05 January 2011

Greetings Again and All About My School Reforestation Project

Hey y’all! It’s been a REALLY long time since I updated this blog, I know. Right now, I’m back home in the U.S. of A. for a little vacation. I’m in Asheville, NC visiting the most lovely and erudite Cari Ficken. Don’t feel slighted, though, if I didn’t get to see you while I was here. I hardly saw anyone, and spent all the time with my family.

Anyway, I’d like to tell you a little bit about what I’ve been up to recently work-wise, and then follow this with a brazen solicitation for money.

Over the last three months, the major project that I’ve been putting together is an environmental education program at three schools in my area. I have been teaching classes at these schools since October, focusing on rural environmental issues that affect the lives of the students, the majority of whom are going to grow up to be farmers. Topics that we have addressed include food webs, deforestation, soil erosion, renewable vs. non-renewable resources, the importance of soil, etc. The classes have been both classroom-based and field-based; Below you can see some pictures of me working with elementary school students to build a compost pile.

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Encouraged by the positive response among students and administrators, I decided to try and expand this project and make it my main lasting contribution to my village. I partnered up with a super-volunteer in a nearby village, Juilie Gallus, to try and implement a lasting environmental education curriculum in five different schools, centered around creating orchards at the schools and examining how planting trees can help solve a lot of the environmental issues (reduced crop yields, mudslides, etc.) that the students face. The program is going to be participatory on a lot of fronts. Teachers and local stakeholders are going to help design and implement the curriculum, local tree nurseries are going to plan the tree plantations, and the children are going to plant the trees and keep them healthy to plant a little over six acres of land, and use over six thousand trees!

I don’t want to go on too much about the details of the project in this space, but if you want to read more about the project, the links below will provide it all for you.

Detailed Project Proposal

Project Budget


A major goal of mine for this vacation was to round up funds for this project; the schools are donating all of the land and the manpower for the project, and my host NGO is also giving a lot of time in developing the plans. Currently, though, Julie and I are looking for finances to buy the tree seedlings for the project. If you’d consider giving any quantity of money, we would be much obliged. The link to donate is below:

Click here to give to this project!

There is absolutely no overhead associated with any gift; the U.S. government pays for me to work here in Cameroon, and the Peace Corps does not take out any money from your donation to cover costs. Also, any donation is tax-deductable, and you’ll be issued a receipt by the donation website. The site for making donations is run by the government and is completely secure.

Additionally, Julie and I are looking for partner schools in the US that we can do exchange programs with and hopefully have the students raise money for the project. If you’re a teacher and interested in doing this, please please email me. The exchange would likely involve sending pictures and letters (translated) back and forth between the schools.

In other news, my beekeeping cooperative is coming along quite nicely. We just put in 20 hives for the 7 members combined, and we’re getting registered as an official cooperative, which will qualify us for government-subsidized loans and grants.

I’m not going to write too much more because I want to get out and enjoy my last few days in the US, but everyone stay tuned for more updates soon!

18 March 2010

My laptop is broken.

No new posts for a while.

05 March 2010

Tree ID and the Cameroonian Food Pyramid

Before I get to other issues, can anybody help me identify this very strange tree? I live in the Western highlands of Cameroon at an elevation of 1500m. The tree is in my neighbor’s live fence, but I’ve never seen it growing wild. As you can see below, it bears very queer-looking fruits that resemble the eggs of a reptilian extra-terrestrial race. The fruits are about 2cm in diameter.SDC11186 When the fruits are picked and cut open, the wounds exude a lot of sticky white latex. I am pretty certain that they’re inedible. I have noticed, however, that ants are attracted to the lighter green splotches on the fruits. The immature fruit is semi-hollow and the interior surface is covered with what look like thousands of villi. These grow and fill in the fruit as it matures. The fruits feel like really soft racquetballs when you squeeze them.  Below you can see the fruit cut open and some leaves. The tree had a somewhat bushy habit, although it had also grown about 7m tall. The leaves are simple and alternate. The bark is thin, white and nondescript. Who knows what it is? My first thought was that it is some type of wild, inedible fig, but the leaves don’t look like the fig trees I’ve seen.

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I promised a roundup of Cameroonian cuisine. All I really know is Bameliké cuisine, but I’ll give you guys a brief summary based on the Cameroonian food pyramid. The graphic and the following excerpts are stolen from Cameroonian Dietary Guidelines 2010, published by the  Maggi Inc. Endowed Ministry of Nutrition of Cameroon.

