As an African, traveling around the continent is something I’ve looked forward to. An opportunity came when recently I was selected as one of the three science/environment journalists to participate in a climate change adaptation workshop in Yaounde, Cameroon.
Cameroon is a neighboring country to Nigeria but it is located in Central Africa. The border between Nigeria and Cameroon is mainly in the Southern state of Cross Rivers and up North. Nigeria and Cameroon can be described as a Siamese twins surgically separates. This notion is more understandable in view of the fact that some parts of Cameroon used to be in Southern Nigeria, including the disputed oil rich Bakassi, peninsula. This geographical closeness of Nigeria and Cameroun has naturally created some cultural affinity, but the then struggle for control between France and Britain threw Nigeria and Cameroon in different sub regions of the continent. Nigeria, Africa’s giant is in the West, while Cameroun, its neighbour is in Central Africa.
My friend and Colleague, Bernice Atabong whom I first met when we were both selected to travel with a caravan of youths from different countries by road from Kenya across six African countries as we reported on climate change instantly connected with me. I remember telling her she is from the Efik ethnic group in Nigeria because her surname sounds strikingly similar to the names of the Efik.
But having to travel to Cameroon by air was a totally different experience because my study of the map made me believe the trip to Cameroon was going to be a stroll across the border. However, I was taken aback by the bottleneck that characterised air travel between what I thought should be ordinarily a short distance between two neigbouring countries. In dismay, I later came to the conclusion that the nature of the aviation sector in the continent portrays the fact that Travelling Around Africa is a Herculean task.
In Nigeria, only Arik Air and Aero contractor fly to Douala and the take off point is Lagos, Nigeria’s economic nerve centre. Also the flights are not available everyday; Arik Air does not operate on Mondays and Fridays. When I received an email with my flight itinerary, I was shocked to discover that to board the next connecting flight from Douala to Yaounde, I would have to wait for about six hours. What will I be doing with myself during these long hours that could as well serve as a working shift!
So I was able to endure the waiting period as I made some friends that kept me company. When leaving Lagos, the Arik staff at the ticket counter claimed I needed a visa to travel to Cameroon. I rejected the claim, showing him a photocopy of my authorization letter, which stated clearly that I could obtain my visa on arrival. But I was pleasantly surprised when I got to Douala, and the immigration officer told me I needed no visa since I was not staying more than 90 days in Cameroon.
The Douala International Airport is the most lonely walk-way I have ever walked in my travel years. At a point I thought, I was in the wrong place. Also there were no signals pointing direction of exit or entry from the point of arrival when you step out of the aircraft.
On the day I was to return to Lagos, I was a bit glad that my waiting time between my connecting flight was less than three hours. But drama started for me when I was to pay what was called airport tax at Yaounde Airport; the amount was1,000 CFA. I didn’t pay this tax when I came into the country, why was I now being told to pay? Then again, when I got to Douala, I was told to pay another airport tax of 10,000 CFA! Why the surprise tax! How was a foreigner or tourist suppose to know this as there was no notice to that effect? Will they start changing money to pay tax, especially as the airports is normally crowded by touts waiting to exploit a stranger? Not that I didn’t have the money to pay, but when I arrived I never paid any airport tax so why was I now paying when leaving the country? I felt it would have been easier for the airline to charge passengers as part of the ticket price.
At Douala Airport my flight was meant to depart Douala to Lagos for6:25pm and I arrived from Yaounde at about 10 minutes to 3pm. At this time, according to aviation rules an international flight boarding counter was meant to be open. But that was not the case for Arik Air in Douala. The counter did not open till about one hour to the stated departure time. To make the matter more annoying, only one counter was opened. This made passengers wait endlessly for just a simple checking in. When we asked why only one person was attending to us,we were told that was what Arik could afford.
We were on the queue till the flight was shifted to 7:25pm and after two hours, the flight was finally cancelled according to the Arik staff that came to address the passengers. He said due to technical reasons the plane meant to pick Douala passengers, was coming from Kinshasa but that was no longer possible due to technical fault. The cancellation would now apply to both Douala and Kinshasa passengers. He told us Arik would not operate till Tuesday and gave us the alternative of either booking another flight,contacting our agent for refund for those that bought through an agent, collecting the refund directly from Arik for those that bought through Arik or wait till Tuesday to fly with Arik. What splendid alternatives! Some passengers had connecting flight from Lagos to other parts of Nigeria, one passenger was meant to leave for UK, others had different business and personal engagements to catch up! So who takes care of all the mess? After a chain argument and negotiations, for passengers not living in Douala, we were lodged in a hotel not far from the airport.
Afrique Hotel was where we all spent our night. We were able to eat dinner at past midnight and went to bed afterwards. The hotel appeared to be a new hotel or probably, a renovated hotel as construction work was still ongoing in some parts of it. The lobby of this hotel is quite amazing with architectural masterpiece interior decor. The room were I was lodged look portable and quite to size with all the basic for comfort well placed. But the design of the bathroom is challenging in the sense that there was no barrier or divider between the shower place and the toilet. This now makes flooding of the room possible. To avoid this, you have to be vigilant and use your leg to stop the water from spilling into the room. What a bad icing to a well baked cake! Also some hotels are more interested in displaying wall clock with different time zone and also accommodation cost in foreign currencies, than improving service delivery.
My personal observation both at home in Nigeria and some countries within Africa is that more attention is given to aesthetic than service delivery. A hotel is not adjudged five or four stars by time zone or foreign currency for accommodation payment but by efficient service delivery in the area of customer satisfaction, courteous and solution offering front desk staff, prompt room service delivery, easy mode of payment through multi-financial platform like POS, online transfers etc. some hotel porters only dress beds without changing the bed sheets. This exposes customers to infection which could best be termed opportunistic. You came into a hotel healthy and leave infected and sick!
I was able to book another flight with Aero contractor that was departing for Lagos that afternoon. What I regretted was not paying online when I booked because by the time I got to the counter the booking was cancelled and I had to pay extra #6,000 from the price I got earlier on. Aero contractor kept to time as boarding started at 12noon which was one hour to departure and we landed in Lagos five minutes before the official time.
Why bore you with his stressful travelogue? If I was to travel to Europe say Madrid, Amsterdam or London. I would have long arrived and settled than the whole time I spent traveling and connecting within Africa. For traveling either for business or leisure in Africa to be attractive to locals, tourists and even foreign investors, there is the need to remove unnecessary bottlenecks that make travel a pain.
The issue of language barrier is there for Anglophone and Francophone countries. Why employ security,immigration officials that can’t communicate in English for a country like Cameroon that is bi-lingual? Why believe every passengers speaks French? If these hiccups between airlines and airport operations can’t be eradicated, there is no need wasting money on cosmetic adverts on cable networks inviting tourists to any country! When you visit airports like Dubai, Amsterdam you see the beauty of self help. As machines are positioned strategically with ease to follow directives and you print out your boarding passes, these reduce human contact and enable the aviation industry of the aforementioned countries focus on other areas that need improvement and innovation.
If I had alternatively travelled by road from Nigeria to Cameroon and vice-versa, I’m sure I would have arrived much earlier and relaxed than going through the stressful reality of flying the Lagos-Cameroon-Lagos route!
Tina Armstrong-Ogbonna, is a freelance journalist based in Lagos Nigeria
She blogs at teenanews.blogspot.com