Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The North, Part III - The EXTREME

February 16, 2009

While Genevieve and I were in the North Province, Angie was great leading us around and acting as our tour guide. And when we were ready to head to the Extreme North, she turned into a travel agent telling us about everything we needed to see and do. She even gave us a list with information and phone numbers to guide us on our way. The first thing on our list was Rumsiki. Rumsiki is a small town out in the bush nestled away among these strange peaks and not much else. It’s become a tourist attraction because of the scenery and also the Crab Sorcerer (we’ll get to him later).

We took a bush taxi from Garoua, in the North, to Mokolo, in the Extreme North. Mokolo is the closest decent-sized town to Rumsiki and happens to be where Fleurange, another volunteer and friend of ours lives. She was coming back from Rumsiki with some other friends the day we were to arrive and we were having problems with cell phone reception. So when our bus arrived, we asked a couple of moto drivers if they knew where she lived. They said they did and took us there. When we knocked at the gate a friendly dog and a tall, thin white girl answered the door. She spoke English like an American, but…this wasn’t Fleurange. It just happens that there are two volunteers in Mokolo. One is Fleurange, a SED volunteer that came in a year after me and that I met during her training. The other (the one whose house we were at) is an Agro-forestry volunteer named Thea that had just arrived at post one week ago – the reason we had never met her before. It turned out Fleurange wasn’t back yet so it was great to meet Thea and lucky that she was so nice as to feed and welcome in a couple of strangers for a few hours. It’s great having a big family – some members you don’t even know about. It’s also nice to know that a bunch of those members, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, are waiting for me back in the States. After a little bit of worry and still no cell phone reception, Fleurange and her friends eventually arrived. They told us about their adventures and we crashed for the night.

Early the next morning – before the others even woke up – Genevieve and I headed into town to eat breakfast and find a couple of motos to take us to Rumsiki. It is possible to take a car there, but the road is horrible and everyone that I know that has been there told us to hop on the back of a motorcycle instead. The trip being as bad as it was on the moto, I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like crammed in a car. It took us an hour and a half to arrive on a bumpy dirt road and my moto didn’t have any back shocks. One time during the trip I had to tell my driver to stop. The scenery is gorgeous and I took some photos, but we really stopped so I could rest my tailbone a bit. I think I remember reading somewhere that the peaks are all old volcanoes. What you are seeing is actually the core where the lava came up, but everything else has eroded away over time.

The view from where I rested my tailbone

When we got to Rumsiki, we pulled into a nice hotel on the outside of town. This is where we hired our guide and bumped into the US Ambassador who happened to be on vacation with her family. She recognized we were Peace Corps Volunteers right away because of our motorcycle helmets (I would say maybe 2% of Cameroonians have helmets because of the cost) so we chatted a little bit and took some pictures before heading into town with our guide.

Our guide, the same one that took the Ambassador around, was very impressive. He was knowledgeable in everything that he was saying and seemed to me very westernized despite never having left Africa. One example of this was him setting up poses that he would take with our cameras. It was kind of cheesy, but you have to put it into context. As far as I know you can’t even buy a digital camera in Cameroon, so our guide who knew how to operate one, framed the image well, and was even creative surprised me.

Cheesy pose

A rather extreme case of a poorly taken photo a few days prior

On the way into town, we talked about the origins of Rumsiki and the makeup of its inhabitants. The town started with one man who was out hunting and found a great cave in one of the peaks in an area with a lot of game. He talked to a nearby chief about bringing his family there to live and the chief agreed as long as he was given some fresh meat from time to time. The town eventually grew from there and even defended attacks from Arabs because of the strategic location of the cave. Now the town is mostly made up of Animists, like its founder, with a minority of Muslims and a few Christians here and there. On the way through town we tasted some traditional millet beer, saw the men’s, women’s, and children’s palaver trees where the Animist community would come to work out any problems, and we also passed artisans making clay pots, weaving cotton and making other handicrafts. I’m not sure how many of those artisans would have been there fifty years ago, though. One square that we passed seemed to be a hub of activity. There were several people spinning cotton into thread, more weaving the thread with looms, and others selling finished products. They were some trying to show us how to spin the cotton, tell us how much they worked and how little money they made, and get us to buy their spindle as a souvenir. Funny thing was, when Genevieve and I passed by the same square later without our guide it was completely empty. Tourism is what drives this town now.

Our first stop was a traditional Animist household. My understanding is that an Animist is one who can see God or the Divine in ordinary objects existing in nature. It could be a tree, a rock, or an animal. Each practitioner or family will actually pick one of these objects to be ‘their God’ and to worship. At the entrance of this polygamous household, our guide pointed out the stone that the family worshiped. Walking in further, we saw lots of round, stone huts with thatched roofs. The first one was for any guest staying the night, a few were where the different wives and children slept and the rest were for stocking grains and other foods. The one way that these polygamous families are different from the FulbĂ© and some others in the Grand South is that if one of the wives is dissatisfied with the way she is being treated, she can very easily leave and go find another husband. I found that interesting – almost like polygamous women’s lib. (I’ve written about polygamy a couple of times in my blog because it’s so different from what I’m used to in the US. I should probably point out that while the outlook on marriage is very different here, the majority of Cameroonians are not polygamous.)

