From my first full day in Yaoundé, I think the thing I found most interesting was the driving. It definitely seemed chaotic, but you could also tell there were patterns because everyone wasn’t constantly mad at each other. There might not be nice white and yellow lines denoting where the lanes were, but there was clearly a right and a wrong way to use the road. I remember sitting in the car with Jenn and telling her my fascination with the driving patterns or seeming lack of driving patterns. She responded with how there are a set of rules, but most of them are unspoken. A set of cultural norms determine the way the roads operate.
Later that week I was thrilled to read an orientation article discussing more in-depth the intricacies of Cameroonian roads. Here are some of the cultural norms that give insight into how Cameroonian drivers operate.
#1 RIGHTS TO THE ROAD The road is not just available to people driving cars or motorcycles. Road usage isn’t a privilege. Everyone has a right to use the road in Cameroon—including animals, people, bicycles, cars, and trucks. Everyone also has a right to use the road for a variety of different tasks, including walking, herding cows, and fixing vehicles. For example, the other day I saw a dog wearing a shirt and reading glasses riding a motorcycle (with a person, but STILL)! Because everyone has a right to the road, the rules are fluid; the rules are constantly changing based on circumstance and require constant communication.
***Side Note: Motorcycles have exempted themselves from most of these unspoken rules!
#2 DETERMINING THE RIGHT OF WAY Remember, the bigger, the better. If a massive truck is zooming towards you, I don’t recommend pulling out in front of it. That being said, if the front of your car is ahead of another car you have the right of way. For example, if we were all stuck in traffic, but I used the imaginary lane next to me to get the very front of my car in front of yours, you are now expected to yield to me. This is one of the “rules” I first noticed as a passenger on Cameroonian roads. In western cultures, we wouldn’t yield to someone just because they were slightly in front of us! Also, when pulling out into the street, as long as you can pull out and give the other cars coming enough time to slow down, you can pull out. Feel free to cut people off, it’s not culturally offensive…if you do it right!
#3 HORN USAGE I was walking along the road the other day when all of a sudden a massive truck drove past me. When it was directly next to me, it honked! I definitely jumped a couple feet in the air! I hadn’t done anything wrong; it was just their way of saying hello, an absolutely terrifying way of saying hello. Beyond saying hi, there are a lot of other uses for your horn on the Cameroonian roads. Nathan uses his horn on our way to church to alert oncoming traffic that we’re coming around the corner—also making all the children riding on our roof shout happily! Horns can also be used to alert people that you are overtaking them (especially large trucks). Unless you do something really wrong, the horn probably isn’t be used to express anger.
#4 LIGHTS USAGE Headlights, similarly to horns, can be used for a variety of different reasons. They are often flashed to oncoming traffic to let people know that you are going, whether they are coming or not. I thought this was an incredibly amusing use—“I’m coming, whether you like it or not, so I suggest you stop.” Blinkers are used to communicate to a car behind you whether or not you should pass. A left blinker indicates that you are clear to pass. This is especially useful when you are approaching the top of a hill or a blind corner and cannot see what is ahead. Oppositely, the right blinker is used to indicate that you should not past, because in their viewpoint it is not safe, even though you might not see it.
#5 WHERE TO DRIVE Essentially, drive where you can. Nowhere is off limits. Drive on the shoulders, sidewalks, and even the grass if you need to. Some of the roads are in pretty bad shape so you can feel free to go around the overwhelming amount of potholes and torn up the road instead of destroying your tires. Remember those imaginary lanes I mentioned earlier? Yeah, so the slower traffic is going, the more lanes there are. Also, there could be more lanes headed in one direction than the other based on traffic, which is actually pretty convenient. In my novice opinion, one of the most stressful places to drive must be the circles (or round-a-bouts), which have no lanes whatsoever!
So there are some basic Cameroonian driving rules, except for the undefined circumstances in which they don’t apply! Jenn said that the biggest thing she learned was to try to be as predictable as possible when driving. Don’t do anything that people wouldn’t expect you to do, even if it may feel unnatural by “Western driving standards.” I definitely won’t be driving during my four months here in Cameroon, but it’s fascinating to start to piece together the order in a seemingly chaotic system.