Thursday, January 8, 2009

The North, Part I - Adamaoua

January 7, 2009

I just got back from my trip to the north of Cameroon. I feel like there’s a lot to write about, so I’ll split it up. The “Grand North” of Cameroon is made up of three provinces – Adamaoua (pronounced a-da-ma’-wa), North, and Extreme North. I’ll designate a blog to each one.

The Grand North feels like a country of its own (In fact, I see Cameroon as three countries – Grand North, Francophone South, and Anglophone South which includes the Northwest and Southwest provinces). There are several reasons for this. The first is that every single road that goes into the Adamaoua, or the southernmost of the three Northern provinces, from the rest of Cameroon is horrible. The only reasonable way to get there is to fly, which is expensive and the flights aren’t always running, or take the night train, which is what everyone does. The second reason is the culture. The grand south, the remaining 7 Cameroonian provinces, is predominately Christian while the grand north is predominately Muslim culture creating an entirely different feel to the region. The climate and landscape set it apart too. The Sahel is a much hotter and drier desert climate.

First – the train. The train from Yaoundé to Ngoundéré, the capital of the Adamaoua, is infamous among volunteers and Cameroonians alike. The reason is that it’s a pain in the ass. Getting through the corruption at the station is your first hurdle. Anyone that’s ever had one before will tell you that a couchette, or a sleeper car, is the way to go. The only problem is that your reservations might mysteriously disappear. Being the only reasonable way to get north, the train’s packed every single night and the couchettes are always hard to come by as even well-to-do business men and politicians are waiting in line. Even if you show up first thing the morning of to buy tickets, you shouldn’t be very surprised to find that there is only first class left despite having already made reservations for a couchette. I ended up traveling with 11 other Peace Corps Volunteers who were down for a conference. We reserved 12 couchettes and only got 4 despite Sally making the reservations for all of them. Sally is a Cameroonian Peace Corps employee that knows all the right people, knows the system, and is the person you go to when you need to get things done. That the reservations she made ended up being given to someone else is a testament to how difficult it can be. So, I ended up sitting in first class. The seats were really not that uncomfortable. I would say that it’s similar if not a little better than coach on a plane. The only problem is that it’s a night train and you want to be sleeping, not sitting up. Also this is probably not the only leg of your journey. You might have traveled for hours already to get to Yaoundé and you might need to travel for hours more once the train arrives in Ngoundéré. The other pain is that the train is supposed to leave every night at a little after 6pm and arrive the next day a little after 6am. A 12-hour train ride is bad enough, but it rarely, if ever, leaves on time and rarely, if ever, takes just 12 hours. I’ve heard volunteers posted in the north complain to no end about having to take the train and was not looking forward to it. For my first experience, we left the station at 9pm, three hours late, made lots of stops where there were no stations, and arrived the next day at noon making it a total of 18 hours! As far as Peace Corps stories go, the longest anyone I know has had to wait was 30 hours because of the train derailing, but it’s been in the news that it’s taken 3 days on the worst of trips! Hope they packed some extra food.

My travel plans for the entire two-and-a-half weeks were incredibly vague to begin with. I knew I wanted to spend a night or two with my friend Ali, a health volunteer in the Adamaoua, Christmas in Garoua, the capital of the North Province, and New Years in Maroua, the capital of the Extreme North Province. Beyond that, I just wanted to hang out with my friends and get a better understanding of the entirety of the country in which I’m serving. It just so happened that Genevieve, a friend from my training group, was taking a trip to the north on the exact same dates and had planned even less than me. We decided to do just about everything together. So when we arrived in Ngoundéré, we got some lunch, met up with Ali, and headed out to her post on the prison bus. Yep, you read right…kinda. Something the Adamaoua Peace Corps Volunteers pride themselves in is that it’s the only place in the country where the bush taxis look like prison buses (think old school gangster movies where they load the crooks in the back and slam the door). There are definitely some similarities. It’s a big boxy truck that you load from the back, there’s not much in the way of windows that open, and there is a barrier with bars between the passengers and the drivers. I’m not sure if they ever used to be real prison buses; it reminded me, personally, of a bread delivery truck, but I decided it best not to say anything at the time. Ali, Genevieve, and I luckily got the last three spots on the bus and took off for the dusty hour-and-a-half trip to Tourningal.

Ali had stressed to me at Thanksgiving that I had to spend at least a night in the Adamaoua in order to get a taste of Fulbé culture. Fulbé are the Muslim ethnic group that makes up a lot of the Grand North. They tend to be taller, thinner, and lighter skinned than the other ethnic groups and they speak Fulfuldé. Their highest concentration is in the Adamaoua, probably close to 100% in Ali’s small village of Tourningal, and the farther north you go the sparser they become. While Christians and Animists become more dominate moving north, the Fulbé imprint on the entire northern culture is undeniable. Remember how I said the North had a predominately Muslim culture? It’s Muslim culture, not Muslims. I’m pretty sure I remember reading somewhere that the Grand North doesn’t even have a majority of Muslims, yet you would never know it just from looking. The architecture is different from the South and there are mosques everywhere. You can hear the call to prayer in any city you are in, and the bush taxis even stop at scheduled prayer times. The style of dress has a much more Muslim and conservative feel to it as the men wear traditional boubous and the women almost all have some sort of cloth covering their head. And then there’s the language. Cameroon’s two official languages are French and English, but if you want to do anything beyond tourism in the Grand North, you’d better speak Fulfuldé. You need it to get good prices at the markets and for moto-taxis in any town, and if you live in a village like Tourningal, 95% of your interactions will be in Fulfuldé. The majority of people there don’t even speak French. What about school, you might ask? Tourningal’s school system recently added middle school grades, but for anything beyond that you would have to go and live in a bigger town like Ngoundéré. Ali told us that last year there was one student from Tourningal that passed the Baccalaureate, the High School exit exam, and that everyone was really proud of him.

