Since returning home early last month, nearly all my conversations begin with the same recurrent question; how is Cameroon/home? Roughly eight weeks later, I still haven’t found a suitable way to reply. I say: “It’s just there”.
It’s just there as in; it is how I left it, except where it’s worse
As in: home is surviving – barely living,
As in: Cameroon has managed to retain just the bare minimum of what makes it home- the familiarity of those who are yet to leave, the humid weather which in turn envelopes you like a sweat-inducing fog and reassures your skin that it will not crack here.
I say ‘it’s just there’ because to answer ‘how is home?’ would require several contradictory descriptions:
Like the security of never doubting where your next meal will come from because there is an endless list of people waiting for me to stop by for a meal since I returned, but also like the hesitation and insecurity I feel at the thought of leaving home to do any visiting because leaving home means passing through a terrifying military checkpoint akin to what stands at the US/Mexico border.
And if I were to describe home what would I share? The laughter of the children in our compound; the toddler next door who calls me ‘Nica’ and giggles like it’s the soundtrack for a Disney classic yet to be made, the preteens playing games like ‘dodging’ and assorted versions of hopscotch after their morning chores on ghost-town days…
Or do I tell of this air of apprehension which hangs over us all and leaves me feeling like I’m paranoid in my inability to properly describe it? But I’m not paranoid, it is real. Our laughter, our noisy nature is now somewhat muted. We who used to advertise nearly everything with ‘Papa Promo’ a car with massive speakers attached on its roof, blasting Pidgin-English adverts into the eardrums of pedestrians. That car seems to have stopped going around.
And Mutengene which was always busy and loud. A distracting hub to pass through, not stop in with its shops and bars blaring music from loudspeakers competing with each other for the attention of customers…. even here the music is not as loud any longer; only one shopkeeper with a speaker has yet to close down and move away, no more competition.
And of course, one can’t play music so loud that they don’t hear if gunshots go off and they need to run.
If I were to answer ‘how is home’? Which of the homes shall I speak of?
Home feels different depending on the neighborhood. That apprehension that cannot be explained is experienced in varying degrees from one quarter to the next. In Mile 16 and Muea it is heavy in the air with closed shops, vacant businesses and the desolation that is breathed in and out by all who invested in the area, by the few who have stayed despite the very real threat to life. From Mile 17 upward to Molyko the apprehension is a crescendo of feeling; with very little felt between 8am and 5pm- just people on their guard for any sudden alarm. Then the crescendo peaking at dusk as we all rush to go home, grown or not, afraid of the dark. Finally, in Sandpit upwards; here there is life, the shops are all open, and people still sit at makeshift bars to eat and drink. But there is also an awareness that the girls selling akara and beans with that old mami by the roadside are not going to school, they have come to Buea to stay with their aunt because their village was burned by the military. That apprehension here is a shadow at the edges of life, like a silhouette.
And in the telling of home do I count even the other regions East of the Mungo where in place of apprehension it is a resignation that hangs in the air along with the weight of dust?
To properly respond to ‘how is Cameroon’ would demand I tell several stories of Cameroonians:
The story of how my godmother’s father who suffered kidney failure would have died because his urologist couldn’t come to work on Monday because of Ghost-town and the general practitioner had more than his share of patients to deal with. Similar to the story of expectant mothers who now have an additional fear of going into labor on the wrong day of the week.
To respond properly would entail I tell of the number of families split up, with parents having to send kids off to other regions for school possibly with one spouse going as well and how managing two households has made already the lives of people who were already struggling much more difficult. It would require I tell of the loans my neighbors are paying with bitterness every month because the house they took the loan for is complete but they can’t move into it- the area is now a no-go zone. The bushes not too far from there has a shrine where the Amba Boys are said to congregate so it is regularly attacked by the military. The last time the neighbor visited this house, he remarked with palpable frustration on how a house he had yet to sleep in had already seen bullet holes in the walls, need for repair.
I would need to tell of the Faculty of Science lecturer who I used to admire for her fashion sense and how she jumped a foot when I greeted her from behind… I was later told that she had been kidnapped and her family had to pay 5.5 million in ransom… she is still traumatized…
And she is not alone. Enjema, the younger sister of my neighbor-friend has nightmares periodically now- since witnessing a man being shot in front of her by gendarmes last September. She recounts that the man had been the driver of a car ahead of the taxi she was returning home in. Gendarmes had waived down the car to stop at one of many checkpoints in town now. The man didn’t stop fast enough, he may have wanted to avoid being asked to pay the regularly asked bribes or perhaps he was just in a hurry as his pregnant wife was in the car too… she would shrug at this point of telling the story- expressing uncertainty as well as resignation because does it even matter? The gendarmes shot at the driver’s window and the car swiveled off the road as the man slumped to his death. She tells me the dreams are more like gloomy recollections than nightmares. She doesn’t feel frightened, but just helpless as she hears the screams of the woman who was in the passenger seat. As she hears herself and other passengers in the taxi with her screaming ‘Jesus’ in shock. Then she wakes up.