CameroonFoodPyramid 

Palm oil (12-43 servings per day): At least six thousand calories (of the recommended eight to ten thousand calories per day) should consist of palm oil. Very few Cameroonians have difficulty meeting this dietary requirement. However, if you have trouble consuming enough palm oil, alternative sources of fat include pig and beef skin, squash seed oil, and and soy oil, although the latter two suffer from incomplete hydrogenation (saturation). Bringing your palm oil consumption up to par can be as simple as asking your local beans-and-beignets lady to ladle another tablespoon of grease from the fry pot onto your beans.

Palm oil is the staple cooking oil, and it is used in mass quantities to fry nearly everything. Also, if a food was stewed, boiled, roasted, or somehow else cooked without being fried, palm oil will invariably be added just before serving, “for flavor.” Raw palm oil is rusty red, opaque and quite thick. Refined palm oil is a deep, transparent tan color. Both are a strongly-flavored, low-quality cooking oil. The comment about having extra oil ladled on your beans as “le sauce” is no joke either. The woman who runs my local beans-and-beignets shack looked at me with confusion and suspicion the first time I asked her to not pour extra grease on my food.

MSG (4-8 servings per day): “Avec Maggi, chaque femme est une etoile.” With Maggi, every woman is a star. This has been the pan-African slogan of Maggi International Seasoning Conglomerate of China Incorporated  for the last fifty years, and it rings as true today as it did then, Give your husband the glutamic acid he needs in abundance; he deserves it… Experience the vast array of complementary Maggi MSG delivery systems, including Maggi Original(you know and love it as “le cube”), Maggi Arome (liquid MSG concentrate), Maggi Poulet, Maggi Oignon et Épices, and Maggi Crevette. Also, new for 2010 and aimed at the discerning but budget-conscious consumer, try Maggi Poubelle, refined from the pure effluent of our Guangzhou factory and naturally fortified with mercury and other essential heavy metals… Use of inferior sources of MSG, such as the Honig Beef cube, has been linked to erectile dysfunction and depression in your husband. Additionally, insufficient dietary MSG has been shown to lead to an increased risk of infidelity, heartbreak and divorce among Cameroonian couples… Remember, with Maggi, every woman is a star!

I would like to note now that I am officially very much pro-MSG (monosodium glutamate), despite the selective editing of the above quote which might imply sarcasm. 1) Glutamic acid is an amino acid that is one of the essential building blocks of human proteins. 2) Humans have evolved taste buds specifically receptive to glutamate ions, called “umame” or savory receptors, and so as a result 3) everything tastes much better with MSG. Finally, 4) many of the most delicious foods, such as tomatoes, nori (sushi seaweed), aged cheeses, miso and cured meats contain high levels of naturally-occuring glutamate.  It is thus my uninformed opinion that anyone that says that they have an allergy to MSG is either a moron or willfully full of shit. Nobody is allergic to any other amino acids that are necessary for making human proteins. Also, you never hear of someone getting a “tomato headache” after eating lots of natural glutamate from a few tomatoes.

In short, MSG is the real deal, and haters are just trippin’, Feel free to correct me in the comments if it turns out you have good evidence to contradict my opinions on MSG. I’m still going to cook all the time with Maggi, though. How can it be wrong when it feels so right?

Starch (8-10 servings per day): The bulk of calories not obtained through palm oil should come from starches. Cameroon has many, many starches to offer, including cassava, taro, cocoyams, yams, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, corn, rice, plantains, millet, beignets, and wheat bread. Beignets, fried balls of dough, contain all three of the most important food groups and are thus considered a “complete food.”

There is a surprising variety of starches available in Cameroon, and they’re all prepared in their own unappealing way. Cassava (French: manioc), which contains cyanide, must be leeched, dried and then cooked in a lengthy process to make it edible. Popular preparations include the batôn de manioc, which is cassava flour wrapped in banana leaves in a log shape and boiled. Then, the batôns often sit around for a few days, during which time they ferment. It’s like eating a soured glue stick. I am not a fan. Couscous de manioc, which is another common preparation, is not what you think of as couscous. It is just cassava flour boiled in banana leaves, a little less firm than the baton and unfermented. This is often eaten with sauces such as fish and peanut butter sauce. Finally, popular among bachelors for its ease of preparation, but slightly toxic, is the whole boiled cassava. I am not a fan of cassava.

Taro is an interesting starch that makes a paste similar to what you would get if you mixed talcum powder with water. It is the starch in a strangely delicious dish called achu. Like a sneeze. Achu is taro paste made into the shape of a bowl, into which a yellow sauce is poured. The yellow sauce has as one of its main ingredients ground limestone, which sounds awful but is actually pretty good. The sauce has various other spices and sometimes fish, and I can definitely recommend it.

