by Ian McCall

Chapter 19 - KAMERUN

In the club in Calabar hung a photograph of the Calabar Volunteers who had joined the colours at the outbreak of the Great War, had been trained locally and had then been sent off to fight the Kaiser`s forces in the nearby German Kamerun or Cameroons where some were attached to the Nigeria Regiment which was sent to fight there and later in East Africa. Many of their servants volunteered to join the forces and often served in the same units as their masters.

The Cameroons had been annexed in 1884 by Germany, at the instigation of the imperial German Chancellor, Prince Bismarck, during what has been described as ‘the scramble for Africa’. After the First World War, the territory was mandated to Britain by the League of Nations and made a British trusteeship territory in 1947 by the United Nations. Since 1924 it had been administered under the government of Nigeria. The German influence persisted even after all these years. The Portuguese originally discovered it and they left their own legacy in the name of the country which comes from the Portuguese word for shrimps, presumably as a result of there being an abundance of them off the coast and in the Rio del Rey (the King’s River), a delta rich in waterborne resources.

The flight from Calabar to Tiko in the Cameroons was originally served by two-engined De Havilland Dove 12-seater aircraft and these were succeeded by the Handley Page Marathon with four relatively low powered engines. The pilot would open a door behind him and address the passengers to give them information as the situation required. The workhorse was the Bristol Freighter which was introduced to the route during my time there. Among its duties was to take pilgrims on the Haj to Mecca. This was a workaday plane with the working of the control wires for the tailplane and ailerons open to the view of the passengers seated by the windows on very basic seats. Stewards were introduced about this time. On one occasion, one of them gave his little talk before take-off, pointing out the usual facilities. ‘The lavatory ’ he said ‘is at the rear. To open the door, turn the handle to the right and push.’
There is always an awkward passenger and the inevitable one posed his inevitable question ‘What happens if you pull the door?’.
‘It comes off’ the steward replied.

When you landed by air in Tiko, you were hurried past well-drilled rows of banana trees as the plane touched down on the runway. The plantations were neatly laid out and connected to the centre of operations by a light gauge railway. The system was one left by the Germans after the Second World War. The company that had originally built it bought it back from the Nigerian government in 1923 and ran it until 1939. The plantations were bought by the Nigerian government in 1946 from the Custodier of Enemy Property. It set up an independent body called the Cameroons Development Corporation to run them ‘for the use and common benefit of the inhabitants of the territory’. In the proximity of the plantations at certain times of the year were protected herds of elephant which had an annual circuit from which they deviated little. They could do untold damage to banana trees if they came crashing through the undergrowth. After years of observation people realised that if there was anything that switched on an elephant it was sweet potatoes. They would overcome any difficulty to get at them and could sense them from a distance. People said that wise managers gave locals incentives to plant their sweet potatoes well away from the plantations and the track of the annual elephant circuit. That said, there was probably more damage done to banana plantations by freak storms. Over two million trees were blown down by a tornado in a few hours in 1951 which must have disrupted the regular schedule of a shipload of bananas every five days or so.

Victoria, the principal town near the coast, manifested the German connection in the magnificent botanic gardens there. When I last visited Victoria, I spent some time in the gardens and admired the now somewhat wild shrubs, trees and plants still bearing their nameplates in German and Latin with a separate plate in English - one I recognised but did not know the Latin name of was the hibiscus sinensis double red which grew in my compound in Calabar. The rocky coast provided challenges on water, giving members of Outward Bound type courses, usually but not exclusively government employees, an opportunity to find out about themselves in heaving seas in Man o’ War Bay. This bay was named after the anchorage for British warships which lay in wait there for the outlawed slave trader ships after the abolition of slavery in Britain and the law forbidding the carriage of slaves in British ships in the early 1800s. By 1824, slaving had become a capital offence in Britain. Under an earlier ruling of the Court of Session in Scotland, any slave setting foot in Scotland was immediately a free man, in effect abolishing slavery some 30 years before it was done away with under English Law.

The department Land Rover was available for travel in the Cameroons and I used it when I flew to Tiko. It incorporated a feature that appealed initially. That was the panel that ran the width of the car under the windscreen and could be opened to admit air. This had a very cooling effect and I kept it open all the time on the first occasion I used it. The upshot was that I caught my first, and hope last, cold in the eyes which oozed matter for days and left the eyes bloodshot and my general appearance debauched-looking, which was not the image I liked to think people had of me. Thereafter I opened the panel for short periods only.

In Buea, the Commissioner for the Cameroons had his office in what was a more than passing likeness of a German Schloss built on the side of a hill and looking for all the world like one of the castles on the Rhine. It was built in 1899 by the German governor of Kamerun and reputed nephew of Bismarck, Herr von Puttkamer. The story goes that he built it for his mistress, a Berlin opera singer, out of a fund allocated for the building of roads. After all that she refused to come. He filled the house with her photographs and flowers and ordered an extra place always to be laid at table. Below the Schloss stands a wrought-iron gate with two entwined P’s - presumed to be Pauline and Puttkamer.

