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…


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.


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!!!


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:


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!

Thanks Given, and a Jaunt about the Northwest

I have been just the busiest guy since my last post. There are a hundred stories that I could tell about what’s happened in the last two weeks, but I don’t want this blog to be like reading my journal, as that would be terribly boring. So, I’m just going to post random bits that come particularly to mind. I just processed a bunch of pictures, so my memories will inevitably be skewed toward the events which I photographed, but what I photographed was pretty rad.

I’d like to start out by acknowledging two very special groups of people who have been reading my blog: 1. my cousins’ second and fourth grade classes. I look forward to writing with you guys, and I hope you send mail my way soon. And 2. all the moms in the states who are reading my blog because their children are with me in Cameroon but they don’t write often enough. Please keep reading my blog; I’m not creeped out, but your children are embarrassed. Also, they miss you terribly but they are extremely lazy.

All the agro volunteers are on a VACATION (!), ahem, educational field trip to the Northwest provence of Cameroon this weekend, and all of the health volunteers definitely have reason to be jealous. I thought that the West was beautiful, but the Northwest definitely is even more striking. Not only is the geography beautiful, but it’s also very nice to be able to speak English to everyone. That said, I have grown very accustomed to having speaking as loudly in English as I want to about any topic around anyone, without the slightest worry that I am being understood by non-Americans. I think I have embarrassed myself in at least one instance on account of that. For those unaware of the political geography of Cameroon, the Northwest and Southwest provinces of Cameroon, which border Nigeria, were formerly under British control between 1917 and 1960, and as such they speak English, whereas the rest of Cameroon speaks French. For reasons not understood  by me, this has alienated much of the people in these provinces from the rest of Cameroon, and has made the Anglophone regions hotbeds of political dissent, but that’s a whole other story. I don’t understand how so much political animosity could have developed over 40 years of colonial rule, but I’ll report back if I gain any insight, as this is one of my main unresolved questions about Cameroon. Anyway, I’ve digressed quite far from my intent. The mountains here are quite severe and imposing. Every time I wake, I defy the day to show me a farmer cultivating an ever steeper slope, and I am rarely disappointed by the day’s end. On this trip, we saw farmers that had tilled (in horizontal bunds, at least to their credit) on slopes between forty and fifty degrees… It’s a nightmare by any soil conservation standards, but population pressures are so strong in the Northwest and West of Cameroon that farmers have little choice but to grow on whatever land they can find. I’ve talked too long though… Check out some pictures…



That’s Barbara, my favorite French instructor and all-around #1, and Antoine, the chief of Batie, our driver, and medicinal plants instructor.

The first night, we stayed at this swell nursery and agroforestry training compound called MINEPCIG, because Cameroonians love very obtuse acronyms. I ended up buying two passion fruit vines from their nursery, which I’m very excited to plant at my house next week. There was a nice stream running right beside the dorms, mountains on all sides, grass huts for us to take our meals in, and some extraordinary demonstration gardens. They were certainly the most well-manicured gardens I’ve seen in Cameroon, at least, with hedges and nice foot paths. The hedge in the foreground of this picture is an edible green Cameroonians use to make a plate called njamma njamma. Behind that are onions, three papaya trees, and trellising on the far right are black pepper vines.


The next day, we visited an agricultural research station where they are working on improved varieties of tubers. The coolest thing was SDC10578learning about micro germplasm propagation techniques. Seen to the left (blurrily) is an Irish potato plant cultured on agar medium. The research station gets varieties of potatoes shipped from all over the world, particularly from Peru, which is the birthplace of the potato and which shares a very similar climate and geography to this area. If a variety of potato does particularly well, they can take the vegetative matter from the plant, cut it into very tiny pieces, and culture it on agar medium. In this way, they can get hundreds of clones from one potato plant. Each internode (where a leaf joins a stem) contains the necessary meristem cells for a new plant to start growing. Once the seedlings get a littleSDC10582 bigger, they are removed from the agar medium and transplanted to a screen house, seen here,  for further development. All the soil in the screen house is autoclaved (read: heated in a stew pot over a fire for a while)  and there are double doors as well to keep pests out. Finally, the potato plants are transplanted to a field 12km away, where the mature plants are harvested and shipped to farmer-leaders who can then propagate and distribute the seed potatoes to their community.

