Monday, November 14, 2011

The Pygmies Episode Two: The Pygmies Strike Back

The first time I went to see the “Pygmies” dance I was tired, and because Florence was busy most of the night speaking with people as it was her Father's funeral I was not able to ask her too many questions about exactly what was going on. She is one of the few people around here who can speak their padtwa, and has an understanding of their culture. Granted seeing all of the singing and dancing was cool enough, but when you know the story behind everything it makes it all a lot more interesting.

The Pygmy encampment

This time I went out to visit a “Pygmy” encampment, and learned that it is generally the Gyele, but more specifically the Bapubu people who live here close to Lolodorf. My post mate Amanda (community health volunteer) is about to complete her service, and she wanted to go out to stay in an encampment before she left. My other post mate Barret (teaching volunteer) also made the trip out with us. This was not exactly a place you might go on a tour bus. We where able to go visit only because Florence had worked with these people as a civil servant, and knows many of them. The encampments are mostly small groups of 3-7 houses spaced out by several kilometers out in the middle of the forest. We had to go out to her village by moto, and then hike into the forest on foot. As we approached each encampment we had to make sure that she was in front because she knew them, and their language. In order to come out and stay we had to bring gifts. We brought 30 kilos of frozen fish, 30 kilos of rice, soap, cigarettes, matches, and alcohol amounting to about 120 dollars between three of us volunteers. All of that was more than a bit extravagant to buy given our pay grade, but I thought it was well worth it. Their hospitality did however include giving us a plate of smoked rat that was offered as we ate the dinner we had packed in.

A pygmy women with child

We had to stay the night because the Bapubu people are in certain ways nocturnal. They only dance, hunt, and travel at night. The dance that I saw the first time, and again when we went out to the encampment is called the Bapea. I have to say first and foremost that all of my interpretations of it, and its social connotations are translated through Florence, who is not Bapubu but Ewondo, and then again through me. In other words, like anyone else who is not Bapubu I can't really understand everything that was going on so you are only getting my limited view.

During the Bapea the young women of the village line up on a long piece of timber called a ntang which they beat on like a drum while they sing. There is also a drum that is about 3.5 feet tall and is played only by the men (with the aid of a stool) called a kaa that accompanies the women. The significance of the dance seems to me to be the playing out of a drama between the men and women of the community who because it is such a traditional society have very different roles and status. This is a polite way of saying that women are treated like animals, and things like sexual assault and spousal abuse are disturbingly common.

The dancer pouting for the women

This drama plays out between the chorus of young women, and the single unidentified young male dancer. He is called the Mbapea, or the man dancing the Bapea, and his entire body is supposed to be covered by his costume. Specifically the hands, feet, face, penis, and ass are covered (apparently how the women might identify him) so that no one knows which of the men it is. The costume uses specific plants in the forest, and must be made new each time the dance is performed, however throughout the night several dancers can wear it. The dancer seems to be the avatar for the whole of Bapubu maleness when he dons this costume. The Mbapea is not allowed to speak except through whistling, and his by his movements. He does however convey to the the chorus a considerable amount. By at times feverishly dancing, or pouting at the woman's lack of boisterousness he whips the chorus into a frenzy of shouted singing and drumming.

The discourse comes in the lyrics of the songs, each a story. One of the songs that they sing over and over is a lamentation of a daughter to her mother. The daughter is explaining to her mother that she will abandon her marriage, and the lyrics are an enumeration of the husbands wrongs “I go to the farm, and he beats me, when I am in the kitchen, he beats me, I try to love him, and he beats me, I do anything, and he beats me.” It is easy to understand the force with which the women play the ntang, and the frenzied screams they fall into while singing this song when one knows the meaning of the lyrics. This song always brought the most dramatic dancing from the Mbapea who would try, quite extravagantly to appease the women. At times he would stop apparently mid convulsion straight as a board, fall flat on his face not catching himself with his hands, and then spring up and continue as if he had not felt a thing.

Another song that was repeated had lyrics that simply affirmed traditions. It was the only song in which the women where allowed to get up and dance with the Mbapea, however they had to make sure not to touch him. This song came up more and more often at the end of the night. This seemed to be symbolic conciliatory ending to the airing of grievances by the women through dance, and their acceptance of the traditions.

