Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Return of my Nemesis

When I arrived in Cameroon, I expected there would be an interesting melange of music to be discovered here. After all, a culture rich with its own musical heritage, as well as the influences of French and English music that came with its colonial past, must have a diversity that would be enviable anywhere. And I’m sure that’s true if one explores far enough into the customs and traditions of the country. But soon after I arrived, I found an immediate musical phenomenon that I didn’t expect. It seems that Cameroonians love Dolly Parton and Don Williams.

At first, I attributed hearing the warblings of Parton as a joke played for laughs by a sidewalk vendor eager to attract customers. But I’ve since heard her songs played in multiple locations, so there seems to be a real affection for her jaunty tunes. The popularity of Williams is even more mystifying. A country singer who reached his peak in the ‘70s with his driving hit “Tulsa Time”, Williams seems to have been embraced by people in both Nigeria and Cameroon. It’s a bit surreal to be eating rice and beans in one of my favourite lunch spots and to be serenaded by Williams’ ode to “Amanda”, whom fate should have made a gentleman’s wife, at least according to the song.

But it’s now the first of December and that can mean only one thing – time to dust off the yuletide musical chestnuts for three weeks of non-stop holiday cheer. Now, I’m no Grinch when it comes to enjoying the music of the season; in fact, I made a point of buying one new CD of Christmas music every year when I was in Canada. Of course, I tended toward the more unusual of offerings to avoid an overload of the saccharine sweet banalities or melancholic broodings that tend to define playlists at this time of year. For my money, James Brown’s rendition of “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” or Clarence Carter’s “Back Door Santa” were as capable of making one merry as anything in the catalogues of Nat King Cole or Der Bingle.

As the Northwest region of Cameroon is predominantly Christian, the Christmas season is now in full swing here, including the attendant anthems. My taxi ride this morning hummed along to Boney M’s “Mary’s Boy Child” on the radio, and I arrived at the office to find that our neighbours had “Jingle Bells” on a continual loop for twenty minutes, so that we could all have time to ponder the intricate meanings found in the lyrics. Exactly why are we dashing through the snow? And what is it that keeps us laughing all the way? These and other questions demand the kind of answers that can only come from the happy place that I send my mind when faced with the type of musical barrage that greeted me this morning.

And yet, I will happily endure all of the sentimental holiday stylings of Kenny G and Michael Bolton for the next three weeks, as it means a respite from my nemesis, P-Square. Long-time readers of my blog will recall that this Nigerian musical duo tortured me for my entire stay in Nigeria with their hit single “Do Me”, which is about as complex a song as the title suggests. The combination of a catchy beat and their status as homegrown musical superstars ensured P-Square’s song was played more or less continuously in cars, clubs, sidewalk kiosks and anywhere else that had access to a radio. The ubiquitous mobile phone adopted it as the hippest of ringtones. I’m quite sure that babies were lulled to sleep by the same Muzak version that graced shopping malls and elevators throughout the country.

Since my arrival in Cameroon, there has been one song that has dominated the airwaves like no other, and that is “Chop My Money”, which is Pidgin English for “Take My Money”. Of course, I was a bit confused by this, as “chop” also means “food” in Pidgin, so the song could also be “Eat My Money”. In any event, the song is inescapable and began to drill its way into my brain the way “Do Me” had years before. Other expats were similarly affected, none more so than a French couple who have the misfortune of living across the street from a nightclub, so they get to enjoy the song on multiple occasions each evening.

The song had become such a part of everyday life that comparisons to my experience in Nigeria began to creep into my head. It finally reached a point of needing to know more about my enemy, so I asked one of my afflicted French friends the name of the group that was responsible for this ear worm. When he said “P-Square”, I shook my head in disbelief that they had come back to haunt me for another year. And yet, I also have a certain amount of grudging respect for them. It’s one thing to dominate the charts in one’s home country, but to enjoy cross-border success on a level that I see in Cameroon, a group needs to be able to both tap into the current musical zeitgeist and to market itself as the best purveyors of it.

