As I fashioned a pillow out of my sweatshirt, and prepared for a few hours sleep on the marble floor of Casablanca airport at 4.30am, I wondered if Tiiu and I would make it to Cameroon. Delayed 5 hours leaving Heathrow, missing our connection and spending the early hours of Sunday morning being jostled by hundreds of angry Royal Air Maroc 'lost in transit' passengers was just the start of what proved to be a wonderful journey to the heart of Cameroon.
Tiiu, the backbone and sweatshop worker at the heart of Rainforest Saver, proved not just resilient but positively excited. 'I've never slept on an airport floor before' she said. Two hours later, when rudely woken by builders arriving to continue renovations on Terminal 2, Tiiu rose with a smile from her elegant 'floor nest'. 'Not bad at all, not bad at all'. So much for escorting Tiiu on a rigorous adventure, I was already struggling to keep up.
Arriving at Yaoundé airport in the early hours of Monday morning, we were met by the hotel transfer bus, and set off for the centre of Cameroons' capital city. Struck by the red soil and dense tropical vegetation, the outskirts of Yaoundé soon merged into a mass of tightly built low level housing, occasional beer/cement factory and 4 wheel drive car showroom.
Yaoundé traffic, and everything to sale right in the street. Photo by Tiiu Miller 2011.
The traffic thickened, and hooting grew louder and more incessant. Not one of the teeming thousand taxis had a panel without a dent. A 'red' traffic light did stop the traffic, but once green it was anyone's road. Lanes in Cameroon do not 'control.' They simply suggest. The traffic moves as one... a swerving, lurching, gesticulating hooting mass of metal. Bumper cars without bumpers, a demolition derby hoping not to happen.
And on the side of this swirling metal mass, everything is 'For Sale'. From bananas, to beds, sunglasses to windscreen wiper blades. Pushed along on wooden stalls, balanced on heads, arranged on tarpaulins. The colour, movement, and bustle of Cameroon street life is mesmeric.
Shortly after checking in, Gaston Bityo arrived smiling broadly and clutching a briefcase under his arm.
Outside the hotel we met Dennis, a friend of Gaston, as well as a mechanic, church elder, and excellent driver. The 'new' to Gaston xxxxhand car bought with money raised by Rainforest Saver looked reliable. It was steered expertly by Dennis, who took us through the hustle and bustle of a Yaoundé lunchtime to Gaston's house. Here we met Gaston's beautiful wife Melanie, and his six children, Patrick(19), Jacques (17), Ivana (14), Ronald (11), Benjamin (5), and Melanie (2).
Gaston, Melanie, Harry at the back, and Benjamin and little Melanie in the front row. Photo by Tiiu Miller 2011.
As all roads lead to Yaoundé, we returned regularly to the capital and each time we feasted at Gaston's house. Delicious fish or chicken, and pounded maize meal that soaked up the juices. The kids were in and out, watching soccer on TV, practicing their English, or simply watching this strange pair of visitors talking animatedly about Inga.
Cameroon Inga farmer by his Inga plants. Photo by Tiiu Miller 2011.
Over our 8 days in Cameroon, Tiiu and I visited five of the 13 'Inga farmers'. The distances are not that great, and the 'metalled' roads excellent. However, the metal covers only the main arteries running to and from Yaoundé, the port and a few other strategic towns dotted around the country. Once you leave the tarmac you are on dirt or compacted red soil. Relatively OK in the dry season, largely impassable in the wet.
A Cameroon road to the farms when it is dry. Photo by Harry Ram 2011.
Driving in Cameroon when it is wet. Photo by Gaston Bityo 2011.
On these roads we regularly witnessed the depressing site of old lorries bearing massive mature hardwood 'tree trunks' 3 / 4 chained together heading west to Port ????? All they require is a rubber stamp from a government minister. None of the money from the timber ever reaches those from the timber is extracted. Everyone we talked to in the villages was opposed to timber extraction. The forest is their home, source of food, medicine and shelter.
Tiiu and I were introduced to numerous farmers. All wore wellington boots and carried a machete. Physical men, lean and muscular and yet their handshakes were imperceptibly soft and warm. Gaston would translate from Bulu to English, and their stories were virtually the same. They all practised Slash and Burn agriculture, clearing a small area of forest and growing one crop. And the next year? No good, they have to move on and clear another 'virgin' area of forest. It is possible to return to cleared areas but not for 8 to 10 years...and even then the yield is poor.
They get no government assistance or advice. Increasingly they are having to move further and further into the forests, as land round their homes and roads has already been 'farmed'. This brings with it the increased risk of theft of crops when ripe, and destruction of the crops by wildlife, in particular by elephants which are protected.
Every one of them emphasised the need to maintain the forest, which is a source of 'bushmeat' and wild food and medicinal plants. And come the dry season, it is the wild forest that sustains them. Without large areas of intact forest, they would not be able to sustain themselves.
The destruction of Cameroon forests. Photo by Harry Ram 2011.
Hearing how connected the farmers were to the forests, it made sense how Gaston has managed over a very short period to find so many farmers willing and eager to trial Inga Plots. The possibility of farming the same piece of land close to home year in year out, without the need for expensive additional chemicals or fertilisers was worth all the hard work and risks of trialling it.
As they listened to Gaston and a 'translated' Tiiu the only part that the farmers found hard to grasp was the notion of planting something that you weren't going to eat. Once the function of the Inga plant in the 'whole' process was made clear, they were happy, and keen to start.
I could now get lost in details as to what next, but feel this will be made clear in a later newsletter. I went with Tiiu to meet Gaston, and see what he'd achieved. Everything exceeded my expectations. Gaston is a remarkable man. Generous, gentle, honest, intelligent and determined to spread Inga alley cropping throughout the tropical forest areas of Cameroon. Although he lives in Yaoundé, his heart is in his home village of Bizang. He is a farmer, from a farming family. The perfect man to spearhead the Cameroon Inga Evolution.
Gaston Bityo Delor in his own Inga plantation. Photo by Tiiu Miller 2011.