In and Out of Africa
Out of the Frying Pan...
Timidly we entered the hallowed gates of the British Embassy and sat reading old copies of 'New Scientist' and 'The Sunday Times Magazine' while we waited. After a few minutes a young lady appeared. Her skin so pale you could almost see through it and she had that rare British accent which is without blemish. "How may I help you". Free from plums or harsh consonants and clear like mountain water, the kind of voice you could fall in love with on the phone... After weeks of Pidgin French this was like a dream come true! "I'm afraid I don't usually deal with this sort of thing. Our man who handles these things is away at the moment. Why don't you come back on Monday and I'm sure we'll be able to sort this out". Which left us with two days of waiting and uncertainty. Although it would have been worth being arrested just to hear her voice again.
Dale took the weekend off and we went with Angie in search of souvenirs. She took us to the Artisans market which sold curios from all over West and Central Africa. Fiona and I wandered around looking at the stalls. We passed a stall selling Agadez crosses and found, to our surprise, that we could look at one without screaming. Dale was like a child let loose in the candy store. He had never had a chance to bargain like this before and, unlike us, he wasn't on a tight and severely limited budget. He would walk from stall to stall with a small retinue of followers trying to persuade him to buy something. One of these was a persistent man selling leather cushions. We sat down for a rest and he came up to Dale and showed him an ugly square cushion.
"I give you good price", he said.
"See it is cushion, I give you good price", he said again.
"I give you best price"
He went away. But not for long.
"I give you very best price", the man said.
It was obvious by now that we would be in Cameroun for several more days so we took all our boxes out of the truck and put them in a spare room in the house. With the extra room in the back and the reduced likelihood of being robbed we could take all six of us on little tourist excursions around Yaounde. We visited the local monastery and museum and then went back to the Artisans market. They instantly recognised Dale as a man who was in the market for cushions and he was rapidly mobbed by several cushion sellers, all with ugly square cushions.
On Monday we went to the British Embassy where Jackie organised an interpreter for us. We had to go to the police station and then to a kind of post office to purchase official stamps. In many African countries payment of a government fee is made by buying an official stamp, very much like a postage stamp, for the amount required. I assume this is to ensure that the money eventually gets to the government and not into someone's pocket. This particular post office was very different to the shiny Telecommunications building in the centre of town. It was a roughly built building made out of what looked like adobe. The 'counter' was a hole in an outside wall with 'official stamps sold here' written in faded French script next to it. I handed the money through the hole never seriously expecting to see anything in return. Remarkably, some official stamps eventually appeared. Fiona then filled in some impressive looking forms (in triplicate) and the stamps were attached to one copy. Another day to wait. The telex finally came and they approved Fiona's visa for C.A.R. All we need to do now is get the visas stamped in our passports. Of course the passports have to be presented in the morning and we can't collect Fiona's from the police station until afternoon so it will be Wednesday before we can have any control over our destinies again. Wednesday happens to be a public holiday! Aaaaagh. Will we never leave Cameroun. I can imagine the conversation at home in 30 years time.
"Whatever happened to Derek and Fiona?". "Well, they got to Cameroun and never seemed to be able to leave, they're still there now I think".
When we got back to the mission there were two Dutch guys in a Landrover who had just arrived. These were the first other tourists since we had arrived. We would have been very scared and lonely by now if we hadn't been able to stay with the Dannekers. The Dutch guys slept with the back door slightly ajar and someone had tried to get inside during the night. They had managed to scare them off pretty easily but it was still a little worrying.
After we got through she said. "You must be very brave to go through there - I would never have tried it". After a brief pause I replied. "I assumed you knew it was possible. I would never have done it on my own". "I knew you could do it", she said. It was her confidence in my and the Landrovers abilities which enabled me to get through that and other obstacles later. From then on, whenever I drove through a difficult stretch of road Angie was there with me.
After all effort of getting there the Chutes were rather disappointing. We only stayed there for a few minutes before turning back. This time going the other, slightly less dangerous, route.
