It’s that time of the year when expatriates tend to travel home for holidays. The one thing we do not expect after being away for so long is reverse culture shock.
It sounds inadmissible that as one born and bred in Cameroon, you could experience reverse culture shock when you had only been living abroad for a year. Doesn’t it? Those were exactly my thoughts when towards the end of my Master’s program in 2016, the Chevening office, the body responsible for my scholarship in the UK, emailed me to prepare me for returning home. They warned me to prepare for the culture shock I’d experience when I returned.
Reverse culture shock is the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after a number of years overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar.
A few months ago, I got reminded of this when I travelled to Cameroon. The overwhelming feeling when you step out of the plane into the hot, AC-less WiFi-less Douala airport. It is the only international airport I have been to that has no WiFi and I have been to quite a few. However, it is a feeling of welcome. Then you go through immigration, get your passport stamped and the “Ah, so you’re a doctor! One of the escapees!” Smile. My general aim when I’m at Douala airport is to go unrecognised. You’ll understand why in a minute.
On my last trip to Cameroon, after collecting my luggage from the baggage carousel and making my way through towards the exit, I had to take off my sun shades in order to not look conspicuous. Conspicuous meant looking like someone with “Goods to declare”. LOL. Unfortunately, just as I was exiting, a gentleman in plain clothing and no badge beckoned on me and asked me to follow him. On questioning, he explained he was a customs agent. Sighing.
So I found myself in an office with three men opening my suitcases. When they couldn’t find anything worthy of their time, with a sly smile, one of them asked if there wasn’t anything for them. I handed £10. My hard-earned £10. And they looked at me with greedy eyes, wondering if this was all I could give for their time.
My sister later commented that my shoes betrayed me, not my sunshades.
Just at the exit, another gentleman accosted me. His duty was to ensure that I had not taken someone else’s luggage. But his actual duty, I realised, was to ask passengers if they didn’t have “something” for him too. By then I was so exasperated I burst out angrily.
The next day, while roaming town with my dad, we got stopped by a policeman who requested we identify ourselves. We all proceeded to show him our ID cards, and anticipating his next move, my dad leapt into the glove compartment to produce the car documents. The policeman, seeing that everything was in order, exclaimed, “Est-ce que j’ai demandé les dossiers?” (Have I requested car documents?) Then with a smirk, asked if we didn’t have anything for him. I gave him 500 XAF (About 70p) and he let us go.
This is the reality of the police situation in Cameroon. They’ll find every opportunity to collect money from you so beware. There are 2 options. You can either give them from the little bit you have or waste an adequate amount of time trying to justify why they should let you go after a police stop. Now the question is, how can we change this mindset?
My first experience returning home after a year was actually the most interesting. There is something about never having experienced certain modernities, and then experiencing them, and then losing them. Then you know ignorance is bliss.
Some things, however, you wonder why should even be seen as normal?
-The cab driver who, in a bid to get you to make space for an incoming passenger, unconsciously shoves his hand up your skirt, asking you to make way for a new passenger. This would be considered sexual aggression in most normal societies. Bickering about this in Cameroon will earn you the title of a moaner.
-The middle-aged man at the parcel collection office at a bus agency, who was rude, kept shouting at me for simply being a client. Until he picked up my parcel, read my name, “Dr Ndzo”, realized that was me, lowered his eyes and there and then, begins a free medical consultation on an ailment in his balls.
-Why someone gets robbed of a huge sum of money because they carried it in cash. Well, less than 90% of Cameroonians own a bank account. Banking services in Cameroon, unlike other parts of the world, cost the user for basic aspects such as owning a bank card, or internet banking. Who wants to spend more than their income on banking services anyway?
-When asking anyone for any help results in, no “MOMO” for me? Even police officers will give you their MOMO account for a bribe. This got me!
-The number of people living in dire conditions, wearing CPDM uniforms. On one of my visits home in 2018, I asked my mom`s friend why she was putting on a CPDM attire, and her response was, “Biya me done le pagne, Kamto me donne quoi?” This was at the height of the last presidential elections. Growing up, being a CPDM supporter was one of the sins I believed would take you to hell!
-No driver waits for you to cross. There is nothing like looking left and right, then left again. Just cross/run/cross and be a bit of a Jackie Chan. Most times the Zebra crossings are not visible.
There are three things that account for reverse culture shock: You may have changed, your home country would have changed, and you would now need to readapt to your former culture.
If you’re visiting Cameroon after many years in absentia, be prepared:
- Do not drive especially on the motorway. Rent a car and hire a driver, use family, whatever you do, do not drive on the motorway. The motorways differ significantly between various countries, more so if the driver’s side is different from what you are familiar with. It is rather unsafe to drive at the speed one is familiar with on newer roads than older roads clad with potholes. Remember that road rules are less stringent in Cameroon and so the oncoming driver is more of a danger than the roads. Summarily, hire a driver, if you must.
- You probably will be shouted at for not having a small change to buy goods. Customer service is pretty much non-existent. Do not expect the usual politeness and ensuring the client gets the best value for money. There usually is no website to rate, no boss to complain to and no accountability for the most part.
- How to commute? It is not uncommon knowledge that Cameroon’s national airliner (Camair-co) has suffered unreliability. There are reports that all planes owned by the company have been grounded due to repairs, and the planes used are rented ones whose cost far outweighs the cost of renting the planes – story for another day. And so, I personally do not use the airline for local or regional travel. I have heard stories of people left stranded. On the other hand, few people are cognizant of the fact that Camrail (the national rail company) is pretty reliable. My dad, being a retired Camrail engineer, is a faithful client. I have used this means for over a decade now and strange enough, contrary to expectations, the train leaves pretty much on time, a journey that lasts 3.5hrs between Douala and Yaounde. 2 trains run each way daily. See Camrail schedule and fares here. Travel by road between Douala and Yaounde is not the safest.
- One of the best things you will experience is the fresh food, the bubbling city centres with the aroma of roast fish teasing your taste buds. Cameroon is not all gloom. Far from it. I had completely forgotten that women did not pay bills at outings, and my sister laughed at me when, at an outing with her friends, I asked her how much we owed!
Don’t we just love Cameroon? Ah! and yes culture shock is a thing.
On a serious note, Cameroon is one of the first countries to have reacted to Covid-19 by closing its borders and request a Covid test for incoming passengers. I suspect the country may be one of the first to recommend a Covid passport for inbound passengers. Keep an eye for these updates if you plan to travel soon.
Have you been to Cameroon recently? What has been your experience and what are the things returnees should look out for? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.