All the other starches listed are usually boiled. Couscous de mais (corn) is another staple. Plantains I have come to love. The trick for me was to stop thinking about them as a bad banana and to think about them as a good potato. The quantity of starch that Cameroonians eat at a meal is astounding. Jessica, my four-year-old homestay sister would routinely eat more rice than me at dinner. I’m talking three to five cups of rice.

Meat (1-2 servings per day): Common meats include beef, goat, chicken, rat, pig and fish. More exotic meats include monkey, lizard, cane rat and rabbit. Fathers should make sure to consume all the meat in a meal before their growing children can get any, to show them who’s the boss.

Cameroonians don’t eat a lot of meat with each meal, but most meals contain at least a little. ALL organs are eaten. Beef skin is very popular as a meat all to itself, even though it is nothing more than a 1/2cm layer of fat. The hair is singed off the skin before cooking, making for terrible smells. Large piles of intestines can normally be found on top of the various grill stalls around town, which is unappetizing to me. The beef is uniformly low-quality, but it is very cheap, around $2 a pound.

Chickens are bought live. Killing, de-feathering and gutting them is an involved process which is not fun at all.

Rat is another very popular meat, which I’ve had twice. The first time, my neighbor cooked it, and it was wretchingly awful. It had an extremely strong, gamey taste. It’s possible that the animal sat dead in a trap for a few days before being cooked. I swore it off completely until just last week, when my other neighbor invited me to eat with him. I was insufficiently cautious in accepting before finding out what was on the menu. Of course, it was rat, purchased from the woman who sells hot meals at the junction. This time though, it was cooked in a good sauce and was only moderately gamey. I came close to enjoying it. It is not something I’ll seek out, though. Rats are prepared by singing off all the hairs, and then cutting it into seven segments, the head, each leg, and two rounds of torso. I don’t think people eat the tail, strangely. Rats are obtained two ways: first, people set traps in their field. I stepped into a jaw trap once and my foot smarted for days! Luckily I was wearing my hiking boots. The other method is to set a brush fire and have a hunting dog chase them down as they flee the fire.

Fish is very popular, both smoked and fresh. The smoked fish is not delicately smoked, dill-infused lox. They are whole fish that are smoked at high temperatures which chars the outside. Infrequently, there are maggots inside. Fresh fish is caught by giant Chinese trawlers, processed and frozen on-boat, and then sent to Cameroonian markets. The entire fish is eaten, including the head and skin. The local fishing industry has been destroyed by the Chinese, who obtained the fishing rights at bargain-basement prices with a wink and a nod and hands moving discreetly under the table.

Monkey is a very highly prized meat owing to its rarity, as most of the monkeys have been killed for their meat. One day during training, the health volunteers went to the restaurant that they normally took lunch at. The woman opened up the pot, and there was a big hairy monkey head staring out at them. Nobody was sure if they were deliberately trying to gross them out or if they really thought that the Americans would be enticed by the hairy monkey head covered in sauce.

Lizard is a meat that I have yet to try, although one day I was in the market and I saw a huge, maybe four foot long, black and yellow lizard. The guy wanted $12 for it, and I considered buying it, but then I realized I didn’t know what I would do with a thirty pound lizard.

Spaghetti Omelets (1-2 servings per day): Although these could be considered part of the meat, starch, and palm oil groups, most Cameroonians will agree that they deserve their own special group. For maximum health benefits, be sure that the omlette actually floats on the grease while being cooked. Serve with bread for an extra boost of starch. Sprinkle with Maggi Arome before serving.

Yes, the venerable spaghetti omelet, the  fast food of Cameroon. They are pretty delicious, especially when the spaghetti gets fried a little crispy. Don’t call them spaghetti omlettes, though, as you may not be understood. A conversation my friend had at an omelet shack: “I’d like a spaghetti omelet.” “We don’t serve that here.” “What do you have then?” “One or two eggs spaghetti.”

Fruits and Vegetables (use sparingly): Vegetables should not be consumed in excess, as this takes up space in the stomach which could be used for more calorie-rich foods such as palm oil. When possible, vitamins and minerals should be thoroughly boiled out of vegetables before serving. Fruits, while an expensive treat. are not actually considered food.

