How do you define your winter holidays? Snowy landscapes, mountain chalets, or even homemade jellyfish, good company, basil pies and sweets. Alternatively, tropical destinations with warm beaches, forgetting the whim in the northern hemisphere. A destination with these credentials may be Cameroon, with the Atlantic coast and the dozens of national parks, regardless the fact that is not tourist developed, regardless that it’s not in an easy going continent. Some sick persistence led me and my travel buddy to the extreme outskirts of Africa, so the most inaccessible places of the already difficult, enormous places, to the towers of Boko Haram at the end of the Third World … and all this unceasingly, with limited data time and cost. Seeking an adventure of anthropological interest of endangered tribes in places that no-one goes even for documentaries. On this journey of harsh tribulation, we repeatedly exceeded our physical and mental reserves, security situation and logic. Starvation, dehydration, vast distances with unbelievable means of transport, the absence of hygiene at the base of the most exotic diseases, the African tempo where nothing can be predicted, the unexpected, bury the moral. A trip for the fan … or maybe the masochists of traveling? I hope to end up with you positively if it is worth it.
The landing gear touched ground in Yaounde, delayed at 3:30am and after some adventure with a flight cancellation and resetting back. Some contacts we had with Greek expats living in the city, have arranged a vehicle to wait for us, something we do not usually do. It turned out to be a bad choice, since it was a common taxi where at the end of route asked for the exorbitant amount of 30,000 Central African francs – shortly CEFA – equal of €50. In the mid of the dark we try to get a discount with the taxi driver who demanded the sum due to night shift and delay, but we managed to reduce it by half. A sleepy young girl was at the reception of the medium African quality hotel.
The sleep we enjoyed was not enough as we had to take advantage of the day by organizing our trip. We went out enjoying the pleasant temperature as opposed to frozen Europe. The lining of houses in Yaounde spreads from the surrounding hills to the lower lands, mixed with the reddish color of the streets and the dusty green of the banana trees. The young locals look at us curiously. We listen to music from a building, we enter and we’re welcomed in a small religious feast. We continue to the main road where we have an appointment with our Greek referred friend, who takes us to the agency he works. Our attempt to find a car, in order to cover distances in this great country, is unfruitful. Recommendations are inadequate, Christmas days make it difficult to find a driver, self driving is not common in the country and prices are prohibitive. The day passes by with no result at the company’s premises, until L, manager of another agency comes to give us a solution. We inform him that we are interested in authentic tribes of the planet, in Cameroon the pigmy tribes. He gets an employee on his phone and he shows up after a while. We call him Tin-Tin as the famous comic hero as we can not accurately pronounce his name. Tin-Tin belongs to the pygmy tribe but, unlike the stereotypically short height of the tribe, he is well built, around 1.90cm tall and speaks fluent English. The deal is good for both parts and includes his public transportation to his village located at the southeastern edge of the country. We will be hosted in his father’s home and he will meet his family with a paid transport and a generous daily salary. We arrange our departure at 8pm the same day, which means that we sacrifice our visit to Mefou Park, near the city, where among others you can see the protected western lowland gorilla. Anyway, I am not thrilled by the idea of meeting the marvelous primate mammal behind electrified wires instead of the natural environment. Fortunately, our friends offer a drive tour of the city, with strict advice not to take pictures in some areas of street markets such as Marché Mokolo, due to the dangerous reactions of the crowd. I find it hard to believe this, based on my previous experience from many African countries, even the war-torn Mali, but I have to respect the safety of the passengers and the vehicle. Despite the impression we had of a more developed country compared to other African, Cameroon appears relatively hostile and dangerous. We will visit a sad zoo where we met the first attempt of exploiting the white visitor, asking us, in addition to the ticket, some fare for the photos. We refused and said that we wouldn’t take pictures. The guard finally turned a blind eye, allowing us to shoot for free, but most animals had poor living conditions. In the evening and after we thanked and said goodbye to our expatriate friends, we left with Tin-Tin for the bus station, which was typically third world, with long waiting queues and many different buses departing from different terminals away from each other. Tin-Tin is looking for the best way so we had to walk to the next station with our heavy luggage containing stationery that we carry for school children. We have to wait 3 hours until departure so the bus arrives at dawn, avoiding the dangers of the night. Stations have mobile phone charger facility. The old, small bus is considered a VIP and has a higher price than the big ones as it takes less time for the route, but its comfort does not correspond to any of this category. Squeezed up to the folding seats of the corridor, with the air conditioning in full and music in loud level, prevent you from closing an eye. In addition, frequent stops at police checkpoints, where all passengers are disembarked, checked and walk in the dark to the point of re-entry, fade any hope for sleep. Eventually, we arrive at Bertoua </ strong>. Tin-tin finds a car that will take us to our final destination in 8-10 hours, instead of the one day required by an squeezed to top bus. But the price seems high. 12,000 CFA per person (€ 19) Χ 3 people is a respectable amount for a vehicle of such quality. The driver does not negotiate the price, so low ourselves and the luggage on moto-taxi to find a better deal. Our smart thought does not seem to have impact here. All wrecked cars have the same price regardless our negotiations. Eventually we have to agree, but as I suspected, the car would have to fill with passengers to depart. And when we say full, we mean 7-8 people in an aged Toyota Corolla with raised suspensions.
