Friday, March 30, 2012

Inspecting the Bees and Preparing Hives

We spent a couple of hours looking at James' bee hives around Ote, we were checking the health and clenlieness of the hives as well as repairing some that we knew had fallen over- we wanted to see what needed to be done to attract more bees.

The newly colonised hive was next to the fallen hive about 20m away as they were placed in a line in quite an open semi shaded location.  As usual the KTB (Kenyan Top Bar) hive was covered in a sheet of aluminium for waterproofing and then some leaves of palm were placed on top to keep the sun off, weighted down with a log.

The stands are made of any available material and in this case are fairly hefty trunks of trees

James removed the roof and vegetation to reveal the hive with the top bars exposed and gently tapped along the bars to detect the size of the area occupied.

It was clear from the duller sound that the bees were only on the front 5 or 6 bars confirming that this was a newly formed colony. We then opened up a bar away from the entrance where the sound indicated the bees were not forming comb, to reveal empty bars but quite a number of bees.

We worked our way forwards and eventually took out bar 4 to reveal the small combs being formed and were able to hold the frame up for a close inspection. The comb is a natural shape since no guide is provided for the bees as in the Western style hives that have full frames.  The older and therefore bigger combs are found nearer to the front of the hive where the opening is.

James became very confident when he realised how calm the bees were and took off his bee suit.

Close inspection showed eggs present in some combs and also pollen and some honey being built up.  Everything certainly looked very healthy.

As we moved the bars apart the bees strung out as they attach to each other showing close connection within the colony.

We then turned our attention to the fallen hives.  James opened them up and took all the top bars out.  He then dusted inside the hive to remove any debris that had collected and to inspect for damage.  In several places there was evidence of mouse damage with parts of the floor, bars and edges gnawed slightly.  In some places fungus had begun to grow because the hives had fallen in a period of rain and the inside of the hive had become damp.
 It was decided that to kill the fungus the hives needed to be sterilised and so we lit a fire from sticks found lying around.

 We took the hives and turned them over in the fire to make sure all areas with fungus were slightly charred to ensure regrowth would not occur.  We also made sure that we scorched the outside where signs of fungus  could be seen

We then took each of the top bars and Brian and James held them each in the flames to sterilise and then I rubbed beeswax over the edge where the bees will attach their comb on the underside of the bar.

We also rubbed some beeswax inside the box of the hive. The smell of the beeswax will act as a lure to attract the bees to the hive.  This is because bees will tend to go to a place where bees have been before or have found suitable, and the smell of the beeswax will help to create this.  Honey itself cannot be used as it will attract other insects and pests including ants which are a real pest to bees.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

finally get to look at some bees in the rainforest

The first day in the rainforest and the temperature started lower than it was in the town of Mamfe at the Cross River. About 28 degrees but quite fresh and not so humid. The sun was shining and it really felt like a warm sunny day in the UK...pretty perfect really though a little on the warm side.

Around the village of Ote there are the 5 hives belonging to the NGO Forudef who are leading the project we are involved in to develop beekeeping in the area, and 7 hives owned by the village group led by the chief of Ote, but part of the Forudef project.  We went with James Assam, the Forudef extension worker who is sponsored by Bees Abroad, to look at the current situation with the Forudef bees in the forest, and he has been having considerable trouble.

In this area the weather controls the beekeeping year with the dry season being the main foraging season when the flowers are in bloom so that the main honey harvesting period is the end of the dry season in about March.  When the rainy season starts in mid March the amount of flowers reduce and at maximum rains from June to August the bees do not fly much at all and flowers are very few.  Therefore the bees make stores from the harvest time in Feb/Mar to June which sustain them until they can fly and forage again after the rains from the end of August onwards. The main honey making period then starts again from November until March .

James was very hopeful about the hives this year as 3 were colonised and looked very promising with good stores and plenty of bees in residence.  He was getting ready to harvest the honey in January but it was not quite ready when he had to leave to visit the other villages he is supporting with bee keeping around the area.  He was gone for several weeks and some unexpected rain occurred in late January while James was away, and a tree fell on two of the hives knocking them over.  No-One else rescued the hives and when James got back he found that the bees and honey were gone.  He managed to save the actual hives and put them back on their stands but he was completely despondent about the loss.  He did not seem all that comforted by the third hive being very active and we suggested hopeful in terms of honey but because they were incredibly aggressive and he was not keen to do much inspecting of them.

