Deciding To Travel To Cameroon
It all began in June 1999 after I completed my 3 months intensive French language study program in a language school in Benin City. I realized that even though I was already fairly comfortable reading and writing French, I had not achieved the level of fluency in speech that I desired. For instance, I still struggled to respond easily to simple questions or carry on conversation for short periods without having to pause and interject some “eems and hmms”!
So, I told my teacher I wanted to travel to any French speaking country and spend part of my annual leave there to develop my fluency. After some deliberation he decided that even though Cote D’Ivoire would have been the preferable place to go, he would (for cost considerations) send me to stay with his family in Cameroon(Yes, my tutor is Cameroonian). That way, following his instructions in a letter to them through me, his brother and sisters would help me gain exposure to numerous opportunities to practise speaking French.
I went to Cameroon by road (via 2 border towns: Ikom in Nigeria and Ekok in Cameroon) for two reasons. First, that was the only way my N12, 500.00(about $125 US Dollars left over from my annual leave allowance) would have been adequate for the trip (I was told an air return ticket cost N30, 000.00 – $300 USD – at the time). Secondly, it afforded me the opportunity to mix with French-speaking people as soon as I crossed the border.
Being able to listen to the natives speak French to themselves; having gendarmes ask me for my passport and visa in French (it was not often that I ran into one that could speak English!) served to help me consolidate my learning quicker. Using the money I saved from going by road, I was able to buy a lot of novels and magazines published in French – including those written by authors well known to us out here for their works e.g. James Hadley Chase, Agatha Christie etc. – which I read through regularly while there, and brought back to Nigeria for continued use in my studies.
Trying To Return To Nigeria – The Drama Begins!
But back to my traumatic homecoming experience. Let me give you some idea of what it was like. That July morning in Douala, I had asked my friend for the money he promised to give back to me, and he told me he had asked his boss for a salary advance. He left for work saying I should call him by 9.00am so he could give me directions to pass through his office and pick up the money on my way. At some minutes past 9.00am I called him. To my dismay, he told me he could not get the money and began apologizing profusely, pleading that I set off on my journey without it!
I was stunned nearly beyond words. Recovering myself some, I told him(in as much of a dignified tone as I could manage!) how disappointed I was that he had put me in such dire straits knowing it was my first visit to the country(to which I got even more profuse apologies). I hung up the phone in disgust, and did some quick and very hard thinking.
One thing was very clear in my mind. I had to return to Guinness Benin brewery(in Edo State, Nigeria) to resume afternoon shift latest by 2.00pm the next day. I had exhausted the remaining days of my leave waiting for my friend to come up with my money. It was about 10.00am in the morning. I took a bike in to the city center and made enquiries about alternative routes for travelling to Nigeria cheaply.
I recalled from meeting some Nigerian traders who lived in the city, that they had mentioned a small port where traders from Nigeria frequently entered Douala with goods and agricultural produce to sell. Eventually someone gave me directions on how to get transportation to the place called “Idinao” port. The journey was not smooth for me as various checkpoints meant I had to face repeat questioning from gendarmes. On occasions when passengers were asked to pay one fee or the other, since I did not have more than a few CFA left, I tended to get more than a little harassment from the officers.
Rescued By A “Guardian Angel”
Towards the end of the journey, at the last checkpoint, I was rescued from a particularly aggressive gendarme, who after sighting my passport queried my intentions for wishing to exit the country via Idinao port. A gentleman who had quietly observed me go through the problems from the start of the journey, and who was obviously fairly well known as a trader in Douala, spoke up on my behalf, saying I was his younger brother(he was a Nigerian) who had come to visit him, and that he was taking me back to Nigeria! I was more than grateful and told him so. Yet, at the same time I was surprised that this man had made such a gesture to a person he did not know. But as I was to discover later, he was not even started yet!
After we got down at the port, he told me his name was “Sugarr” (a nickname, and that’s exactly what he wrote in my diary). His accent revealed he was of the Igbo tribe(I am Yoruba). He asked me where I was headed, and I told him Benin City. Then he explained that boats from Idinao would arrive in Oron in twelve hours, after which I would have to travel a few more hours to get to Aba, and then Benin. He then took me to the owner of one of the large, but aged boats who was his personal friend. The boat owner – known as “Delta”(another nickname) – agreed to let me board with the few CFA I had left as payment following pleas by Sugarr – and also after I desperately offered him my Olympus Stylus camera to complete the payment!
Help! Me? Travel In A Leaky, Rickety Old Boat For 12 Hours Under Heavy Rainfall?