While a wide variety of vegetables are available here in the Western highlands, people consume very few vegetables. Onions, carrots, leeks, peppers, tomatoes and celery are not considered vegetables in their own right, but are instead called “condiments”. These are pulverized in small quantities and added to sauces, but they’re never cooked and prepared by themselves, and most certainly never eaten raw. The main greens that you can find here are cabbage (normally fried), amaranth leaves (fried or boiled, and absolutely delicious), what’s called huckleberry in the English-speaking regions and simply “legume” in the French regions, and bitter leaf. The last two are very bitter if you don’t boil them with baking soda in at least three rinses of water. As a result, they have almost no nutritional value.

So that’s my explanation of the Cameroonian food pyramid. In upcoming weeks I’ll make a post about some specific Cameroonian dishes with recipes. That’s it for now though. If you got the impression that I am not a fan of Cameroonian food, you would be only partly right. I do like a variety of the dishes, but nothing so much so that I would want to cook it at home. Many of the dishes that I like also involve hours of preparation for only a moderate payoff, flavor-wise.

Some odds and ends:

  The big news these days is that the rains have started, and so agricultural activites have really picked up. At APADER, we’re getting ready to install contour bunds, or “bandes anti-erosives”  on 1/5 ha. of land, which is no mean undertaking. The contour bunds will consist of two rows of trees each, one row a N-fixing tree like Acacia, which will also be good for beekeeping, and the other row various fruit trees. Today I helped to weed the coffee plantation until I learned that my co-workers had just sprayed the plants with fungicide and insecticide. I looked at the fungicide packet, which said in case of poisioning, “There is no known antidote. Treat symptomatically.”I decided to stop. 

In other exciting news, I got a kitten. His name is Franz. He’s named after either Franz Fanon (he’s all-black and brooding), the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or the “stun guitar” player for The Scorpions. SDC11191 It really all depends on who I want to impress. He is very affectionate, almost too much so. I find it unseemly for a cat to beg for affection, and I normally prefer more independently-minded cats. But he is a good mouser, which is why I got him, and he cheerfully eats anything I give to him.

01 February 2010

Doucement à doucement…

I’ve been taking it pretty easy at work the last few weeks and not getting involved in too many projects, but the one’s I’ve been working on are particularly fun. My goal last week was to build a beehive out of raffia “bamboo” and document the process with pictures so I can later create a howto guide. Raffia is a kind of palm that produces fronds with hard exterior coating and a very soft wood, similar to balsa wood, on the inside. One can cleave it very easily and easily whittle tacks to hold the pieces of bamboo together. It is an ideal construction material for poor farmers in developing countries because it requires almost no tools (I built the hive using just a machete, a pocketknife, and a hacksaw blade tensioned by a bent tree branch), very little expertise, and the fronds themselves are available for free in your local swamp. SDC11067On top of that, raffia is the source of palm wine at higher elevations. What a plant! Anyway, this is the hive body that I built. It’s a standard Kenya top-bar hive design that will fit thirty top bars. I need to contract out the construction of the top bars because one needs a table saw to cut each one to exactly 32mm and then cut a dado down the middle to put starter wax.  I started construction of a roof for the hive, but I’ve run into some engineering difficulties, and I’ll need to rethink my strategy before continuing that. I’ve also assembled a bee suit (complete for $14!), and I’m going to harvest honey from the two existing hives at APADER this week. I think I’m getting to one of them too late, though; it looks like they’re about to swarm because of lack of space in the hive.

Another exciting project that I’ve been working on with my friend and fellow PCV Alec last week is a survey of the experimental farm. Alec is a computer whiz who teaches IT at the university in Bangangté. He is currently writing a GIS program in Java that we’re going to use to manage the survey information. (GIS – Geographic Information Systems, organize data taken from GPS units and other sources, such as photographic satellites). It’s an incredibly complicated program, involving lots of calculus and such, and I’m very impressed with what he’s done in the last two months. Last Saturday, we walked around the perimeter of the APADER farm, taking GPS waypoints which Alec then imported into the computer. The goal of doing the survey is to better understand the topography and hydrology of the farm so that we can design our experiments better. I’ll post more updates on this and a map when we have a workable version.