Today walking through the forest along the main road to the villages along the Takamada National Park, all felt very manageable and benign.This is the only route to access over 20 villages in the forest. The apiary was in an area of open forest with mixed trees including some cocoa planted as a cash crop. There were quite a lot of flowers about and many flying insects including butterflies.

James had already been to look at the hives and although the two that had fallen were not occupied, the third hive remained fully funcitonal and very active but a new hive had been colonised.  We did an inspection of the new colony and worked on the fallen hives to get them ready to attract more bees......

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


Great splodges of rain started to fall and it seemed uncertain whether it was actually going to rain, but the way the local people rushed to unload our luggage at our hosts' house in Ote told us it would.  For a couple of minutes everyone ran back and forth from the van and ran into the darkness of the half built mud brick house and dumped our things in a heap in the main room. Almost immediately the Toyota pick up crew turned around and drove back towards Mamfe.  Apparently they wanted to get at least as far as the part of the road where the track is out of the main forest and is easier to pass.  In the rains, the forested section is dangerous as trees fall and block the road and they fear a fall onto the vehicle.

The rain suddenly became torrential and we just stood in the doorway of the house looking out at it and people came to greet us and we went around to say hello to them.

Darkness was also going to come soon so it was important to put our tents up in the remaining light but we could not go out and find ourselves a good camp site or anything like that.  We merely waited about half an hour and in a slight lull we hurriedly erected our tents between the house and the river.  Our Cameroonian NGO friends put their tent at the back door of the house so that everyone would have to walk around it all the time, but we politely put ours a little distance away, Gill and I put ours near the kitchen house which is separated from the main house, and we put Brian's a few yards beyond.

Despite the lull in the rain we still got soaked and had to change all our clothes and put them on the makeshift washing line hanging across the sitting room.

The rain carried on all through the night and did not seem to let up.  We were worried that the tents would leak, but we need not have worried.  We talked about the Glastonbury festival where we raised an appeal in 2011 and people kindly donated their tents.  This was also where Brian and I met when he was doing fundraising and I was working for Festival Information Services which also acted as a collecting point.

We managed to get to sleep despite the noise of the rain, but the temperature went very low during the early hours as the rains stopped, and I was very cold since Brian had forgotten to pass me my sleeping bag as we rushed to get to our tents in the rain.  We slept badly mostly due to the discomfort and the noise of the rain, then the cold, and finally just before dawn, the cockerels started to crow just near us.  Finally as the sun rose, the warmth touched us and we just lay relaxing and basking in the comfort of our new camp which will be our home for the next five days. At the noise of activity we knew it was time to get up and start our work.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Arrival at Ote

We seemed to come upon Ote very suddenly.  The route through the forest had been reduced to two tyre tracks with vegetation down the middle for quite some miles and was beginning to seem interminable, then suddenly we were approaching a wide river with huge boulders strewn across it and a village the other side.  Children and even some adults were in the river waiting for us and went running into the village to announce our arrival.  We made slow and difficult progress through the river which was very rocky and uneven and came up the other side and into an open area of mud brick and mud daub houses like a square and on one side a group of adults were sitting talking under a palm thatch shade shelter.

It was extremely emotional to see Ncho Tabe Moses, the director of the NGO Forudef being greeted by his village.  It is two years since he has visited due to ill health, but now he was arriving with 3 British people and his daughter Ruth who was coming to the village for the first time.  At first people simply surrounded the vehicle and stretched in to shake all our hands, but especially to hug and embrace Moses and Ruth until eventually the driver had to give up any attempt at moving on and they got out to greet everyone properly.  People were moved to see Mses again.  Either he is well loved, or they were simply showing how pleased they were to see him, but whatever the reason this greeting seemed to be deeply felt and meaningful for all, as well as being joyous.  As for Ruth, they were all greeting a new daughter or sister as if they had to make up for years of not seeing her.

