-Mobility and hope perspectives from bonaberi-douala



The city of Bonaberi-Douala is a cosmopolitan city with diverse cultures and activities. This is owing to the fact that many villagers from the rural areas have migrated to seek for greener pastures in this city. Cameroon has over the past years been experiencing a gigantic shift in population from the countryside and other provinces to the big cities like Douala the Economic capital and Yaoundé the Political capital. This movement from countryside to cities is for very obvious reasons.

In Douala for instance, most Anglophone Cameroonians settle in Bonaberi otherwise put in a satirical phrase by the francophone Cameroonians as 'les Bamenda'. Bamenda has been known for years as the most rebellious and uncompromising set of people especially to the political party in power.

Due to the recalcitrant nature of the Bamenda people, their town has been left with little or inappropriate structures or better still abandoned forcing many to move to other cities like Bonaberi. Once settled in Bonaberi - Douala, they engage themselves in informal jobs ranging from the loading of buses, car washers, petty traders, hawkers etc.

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This paper, will dwell on how these people manage settlement issues and cope with the fact that most government owned companies in Cameroon have been privatized leading to many jobless people. The paper will also look at how these people encourage or discourage the influx of Chinese people and their goods in this city of Douala. Crime wave is another phenomenon which is increasing by each day passing and making everybody suspicious and unsecured.

The inhabitants of Bonaberi like most Anglophones hold a strong believe that their problems in this cosmopolitan city stem from the regime in power. Once that regime is ousted, they will experience a utopia. The question that immediately comes to mind is whether this dream will eventually come true? The paper will also look into this as well.


Cities are central to anthropological practices. According to Simone (2001), cities are an instrument and platform to mediate the need to reconstitute workable forms of local solidarity and coherence, while, at the same time, develop capacities to access what are often diffuse opportunities at larger scales.

Bonaberi which is the biggest neighbourhood in the city of Douala like most or all cities in the developing countries is experiencing tremendous increase in population which comes as a result of those migrating from the country side to the city. This has far reaching consequences ranging from pollution, organised crimes, juvenile Delinquency, scarcity of settlements and the presence of every aspect that could be found in any big city in Africa.

There is a host of literature about cities in Africa but what is striking about cities in Africa and especially Bonaberi is its diversity and heterogeneity. Also worth noting is the fact that the process of urbanization as Martin, Murray & Myers (2006) in their book titled 'Cities in Contemporary Africa' is a complex, multifaceted, and sometimes contradictory progress that encompasses multiple pathways without a privileged, common end point. While (Simone 2004), on his path writes that cities 'works in progress', at one and the same time driven forward by the inventiveness of ordinary people themselves and held in place by inertia and slowness in adapting to changing circumstance

The other part of the City of Douala is faced with an adverse state not close to any other. There is no single illuminated electric pole in the night, more than 60% of its dwellers are captured in the informal sector, and transport facilities are deplorable while the roads are the most inaccessible in the entire city of Douala. It is again this same Bonaberi that acts as a unifying factor by bringing the formal and the informal sector together.

During the reign of the first president of Cameroon, Ahidjo, Bonaberi was blessed with many public and private companies but for some reason, so many of these companies have either been sold out or completely abandoned. These former companies now serve as houses for street children and arm robbers. Despite the hopeless situation of Bonaberi, more and more people from other towns and villages still feel comfortable settling there while those present move from one area of the city to the next to make ends meet. This image gives Bonaberi a very beelike nature since while others are getting fed up and moving, some are seeing it as their own imaginary space. Bonaberi is therefore looked at by many in a pessimistic view that is the same way Koolhaas sees the city Lagos in Nigeria.

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In this paper, we shall be looking at the various components that make Bonaberi a sort for urban space among the many towns in Douala. Why despite all the harsh nature and almost complete abandonment by the government it still remains the most populated and crowded zone in the entire city of Bonaberi. Could this be linked to Tostensen et al 2001, assumption which enlightens the fact that "there is little agreement over the causes of the ongoing urban crisis, or what to do to reverse the situation. Whereas some attribute the urban crisis largely to explosive population growth and the adverse economic circumstances, others place the blame on corruption, or mismanagement or the failures of municipalities to provide proper institutional and legal frameworks necessary for triggering entrepreneurial growth and development" This sounds like a complete enclosure of every possible hindrance to urban peace and all the aforementioned characteristics are found in Bonaberi. So is there thus hope in the persistence of many in this historical space?

