To the average American, Africa is a land of jungles, wild animals, and poverty. The pictures in most of our heads were formed by watching the Tarzan movies and TV shows – most of which were filmed in Mexico. The fact is, though, Africa is a diverse continent. Hundreds of ethnic groups and tribal languages, and several languages left as a legacy of colonialism. There are wild animals – despite poaching, many species continue to thrive – and, the landscape is beautiful and diverse, ranging from the barren, windswept dunes of the Sahara to the lush equatorial forests of West and Central Africa to the veldt (plains) and mountains of the South. No two countries are alike, and even within countries, there is often an amazing range of diversity.
For the first-time visitor to the African continent, a good starting point to get to know the rich culture and history of this strange land is Cameroon. A German colony until the end of World War I, when Germany’s colonies were taken by other European powers as reparations, it was briefly split into a French-speaking east and an English-speaking west. The two regions were unified in 1975 into one bilingual nation (both French and English are the official languages, but French predominates, as one would expect in a Francophone country). With more than 50 tribal groups, each with its own language, French became the unifying element in Cameroon’s post-1975 history. The country is, like many former French colonies, part of the French Community of Africa, or CFA, which means its currency, the CFA Franc, is guaranteed by France’s economy. While this does ensure a certain amount of economic stability, according to a French-Canadian observer of African affairs, it relieves local officials of much of the responsibility for fiscal discipline, leaving them almost as dependent on the former colonial master as ever.
Crossroads of Africa
Politics and history aside, Cameroon occupies a central position in West-Central Africa, sandwiched giant Nigeria to the north, Central African Republic to the east, and Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Congo Brazzaville to the south, making it the trade and cultural crossroads for much of Africa. The central market in the port city of Douala, for instance, is inhabited daily by merchants and traders from all of the surrounding countries.
While poaching, for local and international consumers, has reduced much of the country’s wildlife to dangerous levels, it still has some of the best equatorial forests in the region. Southeast of the capital of Yaounde, for instance, one can take pirogue (canoe) rides on the slow flowing, chocolate-colored waters of the Nyong River, the second longest in Cameroon, or trek through primary forests containing trees of immense age. The primate population has been decimated, but a few populations of chimpanzee and other smaller monkeys still exist in some of the primary forests.
While some knowledge of French would come in handy, visitors will encounter enough English speakers to get by – especially tour guides and workers in restaurants. Even in the countryside, in places like Ebogo Tourist Village for instance, the guides and workers speak passable English, although most menus and direction signs are in French only.
You’ll find English, but it’s a second cousin to French
Cameroon is a true melting pot. Yaounde, the administrative capital and seat of government, has an eclectic mixture of French colonial architecture and West African sprawl, but moves at a slower pace than cities like Abuja or Nairobi. On the Atlantic coast, Douala, heart of the former English-speaking area and the country’s main port, the pace is much quicker, and some of the signs are in English and French – though, still mostly French.
Not as blessed with wildlife as southern Africa, Cameroon is nonetheless a picturesque place to visit. With many species of birds, lush equatorial forests, and a beautiful coast line, it is a delight for a photographer. There are stretches of relatively unspoiled beaches along the coast, and a waterfall south of Douala which my tour guide claimed is the only waterfall in the world that flows directly into the ocean.
Be careful what you eat
In all of Cameroon’s major cities, visitors encounter a unique cuisine, a combination of Europe and West Africa. In one restaurant in Douala, for instance, the menu included filet mignon alongside roast crocodile tail and wild pig. In one small town along the road from Yaounde to Douala, there was a restaurant with a menu board outside that said, “Today’s Menu: Serpent, Boa.” When asked if it was a joke, the owner was mortified. “Non, monsieur,” he protested. “C’est vrai!” (No, sir, it’s true!). He went on to ensure us that the boa was freshly killed. At another dinner, my tour group was treated to roast chicken, a concoction of bitter greens, cassava, plantain, and a bowl of monkey meat. None of us had the heart to tell our host that monkeys were an endangered species.
That’s the beauty of Cameroon. The modern and hip exists alongside the traditional and bizarre. Guides slip from French to a visitor’s language as easily as one changes slippers – which comes in handy with the increasing number of Chinese visitors to Cameroon.
With something different and interesting around every corner, you can be sure your visit to Cameroon will be one that will be long remembered.