Eventually we were able to move slowly through the crowd and pull away across the square only to meet another crowd and people ran out of their houses to greet us.  Again they were as happy to shake our hands as they seemed to be to see Moses and Ruth.  We couldn't work out whether it was the novelty of us being white, or strangers or simply that they had all been told of our visit and were greeting us as guests.  Whatever the reason, it was a very warm and felt like a meaningful greeting.  Not many of the people we met spoke fluent English.  I had not expected this. There seemed to be a huge number of children around.

We finally broke free to be able to drive away to the lower part of the village about a mile away.  Here only the chief's house stands on a raises hill and a few new houses sit in a clearing above the river.  We stopped in a clearing at the road side and Moses' cousin George came to greet us with another group of people from neighbours and friends who had been waiting for us.

As we unloaded the first huge spots of rain started and in no time it was torrential.  All we could do was dive inside the half built house and shelter while saying hello to our hosts.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Subsistence to commercial farming

Much of the farming is done by women who tend the land to feed their family.  Therefore plots are usually small and often on steep and even marginal slopes.
contour tilling has been encouraged in the more accessible areas to discourage soil erosion in the rainy season

Most of the people here are subsistent farmers and so they rarely produce excess to domestic requirements, except occasional gluts of whichever fruits are in season. However traditionally it has been impossible to do anything with these, other than give the excess away as there is no means of storing such produce or getting it to market to sell. This has also meant that over production is not something people aim for in the same way that commercial farmers do because there is no outlet for any excess food produced.

the small fields are well tilled by hand using a curved hoe.  These are ready for planting
The women grow yams, cassava, ground nuts, bananas, plantains and cocco yams as foodstuffs and everything is carried home.  They use head carrying, baskets suspended on a rope around their head or on their back.

The men tend to make small plantations outside the villages growing cocoa and sometimes coffee as cash crops. Some villages now have cassava grinders and frying pans so that cassava can be processed in greater bulk and sold, it is one of these that we are transporting to Ote.  People with accesses to these tools will grind, ferment and cook the cassava to make Garri, which is then transported on the vehicles that ply to route to Mamfe, to be sold. More men are becoming involved in this traditionally female dominated industry as it becomes a cash crop, and trade is beginning in the area- more people are moving to a more commercial economy.

cocoa plantation with a bee hive in the shade in the distance

Bee Keeping on the road through the rainforest

We passed several villages along the road from Mamfe to Ote in Akwaya Cameroon.  Mobile signal was lost within a couple of miles as we passed over a hillside bordering the Cross River.  The journey was incredibly uncomfortable for us passengers and arriving at a village offered us relief from the movement of the cab and the cramped stuffy heat.  We stopped in one village about half way along our 53km journey at Mbo, where a sign announced a bee keeping project operated by the German Development Service DED in conjunction with GIZ  with the local Akwaya Regional Council.

We knew about this project but have not had any contact with it, and have in fact avoided any bee keeping discussions as we do not want to be seen to be competing or undermining another project. The locals told us that training, hives and equipment, including hive tools and smokers, had been given but no protective clothing or further support and no-one has succeeded in keeping bees in that area yet.

One of the difficulties is that most people remain frightened of bees and fear being stung, which means that the culture of beekeeping is not present in the area - this is not helped by the lack of protective clothing which goes some way to preventing bee stings - although African-bee stings are incredibly painful when you do get them, but while it is all par for the course for a bee keeper, opening a hive of bees can be quite daunting when you are beginning, especially the type used here, the kenyan top bar as an awful lot of bees seem to be able to get at you at one time since it is just short of a meter in length.
The other element of our work here in Cameroon is not imposing our ideason people but responding to their requests.  Therefore we tend to work with people who have asked us for our help rather than trying to influence people to keep bees in an ad hoc way.  Therefore our work depends on local people wanting to investigate bee keeping for the benefits it will bring to their communities as an income stream along with their farming activities. We hope that as people take up bee keeping in the region, the culture towards bees will change as people see the benefit.

We were told by the locals that the attempts by other organisations to set up beekeeping projects with villages along the route into Akwaya district have been met with scepticism and therefore many of these projects have lacked interest. So not wishing to impose our ideas on local people, we will wait and if some seek our assistance we will be happy to assist them along with Forudef.

