Having re-elected presidential strongman Paul Biya in a contentious yet, broadly speaking, free election in 2011, Cameroon has gained a reputation as a relatively stable country. Biya's current seven-year term ends in 2018, with growing pressure on him to stand aside and end his 35-year (and counting) rule. Meanwhile, in the beleaguered north of the country, Cameroonian villagers are struggling to host huge numbers of Nigerian refugees on the run from the Boko Haram insurgency.
For most people though, corruption remains Cameroon's major issue. Paying bribes can be the only way to open a business or access government services and school places. The international anticorruption organisation, Transparency International, consistently ranks Cameroon among the world's most corrupt countries. Until this issue is addressed and genuine political openness permitted, Cameroon will inevitably continue to limp along.
The most spoken-about person in the country is first lady Chantal Biya, who has taken on the mantle of an African Princess Diana. Her love of haute couture, spectacular 'banana' hairdos and high-profile charity work mean she is a staple in the national press.
It's hard to pigeonhole more than 250 distinct ethnolinguistic groups divided by colonial languages, Christianity and Islam and an urban-rural split into one identity. The Cameroonian psyche is, ultimately, anything and everything African – diversity is the key.
There's a distinct cultural and political gap between the Francophone and Anglophone parts of Cameroon, albeit one felt predominantly by the Anglophone minority, who complain of discrimination in the workplace and in education (two of the country's eight universities lecture in French only).
A few characteristics do seem shared across Cameroon's divides. Traditional social structures dominate life. Local chiefs (known as fon in the west or lamido in the north) wield considerable influence; when you are travelling in places that don't receive many tourists, it's polite to announce your presence to them.
Many Cameroonians demonstrate a half-laconic, half-angry sense of frustration with the way their country is run. They are aware that while Cameroon is doing well compared with its neighbours, it could be immeasurably better off if corruption didn’t curtail so much potential. Mixed in with this frustration is a resignation (‘such is life’), expressed as serenity in good times but simmering rage in bad times.
Meanwhile, the arrival of Chinese immigrants in great numbers – especially in Yaoundé and Douala – is bringing a dash of multiculturalism to this already incredibly multi-ethnic society.
Cameroon has produced a few of the region's most celebrated artists: in literature, Mongo Beti deals with the legacies of colonialism; musically, jazz-funk saxophonist Manu Dibango is the country's brightest star.
Woodcarving makes up a significant proportion of traditional arts and crafts. The northwestern highlands are known for their carved masks. These are often representations of animals, and it's believed that the wearers of the masks can transform themselves and take on the animal's characteristics and powers. Cameroon also has some highly detailed bronze- and brasswork, particularly in Tikar areas north and east of Foumban. The areas around Bali and Bamessing (both near Bamenda), and Foumban, are rich in high-quality clay, and some of Cameroon's finest ceramic work originates here, as well as intricate beadwork.
Cameroon exploded onto the world's sporting consciousness at the 1990 FIFA World Cup when the national football team, the Indomitable Lions, became the first African side to reach the quarter finals. Football is truly the national obsession. Every other Cameroonian male seems to own a copy of the team's strip; go into any bar and there'll be a match playing on the TV. The country has qualified for the World Cup seven times, amidst wild celebrations, and has been garlanded with four Africa Cup of Nations titles.
Food & Drink
Cameroonian cuisine is straightforward and satisfying. The staple dish is some variety of peppery sauce served with starch – usually rice, pasta or fufu (mashed yam, corn, plantain or couscous). One of the most popular sauces is ndole, made with bitter leaves similar to spinach and flavoured with smoked fish. Grilled meat and fish are eaten in huge quantities, and huge fresh gambas (prawns) are a particular delight.
Cameroon is geographically diverse. The south is a low-lying coastal plain covered by swaths of equatorial rainforest extending east towards the Congo Basin. Heading north, the sparsely populated Adamawa Plateau divides the country in two. To the plateau's north, the country begins to dry out into a rolling landscape dotted with rocky escarpments that are fringed to the west by the barren Mandara Mountains. That range represents the northern extent of a volcanic chain, now a natural border with Nigeria down to the Atlantic coast, often punctuated by stunning crater lakes. One active volcano remains in Mt Cameroon, at 4095m the highest peak in West Africa.
There is a range of wildlife found in Cameroon, although more exotic species are in remote areas. Elephants stomp and crocodiles glide through the southern and eastern jungles. Of note are several rare primate species, including the Cross River gorilla, mainland drill monkey, chimpanzees and Preuss's red colobus.
Bushmeat (from African wild animals) has traditionally been big business in Cameroon. While there have been crackdowns on the trade both here and abroad (African expats are some of its main consumers), it has not been entirely stamped out.