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.