Acquiring Space

Bonaberi is like Jakarta which has its commercial and residential spaces folded together. This has given rise to the fact that most business activities are carried out along the road side. Most market places in Bonaberi extend right to the roads, this is because of the increase in population and the fact that the sheds in the markets were allocated for less people. Others who decide to sell at road sides since it is a means of capturing customers who might be flattered by his own goods rather than going all the way into the market. These people are however looked upon by the state as untidy, disrupting the business of others and usually involve criminals.

Due to this constant quest for the acquisition of more market places close to the road sides, the situation often lead to traffic congestion commonly known in Bonaberi as 'Embouteillage' leading to the rapid intervention of police officers who either destroy goods or molest the traders. Just as Kurt 1998 puts it "All too often, talk of African cities is invariably turned into a dire litany of the seemingly boundless chaos, anarchy and disorder of everyday life. So it suffices for a police to beat up the dwellers of any market place in Bonaberi and before you know it, the entire town is already matching with placards demanding their rights to do business at road sides. This issue of acquiring space for business purposes is a major problem in the entire country, so much so that markets have been constructed in other areas remove people from road sides, still, this is a process that has to continually be handled with a lot of care.

Even with the constant demand for space due to very high land values, Bonaberi can boast of abundant public spaces like saloons, barber shops, sewing shops and above all bars , snacks and off licenses. The inhabitants of Bonaberi believe so strongly in alcohol consumption, that is why every other infrastructure that makes a place urban could be missing but not these drinking spots. They call it 'Opium', since alcohol to them is the only consoling reason in a country infested with bad government. It is for this reason that most streets here like, Entree Matango, Carrefour mutzig, Kwasa kwasa, Entre forêt Bar are all neiboughoods whose names are from a brand of bear or a popular Snack bar.

Transport system

In Dominique Malaquias's statement which says If "Global Cities" are the stuff of instantaneity and the distances collapsed into near nothingness, what is to be made of cities like Douala and Lagos, where travelling from one point to another can take hours and typically involves stops and starts the duration of which cannot be anticipated. This is an apt description of Douala especially the zone of Bonaberi which due to the poor nature of its roads has sent most taxi drivers to the other parts of town. In order to come to Bonaberi from the other end you have to pay an extra fair to the drivers who intern will load more at times up to seven persons in the same taxi. These roads have fostered the advent of motor bike riders commonly known as 'les benskineurs' who take relatively cheaper from their clients but are very reckless riders leading to at least 3 motor bike accidents in Bonaberi on a daily basis. This has however given hope to many youths of the informal sector whose dream is to make enough money from whatever informal activity he is engaged in, so that at the end he can become the proprietor of a motorbike.

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Thousands of youths have joined the motorbike business making it even harder to yield any reasonable amount for livelihood leading to the use of this bikes to rob people at night. The target of these bike riders are mostly women who stand along the road sides to wait for taxis. Their handbags which are most of the time held loosely are often snatched by these bike riders. Apart from theft, some bike riders feel they have a chance in an urban city like Douala but for the fact that recently the government imposed a tax on them which led to enormous chaos and rioting in many towns in Douala. It is for this reason that some "Afro-pessimists suggest that "cities in Africa, like Africa as a whole, are so hopelessly chaotic and disorderly that they are beyond redemption ( Gberie 2005).

Bonaberi also makes use of mini buses also known as 'marché' which carries both people of the formal and informal economy to the most commercial parts of Douala like Akwa, Bonanjo and Mboppi. Though these buses are always very old, rusty and hardly contain good seats, it matches perfectly to the standard of living of the people of Bonaberi who prefer it because it is relatively economical. This transport sector provides employment to many youngsters who help load them with passengers as it makes it way to town. Most young boys dream of getting hired in this 'marché business where they can make at least 1000 FCFA a day and also allowed to pass the night in the buses. To them, their jobs offer housing facilities which is simply passing the night in these buses. They therefore consider themselves richer than millions of other young people living in the city of Douala. Thus "At the turn of the millennium, African cities were driven predominantly by informal practices in such vital areas as work, shelter, land use, transportation and a variety of social services (Stren and Halfani 2001)

Despite all these transport facilities in Bonaberi, many of its dwellers prefer to trek to town. Bonaberi unlike the other zones in Douala has the worst roads. During the rainy reasons potholes are described as rivers or dams making the area almost inaccessible. Many companies have won contracts to construct the road in Bonaberi not leaving out the bridge which is the only link between Bonaberi and the other part of Douala. Most companies like the French and the Chinese had both started work on the Bonaberi road and bridge, but their job is always left at the start of it, since the government is never meting up with payment. Poor roads are a source of income to many in Bonaberi and it is believed some of these youths help increase the potholes so that they can make good money by pushing and pulling trapped vehicles or filling the potholes with gravels and collecting money from drivers. The lack of commitment by the government therefore gives hope to some youths as they have become self employed. Thanks to the potholes and the narrowness of the roads most hawkers and others of the informal sector trek because Bonaberi registers the highest hours of traffic congestions a day. Is it therefore advisable to cover the distance of about 20km on foot and get to your destination well ahead of someone who has boarded car.

