Date: 10 May 2000
From: Claude Marthaler firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject: "FOREST SPIRIT"
Maroua, Cameroon, km 1O5398
By the end of April, I quit Bangui, "the biggest of all villages" and its center: " PKO" or "Kilometer 0", the birthplace of the world. Beijing, China has its Kilometer 0 or "Tiananmen Square", legitimately inherited from an emperor representing God on earth, Paris had its Versailles, United States has Prudhoe Bay, at the top of the American continent where the Trans-Alaskan pipeline starts, India has the source of the Ganges river. Bangui, partly destroyed by three successive army insurrections in 1996-97, resembled anything but a capital.
There was the basketball stadium where Jean-Bedel Bokassa had proclaimed himself imperator of Central Africa in 1976. The metal structure of the Golden Eagle where he sat is even still present, though all the seats have been stolen. Today, students come here not to venerate "the master", but to study in a quiet place. Central African countries share a "spirit of the forest" : a natural environment which reflects no light, offers no horizons, gives proof to excitable rumors, an inarticulate and chaotic world, often as far as 1500 km. from any sea.
Between Idi Amin Dada, Bokassa and Mobutu, the forest had been a political Bermuda Triangle where Africans were often convinced that Africa is the poorest place and the only place in the world. I entered finally Cameroon, escaping from the oppressive forest spirit. The border-post was empty. Was Africa over populated? I found the policeman sleeping on a bench behind his Suzuki motorbike. He woke up a bit surprised with my yak in his eyes. No tourist had crossed this border in the last two years if not more. He even got enthusiastic about my journey.
Here were dozens of motorbike-taxistes, accelerating suddenly the apathetic rhythm of the equatorial forest, radiating some noise into the suffocating silence. As I drank a soda to celebrate the return to a certain idea of life, a flow of Cameroonese surrounded me. One man shouted at them, "Villagers!" (which I learned later on means negatively someone who had never been to school). Zebus and sheep were undulating along the savanna, led by the proud and magnificently painted Peuls with tattoos and silver jewelry, unconstrained by any border or cultivated field.
"Coupeurs de route" (road cutters) bandits, had perhaps the best criminal version of this free spirit. They were always described euphemistically like "people coming from the other side of the border." Some borders are invisible on maps but so present on the ground: only southern African states have fences everywhere to keep their animals together; further north there is the collision between Christianity and Islam, the encounter between sedentary and nomadic lifestyles. East-West is a clear separation of languages, between the former French and British Empires.
"Le Blanc!" (the White!) "No, its a Metis!" As I stopped up a hill, the two Africans stopped to argue about the color of my sweating skin. One, without knowing I was Swiss, said: "Your journey, that's not chocolate, you're the Magellan of the bicycle." The other asked as seriously: "Switzerland, is it in America, Asia or Europe?" Under the 40° Celsius sunshine, nothing could really surprise me. In such conditions riding is a full time job: shade, water, a meal, are precious as gold. Now that I was a day riding from Nigeria, the "border effect was particularly strong. Nigeria and Cameroon had fought for Malabo island, for the African soccer championship, for the "most corrupted state in the world " and Cameroon had won on every issue and even twice on the last one. Unbeatable, the forest spirit of Central Africa.
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