But now I’d like to come to what I consider the centerpiece of our trip. We spent last night at  the Saboga Botanical Garden outside of Baham, Northwest that was absolutely perfect… too perfect in fact.


Our first impressions were great. The lawns were immaculately manicured, and the plant displays were amazing. For instance, there was a wonderful orchid garden where all the orchids were grown suspended from logs…


After the initial walkthrough, some things seemed slightly amiss, however. For instance, there were many, many multiple tributes to the founder of the center, one Dr. Ngwa Che Francis Ntehnda, who had died two years previous.  Throughout the trip, I counted one bust, two devotional paintings, many pictures, and many assorted things – plazas, trees, rooms - dedicated to his memory.  On first brush, he seemed like a pretty interesting guy… a botanist by training who had founded the center to promote environmentalism in the Northwest. Digging a bit under the surface, the story becomes a bit weirder.

This sign introduced us to the purpose of the center…


You will notice the M.L. King Equality Centre referenced in the above sign. This is the diorama contained in the M.L.K. equality center, in which Dr. Ngwa Che takes, probably fairly, a quite dim view of the imperialist legacy in Africa. See if you can catch the subtle symbolism…

SDC10658 SDC10660

Luckily, Dr. Ngwa Che had a plan for world harmony, clearly explained in the following diagram. My favorite bullet point is undoubtedly “Reckless space exploration – Leave God’s world alone”. Most of the ideas were either environmentalist or Christian in nature, and admittedly many of them are good….


Then I found this picture of him, the first of many. The man had ONE EYE. Up until this point, SDC10707 I was debating whether or not the man was an eccentric but well-meaning environmentalist, or a cult leader. For some reason, learning that he was missing an eye left no doubt in my mind of the latter. Then we found the cross-shaped baptism pool, the bamboo maze, the caged monkey, the dozens of taxidermied animals, and the abandoned biological research lab. (Does anybody watch Lost?) And then there was this: a ten-foot high platform looking out over a grass plaza, with a desk at the top. I don’t see much other purpose other than addressing minions from a commanding height, but that might just be my imagination running wild.


Also, there were some traditional thrones placed seemingly haphazardly throughout the compound. As you can see, they were clearly the seats of the dearly departed doctor. And that is a dessicated hawk above my head. At this point in the afternoon, I imagined a few possibilities:SDC10706

1. At dinner, the groundskeepers lock the compound gates. Then a young man, bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father Dr. Ngwa Che, steps out of the shadows where he had been sitting unnoticed. He apologizes, saying that dinner had not yet been prepared. He is evasive about when dinner will be ready, but to pass the time he takes us to his armory and shows us his immaculate collection of hunting rifles. Following this, he takes us around and show off all of the taxidermied animals, recounting the stories of how either his father or he had killed each. But, he explains, he had lost the joy of the hunt. The big game animals of Western Africa are all but gone, and none of the animals that one can find in Cameroon can come close to matching the intelligence of the hunter, all but one that is. At that point, he announces that he must excuse himself to change into his sporting clothes, oh, and he forgot to mention that we have a fifteen minute head start.

2. We have an uneventful night, and when we awake, we find out that one of us is missing, but there are some freshly-stripped bones in the monkey cage, and the bust of Dr. Ngwa Che has mysteriously moved to the top of the platform overlooking the plaza.

3. Various other scenarios involving gladiator deathmatches, being chased through the bamboo maze by a mysterious ball of dark energy, volunteers becoming posessed and doing the crabwalk Exorcist-style, arcane rituals involving the baptism pool, etc…

4. I am awoken at five in the morning by someone banging a gong in the distance. Then, scared witless, I lay in bed for an hour listening to what I think is a large crowd cheering in the distance, but which I eventually decide is a cacophony of roosters from a nearby large-scale poultry operation. We have a completely uneventful night, though, and awake to a breakfast of coconut-flavored bread with margarine and extremely weak coffee. Then the whole staff is extremely congenial as they see us off, and we return to Bangangte. As you might have guessed, this last scenario is what actually happened.

Anyway, so that was our trip to the Saboga Botanical Gardens, a place that I will never visit again so long as I walk this earth.