The transport system in Bonaberi is the most active sector in Douala since they operate 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. This involves buses leaving Bonaberi to other towns like Bamenda. Bamenda is where most inhabitants of Bonaberi come from. So in the car park, buses leave for Bamenda at 11pm and reach there at 5 AM making it the most preferred time of travelling to many. Due to this, petty traders, park boys or 'chargeur de voiture', hawkers selling especially bread make their living by satisfying these night travelers. Bonaberi can aptly be defined as the neighbourhood of mobility.

Habitat of Violence

"As a general role, contemporary accounts and commentaries on cities in Africa have produced largely mechanistic (and simplistic) accounts of special incoherence, overcrowding , impoverishment, unemployment, decay neglect, organized crime, everyday violence, inter ethnic strife, civil disorder, environmental degradation, pollution, unruly and juvenile delinquency" Gandy (2005). This is a very apt description of the other part of the city of Douala, Bonaberi. Even before the privatization of most government companies, Bonaberi was a violent space, this therefore means the situation has possibly tripled due to the laying off of workers after state owned companies are privatized thus sending thousands of Cameroonians back home.

The state is also blamed for not constructing modern prisons which can contain as many prisoners as possible. The only prison in Douala is that of New Bell which was constructed by the French colonial masters with a capacity to contain less than 1000 inmates. Today, this prison has more than 7000 inmates living behind these dilapidated walls in very inhuman conditions. The more reason why many hardened criminals always manage to escape from the few warders taking care of them. These criminals always come out from prison more dangerous than they went in.

Once out of prison, their easiest targets are bike riders who are always taken to dark neighbourhoods where their hard earned bikes are taken away from them instilling in them the quest for revenge and the chain goes on and on. Violence has become so rampant that it is seen as a day to day activity in Bonaberi making the area virtually impossible to move freely at night and even during the day since you may get into a taxi filled with thieves, take a bike that will change your destination or simply being molested while everyone is afraid to intervene.

Bonaberi was tagged the most violent zone in Douala during the strike contesting the increment of food and fuel prices. The youths of Bonaberi registered the highest amount of destruction on public and private infrastructure, not leaving out the looting of valuable material. It was the only zone that was able to disarm the police force causing them to call for reinforcement. In that same strike, Bonaberi lost about a hundred of their inhabitants who preferred to jump into the Moungo river rather than surrendering to the law enforcement officers. The highest number of arrests was in Bonaberi it bears the stigma of violence,, but despite all that, violence still maintains its tempo in Bonaberi. This shows no doubt that "city officials have met with limited success in promoting orderly urban development, in regulating private entrepreneurship and land use, and in "outlawing systems and practices regarded as unsuitable and undesirable" (Rakodi 2002)

It is generally believed that the urban dwellers of Bonaberi are very violent because the majority of them are people who have migrated from Bamenda a town which has stood its grounds against anything that has to do with the party in power. Bamenda is that city that has the strongest opposition party in the whole of Cameroon and that city that has never fallen into the deceits of the government. It is said that the city of Bamenda has been abandoned without roads and infrastructure as a means to punish the inhabitants for their stubbornness. Since their region Bamenda has been abandoned, the people decided to move to Douala and settle in Bonaberi. It is still due to their recalcitrant ways that developmental projects are hardly introduced in Bonaberi. When the inhabitants from Bamenda commonly called 'chop fire' which stands for people who eat fire or 'Cam no go' meaning people who occupy the lands of others, they destroy public and private property, they say it is simply to send a message to the government since they are not mad at these structures but at the government who puts these structures to serve just a particular class of people and not the majority who are the poor and needy.


Due to the fact most cities in Africa are experiencing a tremendous population growth; housing problem has been one of its major concerns. With the notion that houses were put up to contain people and not to deal with rapid growth as in the case of Bonaberi, certain strategies are usually introduced to remedy the situation especially from the informal economy.