Thursday and off to the C.A.R. Embassy again. Hand in the passports and telex. "They will be ready tomorrow". On the way out we met some other travellers, English schoolteachers called Angela and Terry. They were travelling by 'public transport' across Africa. They had been in Kamo at the same time as us and been at the Dhurba, although we hadn't met. We swapped stories and described toilets, which African travellers do whenever they meet. They had arrived at Yankari Game reserve probably the day we left. "Where you there during the rioting?" they said. They had been told of rioting and burning barricades a few days before they arrived. The black rings at the turn off for Yankari began to make a lot more sense.
With our passports and visa (almost) within our grasp we were one again masters of our destiny. Now we had the choice to carry on or stay with the Dannekers for a couple more days. We decided to stay.
Our last excursion with the Dannekers, this time in a chauffer driven Toyota Landcruiser, was to another mission hospital a few kilometres away. The Toyota arrived there much faster than the Landrover would have. This also may have explained the tears in the steel shell of the vehicle. This hospital, although rural, was in many ways better equipped and run than the hospital in Yaounde. It was run by a missionary couple who had lived in Africa for 30 years and were about to return to America. They had a beautiful house on a hillside with the kind of view real estate agents would kill for. I asked them if they would miss their home. They replied "No, America is our home". They seemed to view missionary work as a supreme sacrifice and that any bond or affection for Africa would devalue that sacrifice. There was no doubt that they had done a lot of good for the people in the area yet their attitude was almost the opposite of Angie's, or even Dale and Milena's. For Angie, Africa was her life and her home. Dale and Milena felt they wanted to do some good, to give something back. They didn't think this ruled out enjoying themselves or gaining valuable experience in the process.
It was now time to go. We wanted to be through Zaire before the rains if possible. With sadness we left the Dannekers and Angie and headed for Central Africa. The Dannekers would be leaving themselves in only a few days. They taped one of the children's favourite songs for us as they thought it might be appropriate for Zaire. It went like this.
"Mud, Mud, I love mud"
This was in fact very appropriate for Zaire as will be described later.
We began packing the truck and realised that something was wrong. Some of the packets of food seemed to be open and there were some ominous looking small black objects in the cutlery tray. During 'creature patrol' the night before (after the children had gone to sleep) we had found a dead mouse in a bowl of water. I made a witty comment that it had probably eaten some dried food (like pasta) become dehydrated, started to drink copious amounts of water. The dried food had then expanded killing the unfortunate mouse. Now we realised exactly who's dried food it had been eating. Several packets of soup and other dried foods had been nibbled, as well as rice and pasta. We had to clean out the food boxes and replace some items. It could have been worse, the mouse could have fallen asleep in the box, been loaded into the Landrover and reappeared again at an inopportune moment.
The road out to the border was bad. We spent one night on the road. A great spot but we really needed a machete to clear the grass. Where were Eric and Brian when you needed them. My last action before leaving Cameroun was to a buy a machete from the local store.
We were also plagued by insects, flies in the soup, moths in our hair, all manner of creeping things in our tea). That night's electrical storm was on the other side of a wide valley. There were great flashes deep within the clouds and sharp forks arcing to the earth drawing forth great rumbles of rolling thunder. Usually we were surrounded by jungle so a clear view of the beauty of a tropical storm was rare. I must have spent an hour sitting on the top of the truck watching the show. It almost made up for the insect attack.
The next day we reached another border town and tried to find the Mission and a place to stay. As usual our 'Shoestring' map was far from accurate but we spotted a white person and stopped to ask her for directions/
Another border crossing. The border posts seemed to be getting seedier as we progress further into Africa. Angela and Terry arrived via 'public transport', in this case a kind of a bus. There was a lot of fuss and random searching at this border post. The 'public health' person 'fined' Angela and Terry for not having meningitis vaccinations. Meningitis is not required for entry by any African nation or even recommended by the WHO. We had had meningitis shots in England along with vaccinations against all manner of exotic diseases. We were safe from these diseases but the Spanish robbers had our original vaccination certificates sitting next to the short wave radio. Our doctor had sent us copies of the important ones (cholera, et al) but had just written out one piece of paper listing all the non-essential (except for our own health) ones. It basically said 'Derek and Fiona have had all these inoculations'. The man looked at the paper and thought for a while. "One paper, two people, one of you must pay the fine". We paid the fine but didn't receive a receipt.
