"But what is phacocere?" I asked.
"Ah, it is a bush animal; its teeth are crossed, and when it runs it holds its tail in the air. That is phacocere," he concluded, before sweeping off magisterially to the next table.
I didn't need to consult a dictionary to know that what he meant was warthog. I'd seen enough of them in the National Park nearby. For despite its name, the Relais de la Porte-Mayo restaurant is not in some plush Parisian suburb, but in Maroua - the main town in the Extreme Nord province of Cameroon, in West Africa. It owes its French character to the days before 1961, when one half was the French-administered territory of Cameroun (the other was the Cameroons, administered by Britain).
Despite its Gallic flavour, Maroua lies close to the geographical heart of Africa. Lake Chad is just up the road, and the mountains to the west are full of unconverted pagan tribes while the surrounding plains are mainly Muslim. Yet, as I looked down the menu, I found such classics of cuisine bourgeoise as ballotine de dinde and cuisses de grenouilles a la creme. Trust the French to take their passion for frog's legs out into the bush. It was comforting, though, to find these echoes of metropolitan France after a week's wandering the savannah and mountains.
Six days before, we had set out from Maroua with maitre Lambert (as he was respectfuly known), a dignified Fulani-speaking Muslim who always sported his skull cap at the wheel. We were headed for the back of beyond - and if anywhere deserves that title, it is the market town of Pouss, four hours' drive east of Maroua and hard up against the frontier with Chad.
Some frontier. Most people hereabouts take little notice of the borders drawn at random across Africa by the old colonial powers. I saw men, women, livestock and children in their hundreds being ferried across the River Lagone, dividing Cameroon from Chad, without anyone trying to impose border controls.
These people belonged to many tribes: the giant Mousgoum (whose average height I reckoned to be 6ft 10in); the Massa, with decorative scars down their cheeks; even a handful of Tuaregs who had ventured far south from their desert homeland. Some of the characters filing into town looked like they had walked off the set of Mad Max III - and they had all come to trade in salt, dried fish and the other necessities of life in the great open marketplace of Pouss.
Above the heat and dust and clamour of ten thousand bargains being sealed, I noticed the sky was full of marabou storks. I also saw I was the only white man, and the only person not engaged in buying or selling. Even maitre Lambert entered into the spirit of things, returning triumphantly with a huge sack of rice and some salt. "The prices are good here," he declared, loading his bargains into our vehicle.
Lambert was unable to exercise his bargaining skills in the surrounding countryside, where we went hunting for casses obus - the strange, domed clay houses found only in this region. Quite simply, there was nothing here to buy. He complained that the people were too lazy to rebuild their traditional houses, that the old skills were dying out, and many of the inhabitants of this border region were now refugees from the civil war in Chad and "not a good lot". As if to prove the point, an old woman with decorative scars on her cheeks, a red stone embedded in her upper lip and teeth filed down to needlepoints, advanced shouting from her compound and seized my arm in a vice-like grip.
"She says she wants 5,000 francs for you photographing her house," Lambert informed me. "This is more than she earns in a month. She is mad. Now she is saying that she will break your arm. But I do not believe her."
I didn't share maitre Lambert's confidence, but after further remonstrations my arm was released. I'd come closer to the raw intensity of Africa than I cared for. "She's from Chad," said Lambert, as if this explained everything.
There was no bargain-hunting to be had, either, among the elephant grass and acacia forests of Waza National Park, two hours north of Maroua - the best place for spotting big game like elephant (we saw herds 100-strong) and lion in all of Central and West Africa. The isolation had a curious effect on maitre Lambert. Though he seemed pleased enough when we sighted another herd of giraffe or horse antelope, he became more religious and would lay down his prayer mat beside a waterhole to bow towards Mecca, which is almost due east from here across the Sudan.
But when we headed west from there into the Mandara Mountains, his urge to shop got the better of him again. Market day at the village of Tourou had him haggling over sacks of highland millet, while I tried out the refreshing home-made beer brewed from the same stuff. Most of the locals were knocking back gourdsful of this brew, seemingly more interested in socialising than they were in driving a hard bargain.