It is worth mentioning that more than half of the population of Bonaberi live in unauthorized settlements since about 75% of the population are engaged in unregistered employment. It is only in a place like Bonaberi where five men doing unregistered jobs are able to rent a one room house with a mattress on the floor just to lay their head at night but find it difficult to pay the sum of 10000 FCFA a month as rent. This is because most unregistered jobs in Bonaberi mostly pay just the amount capable of buying lunch. Life is very difficult in Bonaberi even after sharing a room with two or more people. It is for this reason that Gilbert and Gugler 1992 argues that "Regardless of the specific focus, scholarship frequently claims that there is a close relationship between poverty, informal housing and informal income generation".

With housing in the informal sector tenants have come up with other methods to meet up with monthly rents. Housing in many informal settlements has become commercialized and a variety of housing sub-markets has emerged (Amis and Lloyd 1990). When a tenant takes a room, the next thing you realize is the number of people getting in everyday. Activities in it range from hairdressing, beer parlors, restaurants etc. It is only at night that the owner of this room uses it for sleeping. Some of this rooms on the other hand may show no signs of visitors during the day but receive as many male visitors at night. This is a case where, the room has been turn into a hotel where men come in and pay for sex. We can again put the blame on poverty as Hansen outlines

" Because of poverty, and because they may face legal or other constraints in the formal housing market, many de facto and de jure women headed households seek shelter as tenants in the cheapest sections of the unauthorized settlements. Some are able to secure a house there making a living from letting out rooms (Hansen 1997). The result is overcrowding in existing informal settlements whose population growth is accommodated on sub divided plots in a proliferation of rented rooms. (Potts and Mtambirwa 1991) .This practice is very common among city dwellers of Bonaberi. There could be problems only when your tenants are unable to pay their rents. So with this survival strategy of the commercialization of rented rooms, these excluded masses are able to pay their rents;

Despite the hope due to creativity and struggle, the majority of Bonaberi still feel it is a place that leaves much to be desired. Since there is misappropriation and government pays no heed to the cries of this people, this has led to variety of initiatives "... civic associations and NGOs, fuelling the informalization of services that the state is unable to provide. (Tostensen et al. 2001) For instance Habitat for Humanity which is an international NGO, is doing a great job of constructing houses which will be given to the people of Bonaberi and many other towns and localities of Cameroon, at very cheap prices. Some micro finances have organized forums whereby youths doing petty businesses like the call box Business, traders, bike riders etc would be given the opportunity to save their meager earnings the banks and given the opportunity to burrow depending on how serious you are handling your business.

That notwithstanding, settlement issues are still a major problem in Bonaberi since many youths have turned abandoned buildings, cars, offices, and business milieus into a place where they can rest their heads at night. The government too is making things rather worst for these urban settlers as many of them have been asked to evacuate their settlements because they are endangered zones or simply because the government wants to invest or put up a structure in the area.

Political Engagements

Bonaberi is seen as the political stronghold of the opposition party. This does not exempt other political parties from doing their campaigns in this Zone. When these political parties come in to share party tee shirts and money, the entire Bonaberi is behind the party. As soon as you leave and another comes, the same people are behind the other party singing its praise and jubilating. If you ask a youth why they attend all these political rallies, you will find out that most of them really do not care what these parties are fighting for. The only reason why they are here is because they know that they will be entitled to a tee shirt each, maybe some money if it is the party in power and there is always enough food after the numerous speeches. A youth will not mind listening to all the loud sounding speeches and promises and in turn gets a decent meal.

These youths believe that if they are wallowing in despondency today, it is thanks to the ruling party who is doing nothing for the people but selling their infrastructures, embezzling state money and transferring it into foreign accounts while the majority is suffering. They believe that someday somehow, the government in place will be pushed aside and a new one will come to their recue. It is for this reason why the ruling party can win all its parliamentary seats or presidential votes in every other zone but for the Bonaberi zone that has never given the president that honour. For years, their votes have been channeled to the most popular opposition party of Cameroon, the social Democratic Front (SDF) which is believed to have a very strong influence on the youth. This explains why during the 2008 upheavals in Cameroon, the president was quick to accuse the opposition leader of SDF as being the brain behind the riots.

