just a kind man, who having finished his work for the day, was on his way home, but knew that ten minutes of his time to help, saved me thirty. I was thankful and let my tired legs follow his footsteps. Like a dog with it’s master.
I went to the little house at end of the road for dinner. The young woman, about my age, was breast-feeding her baby girl when I sat down on the wooden bench by the plastic-covered table. Much to the baby’s surprise, she pulled the baby from her breast and with one hand put her swollen breast back in her shirt while simultaneously handing me the baby. Surprisingly the baby was quite content sat on my knee. Usually they cry. Whether because I am white or a stranger or simply not their mother, I don’t know. I asked if perhaps I could exchange the baby for noodles and coffee. She laughed and set to pouring me coffee and frying the noodles with egg, onion and the ubiquitous fiery red pepper. Before long, the baby was swept off my knee and a plate of noodles set in front of me. That’s more like it.
A young boy of perhaps twelve came out of the house and shyly said, ‘good evening,’ before wiping the plastic table dry of spilt water. He’d outgrown his trousers, which now ended half-way down his shins. They were the same colour as his t-shirt. That greyish brown of ingrained dirt. It’s the colour of every workman’s clothes.
Before I leave, the young woman asks if I am continuing my journey tomorrow and wishes me good luck. I say I do not know, but I shall be back for breakfast anyway. She is pleased and asks, ‘we can be friends?’. Of course. These are kind people.
Snow in the Desert
Back at Tina’s Inn, I sat outside in the dark talking to two truck drivers, whose truck was stranded on the Kumba road. So now they were stranded in Ekok. Waiting. Drinking beer. Am I married? Where am I going? Where have I come from? You have come all this way on a bicycle? Yes. But you are a girl. Yes. I have lost count the number of times in Nigeria I was told I am a girl. It might be stating the obvious, but it’s preferable to being asked ‘Are you a girl? Or a man?’ while I am cycling. How rude! I don’t even reply to that one. But really, I know why they are asking: I look like a girl, but I am riding a bicycle so therefore I must be a man. It would be the same as seeing snow in the desert. Some things just don’t happen. Here, I am an anomaly – a girl on a bicycle; snow in the desert.
Debating whether to take a rest day in Ekok, I go for coffee first. Subconsciously, I have made my mind up already – I take a book with me to read. I plan to take my time over coffee. Back at the same house, I seat myself at the same bench. I say good morning to the same woman. ‘Same?’, she asks. ‘Same’, I reply. And before long, I am devouring a large plate of noodles. Satiated, I sit back, open my book and sip the sweet, milky coffee.
The same young boy of twelve comes, says ‘good morning’ as if I am an old friend and goes about clearing away my plate. He’s wearing the same grey-brown short trousers and t-shirt. He hovers, curiously looking at the book I’m reading.
I get up to leave, and the boy quietly, barely above a whisper, says ‘Excuse me, can I have your book?’ I begin to say that, ‘I haven’t finished it yet…’ And the boy’s head lowers and he begins to say sorry. A sorry of shame for having asked, even though he has been building up the courage to ask ever since he saw me with it. But I continue, ‘…but I will finish later today, and I will come back and of course you can have it’. The biggest smile I have ever seen spreads across his face. He looks at the young woman, who smiles back at him and then at me, and then he returns to me and says thankyou and another thankyou and shakes my hand with a little bow. I wave goodbye as I walk carefully down the muddy slope to the muddy road and they wave back.
Out of the Rain
I spend the day at Tina’s Inn. Reading in my room. Watching TV in the lounge with a coke and the truck drivers. In the afternoon the rain begins again. Pounding on the roof. Rebounding off the dirt road. I am glad I have taken a day to rest and stay dry.
Part Of The Family
In the evening, back to the same house, same bench. It is busy now. The two tables are full. A young man smiles to me and says my friend will be home soon. He means the young woman, his wife. I sit quietly with my journal as he goes about serving coffee and bread and noodles to those who want it. I wait until he has finished, but before I get a chance to order he has brought me a coffee and then a dish with plantain and plums that an old lady has been grilling out the front. I thank him.
Sitting writing my journal in the dim light, the other customers slowly depart. Soon there is just me, one talkative, well-travelled truck driver who dominates the conversation with the young man and two other of his friends. I order another coffee and some bread. The young boy comes out of the house and says a friendly hello. I get out the book and give it to him. That broad grin returns and he shakes my hand again with a little bow. He quickly clears the empty plates and sits with his friend to look at the book. Their English is not good, but they can both read the words slowly. I don’t know how much of it they understand. But that doesn’t matter. The book is Laurie Lee’s, ‘As I Walked Out On Midsummer Morning’. It’s not an easy book, but the boys like the idea of it being set in Spain.
Much later the young woman arrives and gives me a kiss on each cheek before saying something to her husband and disappearing into the house. It’s not long after and I notice a covered, hot dish has been put by me. I peek inside. Fish and plantain in a thick stew. It smells delicious and I realise how hungry I am. I dig in. It is delicious.
I feel at home here. It’s only a small cafe in front of the house, run by a family. I don’t even know anything about them. I don’t even know their names. They don’t know mine. They haven’t asked anything about me. But I feel at home here as a stranger.
Before I leave, I ask how much for the coffees and plantain and plums and dinner. ‘Nothing’. I ask again. ‘Nothing, you are welcome’. He waves me off and says good-night.
The following morning I return for a last coffee before hitting the road. Once again the young man refuses to take payment. ‘No, you are a traveller and you are welcome’. No, I repeat and say I know the coffee and noodles is 650CFA. Ok, he says. So I hand a 2,000CFA note and wave goodbye as he shouts out about the change. ‘No, I want to pay and you are too kind’. I turn back, he smiles, the woman waves and the boy is sat at the table, head in the book.
I return to the inn and wheel out my bike onto the earth road. ..
…to be continued