The Victoria-bound 16-seater Hi-Ace bus left Bafut with exactly that number on board. It was hired by participants and facilitators returning from a two-week music workshop.If the driver was chagrined about that, he did a good job of concealing it. Ordinarily they would overload the vehicle with at least five extra passengers sitting on improvised stools along the aisle and making emergency exit almost impossible. With no choice but to walk the straight and narrow, our driver exhibited a good sense of humour and a resolve to keep his passengers happy. He changed the music at their request and virtually killed the volume whenever someone had to make or take a phone call. And that was only the beginning of the difference between this trip and the ones we have known since the Wadjo erased the word “federal” from the name of our 61 republic. Even more significant was the route which lay entirely within Wekaland, unlike the old, bone-rattling circuit across four regions which is very much the same as flights from Douala to North Africa having to transit through France.
Some stinging memories came rushing back as the bus droned past Mboka. You could not but recall the armada of tipper trucks, earth movers, graders, compactors and other road construction machinery that used to be parked there in the early 70s when Kumba-Mamfe became the first and only dirt road to have been inaugurated by Ahidjo or his handpicked “chop chair.” So how exciting that we have evolved, howbeit after close to a half-century, from the one-way Mamfe-come down to a free and speedy two-way flow of traffic ranging from small cars to seventy-seater buses!
While Mboka may be basking in its past glory (or infamy), Manyemen is writing its name anew in the annals. Not even its Helminthiasis research unit and leprosy settlement of old, nor its to-be-or-not-to-be flirtation with Herakles Farms could match its growing fame as a watering hole for all the traffic linking Bamenda and Mamfe to Kumba. In that regard, Manyemen and its not-so-distant neighbor, Bachuo-Akagbe, have nothing to envy Melong on the Bamenda – Douala road or Makenene on the Bafoussam – Yaounde stretch – not the filth, not the noise, not the senseless parking disorder, not the dishonest food merchants who sell you dog or cat meat disguised as beef, let alone the mugging of women who have to stoop in stinking roadside oozes for want of decent places to answer nature’s call. One hopes that Manyemen can begin planning how to cope with the growing traffic without losing its sanity.
So what did Manyemen have to offer? Rain made it impossible for the Rambler to step out and explore, but those who dared came back with lip-smacking testimony of the bush meat – especially the pangolin. Through the bus window I grabbed myself a can of Malta and some cashew nuts which I crunched with undisguised village-boy delight.
There wasn’t one of my co-travelers who was not irked by the omnipresence of blue and red berets. In fact, that was one of the things the trip had in common with others. Well, we could have understood ten times that number of stops, given the ambient suspicion and the perceived need for closer policing – especially on a road that Yaounde has always feared would make exchanges between Nigeria and West Cameroon less controllable, and perhaps undermine the trade in French goods in the zone.
Most consoling, however, was the fact that all the referees – blue beret or red – addressed us not in the colonial tongue as is their arrogant habit, but in this one. Sure looks like recent events have taught them at last that as public servants, they have the obligation to make themselves understood by functioning in the language of the locality where they serve.
Then came Mbakwa-Supe with what everybody calls a flyover. I was amazed how quickly the admiration for this hair-raising feat of road engineering gave way to expressions of fear that some demoniac who is out to drive the wedge between Abq and Vikuma might just …. “God forbid!” said someone. And the whole bus said, “Amen”
Kumba at last, and the driver, like the leopard, shows his spots. He decides he won’t continue the journey to Limbe, but transfer us onto another bus. No problem, since he is the one to pay the second bus. But I smell the rat when the second driver begins to pick up Douala–bound passengers on the way. And indeed on reaching Mutengene he decides to go to Douala, putting us through yet another transfer despite the fatigue, the darkness and the attendant risk of losing some of our luggage. And you’d bet I was not the Rambler if I did not dig my heels in against this abuse. Yet I drew a blank and the whole thing left a very bitter taste in my mouth. The most distressing thing about it all was not the drivers’ unscrupulousness – it is in their nature. It was not even the fact that in the heat of the shouting match with the driver, I grabbed a thief’s hand in my pocket – that is Mutengene for you. What got to me was my impotence due to the fact that my co-travelers whose rights I was trying to defend, made a fool of me by walking off the bus and accepting that their luggage be transferred. It was the usual Cameroonian “how man go do” syndrome.
Now you can have a good laugh. In the crowd around the bus I spot a cop all impressive in his uniform. Rather naively, I walk up to him and try to seek his intervention, as you would in a proper country. With a casual smirk he points me in a direction and says, “There is a police station over there – not very far. You can go there and lay a complaint. I am only a traveler myself.” I quickly turned around and had a huge laugh at myself. What had I expected? Who does not know that they wear those uniforms when traveling only to avoid paying the full fare or any fare at all, because their presence covers the driver from being booked for overloading and other traffic offenses?
Finally, after losing the handle of my bag in a tug-of-war with another thief, it was “home again, again.” And I have since been left ruminating on the events of that evening and how analogous they are with their plight of Weka and her children – how, for want of character and a little patience, the brethren you stand up for, easily leave you in the lurch, and turn the troubleshooter into the troublemaker. Did you say school strike? Or ghost towns?