We are sisters, Bee and Lee. One born in the U.S. and the other born in Cameroon where our parents, beloved grand-mother, and some cousins reside.
Having 2 different nationalities greatly influences our perspectives on life and travel. While we both currently live in the U.S., one of us is fiercely Pan-African while the other sometimes thinks of herself as more of a world citizen. Being a foreign national does not allow as much travel as a citizen of the U.S., so one of us ends up living vicariously through the other.
However, the playing field is usually evened out when we travel to Cameroon to visit our parents and grandmother. The year 2017 began with both of us having more time on our hands than we had had in years and so we decided to take the opportunity to visit our family for more than 3 days, which is the shortest visit possible given that it takes about 24 hours from wheels up to wheels down. Here’s how it went.
Traveling to Cameroon, Surprising Dad, & Riding “Bendskins”
Bee: The first time I mentioned a trip to Cameroon to the sister, she got super excited and decided she wanted to come too. Quite the sneaky lot, we decided to keep her trip a surprise as well.
Lee: Last June, I had made plans to visit Cameroon for my grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration but the Cameroonian Embassy in their favourite show of glorious inconsistency had different plans, and I was unable to make it. So when the sister mentioned a long holiday to the motherland, I was more than game.
Bee: Arriving in Cameroon a week before her, I developed a foolproof plan for her arrival logistics complete with a backup plan, just in case, ya know. What I did forget was the fact that the keys to the lone exit are kept by the homeowners in their bedroom every night. Imagine my horror when at midnight I searched high and low for the gate keys only to finally give up and go ask my dad. The conversation went something like so…
Me: Daddy, can I have your keys to the gate?
Me: *pause* Your first born is outside.
Daddy: *Priceless sleepy face surprise expression*
Lee: Regardless of the history I share with Cameroon, I interact with her like a 3CK – Third Culture Kid. Every time I have arrived at the DLA airport, my mum has been there to greet me, sometimes right outside the customs area. I don’t know if I could manage to get to my parent’s home solo… probably not because I still thought Taxis cost 100CFA. Luckily my brother met me right outside customs and as I had landed after 1:00 am, it was smooth sailing through the dark streets.
Y’all, I shared a motorcycle, or in Cameroon-speak, I “bashéd”.
Bee: Going to Cameroon was not all for pleasure. You see, the last time I applied for a Cameroon passport at the embassy in DC, it took 11 months, 2 tries, and a whole lot of frustration to get a new one ( do you see the trend with the embassy yet?). When I realized in January that my passport was expiring in the summer of 2017, I figured it was too late to go to DC and I would just go get it done at the source. So early the next morning, I was up bright and early, ready to meet with my “facilitator” until a communication mishap had me running out of the house and off to figure out public transportation.
I can’t even begin to describe… If there’s anything to know about Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, it’s the insane traffic everywhere and the fact that the roads are littered with motorcycles aka “bendskins”. I have always favored bendskins if I’m being honest. They don’t get stuck in traffic, they are well ventilated and they are fun. However, on this Monday morning, I had all intentions of being “classy” and catching a cab until I got to the main street and realized no cabs were willing to cross the bridge.
After struggling for what felt like forever, I decided to hail a bendskin. Initially, I was going to offer more money to ride solo but when I saw the lady beside me who looked just as desperate as I was to get to her destination, I caved. Y’all, I shared a motorcycle, or in Cameroon-speak, I “bashéd”. It was quite the adventure though, and it definitely got me to my destination in good time.
Lee: You won’t catch me dead on a bendskin in Douala. I have ridden one once before but that was before I got my Motorcycle permit and owned a motorcycle of my own. The way those people ride their bikes is the stuff of my worst nightmares. I would be jumping off every five minutes which is probably more dangerous as they seem to make it work with all the chaos and lack of basic safety protocol.
