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Discovering Cameroon, a microcosm of the African continent

Saturday 16 February 2013

By Christopher Vourlias, Published: February 14

One evening last summer, as I strolled along the promenade in Limbe, a small, scenic port town in southwestern Cameroon, I was stopped by a well-dressed young man who greeted me warmly and took me by the hand.

He introduced himself as Jonas and told me that he worked in marketing, going door to door selling American skin creams and hair care products. This was his first time in Limbe. It was a new, strange, wonderful place for him. Behind us were the muscular foothills of Mount Cameroon, West Africa’s highest peak, before us the small bay that opened onto the Atlantic’s wider waters. The day’s heat had diminished, and a cool sea breeze blew against our cheeks.

The West African nation of Cameroon is blessed with natural resources, but it’s a country “only for the rich.”

For a few minutes, we stood silently gazing out to sea, where an oil derrick sitting a few hundred feet offshore did little to obscure the view. Jonas wondered aloud whether the derrick belonged, like so much in Cameroon, to the Chinese. “In this country, we believe everything is privatization,” he said. “We now believe the sea is owned by the Chinese.”

On the beach below us, a pack of teens was playing a rough game of soccer, their bunched-up T-shirts serving as goalposts; a young girl approached us, carrying a tray of hard-boiled eggs. I had spent a few peaceful days in Limbe, strolling along the promenade, eating grilled fish and cassava, drinking chilled bottles of “33” Export lager at sidewalk cabarets. It was a blessed sort of life.

Jonas told me the story of his brother, also a salesman, who had once traveled to Burkina Faso. It was a bad place to do business, he said, because the people were so poor. “Here we have the natural resources, so we don’t have to rely on the government,” said Jonas, as if the oil and the palm groves and the forests were something Cameroon had created itself.

“Well, you didn’t put the natural resources there,” I told him. “That’s why they’re natural.”

He laughed.

“That means God bless us,” he said.

Between two worlds

It was, as I would learn in the weeks ahead, an easy impression to have in Cameroon. If ever there were a country that seems to revel in its own abundance, it’s the one nicknamed “little Africa,” so rich and varied are the landscapes one encounters there.

Behind tranquil Limbe and the imposing haunches of Mount Cameroon lies the beautiful, mountainous terrain of the country’s rugged southwest; skirt the coastline and you enter a tropical fantasia of coconut palms and feather-soft beaches; farther south is a sprawling savanna that would not seem out of place in the Serengeti; and finally, to the far north, is the arid landscape of the Sahel, where even the goats siesta beneath 18-wheelers, so merciless is the midday sun.

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