Douala, Cameroon — I laid my head back on the hard pillow and felt the cool air of the conditioner evaporate the sweat from my chest. Before I could wonder if the catholic congregation singing below or the pounding tropical rain above would keep me awake I crashed. The 28 hours of travel from Portland, Oregon to Douala, Cameroon had caught up with me. A groggy jetlag was weighting my eyelids. It was just a few minutes past eight on a Saturday evening, but my clock was ticking soundly in another time zone, definitely not here. Friday night had been all but lost in terminal M between flights in Paris.
I woke when the deluge slowed to a constant whimper, the Easter eve choralers had been replaced by low single note horns, like a blast from a tuba, ships in the port just a few blocks away were prepping to set sail, and voicing their departure. I checked my iPhone, it was just after 3am, far too early to get up. So I closed my eyes and checked the dozens of details about this trip I had stored in my mind and reviewed the score of questions I had come to Cameroon looking to find answers to.
I had been in Cameroon less than 12 hours already one set of images returned over and over in my half sleep: On the approach into Douala the Air France flight made a slowly descending circle around the perimeter of Douala, to the west we flew over endless green, palm oil plantations in rows only sporadically interrupted by patches of second growth rainforest. As the path continued banking back east the grey river split the green from the brown and an endless plantation of tin roofs mirrored the afternoon sun. Our decent came down over these roofs within eyesight of children playing in the red dirt streets and women retrieving laundry before the storm. In less than five minute from the air Cameroon’s expanding economy met expanding population, and only a few small wild islands of vegetation in the middle of the river remain.
Juggling, justifying, juxtaposing these two worlds I think is one of the core, if not the core, question. Not a question Cameroon faces alone. Nor a question she can answer by herself.
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo