The dirt road even turned to tarmac in the town of Mamfe. But Mamfe was disappointing and I didn’t want to stay there. Instead, I cycled a little further to the junction village of Basuo-Akagbe. At this stage I was still undecided whether to persevere with the poor roads and attempt the hill up to Bamenda in the Cameroon Highlands, or to take the low road to the coast. At Basuo-Akagbe it was make-my-mind-up time. Time therefore, to stop for the day, after a respectable 92km.
First, food. Rice and hot pepper sauce at the junction. The rice, cooked in the morning and kept in large covered bowls was, by mid-afternoon, cold. Even less appetizing. But still devoured by a hungry cyclist. Second, a bed. I was pointed to an unmarked but clean-looking building across the road. A young lad in blue-and-black striped football shirt, shorts and trainers came over to meet me. Dennis said his older brother would be along shortly. He apologized that he had to rush off for football practise. Soon enough Bless arrived and showed me to a room, clean except for the cobwebs lining the corners of the walls, and provided me with two buckets of water to wash. The room, with the cobwebs and dust, looked like it hadn’t been used for months. The room, with the floral bedspread and matching curtains, looked like it hadn’t been redecorated for decades. But there was water, electricity and all-importantly, a comfy bed.
I spent the last hours of the afternoon reading. Bless too was reading. Reading ‘Hitler’s War’. It is unusual to see locals reading anything, except perhaps a newspaper in town. It is unusual to see anyone reading such a work of non-fiction. Denis returns and joins us. They ask what I am doing. A young boy comes over with a shoe bag slung over his shoulder. Denis says something to the boy. The boy takes out a pair of football boots and shows them to Denis. He looks them over, sees they are clean and gives them back to the boy who puts them back in the bag and runs over to the small house next door. I wonder if the two are related. It was like watching to a mother say, ‘and have you cleaned your teeth?’ when after breakfast, a child rushes off upstairs and returns shortly after.
Football is a major sport in Africa. Almost every village has space used as a football pitch. Usually there is a group of boys playing on it. But that was the first pair of real football boots I had seen in Africa. In the absence of studded boots or even trainers, the footwear of choice, out of necessity, are cheap plastic jelly shoes. These at least protect the toes a little and are easier to run in than flip-flops.
After a second meal of cold rice, I spent the evening talking with Bless and Denis. Sat on the veranda, looking out into the darkness. Watching the frenzied flying insects swarming around the one porch light Watching the thousands of small winged bugs crawling in confused disarray over the floor below the light. As the bugs on the floor encroach into the veranda, we inch our chairs back towards the wall.
I ask what Bless had studied. He has qualified as a lawyer but never practised. I wonder what he is doing running this small guesthouse in this small village. Denis, the younger brother loves playing football. He trains every day. He may dream of being the next Eto’o or Drogba, but he is going to continue his studies. He is under no illusion that he is most likely to make a living using his head, rather than his feet. For the next two days however, he is preoccupied, waiting for his A-level results. If he passes, he will study geography at Buea university.
Denis wants to take me for a walk around the village. But it is dark and I am tired and also slightly unsure of his intentions. I suggest we stay on the veranda. Instead, we talk politics.
Cameroon today consists of two distinct regions; the Anglophone one around Bamenda, where I have been since arriving, and the Francophone rest. It was in 1972 a government-sponsored referendum approved the dissolution of the British-French federal structure in favour of a United Republic of Cameroon. This was resented by the Anglophones at the time. And even today, they feel under-represented by government and largely ignored. Mention the poor state of the roads – they will reply that the rest of the country’s roads are good; mention the lack of a constant water supply in villages – they will reply that the rest of the country’s is well supplied with water and properly maintained. One of the leftovers of British rule is the system of education, which has been adopted nationwide, are GCSE and A-level examinations. But knowing plenty of the current education system in England, I don’t think this is a great legacy to celebrate. Bless, who until now has been quiet and passive, becomes animated when we started talking about British politics. He is better informed than me (and much of the British public, I suspect). He would like to work in England (as would every young Cameroon man) and avidly reads the BBC News when he can.
The conversation tails off. I am left still wondering why Bless, who is clearly intelligent, is here at all. He quietly gets up and disappears into the guesthouse. Dennis takes this opportunity to pull up his chair next to me. With his earlier offer to walk me round the village in mind, I am thinking, here’s an impressionable eighteen year old whose hormones are running on high, he’s going to say something that I won’t know how to reply to; it’s going to be awkward. It’s true, I didn’t know what to say, but I have misjudged him entirely.
In a soft, low voice, barely audible above the night-time noises of of the cicadas, Denis talks to me. He talks like whispering a secret. I don’t know why, there is no-one else to hear. I lean a little closer to hear him. As I do, I notice a tiny white light fly across the darkness behind him, just a firefly. Focussing back on Denis, he tells me that he lives in the small, simple house next door with Bless and their younger brother and two younger sisters (the young boy with the football boots must have been their other brother). He has two older sisters who have finished university and are now trying to make a living in the city, Douala. Four years ago their mother died and then last year their father passed away also. I listen quietly. He doesn’t say how they died and I don’t ask. I think he will tell me if he wants. So now he and Bless look after their younger siblings; trying to be mother, father and older brother. They keep the guesthouse running, which his father had built only recently, to help feed the family.
Denis continues to talk until Bless returns armed with a broom. Denis immediately falls silent and Bless looks over at him. In that brief instant they make eye contact, I see a hundred words of silent animosity exchange between. Denis pushes his chair back, realising that his chance to confide is over, and we both watch in amusement as Bless sweeps away the thousands of bugs crawling on the floor. But more bugs appear instantly. A fruitless task, Bless laughs too, puts down the broom and takes a seat. And we sit there silently watching the bugs amass.
Here are two intelligent brothers, trying their best in a difficult situation. I know they are doing well for their siblings. I hope that it doesn’t ruin the relationship between them. Bless is stronger – he gets on with what needs to be done. But Bless is several years older. Denis is not only trying to be a father but to finish his education too. Denis is younger and although wouldn’t admit it, is finding the death of his father hard. He wants someone to talk to. Bless thinks it is better to talk less and do more.
By now it’s getting late and a surge of tiredness overwhelms me. Not able to fight off sleep any longer I go to bed. Once in bed, feeling peckish, I eat some of the cookies I had bought at a little stall that afternoon. I eat half the packet and save the rest for tomorrow’s long ride to Bamenda.
Morning comes and I awake to see a trail of ants running along the wall. Running from the top corner bathroom door diagonally downwards in the direction of my bags. I jump out of bed and see where the trail ends. It ends at the cookies. I look – the packet is alive. A writhing mass of little black ants. Unbelievable – the ants are eating my cookies! I throw the packet at the far wall and go out to find breakfast. Disappointingly, there is nothing but rice and sauce. At least being the morning the food is hot though. By the time I have forced the bowl of rice into me, the rest of the village is coming alive. Stalls are opening, the windows of the wooden kiosks being lifted. At least I can buy another packet of cookies now!
I pack my panniers and once again wheel my bike out of the door and onto the road….
[I hope Denis and Bless don’t mind me telling their story. Everyone has a story to tell. Every story is different. But I think there are many people with similar stories. Especially in Africa.]