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!


04 October 2009

The Highlands High Life

OK, so I can readily admit that the title for this post is extremely uninspired, but I' hope to make up for it with my post content. SDC10299To the right, as you can probably tell, is the reproductive structure of a banana tree, something I had never had the chance to see before until this week. The purplish-black pod that is hanging down is actually the flower. As the banana comes into bloom, the flower gradually opens it’s petals one by one, revealing the flowerlets (excuse my botany) which you can see ringing the top of the flower. These sets of flowerlets then get pollinated and create one bunch of bananas. Depending on how much rain occurs in the season, the banana will open its flower to a greater or lesser extent, resulting in fewer or more bananas. Ok, I’ve explained it to death, but it’s REALLY NEATO.

As of today, I’ve been in Bangante, Ouest Provence for nine days. I will call this place home for the next eleven weeks of training, and what a home it is! Bangante is in the humid highlands of western Cameroon, and the climate is absolutely perfect: 70-80 deg F every day, with afternoon and evening rains. I think we’re about to enter the dry season, and it’s going to get a lot hotter, but right now it’s certainly more temperate than Alabama, even at four degrees north.SDC10301That’s my host family that I’m staying with, or at least part of it. From left to right, there’s Rosine my mom, Carol my sister, Cyril my uncle, and Jessica my sister. Not pictured is my dad Yves. Carol is actually my dad’s little sister, but she lives with us, and Cyril lives right next door, as does much of the extended family. My mother, as you can see is quite young (actually younger than me) and beautiful, and I think my dad resembles quite handsomely a young Harry Belafonte. Jessica, as you will note, is absolutely adorable and quite impish. In this picture, we’re all sitting by the outside hearth where most of the cooking is done (although we also have a gas range.) My family has been extremely gracious to me since my arrival, and most importantly, they are very patient with my French. My mom is actually an English teacher at a local school, but she steadfastly refuses to speak English to me. SDC10294 My dad runs the local internet cafe, Cyber Cafe Medumbanet (Medumba is the local language). To the right is a picture of my house. My accommodations are a lot more posh than most of the volunteers and certainly nicer than my accommodations last summer in North Carolina: flush toilet, shower (cold), electricity, satellite TV, gas stove. You can see the laundry drying on the bushes out front. There is no such thing as a washing machine here, and I’m learning bit by bit to do my laundry by hand. My palms were sore until Thursday from doing my laundry last Sunday, as it involves a lot of pounding it against the ground.

I live on the outskirts of Bangante, a relatively large town which is sort of like the county seat of the Nde division of the Ouest Provence. Across the street from me is the chefferie, or the lodging of the chief. In Cameroon, there are parallel power structures, the traditional and the administrative. Although the region has a prefect who oversees taxation, civil services, criminal court, and the gendarmerie, the chief exerts a good deal of power in the day-to-day lives of the people. For instance, if there is a civil dispute, generally it is the chief who settles the matter. I visited the chefferie the other day, but the chief was not in. SDC10296I did however get to meet a few of his wives. I forgot to mention, the chief has twenty wives and over a hundred children, all of whom live at the compound with him! Polygamy is practiced to varying degrees across Cameroon. Below is a picture of the entrance to the chefferie. To the left is a picture of the lion that guards the entrance to the chefferie. I believe that the lion is the chief is the symbol of the chief of Bangante.


  I know that a few of you are curious about what kind of food they have here, and I can say that it is very, very good, although it could just be the case that my mother is an excellent cook. Tonight, I had ndole, which is a kind of green, that is prepared with ground peanuts, onions, garlic, and some sort of meat (beef in my case) and served with couscous, which is actually really thick corn grits. It was fantastic! Another great dish that I’ve had was fish in a spicy peanut sauce with rice. The diet is very starch heavy, with lots of plantains, sweet potatoes, irish potatoes, koki (cowpea paste), unripe bananas, and yams. And then there is the fresh fruit;  the bananas are fantastic, as are the pineapple, as are the papayas, although I’m still not too fond of them. I had my first guava ever the other day, and it was truly the culinary highlight of my trip so far. When I broke it open, the smell was indescribably good. I had previously only known the guava flavor from artificial fruit juices such as the Fruitopia in my high school vending machine, and it was (of course) 1000x better to eat a real one. Much to my dismay, the one thing you can’t find here is a great cup of coffee. Even though Cameroon is a maSDC10314jor exporter of coffee, there are almost no roasteries, and most everyone in Cameroon drinks Nescafe. I’m learning to like it, though, and it is certainly better than no coffee at all. The one thing that I think everyone here misses more than everything is cheese. Dairy products are nearly impossible to come by here. The other day, though, my dad did something very nice for me: I had mentioned that I missed milk,and he went to the market the very next day and bought a liter and a half of what he said was fresh milk, sold , as many things are here, in a reused water bottle. When I opened it and it fizzed, and then I poured it and it was much thicker than regular milk, I was a little bit skeptical. I realized though that the milk here is sold as cultured buttermilk, since there is the refrigeration issue. The milk was tangy and delicious, though, and I can’t wait to get some again! I also would rather have my milk be cultured anyway, because at least then the sugars have been consumed by a known bacteria, and not spoiled by whatever’s in the air.

My French is coming along quite well I think, especially since I had never spoken to anyone in French before two weeks ago. I’m starting to understand my family better, and my language classes are great, if a bit long. There have been too many miscommunications to recount, but I will tell my funniest one. Other ones I have included in letters to some of you. When I first arrived, my mom let me put my room in order, and after she asked if my room had been arranged. I said I didn’t understand, and she replied “I asked if you have cleaned up your room.” Or, in French “J’ai demande, est-ce que tu as arrange ta chambre?” I unfortunately translated this as “I demand that you clean up your room.” So I returned to my room and promptly repacked a lot of the stuff that I had just unpacked, thinking that my mom thought that I had too much clutter. It was only the next day that I realized my mistake.

Anyway, there’s so much more that I could write about, particularly about my agroforestry training, but I think I’ll save that for another post, as this one is already quite long. Cameroon is quite wonderful, but I miss you all. I’ve sent letters to MANY of you, so you should see those in about a month. PLEASE write to me! My address is in the left-hand column. All of my love.