If the reader will permit, I will deconstruct the idea of a road. I will narrate our ordeal of the last five days – a period in which fact intersected with reflection until the point of intersection became blurred. So what results is a narrative that think-feels; because this is an experience happening on the go.
As we drove out of Calabar there was a general feeling that the journey was only beginning. The idea was that we were now crossing our first border – that should have prepared us for what lay ahead. It particularly didn’t. We drove on to Ikom, the last major Nigerian town, then until Mfum, where the border was. Ikom was the perfect hybrid town – residents with two nationalities, more than 30 dialects spoken – a town that expresses trans-africanism, borderlessness, the thrills of cross-identities. At Mfum we were warned not to proceed to Cameroun through that border, because this was the season of rains, because the road should, necessarily, cogently, be avoided. And then there was the fact that our van, Snow White, wasn’t a four wheel drive. We returned to Ikom the evening we arrived Mfum; the Custom officials refused to allow Snow White entry, saying we needed a certain official clearance, which could only be obtained in Calabar. To return to Calabar was an option, but it was a weekend, and we would not get the clearance until Monday, at the earliest. We chose another option – plead with the Custom officials, request that they use their discretion; didn’t every Law provide space for the exercise of discretion?
It happened that we succeeded, and was cleared to head on to the Camerounian entry point. There, we were faced with another logistical bottleneck: for our van to cross into Cameroun, we had to pay a caution fee. This demand shook us, Emeka especially, given the tight budget we are working with. We paid a refundable fee of 2,500 Euros, and the official warned that the documents that we were given was sort of sacrosanct – if they got missing, we stood the chance of forfeiting a part, or all of, the caution fee.
Our decision, against every advice offered, was to head into the road that lead from Ekok to Mamfe, that road that is not a road. It is a strange thing to head into a road knowing it might take you nowhere, which is what we did. There was no way we could debate the fact that the road was almost a dead end – in our quest to move forward (the only creed, by the way), we hired young men to move with us. Their job description was simple, to help clear the muddy paths with their shovels and diggers, and to believe with us that that road didn’t lead backwards. These men – Armstrong, Henry, Moses, an older man called Bororo – would share in our tenacity, a kinship that transcended the commercial worth of their service.
We have named that entire pathway ‘the sinking mud of Cameroun.’ I recall that last year, after I wrote about our experience in Kouserri, I received a note that argued that I portrayed Cameroun in bad light. My fearless skin has toughened – the only call I heed is to be sincere to an experience. So, yes, I will name that path The Sinking Mud of Cameroun. Along that path, the mud reached our ankles. We headed out on Saturday evening, toiled until about 3.00am Sunday morning before we decided, after a failed attempt to tow our van across one of the ditches, to sleep in the van. The logic of the sinking mud is that Ray-Daniels can drive Snow White across less muddy areas unaided. But when Snow White gets to a deeper muddy ditch, the men who assist us would have to level the mud to a level that allows it to cross over. In some instances, Snow White would have to be towed by a van with a four wheel drive. (Because I know a thousand words, in this case, can be represented by a photograph, I have prepared a photo essay on the sinking mud).
“When we write fiction, we write within what we know. But we also write in the hope that what we have written will somehow outdistance us. We hope, through the spooky art of writing, to trick ourselves into divulging truths that we do not know we know.” Writes Teju Cole in ‘Blind Spot’. I refuse to confine the limits of his observation to the writing of fiction – a journey-recount like this equally suffices. I am writing within what I knew and experienced in the mud hoping that I can outdistance myself. There is no other way this will be possible if I do not speculate about what being in the mud for two nights meant (for even after we left Ekok, past Ejumoyok, heading towards Mamfe, Snow White was stuck in another muddy pathway).
