Strange things can sometimes happen to you on the bus from Yaoundé to Douala. One afternoon about a month ago, l took a seat on a bus from the capital city. I thought it was just going to be a calm trip back to base but how wrong I was! Just as the bus was about to crawl out of the station, a young woman walked in with a small boy, five or six years old. I was sitting way at the back by the window and the seat beside me seemed to be the only one that was empty. They walked up to it and the woman asked me if there was anyone on it. The answer being negative, she sat the kid on it, fastened his seatbelt and then turned round and I thought she was going to her own seat, but then she instead headed for the door. I called out to her and, pointing to the child, asked if she was leaving him all by himself. She said she was not leaving him alone since I was there and that I should not worry as there would be someone at the Douala end of the journey to collect him; “Je vous le confie donc!” [I leave him in your care], and with that, she was gone.
I could not believe my ears. Did she just say that she was entrusting the care of her son to me!! Lord, have mercy! I was still trying to wrap my mind around it when the bus began to move out of the station. I saw the lady’s back disappear around the corner and I said to myself, “This is ridiculous!” Yes, a voice said in my ear, you’re stuck with him! That was when l looked at the kid, who seemed petrified with fear. You could reach out and touch the fear in his eyes that looked like huge saucers about to drop out of their sockets. He had in his hand his bus ticket to which he seemed to cling with all his might. He must have been warned not to lose it or give it to anyone for any reason whatsoever. He stared at me in total fright, as if expecting a slap.
Buy me bread!
I then gave him a reassuring smile and tapped him gently on the head, saying, more to myself than to him, ‘ça va aller, fiston, ça va aller’ (all will be well, my son, all will be ok). Those words seemed to reassure him and he seemed to relax although his eyes were still trained on my face as if he was expecting me to say something rude to him. I then decided to change seats with him. I was sitting by the window and so l unfastened his seatbelt, then mine and we both changed seats. He now sat by the window and I buckled him up and then took the aisle seat myself.
It was then l took a keener look at the kid, who was to be my road companion for the four hours of the journey. He must have been about five or six years old. He looked a little unkempt. Although the clothes he wore were not really dirty, they, however, showed visible signs of age. His hair was short but some sort of fungal infection was visible, with white patches all over his head. It looked as if he was not being well fed at home either. He again looked at me and seemed to want to squeeze himself onto the window in fear. I again touched him gently on the head and smiled when he looked at me. He began to relax and to look less frightened.
All this while, our bus was slowly grinding its way at a snail’s pace through the heavy Yaoundé afternoon traffic. The kid was staring out the window when he saw a hawker pushing bread in a cart by the bus. He turned, looked at me pleadingly and said “achète-moi du pain!” My heart nearly missed a beat. All the windows were sealed and we had been warned not to buy anything along the way. Sandwiches were to be distributed to passengers but that was still over an hour away. The poor kid was visibly hungry and l did not just know what to say. He again touched my arm and pointed to bread seller outside. How could l make him understand that it was not possible for me to buy him the bread, even if l had wanted to?
I then gently explained to him that he would be given bread to eat later and that with the bus moving, it was not possible to stop to buy him bread. How much of that he understood, l could not say, but it was clear from the look he gave me that all my explanation did not mean much to him. He was hungry and eager to eat, not listen to reasons why l could not give him bread to eat. He cast down his eyes and disappointment was visible all over his face.
Shortly thereafter, and to my relief, he began to dose off and before long was fast asleep. I helped settle him into a more comfortable position and he slept on, breathing gently. I said to myself that l was witnessing the case of some form of child abuse. Sending a child off on his own on a bus without feeding him! That was criminal! I could tell by just looking at him that he was not well taken care of at home either.
Sandwiches, at last!
About an hour into the journey, when we were already out of the city, he woke up, looked at me and l could see that he was wondering where he was. I again touched him gently on the head and asked if he had had a good rest. Without answering, he suddenly looked around in fright and l realized that he was looking for his bus ticket which he had been clinging to with all his might before sleep overtook him. I had taken it away from him when it dropped from his hand as he was sleeping. It was then that l learnt his name was Dieudonné. His last name was rather long and l do not remember what it was. When l gave him back his ticket, he was visibly relieved. He even rewarded me with a timid smile.
Shortly thereafter, the hostess began to share the sandwiches l had been impatiently waiting for. When he received his, a smile spanned his whole face as he turned to me and said, triumphantly, ‘oh du pain!’ Then he dropped his bus ticket on my lap – the prized possession he had been clinging to since the journey began – as he turned the plaster-wrapped sandwich in his hand. I helped him unwrap it and watch him literally tear into the sandwich, hungry as he truly was. We were also given small bottles of soft drink and he asked me to open his for him.
I held onto my own sandwich and drink because I saw the way he was consuming his and I knew that one would not be enough for him. Even though l was hungry myself, l thought the kid needed more and l was ready to offer him mine. However, the kind hostess, who had had some nice words for him, taking him to be my son, came back with another sandwich and a drink, which he received with joy, rewarding the kind lady with a broad smile. I also thanked her and could then feel less guilty eating my own sandwich. It did not take him long to finish the two sandwiches.
The kid comes alive!