The wait lasts long as the sun sets in town. The surrounding shops started to open and stalls were set up in an open-air market in the center of the “square”. We began to take our first photos of sunrise in the city when people began to react with anger even if they were outside the shooting frame. What a strange hostile country! The difficulty in fulfilling my photographic expression filled me with disappointment.
Tin-Tin advises us to buy another seat so we sit 3 in the back seats, otherwise “we won’t have a good time”. It’s a practice that I’ve followed before in Africa, but here the price is high and the driver does not accept a discount for the empty space fee. By exhausting our negotiating skills we reduce it to 10,000 CFAs that still seems high to me. Tin-Tin is willing to pay the half of it, of course we don’t accept it and we agree to pay and still the space is very tight because Tin-Tin occupies a significant part at the backseat of the 3-door car. The journey begins and conditions are ominous from the very first kilometer. The reddish dust comes from everywhere, but mainly from the trunk that is half-open and tied with ropes to fit the luggage and grocery products. Our nostrils begin to blow out dust, and at each blow they create a red abstract painting on tissues. In addition, the fine atmosphere complements with the fumes of burned oil and unburned gasoline and also the smell of the other passengers that is unbearable. We’ll get used to the odor of the locals as days pass and we’ll probably adopt it as well. The custom-made vehicle, the crafty driver and the shaker-style route, reminiscent of a Mad Max movie, sometimes speeding at 60 km/h and bumping on the sides and the roof of the car and sometimes braking sharply avoiding as in video game, people, kids , carts and most of all, trucks loaded with gigantic tree trunks, closing our way, many of them seen in accidents, upside down at the sides of the road. The only substantial concern I have in my travels is road transportation in conditions of vehicles, roads and drivers that are much primitive compared to western world. Here, we play with our luck. We were shaking for 90 km, which took almost 3 hours to the town of Batouri where we made a small stop for the physical needs of the passengers. To my great surprise I saw a spectacle I only met in India before. The three of the passengers took place in the row on the side of the road, lowered their pants and in common view they emptied their body fluids and solids. Of course they did not use anything for cleaning the “sensitive parts”, just one of them threw a handful of water from a bottle. In Islamic countries and not only, it is a custom that handshake is done with the right hand that is considered “clean” and it’s too rude to give the left, for the reason I mentioned. This, does not limit the dislike that you feel with all those handshakes, the exchange of money, passports and other items. The hand sanitizer liquid, seems that has to be consumed wise so it lasts to the end of trip, and it is impossible to constantly disinfect everything. Batouri, a small town in the end of nowhere, has much more friendly people and we are encouraged in terms of our photographic and travel expectations. Continuing our torturous route, the heat of the day makes the car of closed windows feel like an oven and the sweat combined with dust mounts on skin and clothes. Police stops were frequent. Tin-Tin took charge of passing our passports and yellow fever vaccine certificate, to avoid bribery requests. Instead, the driver had to pay some bribe in every stop, as well as toll fee on several points. The trail crosses pristine tropical forests, but the spectacle is somehow tempered by the red powder that covers the air and foliage. We pass by small water streams where children play in water and women wash clothes. The 8-hour journey passes by the eastern border with the -civil war suffering- Central African Republic. Another stop at the border town of Gari Gombo, which is as decadent as one can imagine and late at noon we finally arrive at Yokaduma , 20 hours after our departure from the capital. Yokaduma is another small dusty town on a crossroad that leads south to the Republic of Congo – Brazzaville and east to another border crossing