Posts Tagged ‘yaoundé’

Dreams and elegant perseverance

October 12, 2014

Recently, news reached me of the death, last month, of Simon Pierre Bell, filmmaker, film festival organiser, eternal optimist and a friend.

‘Drop everything and make sure you get here.’ It was not exactly in those terms that he invited me to the first edition of “Images en Live”, a documentary festival that he and his friends had organised in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé but sure enough that is what he meant.

We had met two years previously at a jazz festival in the Senegalese town of Saint Louis and had kept in touch. Bell (which is how he signed off his emails and how everyone called him) was immersed in arts. Film especially, but his curiosity ensured he enjoyed many art forms, including music, hence the jazz festival meeting. And fashion, he had a marvellous knack for sartorial elegance.

“Images en Live” was his idea. ‘We are inundated by work about us, but not by us,’ he told me. ‘We have countless foreign filmmakers coming here to put together documentaries – about us. I think it would be ideal for us Africans to realise our own images.’

There were more layers to his initiative. Not only were these locally made films (including his own); they were also meant to showcase what the young of his city, his country were capable of. ‘People should have some confidence in us. We do what we say,’ he told me on the opening night of the first “Images en Live”. Was that the mildest of rebukes to a political class that talked a lot and had achieved next to nothing? Could be.

Because here’s another layer: creating your own images and showing them to the world is liberating in and of itself. But, insisted Bell, it also does something else: ‘As documentary makers we ask difficult questions to the society we live in and try to change people’s mentalities. You don’t achieve this by importing images.’ The first festival featured at times confrontational but also humoristic insights into life in what everyone (who doesn’t live there) thinks is a dangerous slum, government-mandated house demolitions, adoption, living with polio, story telling, changes in rural Cameroon and much more…

Donors were not that interested, initially. But that did not deter him, in two ways. First off, he, his family and friends managed to finance the entire first edition of “Images en Live” from their own pockets. It took place in December 2009. But second, he coolly went back to the donor community after the success of that first edition and found them more open to his ideas. Lesser mortals like myself would have told them to get lost forever but resentment versus healthy pragmatism? No contest.

Opening night, first "Images en Live", Yaoundé, 8 December 2009

Opening night, first “Images en Live”, Yaoundé, 8 December 2009. Picture by this blogger. 

Films about here, made here, by filmmakers from here required an audience from here. That posed a problem because the number of cinemas that could be used for that purpose in Yaoundé had dwindled to…zero. They had been turned into places of worship, supermarkets, warehouses. Was there a solution? Always.

The two foreign cultural centres in town, French and German, offered their projection halls. Fine for the expats and the local bon chic bon genre who frequent these places. ‘We cannot do without them,’ Bell insisted. ‘But we also have a traveling cinema. We are bringing film to the people! If we don’t do this they will think that film is just for the elites and that’s not true. They should be able to see these images as well, ask questions and contribute to the evolution of this society.’ It was not easy.

One night, behind a parking lot and watched by some disinterested shop owners, the organisers and a dwindling crowd of spectators waited until the crew showed up – hours late – with the projector and the mobile screen. The next night though, revenge was sweet as a much larger crowd of people showed up, watched the films, stayed on and discussed until late in the evening. Luckily, this was within walking distance of his own home, which he had generously converted into a B&B. For me.



The festivals continued, every year, in December. I received an invitation for the second edition and never made it. Flying from Dakar to Yaoundé is insanely expensive and I was unable to cover even less than a quarter of the airfare. After “Images en Live” Second Edition, Bell sent me an email and said this time it had exceeded all expectations: full houses everywhere, projections all over town that had pulled large crowds. So, a visit to number three then? That was on the cards but the one airline that made this connection without taking me halfway around the world folded that year, 2011, thanks to the Ivorian political crisis. We stayed in touch through the internet, on the phone occasionally and kept on mentioning meeting up again, for his graduation earlier this year, for the next festival…

At the opening night of the very first “Images en Live”, I asked him where we would be in five years’ time. He was characteristically optimistic and predicted a festival in full bloom, a window on a centre of excellence in documentary making. None of us had the faintest idea that this next edition of “Images en Live”, five years after our conversation, would happen without him. It will be a tribute, it must be. Here’s to you, Simon Pierre Bell, to your life, your work and your dreams. They will surely live on and you will surely be part of them.

If anyone reading this is in Yaoundé, there is a special evening in his honour on October 14, at the Institut Français.

We need planes and lots of them!!

December 19, 2009

In flagrant contradiction, some may say, to my tale about city air, I am now going to argue for more planes in the West African skies. Plenty more and plenty cheaper. Sorry about that.

Actually no. Not sorry at all. Care to know why?