But it’s still an awful song.

This is best appreciated by hearing the music that goes with such memorable lines as:

If you see her eye-yies, eye-yies
You no go believe she’s looking at me
My temperature dey rie-yies, rie-yies

So, I invite you, at your own risk, to check out the band’s offering on YouTube at:

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you find yourself running for the comfort of your iPod or stereo to turn on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or “9 to 5”, I completely understand.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Big Blue in Cameroon?

As a former member of IBM's Contracts and Negotiations team, I'm well aware of IBM's global presence. But even I was a bit surprised to learn that Big Blue has opened a branch office in my new hometown of Bamenda. Or has it? IBMers interested in working in Cameroon had better look at the picture below before applying for a transfer.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Taxicab Confessions

Riding in a taxi in Canada did not prepare me for my daily Cameroonian cab commute. Though I have had my share of interesting rides in Canada – a driver in Nova Scotia recently regaled me with his experiences with the cast of the original Hawaii Five-O and his opinion that the actor who played Steve McGarrett was “an a**hole” – usually the trips have been fairly uninteresting and straightforward, a simple payment for a service provided.

Not so in Cameroon. I now look forward to my morning ride, because it really is a case of not knowing what awaits me. My home and office are on opposite sides of Bamenda, so walking or biking the distance are not really options, leaving a taxi as the only means of transport. But unlike in Canada, where a taxi can be hired for your own use, Cameroonian cabs are shared with others. Many others. And this is where the fun begins.

Typically, I start my morning commute by standing at the corner of Foncha junction and gesturing at one of the yellow Toyota Corollas (the car of choice for discerning cabbies) that I want to be picked up. The taxi driver will slowly cruise by me as though he was a John in search of company, and it is up to me to yell my destination through his open window. In the case of my office, this means shouting “City Chemist” as this is the name of the nearest landmark building. For some reason, my Canadian accent often seems to make my pronunciation of these two words unintelligible to many drivers, as they often look at me as if I asked to be driven to Sicily and continue on to find passengers who are less odd.

When I am understood and the driver is headed in my desired direction, he honks his horn to indicate that I am acceptable to him and stops down the road to allow me to enter the taxi. Unfortunately, there is often a row of potential customers lined up together on the roadside, all yelling their different destinations at the same time as the cab passes by, so when a beep occurs, none of us is entirely sure who has been selected. Usually, it takes the driver to wave his hand at me and yell “White Man” to ensure that I know that I am the fortunate one.

Entering the taxi, I meet my fellow passengers and we all greet each other with a cordial “Good morning” before settling in to battle for space for our respective asses. Space is an issue in the taxi, as the cars are loaded to overcapacity to ensure the drivers get the most francs for the journey. To be fair, the average fare for a twenty-minute ride in a cab is 150 Cameroonian francs, which is the equivalent of about 35 cents Canadian or 20 Eurocents, so it is understandable that the drivers want as many customers in their cars as possible. This usually means three people in the back seat and two people sharing the passenger seat in the front, though the numbers are often greater. My personal record to date has been nine people, including children and babies, and I expect that mark to fall any day now.

With that number of people sharing one car, there is no such thing as a quiet ride. The recent election in Cameroon provided much fodder for discussion, as the customers and driver shared their common dislike for the expected outcome. As most of the conversations take place in Pidgin English, a form of the language that loses me completely, I can only pick up bits and pieces of the discussions, so I often focus on other things, such as the d├ęcor of the cars, inside and out.

Cameroonian cabbies are intensely proud of their vehicles and will do anything to distinguish them from the others on the road. A common method is to paint slogans on the rear bumper of the cars. Usually these are of a religious nature and proclaim their allegiance to God in one way or another – I was a bit alarmed once to read one driver’s assertion that “God is my pilot” as it made me wonder who was actually driving his car. Not surprisingly, I have yet to see a “How’s my driving? Call XXX-XXXX” as I suspect this would only invite constant abuse. The interior of the cars are similarly distinct, with some drivers favouring so much kitsch on their dashboards that it’s surprising they can see out their windshields. One car had so much pink shag carpeting that I expected the driver to be Austin Powers.

