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I Travelled 12 Hours Overnight, By Sea, In A Leaky Boat – From Cameroon To Nigeria – Without Money!
Deciding to travel to Cameroon
It all started in June 1999 after I completed my 3-month intensive French language study program at a language school in Benin City. I realized that although I was already comfortable enough to read and write French, I had not achieved the level of fluency in speech that I wanted. For example, I still struggle to answer simple questions or carry on a short conversation without a few “eems and hums” pauses and interjects!
So, I told my teacher that I would like to travel to any French speaking country and spend part of my annual leave there to develop my fluency. After some discussion he decided that although Côte d’Ivoire would have been the preferred place to go, he would still (considering the cost) send me to live in Cameroon with his family (yes, my tutor is Cameroonian). Thus, by following his instructions in letters written to them through me, his brothers and sisters would help me gain exposure to numerous opportunities to practice speaking French.
I went to Cameroon by road (via 2 border towns: Ikom in Nigeria and Ekoum in Cameroon) for two reasons. First, this was the only way my N12, 500.00 (about $125 US dollars left over from my annual leave allowance) would be enough for the trip (I was told an air return ticket cost N30, 000.00 – $300 USD – at the time). Second, I crossed the border. At the same time, it gave me the opportunity to mix with French-speaking people.
being able to hear locals speaking French to themselves; The gendarmes asking me for my passport and visa in French (it wasn’t often that I could speak English!) helped me assimilate my learning quickly. Using the money I saved from going on the road, I was able to buy a lot of novels and magazines published in French – including those by authors well known to us for their work, such as James Hadley Chase, Agatha Christie, etc. – which I read regularly while I was there, And brought back to Nigeria to continue my studies.
Trying to return to Nigeria – the drama begins!
But back to my traumatic homecoming experience. Let me give you some idea of what it was like. That July morning in Douala, I asked my friend for the money he promised to pay me back and he told me he asked his boss for a salary advance. He leaves for work saying that I will call him by 9.00 am so that he can pass me through his office and collect the money on my way. I called him at a few minutes past 9 am. To my dismay, he told me he couldn’t get the money and started apologizing profusely, pleading that I had started my journey without it!
I am almost speechless. Recovering myself somewhat, I told him (in as dignified a tone as I could manage!) how disappointed I was that he had put me to such terrible trouble that it was my first visit to the country (to which I received more than profuse apologies). I hung up the phone annoyed, and did some quick and very hard thinking.
One thing was very clear in my mind. I had to return to Guinness Benin Brewery (in Edo State, Nigeria) by 2.00pm the next day to resume the latest afternoon shift. I spent the rest of my vacation exhausted waiting for my friend to bring the money. It was around 10 o’clock in the morning. I took a bike into the city center and inquired about alternative routes for cheap travel in Nigeria.
I recall meeting some Nigerian traders living in the city, they mentioned a small port where Nigerian traders often entered Douala to sell goods and agricultural products. Finally someone gave me directions on how to get transportation to a place called “Edinao” port. The journey was not smooth for me as the various checkpoints meant I had to face repeated questions from the gendarmes. Many times when passengers were asked to pay one fee or the other, since I didn’t have a few CFAs left, I was subjected to a bit more harassment from the officers.
Rescued by a “guardian angel”.
Towards the end of the journey, at the last checkpoint, I was rescued from a particularly aggressive sex, who, after seeing my passport, asked about my intention to exit the country via the Edina port. A gentleman who had seen me go through the trouble from the beginning of the journey, and who was evidently fairly well known as a businessman in Douala, spoke for me, saying that I was his younger brother (he is a Nigerian) who had come to see him, and He’s taking me to Nigeria! I was more grateful and told him so. Yet, at the same time I was surprised that this man made a gesture that was unknown to him. But as I later discovered, he hadn’t even started!
After we landed in port, she told me her name was “Sugar” (a nickname, and that’s exactly what she wrote in my diary). His accent reveals that he is of the Igbo tribe (I am Yoruba). He asked me where I was going, and I told him Benin City. He then explained that the boats from Idinao would reach Oron in twelve hours, after which I would have to go to Aba and then another few hours to Benin. He then took me to a large, but elderly boat owner who was a personal friend of his. The owner of the boat – known as “Delta” (another nickname) – agreed to let me board with the few CFAs I had left as payment after Sugar’s plea – and even after I offered him my Olympus Stylus camera to complete the payment!
