Today I sought out downtown Bamenda in hopes of finding solace in its café that panders to Westerners. PresCraft (Www.PresCraft.com) is a fine arts and craft store that provides a place for handicrafts and other amazing and authentic art works to be purchased at fair trade prices. PresCrafts are stationed all around the country, each displaying primarily local art. Bali, my new village, even has one for its renowned pottery and wood works. With some PresCrafts come PresCafes, cozy eateries that serve Western-style fare with locally available produce. Luckily for us, Bamenda has a lot of locally available produce. The ambiance of a PresCafe is usually set with pieces from next door’s PresCraft. Everything you’re sitting on, sipping out of or looking at can be found, and purchased, for a price that’s good for you and for the craftsmen who make them.
Ex-pats, which is a group of people I suppose I belong to now, often come to the café to experience what is as close to a typical American day as we can manage. Inside the café is chic, the bathrooms are spotless, and they can serve you big cups of cappuccino that would make Starbucks greener with envy.
A friend and I had decided to lunch there. I ordered a caprese pasta salad with honest-to-goodness cheese and she ordered a soup that reminded us of autumn back home. We ran into an acquaintance, a volunteer from Canada, and as we all snacked together we noticed the clouds start to churn and the sky start to darken.
The day had been beautiful up until then, hot even. Now, as is typical, the afternoon storm started rolling in over the Grasslands and people began to notice drops falling occasionally on their stroll through the market. As it picked up we too noticed the drops. Tin roofs are typical here and while the sound of rain on one when I first arrived in country was quaint, it now just alerts me that all conversation is going to come screeching to a halt until the rain moves on.
Steadily our conversation petered out, fighting the pitter patters. If we yell we can manage, so yell we do. Then even yelling fails to help. This is the hardest rain I’ve come across in country, I think to myself. Just then, my friend motions for me to take a look out the front doors.
This is no longer just rain. This is hail. Hail the size of pennies pelts people fleeing from the roads. It slams into the concrete like little missiles and bounces back up to wreak havoc again. Ice, freezing cold ice, is blanketing equatorial Africa. The people outside look at all the white people inside with a quizzical expressions –“What is this?!” they seem to ask. A questioned posed to our waitress confirms it—Bamenda hasn’t seen hail in decades, and never in her lifetime.
The force with which the hail is slamming into these poor stranded people on the café’s porch increases—tremendously. The wind blows something fierce. The awning that provided a haven for the first minutes of the storm no longer proves itself as an aid. Hail and wind join forces to blow what are now quarter-sized chips of ice sideways into Cameroonians desperately huddling under hoodies and jockeying for the safest position behind jackets.
Inside we are slack-jawed. We are quickly snapped out of our trances when water begins pouring into the café. The tin roof has failed us and now between the cracks in the ceiling’s tiles Mother Nature exacts revenge on us for daring to think that holing up in coffee house would keep up dry. Hurricane-like winds whip more hail, more rain, and more street debris against the windows of the store. It can’t possibly take a beating like that much longer and I’m worried that soon I’ll be shuttling people towards the bathroom to take cover for a typhoon. Taxis are halting, the people in them not daring the challenge the flood of water that is taking over the street. The people outside have disappeared now, to where we can’t see. Vendors’ umbrellas struggle to fight against the blows. Some have lost the battle and join the produce bobbing in the streets.
And then, just like that, it ends. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds, coaxing the buy’em-sell’ems back to their wares. People go back to talking, laughing. Eventually we too head out into the aftermath. The hail has already melted—there was no fighting against the heat of the sidewalk. We continue on our way, finishing up shopping here and there, grabbing a sweater or two for when the night turns the town cold.
The storm came in, the storm came out. With it was brought the affirmation: There is no such thing as a typical day in Cameroon.