On the rare occasion that the conversation lags in the taxi, the radio provides a buffer to any awkward silences. The radio station of choice is BBC Africa, which provides its usual professional presentation of news and sports and is therefore the most boring of the possible alternatives. Far more lively is the local Bamenda station, as its selection of programs is the most eclectic I’ve heard. I’ve often kept my fingers crossed that the driver will tune in to the weekly public shaming program, where one of the local mayors will pronounce the transgressions of his constituents. “Mercy Abraham, your pit toilet is full and overflowing. How do you use it?” or “Excellence Restaurant, you use dirty utensils. Please stop.” Once the list has been completed, the mayor will inevitably warn, in the most dire of tones, that “We will be coming back to check on you.” I live in fear of the day that I’ll hear “Glenn Dodge, please stop hanging your underwear outside to dry. Polka dots aren’t manly”.

On other occasions, airtime on the radio is devoted to educational programming, such as how to write a CV or how to speak English correctly. Of these, some of the most interesting and graphic are the public health spots, such as how to tell if you have a venereal disease. My fellow travellers listen to this information as though it was the weather being discussed. One particularly long trip provided me with more details than I ever wanted about yeast infections. Ladies, you have my sympathy.

Though the trip downtown isn’t a long one, invariably there will be at least one traffic jam to negotiate, and the cab drivers are often quite inventive in their methods. Most see congestion as tacit permission to completely ignore the rules of the road, so sidewalks become fair game and new lanes open up by playing chicken with oncoming traffic. Somewhat remarkably, there is little anger from other drivers at these tactics, perhaps because there is a certain amount of admiration for a particularly bold move. The drivers also have their favourite short cuts to avoid traffic, which unfortunately seem to take longer than just accepting our fate on the main road. This is especially true when we patrol back roads that have ruts that threaten to swallow the car whole and our progress is slower than the livestock that walks past us.

At the end of the journey, I indicate that I want to be let out of the taxi by exclaiming “Drop me!” This might sound somewhat rude, but one lesson I’ve learned over the years is that using a surplus of words only serves to confuse the listener. “Pardon me, but I would like to be let off here” will only result in the driver saying “Huh?” as he zooms past your stop, but a concise “Drop!” will pull the car over immediately.

Most taxi rides are thankfully free of incident and accident, but some have proven to be more dangerous for my fellow expats. In the past month, two of them have fallen prey to the “Broken Seat Scam”, a robbery technique employed by crooked cabbies. The unsuspecting foreigner is approached by a taxi that is full except for half of the front passenger seat. After entering the car, the expat settles in the front seat as the cab starts down the road. Suddenly, the back of the seat gives way and the two front passengers are thrown backwards into the rear of the cab. Much commotion occurs at this, as the other passengers react to having the front seat now in the back. As the expat struggles to regain his or her balance, one of the other passengers quickly and deftly unzips the purse or backpack of the foreigner and removes as many valuables as possible, including money and mobile phones. The driver of the cab then pulls over to the side of the road and explains that he can’t continue with the broken seat, kicking the expat to the curb and leaving him or her to discover the robbery after the car is a distance away. Though it sounds unlikely that anyone could ever steal the contents of a purse without it being felt, the distractions of the other passengers, who are all in on the scam, work well to prevent any suspicion until it’s too late. With this in mind, I always choose the back seat if available and keep a tight grip on my backpack at all times.