for the Central African Republic. A large refugee camp from the neighboring country is on the verge of the city, which is surrounded by few fields and endless forest. We arrive by moto-taxi at the Tin-Tin’s home where the big family welcome him and we enjoy their hospitality, the premise is very comfortable for the African standards. The house has several rooms, including Tin-Tin’s with a double bed that will offer to us. Features a seating area with sofas and a TV. The most important of all, even more valuable than electricity, is running water. This is a luxury of the few and economically robust, no matter where there is no plumping installation in the house but only a tap in the yard that they lock in the evening. The toilet is outside, made of a surrounding sheet metal with a hole on ground. In the evening we will fill buckets and enjoy a somewhat cold shower. We will get to know all family relatives, but not his father who has married 7 times as he told us. I did not know if he lives and where he is. Household work is done exclusively by women, who cooked for us in the yard, traditionally on wood fire. The hospitality was so warm that they organized for us a small celebration with traditional costumes and dances. The food was delicious, chicken fried, marinated with hot sauce and fish from the river, plantane (a type of green fried banana). Tin-Tin enjoyed another dish with black meat. We asked him what was that, and he showed us the legs of a … rat. Of course we asked to try, so he brought us a dish with almost the entire animal. He declares it as an excellent delicacy, far superior to chicken or fish. We are trying a good bite. At first it tasted tolerant, how crap can be a kind of meat, but after a few chews, a disgusting aftertaste makes the ingestion very difficult, the stomach is getting ready for twitching and I try to soften the awful bite by mixing it with a bit of plantane puree that … alters the flavor as my travel buddy says. We asked him if eating monkey was also in the menu and he suggested that he send his mother to buy from the market. We kindly refused.
In the evening, we had a couple of beers at home and take a walk in the village, which due to the day of Christmas had people around, but the street bars were still empty. Besides, Africans are entertained late.
Rest time is short and the next day we search for a vehicle to reach the border and the jungle where we intend to stay overnight. Finding a means of transport was also non-negotiable here. 20,000 CFA (€ 30) for an old car that would transport only us, as no one else goes there. Instead of being more comfortable, the conditions were even more horrible, the cabin was in a cloud of dust. Our clothes, bags and especially our photographic equipment suffered on that 60 km / two-hours route. The surrounding is beautiful, in a rain forest interrupted by a few Pygmy settlements. We will visit some villages on the road to the end of the country where border guards will register our passports and we continue on a small road alongside the border line.
The Baka Pygmy tribe
The Baka Pygmies consist of around 30,000 people living in Cameroon’s southeastern forests and neighboring countries (Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Gabon). They are traditional hunters and crop collectors, semi-nomads, with animistic religion, their own dialect and are known for their characteristically limited height (around 1.50m). Baka faces intense social discrimination from the rest of the population and their survival becomes very difficult in their ever-decreasing natural environment. We found them in that Christmas day and although Baka don’t believe in Santa Claus, they had gathered in a camp near the road to seize the occasion and celebrate with local alcohol. They welcomed us and we asked the leader, a small group to experience a traditional day in the jungle. As a gift, we knew we had to offer for alcohol and cigarettes, but instead we gave some money that they immediately redeemed to these items, gifting the village with fictional joy. The members of the tribe, most short, of all ages and sexes, began to divide sachets of a chemical alcoholic beverage with an admittedly nice fruity taste. The consumption filled them with bliss, satisfying their addiction.