It was only after he said yes, that I took a good look at the boat I was to travel in along with many other people – and their countless bags of produce. The large boat creaked repeatedly as the waves of the Atlantic Ocean beat against its sides, and I could see that water was collecting in the bottom suggesting it was leaking! I had never been on the sea before and what was worse, the radio carried by someone close by had just announced that many Nigerians died in a boat destined for Oron some days earlier!!
A few of the intending passengers next to me were talking excitedly about people they knew who had been on that boat. I began to get really scared, but the thought of not arriving on time to resume duties when I was supposed to(I never took my work lightly, and always wanted to do what was expected of me at all times), kept me from changing my mind. I picked up my bags and entered into the boat. The drizzle of the rain soon turned into a downpour and I had to use few extra coins I found in my pockets to buy one of the big nylon bags people were using as modified raincoats(by cutting crude holes at the bottom and sides for the head and arms to pass through).
We had to wait from about 4.00pm till 7.00pm before the journey could begin. I had taken no food since waking up, and I had no money to buy anything to eat.
Yet, all I could think of was getting back to Benin City in time to take over from the morning duty brewer. I was resolute. As far as being scared of the boat capsizing on the sea was concerned, I quickly dispensed with any excuses not to continue, when I saw about five elderly women traders settle into the lower part of the boat, with their bags of produce next to them, and simply fall asleep! “If they are not worried, then I certainly should not be!” I told myself.
The Journey Back Home Begins
We traveled under heavy rainfall in Delta’s large rickety old motor boat for over 12 hours through the night (from 7.00pm till 7.30am). During the first four hours of the journey, I experienced for the first time what I had read about in books on Sea travel: Sea Sickness. I became dizzy and felt like throwing up many times. Fortunately, after a while, my body seemed to adjust to the rhythm of the boat on the sea, and I subsequently overcame it.
During the “voyage” we ran into about 5 different water checkpoints manned by Gendarmes, Police, Customs, Navy and Drugs Law Enforcement respectively. Many times some “water rate” or fee was required to be paid by passengers, and as you can imagine, since I had no money, I always got special attention – including some heavy slaps. On one occasion my friend Sugarr tried to intervene as he had done in the taxi, but this time earned himself a dirty slap for his efforts.
At about 7.30am the boat pulled to shore at Oron. After we got our passports stamped at the Customs post, Sugarr asked me how I intended to move. Unable to think of anything better, I offered him my camera in exchange for whatever it would cost to take transportation to Benin City. He declined and instead paid my fare to Aba, where he then took me to his wife’s shop and gave me money to continue my journey to Benin City. I took his address in my diary, thanked him profusely and proceeded to the car park he had described.
I Resume Work, On Schedule, In Guinness Benin!
A few hours later I was in Benin City. Before it was 2pm the same day, I resumed work as Duty Brewer on the afternoon shift, and none of those I spoke to or met at work could have told(from looking at me) that I had just completed an overnight sixteen (16) hour journey across the Atlantic Ocean from Cameroon to Benin City, in Nigeria. Even I could not believe it for a long time after that. Among other things, I kept wondering how it was that Sugarr had appeared at the exact moment when I most needed help to achieve my purpose.
Two years, later, in 2001, I would return to Cameroon(on company duty), but despite my efforts, was unable to locate Sugarr.
Up till today, I have not been able to find him. Yet, I will never forget the wonderful role he played in helping me achieve my purpose. Napoleon Hill in his book “Think and Grow Rich” said, when your magnificent obsession fully takes you over, you will find that people and events will begin to come together in a manner that will eventually help you achieve it. I believe that’s exactly what happened when I focused my mind on getting back to Benin at that definite time so I could resume work as scheduled.
From the day I had that experience, I became convinced that Hill was right when he wrote that “whatever the human mind can conceive, that it can achieve”.
But You Might Ask: How Did My Learning To Speak French “The Hard Way” Help Me In My Career?
My answer is that not only did it help me a lot in my career, but it also opened up many opportunities for me outside the workplace – new friends etc. For instance, in April 2001(almost 2 years later), I was selected along with three senior managers – from amongst fourteen who attended the pilot course in Sheraton Hotel, Lagos – to attend a 1 week International Coaching Conversations Facilitators’ Course in Douala, Cameroon (note that the company and most of the managers had no idea at this time that I could speak, read and write French).
Read my article titled Achieving YOUR Goals IN SPITE OF Adversity – Two Short But True Stories That Tell HOW to learn how my ability to speak French helped me get noticed by senior colleagues(including the expatriate Managing Director of Guinness Cameroon), even as I gained the admiration and respect/friendship of others with whom I attended the course.
“If you are weak in a crisis, you are weak indeed!” – Anon