Yesterday, I had a total blast climbing Mt. Batchingou with some other volunteers from the West. I can see the mountain from my house, and it is quite an imposing sight. Mount Batchingou is (I believe) the tallest mountain in my division at 6600 ft., and as one would expect there are great views to be had from the top, although the haze of the dry season obscured our view somewhat.SDC11093 It was a pretty easy hike that took about four hours round-trip.  The  change in the vegetation between the valley floor and the mountain is quite dramatic; In Batchingou and environs, the natural vegetation is a mixture of highland forest and grasslands, but on top of the mountain the vegetation is strictly scrubby grass, with bushes and trees appearing only occasionally in gullies. To the right is a picture of our ascent. Kareen, the volunteer who lives closest to the mountain, invited her counterpart along on the trip. He’s the one carrying the shotgun and wearing the Barack Obama shirt. He was very knowledgeable in medicinal plants of the region and other bits of natural history, and it was great to have him along. He didn’t get to hunt anything, though, because we made far too much noise. Here are some views from the top of the mountain. My camera never does pictures like this justice, but you’ll get the idea. I brought my binoculars, which I definitely don’t regret, because there were amazing things to be seen all around.

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Left to right: Ben, Sequoria, Alec, me and Kareen

On our way down, we walked through a Bororo settlement. Mt. Batchingou and surrounding mountains are sparsely inhabited by the Bororo people, whom I believe are actually not nomadic here in the West, although they are in other environs with less rainfall. They are cattle herders, and the trails that we followed were cattle paths.  As I explained in a previous post, the Bororo will set fire to the grasslands to make the grasses sprout new green growth for their cattle. This was certainly the case on Mount Batchingou, as large swaths of the mountain had been recently burned. Much of the soil is so severely eroded, though, that very little forage will grow on it. Below is a picture of the secondary succession of ferns in a recently burned area; ferns like these dominate the vegetation here in areas of extremely poor soil fertility.

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On our way down, we stopped through a Bororo settlement. Luckily, Kareen’s counterpart spoke Fulfulde, so we were able to communicate with them. Below is a little house on the prairie type settlement that I found particularly aesthetically pleasing. Anyway that’s all for now. I finally got my mail from Yaoundé after two months! Thanks everyone that’s been writing me! I’m busily writing responses.

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18 January 2010

Aerial photographs and miscellany…

So for the last few days I’ve had 3G wireless internet at my house courtesy of my work. No joke, I don’t have running water, and my electricity is around 75% at best, but I do have high-speed internet access. Anyway, while wasting time on the internet, I found that Google Earth has relatively good aerial photography of Bangangte and surrounding regions. Unfortunately, my house missed the cutoff by about 1/2km for high-res photos, but the experimental farm of APADER just made the cut. Here it is… (click for enlargement)

 Feutap Centre Between the thumbtacks that say tree nursery and experimental fields, you’ll see the horizontal rows of trees. Those are our contour bunds. They are bands of trees and earth that follow exactly 0 degree slope around the hill. These prevent surface runoff and erosion, as well as promoting water infiltraton. We plant them with nitrogen-fixing species of trees, and then prune the trees severely (so they don’t compete with crops) during the growing season, and turn the leaves in as fertilizer. Acacia angustissima and Calliandra calothyrsus have other uses in beekeeping. The puffier trees to the right of the nursery are some mango and avocado trees. The eucalyptus plantation is about twenty years old, and was planted by the father of APADER’s founder. We have an alternative lumber wood culture right next to it, manly Grevillia robusta. 

Downtown Bangangte

Here is downtown Bangangte, the big town about 8k from my village.The biweekly market is the one I photographed in a previous blog post, from the top of the triangle. Chez Pierre is the bar that trainees would hang out at afterhours.

Finally, I would like to share this wonderful graphic I came across. Props to whomever made it. I’m happy to report that the only confirmed chip on my board so far is the middle one, but I’m going to take some de-worming medication this week just in case. (many Cameroonians do so three or four times a year.)

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16 January 2010

My narrative drive…

…is in decline. I don’t know why, but I don’t feel like writing anything extended or coherent, so I’ll post some pictures and write some blurbs instead.

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I ate Christmas dinner with my former trainer Elvis and his family. Most Cameroonians are not indifferent to photos. They either are very excited that you have a camera and want to take many pictures with you, or they are convinced that cameras are soul-trapping devices that can be used to put curses on you via the local witch doctor. Elvis and his wife are in the first category of people, as you can see. Just today, I had a 20 minute photo op session with a farmer in his fields of hot peppers and tobacco. Then, sitting at the local bar/beigneterie/MSG store, I had someone come up and show me two pictures that he had taken of me and his family when I went to visit his cacao plantation. That is the endearing side of pictures and the Cameroonians who love them. On the other side is the motorcycle taxi driver who took a bunch of pictures at the Celine Dion dance party that I mentioned in a previous post. Then, months after all was forgotten, he pulled up to me and my friend Lauren, and showed us the photo album of the party that he had gotten printed (at a considerable cost) and carries around with him AT ALL TIMES.