We, along with young boys and girls, followed a 2-3 hour journey through the jungle. We could, easily but illegally, go to the C.A.R. but fortunately we stayed in the survival classes of the forest. They showed us how they collect honey from wild bees in honeycombs high on trees after they inactivate them with smoke. The tribe’s shaman undertakes to climb and put his hand in the hole of the trunk. But honey was scarce to cover their hunger. They do not hesitate to cut a tall tree if the honeybee is too high, do not hesitate to kill a threatened forest elephant or a hippopotamus to satisfy their starvation. The result is the degradation of their natural environment, that combined with logging, has drastically reduced prey. The forest also offers vegetal food consisting of bulbs and roots. We arrive at a camp that consists of small vaulted structures of branches and leaves. They make one for us too. There is no kind of bed structure and they lie down on the soil and ashes. But the ants of the jungle are aggressive and stingy. Baka have the custom to grind their teeth sharp. They showed us the brutal method, essentially grinding them with the machete. Some members are easily climbing trees and foliage, some boys flirting brutally and possessively the girls and some others go fishing at the river. I expected to see some remarkable river flow, but it was a shallow stream. The fishing method was primitive and silly. By separating some parts of the stream with mud, they would empty the water with big leaves, trapping tiny fish. They cooked them in a small utensil and hungrily consumed that little food, one of them drank the cooking water. At some time they started to get nervous, and some said they wanted to go back regardless our deal, apparently having alcohol withdrawal symptoms. We decided to go back as well, since there was no point to keep anyone there despite his will. The choice was good and in the village the feast had begun, with dances, drums and alcohol smelling breaths. We were greeted as VIPs. They were dancing with us, touching us and talking in their unknown language, it was an ecstatic feast for all of us. Only infants, like everywhere in Africa, are terrified in the view of white peaople and break into tears. As time passed and they started to “dry,” they began to ask, to beg for more alcohol. We were strictly negative on that. We gave the little children stationery and pens that we carried along there as well as two pots of food, chicken, fish, plantane that we took had with us from Yokaduma home. They rushed on the food … these people live in real hunger. It is sad and unacceptable for this to happen in the 21st century, but unfortunately these people are victims of their addiction. Among them, children and adults with signs of malnutrition, pregnant or breastfeeding women, young children. One of them magnified my eye and I wanted to keep the picture forever. A jigsaw puzzle of the three protagonists who make up the picture. A laughing mother seems to be ignoring her infant having an agony of survival on its gaze, is struggling to suck a drop of milk from her slender, empty, wrinkled chest. I won’t say much about sanitary conditions. They are similar everywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. Infants lie naked on the ground where people and animals pee. The day before, a child had died. Leaving the camp with feelings of sadness, anger, despair, injustice, I wonder how this world could be saved…
We walked up to the sunset surrounded by the tranquility of nature, returning to the last border village. Some children were holding a rat from the tail, apparently intended for dinner. We relaxed in the house of a Tin-Tin’s relative and fortunately we found a car to take us back to Yokaduma at a lower price (12,000CFA). We were hungry, as our food was given to the Baka and there is no restaurant in Yokaduma. Once again our sleep time will be limited as we have to be ready at 5am for the return car. Of course in Africa nothing works ontime and so, despite the awakening at 4:30 am we waited for almost 2 hours until the vehicle was filled again. The driver was the same, but the extra seat fee had no discount at this time. The distance was covered in 10 exhausting hours, and among other things the car broke just before Baturi. With the car immobilized, the driver refused to return us some money to continue our trip and considered it normal to wait the hours needed for the repair. Tin-Tin was very angry and left to the nearest police road block to report the incident. After more than an hour, an engineer with few tools appeared. He started removing the wheel and the drive shaft in the middle of the road and I confess I did not expect to repair it. Yet, some time after the car was working again. Tin-Tin had not returned, and we left for the town where he cached up after a while. There, accompanied by a policeman who was just laughing, he argued with the driver, attracting curious crowd who took part in the dispute. With no conclusion, we left to Bertoua, where we had to wait for the evening bus. At local restaurant we have finally satisfied our two-day hunger with local delicacies such as an awful soup with bones and meat fat and untasty spaghetti. We said goodbye to Tin-Tin who would return to Yaounde and we entered the unexpectedly comfortable, new and relatively empty bus that would take us to the northern city of Ngaoundéré in 9 hours. Although this is a big city, unfortunately booking.com does not cover accommodation in this area and the same will happen in neighboring Chad. We arrived at 3:30 am and I had booked a hotel from a Cameroonian web site. We took once again a moto-taxi searching in the dark for the hotel, which was a large, old, empty, almost abandoned building. Warm water was not available and sleep time was once again limited, he had to see the city and decide for the rest of trip. I made a big mistake when I booked and paid for the hotel online, because the service didn’t inform the hotel so we had to explain for long time with the receptionist, trying to google translate in French, while she made many phone calls until confirmation. Ngaoundéré is an Islamic city that hardly satisfies even the extreme traveller and, of course, as in our whole trip, we didn’t see any other tourist. With a population that recently rose to one million due to Central African migrants, it is the capital of Adamawa state. Its few attractions are not worth mentioned. The Grand Mosque, part of which was under renovation, is of no particular architectural interest, and right next door, the Lamido Palace, as the local kings are called, required an entrance ticket. As we refused to enter, the price was diminishing, but from a glimpse, we were not excited at all, it wasn’t some kind of a majestic palace we have in mind. We roam around the streets and alleys of the city and around Grand Marché, a chaotic open market within a typical cloud of dust and insects. Despite the distance covered under the hot sun, we did not find a cafe or restaurant to recover energy. Surprisingly a little later we found a supermarket where we bought soft drinks, a chicken restaurant and a bit further, with internet help, we found a beautiful restaurant hidden in a yard and the only one in the city with European menu. How delightful it seemed to me after so many days… a mushroom steak, a pizza and a big beer! After the stomach shock, after so many hunger days, we had to think about what we will do in this area we came. Unfortunately, the Cameroon’s North is not an area of great interest, except some national parks in the extreme north, requiring a 4X4 car, complicated permit procedures and maybe obligatory military escort due to terrorist attacks by Boko Haram. Another solution would be to go earlier to Chad for the next part of our journey.