Aside from the Mbapea there was another dancer who is supposed to be more of a comic figure. He was dressed slightly differently, however completely covered like the Mbapea. His name is the Bigueal. Throughout the night he was skiddish, and only rarely came to the fire to dance. The rest of the night he could be dimly seen peeking around a tree, or the corner of a hut. When he approached the fire he would rush in, and dance in a disordered frenzy for a few minutes, and then disappear again. To an untrained eye his dance was similar to the Mbapea, however all of the Bapubu found him quite funny. He is meant to be a comic symbol of the Bageale people. This is a closely related Gyele people who live closer to the coast in the Kribi area. The languages of the two peoples are almost the same, however they regard each others manner of speaking, and lifestyle as comical. This was explained by Florence as similar to the way we find small differences between ourselves and the British funny. This can be contrasted with the Baka people (also “pygmies”) who live in the East region and have a completely different language, and customs.

Traditionally, at the end of the night, just before dawn the Mbapea runs from the fire and finds an oil palm tree. The chorus follows him from the fire continuing to sing as he climbs the oil palm to the topmost frawns (I feel this requires a bit of an explanation. Palm frawns are very thorny, and without gloves very hard to handle, let alone climb through. In other words, this is a feat that is accomplished with no small amount of pain or injury). While hidden by the frawns he takes off the costume and escapes unseen into the bush naked. From that point on the women of the village are not allowed to eat the oil from that tree, or when it is cut down for palm wine, drink it.

This whole thing plays out as the night goes on, but we all retired at around two in the morning to sleep in one of their huts. The women continued to sing, and the men danced throughout the night, and finished all of the 10 some odd liters of liqueur we brought. Remember these are not large people, nor was this that large of a group. At 6:30 in the morning when we woke up everyone had already woken, or was still up, and didn't seem to quite understand our grogginess. We packed our things and left to a song bidding us farewell.  

Here is a picture of Amanda and a monkey.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Le Projet de Cacao Lolodorf Ouest

Cocoa is big in my village. Growing cocoa is one of the few legitimate ways to bring money into the community, and the money from growing cocoa pays for everything in some peoples lives from baby clothes to school fee's, a wedding, a house, retirement, and a funeral. Cocoa is development. It is something that Cameroon actually produces and exports which is really important when such a huge percentage of the economy is based on foreign aid. Cocoa is something that people understand, and something people are willing to work with instead of sitting around waiting for a hand-out.

Before arriving in this country I did not know the first thing about cocoa cultivation, but since it is one of the few things that people here have a genuine interest in I have started to work with it quite a bit. I am starting to think about going back to school for tropical agriculture, and getting a job working with cocoa. In other words it is something I am really into, so this post might be a bit boring for anyone who is not as into cocoa farming as I am (i.e. almost everyone).

I could probably live in a house like this in the middle of a cocoa farm forever, but I am a bit weird.

A cocoa tree remains productive for about 25-30 years. Unfortunately all of the cocoa farms here are at the end of their productive lives, and the village of Bikoka/Bibondi which at one point was the second biggest producer in the sub-arrondisement of Lolodorf (I got this statistic from Auguste, God knows if its true) now produces comparatively very little. Unfortunately neither the means, nor the expertise to regenerate these farms really existed.

There are a lot of organizations that work with cocoa, the big one is SODECAO here in Cameroon. The way that SODECAO works with cocoa is to come into a community for one season, build a great big nursery, and sell seedlings at a subsidized price. There are a few reasons that model doesn't work here. First and foremost, the cocoa farms are way out in the middle of the forest, and transporting a large number of plants 10 k into the jungle is just about impossible. The other reason is that the variety that SOCECAO promotes is a Brazilian strain that has extremely high production, but is also extremely susceptible to disease, and insects. That is fine for large scale producers who have the money to regularly treat their farms with insecticides, and fungicides, but for small scale farmers its not the best choice.