Buea has more than its fair share of rain, and nearby Mount Cameroon which rises to nearly 14,000 feet (4,000 metres) has probably the heaviest precipitation in Africa, over 400 inches of rain (10 metres) in a year. Even in these days Civil Service training programmes had a strong outdoor bias with ascent of the Cameroon mountain a required activity. The clouds seemed to be lower here than in any other part of Africa I have visited, and I have an abiding memory of them swirling past the windows of the houses as you looked out, rather like the view from an aeroplane as it strains for the clear blue sky after take-off. Further north is Kumba where cocoa is grown, surprisingly, in the surrounding area of lower ground. Growers had to arrange for roofs on wheels to keep the fermenting cocoa beans dry when the rain threatened. The sophistication of the cover was quite novel in my experience and a very big investment for the smallholders. The bulk of the Nigerian crop, including the output of the Cameroons, was produced by a hard-working, independent peasantry just like the palm oil with the exception of that produced in the pioneer oil mills. Typically the crop was worked by a family unlike some of the production in the Ivory Coast where vast plantations were established at the cost of traditional social organisation.

The Cameroons Development Corporation had an ongoing experimental programme in the growing of coffee, arabica in the mountains and robusta at lower levels. I always think that an analogy can be drawn with whisky. Arabica corresponds to the single malt and robusta to grain whisky. Most commercial offerings are a combination of the two. If you could afford it you would always drink the single malt whisky and the arabica coffee, all things being equal which they rarely are. There is more low ground available to grow robusta coffee than high ground for the superior arabica. The man in charge of the experimental farm I visited was German. He had just commissioned a coffee mill as the experiments were sufficiently advanced to justify that investment. The indigenous languages spanned the borders long before English and French became established official languages or indeed before the border was arbitrarily drawn some sixty years before.

The road north from Kumba winds up an escarpment eventually to meet the road from the West near Mamfe. It was open for up-traffic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday and for down-traffic on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. It was closed on Sundays, not for reasons of Sunday observance but because the necessary maintenance of the road had to be carried out then. It continues to Bamenda on a road built originally by German engineers. This stretch traverses such a difficult terrain for road builders that it bears comparison with much larger construction projects round the world in its vision and execution. The road rises to 6,000 feet at Bamenda itself. Bamenda has a climate exceedingly pleasant for Europeans and can produce potatoes and salad vegetables. You can have fresh meat and milk on a regular basis and you can get a good sleep at night without sweating into the pillow.

Bamenda was distinguished by a type of fort not usually seen in British administered territories in Africa. With its walls and crenellations it seemed an appropriate location to make a film of the French Foreign Legion with legionnaires in their képis occasionally appearing in the vision of the viewer from outside as they passed the gaps in the wall from which the garrison could observe and be seen. It was now the administrative centre for the region. Hard by, I found the inescapable cemetery and the pointers to a troubled past. Colonial powers had inevitably to have garrisons of troops in strategic locations. Like so many, the soldiers were unaccustomed to the diseases that seemed to thrive locally and had little immunity to them. There were graves where soldiers lay who had died ‘ges.’ (tombstone German for gestorben) probably in some place remote from the fort where the exposure to disease was higher, or who had been killed in battle gef. (tombstone for gefallen) in some bloody local encounter probably unrecorded. One wondered what the driving force had been and whether it had been worth the cost. Did Kaporal Moeller who fell in some battle or other, have time to contemplate his past or have the last rites administered? Did the people back home have any knowledge of what was going on in their name? The scenario of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was immediate and local compared to forces in distant Kamerun in times of war or not. Es gibt ein Stück eines fremden Feldes das immer Deutschland ist (with apologies to Rupert Brooke`s `There is a piece of a foreign field…`). In retrospect I am reminded that, after the Falklands war, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borgès likened the conflict to two bald men arguing over a comb. Objective reality disappears, if indeed it exists at all, when perception takes over as a basis for doing things.

Does this development regularise my undiscovered crime that, contrary to Colonial Regulations, I crossed the border into the French Cameroons without the permission of the Governor, to visit a friend at Nkongsamba where my car broke down? Had it not been for a French motor mechanic who worked the whole weekend on it to get it going again, I might have had to return to a hot reception and disciplinary action. Despite the fact that such unendorsed cross-border trips took place regularly, the crime was being caught. It was fun to talk in French. It was the first time I had heard black people speaking the language and it seemed odd and I presumed there was pidgin French spoken here. It seemed bizarre, too, to see a local authority vehicle with ‘Ville de Douala’ painted on its side. Maybe it was part of the continuing process of deconstructing the Anglocentric viewpoint with which those of us born and bred in Britain were unknowingly imbued, a process less evident today as the concept of Britain and Britishness recedes with the weakening of the nation state or ‘internal decolonisation’ as it has been colourfully described.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003