Every day it's harder for me to wake up in the morning, even after having slept a dozen hours. I feel like an old battery that lost the ability to fully charge and discharges quickly. I shake my leg and I still can not feel my foot. It's totally numb when I wake up, almost like a stone ball stuck to my ankle, but at least it hurts little. A purple swelling formed around the bite, where it already had an open blister. This does not look good at all and what looks even worse is the condition of the road I am on when I arrive at the first village on the detour to Yokadouma.
Before arriving here, to the main thoroughfare that connects the south of Cameroon with the north of the Congo, I fantasised futilely about finding a road in better conditions. The logic of thinking that an international connection between two countries always implies a better quality road rarely applies to this part of Africa. It only takes me a few kilometres to discover that the road will be a hellish succession of patches of mud and dust. Because of this, I need to make a greater effort to step on the pedal with my right foot, which anaesthetized by the scorpion's venom, still prevents me from feeling it.
This hell of mud makes it impossible for me to keep dry and clean all the wounds that formed on my foot and ankles as a result of the cuts from vines in the jungle the weeks before, the bites and the influence of thousands of different bugs. Crossing puddles of mud all day, they get impregnated with dirty water full of bacteria. Since my foot is numb, I do not realise that I constantly have flies feeding on the pus that oozes from the infections and depositing worms there. During the nights I clean them carefully, removing all the worms and pus, but the heat, the humidity of the tropics and the dirt I accumulate make the healing process impossible.
These are very hard days in which for every kilometre that I pedal I feel that I am leaving a part of me behind. The mental work that I must put in order to keep moving forward becomes as arduous as the physical one. However, the arrival back to civilisation also brings its good things with it. Along the way I pass village after village, alternating between the last settlements of Baka pygmies and Bantu villages. In them, fruits reappear almost magically. Yes, the fruits! If Argentina is the paradise of meat, Italy that of pasta and India that of masalas, Cameroon is the paradise of fruits. In this country, the fruits sprout everywhere and here I come, willing to devour them all. If I have to start to recover physically, I will start with an intense and sustained intake of vitamins.
There are more fruits here than I could ever imagine. There are the usual fruits of the tropics but many others that I had no idea existed, and they all are delicious. Collapsed from fatigue and hunger, I stop at the first village where I see a woman sitting on her wooden stall next to a table full of pineapples. Trying to contain the anxious desire of snatching one of them before completing the transaction, I ask her how much it costs. She tells me they cost 1700 CFA (~ 3 US$). The high price surprises me since in countries like Tanzania and Mozambique they used to cost around 20 to 30 cents, but now is not the right time to skimp and I accept. Wrapped like a candy in her exquisite superwax (typical African female outfit) of a thousand colours, she takes a few seconds to ponder, looks at me, then at my bike standing behind and with great confusion, she asks me:
-But how will you take them? - - Take them? - I ask her back with even more confusion. -Yes, indeed, how will you take the 10 pineapples on that loaded bicycle- she said again - aaaaww! It was 1700 CFA for all of them! - I replied - Well, honestly I would take 25 but for now, I will only eat one here if you don't mind.
With the usual bright and broad African smile that illuminates all my days in the continent, she responds filled with joy while inviting me to take a seat and saying that she will peel it for me. It only takes me a few minutes after bringing it served on a round plastic dish, to go through the whole thing. As usual, the sickly sweet syrup of the pineapple overflows my papillae and for a moment, I feel in heaven when I feel the sugar giving me a strong boost of energy. While I ate it, I could see how, the woman and her neighbours, sitting around me, looked almost with fascination at the state of ecstasy that I emanated. When I get ready to leave, she takes two more pineapples and without asking me, she tries to arrange them in the back of my bicycle. - They are for you - She says with a smile - you do not have to pay me -. Later, similar situations will repeat in each village. I take several kilos of passion fruit, bananas, cassmangos, avocados and it's only a few cents that I invest in them because people insist on giving me more of them for the road.
When the end of the day comes, and my energies are totally consumed, the people of the villages make sure to find me a safe place where I can set up my mosquito net. Sometimes it is in a shed, sometimes in a house half built, but one way or another, I always get to enjoy the comfort of being under of a roof, which is so useful in these nights of strong tropical storms. For dinner, I also try to raise the quality of my nutrition, seeking to nourish myself with proteins to begin to compensate for the immense deficit that I have. Much to my regret, stewed monkey or bat meat is the one that the villagers so graciously offer to me as a treat. Refusing hospitality is never an option for me and I always accept at the same time that I secretly implore not to contract Ebola.