Cocoa pods early in their development

Because of that I decided to partner with IRAD (Institut de Recherche Agricole pour le Développement / Institute of Agricultural Research for Development) to bring Marcel, an expert on cocoa cultivation to Bibondi for a seminar that would teach farmers here how to set up and maintain a nursery. That means that farmers can set up their own nurseries next to their farms and only have to carry the bare necessities of polypots, seeds, and insecticide/fungicide out into the forest. That also means they don't have to wait for SODECAO to come around, not to mention if done correctly you can produce high quality seedlings for about half the subsidized price because you are doing all the work yourself. IRAD will also be providing improved varieties of cocoa seeds for a subsidized price to the village. These are hybrids between German, and Brazilian strains that have higher yields, but are heartier.

Marcel during a presentation. He was really great at the seminar, and will be helping me in the future on technical stuff.

Marcel doing some demonstrations in the nursery we set up for the cocoa project

As I said cocoa is big here, so just about everyone I talked to said they where interested in coming to the seminar. This gave me no small amount of grief in trying to plan it because I was expecting anywhere from 20 to 200 people to come. My best estimate was 50 so that’s what we planned on for food and everything. 63 people ended up coming which was a pretty good turn out, and luckily we didn't run out of food or anything. I said in my previous post none of the work I do would be possible without Auguste and Florence, and that was especially true for this seminar. It was hosted at Auguste's house, and he took care of all the logistics, and protocol that is apparently necessary to do anything here. Florence did all of the cooking, no small feat for that many people, and even made a dish with Soy which was a nice touch.

All in all I think the seminar went great, but it is just the start of my work with cocoa. Now I have to make sure and get the improved seeds, and all the other necessities to the farmers, go out to their farms to answer questions, and help set up nurseries. I have orders for supplies to produce just under 12,000 seedlings which when planted will be 10 new or regenerated hectares of cocoa in production. If everything is done right this could increase the cocoa harvest of the village by 10-20 tons a year. Depending on the price of cocoa that would gross about 20,000 to 40,000 dollars a season.

A few people left before we could get a group photo

I mentioned using insecticides and fungicides which I know some people might have objections to, but it is only in the nursery stage when the plants are highly susceptible.  For anyone worried about the environmental effects of cocoa farming here is a study that was actually done in Southern Cameroon on the system used in Bikoka/Bibondi.  The study basically concludes that when produced in a traditional forest garden the effects of cocoa production on biodiversity are light, and socioeconomic gain possible in most cases outweigh them.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Lately I feel like any time I have talked to anyone it has been a short conversation, and I have said that I had to go because I was busy. Now that the two projects I was working on are over I feel like I should make a post to explain exactly what it was I was up to. One of the projects I have been working on was soy, and my work with soy has been in my opinion one of my main successes as a volunteer.

For those that do not know, soy is basically a miracle plant. It fixes nitrogen, and so it is good for the soil, especially when mixed with cereal crops like corn. It has very few biological or fungal diseases that attack it in Africa, and it is a complete protein that is cheap to produce, and easy to incorporate into traditional diets because it can be transformed in so many different ways. I could talk about the virtues of soy for hours, quite literally, and in French to boot, but my audience isn't Cameroonian farmers so I can leave it at that.
Pictured: me talking about soy

My soy project has been based around seminars. The idea to do a full day “seminar” came from the fact that when I was talking to people about soy they had a lot of questions. Those questions came only from those brutally honest enough to voice their concerns. I am sure everyone had the same concerns, but most just listened politely and then continued doing everything exactly the same they have been. Their questions where; why should I grow soy? What can I do with it? Will it grow here? These are all completely legitimate questions that need to be answered, and I felt like I could answer them better if I had a full day to talk about it.

I have been blessed to be placed with a counterpart, and supervisor (Florence) that have made all of the work I have done in my village possible. I had heard before I came to the South region that people in the South are lazy, and that it is hard to work in the South. I can't say that I share that opinion, and that may be in large part because of the people I work with. The work I have done with soy is as much Florence's doing as it is mine.

Florence, who is generally referred to in my village affectionately as “Ma Flo” (I don't think the moniker has the decidedly menstrual connotations it does in English) is someone you could describe as a matriarch. She is the master cook, medicine woman, teacher, and mother to the whole Essomba clan which makes up most of my neighborhood. She somehow has the ability to play all of these roles without accepting for a second the “Cameroonian truth” that women are worth less than men, or losing the smile on her face. I have never found the bottom of her well of empathy or the end of her patience, and the longer I know her the less I think they might exist.

