Transport in Cameroon is one of those outwardly chaotic systems with a surprising amount of efficacy. You can get almost anywhere in Cameroon without a car and on a budget. For an outsider, it tends to be uncomfortable and cumbersome, but getting from Point A to Point B also happens to be cheap enough that the average Cameroonian can afford it and those are the target customers. The proliferation of VIP buses in many of the larger cities indicate that Cameroonians are also not crazy about being crowded onto fuming, disintegrating buses.
Which brings us to hitchhiking—the non-VIP alternative to public transport. Internationally, hitchhiking is more common than in the United States; in Russia it has found itself being regulated and in Cuba it is the de facto transport method for urban women. Most drivers in Cameroon are men. In fact, I’ve only ever ridden in a car with a woman driver once, she made nothing of it but happens to spend half of the year in England and South Africa. To get a ride you should go to the main road. Sometimes, there is a man there who somehow makes his living hailing down buses and negotiating prices. You can tell him where you are going (tell him you want a private car) and see what he produces, or you can stray a bit away from the crowd to try your own luck. If you are doing this without the help of the worker, as a car approaches in the direction you are going, stick out your finger or point in the direction you are going, if they roll down the window or seem curious through body language tell them where you are going as they pass. Watch because they might slow down. Next, you run up and tell them your destination, sometimes they will negotiate price on the spot. Always ask locals in advance how much you should pay to get where you are going.
How to have a decent hitchhiking experience:
- If you can’t hold it in your lap, leave it home. When a driver slows down, if they see you bringing a roller suitcase plus the kitchen sink he will step on the gas. You need to be mobile. This is also just common sense because it reduces your chances of loosing something or being seriously robbed.
- Dress how you want to be perceived. This is especially true for women. Cameroonians place a high value on physical appearance. You are supposed to look clean; women should wear dresses and try to look as fancy as you can afford. Knowing this, I do the opposite. I generally wear clothes that are already dirty, stains are fine, my shoes have visibly been repaired countless times and are held together by black thread, my pants have multiple holes in them and are probably men’s pants I got out of a hand-me-down box in Yaoundé. I want the driver to view me as poor, and as unsexy as possible. It reduces harassment, marriage proposals and people taking advantage of you.
- When possible, do not pay in advance. This gives you the opportunity to charm the driver and possibly reduce your gas fee. I once had a driver explain to me that the more visible I am in the car, the less the police harass him for bribes because they think I might be a diplomat (considering the previously mentioned outfit, I found this laughable) which gives him his own monetary advantage. The man who hails cars for you at the main road may ask for money in advance, this is so he can take his own cut. That’s fine, but if you end up getting your own car, you might lose that money.
- Find commonalities and smile. Generally, be nice. You represent your family, your culture, your organization. Ask them about their tribe and family. Remember that Bamileke are good business people and flatter them with this when you find out that is their tribe. When you find out that your driver is Bakossi, greet them in their language or talk to them about their Christmas traditions. You get the idea.
- There is a certain power structure in hitchhiking in this transaction. Especially if you are female. The driver is not in business and he can dump you at any point. Most drivers won’t, but realize that you, the passenger, are the vulnerable one. For example, if the driver asks for my phone number I always give it to him. That doesn’t mean I pick up the phone later, but I don’t want to be stuck in his car defending why I don’t want to talk to him after this.
- Life is just easier if you are a man or in a group.