West Africa is where the EU was sixty years ago, even under similar circumstances. We have at least five countries slowly emerging from decades of debilitating political instability and war (Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, maybe even Guinea Bissau and Mali to a lesser extent). Others, like Guinea, are dangerously heading in the opposite direction or starting to sail into hazardous territory (Senegal, Niger). But in the main, things have started to look better. What we now need is growth, jobs – and we need it fast before everyone has left on those dreadful fishing boats.

But who’ll deliver? Easy: Africa and nobody else. Fortress Europe is closed, no trader bothers going there. Aid doesn’t work; we all know that. Asia is selling more to Africa than vice versa, the Americas are distant friends at best. There is an urgent need to start doing some very serious business – right here.

For this you must be able to move around. And there’s the rub: we have no infrastructure. Many roads that carry people, goods, money, trade are in an appalling condition. Examples? Dakar-Bamako by bus sets you back two days (the train takes twice as long). Including a slow border crossing, a dodgy night at the bus station at Kayes, Mali – and long stretches of road on the Senegalese side where the maximum speed is that of a horse-drawn cart.

Two days. Meanwhile: flying time from Dakar to Bamako? One hour.

Here’s another one. Abidjan – Ouagadougou. Lovely train ride, I have done it myself. But the tracks are so old that the average speed on this 1100-plus kilometre stretch is…28km/hr. You do the math. And don’t forget to include the long delays at the border.

Again: two days. Flying time from Abidjan to Ouaga? One hour thirty minutes.

But it’s not just time. In Guinea, Mali you can’t travel at night. Bandits. In Ivory Coast, you pay at every road block; Nigeria is worse. Pickpockets in uniform. I once crossed from Sierra Leone into Liberia with a four friends who did not speak English. The Sierra Leonean border guards, police, customs, immigration officials manning the 17 (!!!) control posts, all of which had to be passed on foot in the driving rain, robbed them of an amount that would have almost covered the price of an air ticket.

“Almost”. Because flying in this region is criminally expensive. A six- hour trip from here to Yaoundé, Cameroon, just set me back one thousand euros. That’s 50 per cent MORE than I paid for my six months Amsterdam-Dakar round trip. That one-hour flight to Bamako is certain to cost me upwards of €300. Abidjan? Could be €400-plus. And I am dreading the booking of my Monrovia trip. The company that flew there from Dakar has just folded…

These are 1980s Europe prices. Reason: the prolonged existence of under-scale, top-heavy and mostly inefficient state-run monopolies of the kind that got destroyed in Europe in the 1990s. (Exceptions do exist in both places.) The other reason is taxation. The Copenhagen climate summit has not brought in the booty that many states in these parts had been hoping for. That’s bad news for the patronage systems that underpin these states. But taxation on air tickets has been increased three, fourfold. Fully one-third of my Yaoundé ticket was tax. No one knows where this money goes. Not good, not good at all…

Here’s the inconvenient truth. The kind of trips that West Africans have to endure in order to get to the next country, visit family, friends, do business would kill most of you reading this. It will take a lot of time to build the infrastructure that has made travelling in Europe such a walk in the park. And until such a time, flying is the alternative. Putting this option beyond the reach of, say, 95% of the people is quite simply, criminal.

So easyjet: Come On In! Africans move about in great numbers and they will bring the cash if someone can even half the kind of wretched stress, misery, humiliation, agony and unwanted expenses they endure on the road. There is a growing middle class of professionals, ex-migrants and entrepreneurs and for them, a no-frills, low-cost airline would be an immense bonus. Family visit to Bamako? A €120 round trip is doable. Business in Abidjan? €180 maximum. No hassles, no huge losses of time, no bribes to pay, no fear of bandits, just a smooth 2 hours 30 minutes and you’re there.

Going to Yaoundé I was offered to fly through…Brussels, Paris, Casablanca, Addis Ababa and Nairobi. I finally settled for the only one that would not take me halfway round the world. This simply will not do. Oh and the fare? I’d be happy to see it cut to, say, €400. Not exactly low cost but it’s getting there.

yep - talking about more of these.....

(I have emailed easyjet – they haven’t replied yet…)

Yaoundé night theatre

December 11, 2009

This town shuts down at midnight. Incredibly, the government has decided that after midnight folks should be at home recovering and getting ready for work the next day. The order has ostensibly been issued to address the drinking habits of the Cameroonians although you could easily translate this into yet another attempt to control people’s movements…

In any case, celebrations (even those pertaining to a successful film festival), tend to start and end early. If only to avoid the annoying roadblocks and checkpoints that insinuate themselves onto crossroads and thoroughfares as the evening progresses.

Years ago, the Economist wrote a story about a beer transport from the Cameroonian port city of Douala to a place in the interior. The correspondent calculated that the numerous checkpoints along the way, the delays and payment of bribes amounted to fully one-third of the value of the cargo.

