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