Tourism 6: Bitter Bitam

At Bitam, Gabon

My departure from Equatorial Guinea that morning was like escaping hell. It felt like coming back to life. The first thing I could think of doing was to rain curses on the government and the president of the country. I was a bit relived that I was out of the lion’s den but unfortunately, I was faced with a very big challenge of not having enough money on me to continue my journey to Gabon.

For several reasons, I had overspent my budget when I was at Equatorial Guinea. The only option I was left with was to make withdrawals from an ATM machine and this was not possible when I was Equatorial Guinea. I thought things would be a bit different in Cameroon but little did I know that this same problem was going to linger till the next day when I would arrive Gabon. I was advised to go to Ambam to make use of the ATM there. I tried the two different ATM machines in Ambam without success. None of them could work with my bank card which was very strange to me. This card has always worked in the remotest of countries and it was disappointing that it refused to work this time.

Right there in Ambam, I recalled I still had some local Nigerian currency (Naira notes about 15000 Naira) with me and I thought of finding a local Nigerian business owner who would be willing to help me exchange it for local currency. I visited several shops owned by Nigerians but none of them was willing to help me exchanging the notes for the local CFA currency used in Cameroon. When it was very obvious that no help was coming from around Ambam, I had to go back to Kiossi to explore other options.

The trip to Ambam rendered me cashless. Seeing there was no other alternative, I had to resort to requesting for help from Lagos. I reached out to some of my friends whom I thought were good friend to help me send some money to me but unfortunately, none of them understood the urgency of this need. In fact, I did not even want to borrow, I requested to transfer money to them so they could go send it to me using a money transfer agency but they could not. The trip I was on required that I travel to Gabon and Congo before I commence my homeward journey to Lagos, in fact, I had already paid for a return flight from Brazzaville in Congo. I need to be in Gabon that day but as at 2pm in the afternoon, I had no financial means to continue my journey. Fortunately, one of my colleagues at work, Alex was able to send me some money through international money transfer agency. I hoped that when I get into Gabon, I would be able to make withdrawals from an ATM and continue my journey to Libreville and then to Congo.

Having a little on me, I left to the Cameroonian immigration point to stamp me out of the country. After that, I travelled on a bike for 20 minutes on a motorbike to the Gabonese end of the border– it took that long because several police checkpoints required I stopped for them to verify my travel documents. We eventually arrived at a point where the bike was not allowed to cross. I left the bike and walked on foot like several other passengers to the border.

It has always been a surreal experience entering into a new territory  on land whenever am traveling. I started wondering what the experience would be like getting into the country. What it would look like meeting the immigration and other border officials, the nationals, eating their local dishes, getting to discover their culture etc. I walked down to the immigration office with a new friend I had just made walking down that route. He told me he is Cameroonian and hails from Maroua – a city I had visited. He introduced himself as a taxi driver and requested I could go with him to the Bitam, which was the closest city to the border town.

Getting into the immigration office, there were several travelers in there and due to the fact I was traveling with a passport unlike others who were traveling with their local national identity cards, I was the last person to be attended to and he took a lot of time to verify my details. He even called the hotel I had a reservation with at Libreville to be sure that I actually had a reservation before embarking on my travel.

When he was thoroughly satisfied with his background checks on me. He wrote a very long letter and asked me to go with the letter and my passport to the immigration office at Bitam to get an immigration stamp the next day. This implied I would have to sleep at Bitam that night before continuing to Libreville the next day. I was very impressed by his kindness and his handwriting. He had written a long letter which he gave me to present to immigration at Bitam the next day. With all these, I went down to where I would get a vehicle going to Bitam since the person I had met earlier and negotiated to go to Bitam together had left out of impatience.

Just a few meters away from the first stop where I was delayed initially, I met another checkpoint where I was asked to pay another 10000 CFA (Almost $20 USD) or go back. I did not waste time to go back to the first kind guy I met to complain. The first officer I had met came down with me to meet next guy who refused me entrance except I paid. He explained to him that I have paid for my visa in Nigeria and that he should allow me access. That was how the corrupt official allowed me access and I proceeded to take a car going to Bitam from the border.

Leaving the border, I got a forty-five-minute ride to the Bitam town. Leaving me at the so called city center which looked more like a village. It was almost 8:30pm that evening when I arrived.  Fortunately, I spotted two gentlemen conversing on the road and I walked up to them to advise me on where to find a hotel, buy food and a sim card or see possibly if it would be possible to get a night bus to Libreville, even though I knew I had to see immigration the next morning.

John was one of the gentlemen I communicated with. He was a nice guy. He first took me to where I bought a sim card before taking me to where I would get food to eat. He took me to a hotel he considered safe and not too expensive, just close to the same place I got the card and had my dinner. When he learnt am from Nigeria, he told me that several Nigerians live and work in Bitam and the entire Gabon. We exchanged numbers and he left. I settled down at the hotel, the staff were very kind and even helped me the next day when I needed to find a few things in town.

The next morning, I walked down to the Immigration Office in town as I was requested to do. There were several other travelers there who needed immigration stamps on their passport to continue their journey. While we waited for 8am which was their official opening time, I had to visit a few banks I saw around to see the possibility of making withdrawals for the rest of my journey. Just like it was at Ebibiyin, Bata and Ambam, I could still not withdraw here. After I got my passport stamped, I went out to town to see a few places and also see the possibility of making alternative ATM machines or even exchange some local Nigerian currency I had with me with me with some of the Nigerian businessmen who did business in the market. I searched the entire town for ATM and when it was obvious I was not going to find one, I focused my attention on changing my local currency which I was able to do before proceeding to the Bitam bus terminal where I would get a vehicle to Libreville.