Searching on several websites, I discover some interesting tribes in the northwest, near Poli village, towards the border with Nigeria. So, since Boko Haram didn’t find us, we go to find them. Some of the restaurant’s staff spoke some English and asked for their help in finding a car. A lady advised me that we should know the driver and it is not wise and safe to search and hire a car on the streets. Travel agencies did not exist in the city so they told us to try at the bus station. Indeed we went there and started to ask everybody. The helpfulness of Africans when they smell a tip is immediate. So they put us in a taxi and we moved to a small distance where more people gathered. Among them was an obtrusive young man, showing me his business card as a tour guide and promising he know the area. A driver with a… typically old Toyota Corolla arrived. We agree the price for 3 days (100,000 CFA without fuel) plus the “tour guide” money. The “helpers” asked for a tip and we referred them to the driver. Before we arrived at the hotel to pick up the luggage, the driver regretted and left us. The “helpers” who were expecting a payment, found another driver who arrived with an even more obsolete Corolla. After we gave a deposit that ended up in the hands of the “helpers”, we loaded the luggage hoping to immediate leave for the long trip. As usual, time has a fictional meaning in Africa, it is unpredictable and its value is null. We had to go to the “tour guide” house to get clothes, but also to 2-3 outdoor shops to find a spare wheel. Until we put fuel and buy some bottles of water, the night fell and we had not even traveled one of the 220km to our destination. Just to get out of town, we had to cross a miserable dirt road for long way, but the asphalt that followed was even worse, with continuous deep potholes limiting our speed to 20 km/h. Our hope of getting there diminished and disappointment dominated the danger of night traveling in Africa, even worse in that dangerous area. We didn’t even reach half the distance in that section that is considered the main road to the north and we had to find a place to overnight. We found an “auberge”, that means, an inn for truck drivers. What we saw in the darkness was a room full of people sleeping on the floor. We preferred not to stay there and suggested we look somewhere else and find beds, otherwise the ultimate solution would be to sleep in the car. At some distance we found one more, that was our last hope. But it looked abandoned and no one answered at the door. It took about half an hour for us to discover a little house behind and wake up a family that did not seem willing to cut their sleep. A child aged 6-7 years opened our dusty prison rooms with rustic single beds. Naturally, there was no electricity and water but these dirty plastic teapots with which Africans wash their hands, face and sensitive areas, but luckily starvation is postponing for many days the intestinal functions. We light up our torches to lay the sleeping bags. In the morning I was awakened by a rat coming out of the ceiling holes and climbing a curtain. I considered it rude on its behalf and drove it away, also informing that I had eaten one of its relative. We begin the masochist drive again, but we have no idea of the situation that awaits us. Some bananas we buy on the street and a crushed cereal bar will be for another day our food. The 100 km of road was simply… not a road. It was a water-cut, river rock filled path that was unthinkable to cross for a conventional car like ours, even a four-wheel drive would have difficulty. At many unpassable points, we had to build with stones a stable passage for the wheels, constantly strucking on rocks and dikes, passing through rivers as most bridges were broken. The soil here was whitish, so our nostrils created abstract works of a different style on the handkerchiefs. The driver was constantly reluctant, regretful of his decision, on a road he obviously did not know. Eventually late at midday we arrive at Poli, a forgotten settlement in nowhere with a school and a community building. In the area live the Mbororo or Wodaabe, a Fulani subgroup that is found throughout the subalpine area of Sahel, Mali up to Sudan . They adopt a liberal version of Islam and have particular external characteristics, with faces embroidered with tattoos and colorful women outfit. In the anhydrous area they live as nomads or in small huts, keeping flocks with long-horn zebu cattle. They are very friendly, hospitable and quite shy people. Some of the young girls were more comfortable in photos than others, making small bijoux of colored beads while the boys playing with clay zebu toys. We offered notebooks and markers to children.
