Ernestine and the exorcists

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The exit from Batouri is special. I do not feel my right foot, I do not feel the right half of my skull, my ankles begin to lose their shape as the wounds become more infected, I have lost at least 9kg in the last three months and I feel like I'm falling apart little by little. I'm like an old car whose parts are falling while trying to keep on going, but still, nothing can stop me because my engine is still running.

  With my modest energies, I optimistically embark on the way to Bertoua, where the asphalt begins, and since I am not in a position to waste them, I decide to take a shortcut to save me 40 km of distance. However, as it's often the case with African shortcuts, saving those 40 kilometres meant wasting 40% more energy than following the main road. By the time night sets in, after battling for hours in the 90 kilometres-long malicious shortcut of dust and craters, I roll into Bertoua with the softness of a rag ball, ready to collapse in the first convent I can find. Unfortunately, today there is no Discalced Carmelite who can resuscitate me, but tomorrow is another day, and it really is.

When I leave Bertoua early in the morning, I am deeply moved by the excitement I feel when, after the thousands of hellish miles that I cycled in the recent months, I start rolling on asphalt smooth as silk. For 5 consecutive days, I slide along the road with the agility and lightness of an ice skater, even though I am in the middle of the tropics. I am still surrounded by exuberant vegetation that perfumes my days and frames the perspective of the road as that of a living tunnel that takes me all the way to the very doors of the capital. Along the journey, the strong tropical showers arrive like elixir every afternoon to mitigate the heat. I bathe in them and I drink their water while I keep on pedalling, because neither a half-dead foot nor having half a working skull stops me now. This is how I arrive in Yaoundé.

I have no special interest in reaching the African capitals at night but on some exceptional occasions, I just can not help it. To be honest, I have never felt insecure but some of them do not enjoy the best reputation and that inevitably puts me on guard. The torrential rain forced me to slow down during the afternoon and that delayed my arrival in Yaoundé until nightfall. I do not know whether it's the nerves of steel that I have, or my enormous ability not to be paranoid when I least need it, or my ability to naively believe that nothing will happen to me, but to enter this city at night by bicycle is not a task for the fainthearted.

Having spent the last 5 days on a road without major ascents and descents, the unexpected steep hills of Yaoundé do really take me by total surprise. Needless to say, I do not find it pleasant to be pedalling at night, uphill, exhausted, at pedestrian speed, and being the only white (with all the local prejudices that this entails) in this city that is mostly a large agglutination of slums, with no street lighting, shattered streets and too many people around with suspicious looks. I hope I get to arrive safely to meet Ernestine, who will be my hostess during my stay here. However, due to my delay, she kindly asks me over the phone to change our meeting place, since it is her time to go to church and can't miss it. I tell her that there is no problem, that she should head to church, start praying to her god for me, and then, if that works, by the time I arrive, I'll give her a call.

Half an hour later, after fearfully making my way through this chaotic entanglement of a city, I arrive at the doors of the supposed church. Ernestine, a nice, big-sized Cameroonian woman with a penetrating voice, shows up hastily and invites me to enter the church with her where the ceremony continues. The church has no naves, no vaults, no rose windows, nor has any bleeding men hanging from or dragging crosses. This is nothing more than a precarious function room painted in faint water-green colour and directly accessible from the street. It is full of people listening to a histrionic "pastor" who, standing on an improvised stage and surrounded by an entourage of servile acolytes, shouts his own version of the words of some God.

Ernestine takes me by the hand and guides me around. We move swiftly among a crowd so immersed in the ceremony that I passed almost completely unnoticed. That's how we come to the front, to the second row of chairs from where, next to her, I witnessed one of the most intense and irrational scenarios of human faith that I have experienced in my life. Up to par with the insane one I had experienced in Congo a few months before.

The pastor, whose voice is strident, thick and incisive, walks exalted from side to side of the room grabbing on the microphone. He preaches alternating between English and French while one of his vassals translates into French immediately after. Yes, indeed, he translates from English to French but also repeats in French the very same thing that the pastor just said in that same language. The atmosphere in the public is one of tension. His voice, amplified by the cheap speakers set at maximum volume, reaches distortion and stuns everyone. He speaks of angels, of fire, of the devil, of the Father. He invites his parishioners to stand and hold hands in the air. He invokes the angels and the Lord, who will come to defeat the demons that infect us with HIV, who leave us without job and money, who take the lives of our children and break our relationships. They will come to heal us too.

The crowd follows obediently what the pastor says. The trance is absolute and every so often, there are outbreaks of generalised hysteria here and there when some women, with their arms raised in the air and their eyes closed, begin to shake and tremble. Soon after, they start shouting hysterically until they fall flat on the floor in an almost epileptic state where they continue to shake rolling their eyes and spitting uncontrollably out of their mouths. The pastor's assistants run quickly to help the women. They take them by the arms and drag them on the floor until the bottom of the stage, where they leave them lying down while they continue shaking. The pastor approaches them and together with the whole audience shouts at them to remove their demons.