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This is a drum circle at a funeral that I attended for my host father’s mother, who died in 2001. Funerals are a grand affair here, put on years after the person dies. The family will save for years to throw a huge party in the deceased’s honor. By my estimate, this funeral was attended by over 700 people. People like to dress in matching outfits for big events, as you can see in this picture and the picture below of my host mom and sister. Anyway, the drum circle, like many things in Cameroon, is completely backwards from an American drum circle. a) The drummers are in the middle of the circle, and people call/response sing and dance in a tight circle around the drummers. b) The drummers are talented. c) The dancers do not dance in rhythm exactly. Instead they form a complimentary, and at times competitive, rhythm, expressed by metal janglies on their ankles. This makes SDC10828keeping rhythm with them nearly impossible for me, and I have learned to not even try. d) It’s not a bumpin’ drum circle without a PA system. Within minutes of getting going, someone had mic’ed the drum circle and cranked it to 11, which was wholly unnecessary because they were already the loudest thing for miles.. Then, a competing drum circle got started, and a seperate PA system materialized for it in seconds. So one was left with two insanely loud drum circles playing over individual PA systems, audio on full blast and clipping terribly, on top of the Cameroonian pop music playing over the catering company’s PA, on top of 700 people singing or eating and talking. It was a wild time. The drum circles here tend to go on all night which is either a blast or infuriating, depending on how much you want to sleep.

SDC10934 I woke up this morning, made coffee, started walking to the farm, looked up and oh man solar eclipse! I took this picture at 6:45 this morning. It took me a got fifteen minutes to get the aperture, shutter speed, etc… right on my camera to take a direct picture of the sun, but I did manage to get one good picture before the eclipse ended. I guess there was a full eclipse in France, but because of the latitude difference, ours was only partial.

Brush fires have been a regular motif in my days for the last few weeks or so. It’s the height of the dry season and, true to form, it is very dry here. Just how dry? It hasn’t rained a single mL in nine weeks. Just a week or so ago, somebody lit a brush fire RIGHT OUTSIDE my house. I heard it burning and ran outside. I stood there for a few minutes, watching this fire grow and thinking “Oh shit, what do I do, oh shit this is not good.” While I stood there paralyzed, some of my neighbors also saw the fire and ran up and put it out with sisal leaves, and I felt like an utter fool for not having the sense to put a wildfire out while it was small. Then, not more than an hour later, a fire started on the hill next to mine! Not wanting to be the incompetent American again, I rushed to go help put out this fire, which involved a) finding a branch with green leaves b) beating the fire with said branch until it goes out. SDC10928Despite the method’s simplicity, it was quite demanding work, and I was definitely the greenhorn of the fire crew. Cameroonians are COMPLETELY nonchalant about putting out brush fires, and they do so almost at a leisurely pace. The burned landscape above is the aftermath of this fire. As you can see, the fire burns so quick and cool that even grasses with thicker stems survive uncharred. So far, I have heard three stories about how the fires are started, and I’ll repeat them in descending order of probability: 1. Farmers too lazy to clear their feilds. This is almost certainly who has been setting the fires near me. 2. Bored children. 3. The Bororo, a Muslim herding tribe that came from the North a few centuries ago. They’re a favorite punching bag for the dominant Bamelike here, so I was unsurprised to find more than one person blaming the Bororo, even though their settlements are fairly far from here. The accusation has a basis in fact, however; the Bororo do actually set fires to get fresh grass to sprout for their herds. 4. “Le rat – voilà sa troue!” Many people blamed “the rat” for the fires, and then proceeded to point me to where his supposed den is. I think there’s something behind this explanation, but I have yet to figure it out.

EDIT: So I figured out what people were talking about when they said the rat was the cause of the fires... Hunters will set the fires and position themselves downwind so that when the field rats run to escape the fire, they can capture them with hunting dogs. And so the plot thickens in an arson mystery that it seems only I care about here...

So I did my first “animation”, or training session on Monday! I went to Bandrefam, about an hour away, where Julie, an agro volunteer, works with a group that does beekeeping. The beekeeping project was set up by a previous volunteer, and she inherited it. We were going to harvest honey for the first time, but the hives that we worked on had ant and termite problems and were weak as a result, so we didn’t end up harvesting anything. I was quite nervous going into the animation, because it would also be my first time working with the (notoriously aggressive) African honeybee, but everything went fine. We worked at dusk, (no good pictures were taken as a result) and the bees were exceptionally calm. Nobody got stung, even though there were six people in bee suits. It was really great to work with and teach an enthusiastic group of farmers, and I’m excited to work with them again, especially if it means honey.