But the occasional larceny of some dishonest drivers isn’t enough to keep me from making the taxi my preferred mode of travel in Bamenda. Most trips have been memorable for all of the right reasons, and a shared taxi can’t be beat for getting a sense of everyday life in Cameroon. I expect that my future cab rides in Canada will seem a bit lonely now. Unless the driver happens to know Steve McGarrett, of course.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bullets and Bruschetta

Mob violence is an interesting phenomenon. Whether it’s the loss of hope for the future or the loss of a hockey game, the ensuing explosions from these triggers are often impossible to predict with anything approaching certainty. Considering the turbulent histories of the countries where I’ve worked, I’ve lived a remarkably charmed life in avoiding outbreaks of violence. But all good things, as they say……

The presidential election was held in Cameroon in early October, and it was largely a foregone conclusion that the incumbent would continue as president for another seven-year term, extending a reign of three decades. Whether this would be the result of popular will or a dubious electoral process was anyone’s guess, though the two-week gap between voting day and the announcement of the results certainly didn’t inspire confidence in the impartiality of the outcome. Suspicion of tampering was especially strong in the Northwest region, often seen as the exception to the Cameroonian rule and often taking exception to the Cameroonian ruler. An anglophone culture in a country where French dominates and a loyal supporter of the main opposition party, the Northwest has embraced the sentiment, if not the wording, of “Vive la difference!”.

The announcement of the election results was expected to bring trouble to Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest, and my new hometown. Safe houses were selected for the VSO volunteers living in the area and a member of the program office was dispatched to act as coordinator for any needed evacuations. But in what must have been a calculated move to stifle potential outrage, the government announced the election results last Friday in the slowest and most boring way possible. Over a span of six hours, the venerable and ancient Chief Justice of the Supreme Court announced the results for each party in each district of each subdivision of each division of each region in the country. Very slowly, in a riveting monotone. With an occasional cough or sigh for added entertainment. Our Supreme Court proceedings are a mixed martial arts match compared to this. And the sedative effect seemed to work, as those who could stay awake to the end were likely too exhausted to add up the results to see who won, let alone take to the streets in protest.

Despite the subsequent condemnation by the opposition parties of the ruling party’s overwhelming victory with eighty percent of the vote, there were no calls for official protests or demonstrations. Perhaps wanting to avoid the bloodshed experienced in other countries this year, the opposition went so far as to call for calm and peace, and their appeals seemed to have the desired effect. The days following the election results were remarkable only for their ordinariness, as people seemed willing to accept the results and move on. In light of this lack of developments, VSO recalled its staff member to Yaounde and the volunteers went back to work and made their usual plans for getting together.

Among these was a dinner party scheduled for mid-week at the home of one of the volunteers living in the centre of the city. As my office is a short twenty-minute walk from her house, I decided to take the opportunity to get some exercise and go for a stroll. Right into the middle of a street riot.

As is usually the case, my timing was impeccable. Moments before, the leader of the main opposition party had made his less-than-triumphant return to his home city, with an entourage of supporters on okadas (or motorbikes) following close behind. According to some reports, the parade was stopped by police who encouraged the leader to take a less popular route along a sidestreet. Undeterred, the leader left his vehicle to continue his return on foot along one of the main streets in the city. Apparently, a vehicle then drove against this flow of people and ran into his supporters, striking one of the okada riders and injuring him. Enraged, the crowd stopped the vehicle, tossed out the driver and set it on fire.

Cue my entrance. Of course, I had no idea of what had just happened, so when I arrived at the intersection, I just saw a crowd of angry people, broken glass and plenty of smoke. Being the intuitive guy that I am, though, this was enough for me to decide that I needed to be somewhere else at that moment, so I walked past the crowd without making eye contact and hoped that no one would notice I was the only white person there, since being unique is usually a bad thing when faced with an angry mob.

Luckily, the crowd was focused on the aftermath of the accident, so I was able to walk on without any resistance. It soon became clear that as bad as the incident was, it was still very localized at the moment. Two hundred metres farther up the road, people really seemed to have no idea of what was going on, except that something was wrong. Another hundred metres on, people didn’t even seem to register that, though the number of people receiving texts on their mobiles indicated that this blissful ignorance was soon to come to an end. In the meantime, I still had time on my side as I made my way to Yvon’s apartment as quickly as I could.

