Extreme North

Cameroon is often called “Africa in Miniature” because within its borders are found nearly all the major ecosystems of the continent: coast, rainforest, grasslands, and Sahel (pre-Sahara arid zone). I used to chuckle that the name of the northernmost province of Cameroon is “Far North Province” (in French “Extreme Nord”), but having been there I’m no longer laughing. It truly feels like a different country.

To get from Bamenda in the west to Maroua in the north, we had to go to Yaoundé in the south to take the train through the night across the Adamawa plain. The night train takes 16 hours to slowly traverse the approximately 300 miles from Yaoundé to N’Gaoundéré. Having slept through the transition zone, as it were, N’Gaoundéré was our gateway to the north, the portal to the new world of “North” opening up before us.

Climate & Topography
As our bus jounced and jostled even farther north toward Maroua, we could see we were no longer in the familiar rainforests of the south. Not only could we see, but also feel extreme heat WITHOUT accompanying humidity.

At first I was thrilled to gaze out the window at the flat, barren, rocky landscape, interrupted occasionally by walled villages full of sandy mud brick houses thatched with conical roofs; small, burro-like identical donkeys unfettered and unburdened, standing so still as to look artificial; scrawny, horned cattle typical to Cameroon; sandy riverbeds devoid of even a drop of water; inselbergs standing like giants on a plain. Other than the occasional child driving animals or carrying water, the only people visible were the small crowds in the shadow of shade trees.

After a few hours on the road, however; I began to thirst, thinking longingly of liquids awaiting at the predicted stop in Garoua--all I could think of was buying something wet and sweet. When the long awaited stop came, I tore into my drink the moment money had changed hands. After consuming the beverage, I began to sweat noticeably, suggesting I’d been dehydrated before, causing my body to conserve water by not secreting it.

The city
Maroua is a very different city than those of the south. Its inhabitants are largely Muslim; and though in a French province, nearly all its people speak Fulfulde (language of the Fulbe people) as a trade language. Though Kumba is smaller in population, Maroua felt like a sleepy town in comparison. Its streets are wall-lined—an urban version of the wattle and daub fences of the round-hut villages of the drive up. Muslim culture dictates women must be covered in public, which makes walled compounds desirable for women with outdoor cookhouses. The alienating and private impact of those walls did not strike me until I noticed all the sidestreets were walled as well. The resulting privacy gives an air of exclusivity and mystery.

The streets were also tree-lined, which provided blessed relief from the blazing heat of the sun. These trees, I suspect, are also responsible for the light, pleasing, floral fragrance which hung on the air as we entered the town after dark.

The vehicles
Besides the quiet imposed by the walled compounds, the town has very few cars: motorcycles provide the majority of motorized transport; the most ubiquitous vehicle is a bicycle. The pancake-flat streets lend themselves well to this cheap but fast(er) way of getting around and hauling freight. Ladies perch daintily sidesaddle; men tote enormously large and heavy loads with seemingly effortless ease both in the city and on the windswept roads through the dusty, rocky landscape.

What cars we did see were neither the battered Toyota Corolla taxis of southern towns, nor the 4x4 trucks of rural areas. Besides freight trucks which tended to be ancient Mercedes, the vehicles were private cars—hatchback Toyota Tercel sedans being the vehicle of choice here.

The market
It’s hard to put one’s finger on what exactly was different about Maroua’s market, but it undeniably differs from the markets in the south. Yams, fish, beef, and greens were found in great supply, same as the south, but also were millet, dates, folleré (dried leaves to make tea, jam or juice), and some vegetables which are unknown in Kumba, such as cucumbers and eggplant.

No trip to market is complete without numerous calls of “white man! White man!” In Yaounde, it’s “le blanche, le blanche!” which I find slightly less irritating for its acknowledgement of my femininity. In Maroua, they call out to us in Fulfulde: “Nasara! Nasara!” Not only is it a much prettier word, but it has an interesting [folk] etymology. Christian missionaries were the first white people these Africans encountered so they called them Nazarenes, just like the man they preached about.

Besides the language and products difference, there was another major difference in the experience of going to market: the men stayed away. After the constant harassment of men in Kumba market (“hey baby, I love you”), it was refreshing to be able to walk around freely without receiving marriage proposals or being touched by strangers. However, we were told it is culturally appropriate for women not to meet a man’s eyes—a terribly difficult thing for a North American to do. How does one feel assertive and aware in a new environment when you must always have your gaze averted?

The food
Because we stayed with another missionary, the only taste we had of real local food (other than enjoying the local fruits and vegetables) was the millet bowl and okra soup I had at Waza. With a name like millet bowl, I was expecting something couscous-like, and despite having been warned about slimy okra sauce, I was optimistic. Of course, millet bowl turned out to be a variation on fufu. Ugh. Why are Africans so sold on a congealed mass of starch as staple food? (There’s an answer to that—Dan shot down my complaint by helpfully pointing out that a heavy ball of starch in your stomach is just the thing to keep you going all day working in the field in a hot climate.)

The heat
We hit Maroua at the height of dry season. With temperatures around 40°C everyday, the house became such an oven by sundown that we chose to sleep outside, hauling our mattresses out and rigging up our mosquito nets each night; dusting off the sand, taking in the mattresses, sheets, and nets each morning. Though the shower was equipped with only a cold water tap, I got a hot shower every night, even when three other ladies had showered before me. My fresh clothes, packed in a bag since Bamenda, were noticeably hot when I took them out to wear in Maroua.


Unknown said…

I have friends in Cameroon. I'd love to visit but it's a long way away ... Would any of your Fulfulde-speaking friends like a free paper in Fulfulde? See http://soon.org.uk/fulani/free-papers.php

We mail them free of charge if specifically requested.

Thanks, Jane
Nice story about Cameroon. Here is great website for those who speak Fulfude:

Fulfulde wiki browser

Popular Posts