Florence in the kitchen with two of her daughters

The seminars start early, eight in the morning, because cooking with soy takes a long time. That is not a bad thing, in fact in Cameroon most dishes take all day to to make. It also gives me time to do lessons on general nutrition, the nutritional benefits of soy, and soy cultivation. During the seminars I also sell soy seed (at cost) to anyone that wants to plant. I have distributed 32 kilos of soy for planting which should yield about a half ton at harvest. That is pretty good for villages that have never planted soy before.

Florence stirring some soy milk
Did you know that a kilo of soy has as much protein in it as 60 eggs?  Well now you do.

There where times that Florence and I where doing 3 of these seminars a week in the time leading up to, and the beginning of soy planting season (August 15th to September 15th). It got a bit stressful because with the logistics of getting everything together the seminars can take up all of your time. There where always new groups interested in doing the seminar, and for this season we trained 109 people in the surrounding villages. I am glad that planting season is over because I have a little more time to do things besides talk about soy, but I will start doing the seminars again for the next planting season in March.

This has nothing to do with soy but this kid is pretty cute.  He was completely amazed by my camera, and the fact that I had candy.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


I haven’t had anything happen to me lately that I feel like merits writing down, but at the same time my day to day life is so different from what it was when I was in the states, and what I would imagine is the day to day life of everyone I know that maybe I should try to give some sort of a sense of it to anyone who bothers to read this blog. The days that I don't have any work to do are becoming fewer and far between, but since what I do as far as work is pretty random I will describe a Sunday when there is no work to be done anyways. Everyone here respects the Sabbath which is actually a pretty nice break every week.

Every morning I wake up at about four in the morning to a rooster crowing. At first this was really annoying but I have come to terms with it, and even though his favorite roosting point is only about 15 feet from my bedroom window I really only half wake up, and sleep until about six. I usually do a little weeding in my garden, or clean up around the house in the morning because it is impossible to sleep when the whole village is already awake. At eight every morning I go over to Auguste's house to have coffee and breakfast. This is really great because if there are any projects or plans to discuss it usually happens then because Auguste is sometimes busy until late in the evening with work at the mayor's office, or with the community forest.

Afterwords I am left to do whatever I want the whole day. When there is no power (which is about a quarter of the time) I read through about a book every Sunday, and I am left to play guitar and lounge in my hammock all day if I want. When there is power though, I spend the time on the internet trying to catch up on news in the states at 150 kb/s. I have running water technically, but when it goes out for a few days in a row, and I run out of reserves, I pay some children to carry water to my house. It is kind of a joke among volunteers, but whenever there is something that you don't want to do there are always children you can pay to do it. Lately though I have been taking long bike rides on Sundays out “en bruse” and just exploring the surroundings.

Every evening at eight I go to have dinner at Auguste's house as well. I have really come to love Cameroonian cuisine as cooked by his wife Florence. I feel like that might deserve its own post though. The meal is always taken with the whole random group of Auguste's large family who happens to be there that night which is great because there is always some one new to talk to, as well as the usual characters. Everyone is always very welcoming and it is nice to feel as though you are part of another family when you are so far from your own.

When I need to get supplies that I can't get in village Yaounde is just a four hour bus ride away. That is really not all that far for Cameroon, and since the office is there I can stay overnight for free on my monthly trips to the bank. There are always volunteers staying there for one reason or another so it is actually quite a treat and I can talk to other Americans, and go get pizza if I really want to. For the necessities of life like T.P., batteries, cigarettes, and candles, I can go to “lapoule rouge” which is the only boutique in my village. It is really just a small room added onto a house with a covered outdoor area that serves as the village's bar, but it gets the job done.

All in all I would have to say that the main difference between life here and in the States is the pace. I never leave my house without a book because I don't know when I am going to be waiting for an hour for the Chief to show up, or for a meeting to start. At first I was always worried about having to wait around for everything, and about how people where wasting my time. At some point I realized that if I wasn't out waiting for some one (which is necessary to do anything) I would just be at home sitting on a different chair reading the same book.

