Yaoundé — Each December, Yaoundé and Douala international airports are packed with hundreds of extra people. But they don't have travel plans themselves. These crowds are waiting to welcome Cameroonian loved ones who live in France or another Western country. And while homecoming can be a joyous occasion, for some Mbenguistes, as the returning Cameroonian expats are known, it comes at too steep a price.
Mbenguistes regularly return to Cameroon to celebrate Christmas and New Year. Their title comes from the word 'Mbenguè', which means 'France' in a local dialect. Taking advantage of what is usually a lull in the European economy, these 'France-dwellers' find the holidays a convenient period to visit with the family and friends the have left behind.
On these visits, it is common for the returnees to bring a 'token of appreciation' to members of their social network in Cameroon. A phone, a watch or an item of clothing: anything that comes from Europe is always welcome. If for some reason the Mbenguiste has no gifts in kind to offer, he or she is expected to 'help out' from time to time. Euros and dollars are not refused. In fact, remittances are practically a given.
Gifts for everyone
"Everyone wants something from you. Everyone thinks you are loaded with euros," says Francis, who now lives in Canada. "When I want to travel back home, I need to save about 10,000 euros.
Francis has come up with an alternative to buying gifts for everyone: "When you get home, it's better to keep a low profile," he says. He adds that, unless it's a death that brings him back to Cameroon, he tries not to stay long.
Landry, who resides in the French city of Rennes, echoes other Mbenguiste testimonials when he says: "If want to travel home, you have to budget not only for your ticket and stay, but also for gifts for family, friends, neighbours - in short, everyone you know."
It is traditional for members of the Cameroonian diaspora to spend their savings on such gifts, and Landry's circumstances won't permit that right now.
What Francis, Landry and others like them go through is a true financial sacrifice. In some ways, it is meant to save face. Perhaps more importantly, it shows others how the Mbenguiste has 'made it'.
The gifts and handouts can indeed be taken as a sign of economic success. Inspired by the homecomers, resident Cameroonians sometimes decide to become Mbenguistes themselves. Once they reach Europe, however, they often find that things are not how they may have seemed from afar.
This year Landry has decided not to visit Cameroon. And even if he could make it back, he knows he still might not be able to fulfil everyone's Christmas wishes. "If you don't buy them gifts, they say you are stingy," he says. "Many people are still under the impression that life is easy in Europe."