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.


Anonymous said...

I have missed your blog! I was slightly scandalized by the couch surfing but otherwise am happy to hear you are safe.

Keep your head down.

jjmadison said...

So glad to hear you are safe. Wise decision to stay the night. Your instincts are good.

I received some good news yesterday. I was invited to accept a position at Erasmus University here in Rotterdam. I start 1 November as their new Greening RSM Project Manager. So Rotterdam is really "home" now. Give a call when you come back to visit.

I'll be keeping good wishes that the violence does not escalate over the course of the weeks ahead. Take care! Joey

cochrane said...

I find the whole thing vaguely reminiscent of the Howe Hall snowball assaut on Kings College...but only vaguely.

Thanks for the post and detailed reminder of what I've got to be thankful for.

Keep 'em coming and stay safe.

Unknown said...

Glenn, as always your blog is a joy to read. Inspiring title of this post too. Good to hear you came out all right! David (xx Jolanda and x little Bubba)

Jenn said...

Less scandalized by the story of couch surfing, I was mostly scandalized by the knowledge that you bought - and consumed - a $7 bottle of wine. That's the true outrage.... ;-)

Glad to hear you're safe!!