However, I find the best refuge in the Missions of nuns that are found in almost all the villages of this abandoned and precarious jungle corner of Cameroon, which the representatives of the largest corporation of God on earth does not seem to forget. Even though I only need the horns, the tail and a trident to complete the perfect embodiment of the appearance and aroma of Satan, these stoic nuns open the doors of their convents for me, even when I show up knocking on their doors well into the night and under a torrential thunderstorm. Still, they invite me to spend the night in impeccable rooms with showers, towels and bedding that smell of roses, and always accompanied by good food. I also wonder if they do it because they feel the need to exorcise me.
It is impossible for me to object anything to these women who devote their lives to helping others, unlike those who, from their onerous palaces in Europe, put them there to clean their own image for free. I do not care what they believe in, even if I do not believe in it. What matters to me is the value of their actions and their altruistic motivation. What I care about is the affection and the love with which I see them addressing others in order to do good over their own personal interests. That is a fact, not a superstition. I have spent nights in convents of Polish barefoot Carmelites, and others with other orders of Catholic nuns, like that of Sister María from Chile, who with her immaculate white habit still illuminates with her serene smile, after 30 years of being in forgotten African villages. In each of them I have perceived the same spirit of empathy and humility. As always, it is real people with a heart full of love, and not imaginary beings, to whom we must give thanks for.
Little by little, consuming a lot of fruit and slightly improving the quality of the food I eat every day, I'm being able to at least stay on my feet in order to continue moving forward. The better nutrition helps. However, as much as the arrival back to civilisation has its good things, it also brings bad ones as well. Traffic increases as I approach Yokadouma. The farther north, the more intense and sticky the tropical heat becomes. The amplitude of the road is such that the thick vegetation that used to serve as a screen during the overwhelming middays, is now far away from its edges leaving me completely exposed to the abrasive sun. In addition, the mud is now transformed into dry soil and the trucks that pass me transporting the corpses of dozens of magnificent ancestral trees, mercilessly leave me wrapped in asphyxiating clouds of dust.
It takes me 4 days to complete the 200 km to Yokadouma, a large dusty town devoid of all imaginable attractions, at a crossroads. The exercise is hard, but this is not a lament but a conscious choice. I am privileged. I'm here because I want to because it's my personal choice, but that's not the case with many others who also come all the way here. And it is on the outskirts of Yokadouma where I find myself with the harshness of the opposite of my reality: the reality of those who cannot choose.
In a jungle clearing on the side of the road, there is a precarious settlement among the vegetation. It's like a big neighbourhood of dirt streets and wooden houses where life thrives. The women walk around here and there in their colourful dresses carrying cooking pots or clothes to clean, the children play with each other, and as always, the men are sitting doing nothing but drinking tea and socialising.
It is not a town or a village, but a refugee camp of the UNHCR ( United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ) inhabited by Fulani refugees, who arrive every day in eastern Cameroon from the neighbouring Central African Republic, fleeing the endless civil war that afflicts that country for several decades. The growing conflict between the anti-Balaka Christian militias and the Seleka Islamic militias coupled with the clumsy intervention of the national army has forced the Fulani, the ancestral tribe that inhabits several regions of Central / North Africa, to leave their lands and flee in search for peace. Women, men and children, entire families, have lost everything and have arrived here, often walking for weeks, carrying what little they could take with them.
Given the proportion of such personal tragedies, it is impossible for me to imagine the pain, suffering and even the unrest that these people go through. However, when I stop my bicycle, I am greeted warmly by a group of Fulani men who were talking on the side of the road as if nothing serious was happening to them. I leave my bicycle with them to go walk around the camp, and as I walk through its streets of mud, I keep coming across women with serene looks and friendly smiles, with children playing here and there having fun.
Confused by the contrast between my conception of a tragedy and the images of the people around me, I decide to go deeper and visit the houses to discuss what I can with the families but very few of them speak French. They have lost everything, some people tell me; their houses, their lands and others show me the suitcases they arrived with. Their lives are in transition, but more than that, they are adrift. They do not know how long they will be there or when they could return to their lands. They have what little they have brought and everything is uncertain and yet I do not see despair and I can only assume that sadness and pain are in them, even though I can not honestly perceive it through their gestures. I see calm in them, acceptance without resignation, I see peaceful smiles.
After spending the afternoon talking and drinking tea that people invited me, I leave there lost in bewilderment. I do not want to see them sad or desperate so that my own logic about loss makes any sense at all, but as a Westerner, it is so difficult for me to assimilate this dichotomy. I have received once again a strong lesson in silence, not by words but through actual facts that are visible right there in front of my eyes. It is one of those experiences that I simply can not ignore. Once again, the Africans, this time the Fulani, just by being themselves, have taught me what cannot be learned by reading or hearing. I leave there with more questions than answers, but above all things, I leave with greater awareness that I must not allow my life and my conception of existence to ever be the same again.