Then came a whole series of 'African road blocks'. Within 10 km of the border we must have crossed 6 or more of these. They were all type a) road blocks (stop or die) and the AK47 fixation had really taken hold here.
At each block we had to stop while they checked all our documents once again just in case the visa had expired in the last ten minutes or something. Some of them also searched the truck again in case we had picked up some contraband in the last 500 metres. Then just when we thought we'd passed them all, came the notorious vehicle inspection stop. These guys had the cleanest looking AK47s in the whole of Africa. They looked like they might just work too.
We weren't wearing our seatbelts. Nobody wears seatbelts in Africa and we had stopped doing so somewhere in the middle of the Sahara. Most vehicles don't even have them fitted. In Cameroun Dale asked a taxi driver where the seat belt was. He just laughed, "This is Africa", he said. The guard pointed noted that we weren't wearing our seatbelts. Then he started checking the vehicle particularly thoroughly. He checked the indicators (flash flash), headlights (flash) windscreen wipers (swoosh) screen washer! (splash), "what is this light?", it was the rear fog light, "make it go" (flash). Where is your warning triangle (show triangle), where is your second triangle (show second triangle). Where is your fire extinguisher (point to extinguisher), where is your second fire extinguisher (point to back of truck).
Eventually after demonstrating all the lights in the vehicle, including the interior light they told us the amount of the fine for not wearing seatbelts. We now realised what was going on. They were trying to see how many things they could fine us for. The fine was 30,000 CFA, a lot of money. "We can't pay that, that's far too much" we said, and started bargaining. We got them down to our smallest CFA note (they were unlikely to give change). This was about a quarter of the original fine, about 10 GBP. Then they asked for payment in foreign currency. Now there was a real dilemma. We had some small denomination US dollars - but we hadn't declared them on our currency form. If we used those we could get away with a lower fine - but if they realised they could take the lot!
So we paid in French Francs. In fact we paid exactly the same amount as they wanted in CFA. The CFA is linked directly to the French Franc so the exchange rate cannot vary. Now they would have to go out of their way to change the money. A moral victory for us but had still paid far too much. Which went straight into the guys pocket.
They then cheerfully said "Welcome to our country" smiled and shook our hands.
About 20 km up the road we came to another vehicle inspection check and went through the whole thing again! (Flash Flash, woosh, swish, honk, point). This time however we were wearing our seatbelts and they could find nothing wrong. Although we did end up giving away an inner tube patch and some coloured pens.
We later found out that everyone pays something. Eric and Brian, on Californian spec motorbikes, had their headlights permanently on. This was deemed a malfunction and they had to pay a fine. One Landrover which was in perfect working order except for the interior light which didn't work, again a fine. Some people were caught for the same problems at subsequent 'inspection stops' and fined again and again. I guess we were lucky. One party had no working tail lights on their vehicle. They were fined at every check point. They didn't tell us how much they had been fined (mind you, we didn't tell them how much we had been fined either!)
In defence of the guards in charge of this revenue gathering exercise, they would not otherwise have been paid. Government workers had not been paid anything for the previous 6 months and tempers were running a little high. Government workers were at this moment on strike. We didn't know about this yet, but we soon would. The Spanish robbers probably did...
Other items donated by aid agencies suffer the same fate. The tractor is a good example of this. With a tractor an African village will be able to cultivate crops and feed themselves. This sounds like a great idea however, how can an African afford a new tyre for a tractor? Or find spares? Often even fuel for the tractor is hard to obtain a long distance from the nearest town. Many times we would see broken machinery abandoned by the side of the road. Originally donated by a well meaning organisation or corporation it is now useless for the want of one or two small pieces of equipment. A dozen more new tractors will not help the situation. Spares and a few trained mechanics for the ones which are already there are what's needed. Setting up a tractor company in Africa would be better. Or better still, a tractor designed for Africa using locally made components and freely available spare parts. A few aid schemes are investigating the needs of the Africans and low technology sustainable techniques are being developed. This projects are often very successful, unfortunately they are all too rare. Several projects funded by Eastern Bloc countries were of this type, possibly because similar issues exist in the soviets states. These are unlikely to be continuing now as they have enough problems of their own. Sadly the high tech, high prestige, low thought and research form of aid is likely to prevail, with all the corresponding waste of resources and false hope that it brings.