It is also our hope that by working in one of the villages at the end of the route Ote news of our work may filter down along the line, and in the future work may come from it- either from us or from people in Ote who wish to spread the knowledge. For now we just passed through the villages, stopping only to greet the locals and buy some fruit and talk, mentioning beekeeping if an appropriate opportunity arose. At Akwa village we visited the school and its teachers as I have been working at twinning it with a primary school in London. 

To work with more neighbouring villages would be fantastic as it would mean that greater quantities of honey would be produced- and when supply is stable we can work more with distribution chains and getting the product to the bigger cities, or even look at exporting and marketing Cameroon honey aboard.  Neighbours would also be able to help each other in their beekeeping and share knowledge. This is my hope for the future, but no mention was made of this now. We spent just about half an hour in each village we stopped at to stretch our legs and give time for passengers to set down or load up before moving on.

At present it is not possible to extend the beekeeping because Forudef are the only organisation operating here and they need to focus on the existing producers who are further along into the rainforest or beyond on the fringe of the savanna.  They can barely service the existing farmers and buy up and transport all of their honey so they cannot engage with new farmers just now.  However this is a plan for the coming year once the honey harvest has been collected.

Already some amazing work has been done by Rebecca Howard who started with VSO and trains and supports beekeepers in East Cameroon.  She has been a major force behind Guiding Hope a CIG (Common Initiative Group) encouraging beekeeping and assisting in selling and distributing honey and other hive products.  They have already gained accreditation for EU import of Cameroon Honey along with David Wainwright of Tropical Forest Products another beekeeper and importer of honey and beeswax into the UK. Access is not so difficult in the Eastern part of the country mainly because it is drier and production is higher than in the rainforest areas of Akwaya, but there is huge potential for production and no reason why it could not reach commercial levels for export.

Even forest people make an impact

The only vehicles that travel these routes into the forest are Toyota pick ups adapted by having their suspension jacked right up.  They are distinctive by this along with their battered body work and the number of passengers hanging onto the rear bar and open pick up.  The cab has a double row of seats designed for 3 behind and 2 in front, but they carry one more in each row and as many as 15 behind.  Since they only travel intermittently and only in the dry season, if a vehicle is known to be coming through people take the opportunity to travel.

We got seriously stuck a number of times in the sandy mud produced by the laterite tropical soils when it rains and all the men would jump down to push and rock the vehicle through the mud wearing only flip flops.  Sometimes fallen trees blocked our way in the forest sections and everyone got out their machetes and cut through considerable trees and branches in a matter of minutes.

The van seemed to rock along often at less than a walking pace and groaned and creaked under the strain of being pulled and tipped in different directions.  Just occasionally we found a few hundred meters of open road and sped along with the wind in our faces and the vegetation slapping at our sides and we had to keep avoiding branches that nearly hit us when they came in the windows, but the heat prevented us from shutting them.  This relief only lasted a few moments until we were stopped again by another rut or obstacle.

We always knew when we were approaching a settlement as the land at the road side was being farmed with areas of agroforestry cut into the forest itself. All too often cleared areas were still smoldering from being burned to clear the weeds
once cleared the remaining vegetation and undergrowth is burned which releases nutrients and reduces pests

but more often once the agricultural trees had established and the undergrowth regrown, the secondary forest looked lush.

Only on the steep hillsides in the distance could we see the layers of the primary forest clearly towering high.  Some remnant emergent trees are left in the farmland to act as a reminder of how much has been lost.  They stand tall and alone amongst the new cultivated vegetation that looks like undergrowth stretching below, but is so often made up of fully grown cocoa or oil palm trees.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Road

By the time we finally left Mamfe the truck cab above us was stacked high with luggage, and in the back were sacks of rice and a dozen 40l honey containers. The containers were going back to the village in time for the honey harvest which will start any day now. In addition to us inside the cab there were some women, two with nursing babies sitting in the open pick up behind and about five men holding onto the roll bars on the back of the pickup. 