On a cheerier note, let me finish this post by writing quickly about how our Thanksgiving went. It went wonderfully. The host father of Henry, one of my fellow stagieres, went to Bafoussam and bought us two turkeys. Henry and Patrick, pictured in the rear below, killed the turkeys, and Patrick and I gutted them.We brined them overnight and roasted them to perfection the next day, even though we had to cook one in a marmite pot on the stovetop, propped up by tomato paste cans. We then walked quite haughtily and triumphantly to the training center… SDC10563  With my friend Carl,I prepared the dressing, of which we made two kinds, pork sausage and cornbread stuffing, and cassava bread stuffing. Everyone else made a dish, and all the language and technical trainers came. It was a blast. It did make me quite homesick, though, and I think that I’ve really started missing the U.S. some for the first timeSDC10565 since I arrived here. I of course expected this to happen, but I do miss home. Oh my this post has gotten too long, I believe. Thanks for reading this far, guys. Next week, we’re swearing in as volunteers and leaving for our posts. The ambassador comes on Wednesday to conduct the ceremony, and then we leave the following morning. That means that after next week, I’ll probably have a lot more time to write blog entries and letters, and also a whole lot less to write about. Au revoir!

Appendix A: Various photos.


Pretty flower.


Sad monkey.


Strange tree.


Cameroon dance party.


Motorcycle chassis converted into bicycle.

18 November 2009

The Post in Which I Discuss my Site Visit and Other Various Happenings of the Previous Weeks

Last Saturday I returned to Bangangte, which means “The Town Name Constantly Misspelled” in Medumba, after spending a week at my site. Well, actually I didn’t spend a week at my post in Bamena, but I circled around the town for seven days before spending all of two hours in the town itself. First, I spent three days in Bazou with David and Caitlin Hansen. I’m sort of replacing David as the local agroforestry volunteer, although my post is moving 20km down the road so that I can be closer to APADER. Then, I spent the next three days in Bangouwa, about 4k on a dirt road from my village, with my host-country counterpart Cinquante. Yes, his name is Fifty. If I were a real-estate agent in the States trying do describe his house, I would probably call it a "quaint, charming fixer-upper, with well-matched floor [dirt] and wall [mud brick] motifs and a lively atmosphere [chickens and mice inside, with the occasional goat making an appearance.]" The only thing that managed to wear thin on me were the baby chicks under the bed when I was trying to sleep, though.  As Cinquante is a divorceé and as females do ALL of the cooking here, the cuisine was a little lacking… boiled yams with a side of boiled yams for dinner two nights in a row. Cinquante does have a very picturesque tree nursery though. Take a peek…


His business is mainly selling grafts and marcots of improved varieties of fruit trees. The nursery that he’s organized is actually a cooperative that he runs with his neighbors, including a few women, which is fairly unusual for here. His grafts have about an 80% success rate, depending on the species, whereas of the fifteen grafts that we volunteers did, one took. Haha. I worked with him one day potting on two hundred avocado plants to be used as grafting stocks, which was fun.

On the last day of my site visit, I finally got to visit my house, and it’s pretty nice. It’s on top of a mountain, so there are excellent views. I really wanted to take pictures, but it has been too cloudy the days I’ve been there. Being on top of a mountain also means that water isn’t pumped up that high, though, so there’s no running water. I do have electricity. Also, being at the top of a mountain means that my bike ride from Bangangte SUCKS. I did it yesterday, and I had to pull over no less than three times to cough and wheeze. The total elevation gain is about 300m over 10km, and it’s pretty much uninterrupted ascent. Luckily, the road is paved the whole way. The ride back to Bangangte is FUN!


So that’s my house, with my neighbor/landlord Mr. La Maire, who, despite his moniker, isn’t the mayor as far as I can tell. Strangely, I have a flush toilet to go with my no running water, so if I want to flush, I have to pour two gallons of water in the tank.. I think I’ll just be using the latrine. The bathtub under the gutter is my rainwater collection system and mosquito hatchery. Since I’m the first volunteer to live in the house, it is completely empty. The only thing in the whole house is a four-foot-tall picture of the guy that died in the house last year. His bedroom is sealed off, but I also have four other bedrooms. One of the bedrooms is going to become my "cuisine moderne” though, since the current kitchen is a fire in an out-building.

