Friday, Sept. 19
My bus arrived in Dschang after darkness had fell. But unlike my night-time arrivals in other African cities, where I felt uneasy about getting to a hotel with all my belongings, here I wasn’t nervous. In Dschang, someone was waiting for me.
I threw my stuff into a taxi and the driver made his way through the town, stopping after just a few minutes at a house on a corner. I squinted in the night to see whether it looked familiar, and then a figure with a flashlight approached.
It was my host mother from my stay in Dschang six years ago, when I was a university student on a semester abroad.
“Ca va?” I asked, giving her a quick hug before paying the cab driver. Maman took the smaller of my two backpacks and led me inside the house where I had slept years before. Light flooded the staircase that led to the second-floor entrance, and finally we could see one another’s faces. She cupped my cheek with her hand and smiled. “C’est bien,” she said.
The house was quiet. All four of the kids who had lived there years ago had grown and moved out except Marie the youngest, now 18 and in her last year of high school. She was in bed when I arrived — the bed she would share with me during my stay — but she got up to give me a hug. Her dad, too, emerged from his bedroom to greet me.
We spent the next few days catching up. I helped Maman make sandwiches for her catering business, looked online at colleges in the States where Marie might apply and talked to my host father about his job as a professor at the local university. It has been fabulous to see them.
The Djoukams are quite a modern family, living in a home with soft couches, a fridge, televisions, the works. Their living room looks like it could be in America.
But even middle-class Cameroonians have to deal with the infrastructure problems that plague cities in West Africa. The electricity sometimes cuts out at night, and water runs through the pipes only a few hours each day. When the water does come on, Maman fills every bucket in the house so the family has water when they need it. There’s no hot water, but they heat water on a gas stove for warm bucket baths in the cold season. (I bathed with warm water yesterday for the first time in three months!) And while the Djoukams have a car, it was only two years ago that the government paved the road in front of their house.
Dschang (pronounced “Chong”) has changed little other than simple improvements like that newly paved road. To my fellow School for International Training friends: The Internet cafe by the university is still there. The bakery with the yummy pastries and cold yogurt is still there. The food stall across from the SIT office that serves spaghetti and black bean omelettes is still there.
The SIT office building, sadly, no longer houses the program, which I hear has moved to Yaounde, the capital. Pharmacists who work in the building’s first-floor shop tell me it’s now a residence, perhaps inhabited by a Peace Corps volunteer. And, equally sad, Gustav’s shop now belongs to another tailor.
Dschang, and Cameroon as a whole, seemed poor to me the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, there certainly is poverty here, as you’ll see after I visit my village family this week. But now, after visiting other countries like Mali and Burkina that were worse off, Cameroon — the southwestern part of the country at least — comes across differently. Now I see, by African standards, it’s actually rich.