SDC10978Our oyster mushrooms have started to fruit at APADER! I don’t even like to eat mushrooms, but I love everything else about them. Fungi might be my favorite kingdom, if I was really pressed to pick one. The spawn strain and the training for this project were provided by the World Agroforestry Center, and this is the first production run that APADER (the NGO I work for) has made. The culture medium is a sterilized mixture of sawdust, ground corn, and lime. After the fungus completely colonizes this substrate, the mushrooms poke through the bag, as seen below.. Above is a picture of a (slightly over)developed mushroom, a warm-weather subspecies of the oyster mushroom found all over the US. I’ve been reading a ton about mycology, and I’m extremely excited to learn and experiment with this cultivation system.

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SDC10886 Somebody that deserves special mention on my blog is my friend Joseph. I met him on the first day that I moved to town, and he has been a saint to me ever since. He built me mosquito screens for my windows, tells me when somebody is trying to rip me off, and has been a wonderful friend in general. On top of that, he speaks passable English, which helped me navigate the first few rough weeks at post. Thank you Joseph Kenfack.

A pretty morning with some clouds rolling over the mountain I live on…

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The elusive hornbill again, at least this time in profile, but still blurry. I’ve had some amazing bird sightings in the last month. These have included an African cuckoo that I observed for a good twenty minutes, calling and eating caterpillars off of trees (they are quite rare in these parts). I also saw a hornbill perched no more than ten feet away. Other highlights include a pair of yellow white-eyes, an African harrier hawk, yellow-mantled widowbird, and a to-be-determined (and magnificent) woodpecker.

It’s getting past my ten o’clock bedtime, so that’s all for now. I have yet to get a post office box here, so send mail to Yaounde. Mom and dad, I got the package you sent me. All the volunteers in the West are very excited about the cinnamon you sent in such great quantities, and the underwear could not have arrived a minute too soon.

12 December 2009

And then there was one…

Sorry about the lack of posts as of late. I’ve found it hard to get to use the internet. You’ll notice that there’s another post right below this one that I composed a long time ago, but which I never posted… until now. That post is far more interesting.

The time between Thanksgiving and swearing-in was a blur of activity, but we made it! Agro volunteers are still fifteen for fifteen through all of training, and don’t we look good…

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There was typhoid, there was malaria, there were intestinal worms, there were chiggers, there was amoebic dysentery, there were grave puncture wounds from bikes,  but we kicked ass and took copious notes. And here’s the health volunteers. I don’t mean to be separatist about it, but my big group picture came out blurry.

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So we swore in as Peace Corps volunteers. There were dignitaries. There were photo-ops. There were certificates, oh my were there certificates. There were speeches courageously given in French, Fulfulde and Pidgin. We then showed our appreciation for certain members of the community with certificates, and then some other people received some certificates. Then the ambassador administered the oath of office, and we took more pictures. Then BUFFET TIME!!!

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There’s me with Madame la Ambassatrice la Honorée Janette Garvey and my host family, sans Carole, who had to be in school. There isn’t really very much to be said about the whole process; it was just like a graduation or some other ceremony, except with loud Cameroonian and eighties American pop music playing over the PA system. My chef was there, and he might of gotten best-dressed with his three-piece tweed suit and matching tweed fedora. After the ceremony, I rushed home to pack, and then rushed to the party that we had at Hotel Djenne, the third nicest hotel in Bangangté. At 7 the next morning we all went our separate ways.

I arrived at my post that night, after making a trip to Bafoussam to go to the bank, buy a non-stick pan and olive oil, and eat French fries with mayo. When I arrived at my house, the dead guy’s picture was taken down from the wall, which just made the house even more empty. I lied before when I said there was nothing in my house… it turns out that there are seven raffia bamboo beds, although my mattress is too large for all of them, so it makes a U-shape on the frame. I turned one room into my kitchen by putting my stove in there, but my living room is still completely empty. The Peace Corps has, I should say, up until this point kept us quite adequately monied, but the move-in allowance that I received was wholly inadequate for opening a post and furnishing a house. With the money, I bought a kitchen counter and cabinet (on order at the menusierie), a mattress, a gas stove and tank, a voltage regulator, some small sundries, and a bamboo dresser, and this put me 35% over budget. I’ll stop griping, but if anyone wants to send me a couch or even just a loveseat via airmail, it would be greatly appreciated. Until then, no sitting allowed at my house.