Anyways here are some random pictures I have taken while working, and exploring the area on my bike.  

My post mate calls this "pride rock" as in the Lion King.  I can see the resemblance

This was taken just outside of Lolodorf.

This is my living room.

I kind of have a thing for waterfalls

When I am bored I take random paths and see where they go, most of the time it is to a farm, but sometimes you see some cool stuff.

I wish this picture did justice to this place.  It is pretty far away, but I want to build a house there and stay for the rest of my life because it is just so peaceful and pretty.

This is where your chocolate comes from.  Cocoa farms are really pretty when it is time to harvest, and I think that Nestle buys a lot of it from Cameroon, so the next time you get a chocolate bar it might have come from this farm.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Jules and I did some collaboration work with Joe in Bangem at the end of May. Of course we did the work we set out to do, but the trip involved a considerable amount more "recreational activities" than any business trip really should. I had wanted to go check out Joe's post at some point because he was always talking about how scenic it was (I was not disappointed), and I hadn't really done anything since IST aside from work, read, play guitar, and wish that the power would come back, so the trip seemed like a good idea. I stopped off in Yaounde to pick up some official Peace Corps literature to display and hand out, and then headed out to Bangem.

Surprisingly for me its actually a lot harder for me to communicate in the Anglophobe regions. Unless you hear it everyday the English they speak there is almost incomprehensible because the accent and word order is really strange, and those are the people who speak “grammar.” A lot of people speak pidgin which is for the most part a separate language loosely based on English which is for me is completely incomprehensible. I think its also odd for me because the only people that I ever speak English to are people I know, other PCV's, and Admin, and the few random people who like to practice speaking English with me. It usually takes me a few days after getting to the Anglophone regions to start speaking and responding in English to random people that I meet, and because their English is so weird sometimes I just stick to French anyways. I'm sure that the French I have learned here would sound as odd to anyone from France as the English sounds to me, but it gets me by. One thing that I always get from Cameroonians when I can't understand their English is them telling me dismissively, “I speak the British English, and you, you speak the American English, that why you not understand.” Well sir, with all due respect I can understand British English just fine, and had you been speaking it I could have understood you.  At least I got to feel useful at the show when the few Francophones came through and I could speak French with them.

The Mbororo, a mostly nomadic tribe from the North has settled near Bangem, they are known for their horses and cows apparently.  

Setting up the booth.  Joe presented some organic pesticide, and we all talked about what the Peace Corps does here.

There was an odd rasta man who sold handicrafts made out of plantain leaves.

After the show we took a day long walk up an extinct volcano called Mt. Manenguba to see some crater lakes. It took a couple of hours walking uphill on slick muddy roads to get there, and we gained a ridiculous amount of elevation, but the lakes where as promised beautiful. The scenery looks like absolutely nothing else I have seen in Cameroon, and there is enough elevation that I had to wear the hoodie I brought which was nice.  These two lakes are right next to one another and the pictures where taken from the same spot.  I tried to stitch them all together but it didn't look right, so I just made two separate panorama's According to Joe the Female lake has one of the highest depth to surface area's of any lake in the world, which I am just going to go ahead and say is probably true.  He did not however know why they are called the female and male lakes.
Mt. Manenguba Male Lake

Mt. Manenguba Female Lake

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Getting a tree nursery (pépinière) off the ground has been more than a little bit difficult, but it was supposed to be my number one priority according to some of the work I did with my community host (Florence) during stage in Bafia. After a few trips to Yaounde to find the needed supplies, Florence and I started mixing the substrate to fill the polypots (aka mixing cow shit with sand, compost, and dirt then putting it in plastic bags).

My natural state here seems to be disgustingly sweaty

The first big difficulty was trying to find seeds, I had decided we would start with a small batch of 300 cacao because everyone in Bibondi already grows it, and it would be easy to sell. After a few months of waiting for some one who claimed would provide me with the seeds I ended up having to go all the way to Ebolowa myself, a 16 hour round trip with an overnight stop in Yaounde to literally pick the cabooses myself. It ended up being worth it though because I met a guy doing doctoral research on cacao at the IRAD (government agricultural research) station that speaks perfect English, and he told me I could call him any time I have any technical questions. Once I got the seeds back to Bibondi they where washed and allowed to germinate before being put into the polypots.  I did all this with a woman's group that Florence is the head of called CAAFBI. 