The driver had a young man as a helper whose main jobs consisted of engaging and disengaging the 4 wheel drive, pushing or digging the vehicle out of holes when needed and to clear any fallen trees with his machete, and he also joined the men on the running bar at the back of the truck, it all seemed precarious but to everyone else it was quite normal. A late addition to the journey was a dog, wrapped up in a sack with only his head sticking out to stop him worrying other passeners who was placed onto the top of the rice sacks, though to me it seemed the worrying part of him was the only bit to be seen.  With everything onboard we set off from Mamfe Bus Park.

A few yards up the main street we pulled off and plunged down a steep dirt track to the river and crossed the new concrete bridge, which was bustling with people heading to school or work. On the far side of the river was a chain barrier and the driver had to show permits to drive into the Akwaya forest region. Beyond this were a couple of small huts and a heavy red and white striped metal pole barrier with a sign announcing that we were about to enter Akwaya district. All this gave the trip the feel that we were crossing into the unknown, across a frontier to enter the wild.

After the 20 minute wait for permit checks we were finally off and the heavy truck pulled off up a red dirt track climbing the side of a steep hill towards the rainforests of Akwaya and on to Ote village some 50 miles north.

To call the route to Akwaya a road would be generous. It passed over sheets of rock, dipped into clay filled valleys into which the vehicle sunk to its axels, went up and down at angles we in the UK would consider beyond safe limits.  

Periodic streams were either forded or crossed by ladder bridges with alarming gaps where the loose boards had disappeared. But it was beautiful, the steep streams were covered in butterflies flying over the water and resting on the banks.   All the time the boys would step down to engage the 4 wheel drive and when through the problem jump back up onto the rear running rail of the vehicle again. 

Each time the car got stuck though, the boys on the back would hop down and dig, push or pull the vehicle until we were out- while we were so tightly packed into the cab there would have been no way to extract ourselves and help!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Leaving Mamfe

We spent 2 days in Mamfe finalising the preparations for going out to Ote in Akwaya district. Our current major project in Cameroon is linked with Forudef NGO and is based in Buea in the south and Ote village in Akwaya with honey trading and beekeeping projects running. The trip felt like an expedition and preparations were exiting for both us and the Cameroonians who described us as 'going into the bush'. It felt like something from a previous era and a long way from a taxi to the airport followed by a busy easy jet flight. We have to take everything with us, while remaining light enough to carry what we needed on our backs if needs be, so the last few days had been a blur of markets and planning. 

We found a shop selling biscuits and cartons of juice
They also had lamps, pots and pans and every type of hardware you could imagine

A vehicle was hired and in addition to we three English Bees Abroad workers, and two Forudef  workers  we will take extra fare paying passengers once were are all loaded up to save costs. Everything in Cameroon takes longer than expected, and out car arrived only an hour late (to our surprise) at 7.30 on what was an already warm morning. 
Loading the vehicle in the Mamfe bus station known as 'The Park'

We loaded the luggage, including a large Cassava frying pan, which splits into two, measuring about 1m x 1.5m with sides raising 150cm at a 45degree angle out from the base. There is a steel base into which a stainless steel top fits into. The steel base is in contact with the fire while the stainless steel pan with cassava in sits on top- this is so that the cassava does not burn or discolour and the pan does not rust. This is to accompany the cassava grinder that had coated us in the sticky pulp a few days ago when we tried it out, but which the workshop owner assured us would be fixed next week. This is part of a project that Forudef (the locally based Cameroonian NGO we are working with) will be running for a women’s cooperative to produce Garri (a type of dough popular in west African made from fermented cassava) to sell to local villages and their own community. The mechanisation will allow increased production as the whole process is currently done by hand.The whole project was devised by Matt and Mischatwo Canadians who came to work with Forudef last year and travelled out to Ote with us in March 2011.

