Published Feb 5, 2021
Finding Star Trek in Cameroon
How I came to find and love the franchise, not on TV but through books.
By Helen Ngoh
“Haha! I would never have thought to find a Trekkie in Africa," said my American acquaintance, Bill.
He was a handsome fellow. I thought he looked a little like Bruce Willis. I enjoyed his company quite a bit. Also, I had a major crush on him. I doubt he ever knew that — but, that is another story altogether.
It was 14 years ago. We were at a bar one evening in a small town called Buea in Cameroon, drinking local beers in one of a few thatched huts with bamboo tables and chairs meant to trick the fleeting foreign visitor, their primary clientele, with an illusion of the authentic African experience.
I cannot quite remember what the conversation had been about but something had prompted me to give the Vulcan salute, complete with, “Live long and prosper.”
Bill had been surprised and said, “That’s from Star Trek.”
I was surprised too.
“I love Star Trek!' I said. "Do you know about the show?”
He did. So we got to talking. After listening to me rave about Kirk and the U.S.S. Enterprise, and The Next Generation for a few minutes, he said with a laugh, “I would never have thought to find a Trekkie in Africa. How did that happen?”
In Cameroon, a country of about 25 million people in Central Africa, we are not spared the exported American culture that comes through film and television. However, The Original Series had happened years and years ago. Back then, there was no TV in my country. When we did get TV in the mid-’80s, it was the French-dubbed version of David Hasselhoff as the Knight Rider (we knew it as Michael Knight).
That night was the first time I had even heard the word ‘Trekkie.’ So, I told Bill – who said he wouldn’t go as far as calling himself one – how I had stumbled upon Star Trek five years before our conversation.
I was a freshman in the university, younger than all of my journalism coursemates by at least two years. My huge glasses and less-than-glamorous fashion choices didn’t win me any friends. I was a nerd by all accounts, out of place with my peers, and a long way from home. With few invites to wild parties and nerve-wracking dates, books were my comfort. But even those were not that easy to find.
The best place to look was in a dusty old shack called Books n’ Things. It was right at the entrance to the university. The merchandise included items that might have come from 50 or more yard sales in America — old pans and mugs, stationery, the odd sports paraphernalia, DVDs… one time I even saw complete brass-band uniforms.
But its main attraction — for me at least — was its books. The store was a maze, dark, stuffy and dusty with hardly any categorization at all. The shelves ran to the ceiling. Many times, the books remained in the cardboard boxes they had come in. There were all kinds of books in there; nonfiction works, English, and American classics, modern authors like Danielle Steele, and John Grisham. Most of those were second-hands. I sometimes wondered how the owner had come in possession of such an assorted collection.
On one of my trips to Books n’ Things during the 2nd semester of my freshman year, something caught my eye. Lying on a haphazard pile in a particularly dusty area in the shack, was a book with a spaceship and a group of people on the cover, one of them with pointy ears. I’ll read almost anything but I do love sci-fi, especially stories with intelligent extraterrestrial life. I think it may have something to do with the appeal astronomy holds for me, and my conviction that we are not alone. So seeing an alien and a spaceship on that cover, I was sold.
The title was Star Trek #1: The Original Series. There were books 2 and 3 as well, but I did not have enough money to get all three at once that day. As it was, I had to cough up 500frs (the equivalent of $1 back then), which was 5% of the meager monthly allowance I got from my parents, all the while grateful it was not by any bestselling author, or I would have paid double for it.
I did not sleep much that night. Or the next night. Or the night after that. Captain Kirk, Spock, and McCoy came alive in the pages of that book. I was as fascinated by the worlds and the drama as I was by the characters. It was particularly pleasant to encounter Nyota Uhura, a Black woman like me, from Africa, like me.
By the end of the week, I had gone back to find the other books. So began my love story with Star Trek. Over the next few years, I hunted for Star Trek novels, eventually finding The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager books. I read about the franchise and learned about conventions, which I found enthralling.
Sometime later, a video rental shack sprung up less than 50 feet away from Books n’ Things. Magic Touch, as it was known, peddled pirated CDs. I found two TNG movies there and fell in love with Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard.
As the internet became more available and affordable, I learned how to (illegally) download movies. I would leave my old PC on for two weeks, just to get the Star Trek movies I could find online. With bandwidths that were hardly ever above 25kbs, it took a lot of patience and financial sacrifice. Eventually, I managed to track down all of the original movies. Yet, The Original Series was hard to find, as I let Bill know that evening.
I spent the next decade and a half giving the Vulcan salute to people who never understood it. They thought I was weird as I tried to explain what it was and where it had come from. Some would try to correct me. They would say, “You mean to say Wars, don’t you?” And then I would have to explain to them that long before Skywalker’s battle with Darth Vader, the U.S.S. Enterprise had been boldly going where no one had gone before. In all this time, I still had not found the original tv series.
Three years ago, I called the love of my life Spock because he was so logical about all the reasons why we could not be together; he had to google the Vulcan’s name but I forgave him (only because he knew Coldplay and Imagine Dragons). My dog was called Bones. I was going to name my son Tiberius, only his father put his foot down. I still dream of attending a Star Trek convention one day, dressed as Nyota.
One of my most memorable cinematic experiences was watching Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek (2009), and its sequel four years later. I tried to explain my excitement to those who were coming across the franchise for the first time. I cried when Leonard Nimoy died.
Gene Roddenberry wrote in his preface to Star Trek #1, that the magic of Star Trek wasn't in the fiction, or in the science. He said the magic was in the fans. In my small corner of the world, that statement rings true even after all these years.
I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about why Star Trek became so special to me. The appeal, I think, is in the audacity to embrace a world without inequality, racism, and sexism. To believe in Kirk and his successors as they work with teams rich in diversity, striving for fairness, no matter how impossible the challenge, all the while showing compassion even for the enemy, is to believe that humanity can evolve into something better, purer, than it is now.
In 2017, I got a Netflix account. It was less than a week before TOS popped up on my suggestions. I immediately wanted to tell my old acquaintance Bill that I was finally watching The Original Series, but we had lost touch years ago. So, instead, I brought in a huge bowl of popcorn into my bedroom, took my laptop into bed with me, and hunkered down for the weekend. I had arrived at my final frontier.
Helen Ngoh (she/her) is a journalist residing in Yaounde, Cameroon. You can find her on twitter @Helenngoh.