And how can I tell of Cameroon without telling of three offers/suggestions of children to ‘adopt’: “This my girl is smart eh”, they tell me, “she was performing very well in school before this crisis and she has not yet known ‘life’, abeg take her so she can be helping you in the house”.
I would tell them I’m unstable at this time, moving around for school and research and can’t take a twelve-year-old at this time. All the kids up for ‘adoption’ were in schools near in ‘high-risk zones’. Government schools in areas where the poorer people resided; the people who are least likely to have military protection to guard their schools so their kids aren’t attacked for defying the ‘no-school in Ambazonia mandate’… and so the rich stay richer and the poor stay poorer.
The whole crisis is a lesson on how poverty makes everything worse. We may all be affected but those with money can ameliorate their suffering by moving, by sending their kids to the schools in safer neighbourhoods, and they do not have to go into ‘risky areas’ to buy things cheaper. It is the poorest neighbourhoods which are worse hit. It is there that the police are most brutal, there that those with the rebels with unfiltered anger reside and claim to have control.
Take for instance this story of two different Christmases:
On Christmas Eve in Mile 16, the gendarmes switch guards with some going on break and new ones coming in from out of town. That same night Amba boys would attack the home of an elderly man in Mile 16, they’d found out he’s a retired police officer and decided they could get a weapon from him to add to their stock. When they asked him for his gun, he explained that retired officers have their guns taken from them as they leave service. They didn’t believe him and just like that, they killed him. The new gendarmes, eager to make an impression would go into the neighborhood and shoot indiscriminately with machine guns for close to. The next day on Christmas as though to confirm that they indeed ran these neighborhoods, Amba boys would attack churches in Mile 16 and Muea, terrorizing worshippers who defied the ‘ghost town on Christmas’ order and chose to celebrate their faith. No other churches would be affected but the churches in these poorer neighborhoods, these buildings serving as relief centers for the poor and hopeless.
On Christmas Day at Sandpit you could see people walking about, taxis defied the ghost town order served through the day. Snack-Bars were open for business as though they were not in the same municipality.
To tell of Cameroon and its people is to recount one incident after the next of frustration. Like how last Monday the mayor who had conveniently fled to Douala and moved his family for safety returned to ‘do some work’. Visiting his jurisdiction as occasionally as the president. During his visit, with full security personnel, he sealed shops that were already sealed for ghost-town. The idea, ludicrous as it sounds, is to punishing business people who close their shops on these days out of fear. Business people who unlike him do not have access to full security personnel
Or how I sat helpless unable to do a thing while watching the police at a checkpoint force a grown woman to grovel because she had forgotten her ID card at home as she switched handbags. This grown woman after paying the bribe the policeman wanted would remark in the taxi on how this was a ‘better experience’ because a policeman had once asked an acquaintance of hers to let him “feel her body in the bushes” one evening when she was returning home without an ID
To tell of home now is to make it absolutely clear that the most important documents I own here are my identity card and passport- no degree will save you like these. One will enable me to escape police scrutiny and abuse at the numerous checkpoints and the other would enable me to escape altogether if things get worse than they already are.
And yet to tell of Cameroon is also to tell of the young people who an admirable hope that keeps them going despite the frustration. It is to tell of their making comedy out of the sad mess that is their country. It is to tell of the elderly woman who has forever sold fruits at Mile 17 and always gives me ‘dash’ calling me her daughter even as she doesn’t know my name… and I’ve never asked hers. It is to tell of the faith of worshippers at a church on Sunday; who start the service with announcements of an uncle being one of the workers to have their fingers cut off at CDC, or their grandmother being forced to flee the village after the military burned homes and businesses down and thus in need of donations… but towards the end they are dancing and praising as though they do not have a problem. As if to spite the evil of reality with their joy.
How is home? you ask
Home is suffering from PTSD. They lifted the curfews but we still hurry to get indoors before darkness sets, they restored internet access but we put down our phones when the soldiers pass by…
Home is learning to adapt to what is abnormal. Home is making me question everything I believe, but somehow it simultaneously remains the only place I am sure I belong. Because there are such few places which would welcome a black immigrant body.