Shortly after his lunch, my road companion suddenly came alive. He began to talk non-stop. I asked him his name and he ran through all his names in rapid succession. He seemed to have four or five names but it was Dieudonné l could easily retain. I asked what school he was attending and where it was. He gave the name of his school and village, which sounded like a place somewhere in the southern part of the country. I asked who he was going to see in Douala. He suddenly looked at me in astonishment and said he was not going to Douala but rather to see his grandmother in Ebolowa. I reminded him that he was far away from Ebolowa and that he was on his way to Douala. He looked truly puzzled and then shook his head vigorously, saying he was going to see his grandmother in Ebolowa. He then asked me to go tell the driver that he was going to his grandmother’s house in Ebolowa. I said that was fine and that I was sure his grandmother was waiting for him. He smiled and said yes, that was true.
He then turned his attention to the thick forest around us. Did I see that huge tree over there? I said yes, l could. Would l give it to him, please? The answer being affirmative, he cracked up with laughter, exposing well-trimmed, bright teeth. He would rather have the other tree over there, the one with huge branches and green leaves. Could I see it? I said I could and that it was all his, and again laughter followed.
When we reached Edea, he was visibly struck by the Sanaga River. He screamed when he saw it, turned to look at me, his right hand over his mouth for well over a minute. “La rivière-ci est grande-oooh, cheeiih!” Then he saw fishermen in their canoes and that was a marvel to him. What were they doing? I told him they were catching fish. “Du poisson! Eeeeeeh”, he screamed. I said yes, ”fish”. He said he loved fish. Would I buy him some of that fish? I said l would and this was again followed by a burst of sustained laughter. That kid was an angel!
Buy me all the cars!
It was getting dark when we spotted the Douala skyline, ringed by lights that looked like a lighted necklace. Those lights nearly took his breath away. He turned to me and screamed: ‘Tu vois la lumière! oh, oh, oh partout la lumiere!’ (Do you see that, lights everywhere!). Then he pointed to cars as they went by. “Les voitures! Beaucoup de voitures! Achètes-moi ces voitures!” [Cars! Many cars! Buy them for me]. He wanted me to buy him all the cars in the street. He wanted that one! No, that one is too small. Buy me that one over there! Then a truck drove past by and he exclaimed: Oh, le camion ci est grand-ooh! Tu me l’achetes, non? I said yes, all were for him; and he again burst out laughing.
In fact, the woman sitting in front of him turned round at one point and asked me, rather aggressively, if l could not control my son for a moment. I apologized but told her he was a healthy boy who needed space to play. Dieudonné put his hand over his mouth for a moment, then came up to my ear and whispered: ‘la grande mère-ci est méchante!’ (wicked grandma), and we both burst out in laughter. The woman, who must have guessed what was going on behind her back, decided wisely to ignore us.
Down memory lane!
As I watched and listened to that kid, my mind sauntered down memory lane to the time my own three kids were his age. I could hear, in my mind’s ear, my daughter firmly and loudly asserting her place in a house where her two brothers wanted to lay their own law. I could hear the two boys complaining that girls were not supposed to intrude in games that were meant for boys. Each of them would then rush up to me, or to their mother, for arbitration. And to think that I was always anxious to have them grow up so I would have my peace. Now that they are all grown up and are moving on with their own lives, I long for those noisy days when my house always looked as if a storm had passed through it. My road companion, Dieudonné, brought memories of those days streaming back to mind. What an angel he truly was!
There were two stops before the final one at the travel agency’s base in Akwa. At each stop, Dieudonne would hold my hand and say, ‘Allons, alors! On est arrivé, non?’ l would say not yet and he would look disappointed. I could not blame him. The journey was long and tiring although he made it a good one for me, with his ebullient outbursts and restlessness.
When we finally pulled into the bus station, someone was waiting for him and l waved as he was being taken away. He looked sad and confused and it was clear to me that the man taking him away was a total stranger to him. I thought l could detect in his eyes the fright l saw several hours earlier when he was literally abandoned to me in Yaoundé.
Whatever the case, my encounter with Dieudonné showed me how careless some parents truly are. If l had been a child kidnapper, l could have walked away with him and no one on that bus could have challenged or questioned me. In fact, everyone on board thought he was my son. They heard him talking and laughing with me; l took him to use the washroom; and we talked throughout the journey. There were two stops before the final one and l could have dropped off with him and no one, including the hostess, who was so nice to him, could have known that l was no relation of his. I wonder where he is today. Has he gone back to his grandma in Ebolowa or is he still somewhere in Douala? I wish l knew.
Writing about my four-hour journey with him is curative, in a sense. I have carried this story in my head for a few months and I needed to have it out to have some peace of mind. It is, in a way, a cathartic experience. Thank you, my ‘son’ Dieudonné for making me relive brief moments of my past with my own children. You trusted me, someone you did not even know, and l thank God who placed you in my care for the four hours we were together. I feel sad that you did not seem to have the care you deserved; but then maybe your folks cannot afford to do more for you than they are already doing. It is not for me to judge them. Grow strong my ‘son’! Your beautiful smile and your unrestrained bursts of laughter, l greatly cherished. God bless you!
Douala, September 15, 2015