I just finished reading Neil Peart's Masked Rider, a book about Neil's bicycle trip through Cameroon in 1988. The book chronicles Neil's experiences on a bicycle tour of this West African country with tourmates Leonard, Elsa, Annie, and tour guide David.
The tour is a rough one. Many of the main roads are bike paths, at best, and riding such roads in dry conditions with temperatures in the 80's and 90's can tax even the most experienced riders. In some instances, the "roads" were so bad that the riders had to walk their bikes.
Neil describes his relationship with his fellow riders. Although one might expect at least two of the riders to become friends, none do. Neil and Leonard seem to develop a mutual respect for one another, but the riders are too different from one-another that not even the toughness of the trip can bring them together as friends. It's not that they became enemies. Their shared experience neither brought them together nor drew them apart.
The oddity of seeing white people in Cameroon was not unexpected. "Hey white man! Where you going?" and other common phrases were commonly shouted to Neil. Neil did not often feel generally threatened by the people they met ran across, but that comment, heard early and often, reminded Neil that he was an oddity in Cameroon.
I was impressed by the incredulity of some of the
Cameroonian people's reaction to one of Neil's tourmates, Leonard, an
African-American. What seemed to surprise many locals was that Leonard
had no idea of his ethnicity (i.e. to what tribe he comes from).
West African peoples identify one another by their tribes and many locals found
it amazing that Leonard had no idea about his tribal heritage. Neil and Leonard tried to impress upon them that tribalism isn't as important in America as it is in Africa. In some ways, this reader believes, tribalism is at work. When natives of St. Louis, Mo. meet, one of the first questions they ask each other is "where did you go to high school?" In other areas, people who meet will ask each other about their lines of work. We identify each other by the groups we associate with, but they aren't the sorts of "tribes" that the Cameroonians are familiar with.
One of the things that impressed me the most was Neil's description of the relative squalor of everyday life in Cameroon. Some of the basic necessities that we have here in the west are in short supply in Cameroon: abundant and clean water, hotels with such, and decent roads on which to bicycle - not to mention bicycles per se. This squalor along with the hot and dry conditions made the bicycle trip a very demanding one for the riders.
A stained toilet was a welcome sight, though of course there was no toilet paper - a commodity still in frequent demand, and the roll I carried with me was shrinking. A sink hung out from the wall, but it had no faucet handles. An ancient shower-head stuck out of the ceiling, and, standing back, I turned the tap on the wall. Nothing. I unpacked a pair of pliers from my toolkit and turned the faucet on the sink. Nothing. Pulled the chain on the toilet. Nothing.
Not only was a white man a point of interest, so was a bicycle, so a white man on a bicycle was an even bigger oddity. Many times, Neil describes scenes where the riders come into a village or town, only to be surrounded by kids staring at the bikes and the white man.
Another striking thing about Neil's experience is the apparently sufficient supply of political corruption in Cameroon and Chad (from where the group flew when they left West Africa). Many times during their trip, the tour group was stopped at various checkpoints and asked questions regarding where they were going, what they were carrying, etc. Many times they were met by friendly officials who would chat with the riders (usually in French, sometimes in English, and sometimes with gestures since neither side could understand the other's spoken words) and then let them go.
Since we were in a French-speaking area once more, "Homme Blanc!" replaced "male caucasian," though I also heard a pleasant "Bon courage, mon frere." Yet another security check interrrupted my passage, soldiers this time, but they spoke English, and when they asked what we were doing, they seemed glad to learn we were tourists, traveling in their country just to see it.
Other checkpoints were manned by less-than-friendly officials who hassled the riders. In Chad, the group were told that in order to leave the country, they were told they needed exit visas, although none had ever heard of such things. Their passports were taken and they were led along to find an official who would decide if the tour riders could leave their country. If too much time was wasted, Neil would have to wait another week for his flight out of the country.
What made things even worse at times was when gun-toting officials had been hitting the bottle. Neil didn't only think that he wouldn't be allowed to pass. He feared that he wouldn't be allowed to live.
Those of us in the west take our freedom to move within our countries for granted and to realize that many countries do not have this is eye-opening (although sadly, not unexpected). It's no wonder that so many people in corrupt countries live in squalor. If people cannot freely move within their own borders, commerce will be negatively affected as well (the free flow of gpeople is associated with the free flow goods). Corruption and squalor move hand in hand.
One interesting thing is that these checkpoints have given rise to unofficial checkpoints manned by people pretending to be either police or the military (a distinction sometimes hard to make). They had set up road blocks ain an attempt to extort cash from the riders as they tried to pass through.
There is one more thing to say about this book, something for a future post.
Neil Peart is the drummer and lyricist of the Canadian band Rush.