We spent the night in a road stone quarry by the side of the road. While we were there I changed the oil in the truck. We awoke to a typical African sight. All the children (and some of the adults) from the local village were lined up outside our tent staring at us. They rarely disturb you, just stare at your every move. When you wander off to the great African toilet, they follow you. Very disconcerting. I stared back at one of the children. He continued staring for a moment. Then, embarrassed he averted his eyes for a moment. He looked back, to see if I was still starting and averted his eyes. He looked up again and started to shuffle nervously. He looked up one more time and then ran off. Success, I had managed to reduce the audience by one. There were still fifty more. At a minute per child this could take a little time...
The road to Bangui was smooth and we made good time entering the city at the PK 12 checkpoint. For once the 'Shoestring' map was accurate and we found the Km 5 campsite easily. We drove past several groups of military personnel and police with (you've guessed it) AK 47s as well as helmets with visors. We had got used to military style police and an Army presence on the streets in Africa. This time there was an unusually large presence and they looked like they were waiting for something. Driving through the Km 5 market, a rough part of town, we saw burned out buildings and more of those black rings in the road. This time you could still see charred rubber and reinforcing wire from the tyres which had formed the burning roadblocks. The natives looked very restless. Several were wandering around with long pieces of wood. Someone threw a rock at the truck. I continued driving through this ugly crowd, I had no intention of stopping. Just beyond the market we found the nearly deserted campsite.
Government workers hadn't been paid for four to six months and had gone on strike. This had lead to rioting over the last two nights. The Km 5 market had been the main focus for the riots. The market was les than a five minute walk away. We decided not to go shopping there just yet.
We already knew that Bangui was a notorious 'den of thieves'. It gets a less than glowing report from 'Shoestring'. So we weren't expecting a tropical resort paradise. We had very little local currency and needed to get to a bank. The banks had been closed for the last two days. Zaire was on the other side of the river but we needed a visa for Zaire before we could go there. Our visas for Cameroun had expired and were single entry so we couldn't turn back. Trapped again. This time there were no friendly Americans with a walled compound to stay with. We were on our own. The other people at the campsite were in the same situation. The American, had had some problem with her C.A.R. visa and her passport had been confiscated. She was going to the American Embassy tomorrow to see if they could sort things out.
The other travellers here were Cyn(American) and Jurgen(German), who were travelling on 'public transport' and Ajah(White South African Rastafarian) and Joyce(Dutch Indian). There was also another guy who had been here for weeks. He'd found a local girlfriend and showed no signs of wanting to leave. We occasionally came across people like him who seemed to have either run out of steam or simply got to like a place and didn't seem to be going any further. I wonder if he ever moved on or is still living at the campsite in Bangui.
We had always hoped to find other travellers in Bangui to form a convoy for Zaire, in the same way as we didn't want to cross the Sahara on our own. Ajah and Joyce had a Mercedes Unimog, which we thought would be a good vehicle to travel through Zaire with. If we could sort out our money and visas in time it would make sense to leave with them. They already had their visas and were leaving tomorrow whatever happened, so such choices were in the lap of the gods and/or those who issue visas.
Throughout the afternoon people would walk through the campsite on their way to the market. They would look at our vehicles with that 'I'll be back after dark' look on their faces. Putting on my best 'I'll be waiting' look I began to sharpen the new machete. It was going to be a very long night...
Just after night fall (about 18:00 hrs) we heard that the president had issued a shoot to kill order and that all the government workers must return to work tomorrow. I wasn't sure whether this made me feel better or not. At least the banks would be open.
The coating of slime on the inside of the shower was the least of our worries. Fortunately there was no light in the toilet block as an ominous insectile rustling sound emanated from the all too large areas of shadow. The frog on the wall seemed benign in comparison to the unidentified yet very real multi legged horrors lurking just out of sight. An accidental touch of the dank slimy wall sent shudders of loathing down my body. The dim bulb at the entrance to the toilet block attracted the largest mosquito like insect I have ever seen. It looked almost capable of sucking a small mammal dry. I wondered if it could bite through mosquito netting as well.
So, surrounded by unspeakable human and animal horrors, we settled down for an uncertain nights sleep. Fiona, myself, a large can of fly spray and the machete...
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