Navigating Cameroun – Part 2

Navigating Cameroun – Part 2

I REALLY do want to get on to trying
to convey how wonderful Cameroun is /
could be as a tourist destination, but it
would be unethical to do so without first
giving some idea of the brutality of the
dictatorial regime headed by Paul Biya.

So bad is this that it has been known,
like the agents of apartheid South Africa,
to hunt down its opponents and to have
them murdered abroad.
I’ll continue by getting up close and personal
on the above topic. In 1988, shortly
before I first came to Lesotho, I spent a
couple of months in southern Cameroun
working as a cultural journalist. This was
largely for West Africa magazine, at that
time edited from London by the late Kaye
Whiteman, who was one of the UK’s finest
journalists writing on Africa.

He suggested
I produce a kind of weekly “letter from
Cameroun”, dealing with all sorts of topics,
but warned me not to write anything
that touched on politics until I was safely
out of the country.

I started off in the political capital, Yaoundé,
which has plenty to recommend it,
notably its bars and restaurants, and because
it is sited up on a high plateau has
a bearable climate. Then the much larger
commercial and industrial centre, Douala,
which is a coastal city. To say goodbye to
a departing Kenyan friend, I found myself
at the airport in the middle of the night;

I couldn’t believe that anywhere on earth
could be so hot and humid at 3 o’clock in
the morning.

Then to the Anglophone West, staying
at a friend’s house in the regional capital,
Bamenda. One vivid memory is of the two
of us having tea on the veranda of her
house, which was on a high hill overlooking
the town. From down below suddenly
there came a vast but distant noise like
a huge wave crashing on a shoreline; we
stared at each other in alarm, then Felicity
giggled: “oh, of course, it’s the Africa
Cup on television. Cameroon must have
scored and the whole town erupted!”

Because I wanted to write on a wide
variety of topics for West Africa, I went
with Felicity to the town of Bali (the one
in Cameroun, not the Indonesian one!)—a
beautiful drive through wooded land. This
was to write about a workshop on teaching
mathematics through the medium of
English.

The best part of the event was
“Item Eight” on the agenda, which is, apparently,
a standard fixture: the point at
the end of the day when everyone breaks
off to re-group at the nearest bar.

Next, I volunteered to give some lessons
on Wole Soyinka’s play The Trials
of Brother Jero to the inmates of a prison
for delinquent youths. I’d been told that
the Director of this institution was a very
good man, who was deeply concerned to

get the inmates into skills training and into
passing high school exams they had missed
out on.
After the final lesson the Director gave me
tea in his office; he proved to be every bit as
fine a chap as I’d been told. But then, looking
out of the window, on top of a nearby
hill I saw a prominent whitewashed building
with watchtowers and gun turrets at its
corners. I asked him what this was and he
just dropped his gaze and shook his head saying nothing.

Later, I put the same question to a local
friend, who had never been backwards in
coming forwards. He shook his head and
said: “We don’t talk about that. Nor should
you.” He paused and then went on: “But if
you must know, it’s where they lock up the
political prisoners. Many go in. Not many
come out.”

Once I’d left Cameroun, I wrote a long
piece for West Africa magazine on accusations
made by Mongo Beti, the dissident
and exiled Camerounian novelist and essayist,
who was claiming that the French
branch of Amnesty International was
systematically ignoring human rights
abuses in Cameroun, because the French
government, the former dominant colonial
power, regarded the country as its
chasse gardée (private hunting ground).

After researching the matter at Amnesty’s
headquarters in London (thanks
to Stephen Ellis, the then Head of their
West Africa desk), I wrote what I thought
was a very fair and balanced piece—no
matter, the mere mention of Beti’s name
was enough to get that week’s issue of
West Africa banned from Cameroun.

Not
that that was such a problem; copies were
smuggled in from neighbouring Nigeria
and anyone who wanted one would know
where to find it. (I should add that I’m
not generally in favour of smuggling, but
make an exception for printed matter).

At about the same time, the Camerounian
ambassador to London phoned my
editor and told him—in very undiplomatic
language—that, as author of the piece,
I could not be expected to be allowed into
Cameroun again. That remains the case.

For the last two weeks I’ve been talking
about the dire political and human
rights situation in Cameroun under the
dictatorship of Paul Biya. Next week I
want to put my tourist guide cap on and
give some idea of what a wonderful place
it would be to take a vacation, were it
ethically possible to do so.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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