No economic loss in our case but still, it was interesting to observe. We were passing through one of those vital crossroads in town and sure enough, there they were. Uniforms, guns, flashlights, torches, the lot. The gendarmes target taxi drivers because they have money. And Christmas is around the corner. So basically, the uniforms look for anything that might not be in order. If they find nothing, they invent an infraction.

Stay in the car. It is late and dark. The taxi driver has left. He is discussing his predicament (always something to do with missing paperwork) with two of the uniforms, one male, one female (the latter usually being even more difficult to deal with). The discussion goes on a bit. Meanwhile, uniform number three is walking around the vehicle asking for our papers. Never leave home without papers or a duly legalised passport copy. (I have precisely such an item glued to my chest.)

The discussion heats up. ‘I can take you to the police post,’ we overhear one of the uniforms say. The taxi driver’s reply is inaudible.

On it goes. At one point, after some 15 minutes, we decide it’s enough and get out of the car.

‘We’re getting another cab.’
‘That’s not necessary, we’re done here.’
And indeed, driver gets behind wheel in a state of aggravated agitation. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my papers, these people…’
‘Yes, it’s almost Christmas. They need the money….’

It’s a choreography, it’s a piece of theatre. It’s acted out hundreds of thousands of times across the length and breadth of the continent. It’s annoying, comical, can be threatening and usually ends after some protracted negotiation. Checkpoints, a disease this continent needs like it needs a new strain of animal flu. But it will be with us for some time….

The rest of the trip, through a city whose 2 million inhabitants have suddenly vanished from the streets, is uneventful. But even the little kiosk right across the road from where I stay and where I had a lovely relaxed evening the night before – is already closed. Dommage.

Film hunger

December 10, 2009

This is why I’m here: got re-acquainted with an old friend I knew from a jazz festival in Saint Louis du Sénégal, a few years ago. Simon Pierre Bell, artist, filmmaker, just sent me a mail telling me he had organised a documentary festival in his town. He was paying part of the festival cost out of his own pocket and as a result lived like a hermit.

Intrigued? I was. So I checked my bank account, got myself a ridiculously expensive air ticket to Yaoundé (but that’s a rant for another day) et me voila içi. This is a huge place, built on hills (seven, like Roma and Lisbon), which means the roads twist and turn and double back on themselves. Add to that the usual anarchic traffic and you have a paradise for…taxi drivers. They pretty much have the place to themselves and so you may find yourself waiting endlessly until one of them deigns to take you with him. You either have the wrong destination or you don’t offer them enough fare. Destination and proposed fare are both shouted through the open car windows up front and then the driver either beeps his consent (rare) or thumbs his nose, puts on an expression of deep miserable contempt for the would-be passenger – and presses the accelerator (frequently).

 So, on to the festival, Image En Live, as Bell calls it. Now first off, here in Yaoundé, like everywhere else in Africa, movie theatres have been converted to supermarkets, churches, offices or warehouses. So where do you put on a documentary film festival? In the only places that still have a screen: the French and German cultural centres. But my good friend has plans a tad more ambitious: he wants the films shown in the outlying areas of this vast town. We’ll see if that succeeds, the logistics are pretty daunting.

Image en live has put together a pretty big program, some 50 films are shown in a matter of days. Most have the signature of an African filmmaker. A big plus as I found out to my pleasant surprise. Why is that?

 OK. First, they are not handicapped by a Western mindset. So the idea that a film, or a report, or a documentary, must be made to show some kind of suffering in order to get help to these poor folks, is mercifully absent. The films I have seen so far also remain equally mercifully free of the usual desire to moralise and pass judgement.

What you see, therefore, is what you get. A portrait of a notorious Yaoundé neighbourhood (called: My Eldorado). Trucks getting stuck en route in the DR Congo. A portrait of a builder of musical instruments.

And one that I particularly liked: a personal story of a young woman who lived through a series of in-family adoptions. This is a common practice in many parts of Africa (the film was shot in Mali) and Awa Traoré puts her own experience, a mixture of good and bad, in context. She talks to mothers who have been adopting children, she talks to those who have been adopted. Some of them have had happy times, others have had experiences so dreadful that they have decided to live on the street. She goes back to her old village and talks to an old griot (the singer/storyteller who is the repository of tradition), who explains why this practice exists.

Once again and crucially, she does something most Westerners coming to these shores are unable to do: she leaves you to make up your own mind. No development agenda, no dogma (religious, environmentalist, feminist or otherwise), no moral panic button: just show how things are, don’t tell anyone how and what to think.

These are the kind of films that could only be made here. And they will increasingly be made here. Simon Pierre Bell has opened up a rich seam here and we have something to celebrate.