Forudef hopes to create a market in Ote so that people in the neighbouring villages will come  to Ote to trade. The village can sell the Garri and other farm produce which Forudef will work with them to develop, and so will allow the village to grow. Currently most people wanting to trade will travel many miles (as far as Mamfe over 50miles away) to trade, but the hope is to create a market town closer and attract people to stay in the region rather than move to large towns. This allows other towns to come and trade what they make and will enrich the area. This plan is voiced daily by the people we meet, and they are looking to us to help them in this project. It does feel good to be working alongside a Cameroonian charity and development NGO whose members are from the communities in which we are working and so really know what it is that can help. It is just a good thing that the plans of Forudef, the villages of Ote and surrounding village and Bees Aboard fit so closely, and we are able to help Ote realise there initiative. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ote, preparing for our arrival

We are taking tents with us to the rainforest which have been kindly donated by revellers at Glastonbury festival following an appeal in 2011.  We have 3 two-man and a 4-man between 6 of us and we are carrying a foam roll mat and we will leave all this equipment at the Forudef office in Mamfe when we are done so that future workers can go out and stay over at Ote and a couple of other tents for the extension worker, James and others from the NGO, Forudef.

We have been told that the villagers in ote are really looking forward to our visit.  They have dug a pit latrine for the occasion so we have somewhere to go to the loo, because normally they don’t bother to maintain one, instead opting to use the bush or the area along the river bank as there toilet. However, this is something we would like to discourage because of the obvious health issues attached.
One of my main concerns with the work that we are doing in Ote is that it feels hard to know where to start. While we are a bee keeping charity, and it is through this that we are trying to help people make a living for themselves, or according to our strap line, to alleviate poverty, it seems to overlook many of the major problems people in Ote face. The sanitation is so poor that people, especially children, are dying of water borne diseases with diarrhea and vomiting. This makes it hard to simply focus on beekeeping because it feels like we are ignoring some major issues that, although out of our remit, could make real differences to the community. Helping someone earn the money to eat but letting them die of poor sanitation feels like a hollow victory to us.

This is the main reason that we are looking into other ways in which we can help the inhabitants of Ote (like in earlier posts relating to nutrition or improving chicken stock). However we also know our own limits, we may be at the limits of our own expertise, and our remit to work on beekeeping.  While we may be able to identify what might needs to be done, carrying out the work when it is beyond our experience and expertise could cause more problems than providing solutions. We are therefore  proposing getting other expert charities to work with us in Ote and surrounding villages, such as inviting water organisations and development specialists to provide specialist help, so that we can provide real help for the village.

Behind Ote there is a cliff which has a spring, so there is potential to capture and pipe in fresh water, rather than relying on collecting water from the river which doubles as a toilet (hence many of the sanitation issues). It is projects like this that can make real differences to the people of this area. Also to solve the sanitation problems we are looking to linking with a specialist organisation to provide pit latrines.

On our arrival in Ote, the villagers are planning to dance for us, but they were asking if we would enjoy it or whether seeing traditional dances would be an imposition. Fortunately, James (our extension worker with Forudef)  knew that we would be honoured to attend this festivity, and that we would really love to experience such a thing, and so I'm told that they have been feverishly preparing everything.  The village does not have electricity either, instead people sit around in the evenings telling stories which, while sounding idyllic to us means the development of the village will be difficult to achieve. We are thinking about looking into a sustainable energy source and will investigate solar energy as a remedy to this; as the cost of solar panels is falling all the time, it may well be a viable option. At present they rely on palm oil lamps, burning the residue from filtered oil, which is both black and mucky (and bad for health) and a fire risk, or for those who can afford it kerosene lamps  or even  a few battery torches using LED's . 

My list of thing to look into and organise is growing by the day! But the advantage of working with a small charity is that I have the power to make a difference because i know i will be back next year.

We cannot operate or facilitate any form of honey trading or collection in Ote without some sort of building or base and that this will have a number of roles.  Primarily, it will be collection point for the farmers we have trained coming in to sell their honey and then Forudef can send it to market or store it during the rainy season when transport out of the area is impossible. Ote is a good site for this because it is the last village on the track from Mamfe accessible by vehicle during the dry season - other villages beyond can only be reached by foot through the forest.

Such a facility will also allow for a honey worker to monitor the quality and moisture content of the honey that people are producing. This is good because we can maintain a standard of product and help to raise the price of well produced honey and offer advice and guidance to farmers bringing in their stocks, which will all benefit the farmers.  Improving the quality of the honey people are producing- is an aim of our honey work here. The honey can then be filtered and sealed in plastic Gerry cans to prevent any deterioration when it is stored or transported from here to Mamfe and on to Buea where Forudef can market it.