But we were looking for other, more primitive tribes. We were informed that the Koma tribe we were looking for, was far away near a village called Tchamba. I check on the gps studying the map and got desperate. A distance of at least 110 km on the same, unbearably bad road. Of course the driver refused to include in our agreement the transport there and that made sense. Surprisingly, he requested only 10,000 CFAs (€ 15) extra and of course we accepted. I drove the car to give him a rest, and admittedly I was going much faster than him and even smoother. Eventually after a while he preferred to continue himself. A bit away from Poli and having to “build” a damaged bridge to pass, we meet a police stop in the middle of nowhere. Three young guys and a fat lady with khaki trousers and flip flops did not look like policemen at all but refused us to cross, claiming that the area was not safe and we needed military escort. After such an adventure, there was no way to go back and we used every means to do it, from assurances of our own liability to whatever happens, to alleged phone calls to ambassadors and ministers. The lady also made phone calls to one of her senior, our negotiations were lost in translation and the “tour guide” didn’t seem to have good negotiating skills. Valuable time was lost once again until we were found that the lady wanted a tip. It was our principle not to fund any state employee on this trip, but the conditions here were all against us and the fee very small (1500CFA – € 2). The lady secretly pocketed the money and scanned my travel buddy’s pants that looked like uniform. We won’t in any case remove our pants and it would be also impossible for her ass to fit into. We are left indignant for the delay, with a huge and difficult route ahead of us, since the shortest line – as I confirm on the map – is interrupted by a river. On the way we meet several Mbororo settlements with small mosques, rivers with fallen bridges and the outskirts of the Faro National Park, with several antelopes and chimpanzees and, in many places, a newly burnt forest, a tactic of the locals for reasons that I did not understand. Another police checkpoint was at the entrance to the National Park, official, with a regular building, flags and no financial demands. A passing truck, loaded fuel tanks from Nigeria, was selling at a bargain price so we took advantage of the offer. We continue the endless road, the gps signal shows that we are near, we reach the big river. A large modern bridge connects one side to the other although there is virtually no road in any direction. After all, without the bridge, the river would be impassable. Little kids gathered around us in an enthusiastic delirium in this beautiful backdrop against the river by sunset. After the bridge the off-road adventures began again, the car struggled to climb up mounds and constantly hit its chassis in stones, confirming Toyota’s stamina. Every now and then we’re getting out to ease weight until the driver decided to end the route in the middle of nowhere. He was right but on the other he had to stick to our deal. He was so nervous that we did not try to change his mind, we loaded the heavy luggage and started heading for Tchamba 9km away, of course we wouldn’t be possible by walking, but there was hope of a passing motorcycle. Eventually we managed to turn the driver’s mind by saying that we are just 4km away.
Tchamba is an isolated border village, accessible mainly from Nigeria and less than Cameroon. Electricity has not arrived here yet, but workers proudly told us that it will be completed in a few months. As dawn falls, painting the village in purple hues, under huge baobab trees, muezin from the mosque calls for pray, and the young children fill up water tanks in the village’s water pump, created an alternative romantic backdrop.
We are looking for accommodation and fortunately there is the home of Lamido, the leader of the area who was not present at that time, that has two rooms with single beds. The water pump will discharge our heads from the dust but for the rest of the body we will be using for one more day, just baby wipes. They were invited to a house to finally eat and they even brought seating for us. The food included rice garnished with soil and some meat full of fat. I replenished the lost energy by drinking enough tea, traditionally with surplus sugar. The fee for “dinner” was unjustified, as was the accommodation, and it is a mistake to believe in hospitality once you have white skin, which is stereotypically related with wealth in Africa. The village has a few small shops, one of which was a rustic grocery where you can buy the famous soft drink, ideal for preventing stomach upsets that I luckily never had. The other three outlets sell electricity to charge cellphones. Before going to sleep we’ll walk around the village alleys, under the baobabs where locals lying on carpets drink their tea participating in social life.
