Super - Dupa








Let’s start with a bit of history: in the scramble for Africa, the Germans got the colony they called Kamerun (although the name originated with its Portuguese discoverers).  After WWI the territory was divided between the British and the French.  Independence came in 1960, when the British zones cast their lot with the Francophone majority.  Of late, they have come to regret the choice: there is an ongoing war of secession by the English-speaking regions seeking  independence.

I have signed up for a two-week trip billed as “Tribal Lands of Cameroon.”  There are some 270 tribes, of which we will visit a handful.

The starting point for the tour is Douala, the commercial capital of some 3 million (total country population is 25 million).  A port city on the Atlantic coast just 5° north of the equator, it’s pretty steamy.  On the drive in from the airport, I spot a couple large, handsome German-era churches, unfortunately, our schedule does not allow a city tour.


To avoid traffic gridlock, we get an early start.  Every hording and billboard is taken up by a single image: the President, Paul Biya. At age 85 he is the oldest leader in Africa and is running for his seventh six-year term.  Like most countries on the continent, Cameroon is not exactly a vibrant democracy: in its almost 60 years as a nation, Cameroon has had but two leaders; Biya is the second.  The semi-farcical election actually took place the day before we arrived, but counting the ballots is expected to take two weeks.     



Our route north takes us through pineapple, banana, papaya, cacao, and coffee plantations.  This part of the country produces most of its agricultural exports; elsewhere it is largely subsistance farming. In the early afternoon we reach the turnoff for Ekom Falls. The 1984 version of Tarzan (Greystoke) was filmed here. At the end of the rainy season, there is plenty of water and the twin chutes do not disappoint.  

Lunch is in the park.  The park cafe menu features exotic fare such as porcupine and (highly endangered) pangolin, but what’s actually on offer is the far more pedestrian chicken, beef, or fish.


We continue on to the extinct Bappit volcano.  From the highway there is at first a paved road, then a dirt road that comes to an end.  From there it is supposed to be an hour and twenty minute hike, but we are lazy and hire motorbike taxis.  Riding on the back, we traverse the distance.  Still, there is no avoiding the long climb to the crater rim,  we are rewarded with a view of a deep blue circular lake.

After a night at a dodgy hotel (that's all there is, but better than some hut), we continue onwards to the Kingdom of Bandjoun.  The King has limited political power as well as traditional authority over the Bamileke people. We visit the palace complex containing a number of traditional buildings. There is a giant hut for meetings of the tribal elders, a modern residence, and a small museum.  The latter contains some cool stuff that practically shouts “Africa.”




Bye-bye Bandjoun. On to Foumbam, home to the Bamoun people.  These folks share a common ancestry with the Bamileke except they converted to Islam.  It being  midday on Friday, a colorfully-costumed retinue arrives at the Sultan’s palace to accompany him to prayers at the nearby mosque.  Alas, he is not coming out.


The palace is off limits to visitors, but we are  allowed a glimpse into the reception hall.


Adjacent is a museum -- more cool stuff.




The Bamoun are reknowned for their skill in working with bronze.  We visit a open-air foundry employing the "lost wax" method: wax models are covered by clay molds, the wax melted and drained, the mold is buried in dirt and molten metal poured in.  Only modest-sized castings are in current production; some of the past work on display is huge (and for sale, if you have a ship to transport them).  Bronze is heavy -- the smallish items I buy are enough to put my luggage overweight.  Plus, I have acquired an elephant mask too large to fit in to my bag.



The region we are visiting is close to the rebel zones.  There are frequently checkpoints manned by soldiers.  Does it seem likely that three white guys with a guide are a security threat?  From all appearances the aim appears to be keeping tabs on foreign potential troublemakers rather than extracting bribes.  At one point military security has us open our luggage, presumably to make sure we are not smuggling weapons to our fellow Anglophones.


We drive to the capital, Yaounde, to catch the overnight train to Ngaoundere 400 miles to the north.  By African standards, the train in luxurious: we have sleeper berths, although air conditioning is absent.  The train only has one Pullman car; the other carriages are hard seats only for the 14 hour journey.  At each stop market women race to the carriages to sell food they have prepared.


The average speed is about 25 mph. Slow as it is, train travel is much faster than by road.  It's not that the road is bad the whole way, but where the pavement is smooth, traffic is horrible; where the congestion eases, the poor road surface forces one to creep along.

From Ngaoundere we drive to our destination, the small town of Poli, about 120 miles further north.  According to Google maps, it should take about three and a half hours.  Hah!  More like eight.  For the first hundred miles, the road is paved but terrible -- takes about six hours.  For the final two, it is even worse.  Supposedly, the dirt is pushed around every year, but it is the end of the rainy season and whatever grading there was has washed away.  Our guide calls the ride “an African massage.”

In this part of the country, the housing is more traditional.


It is dusk when we reach Poli.  We stay at the nearby Bukaru camp in individual huts that are fairly comfortable, but with plumbing ex suite.