One of the best features of the house is the little garden out front…


Right now, my landlord has maize and taro planted, but he said I could plant it however I wanted. In the foreground of the picture is one of my two avocado trees. Behind it are my four banana trees, and then to the left is my mango tree. Not a bad assortment of fruit trees, I must say.

I don’t really feel like writing much else, but I’ll put up some more pictures…





A very old papaya tree… normally one prunes a tree before it gets this big because it’s impossible to harvest the fruits when they’re this big.








The one even marginal picture that I’ve been able to take of a hornbill, and it turns its head just before I take the picture so that you can’t see its horned bill. Blast.






Me and a farming community group, having just constructed a composting pit behind their piggery, which is a word in Cameroonian English.


Something really creepy that my 3-year-old host sister handed me.

A bientôt!

01 November 2009

Post Assignment and Other Ramblings



(EDIT: I deleted some pictures from this post and made others smaller because the internet is VERY slow today.)

Yesterday, we received our post assignments, and we’re all leaving for our post visits on Sunday. We’re all anxiously wondering what their village will be like, but not me! My post assignment is in Bamena, the very same village in which they handed out the assignments, and about 15km from Bangante, the town that I’m currently in.  (If you notice that there is a theme in Cameroon of town names beginning in “Ba”, that’s because Ba means “the people of” in most of the over 100 Bantu languages spoken here.) Even though I won’t be traveling very far, I’m still very excited about my post and I’m happy to be staying in the Western highlands. Above is a rather mediocre picture of an great vista in Bamena.My camera has the inexplicable ability to make the most striking landscapes flat and boring (see the photo of Bamena above), but trust me that the mountains are absolutely beautiful here. Bamena is at an elevation of around 3500ft., and it can get downright cold up in the hills. 

I’m also really excited about the work that I’m going to be doing. My host-country counterpart works for APADER, the NGO that I blogged about effusively in a previous post. I’m probably going to work there at least three days a week. My tasks will probably include nursery management, teaching classes on grafting and marcotting, apiculture, and designing and executing experimental plots to test various cropping systems. I really could not be happier about the work that I’m going to be doing, as I will be learning so much during my tenure there. I will report back more details and I will have a lot more pictures to post of my site when I return from site visit next Saturday.

In other news, we were issued our Peace Corps bikes last weekend! Here’s a picture of mine.  Ain’t she a beaut!? Eucalyptus frame and fork, with all-mahogany wheels and a coat-hangerSDC10415 kickstand. Built entirely by hand, as well. My bike mechanic was considering building me a fixed-gear bike, but he decided (and I agree completely) that pedaling is for poseurs, so he did me one better and completely removed the entire power train! Take that, hipsters! Okay, so I’m lying. The above bike actually belongs to a middle-aged man in Bamena, who is inconceivably adroit at riding it downhill, although I don’t know what he does going up. My bike is a Trek 4000 steel-frame mountain bike with a hard fork and a new set of wheels. It’s nothing special, but it’s a workhorse, and it’s certainly quite nicer than any of the other bikes I’ve seen around here. It turns out that three of the volunteers in the area are bike mechanics (actually, two of them from Portland), so they fixed them up real nice-like for us, although mine still has some derailleur issues. We went on a nice, leisurely ride as a group last Saturday which was actually a little embarrassing. Some background… The week previous, the health volunteers were issued their bikes and they went on the same ride, which involves going on some pretty rough dirt roads. Apparently, they didn’t handle it so well, with four or five of them falling off their bikes multiple times. One volunteer actually fell off her bike and punctured her (very) inner thigh on her brake lever (don’t ask me how someone ends up with their brake lever in their crotch). Anyway, the wound was pretty severe, with adipose tissue oozing out and such, and she had to be rushed to the hospital for stitches. So as a precaution, the Peace Corps arranged for us to have a vehicle escort for our bike ride. SO we were the ten blancs riding single-file with our helmets on while a truck emblazoned with American flags followed close behind us at 5-15km/hr. Hahaha. I’m happy to report that the agro volunteers had a 0% mortality rate. I went on a pretty grueling ride the next day, but I haven’t had a chance to ride since. The hills around here are killer, so I’ll be returning to the States a pretty strong cyclist.