Arriving somewhat out of breath, I blurted out my eyewitness account and was somewhat disappointed to find out that others had already heard the news. From the balcony, we could see the smoke still billowing up from the torched truck. Other volunteers soon arrived in a more agitated state, having encountered the mob at a later stage and witnessing how the anger was starting to build. The consensus among the new arrivals was that they needed to leave right away to get home safely, much to the disappointment of our host, who had spent hours preparing three courses with an Italian theme. Gamely adjusting her schedule, she brought out the bruschetta and salad and invited us to eat as quickly or as leisurely as we wanted. Taking her at her word, my dinner companions noshed and dashed, but I decided to linger for a while. My home was in the opposite direction of everyone else, and I had no desire to test my survival skills on my own. Besides, I had spent $7 on a bottle of wine and wasn’t about to let it go to waste.

After the others had left, the three of us still remaining enjoyed the biggest meal we’re likely to eat in Cameroon, as we worked to finish off the portions of those who didn’t make it for the dinner. As the sun went down and the streets turned dark, we made regular trips to the balcony to keep track of developments as best we could. It became apparent that the police and military were starting to make their presence known, as the amount of traffic on the streets started to dwindle, which posed a bit of a problem for me, as I still needed to find my way home somehow.

The atmosphere became more tense when the electricity was cut soon after darkness fell. The reason for the outage was unknown, but one didn’t need to know the cause to feel more vulnerable. Lighting candles to cut through the gloom, we soon heard the sound of gunshots in the distance and feared the worst, though we all felt quite safe in the apartment. With nothing but darkness on the balcony, we became more aware of the sounds surrounding us, the voices of neighbours and the occasional sputtering of a passing motorbike. One sound stood out for its strangeness and menace – a large chorus of people chanting with the fervour and conviction of those at a political rally, the militant sound of people being called to action. It sounded real and unnatural at the same time, and we debated whether it was a recording or an actual group of people that we were hearing.

Thankfully, electricity was restored soon after, so the threats we detected in the dark seemed less dangerous with the lights on. Spotting one of her downstairs neighbours, Yvon asked him about the riot and told him that I still needed to return home. “I would put your chances at 20%”, he replied. “Of getting a taxi?”, I asked. “No, of reaching your home safely”, he said. Suddenly, couch surfing at Yvon’s place for the night became a very attractive option. The chanting and gunfire had both stopped around this time, but the prospect of running into trouble still remained high, so the decision to spend the night wasn’t a difficult one to make. Even the neighbours, who normally would have been scandalized at the notion of a man staying overnight at the home of a single woman, seemed to understand that morality needed to take a break on this occasion.

The next morning, awakened early by the call to prayer, I rolled myself off the sofa and made a cup of tea to drink on the balcony. Watching as the neighbourhood roused itself, I was somewhat surprised to see no evidence of the night before. Children in smart school uniforms walked by, waving at me and yelling a cheery “White man!” as a greeting. Women set about their preparations for the day, whether it was washing or getting food ready for sale. Okada drivers lapped the streets, honking their horns at potential passengers. The normal daily rhythm of life had returned. Though it was on everyone’s mind, the violence of the night before had to be pushed aside to get on with the activities of the day. That’s a good lesson, I thought, as I walked to find a taxi to finally take me home.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Canuck Goes Amuck Again - Cameroon Edition

Some rather exciting news to share with all of you. I'm off to Cameroon! I'm going to be Project Coordinator for an organization called ALL for Cameroon, a legal aid organization that works with law students as a way of providing training to the students and free legal services to those who can't otherwise afford representation. ALL stands for Aide Legale Libre. I think it's a great opportunity and represents the kind of project I've wanted to work on since I first started doing development work - something that will allow me to make use of my legal background and my more recent development experience. Here's a link to a video that they've put on YouTube that describes the organization and the work they do. I'll be working with the second woman in the video, Mbinkar Caroline (and replacing the first, Roxana Willis):

The project has already accomplished great things and has the potential to do even more, and I look forward to being a part of that over the next year. Departure date for Cameroon is the end of September, so look for new stories and pictures on the blog beginning sometime in October!