The contrast with the hard-nosed, Muslim atmosphere at Pouss could not have been greater. Here, the mountain tribes are collectively known as Kirdi (which means pagan) and have clung on to their traditions despite the best efforts of Christian missionaries. Women working in the fields still wear nothing but a cache sexe made of leaves woven together. When going to market they cover themselves, though they still wear highly polished and decorated calabashes on their heads to fend off the sun.
Standing patiently in the market square, a group of Kirdi women started giggling when a man, completely naked and with his face painted red, came dancing past. "Who's that?" I asked a gentleman in a red fez. "Oh just the village idiot," he replied, before formally introducing himself and his companion. "We are both witch-doctors," he announced. "We're professional men like yourself, not like those traders." He pointed disparagingly at some Hausa money-changers who had slipped across the border from Nigeria.
Frontiers are so porous here that I accidentally walked over into Nigeria twice without realising it. Along the back roads you see motorcycles precariously laden with jerry cans of smuggled Nigerian "red" petrol. There is really only one way of knowing for certain which country you are in: when standing on the commanding heights, looking down on the plains, you are in Cameroon; if looking up at the mountains, you are probably in Nigeria.
The border between the two countries more or less follows the line of the Mandara mountains. That austere French writer, Andre Gide, fell in love with the bizarre, lunar landscape of these parts. Volcanic outcrops rise vertically hundreds of feet in the air, like castles built by some race of giants, towering above the thatched roofs of Kirdi villages. The local style of building, too, is very distinctive. A household comprises a cluster of perhaps half a dozen circular huts, some of them just large enough for one person to lie in. They are made of loose stone and compacted earth, and their thatched roofs are so steeply raked they look like witches' hats. Very often these cellular houses are built among boulders (arable land being precious), so they seem to grow out of the mountainside.
We drove south through this phantasmagorical landscape to Rumsiki, a hilltop village with stunning views of sheer-sided volcanic plugs. Here in the mountains, at 3,000ft or more, it is cool enough for trekking - though the midday sun can be ferocious. Setting out from Rumsiki, we passed through isolated hamlets where the old animist religion prevails. Our guide Christophe Colomb (so called because of his knack of finding the way through uncharted territory) pointed out a "magic" spring beneath a baobab tree, whose waters are reputed to assist the sick and childless. When I remarked upon a monkey-tooth charm around a baby's neck, he explained this was to make teething easier.
In another mountain hamlet I was introduced to the village elder, who showed me the earthenware pot in which he keeps his fetishes and other magical objects. It was adorned with porcupine quills and plugged with an antelope's horn. Delving inside, the chief produced some strangely shaped stones - discovered, I was told, in the belly of an eagle - which were believed to provide assistance with hunting.
Bush food supplements an otherwise fairly monotonous diet of millet and sweet potatoes. Unlike in southern Cameroon, where hunters pursue large and protected species such as gorillas to satisfy the urban appetite for bush food, northerners mostly hunt small mammals. We saw entire families digging them out of burrows, or waiting to catch anything trying to escape from the bush fires they deliberately start, supposedly to encourage vegetation to grow back in the next rainy season.
Rumsiki itself attracts sufficient visitors to support an artisan's co- operative where they make, among other things, the beaded cache sexe that is traditionally worn for weddings. There is also a sorcerer who analyses the movements of land crabs to tell your fortune. "You will become a rich man," he told me, "in the next country you visit." Given that I was headed for Nigeria, I was deeply sceptical. It seemed more reasonable to expect the opposite.
Magical powers - particularly the ability to bring thunder, lightning and rain - are ascribed in this region to blacksmiths , and they generally live apart from the rest of the community. They use the "lost wax" technique, familiar in Celtic and other cultures, to fashion intricately decorated pipes and cow bells, working mainly in bronze. The metal is heated in a simple furnace powered by leather hand-bellows, which the blacksmith beats with a rapid, constantly changing rhythm, as if playing the drums.