What I'm witnessing is so mind-blowing that I think it's me who will start shaking and spitting foam at the face of such a scenario. With discretion, I stealthily hold my GoPro on the palm of my hand and I try to film but I am very afraid that the pastor's giant bodyguards, sitting a few meters behind him, will see me. I put so much concentration on it that I forget about Ernestine when suddenly, she begins to scream out of the top of her lungs and to spin uncontrollably with her arms wide open. In one of her compulsive turns and in a state of total hysteria, she takes on me, then three more people and 7 chairs around us. She hits everything and everyone on her way. Her blow makes me destabilize and stumble until I fall into the arms of the people standing next to me, who contain my fall. When enough space is created around her, she also falls like a mosquito next to the others.

While the ceremony goes on and my hostess is now lying on the floor, possessed by some demon (or by some rabid dog), babbling incoherencies and foaming at the mouth, I can not help but worry a bit. - Who the hell are you going to stay with Nicolás !? - I tell myself while trying to keep my composure. In any case, there is not much I can do at this time, other than hoping for the pastor to exorcise her and return her to her normal state, because I do not think I'm going anywhere in Yaoundé in the middle of the night. I prefer to sleep in African Linda Blair's house, being fully possessed, rather than risking wandering aimlessly through this city in the dark.

Finally, the pastor heals them all, and Ernestine goes back to the same adorable person that I had just met only an hour ago. The ceremony ends and we are ready to go home. On the way out, I cannot help but feel sad when I see these obviously humble people probably leaving all the money they made that day in the hands of these self-proclaimed men of God. Ernestine tells me that we are close to her house, but she can't really relate to what it takes to cycle a fully loaded bicycle. She jumps on a moto-taxi and I follow them to her house, which is in the heart of one of the most immense slums I've ever been to and in which I would never ever dream of entering if not in this way, by the hand of someone local. It is not an easy road and keeping up with them is very difficult. I see nothing, I am exhausted, there is no lighting of any kind and the streets of mud and massive potholes are completely flooded with liquid mud. The condition is on par with the worst roads of the very jungle that I have just been crossing in recent months. By the time we get home, 20 minutes later, I do not know honestly how I made it.

During the 5 days I spend in the quartier (slum) in Ernestine's house, she takes care of me as if she were my sister. I buy the food for both of us and she cooks it with all the love and care in the world. Ernestine, who is alone and 38 years old like me, seems to stop making sense from time to time when talking. Her life has been marked by the tragedy of losing her only daughter at the age of 8 years old due to sickle cell anaemia. She has never recovered since then, which is why I really enjoy keeping her company and talking with her during the day because I realise that it really helps her.

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When it comes to me, I take advantage of my stay to rest as much as I possibly can, trying to contain my infections keeping them clean, sterilized and bandaged. I shave all my hair and beard and the transformation is so great that I can barely recognise myself. The amount of weight I have lost in these months scares the hell out of me. I'm skin and bones now. I sleep no less than 11 to 12 hours every day in Ernestine's tumultuous room, who gave it up for me so that I could sleep better.

I sleep no less than 11 to 12 hours every day in Ernestine's tumultuous room, who gave it up for me so that I could sleep better. The right half of my skull is still completely numb and insensitive, but in my daily excursions through this gruesome city, I take the time to use the internet to research and consult my contacts. Apparently, the contractures that I experienced during that hellish night of overdose were so strong that they caused my cervicals to pinch and in turn, compressed the nerves that control the feeling of that part of the scalp. In theory, it will only be a matter of time until I recover it. I can only hope and (beg) that time confirms that diagnosis instead of something worse. In the meantime, it took me two whole days to completely dismantle the bicycle, replace broken parts, clean it and put it back together again.

In parallel, I use three whole days to get around the cumbersome process of obtaining the Nigerian visa. It takes me daily visits to the embassy, sometimes morning and afternoon, to confront the rude staff, who persists in putting one obstacle after another in order to not issue the visa. So much that I start thinking about going back to church with Ernestine to ask the Pastor for consular guidance, because mind you, he is Nigerian. But finally it was not necessary, and the day before leaving, I leave the embassy smiling with the visa of the most feared country in Africa by the Africans themselves, glued to my passport.

I leave Yaoundé with the bicycle tuned like a violin ready to play a Bach concert. However, despite intense care, my legs do not heal. I regained full feeling in the right foot but the wound has degenerated into an infection so powerful and painful that I would rather not have regained it at all. Nor has the right half of my skull woken up. It remains numb despite so many hours of rest. Maybe it's the demons that have me possessed. Maybe I should be exorcised by the Pastor and leave all my travel budget in doing so, but I'm going to take the risk and continue my way, taking care of my own demons myself. I have no less than a very hard week ahead to reach the Nigerian border in the central mountains of Cameroon but I'm ready to go. Hallelujah!