Ironically enough, my sister will ride bendskins but is unable and unwilling to drive in Douala. Now the opposite is true for me. I am Queen of the road! Imagine a 2-lane autobahn with no divider, full of cars and twice as many motorcycles. Throw out the rulebook and you have Douala. It is not for the faint of heart and if you are not gutsy, you will never get to your destination. I love it!
Visiting the Bimbia Slave Trade Site in Cameroon
Bee: Initially we had planned on visiting the city of Kribi but when that did not happen we decided to seek out an overall unknown slave trade site we had seen on FB. My mum had no recollection of this and only recalled the cannons that were used to chase away slave ships that approached the coast after abolition.
Getting lost, we almost ended up at the military base, and if there’s anything you should know about my dear country, is not to mess with the military. We stopped a few times to ask for directions, but no one seemed to know what we were talking about. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but observe that there were hills in Limbe. As much as we came out there as kids, it seems all I knew were the beaches. Anyways, a 4th stop to ask for directions, we met the tourism officer who rode with us down to the site, not because he was being nice but because there was a fee to be collected.
Lee: Permit me to jump on my soapbox a minute. Often times I hear African-Americans say “We don’t like Africans because they sold us.” Ignorance is a hell of a drug and a great divider.
There are several slave trade sites along the West African coast, the one we sought being the largest, however, not many know about it. Most people know about Goree Island and Elmina castle, and I am grateful that they exist. However, the Bimbia Site lay abandoned until about 20 years ago because it was considered cursed ground. The inhabitants believed what had happened there an abomination and wanted nothing to do with that place.
Does that sound like people who benefitted from selling their brethren? Yes, some Africans were involved in selling their fellow man but does that mean we condemn an entire continent. Same way we recognize that characters like Stephen in D’Jango existed but do not let them cloud history. We need to do better.
May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living vow to uphold this.
Bee: I don’t think I can describe all the emotions I was feeling when I first laid my eyes on the site, but one thing I knew was there were going to be no jumping pictures.
Lee: The site is vast and poignant. As it lay abandoned until about 20 years ago, most of the buildings are nothing more than foundations but this does not lessen its impact. With the help of our amazing guide Mbimbi, we got to learn so much about the land on which we stood. Sad. Distressing. Shocking. Empathetic. I don’t know how they made it. Those who survived that journey were gods among men.
Bee: I must add that visiting this site on the heels of reading Yaa Gyasi’s poignant novel on slavery in Ghana definitely added a level or two of realism to my mind. It was as though I was seeing the book come to life. Quite the experience, I will highly recommend it to anyone who is visiting Cameroon.
Lee: Not easy to find, it should still be a requirement for anyone who visits Cameroon. It’s part of our history – one we seem eager to erase when phrases like “Go back to Africa” escape people’s mouth. No one left that site willingly. No woman walked into those buildings asking to be raped repeatedly before getting shipped off. No families asked to be brutally separated never to see each other again.
A plaque at Elmina castle reads: In Everlasting Memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living vow to uphold this.
Footnote: According to Dr. Lisa Aubrey 15% of the African diaspora are of Cameroonian descent e.g US, Jamaicans, Haitians, Brazilians. She believes that most people in Granada and possibly Barbados are of Cameroonian descent. Of 137 identified ships that departed from Cameroon, 26 ships went to Granada and 17 to Barbados. Dr.Lisa Aubrey is an associate professor of African and African American Studies and political science. In addition to her scholarship, Professor Aubrey has been doing amazing community-embedded work related to reconnecting peoples of the African Diaspora to their heritage lands of Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana.
Fun Fact: While in Paris awaiting your flight to Douala, be sure to look for “mbenguistes”. These are Cameroonians who typically live in Europe. They are very flashy and ostentatious in dress and behavior and will not disappoint with their faux-fur trimmed coats and mismatched designer prints.
Tip: The Douala airport is in the tropics and does not believe in wasting energy on cooling the airport. Therefore, about an hour before landing, do yourself a favour and change your child and self into something cooler so as to avoid a heat stroke.