A guest commentary by Boh Herbert
As a teenager, I loved and read up what we called "cowboy novels", for lack of a better name.
In one of the novels from The Saint series - (I believe it was) - the novelist describes the scene in a pub in the Wild West. It is one of a tired cowboy, riding across rolling hills into the sunset, seeking out a place to stay the night but also more importantly looking out for where to quench his thirst.
In this particular scene, the Saint rode into the town center, climbed down his horse, tethered it next to other horses outside a pub, walked inside, ordered a drink and settled to enjoy it. Hardly had he taken a sip of the drink than the bullies rallied, trying to intimidate him.
"Hey, stranger!" the self-appointed chief of the bullying cowboys called out.
The Saint looked around for the stranger and seeing no one to whom he could ascribe the appellation, he returned his attention to his drink.
"Hey, stranger!" came the call, again. This time, the voice was intentionally made to carry the threatening "vous savez a qui vous avez a faire" effect.
Again, the Saint looked around and satisfied himself there was no stranger in the bar and he had no need to respond.
As the Saint's gaze crisscrossed the half-lit bar, his eyes met those of the bully-in-chief and the Saint asked: "Talking to me?"
"Yes, of course, I am talking to you," the bully answered, breaking up in laughter which was relayed by cowboys at other tables around the pub.
"Who else do you think I am talking to?" the bully asked. Adding: "Don't you see you are the only stranger here?"
The many pals of the bully in the pub let out another round of provocative laughter, as they believed the stranger had been put in his rightful place. They did not bargain for the answer, which the Saint delivered.
"Well, I can't tell," said the soft-spoken stranger. "You see, everyone looks strange to me!"
The Ndedi Eyango Saga
The Ndedi Eyango saga has reminded some of us more than others just how determined certain Cameroonian bullies are determined to pick on others and systematically treat them as strangers. On immigration policy, Cameroon is in a Wild West of sorts, where the stranger is not often whom you think s/ he is.
The Wild West was okay. It was wild and it was not policy. Cameroon is outright scary, because it is official policy. You can be national, but foreign. You can be the stranger, but at home. If you rode to foreign lands and got the paperwork you required to earn a living, you could find out that the call for "stranger" in the bar is directed not at the Zimbabwean in the room, but at you. It is a strange place to be in and a strange feeling to have and know that it does not prick the conscience of those in power. At least it has not pricked their conscience enough for them to change policy. The stranger is more welcome than a Cameroonian, born to the much-heralded land of legendary hospitality.
It is often sang during funeral service, but, hopefully without sounding macabre, let me confess that I truly adore both the melody and the message of love that is conveyed in one Christian chant. The song alerts us (God) of the presence of a "stranger at the door" and invites us (God) to "let him in!"
The Ndedi Eyango saga suggests - nay, it proves - that Cameroon is deaf to the commandment of this and other songs of hospitality. Cameroon has decided that citizens who were previously Cameroonians before they naturalized in another land are more strangers than the stranger to that Far Wild West bar that the novelist imagined and created on paper.
Foreigners - I mean pure blood, cent pour cent strangers or foreigners - are more welcome and are less likely to be called "stranger" in Cameroon than those now considered former Cameroonians who do whatever they need to do to survive in the land of their residency.
You want more proof? How about this:
- Whereas Cameroonians who accept another nationality do not have the right of abode, foreign nationals from half a dozen African countries at least have right of abode in Cameroon. The period of residency for these foreign Adrican nationals starts from one month, for citizens of Seychelles, for example; to up to three months, for citizens of Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Mali, Mauritania and Nigeria.
- Whereas Cameroonians who accept a foreign nationality like American are barred from securing a visa-free stay, new CEMAC rules wave visas for CEMAC nationals (pure foreigners to Cameroon). In application of the right of reciprocity, foreigners from another group of African countries can even obtain a visa upon arrival, which principle is only an exception for so-called former Cameroonians bearing an American passport. The nationals sHo can obtain a visa upon arrival in Cameroon include, but are not necessarily limited to, citizens of Burundi, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Egypt, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, Togo (less respected), Uganda and Zambia.
So next time someone says "Hey, stranger!" in a bar in Douala or Bamenda, don't look around... Yes, I am speaking to you!
Think about this. When I traveled for the first time to Germany in 1984, I was not required as a Cameroonian to seek an entry visa. I also remember that upon arrival at the airport in Frankfurt, we (my class of ASMAC journalism students) were welcome and treated better by German immigration on our way into and out of the country, than by Cameroonian immigration upon our return "home" to the old Yaounde airport. The German "Politzei" let us bring in our "Atangana bread", "mitoumba", "egusi pudding", "miondo", etc. whereas we had to return two days to the airport in Yaounde to secure release and admittance into Cameroon of gadgets like music sets and records we had bought in Germany. When cartoons of journalism books we had bought arrived in cargo months later, it took exoneration paperwork to let the Cameroonian strangers we had become from getting our hands on the stuff.
Three years ago, I arrived Bamako Airport, Mali, as part of the advanced team preparing the visit there of the World Bank president. The immigration officer who stamped me into the country, said two things to me that the Ndedi Eyango saga has forced my memory to reawaken, and that I share here, not without pain.
The officer said: "welcome home, my Cameroonian brother!" He joked: On est meme pere, meme mere, mais parents differents. I had first heard the joke in Cote d'Ivoire, but in Bamako, it had more meaning. Then the officer stamped me in, carefully avoiding to do so in my United Nations Laisser Passer. As he handed back my passport and UN Laisser Passer, he said: vous etes chez vous au Mali. Then wagging the UN travel document in my face, he returned it to me saying: vous ne pouvez pas etre diplomate chez vous.
I thanked him and headed toward the baggage claim section muttering an inaudible "whatever!" as I walked away.
Three years later, how strange it is that the foreigner in need of a visa and the stranger among the assembly of artists in Yaounde is more certainly Ndedi Eyango than it is Salif Keita!!!
Video: Ndendi Eyango singing about "Cameroon my native land."