A secondary benefit of the building is that we plan to have incorporate some lodgings, this is not only good for us to be able to stay in but also other NGO’s in the area and will encourage government departments to work in the area as well (at present officials, health workers or other services seldom come this far due to lack of facilities). The Nottingham UK architects Marsh and Growchowski have kindly agreed to design a building for us, so we will have been tasked with taking measurements and photos of the proposed site in preparation of their work, which is very exciting.

Rain Like No Other

Although it is still technically the dry season, the rains have started.  Our first night in Mamfe the thunder and lightning was incredible.
I went outside to experience the rain, it was like something from a film, incredibly atmospheric!
The night was totally pitch black with no moon or stars and I couldn’t see a foot in front of me because there was a power cut so no electric lights anywhere for miles. You could feel the rain though, it was absolutely torrential and in minutes i was soaked- I've never experienced rain like it. The downpour only lasted about half an hour and drizzled on for about the same again, but the noise on the tin roofs of our hotel and the surrounding buildings was deafening, no one could sleep.  There was no light, even in our hotel, but we sat together in the dark of the hotel listening to the rain and watching great forks of lighting cut access the black sky. Outside the hotel the ground rushed with water so that it sounded like great rivers were flowing right past our door!

On waking in the morning however the sun was shining and all evidence of the rain was gone, it couldn’t have been more of a contrast from the night before.  Only the dirt tracks showed any sign of the previous day, walking on them the red mud stuck to our feet and some vehicles that had been moving around early had picked it up and spread it thinly across the tarmac when they joined the made roads.

We had lunch on our balcony overlooking the beautiful Cross River.  It really is so beguiling but the view, while serene, is a fascinating hub of activity on this particular day.  We were overlooking large flat barge boats with teams of boys who swim down to dredge up the gravel brought down by the floods that is now lying on the river bed.  Their work is back breaking.  They dive down with a large flat metal pan, and bring it up heaped with sand before offload it into the barge and disappearing back into the depths for more.  Once the whole barge is filled it is taken to the edge and emptied by other boys who shovel as if their life depends on it, creating a heap on the river bank. Several groups of boys work like this before a small lorry comes down and moves between groups collecting the sand.  when it draws close to each group, the boys start shovelling as fast as they can into the lorry above them filling it, and once it has made the round of all the groups and is filled it snakes up the steep climb of the river cliff, to the road.

The boys getting the gravel never stop and as soon as their load is on the lorry the other boys also return to work.  They must be paid by the load, but speculating, the conditions look terrible and the work very hard, and no doubt the pay is very poor.  Quite unlike anything we are used to. We saw the gravel later when we made a last run to the internet cafe in the builder's yard, where it was piled high.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Cooking lessons and Packing for The Rainforest

We had to make another trip to the market to get the last few fresh things for our trip.  little red peppers that are quite hot, green beans, batteries for torches, bread, fresh tomatoes and eggs...which we will hard boil.  The market was bustling and the best thing I've heard all trip was when we declined to buy one ladies goods and  she cried 'oh I like it you are just eye shopping'!  

After the market we headed over to the Forudef offices where i gave the neighbour who we knew from last year and had cooked for us, a bag that i had bought from home along with some photographs of everybody taken on that trip and had printed. The whole family were overwhelmed, it was really nice to see them so happy, i obviously got it right on the present front! Gill (another beekeeper and a doctor in our group) and I then had a cooking lesson from the women where they showed us how they cook the beans and tomatoes, we had bought from the market, ready for the trip. The only problem was that four people prepared the food which our host Lucy then took 3 hours to cook! We had to leave the food simmering while we went to attend the bees...we will have to find a way to make the recipe quicker when we are in the forest.
For anyone interested the recipe consisted of the following: build and light a medium sized fire, place 3 large flat topped stones to rest the pot on around the flames, then sit on the floor and chop, wash and sort the vegetables (very time consuming without the mod cons of chopping boards, work-surfaces and sinks!), then add to water in the pan and cook for several hours. It made us realise how much you use a sink and running water when you’re cooking! and how wonderful it is to do all this standing up instead of on your knees in the dirt.