Me and Genevieve in Tourningal

When we arrived, we went to Ali’s house to get cleaned up, got a quick tour of the village (it doesn’t take that long), and headed over for dinner at her family’s house. This family essentially adopted her for her time in Cameroon. It’s a polygamous family and the wife that she is the closest to just happens to be the best cook. The wives take turns cooking for the husband and all the kids, but each wife usually prepares for herself and any other possible guests even when it’s not her turn. When it’s not her turn, the kids usually go to Ali’s mom after their dinner to see if there is anything better-tasting left over. She is a really good cook. While we were there we ate two different leafy green sauces with rice couscous, cassava in fresh sweetened milk, steamed squash, fried rice cakes, and doughnuts. There was always sweet lemongrass tea, sometimes with fresh milk. I think we ate breakfast lunch and dinner there for two solid days. It was wonderful and there was always more than could imagine eating. The biggest difference in the food for me was dairy. In the south there are hardly any dairy products while in the Grand North, cattle are a huge part of the economy. You can see them being herded everywhere and they look a lot healthier than the ones you see in the South. The opposite is true with fish. It’s everywhere in the South and very expensive in the North.

Ali and her adopted family

If eating food with dairy in the bedroom of one of the wives in a polygamous compound wasn’t enough, the other thing to throw me off a bit was the language – not only how little French Ali’s mom spoke, but also how well Ali spoke Fulfuldé. She kept trying to be modest and say she wasn’t very good, but not once did I hear her struggle to get her point across or understand what someone else was saying. And this is where Genevieve and I started trying to pick it up. Luckily, unlike a lot of other local languages in Cameroon, Fulfuldé is pretty straight forward. You pronounce everything pretty clearly, it’s not a tonal language, and there are only two sounds that don’t exist in English. We learned our basic greetings and thank yous, and then I asked her for a phrase that really helped me throughout my vacation – A ho’okan am na’ay noy, jay bangugo mo? It means ‘How many cows will you give me to marry her?’ I had a lot of fun with it. Fulfuldé is spoken everywhere in the Grand North, but it’s much more possible to get by with just French the farther north you go and in bigger cities. Some of the Peace Corps Volunteers that I met up with later on in my vacation didn’t even know what I was saying when I tried to sell them to their friends.

There was one other thing that we weren’t expecting – the cold! The north is supposed to be HOT. The Adamaoua Province is on a plateau and not supposed to be as bad as the North or Extreme North, but Ali had to lend us some fleeces and we were still shivering wearing socks to bed and sleeping under blankets. Volunteers in the North are glad to tell you their sob stories about it being 140° in the shade, but I had never heard anyone tell me they had a winter! That’s actually what they call it. The Hermitan Winds pick up for about 6-8 weeks in December and January cooling things off a lot. In the South, it’s the middle of the dry season and the hottest time of the year. In the North, it’s their coolest time of the year. To be fair to all of the sob stories, the coolest in the North is not that far off from the hottest in the South. To me, the days still felt like summer and the nights like fall. The other difference in the climate was the dryness. Dry season in the South means no rain, but it’s still sticky and humid. In the north there was no humidity – zero. For not being used to it, the dry air felt like it was going to give me a bloody nose every time I breathed. My lips became instantly chapped. And while I didn’t have any skin problems, Genevieve, who’s African-American, was putting on lotion 10 times a day.
No water or electricity at Ali's post (and notice the fleece a couple sizes too small for me)

Soaking up the Fulbé style of life (and the good food) in and around Ali’s post, we decided to stay an extra night. While we were there, we ended up seeing three different waterfalls, the ranch of the former president Ahidjo, and a town called Idool. Idool is a very interesting place. It’s a very traditional and conservative Fulbé village. It’s unique in that the founder was into city planning. All of the roads are straight and lined with trees, everyone lives in walled compounds, it’s kept very neat, no one litters, and we even saw a lake in the shape of the map of Cameroon. Another interesting note that I probably wouldn’t have even realized had Ali not pointed it out was that we never saw any women. It is so conservative that women either aren’t even allowed out of their houses or have many chores to do.


Waterfalls of Tello

The touristy stuff like the waterfalls were great, but the best part of our stay was just experiencing Fulbé village life. I completely agree with Ali that to fully understand the culture of the Grand North, you need to spend some time in the Adamaoua. We really enjoyed ourselves there.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great description of the country and your trip! I can't wait for the next two. Did you take a lot of pictures? Love, Mom