Cameroon is not a place many people have been, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating (and to my mind, more so). In fact, this country of 20 million people in a landmass the size of California is a kind of mini-Africa, with every climate represented within its borders: coast, desert, mountains, rainforest and savanna– as well as pretty much all the problems and challenges that beset the continent (and that we Westerners had a big hand in creating).
In the Far North (or “L’extreme Nord” as the French poetically put it) the land is in the Sahel, the 100- to 600-mile wide swath that stretches across Africa and lies between the Sahara to the north, and the savanna grasslands to the south. This is the poorest part of Cameroon, the least educated, the hottest, the driest and oddly, the most populous, with a population that’s exploded 37% in the last 12 years.
In the south, the land is wet, fertile, and home to equatorial rainforests, rich plantations of timber, bananas, cocoa and rubber, coastal ports, and Cameroon’s biggest trade center in Douala and the capital city of Yaounde. Though the South is primarily Christian and the North has many Muslims, there is religious harmony in Cameroon and a long (though repressive and corrupt) history of political stability since Cameroon gained independence, after 45 years of colonialism, from France and Britain in 1961 – a year I actually remember.
It’s a young country, and although the poverty index is heart-breakingly high (the average income is $538/year – but only $220 in the Far North), the people are filled with energy and purpose. At 6 a.m., the streets are packed with folks of all ages going to work and school, and the place is jumping – no matter where you are.
I wasn’t expecting to love Cameroon – or to get to see so much of it, but luckily we missed our plane the first day (totally not my fault), and so I ended up seeing far more of the country than was originally planned. I found myself mesmerized by both the lush South and the sere Far North, grieved by the wretched poverty I witnessed, and captivated by some of the strangest Heifer livestock projects I’ve ever seen.
Oh … and I’m a little bit tired of doing all the work on this blog (tee hee!) so here’s my latest offer: You write me one question that you really want answered about Cameroon (or about my biggest travel challenge, or my shoe size, or my worst hotel experience) and I’ll do a whole Readers’ Twenty Questions post with all my responses. Game on!