Help! me? Traveling in a leaky, rickety old boat for 12 hours in heavy rain?
After she said yes, I got a good look at the boat I was going to be traveling on with several other people – and their countless bags of goods. The big boat was creaking repeatedly as the waves of the Atlantic Ocean hit its side, and I could see water pooling on the bottom indicating that it was leaking! I had never been to sea before and what was worse, the radio carried by someone nearby announced that a few days ago many Nigerians had died on a boat destined for Oron!!
A few passengers next to me were talking excitedly about who they knew who was on that boat. I started getting really scared, but when I was supposed to work (I never took my work lightly, and always wanted to do what was expected of me) the thought of not being on time prevented me from changing. My mind. I picked up my bags and entered the boat. The drizzle soon turned into a downpour and I had to use the few spare coins I had in my pocket to carry the large nylon bags people used as modified raincoats (with crude holes cut in the bottom and sides of the head and arms).
We had to wait from 4.00 pm to 7.00 pm before starting the journey. I had not eaten since waking up, and had no money to buy anything to eat.
Still, all I could think about was getting back to Benin City in time to take over from the morning duty brewer. I was determined. As far as fear of the boat sinking into the sea was concerned, I immediately excused myself from going on, when I saw about five elderly merchant women settled in the lower part of the boat, with their bags of goods by their sides. , and just fall asleep! “If they’re not worried, then I certainly shouldn’t be!” I told myself.
The Journey Back Home Begins
We traveled in heavy rain for more than 12 hours (from 7.00 am to 7.30 am) in Delta’s big rickety old motor boat. Within the first four hours of the voyage, I experienced for the first time what I read about in cruise books: sea sickness. I became dizzy and felt like throwing up many times. Fortunately, after a while, my body seemed to adapt to the rhythm of the boat at sea, and I eventually got over it.
During the “tour” we visited about 5 different water checkpoints manned by gendarmes, police, customs, navy and drug law enforcement respectively. There are often some “water rates” or fees to be paid by passengers, and as you can imagine, since I had no money, I always received special attention – including some heavy slapping. Once my friend tried to interfere with the sugar taxi, but this time got himself a dirty slap for his efforts.
The boat reached the Oron shore around 7:30 am. After getting our passports stamped at the customs post, Sugar asked me how I intended to move. Thinking of nothing better, I gave him my camera in exchange for what it would cost to travel to Benin City. He refused and instead paid my fare to Abba, where he took me to his wife’s shop and gave me money to continue my journey to Benin City. I took his address in my diary, thanked him profusely and headed towards the car park he had described.
I resume work in Guinness Benin, schedule!
A few hours later I was in Benin City. Before 2pm that same day, I resumed work as a duty brewer on the afternoon shift, and no one I spoke to or met at work could tell (by looking at me) that I had finished sixteen overnight (16) Atlantic Ocean. Hours drive from Cameroon to Benin City, Nigeria. even i am I couldn’t believe it for a long time after that. Among other things, I kept thinking about how Sugar appeared at the exact moment when I needed the most help to achieve my goals.
Two years later, in 2001, I returned to Cameroon (in charge of the company), but despite my efforts, could not find Sugar.
Till today I have not found him. Still, I will never forget the great role he played in achieving my goals. As Napoleon Hill says in his book “Think and Grow Rich”, when your great passion fully consumes you, you will find that people and events will begin to align in a way that will eventually help you achieve it. I believe this is exactly what happened when I focused my mind on returning to Benin at that particular time so that I could resume work as scheduled.
Ever since that experience, I have been convinced that Hill was right when he wrote that “whatever the mind of man can conceive, it can achieve”.
But you might ask: How did learning to speak French “the hard way” help me in my career?
My answer is that not only has it helped me a lot in my career, but it has opened up many opportunities for me outside the workplace – new friends etc. To attend a 1 week International Coaching Conversation Facilitator course in Douala, Cameroon – out of fourteen who attended the pilot course at Sheraton Hotel, Lagos. From – including three senior managers (note that the company and most managers had no idea at this time that I could speak, read and write French).
Read my article on the title Achieving your goals despite the odds – two short but true stories that tell How my ability to speak French helped me get noticed by senior colleagues (including the expatriate managing director of Guinness Cameroon), and even earned the admiration and respect/friendship of those I attended the course with.
“If you are weak in a crisis, you are really weak!” -Anon
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