Anjali Nayar| May 20, 2010| CBC|
Douala, Cameroon – I should point out that every single person (Cameroonian, Nigerian, or otherwise) that I spoke to about this leg of the journey strongly suggested that I fly from Nigeria to Cameroon.
By road, I would meet crooked policemen, armed gunmen and travel down terrible roads. By sea, there would be shady customs officials, pirates roaming the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea and boats that sink “all the time.”
But boarding the boat, I felt quite at ease. It might have been because of the circa 1980s middle-American Christian music that saturated the boat. Or the 20-minute sermon, first about divorce, and eventually about the boat trip at hand. Check out Anjali’s photo essay.
“Who can take us safely to where we are going?” the voice asked over the intercom. “It’s the same thing with our salvation – put your trust in him, because he is the only one we can trust – the honour and chief of this vessel, in the name of Jesus.”
People take religion very seriously in Nigeria (and in general across the continent). One of the first questions the DVD vendor, the taxi driver, even the Nigerian secret service agent asked me was: “Are you a Christian?”
I remember all-too-well a bus ride in Kenya a few years ago during which a young man chanted verses from the bible in Swahili for almost four hours. At the end, just when my migraine had catapulted to all-new heights, most of my fellow passengers tipped him.
“You are all I need, Jesus you are all I need,” a man with a mullet, thick moustache and thick-rimmed glasses crooned on the television screen at the front of the boat. “I drink your living water and I’ll never thirst again.”
One of the largest militant groups that have caused problems in the region is called Mend, or Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Although some people suggest the group is a bunch of hired mercenaries, on paper at least Mend states that it is fighting for local control of the region’s oil wealth because, among other reasons, there is an ongoing environmental disaster in the region.
Foreign oil companies have been dumping petroleum waste in the region indiscriminately for decades. I’ve read estimates that there is an oil spill almost every day, releasing up to several thousand cubic metres of oil into the waters every year (often due to corroded pipes, arson etc). These have wiped out mangrove forests and contaminated soils and groundwater (just think about what people are saying about the oil spill in the U.S. right now).
And although the flaring of natural gas was deemed illegal, about 70 per cent is still released to the atmosphere. This accounts to almost half of the continent’s gas consumption. The waters are dotted with flames – like little fireflies on the horizon.
On a local scale, the flares release several types of toxins and have caused wide-scale respiratory problems. On a larger scale, Nigeria has contributed more to greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa. If the gas was stored, it could be used locally for consumption. But unfortunately, the logistics make it cheaper to burn.
Mend not quite mended
During my journey, although the waters were turbid, they were glassy. Men and boys in wooden dugout canoes were dotted along the edges, setting and pulling in their nets. Others were already on the way back to shore, their boats heavy with fresh catch.
The drama in the Niger Delta has died down a bit since last October, after militants signed a truce deal with the government, which included amnesty and a re-integration program. It was one of main agenda points with which former-President Yar’Adua got elected in 2007, and the only one on which he made some progress before he passed away a couple weeks ago.
I was in Lagos, Nigeria, when it happened, and although banks and other major businesses closed in memorial, life pretty much went on as usual. After all, the country’s Vice President at the time, Jonathan Goodluck had been acting in his place for a number of months after the President fell ill.
Apart for a phone interview with a journalist, President Yar’Adua hadn’t been seen or heard from by the public for months. It led some people to wonder if he had not passed away some time ago.
“I was not sure: is he dead again or is he just dying? That’s the first question I asked myself,” said Abayomi Adebambo, a stockbroker. “Or is it a political move again to create a political instability and insecurity in the country as it was done and had been done for a period of months?”
New elections are scheduled for next year, which will ultimately determine the country’s next step. But the situation in the Delta is already falling apart. During Yar’Adua’s absence, Mend called off the truce at the end of January, and in March they claimed they were responsible for a bomb attack on Government buildings that killed eight people.
Ball off boat
As we cruised into the Cameroonian port in Limbe, chaos erupted. We would need to board some transfer buses to the immigration point and would have to sit “5 by 5,” in seats that were meant for three or four very small people. Ouch.
“You’ll wait for me to get my bag?” asked Tony, so “we” would get a car together.
I changed the subject.
As soon as my passport was stamped, I was out of there. A couple other passengers on the boat, Hubert and Samuel (the clothing traders from the Western part of the country who were playing air-guitar to the Christian music) were waiting for me in the getaway car.
“You have to be careful who you hang around,” they warned me. “But don’t worry – he was still learning to be a con-artist [called feyman here], he wasn’t yet refined.”
The drive was beautiful. Densely forested old volcanoes peaked out of the wisps of clouds on either side of the road. They were brimming with tropical life. It was like a scene out of gorillas in the mist. I could just imagine the apes swinging from branch to branch.
My vista was only interrupted by Hubert’s erratic driving skills – he had a fondness of accelerating over speed bumps, all while texting on his phone and dancing in his seat (hands off the steering wheel) to the newest Makossa music.
As we pulled into Douala, there was a sign reading: “One billion people and one common language: football.”
I’d arrived at possibly the most football-obsessed place on the continent – where football academies far outnumber universities, and politics are made and broken over a game: Cameroon.
Next up: I meet Ngando Pickett – Cameroon’s pot-bellied mascot (who strips down to a g-string when the team scores). His half-naked image now lines the Parisian metro system – an advertisement for Puma. The problem is that no-one asked him for permission. I ask: is the World Cup actually bringing business to Africa or just more exploitation?
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