The Koma Tribe
We head for the villages of the Koma tribe together with a local driver-translator, driving a few miles by car and hiking some more in a dry savannah with scattered huts by the foot of the Atlantica mountains, which is the natural border with Nigeria. Arriving in the first settlement with a few huts that was the most accessible in our given time, we met only the village chief, dressed only with a sack in the form of a skirt and a beret on the head. He cordially welcomed us and informed that the rest of the residents are gone in an annual village feast. This was a great misfortune that could be turned into luck if we were able to attend the celebration. The chief agreed to lead us there. After hiking for 30 minutes, he stopped to pray on the sacred stone. We also followed the ritual and the signs seemed positive to the leader. But he decided that we had to go back, waiting for the others to return in the afternoon. Our despair peaked, so much effort and expense to get here without reaching our goal! We have been trying for a long time to negotiate or even understand the reasons. The chief was unrepentant and left away. Me and my companion decided to move on to the unknown area alone. The local driver was terrified, trying hardly to stop us by raising many dangers such as getting lost, kidnapped by Boko Haram, raising issues with the tribe or the police. Nothing could change our decision, not even the local Gods. We continued alone for some hours without being prepared for a long hike in the mountains. I was carrying a backpack weighing over 10 kg, carrying unnecessary photographic equipment and other useless items. Each of us had half a bottle of water that seemed insufficient very soon under the merciless African sun. At some point, we crossed a river with little water that cooled our heads but it was not safe to drink. With careful saving, we cooled our lips with scarce drinking water and ate chewing gums to limit thirst. After the river and our short rest, the path was lost. A dog sounded somewhere but the direction was not clear due to echo. The route was suddenly uphill and we followed the direction of the river that was filled with huge slick rocks. My backpack affected my center of gravity dangerously, pulling me back, in a place where a possible accident could threaten life itself. At some wet spots I was sliding down on the cliff, fortunately without any consequences. This terrain has exhausted my energy, in conjunction with hunger and dehydration, have transformed the hike into a survival adventure. We moved away from the riverbed and continued uphill through a dry forest. Fatigue and heat removed attention from the surrounding area and the ground covered with dry leaves could hide snakes. Besides, if there are no poisonous snakes in Africa, then where? At some point, to cut way, I got away from my friend and in a very short time, we were lost! I’m alone in the woods and shouting but he does not listen to me. Without me knowing it, he was close to the river again, so the noise covered my voice, while he didn’t think of calling me back. The situation has become serious. I was forced to waste more energy to get back to the river. Climbing the cliffs again, until finally I find P. We are close to the 5 hours of unnecessary adventure and we decided to go for another hour, hoping to finally find the village. We follow a steep path that has some trash, a sign of human presence. And this is a good sign. We also find some Nigerian banknotes, burnt and torn. This is a bad sign. The GPS shows that we are about 4 km from the border line but the trail is becoming steeper. At some point we heard from long-distance voices. No, it was not Boko Haram, neither we were lucky to find the village. It was the local driver who shouted to come back, we called him to come to us. When he arrived, he was in a very stressed state. The path we were following, as we had also realised, was of Nigerian smugglers. If they met us they would sell us over to Boko Haram, resulting in a diplomatic issue and serious penalties for the driver, in addition to our lives.
Disappointed we got the way back. For our good fortune and unexpected foresight by our African friends, after the river for two bottles of water that had been left in the car, were waiting for us. We emptied them in one shot. Approaching the village, to our surprise, we heard drums and a celebration. The members of the tribe had returned and performed a festive event. How stupid, futile waste of time and effort was what we had done! Koma is one of the last, rare unspoiled tribes that live without modern influences in about 40 villages on the Adamawa’s Atlantica Mountains, on both sides of the Cameroon and Nigeria borders.