The seeds take about a week to germinate, and cannot be allowed to dry out, or be exposed to the sun.

The next big hurtle was getting some one to put up the shade. Many tree's, especially cacao, don't do well in direct sunlight at first, so you need to construct a shade for them. Unfortunately all the seedlings that had been placed in polypots where now sitting in either direct sunlight or total shade (50% shade is best). I finally gave up on waiting for some one else to do it (If I do the work myself it isn't really sustainable development), and started putting up the posts, luckily once some one saw that I was motivated I got plenty of help, and the shade went up in a few days. Afterward we placed the polypots in the pépinière, treated them with fungicide, and we are now in the process of watering and waiting.

Just a small portion of the frame is shaded because there are only 300 plants right now, but there is plenty of room to expand

Placing the polypots

The pépinière will be managed by CAAFBI, and used by EFA (the girls agricultural school) to teach about various cash crops, composting, and nursery management. It will also provide a local resource for cacao, oil palm, and other tree's that are expensive to buy and transport long distances. Right now we are also working on a lot of composting to have enough substrate for 2000 cacao, and 1500 oil palm in December. I know that was a bit boring, but I feel like I needed to post something about the actual work I am doing. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


I will just post one update for both the Fête du travaille and the Vingt Mai. All of the national holidays are celebrated in pretty much the same manner. The teachers, or young people, or workers, or women, or whoever the day is honoring march in the town center, then everyone goes to the bar. All of the government officials in the town show up for the marching, and I have learned from experience it is better to greet them at the beginning and then duck out as soon as the parade is over. This after ending up a little too drunk for the middle of the afternoon after the Fête du travaille. The problem is that as a sub-divisional capital Lolodorf has quite a few government officials, all of whom like to buy you a drink or two, and in Cameroon it is considered extremely rude to refuse a drink when some one offers to buy.

Religious holidays are about the same with church instead of marching before the bar. On Easter everyone was kind of confused by my questioning this, “so everyone gets drunk and dances all night... because its Easter?” I guess it makes about as much sense as chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts though.

The Fête du travaille is pretty much labor day, except all of the large employers, and businesses in Lolodorf made their employee's march. This was a lot more interesting than the other marches I have seen, some community forest drove logging equipment, another marched while loudly revving chainsaws, a cacao organization did a little demonstration of applying chemicals to a cacao seedling, and Butran (the bus agency here) drove some of their buses. Then of course there was the rolling sound system which I ended up marching with. Earlier in the morning Auguste asked me if I would be marching, I assumed that he meant with the community forest (which did not march for some reason) so I of course said yes. I was told to show up in Lolodorf and they would give me a shirt. When I did show up it turned out I was marching with the local bar, Ampoule Rouge. Apparently Ampoule Rouge has a side business, renting out large sound systems, so I marched along main street in Lolodorf next to an old Toyota with four huge speakers strapped to the roof, and a generator in the trunk blaring “Lady Ponce.”

Notice the use of safety goggles.

I wish I could say they did not get drunk and drive these through town way too fast afterwards
At least they took off the dangerous part.
I loaned my camera to some one who got a lot of good pictures, but unfortunately not of me.

Sometimes when shit gets really weird its best to just roll with it

Le Vingt Mai (May 20th) is National Unification Day. It commemorates the unification of the Anglophone provinces with the Francophone provinces in 1961. Pretty much anyone in a uniform marches, but unfortunately there are only a couple of policemen, and a couple boy scouts in mismatched, incomplete uniforms who came from God knows where. I can only assume it is because of this that all of the schools in the surrounding area had to march.  There where also several political parties, and associations who marched, but it was all topped off with a demonstration from the Karate school (you can't make this crap up).  

The Vingt Mai is considered the end of  Fête season, so it is looking to be a long paradeless summer. I will throw up some pictures of the tree nursery I have been working on tomorrow, and then my trip to Bangem at some point after that.