African Roads — and how infrastructure matters

One of my colleagues has a daughter who just graduated from college.  She’s now in the Peace Corps, serving in Cameroon.  I’ve been to Ethiopia and Kenya and Egypt, but I don’t know much about Cameroon.  Earlier in the year, my colleague described it as being the “armpit of Africa” and from the Google Earth map below, you can see what he means:

Here’s a better map to show where Cameroon is located:


What I found fascinating is that several months ago, before his daughter went there, my colleague (like most Americans) knew next to nothing about Cameroon.  But now, because his daughter is there, he was able to tell me all about it over lunch — how it borders Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, and Chad (among others)

He also mentioned that there’s this island off the coast of Cameroon that has the capital of Equatorial Guinea (Malabo) on it, which is odd, since you’d expect that the capital would be on the main continent of Africa, where the rest of the country is — there must be an interesting story there.

He also explained to me that Douala, the large city on the coast near the harbor is the economic capital of Cameroon — kind of like the New York of the US.  And the political capital (think Washington DC) of Cameroon is Yaounde.

So let’s talk about African roads.  His daughter took a trip from Yaounde to visit Banyo — the place where she will be stationed (she’s still doing training).  Banyo is a small city of about 8,000 people less than 200 miles from Yaounde.

Here’s where I thought it was located (I’ll explain why I’m not sure any more):

That trip — less than 200 miles — took about 12 hours!  Why?  Well, it’s the rainy season, so the dirt road is mud, and it’s all beat up from all the trucks traveling on it during the rainy season. 

It’s a major road and you’d expect it to be paved.  Apparently, the government received money to pave it and that money has been spent.  And maps indicate that it has been paved.  But the road remains dirt.  Can you spell corruption?

Anyway, a truck apparently spun out and broke down on the road, landing sideways so that it blocked the “road.”  The driver of the vehicle bringing the peace corps people to Banyo said, “well, we can’t get by — I guess we’ll have to stay the night here.”  Thankfully, a tow truck (of sorts) came to move the stopped vehicle, and the trip continued — but the expectation in Cameroon apparently is not “of course the road will be fixed” but rather “stuff happens — we’ll wait.”  And presumably, spending the night by the side of the road is not such a big deal in Cameroon (Ethiopian roads are notoriously bad as well — or they were as of the summer of 2006).

This picture, taken by me in 2006, shows how our convoy of 4×4 jeeps got us to remote destinations outside the capital.  When it rained (and we were there during the rainy season, so it rained for a portion of every day), these “roads” would become impassable.  We were stuck for several hours on our second night in Ethiopia, and we were unable to return to one of the sites where we had been working for a third day of service as planned — simply because the road was washed out.  We had to make other plans.

On my drive in to work this morning, I heard a news report warning that one of the main roads here in Raleigh, Interstate 40, is being worked on for the next few days.  Only one lane will be open, and the work will be done from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.  The expectation here in the US is clearly “I should be able to get from point A to point B pretty quickly, and if the road is being fixed, it better happen fast.”  In many nations around the world (not just Africa) that’s not the case — roads are not taken for granted.

That’s why it was such a big deal in ancient times that the Romans and Chinese developed a good road system to govern their empires. 

Here is a map showing the network of roads the Romans built:

The dark lines are the walls/borders of the empire.  The lighter brown lines are the roads.  The blue lines are the rivers.

From the same source, here’s a neat map showing the trade routes in light brown, as well as the lighthouses (green dots).

Here’s a quote from that source:

With all the ports of the empire very busy with trade, the Romans built lighthouses at the entrances of their harbours. In this way ships at sea could be guided home at a time when there was no G.P.S. or RADAR. Fires were lit at the top of a tall tower and kept burning to provide the light. In order to transport their goods the Romans copied an invention of the Celts of northern Europe. The Romans used the Celtic barrel to transport beer and wine.

The two Roman maps pictured above come from this website titled What Have The Romans Done For Us?