One of the storage huts – food is stored in the bottom and the top, you can also see the peak that has the cave in the background to the right

After the seeing the traditional household, we went to see the Crab Sorcerer. He, more than anything else in Rumsiki, is the reason for all of the tourists. The Crab Sorcerer is the head elder of the Animist Community. And he communicates with crabs. It is a skill that has been passed down in his family for generations, although it is the crab that decides to which son the skill will be passed, not the sorcerer himself. Our guide is actually his grandson and so has a chance of ending up as the Crab Sorcerer later in his life. Every Animist is required to consult the Crab Sorcerer at least once per year but he also tells the fortunes of all the tourists that come through. As much as was possible, I tried to keep an open mind before seeing him. He looks as authentic as is possible, but after hearing my fortune I have to say I’m pretty skeptical. He only speaks the local dialect, so you have to use your guide to translate for you. How it works is you ask a question; he tells the crab and puts the crab in a pot; the crab rearranges little sticks and stones in the pot; and the Crab Sorcerer, based on the arrangement of the things in the pot, tells you your answer. The question that I asked was ‘What am I going to be doing as far as work after Peace Corps, and where? The answer was either North America or Europe and that I should marry Genevieve. I think he assumed we were a couple. Maybe you understand now why I’m a skeptic. It was still totally worth the experience though – just look at the pics.

The Crab Sorcerer

The crab’s pot

After the Crab Sorcerer we took a short hike up to the original cave that was the reason for the foundation of Rumsiki. As we hiked up we could see what was left of some of the stone walls of the original buildings. And about two thirds of the way up, we arrived at the cave. It wasn’t really like one you would think of in the States, but more of an outcrop that was good for shelter and getting an eye of the land. There was a great view of the different neighborhoods of Rumsiki and even the border with Nigeria. By this time, we were hungry and ready for a late lunch. We had already put in a reservation at The Vegetarian Carnivore, a restaurant on the outside of town. Angie recommended it for us and I’ll do the same for anyone that might be traveling to the Extreme North of Cameroon. It was wonderful. On the way down the peak, our guide took the initiative to help us knock down a fruit from a baobab tree that we took to the restaurant. And as easy as that (ha ha), with our meal we had fresh baobab juice.

The cave/outcrop

The view from the cave

Throwing rocks to try to knock down the baobab fruit

Our aim was off so we had to use alternative measures

Me, victorious, with the baobab fruit

After our meal, and the necessary respite for digestion, we met back up with our moto drivers and rode back to Mokolo. That my moto broke down half-way back was actually a blessing – I ended up switching and getting a much cushier ride. Gen and I slept really well at Fleurange’s place that night and the next morning headed to Maroua, the capital of the Extreme North. Another suggestion for anyone planning to go to Rumsiki: don’t go there and back in one day. Even with shocks, it’s a long, exhausting ride. The hotel on the way into town is gorgeous, has a small pool overlooking the rocky landscape, and is not that expensive. If I had it to do again, I’d stay the night and maybe take a hike in the morning before heading back.

Maroua, for me, was a time to relax. And it was the perfect place to do it. The transit house (Case) for PC volunteers is beautiful, with a large shade-covered sandy lawn. I spent a lot of my time just reading outside and listening to the wind blow through the trees – a sound I hadn’t realized I missed. Compared to the rest of the Grand North, Maroua is full of trees. It’s a beautiful city with tree lined avenues nestled among a large river…except when I was there it was just a river bed. The beds dry up with the dry season, but if you dig just a little you can get to water. It was interesting to see people doing this in order to wash their clothes during the day. There are also plenty of shops and a large artisan market in Maroua. I didn’t get any, but the best things to buy are the leather products – bags, wallets and shoes are all popular items. You can even have things specially made for you.

The road leading into Maroua – I tried to capture the dry river bed out the window of a bush taxi

Other than reading in the shade and walking around the city, the rest of my time in the Extreme North was spent eating good food. Restaurants aren’t hard to come by in Maroua but we did a lot of cooking too. There are always a decent amount of PC volunteers coming through Maroua and this was New Years, so there were even more finding excuses to stop by. A lot of volunteers from the training group that had just been posted like to cook and there’s a nice kitchen in the Case so I felt right at home with them. I don’t even remember what we ate. I just remember it being good. The New Year’s celebration was pretty low-key, just a time to hang out and appreciate the good weather, good food, and good company.

Genevieve and I stopped for one more night in Garoua on the way back, but that pretty much wraps up my time in the North. Of course there was the dreaded train ride back (despite getting a couchette, I was starting to get sick and threw up twice on the ride) but I think I covered almost everything. I had a great time in the North and would suggest that anyone visiting Cameroon make the trip up there. It was a learning experience even for me and I tried to throw in as many of the cultural tidbits that I picked up into these three blogs. I hope you enjoyed reading them.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was great information and loved seeing the pictures. Looks like you had a great adventure.
All my love, Dad