From the Vault: Cameroon Journal

(in which I bribe a customs official)


1 June 2006

I arrived in Douala the day before yesterday. The heat of Cameroon struck me as soon as I stepped off the plane. The air didn’t just feel hot, it smelled hot. The official who stamped my passport did not say anything to me or even look at me. He just took my passport and forms and stamped them four or five times. After having my passport stamped, some men said something to me in French. One of them was gesturing at the plastic bag of broken chocolate chip cookies that I was holding. Beth had asked me for chocolate chip cookies, so I baked some to bring with me. Not surprisingly the cookies became fairly well smashed in the traveling.

The man who was gesturing made me think that maybe he was going to confiscate the cookies or that he just wanted some of the cookies for himself. However, no one was trying to take my cookies. The other man said something explanatory to the gesturing man in French. I did not really understand his explanation but it sounded like it might have been, “He’s an American. Of course he eats broken cookies. All Americans eat broken cookies.”

In the next room, the baggage claim area, a porter greeted me in English. I said something to him in French, at which point he began speaking French with me, and he never said anything else in English.  I guess that my initial willingness to use French was appreciated, and he seemed happy enough with my limited ability to continue to do so.

The porter asked for my baggage claim ticket. I gave it to him. I told him the bag was black. “C’est noir.” I saw my come out bag after a few minutes and said, “C’est la! Ça c’est le mien.” The porter took my bag over to an area where several customs officials were initialing bags with chalk. He told me vingt Euros would help my bag get through customs without being opened or delayed. I gave him the €20  without really thinking about how much money that really is here. They initialed the bag right away with the bribe, and the porter took me outside where I saw Beth at the end of a line of people who were waiting outside. I tipped the porter €5.

Beth argued with a cab driver a bit before we got in his cab, which we took to another part of Douala, where we walked to a  place where we could get on a bus. Douala is a very aggressive place. We rode the bus over the worst road I’ve ever seen, and switched from the bus to another cab, and then a van. We sat in the cab for a while waiting for it to “flop,” meaning fill up to the maximum number of passengers, which was seven. Cabs in Cameroon don’t move until they’ve flopped, unless you buy the fares of all seven potential passengers. While we were waiting, people came up to the windows asking for money or offering to sell ground nuts (peanuts), fried dough, watches,  or soap.


Locations of Tiko, Douala, Yaoundé. The water is the Atlantic. Click map to view larger.

We were travelling from Douala to Tiko to meet Jerry, the Peace Corps Volunteer whose post was closest to Douala. In the van on the way form Douala to Tiko I saw the southern cross for the first time. When we got out of the van, we could see the big dipper in the northern sky and the southern cross in the southern sky; Cameroon straddles the equator. Jerry guided us around big muddy potholes on the road to his house. His house has 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms! Jerry went to help someone in town with some computer related problem while Beth cooked herself eggs-in-bread. The not-very-good-looking bread crumbled a bit, becoming holey when cut, which made a convenient hole for the egg to go into. I was too full to eat after having lots of delicious meals on my Air France flight.

Jerry came back and we sat around the table and talked for a bit. I learned that the term “white man” means foreign and high-tech. For example, Jerry had a radio on his table, which was nicer than one that a Cameroonian would probably have. This radio could therefore be termed a “white man radio.”  I later learned that the term “black man” can also, perhaps not surprisingly, be used as a descriptor. These terms don’t seem to offend Cameroonians, and they use them commonly.

On my first full day in Cameroon we went to Jerry’s school. It was report card day. We walked through some streets and through a sort of forest/dump to the school. Everone we saw gave warm greetings. “Good morning!” “You are welcome!” It never struck me as funny until I went to Cameroon that we say “you’re welcome” all the time, but only in response to “thank you” and basically never to tell someone that they actually are welcome.

Oil palms, for making palm oil

Oil palms, for making palm oil

We went from the school to a line of shacks serving food. We at beans and puff puff. This dish consists of red kidney beans cooked in bright orange, unrefined palm oil with some kind of red and yellow spices, and golf-ball-sized pieces of deep-fried yeast dough–the aptly named puff puff.  Beth warned me that the palm oil might go right through me, so I went easy on the beans. One orders puff puff by saying, “I have puff puff for 100.” or “I’ll take puff puff for 50.” It’s like being on Jeopardy. You tell them how many francs you want to spend, and they give you an amount that seems appropriate for that price. What a great system, huh? I wish I could do that at home: “I’ll have soup for $2 and sandwich for $3, thanks.” Incidentally, there are about 650CFA in one euro, and all three of us (Jerry, Beth and I) ate plenty for 350CFA. This means that my bribe of €20 at the airport would buy a lunch of beans and puff puff for about 110 people.

On the way back to the school, Beth bought three bananas. She ate one and I ate the other two. Bananas here are delicious!  Actually, there are many, many kinds of bananas in Cameroon. These ones were smallish, yellow, and sweeter than the ones we get in the states.Back at the school we sat at a table in the teachers’ lounge, which had a fan. The fan makes a huge difference in comfort, causing sweat to actually evaporate rather than just drip.

One native teacher at the school was wearing powder blue traditional garb. He wanted to pose with the Americans for a picture, which was fun. Another teacher at the table explained that if he could afford to do so, he would have ten wives. The more wives and children he could provide for, the more pride it would bring him. The students on the street all greet Jerry: “Good morning, Mr. Jerry!” They wear light blue collared uniform shirts with tan trim.

From the school, we set out for Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. We bought roasted cobs of corn from a woman on the street.  We got into a van which quickly flopped and set out for Douala en route to Yaoundé. The corn was dry, starchy, and not sweet at all. This is how I imagine the corn grown as livestock feed would taste and feel.

The van broke down on the way to Douala. It had a bad cam-shaft, apparently. Some men got out and pushed the van half a kilometer to a check point where people were selling melons, nuts and palm wine. I was sitting the in back seat of the van, and the back hatch was open to keep the van a bit cooler. I looked back  over my shoulder. One of the the huge black men pushing the van looked at me, smiled broadly, and triumphantly said, “black man power!”


Jerry and I talked to the french-speaking man who was selling melons. Jerry negotiated a price for a single melon (the man was only selling melons in groups of four), and bought one, which we ate. It was good as a source of safe hydration. I’d become quite thirsty crouching in the scant shade offered by the broken-down van. The sun climbed to almost directly over head. Fortunately, I had liberally covered myself in white man sun-block and didn’t get burned at all.

Finally the replacement van arrived and we made it back to Douala. Douala is awful. The cab drvers were all yelling and offering prices. Beth kept insisting that the prices were too high (as I’m sure they were), but we finally got a cab and made it to the bus terminal, and were off for Yaoundé.

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