Several of tribes inhabit the vicinity  Just a short walk from the camp is a small settlement of Mbororo.  There are pastoral and semi-nomadic.  The women dress colorfully and their faces bear intricate tattoos.




In the afternoon we visit a Dowayo shaman.  (He is also the village blacksmith and a wood carver.) They are renowned for their fertility dolls. Actually, only the female doll "counts", but the Dowayo have some marketing savvy and offer them as a pair.  The price includes "activation" by the shaman in a secret ceremony in his hut.  He only takes the female doll in with him; the male stays behind like a dummy.



The next day we visit a different village for an audience with consulting psychologist, who utilizes a wooden fan with inscriptions to give us individual readings.  Mine is a “hit”; the other two are a “miss.”  He (and his people) are nominally Muslim, but with a heavy dose of native animism.


Avoiding the heat of the day, we visit another village in late afternoon.  Lots of cute kids.


The next day brings the highlight of the trip: into the Vokre Mountains to visit and camp with the Dupa tribe.  Deeply rooted in tradition, they have little use for the trappings of moderism.  From time to time they are visited by missionaries of various faiths, but the Dupa find animism more relevant to their pastoral existence.  They have little interaction with the government and do not vote; a Paul Biya sticker on a storehouse door is nothing more than evidence of a visit by an insistent election worker. 



There are no roads to get to the village.  Being spoiled tourists, we eschew the miles of trudging uphill through the bush in favor of motorbike taxis.  We have to get off and wade several times at streams and rivers, but it beats walking.  We do need to hoof it for the final thirty minutes or so.



The men wear ragged clothing or sarongs made of homespun cotton; the the women eschew clothing entirely and cover their loins with fresh leaves. 


They are subsistance farmers growing corn and millet.  This time of year there is little to do as the crops mature – it is the job of the boys to remain in the fields to chase away raiding monkeys — so there is time to celebrate both the impending harvest and our visit.


They have brewed calabashes of millet beer which they imbide all evening and into the night, singing and dancing.  This is no show for tourists; in the absence of cable tv and Netflix this is how humans entertain themselves.



There is a limit to our participation in village life: the support crew has brought tents (including mattresses and pillows) along with food and cooking equipment.  It's fairly comfortable, but one night is enough for me.  Better to leave on a high note.  After breakfast and some more dancing (by the Dupa), we start the the long journey back. Walking, then motorcycles, then the terrible road, then the not-quite-as-bad highway to Ngaoundere, where we arrive at dusk.  We check into the only semi-decent hotel in town, which was probably quite fashionable when built but has suffered decades of neglect.  Still, with plumbing, a restaurant, and wifi, it is relative luxury.


We have the day to kill before the train.  The principal sight is the palace of the Lamido, the hereditary Islamic ruler of the Fulani tribe in this region.  The word “palace” is a bit grandiose: most of the buildings are large thatch-roof huts.  



Adjacent is the Lamido’s Grand Mosque which appears to be both in active use and under construction (and has been for some time).


The city has two markets, one small and historic, the other sprawls for many blocks.  They are for more chaotic than photogenic.


We take the sleeper train back to Yaounde, arriving the next morning. We stay at a delightful lodge outside of town.  The city has a reputation of being more relaxed than Doula, but now that its population exceeds 2 million, to me the atmosphere is typical African urban congestion. There is not much to see or do, but, at a half-mile above sea level, the climate is considerably more moderate.   


Nearby is the Mfou primate sanctuary where animals rescued from the wild live in large, outdoor enclosures. There are monkeys, chimps, gibbons, mandrills, and lowland gorillas.  Unfortunately from a photography standpoint (but important for safety), electric fences stand between us and the animals.



Our up front and personal wildlife encounter in Mfou is with ants: I thought fire ants in Florida are bad, but these guys take it to a whole new level.  They are much larger and nastier, and even more devious: they climb up under your clothing, spread themselves around, and, as if on signal, all bite simultaneously.  I instantly regret wearing sandals.


In the reserve are big trees.  Cameroon has a problem with illegal logging of tropical woods.  (I think the distinction between legal and illegal is mainly which officials you have bribed.)  The roads around Yaounde are full of trucks carrying gigantic logs, presumably headed for export.  Maybe they are cutting down the tree to make more room for the apes.



That’s it.  Our two weeks are up.  The final day is spending packing up our purchases.


At the airport the Forestry Department is running a scam: requiring the purchase of export permits for our souvenirs.  They are not actually checking to see what you are bring out, and there is no tax or duty.  However, you have to pay 5000 francs (about $10) for the worthless certificate they hand you.  (Souvenir foodstuffs are cheaper: only 3000 francs for the permit.)  Luckily, I still had a 5000 franc bill in my wallet.


The return flight is from Yaounde to Paris, connecting to New York and thence Jacksonville.  The bronzes I bought tipped my bag’s weight to 62 pounds, but the airline did not charge me for being overweight.  With my giant elephant mask tucked under my arm, everything makes it back safely.


Postscript: The results are in: Paul Biya has won re-election!  I am so happy for him and his family.


 Trip date: October, 2018