On Sunday evening, there was a path of glowing orange snaking its way down the dark slopes of Mount Cameroon, one of the largest active volcanoes in Africa.  Wikipedia will tell you that the native name for Mount Cameroon is Mongo ma Ndemi ("Mountain of Greatness"), but most people in Buea seem to refer to it simply as ‘The Mountain.’  Rising 4,040 meters (13,255 feet) from sea level to peak, the mountain is no small feature.   As the highest peak in West Africa, it attracts attention in ways Cameroon as a nation rarely does.  (As a stable, peaceful, African country, where most people aren’t starving to death and there are no huge reserves teaming with lions, leopards elephants, and rhinos, Cameroon is often overlooked by international aid efforts and private funders interested in ‘developing’ the African continent.  Never mind that despite almost 50 years of stability and peace, Cameroon has only ‘elected’ two presidents, is one of the most corrupt nations on earth, and despite pockets of great wealth, has been unable to provide reliable water access, sanitation, or employment options to many of its people.  But this is a topic for another day…)

Every February, Mount Cameroon hosts the ‘Race of Hope,’ a marathon-length run up and down the mountain.  Physically grueling and infinitely impressive, this race attracts athletes from around the world and brings Buea into the spotlight for a week of the year.  Even when there are not hordes of runners making the climb to its crater-pocked summit, the mountain attracts adventurous hikers interested in an off-the-beaten-path trekking experience; the guiding organizations that have emerged as a result are some of the few tourist operations in the area.  The mountain also enjoys renown in the geology and biology worlds—its abrupt rise from beach to sky results in a wide range of ecosystems—coastal to rainforest to tropical alpine zone to bare summit.   

Despite Mount Cameroon’s fame and grandeur, when you live at its base, your awareness of its presence fades (and on cloudy days, it literally disappears).  If our Peace Corps friend, Nate, hadn’t contracted Malaria, I may never have noticed that orange ribbon cutting a line between black mountain and black sky.  As it happened, Nate was in need of company and a good meal on Sunday.  Nate lives down the hill from us (I should really say down the mountain, as the entire Buea area is on the lower slopes of Mount Cameroon), and as we were leaving his house, I just happened to glance up through the trees towards home. 

“Josh, the mountain is erupting!”  I was breathless with excitement.  A real live volcano spewing lava right towards us…what could be better?  Josh would like to go on the record as responding with slightly less enthusiasm.  “What about our house?  And all our stuff? Should we spend the night down here?  Is the paramount chief of Buea dead?”  (They say Mount Cameroon erupts only when this highest leader dies.) We raced back to Nate’s house and dragged him outside to have a look.  We all agreed it looked as if the mountain was erupting.  Should we call the U.S. Embassy?  Should we call Peace Corps?  What should we do? 

We called Walters, dear friend and the local coordinator for YAN.  Walters listened quietly as we hastily outlined our analysis of the predicament.  When we finally sputtered into silence, Walters patiently explained, “no, no, the mountain is not erupting.  A group of poachers has set the mountain on fire to smoke out the honeybees and capture bush meat.  You can return to your house.”

It was an anticlimactic end the evening.  And a sad one—a reminder that Mount Cameroon National Park has far to go, as do conservation efforts throughout Cameroon.


P.S. Mount Cameroon’s last significant eruption was in 2000 (as was the death of the previous paramount chief), when the lava flows reached all the way to the mountain’s base in the coastal town of Limbe.  You can still see the hardened path of this decade-old flow—it crosses the road at one point, requiring a semi-circular detour around the looming volcanic rock.  (On Monday, our students in Limbe laughed as we recounted our temporary visions of burial by volcanic ash—they remember the 2000 eruption and the tremors that preceded it.)   

In a few weeks, Josh and I plan to make the trek up the mountain with Walters.  A few years ago, Walters helped to found a guiding organization called HADY (Humanitarian Association of Dynamic Youths).  Most of their guides and porters are young university students who support their education by leading trips up the mountain.  After paying its employees, HADY uses remaining profits to support local projects such as providing school supplies to needy children, building public latrines, and financing sports teams for youth. 

We’re hoping the paramount chief is in good health.