Despite the lack of furnishings, I’m settling quite nicely into my house. I have a west-facing porch, so I can catch the evening sun, filtered through the leaves of the banana grove, and read on my front porch until dusk. I just finished reading Dune, which I can highly recommend. Speaking of Dune, my water situation is better than I had expected. SDC10772 That there to the right is my well, which is only about seven or eight hundred feet from my house. It was much to my embarrassment that I couldn’t figure out how to use my well at first. Every time I lowered the bucket, it would float on the surface of the water and not draw any. I tried loading a bunch of rocks to one side of my bucket, which did tilt the bucket so that it would take on water, but when I hoisted it, it stayed tilted and all the water ran out. Then I struck upon the idea of putting a few heavy rocks in the bottom of my bucket and dropping it from a significant height. This indeed did work once, but on my second attempt the weight of the rocks smashed through the bottom of my bucket upon impact with the water. Dismayed and a bucket down, I consulted Zara, Kim, Kareen, and other friends via telephone, hoping someone would have an insight so that I wouldn’t a) die of thirst or, worse, b) have to ask my neighbor to explain to me how to use a well, on par with the wheel and fire as one of the simplest technologies mastered by primitive man. Unfortunately, nobody had any answers. The next day though, when I was trying some various other methods that were equally ineffectual, my neigbor came across me and was quite kind in assisting me. You tie a rock on a string to one side of the bucket to get the bucket to tilt into the water, and then when you pull it up, it hangs agreeably to the side. Genius!

SDC10766I went on a very sporting bike ride the other day to visit Bangou, a town about 7km away where the closest volunteer lives. I very stupidly forgot to do my Peace Corps Bicycle Repair Manual-recommended pre-ride inspection, which ended in disaster. Having transported my bike to Bamena via taxi, I had removed the wheels. When I re-mounted them, I forgot to re-engage the brakes. So I jumped on my bike and started coasting down the hill outside my house, seen here from different directions. It was only when ISDC10765 reached unsafe speeds that I realized that I did not have the ability to regulate my speed. I hesitated for a few seconds, but then decided that my only course of action was to jump off my bike, which I did, skinning my knee in the process. The rest of the ride was gorgeous, though. Bangou looks out over this very imposing mountain, Mount Bangou, actually. I’m very excited to climb it, as Kareen, the volunteer, tells me that it gives wonderful views of the entire department. I tried to take pictures, but the dusty haze of the dry season foiled my efforts. Here are some other pictures I took recently, though:

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This is the eucalyptus plantation that is on the ridge by my house. Eucalyptus poses pretty grave environmental problems for Cameroon for two reasons: a) Eucalyptus secretes poisons into the soil to discourage competition and b) one eucalyptus tree, depending on the size, consumes eleven liters of water a day, and a eucalyptus plantation can dramatically lower the water table of an area. The plantation pictured here isn’t too offensive; it’s at the top of a mountain, away from arable land and any wells.  One area that my host NGO is working in is alternative fast-, straight-growing timber trees such as grevillia robusta that don’t have these drawbacks.

SDC10762  Here is the valley that is at the base of the hill I live on. I took this picture while on my way to the market yesterday, which occurs very confusingly every eight days. I discovered yesterday that I live pretty far out from the center of town, about 45 minutes by foot. I think I’ve probably posted enough landscape pictures that you guys have a pretty good idea of what the West looks like, so I’ll stop posting them unless there’s something particularly compelling.

While I was at the market, I met a rather loud-mouthed but well-meaning carpenter cum tree nursery manager who was eager to show me his farms, and I was happy to make his acquaintance. I have no shortage of people who want to be my friend here, and I find that number climbing even higher after I buy my first friend a beer. Everybody wants me to bring a tractor to Bamena which, while completely unrealistic, at least isn’t as unrealistic as the guy in Bangangté who wanted me to build a hydroelectric dam.

I’m certainly happy to be at post, but it is definitely a little lonely compared to training, when I had 31 other Americans and Cameroonians who spoke great English to talk to. I’ve been writing a lot of letters which I’m going to drop into the post on Monday. Also, I’m going to open up a new post office box in Bangangté next week (for LETTERS ONLY, no packages), so stay tuned for my new address. What a predicament that now that I have all this time to write new blog posts and letters and such, I have so much less to talk about, as my life has slowed down considerably since arriving at post. Note, though, that I’m NOT complaining about the last point.

In upcoming weeks: a mini lesson in Pidjin English (mostly the few funny words I’ve picked up), some info on Cameroonian cuisine (think starch and oil), maybe some pictures of my new village friends and haunts, and who knows what else…

Wish you were here!