The settlement accommodated about 15 people. The women wore a nice skirt of fresh leaves and they were nude top. The few men were dressed in sacks and the children were naked. The chief and villagers welcomed us warmly and full of smiles, as if they were ignoring our foolish past incident. The chief sit us beside him with crossed legs and initiated us into the traditional ritual. In a dirty pumpkin from where they all drank, he offered us milk wine, a sour drink full of dust. Chief asked us about our jobs and to simplify conversation, we stated we’re photographers, expressing our intention to publish the images, making their culture known in distant Europe. We danced with them, we shared the enthusiasm of the ritual with body language uniting two different worlds. We offered them gifts that the local guide suggested us, soap that was divided into smaller pieces and shared and matches. I did not understand the usefulness of the latter, since the older lady could light a fire using a stone in 5 seconds. My friend gave them a jar of honey that was distributed to the pumpkins of everyone, and with their fingers filling their mouths, enjoying the sweetness of precious food.
Satisfied, we took the way back. Because of the unexpected delay, we sacrificed a visit to the Benoue National Park, which I don’t think we’d be able to cross this inappropriate type of car. On the same torturing route, we managed to arrive late in the evening at Poli. Another shabby accommodation would host us, without shower for one more day and for dinner, rice with sauce and crispy soil in an open-air cookery, under torch light, moderating the continued starvation. At the motel, we also met two N.G.O. members funded by the US Embassy. They had organized some event the next day with village students and a girls’ soccer team they were supporting. Since we also wanted to finally offer to school children the stationery we were carrying all those days, we found the occasion appropriate. Indeed, in the morning, more than 100 children, soccer team and students were gathered in an open space area. Our NGO friends set up a table with the US flag as a tablecloth and sound installation. Since we were not comfortable with time, we shared the notebooks, pens, markers to the children, giving them – as in similar acts in Africa – great pleasure. Since the “tour guide” had told to us about an Islamic school in the village, we kept some things to share there too. In a small yard there were kids and female teachers with Islamic dress and some middle-aged men teaching the Quran. Unlike other schools we have visited in various African countries, they did not pay much attention to us, nor did they care about putting kids in a row so that we could share the stationery in a straightforward way. The result was that students would be pushed in violently, making it difficult for us to share.
From Poli to our final destination, which was the border with Chad, it was 470km apart, including the non-existent road and the potholed “highway”. Although the map shows shorter routes, the driver claims that the safest route is the circular one that passes through the Ngaoundere outskirts. The “tour guide” repeatedly tried to get more money for us, claiming that the 3 nights corresponded to 4 days. Our patience began to be exhausted with his cunning and we clearly explained to him on paper how a day is measured in 24 hours. The driver, on the other hand, was a gentleman, and although he did not speak English, when we confirmed the amount of the agreement minus the advances, he was complacent ignoring the persistent guide. At some point in our route we were stopped by the police assuring an offense to the driver due to lack of fire extinguisher and triangle. Despite the ridiculous claim at this point on the planet where security rules are unknown, where public cars carry 8 people, we try to make some p.r. with the giant police officer and start talking about our country, Greece. Despite the fear of asking a bribe, the policeman intervened in his superior and canceled the fine as a sign of goodwill to the tourists. The driver made a great effort to catch the borders open on time. We, like in previous days, have honoured his driving skills, filling him with pride and making him ignore the hurdles of the route. Despite the speed, we arrived at the border town of Touboro shortly after 6 pm where we’re informed that the border had been closed since 5. So we will stay in another crappy auberge without running water, one day before New Year’s Eve with lot of beer in local bar with a majority of men and few girls desperately looking for customers. At 7am we waited for the public car that we had agreed to come to the auberge to get us, but didn’t. The process was known. Moto-taxi until the station, waiting until the vehicle is full and me and my friend squeezed in the passenger seat up to the border and from there to city of Moundou- Chad. A total of 190 km of torture in a vehicle suffering from asphyxiation from the exhaust gas filled the cabin, eyes tearing and I was lucky to sit on the side of the window so I made the whole trip with my head outside. The border was an interesting experience, with handwritten passport registration in 3 different offices, on one by a lazy policeman, on the other by two friendly youngsters with some knowledge of my homeland, on the third a gentleman with sunglasses, a robe and a whitewashed turban wrapped many times on head as traditionally worn in this country. Another soldier will empty out all the contents of our luggage on the dirt as we try to keep in our arms the few remaining clean clothes! Welcome to Chad. New adventures await us, new experiences and (third) worlds to discover …
© Alexandros Tsoutis