I finally got around to taking some pictures at the market the other day, which I think you’ll enjoy. There were a lot of great shots to be had, but people will demand money to take their picture (one woman wanted the equivalent of $20!), so a lot of the best pictures went untaken. Mom and Dad, do NOT show Grandma the picture of the butcher stall.


The market takes place every Wednesday and Saturday, and you can find a surprising assortment of vegetables here, owing to the very temperate climate of the highlands. I’ve found: carrots, cabbage, celery, tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, chiles, potatoes and leeks, in addition to all the tropical staples you’d expect to find.SDC10407 Below is a picture of the stall of a really kind woman who had all sorts of goodies for sale, and from whom I purchased carrots to make a spring vegetable soup (it was delicious.) To the right is my friend Andrea, who is off to the deep lowland rainforest of the South provence.

You can also find all SORTS of meat, including rats (dried or fresh), cane rat (which is like a GIANT guinea pig and is supposedly quite good), beef, fish of all kinds, goats, rabbits, chickens, and occasionally turkeys. Every organ of every animal is for sale without exception, and it can be a little gross to see a hundred flies buzzing SDC10406on a big pile of cow intestine, but you’ve just got to grin and bear it (and cook your meat to well-done). The beef butcher area pictured to the right is actually one of the cleaner areas. I bought beef from this guy last week when I made chili for my family (send more chili powder and cinnamon if you love me.) Anyway, the occasion for this visit to the market was that I cooked my family some banana-chocolate pancakes, which were a big hit for me, but too sweet for the Cameroonian palette.

Anyway, to end this post, I wanted to tell you guys about a really sweet field trip that we took last Friday. We went to the village of Batie, a little outside of Bafoussam, where we visited three different farms. The first farm was a fish farm in a valley, where they had a very cool setup. They had a hatchery, where they hatched and sold little fish to other fish farmers, and they also had a few fish ponds that were fed with manure from a pig house on the side of the pond. I think the idea was that the pig manure fed the algae that the catfish then fed on, or maybe the catfish ate the manure directly. I’m not sure, but whichever way it was, it was a neat waste-free system. We also learned how to artificially inseminate fish eggs. It’s really cool, but a little brutal. You inject the female with hormones the day before you want to harvest her eggs, and then the next day she’s chock full of them… around 3,000. Then you surgically remove most of the testes from the male fish (but not all, because they grow back if you leave a bit in), and you squeeze the sperm out. Mix with the eggs in a weak acid solution, and gestate in a warm water bath. The fries hatch in one to two days. I’m sad that I forgot to bring my camera along, mais on va faire comment?

  The next place we visited was the farm pictured above, where the focus was on apiculture and “piggery”, as they call it in Cameroonian English. The farmer really had a nice farm going on, and he had obviously become very wealthy from his very small farm, as evidenced by his beautiful new house and quite a few pigs. He had an absolutely beautiful pruniere, or African plum tree, that was very old and well-pruned (eech… I tried to avoid the pun, but I couldn’t), so that it branched out in a dome with perhaps a 30 foot diameter. Unfortunately, all the pictures I took of it failed to do it justice. It was cool to see his hives, although his hive construction and management practices were severely problematic by my estimation. Here’s a picture of him next to an empty hive, holding a jar of bee attractant. The sugary solution certainly attracted a lot of bees, but they were all from his established hives, I think, and the solution did little to help his hive get colonized. It’s a clever idea, though. And everyone loves a picture of some cute pigs…


The last place we visited on our tour was a medicinal plant demonstration garden which was in the back yard of the village chief’s house. It was run by a local women’s GIC (community interest group), and I was very happy to make some contacts there, as I would love to work with medicinal plants at my post. I was surprised to find that many/most of the species that they are growing were ones that I recognized from the States: wormwood, valerian, bee balm, lemon verbena, coneflower, dandelion, mugwort, lemongrass, mint, and chamomile, to name a few. To finish the trip, we had lunch at the chief’s house, which was a traditional two-story mud structure, and we headed back to Bangante.

That’s all for now! Check back next week when I’ll post pictures of my site visit and my house.