We heard real drumming just outside Rumsiki. "We're in luck," said Christophe Colomb. "It is a funeral." More than a hundred kinsmen and women had gathered for the occasion, chanting and dancing around a tall figure decked out in scarlet silk and wearing a mask and a feathered head-dress. At first I took this to be a wooden effigy of the departed soul. Then I noticed a very human leg dangling beneath the robe, and realised this was the corpse itself, carried on the shoulders of a near relative. This was a family affair - a private mourning rather than a show for tourists - so we kept as discreet a distance as we could and refrained from taking photographs.
"The funeral will continue for one or two days," said Christophe, "because this was a young man. If it were an old man, it would go on for three days or more. I myself do not know my precise age, because my father was a lazy man and did not inscribe my birth date, but I am more progressive: for all my children, I have marked down when they were born."
Back in the village of Rumsiki, we discovered that maitre Lambert had been about his purchasing once more. The rear deck of our pick-up truck was loaded with mountains of yams and bunches of sugar cane. "With your permission," Lambert said, "we will leave all these provisions in the next town, Mokolo, where my family lives. It will take only five minutes."
And so we came to meet maitre Lambert's family. "Ici mon palais," he laughed, as we drew up beside his modest house. Children of all ages immediately poured forth to help us unload the supplies. "There are 15 of my own children," Lambert smiled, "and four who are my brother's. All this food is sufficient for just one month. Then I will come back from Maroua, where I am working, with more provisions."
It took only an hour to reach Maroua down the good, metalled road from Mokolo. We sped through villages where men in long robes and skull caps were filing out of the mosques. "Soon it will be Ramadan," said Lambert, "though I'm not sure which day it starts on." We passed Fulani cattle- herders and the long-horned beasts which provide their only livelihood. We rushed through police checkpoints, maitre Lambert brushing off attempts to extort some petty bribe. "This is an official vehicle!" he bellowed imperiously. "Clear the way."
We did not even pause at a busy roadside market. I found this most uncharacteristic of Lambert. "Ah, but today it is the grand marche in Maroua," he said. "It is better to arrive in good time, otherwise all the bargains will be gone. And M'sieur, now I have to buy food for myself to last a week." At this, he pressed pedal to metal and we hurtled onwards across the savannah, arriving in time for Lambert to do his shopping, and for me ... well, I had a blind date with a warthog sandwich. !
GETTING THERE: Cameroon Airlines (0171-734 7676) flies direct to Douala from Gatwick, from pounds 500 (pounds 550 during high season). Other options are Air France (via Paris) for pounds 818 and Swissair (via Zurich or Geneva) for pounds 825, booked through Trailfinders (0171-938 3366).
TOURS: Nouvelles Frontieres runs flexible tours of Cameroon, including a visit to the Extreme Nord province, departing from Paris. A two-week tour costs FF5,580 (pounds 740), and the flight from Paris to Douala FF5,665 (pounds 750). London-Paris connections are extra. Game reserve tours and trekking can be organised in Maroua through Camway (00 237 291007, fax 292100).
GETTING AROUND: Cameroon Airlines has internal flights from Douala to Maroua for around pounds 130 return. Car hire costs from pounds 35 a day, less with a driver included. Road manners are erratic, and a local driver is useful for dealing with police who routinely take bribes. Shared bush taxis are often cheaper, starting at pounds 2 per 100 miles.
INFORMATION: Cameroon Embassy, 84 Holland Park, London SWll (0171-727 0771). UK nationals must apply here for visas, which cost pounds 40.
FURTHER READING: Try the sections on Cameroon in Lonely Planet's Central Africa (pounds l0.95) by Alex Newton, and in West Africa, The Rough Guide (pounds l2.99). Nigel Barley's The Innocent Anthropologist (Penguin pounds 4.99) is an amusing account of a year's fieldwork in northern Cameroon.Reuse content