The cost to Libreville was 15000 CFA ($30 USD). The bus was clean and as usual, I wanted a very comfortable seat where I could stretch my legs and have a good view of the countryside and take pictures of things of interest. Unfortunately, the seat I chose had been taken by an old woman and the other seats were very uncomfortable. I told the company I would not be traveling since the seat had been occupied. The woman was very angry and initially refused to allow me sit on the seat. When she now saw I wanted to leave the vehicle and following the persuasion of other passengers, she allowed me to stay.

I had less than 10000CFA left with me after paying my transport fare. I was worried but was a bit confident I would be able to make withdrawals from Libreville or at least get someone to send me money using any money transfer agency.

This is the bus I boarded to Libreville. The Lady eating was the lady that wanted my seat. The gentleman in the front seat of the bus is the one who helped me with 2000 CFA to go back to Douala.

When I was leaving Lagos for the journey, I had planned to do all the trip on road. I only planned to fly back to Lagos from Brazzaville but with the issues I had earlier faced in Equatorial Guinea, I lost some days and decided to now fly from Libreville to Pointe Noire in Congo, before traveling to Brazzaville by road from where I would fly home. I made the reservation in that same bus and was now concerned about the other leg of the journey from Libreville to Pointe Noire. On a normal day, the trip from Bitam to Libreville would take nine hours. Barely 25 minutes into the journey, we were stopped at a police checkpoint and we were all asked to come down and present our passport or carte de identite which is the national identity cards used in Gabon or that used by Cameroonians who were with us.

The police officers at this checkpoint were women. Upon finding out I was a foreigner, they kept my passport and requested that I had to pay a bribe of 5000 CFA ($10 USD) before I would be allowed to pass. I tried to explain all my predicament to them. They initially turned a deaf ear but eventually allowed me. Meanwhile, while all these negotiation was going on, fellow passengers in the bus told me that the money being requested by the police women was a norm on that route. They informed me that there were 25 different check points on that route and that each of the stops would take 5000 CFA from me making it a total of 125000 CFA ($250 USD) that I would have to pay for the entire trip. Initially I could not believe this. I believed my negotiation skills could work but unfortunately, when we got to the next checkpoint, I was disappointed.

On arrival and hearing his request for a bribe, I replied was not having cash. The idiot who was dressed on mufti at the searched my pocket and took 5000 CFA from me. Even when I told him I could not make withdrawals from the ATM and that I would consider going back to Cameroon, he refused and took the money and insisted I should go back if I wish. At that point, I felt sad and shed tears because of the level of his wickedness. He should have at least allowed me to go back without making any payment. He felt he could do what he did since he was in control and since I was a foreigner. This should be one of the highest form of wickedness I’ve personally experienced abroad. One of the fellow passengers in the vehicle who I think I had seen the previous day when I was coming from Cameroon felt bad and had to give me a token of 2000 CFA which I added to what I had to continue back to the Bitam border from where I would return to Douala to take a plane to Libreville.

This was a lot of setback. Some of the passengers advised me to get to Oyem and then take a plane to Libreville but I was not sure the ATM in Oyem would work for me. It was also a Friday and I was not sure the money transfer agents would work when I arrive there. Having less than 5000 CFA on me, moving further could spell more doom for me. On my way back, the initial police women I met felt my pains and wished me a safe trip back to Douala. Even when I got to the immigration office, they wondered why I came in that day and wanted to leave same day but after I explained my ordeals to them, they were helpless and wished me a safe trip back home.

I arrived at Kiossi border on good time and I had to reach out to my colleague in Lagos to help me with electronic money transfer, fortunately, Alex was able to come to my rescue. Now having some cash, I went straight to the park where I got an overnight bus to Yaoundé from where I would pick another bus to Douala. These over-night buses were just like sardine pack – we were stocked into the vehicle and it was one of the most uncomfortable journeys I’ve ever embarked on. Seated close to me was Isa aka Obiang, an Ivorian. He was very kind and friendly especially when I told him I have been to Abidjan. He was a motor mechanic living in Ebibiyin in Equatorial Guinea. He was going to Cameroon to buy some motor spare parts for his business.

As one would expect, there were lots of stops and lots of demand for bribes. There was one of those stops where the police woman would not allow me go even after I explained to her my predicament. She said it was I either paid 1000 CFA or they would detain me and the vehicle would leave me behind to Yaoundé. When Isa realized I was not willing to pay and that the woman had forced me to sit on bare floor on the road, he had to come to make this payment for me. On getting back to the vehicle, I gave him back his money and thanked him. I even got him to keep the money I had for me, just in case the police decide to search me, so the experience I had earlier that day would not repeat again.

We arrived Yaoundé around 5am and continued to Douala till around 12am. Fortunately for me, I was able to find a plane from Douala to Libreville for 6pm that evening when we were driving to Douala. I made the reservation. When we arrived Douala, Isa called his friend and they took me to a restaurant where he also paid for my meal – God bless you for your kindness my brother.

Getting to the airport, I tried to make a withdrawal, lo and behold, it worked. It was just very mysterious – for the past couple of days, I had tried this same card and it did not work but it was able to work at the airport at Douala.

To wait for my flight, I had to put a call across to my kinsman who lives in Douala who had also helped me recharge my phone when I was in detention at Ebibiyin Police Station at Equatorial Guinea. At the same time, I went out to play with some of the little kids I saw around the airport. Soon it was 6pm, the time to fly to Gabon.

Boarded from Douala to Libreville.

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About Ifeatu Osegbo 107 Articles
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