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cameroon official scams silver lining from tragedy

DOUALA, CameroonThe man who called himself Nkankam was drinking beer outside a bakery in Douala on a Sunday morning.

DOUALA, Cameroon

The man who called himself Nkankam was drinking beer outside a bakery in Douala on a Sunday morning.

He had returned late Saturday from Kribi, in southwestern Cameroon, where a missing Kenya Airways flight was thought to have crashed nearby.

Nkankam said he was an immigration official. Search and rescue teams had not yet located the plane, he said in French.

The 114 people aboard were surely dead, including the director general of Mobile Telephone Networks, Cameroon’s premier mobile phone operator, and many Cameroonians and Kenyans as well.

“It’s very serious,” said Nkankam. “They are searching again this morning. But they are tired.”

All flights were suspended until the Cameroon transport minister issued a new order, scheduled for the next day, he said.

“They have lost confidence in the airlines,” said Nkankam. He made a face, saying Kenya Airways was a bad company.

“It was a bad airplane. It was built only six months ago.”

Our afternoon plane to Togo was with Tomai Air Tchad, but that made no difference, said Nkankam. Planes were grounded.

He offered to help. As an immigration official he worked at the airport; he would go there with us to discern the status of our flight.

“We can do it by ourselves,” I replied in French. “But if you want to come with us you would be welcome.”

Douala International Airport was quiet.

About 20 African men, most dressed in long white robes, were gathered outside the main doors, clustered around a press release taped to the glass.

Flight KQ507, bound from Cameroon’s airport hub in Douala for Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, had departed shortly after midnight with 105 passengers and nine crew, the release said.

The Douala airport received its last message immediately after takeoff.

Searchers were flying over the forest 100 kilometres southwest of the capital, Yaounde, but heavy rainfall and the dense equatorial forest were making the search difficult.

The press release listed no names, but 35 passengers were from Cameroon and nine were from Kenya. There were no Canadians.

Three of the men stared at me as I read. I turned to them; their lined faces were drawn with grief, their eyes sorrowful. “ Bonjour,” I said gravely. They nodded and replied, “Bonjour.”

Nkankam ushered me inside. The airport was nearly deserted, only a few young men holding bricks of currency, ready to trade. The Kenya Airways office was closed.

The Tomai office was also closed, but officials at the gate greeted Nkankam and told him flights were still departing today.

He led the way to the deserted lounge and ordered beer.

“We must wait for the office to open, to confirm your seats on the plane,” he said, and told me that the 5,000 Central African francs I had given him to pay the taxi would not be enough. So I gave him 10,000, equivalent to around $30.

Through the window I watched Nkankam pay the driver and receive change, but when he came back he didn’t give it to me. Instead he talked about what a tragedy the crash had been.

“It’s very serious,” he said again, shaking his head sadly with a glance at the men outside. “Their pain, you know? Their pain.”

We finished the beer and he led the way through security.

He walked with an air of authority punctuated by an occasional nod to a guard, and no one stopped us.

An airline agent in a back office told me the Togo flight would depart as scheduled, but our seats had been cancelled because we had not confirmed them in advance.

She fixed things and asked for nothing, but on the way back through security Nkankam told me I owed her “un biere,” which I thought meant beer but actually meant a bribe.

“It should be 10,000,” he said, and told me to give it to him to give to her.

He was obviously taking me for a ride, but he was obviously also some sort of official with real authority that let him walk plain clothed through airport security with a white foreigner in tow. So I paid.

Back at the lounge he ordered more beer.

A television in the corner was broadcasting an official statement from Kenya Airways officials in Nairobi, who confirmed the plane was still missing, expressed sympathy for the families of the passengers and crew, and asked everyone to be patient.

“It’s very serious,” Nkankam said, shaking his head again. “I will return to Kribi tomorrow.”

We tried to leave him and he tried to stop us, claiming that we needed to go through a different departure gate and that he would guide us, but I paid for the beer and, when he demanded it, gave him cab fare to get home.

Searchers found the missing plane later that afternoon, buried nose-first in a mangrove swamp near Kribi.

There were no survivors. One hundred and fourteen people hadn’t been as lucky as Nkankam — or as us.

Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.