Bonaberi: Every night is Xmas

If you make a simple differentiation between Bonaberi and another zone in Douala like Bonanjo, one will think, they are not zones in the same city looking at the beautiful layout of Bonanjo and the availability or ramshackle buildings in Bonaberi. But again, when you pass through Bonanjo at night, the place looks very quiet and uninhabited while in Bonaberi despite the absence of a single street light, still has lighting through bulbs from snacks, call boxes, women roasting corn and fish and from cars looking for a suitable place to park.

It is at these bars and snacks that the dwellers of Bonaberi come to show how successful their day had been. Those who made quite much, but for their friends and those who made a little money buy for themselves or simply buy palm wine which is relatively cheaper from the next door. While these men are chatting and watching football, girls around the neighborhood come around to see if the night is promising. If a man invites a girl and buys her a bottle of bear, she already knows that he will be paying her for sex that night. From drinking they can move to the next building which has a cheap night club where they will dance to the rhythm of both old and new African music.

While the music in the snacks are echoing in the night, gospel music is also being heard from a nearby Pentecostal church which has converted many Christians from other churches who were feeling inferior because their former churches are asking for offerings they cannot afford. They have now found new happiness in these churches that demand nothing from its Christians. There is never a time of the night in Bonaberi that people will not be seen celebrating outside. There is no need therefore for a Christmas since everyday is a Christmas in Bonaberi

Way Forward

Most urban dwellers in Bonaberi feel that they are in a transit city. Most of them look at other cities and countries as cities of utopia. They yearn and long for the opportunity where they will amass enough wealth to take off to the other side. This idea has been clearly supported by Malaquais (2004), where according to her, in Nylon as in most quarters of Cameroon's economic capital; the matter of coming and going is paramount. Virtually every conversation leads, at some point to a discussion of leaving. Dreams of elsewhere are everywhere European and American countries are among the destinations to which increasing numbers of Africans migrate in order to enhance family livelihoods at home (MacGaffey, Janet and Remy Bazenguissa- Ganga, 2000). If they cannot or have not achieved this goal, they most often than not leave in a dream world as seen through AbdouMaliq Simone extracts from Malam who leaves in another notorious neighbourhood in Douala as he says "We in New Bell always seem to imagine ourselves somewhere else. While we don't necessarily want to leave, we behave as if we already have. This affects us in various ways. On the other hand, those who are neighbors, who share this street, sometimes act as if they don't see what is going on. The life around them doesn't impact them because they are not really here; they are living their dream. On the other hand because so many people are in so many other places in their minds, this becomes their only common point of view; and so they can't really ask each other for anything; can't rely on one another, because no one has sense of what other are really experiencing. Also it means that things are sped up: the children have already left the house and gone somewhere else; the father is already old the mother is already old. The normal rhythm of growing up, of dying, of leaving and coming back is all collapsed into a single note that everyone sings. And so no one listens. It is a way of living everywhere and nowhere at the same time. (2002).

Bonaberi dwellers want to leave despite the fact that thousands of Cameroonians are being shipped back home from Equatorial Guinea every year is enough reason for them to believe that they are being shipped back because the country is endowed with unimaginable riches and so they have to get there too somehow. As any youth in Bonaberi saves a bit of money, it is hardly ever because he wants to build a house or get married in the nearest future, money is saved for an opportunity that will remove them from the mess of the country. As for those who can only fantasize, they live their dream by dressing like American rap stars and use phrases and greeting styles only common to the western world. By so doing they derive enormous pleasure. While others are simply fantasizing, some spend sleepless nights in cyber cafes trying fraud white people on sending them money which they can use to travel. Many at times succeed giving others the zeal to engage in similar activities as a means of survival.

It is only a minimum number of these urban settlers who finally decide to go back to the countryside after trying so hard to make ends meet in Bonaberi. Many always say, only their corpses will go back to the village since it is an abomination for them to go back to their hometowns worst than they had left. Many of them however overlook humiliations and mockery and get back to the village where they can do farming and the tapping of palm wine. Others who feel dying in this urban space is the best solution are usually rushed back home for traditional medical care when infected with a disease. It is worth noting that most Pharmacies in Bonaberi have closed down completely or are close to bankruptcy since urban dwellers in this area, can't afford drugs from the pharmacy. They prefer to buy cheap drugs from the roadsides which have been illegally smuggled from Nigeria. Despite efforts made by pharmacy owners and the state, drugs from roadsides still flourish since they are relatively cheap.

So with all the mobility and hope continually nursed by many living in this urban space known as Bonaberi, our question is whether some at least manage to live their urban dreams to the fullest since no one will testify that after everything Bonaberi is better than home.

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