We arrived in Douala in the middle of the night and were whisked off in cabs to the hotel where we were to spend the night before continuing the next day to Yaounde. Several times when our cab was stopped at an intersection, Hodge who was our tall black dancer from Zaire, was approached by men who would jabber at him while pointing and gesturing towards us. “What do they want?” I asked Hodge. “They want to know how much you cost.” Obviously, they thought we were prostitutes and that Hodge was our pimp. The next day we drove back through Douala towards the airport where we would catch our connecting flight. Douala was immense. A never-ending sprawl of shanties pushed up against large ditches. So many people and so much poverty. Yaounde was the complete opposite of Douala. Palaces and large houses tucked among lush manicured lawns. Our hotel sat on a hill overlooking the city. It took a couple of days for me to clue in but I finally figured out why most of the men staying at the hotel with us were always rudely gesturing and acting pretty aggressive towards us. The only other white women in the hotel were prostitutes and these guys probably thought that we were a fresh batch.
There are several theatres in Western Africa that were built by Communist Chinese during the Mao days. They’re pretty easy to recognize because they all looked exactly the same – Big boxy utilitarian buildings transplanted directly from Tiananmen Square. They were state of the art facilities – the best that China could offer. Unfortunately they were also outfitted with electrical outlets that while I’m sure they worked very well in China – didn’t work in Western Africa or at least we couldn’t get them to work. So much for ironing costumes or blowing your hair dry. The theatres also came equipped with their own staff of experts. A group of Chinese men wearing identical Mao suits and hats. These men appeared to be competent but the process of getting anything done on the stage started to resemble a United Nations conference. Our stage manager spoke French and English, the Chinese managers only spoke Chinese and the stagehands only spoke a Cameroonian dialect. The stage manager would ask for a light to be focused. There was a translator who spoke French and Chinese who would translate the request to the Chinese manager who would speak to another translator who would relay the request to the stagehands. Inevitably one of the stagehands would reply with another question and the process would have to reverse itself: Stagehand to translator to Chinese Manager to translator to our Stage Manager. Back and forth for hours.
During the performance the Chinese crew would position themselves to watch the show from the backstage area. I can still see that line of Mini-Maos sitting primly on a row of chairs set up on the sidelines. The Chinese stage manager had a different position. He worked the show from the booth. Now most booths are set up behind the audience where the technicians can get a clear view of the stage and the action. Not here. The booth was implanted into the stage: Down in the front and off to the side. The structure matched the floor but was raised about six inches from the floor. Throughout the performance I would glance over and continually get surprised to see a set of eyes staring back at me. It was just odd.
We had two more countries to go to on our African tour before heading back to Paris for a much deserved two-day break, before returning to Canada. All of us were looking forward to the mini-holiday in Paris. It was a negotiated reward for having given up several of our contractual “days off” while on the present tour. To all of the dancers – it seemed like a good deal. While in Cameroon, the director called a company meeting. The Canadian government wanted us to extend our tour and go to Algeria (which meant that we lost our days in Paris). She asked us if that was OK with us. She received a unanimous answer – “No.” As a side note – you really shouldn’t ask these kinds of questions to a group of people who have pretty much been on the road for over six months. She lost her temper and started screaming at us about how ungrateful we are and what a great opportunity this was. We continued to stare at her and repeat “No.” In the end, we lost, she won and everyone was angry. The next day, most of the company went down to the hotel pool to relax. Our rooms in the hotel were on the lower floors facing the hill. The director’s room was on one of the top floors facing the valley and overlooking the pool. Apparently she decided after her shower to go out onto her balcony. The door to her room shut behind her and locked. To this day, I can honestly say that I really did not hear the woman screaming for help. She still insists that we heard her and chose to ignore her pleas for help, leaving her stuck on her balcony, in a towel for a couple of hours. Personally, I figure it was just karma.