In that mud, pushing the van, helping to shovel out mud, burying our feet in the mud, I felt that if I would be true to the situation, I needed to forget who I was before those moments. By extension, we had to forget our qualifications, the acclaims our work had received, the comfort of our beds, rooms, our social status. We needed to focus on the performative job we were carrying out; performance demands taking new identities for the moment the performance lasts. We had become people in the mud, like everyone else in that pathway during the 22-hour period we spent, people who drove past with okadas, vans, jeeps, people who walked back. By entering into that space, and doing everything possible to pass through, we became one of them. This time I do not struggle with notions of strangeness, of how foreign we are in places we’re visiting. Being in the sinking mud normalized us.
I could easily forget that there are three entry ports by road, at most, from Nigeria to Cameroun. The Sinking Mud being one of them. But I wouldn’t. We met a 65-year old man who said the road had been like that all his life; for him it was stark, everyday reality. Now, this fact, of course, has political tinctures. How reasonable is it that a road that establishes a connection – a trade connection, a socio-cultural connection – is in such condition? What becomes of the African Union, and their regular summits? What is the developmental role of the Africa Development Bank? A lie has continually been repeated to the peoples of both countries, the people living at the border – they have been told that their leaders care, that their leaders acknowledge their existence.
One of the men we met in the mud intoned, although in passing, that Anglophone Cameroun was being persecuted by Francophone Cameroun. It seems possible, plausible.
That pathway, which stretches up to the outskirts of Mamfe, is being built by a Chinese company. After spending our third night in the mud, three trucks carrying workers for the Chinese firm parked behind us, unable to move because our van held them back. We reached an agreement – one of their vans should tow our van backwards, and then the same van should tow our van forward. They towed Snow White backwards. And made moves to overtake our van, to head on without completing our agreement. Ray-Daniels didn’t allow their van to overtake ours. An open disagreement ensued.
Chinese presence haunted us – even after we were towed out of that muddy pathway, a van carrying a Chinese man ran into our van from behind. We’d parked to make photos – our fault was that we seemed to park in the middle of a slimy road on the outskirts of Mamfe. Typical Nigerian style, we waited for the Chinese man to call his office. Half an hour later, another van arrived with two Chinese men and a Policeman. The policemen measured the distances between the vehicles, took the van’s documents, and asked that we head to the police station. At the station, the tables turned. Since we didn’t have insurance from Cameroun, an insurance that we could only obtain there at Mamfe, we had to pay the Chinese company damages for the accident. It was sort of a ‘cosmic joke.’ That we went to the Police Station thinking about the glaring justice of the situation, and that when we got there justice changed colour. (Emeka said to me, “If there’s any time you should feel bad about being a Lawyer, it is now.” I didn’t want to think about the open-ended complexities that statement highlighted.)
The problem is that, immediately, we felt estranged. Foreigners with a big van got hit by a Chinese company’s van working in Cameroun and the foreigners had to pay for the damage caused by the van. Although we got bailed eventually, aided by the Nigerian Consulate in Douala, who we called, we paid 100,000 CFA to the Chinese company.
St Tee, who’d been with us since Ejumoyok, arranged for our accommodation in Queens Hotel, at Mamfe, where we showered for the first time in four days. We left Mamfe the next evening, after our van had been released – our contact at the Nigerian Consulate had given us the details of the Chief Judge of the City Council, who, when the matter was taken to him, judged in our favour. By this time we’d obtained the insurance.
Leaving Mamfe, en route Douala, a new calm settled on us. Cameroun hadn’t been a good host, so far, and yet we were complicit in knowing that the difficulties we have faced wasn’t, couldn’t be, a complete Camerounian testimonial. Having arrived Douala, and settled into an apartment with a view of the ports, I recalled words from Ike Anya’s Granta essay, where he quoted from his lecturer, Dr Valentine Chikwendu – “You must always keep an open mind, in this business. Always be ready to be challenged.” So, the challenge is knowing that the Camerounian government, like other African counterparts, is failing its citizens – terrible roads, corrupt policemen, irrational policies. But to record appropriately, I must – we must, even the reader must – keep an open mind.