25 October 2009

Field Trips

NB: I wrote this post two weeks ago, but the internet was down for a week due to an underwater cable getting severed.

I’m writing this post on a lazy Sunday morning. Yesterday, the Cameroonian soccer team, The Indomitable Lions, won their World Cup qualifying match against Togo. Bangante, and I imagine the whole country, completely shut down for the game. Cameroon won 3-0, and there was much gaiety and celebration. I went to a Celine Dion dance party last night. It was bumpin’. I also did my laundry entirely by myself for the first time yesterday, and I utterly failed to get my clothes clean.

This morning, I made chili for my host family. Everyone liked it, I think, except for Jessica. I used fully half of my jar of McCormick hot Mexican-style  chili powder. Hot my ass! All the other ingredients I bought at the Saturday market; I was very proud of myself. I was actually able to specify, I think, that I wanted a half kilo of chuck, and I got it ground on the spot. The beef reached temperatures of around 90 degrees on the walk home and stayed that way for a long time, but I cooked the hell out of it this morning, and all was good. Two cubes of Maggi for that MSG magic topped it all off. MSG is the universal condiment here, and there are signs everywhere in French and English that say “Every woman is a star with Maggi.”

Anyway, I’ve been talking a lot about being in Bangante, but I also wanted to write about my technical training and what I’ll be doing in the field.  Below is a picture of ChristinaSDC10367 and Elvis, our technical trainers. Christina is a lecturer in agronomy at the local college and has a doctorate in entomology, and Elvis is, I believe, an extention agent and nursery owner. Our training is specialized for the humid highlands regions of Cameroon, primarily in the West, Northwest, and Adamouwa regions. The volunteers who go to the more arid regions of the North and Extreme North get trained in alternate years, as the goals and methods for agroforestry extension in the semi-arid regions are very different. Overall, our technical training is gong okay. Sometimes it seems like there is a very scattershot approach, and we also get conflicting accounts of various topics. It seems like the Peace Corps training curriculum is designed to give us the barest minimum of knowledge in practically all applicable fields, so that we have enough of a start in them that we can decide which are appropriate for the local problems at our post. Then, the idea is that we do further research on our own. This seems like a good approach to an extent, but I wish that we could go much more in-depth on a variety of subjects. Our tree identification class was particularly disappointing in this regard.

Other aspects of our training are very worthwhile, particularly our field trips. So far we’ve taken two field trips, one to an experimental agroforestry NGO called ADAPER, and another to a farmer’s fields in Bandrefam. Volunteers are going to be posted at both places, and I would love to work in either of the communities. At ADAPER, they have a lot of little test plots where they are quantitatively examining the benefits of various cropping systems.SDC10334 For instance, they are alley cropping maize in a field of leguminous Gliricidia trees and comparing the yield to an adjacent plot without any nitrogen-fixing plants. Additionally, they are doing lots of experiments with various erosion control species. The second aspect of the program at APADER is a production and demonstration agroforestry tree nursery. They do a lot of work with grafting and marcotting trees, and they also grow various species from seed. Above, you can see 40,000 coffee seedlings that APADER started as part of a government grant. Below is a picture of their demonstration nursery with a variety of multi-purpose trees. SDC10326

At the end of the field trip, we all drank palm wine with the director of the center. It was 11 in the morning. Palm wine is the sap of the palm tree, allowed to naturally ferment with whatever yeast or bacteria happen to be in the air. It comes in two varieties, up-high and down-low. Just like the name implies, up-high palm wine is tapped from the top of the tree, and is generally considered to be better than palm wine from the base of the trunk. Young, partially fermented palm wine is pleasantly reminiscent of kombucha. It’s pretty refreshing and low in alcohol, although it keeps fermenting in your stomach methinks, giving me all sorts of strange burps. Old palm wine, where all of the sugars have been allowed to ferment, tastes like hot socks. I must say, though, that the taste of hot socks is growing on me. Palm wine is very important in Cameroonian traditions, particularly marriages. When a suitor comes to ask the permission of a father to marry his daughter, he brings along a gift of palm wine. If the father approves, the wine is served, and then the father asks his daughter if he may partake of the wine. If she consents, then the deal is sealed and the new father and son drink the wine.

