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Journey To Curious Lebialem 

By Azore Opio

The departure from Buea to Lebialem is the beginning of a thrilling adventure with no certain ending. It takes roughly nine hours; time enough to fly to Paris and halfway back. Our journey really started at Tiko where we filled up the tank and bought snacks; water included. And a good laugh when the female pump attendant, adding up our bill, said, "plus four bottles of plastic."

She meant four plastic bottles of water! There are few or no milestones. The only prominent and bloodcurdling milestones are late Pius Njawe’s "standing corpses" announcing in French, "ici, 23 morts", "ici 11 morts", "ici 15 morts"…

It is unfair to include Nkongsamba, Penja and Melong inside Littoral boundaries. These towns have not a nit of resemblance to coastal towns; no seashores, no beaches, no coconut trees swaying gracefully their branches in a sea breeze; no fish. Nothing. It was pitch dark when we paid toll gate fees at Santchou, near Black Ouata. The toll collectors worked with only the yellowish light of a bush lamp.

The climb to Dschang is not only spectacular, but hair-raising. I lost count of the hair-pin and ‘S’ bends at 60 and napped the rest of the way to Pork City. You will know you are in Bangwaland when you cross the Mbanga Pongo Bridge, the border crossing between the West Region and Lebialem Division, and begin to wind and snake up and down precarious hillsides.

My first morning in Lebialem, I woke up in Lisbon, probably the only prominent public house in the entire Division, to bird calls and the now customary phut-phut of bendskins. Lebialem people virtually live in Nigeria. The Division is close to the Cross River State of the Gentle Giant. There is only one radio station and that is Lebialem Community Radio (LCR) manned by George Atabong; reporter, editor, announcer and sometimes, technician. Four-in-one.

Failing to pick any CRTV signal, I settled for BBC on Shortwave oscillating between 5.40-5.25 Megahertz. After listening to Network Africa, I tried to juggle up any other channel and scratched Radio Nigeria connected to a network that included Ibadan, Enugu, Ikom, Port Harcourt, Obudu.

A barmy radio presenter, lively and chatty brought me great relief. In between bursts of Highlife music, the presenter was marketing a drug called "Bacteria Master". ‘Know your body’, he interjected as he stringed out the various ailments the wonder drug could combat – toilet infection, whatever that means.

And "martial" herbs that purportedly treat piles, asthma, whooping cough. On the wonder drug list were also heartbeat regulator, libido booster and immune system booster, all of which could be bought off the shelf on Obudu Road, Ikom or Calabar. Another advertisement was screaming a music show in Ikom, "from 8 pm till your mama call you."

Menji is a place on its own. Set about 800 metres on and between steep hills, it dangles between hot and cold temperatures, depending where one is located. It is such a scanty town there is virtually nothing to write about it.

Without Our Lady Seat of Wisdom and had Lady Chiara Luvich not left behind the hospital, Mary Health of Africa, Menji would perhaps have faded into an indistinct memory in the wilderness of wooded hills and valleys. The only time I remember eating anything food at all was a chance luck on something okroish and water fufu. Fried chicken saved the day.

Driving in Lebialem is done in the name of God the Almighty. Lebialem offers the wildest, most unimaginable drives, winding dusty struts of red earth, sheer perpendicular drops with dizzying depths, hair-pin bends and spine-chilling "S" curves. It’s dreadful when it rains. Lucky it didn’t rain on my trip.

When you are setting to go to Lebialem, no matter how new or well-prepared you are, you should expect to eat your own food and drink your own water. So you have got to purchase your supplies in Melong or Dschang. Depending on the time. If you are used to licking achu soup or chomping fufu, you are on a slimming course when you travel to Lebialem.

The only time I remember eating real food was at the Fon of Nkong’s Palace, thanks to a development meeting. And it was not "abe nchi", the Bangwa traditional gastronomy of pounded cocoyam and pumpkin leaves, a delicacy that leaves you with the consideration of relocating to Lebialem, but rice and mackerel stew!

The sun takes its time rising, a slow climb over the hills, in Bechati in Wabane, probably the remotest area of Lebialem. It is a tiny farming and hunting village set in the bottom of a valley and as it is typical of Lebialem, surrounded as by a fort, walls of palm trees fifteen metres high.
The people in Bechati, some descendants of Ejagham, Upper Bayang, speak a different tongue (Mundane) from the Menji folk who share cultural and traditional rites with the Bamileke (Dschang pipi).

The Bechati people are closer to Batibo in the Northwest where some of them descended, and it takes them four hours of trekking to reach Inwe. Don’t ask where it is located. Electricity is a luxury in Bechati and the neighbouring villages of Folepie, Besali, Nkong. It stops at Njinawung, in Alou Sub-division. "May be if the elites do something, we shall have electricity," says one of the villagers.

But the so-called elites don’t seem to be in touch with the needs of the remote villages; schools are housed in ramshackle mud-brick buildings. Except for Curtsey Health Centre run by Professor Teke Lambo, which is still under construction, the only health centre in Bechati is managed by nurses. The far-flung place doesn’t seem to excite doctors. The people, therefore, rely on herbs.

As I drained mugs of palm wine, the vapours of a storm rose skywards and condensed about the village. Exactly an hour later, the storm burst upon Bechati. God bless Lebialem. God bless Les Brasseries du Cameroun. They brace the mind-blowing stony slopes with tons of lager. On the mud block walls are pasted posters singing the praises of beer. Beer is good.

Lebialem packs more tales than can be told in a newspaper column. There are teams of little naked children everywhere. There is palm oil. And a little palm wine too; all the missing pretty girls. Banking is done only in Dschang, beer and other manufactured goods are imported from Dschang. There is no nightclub. No petrol station. No restaurants.

What you want to know, however, about Lebialem, is that it is technically far away from anywhere and everywhere. Living in Lebialem takes fortitude and a great deal of persistence. The Division presents the most hostile terrain ever, but is blessed with so much water that gurgles out in clear streams from the hills.

But the people are agreeable and their determination to thrive in their hostile terrain can be read on signboards that say; "Detamination Restaurant", "Live Your Life as if Today is Your Last Day on Earth", "I Loves Peace", "Best Photo Stadio, Have Your Snap Shut Here".  Life here is further sweetened by the smells that waft from the white flowers of coffee shrubs.

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