(Modeling good research practice for my students, I checked to see where this website comes from — it’s from a Catholic middle school (ages 8-13) in Dublin, Ireland.  Looks like a student made it, so I’d want to check the information, but assuming it’s accurate, the maps are nicely presented)

To effectively run an empire, you need the infrastructure (roads, canals, etc) to reach the outer regions of your territory — or someone within your territory might rebel or some invader might take it over (see the American Revolutionary War, when British colonists rebelled, won, and started a new country back in 1776-83).

Here’s a Doonesbury cartoon about the importance of roads that I saw back in June:

Infrastructure matters.

Oh, so why am I not sure any more where Banyo is located?  Well, when I looked it up on Google Earth

Google Earth gave me the location that I indicated on the map above.  However, when I looked it up on Wikipedia to get a more accurate population estimate than 8,000 (my colleague said it was seven or eight thousand, but I’m curious which), I got a different Banyo — one far further north, and one that is apparently predominantly Muslim.

I knew that Nigeria was on the fault line of Islam and Christianity in Africa, but it never before occurred to me that the same would be true of Cameroon.

map source:

Speaking of Nigeria, my colleague also mentioned to me that there is a peninsula between Cameroon and Nigeria that has a lot of oil underneath it.  Apparently, the UN recently ruled that the peninsula (and the oil, and the extensive fish that can be caught there) belongs to Cameroon.

This map comes from a BBC article from 2008 about the disputed border.  Here’s a preview:

Why does my colleague know about that border clash between Cameroon and Nigeria?  Because he wants to make sure his daughter is safe.  He has a strong motivation to learn… As a result, he’s learned a ton about Cameroon in the past few months.  And he happened to share the tidbit about the 12-hour bus ride with me today at lunch.  So this whole blog post grew out of a simple lunch conversation — plus Google Earth and the internet and some healthy curiosity.  What an amazing time to be learning about the world!

Interesting side note: while my colleague’s daughter gets sporadic internet connections (the power is on for only a few hours a day — one of the many reasons that the kind of night road work we take for granted along I-40 could not happen in Cameroon), she can text quite easily.  So when he texted to ask if her journey was done, 10 hours into the ride, she texted him back in a matter of minutes to tell him that it would be another two hours or so on the bumpy “road.”

Also, after looking over this post, here’s what my colleague had to add:

This wiki shows the approximate location of Banyo (pop. 7K),_Cameroon (I had the right one the second time)

The 12 hr trip was from Bafassoum (pop. 242K) to Banyo

But her training is in Bafia (pop. 56K) a little south and west of Bafassoum

The capital is Yaounde (pop. 1.4 million) a little south and west of Bafia

The economic capital is Douala (pop. Over 2 million) on the coast

So according to my colleague, I got the wrong Banyo when I typed “Banyo, Cameroon” into Google Earth.  I’ve found this is often a problem when typing in less familiar place names into Google Earth — there are alternate spellings, and sometimes Google Earth has not heard of more remote locations.  As a result, it can take a while to find a remote place mentioned in a news article is in the world.  It would be nice if reporters would give GPS coordinates with their stories that come from remote places.

Given this updated information here’s a correct map of the 12-hour journey — and it was closer to 120 miles than 170.

Getting things right — figuring out where places really are, for instance — takes time.  But if you care, you will figure out where.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to African Roads — and how infrastructure matters

  1. Diogenes says:

    I was in Cameroun in the Peace Corps in 1967-69. We had to use a raft to cross a river in order to reach my town because there was no bridge. The outboard motor conked out and the raft got swept away down the river but someone finally caught hold of a jumgle tree branch and we held on until people from the tiny jungle village came in dugout canoes and got us. Then we had to wait three days in their mud huts until the owner of the raft drove to Douala and back with the replacement for the broken part on the outboard. The people were very hospitable. They took us in and gave us their beds and food and drink and we finally got to our sites: Kribi and Ebolowa. We were sort of shocked: a muddy dirt road and no bridge and a raft to take our Landrover across the river with a faulty outboard but the people in the village were not shocked. They said it happened all the time.

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