The second field trip that we took was to this farm about fifty minutes away where a farmer has implemented various measures for nitrogen fixation and erosion control. Land is very scarce here in the West, and farmers often will farm on grades of 10% or more, with tons of topsoil being lost in the process. Compounding the problem is the fact that farmers will normally till against the contour of the hill.SDC10366 On this farm, though, the farmers (husband and wife, pictured to the right) had built a series of contour bunds (long mounds of earth that follow the contour of the hill, designed to retain soil and increase water infiltration) with multipurpose trees planted on the bunds to stabilize the soil.In the picture below, you can see this system in action. In the immediate foreground is a mixed planting of cassava and beans (the cassava is the taller plant with the marijuana-like leaf, red beans the short plants growing on mounds) Immediately behind those plants is a very young banana tree, and immediately behind that is the first of a series of contour bunds. On the contour bund is planted, from left to right, Calliandra, a leguminous nitrogen-fixing tree, a mango tree (with the broad leaves, lighter green at the top), vetiver, a grass with insecticidal properties, another banana tree, and acacia (with the white flowers) another leguminous tree that also is very good for beekeeping because it flowers year-round.

SDC10348  Another pretty picture of us passing under an arch that the farmers had built with a sweet potato vine…


In addition to the contour bunds, the farmer was doing a lot of work with live fencing. Land disputes are a big problem in the West region because land is so scarce, so it behooves a farmer to fence off his land. The farmer whose fields we were visiting had built a live fence out of leguminous trees to demarcate his property line. It was really cool, especially so considering that one of his neighbors had achieved the same end by building a 10 foot high cinder block wall around probably two or three acres of land. No joke.

Another exciting thing going on on this farm was some small-scale apiculture. Working with the current Peace Corps volunteer in Bandrefam and through a government grant, the farmer received last year the supplies to build ten Kenyan top-bar hives. If you are familiar with the Langstroth beehives that are commonly used in beekeeping in the States, you’ll notice several important differences between them and top-bar hives. First, there is cost. SDC10357 Whereas a Langstroth hive costs upwards of $100 to buy in the States, or requires precision power tools to build, the Kenyan top bar hive (KTBH from now on, because the Peace Corps loves acronyms) is far less labor intensive to build, and can be constructed with hand tools. Depending on the materials used, it can cost as little as a few dollars to construct a hive. To the left is a picture of an empty KTBH with the cover removed. Instead of comb being built on frames as with a Langstroth hive, comb hangs off the top bars, seen above, which have been baited with wax. The disadvantages to this method include increased propensity for comb to fall off of the top bar and the impossibility of extracting honey via centrifuging the frames. Instead, honey must be cut off of the top bars and squeezed out in a press. Nonetheless, the bars are so much easier to make than Langstroth frames, and are nearly as workable. SDC10361 The traditional methods of beekeeping in Africa, where they exist, focus mainly on log and skep (woven basket) hives. Since these hives do not have moveable frames, the bee colony must be killed to harvest honey. With moveable frames, honey can just be cut out of the hive, leaving the colony intact. This advantage, combined with the low cost of KTBHs, is the main reason why most apiculture development projects in Africa focus on KTBHs and why they have a much higher adoption rate among farmers than Langstroth hives. Above you can see a picture of one of the inhabited hives on the farm with its corrugated metal and raffia palm cover on top. Below is a picture of a really cool hive that’s built out of raffia palm bamboo and mud. It required no mechanical milling and cost next to nothing to build. SDC10378Only three of the ten hives have found bee colonies to inhabit them thus far, but swarms are more common in the upcoming dry season, so the farmer hopes that his hives will soon find residents. I don’t think that people bother too much with capturing swarms of honeybees, since honeybee populations are thriving here, unlike in the United States. People certainly don’t buy bees.

At the end of the tour of this farm, we drank palm wine at 10 in the morning. Notice a pattern?

Well, I’ve probably bored you to death with all these details of beehives. Beekeepers tend to be able to talk about their hobby for far too long, and I don’t consider myself an exception. Do write me! I’ve been sending lots of letters to the States, but I don’t think that any of them have been received thus far. Also, leave comments on my blog! I check them every time I post. Bye, friends!