We wouldn’t be able to carry all our things into the rainforest and we needed to travel light in case we had to walk long distances (if the road/ vehicle failed us!) so we organised where we would leave things and what to take and organised where we would meet our driver for the journey which would start at 6am the day after tomorrow (all starts in Cameroon seem to be early ones!). To get from Mamfe to Ote is only about 50miles but the road runs out a short way form Mamfe so it will be mud tracks from there on out with numerous rivers to ford, so we expect that it will take about 6hours to get to Ote hence the early start.

We were all aware of what might be in the water, but Gill being a GP was most concerned about water borne parasites and pathogens we could easily encounter that could cause us severe problems when we are deep in the jungle, or even after our return to the UK, so we plan to avoid all contact with water on our trip including not to get out of the truck at all when we were crossing the rivers so as to minimise the very present risk.

Talking Bees

The morning before we left Mamfe I had an interesting conversation with James, a man who was having trouble with his bees up in the rainforest. While we were talking he was getting his motorbike ready for the rainy season (when it becomes about the only form of transport with any chance of getting about) and he had spent most of the day busily tinkering. He was concerned about his bees in the rainforest because he is struggling in Ote and the surrounding rainforest villages.

Although he can get bees for his Kenyan Top Bar hives and they seem happy for a time they keep disappearing.  However he noted that although around the forest floor there seem to be no bees up in the canopy there are swarms (and there are huge numbers of flowers at this level which might be the key). I suggested that perhaps we should investigate moving back to traditional hives high up in the tree tops?
It would make it harder to work on the hives as you would have to climb to the top of the trees it would at least mean that the bees wouldn’t keep absconding and the farmers would have honey and wax.
We need to look into getting more sustainable hives that can be hoisted into the tree canopy but does not require cutting up the brood to harvest the honey.
There are some people still using traditional hives, and they are still getting loads of honey though some of them are out of the forest or at the edges (so maybe that makes a difference).

It might be worthwhile looking into studies and doing some tests when we get back to the UK to find the best sort of hives and areas to locate the hives in to find a solution (if anyone has had the same problem please get in touch!)  

There are a few factors that we have been looking into that might be at work here. We wonder whether the hives are in too shady a place on the forest floor, if we can raise the hives so that they suspended just under the canopy then they will have more sun, but without being out in the open. Alternatively, it could be that the food baring plants are not plentiful on the forest floor, and this is causing the bees to abscond- most likely it is a combination of the two factors.

Although we are aware that if we move the bees to a place that is too sunny it can get too hot for them so a balance must be found. Secondly moving them to the tops of the trees could expose the bees to other elements such as the rain in the wet season which could cause problems. Perhaps moving the hives depending on the time of year may be the best solution, but this will need to be investigated. Brian had been hoping to divide some colonies and increase the stock for the village, but possibly the problems are more fundamental than this although we won’t know how wide spread this problem is until we get to Ote and so this will be our immediate focus on arrival.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Road to Mamfe

We have travelled north from Buea to Kumba by tarmac road with innumerable potholes in a crowded minibus with all our belongings strapped to the roof. All the drivers in the area have been on strike in protest to the government for failing to maintain the road, and so we waited some time to make the journey. 

Some sections of the route have become so bad that drivers refuse to take the main road, instead heading off towards nigeria and the through the top of the Korup and Ekok national parks. This meant driving on small tracks through areas of rainforest which were absolutely textbook examples of layered canopy, any (ex) geography teacher’s idea of heaven! And we were able to drool over the landscape uninterrupted for miles. 

The road underneath was patchy and uneven, sometimes disappearing in mud and craters so deep, and water filled, that they seemed impassable. The wet season wasn’t to start for another month; we had experienced heavy downpours uncharacteristically early, but we were assured that the mud got much worse than this and so we pressed on. We made relatively rapid, and dust free, progress (an advantage of the rain i suppose) but hurtling over wooden plank bridges in crammed full minibuses at 60mph can get a little hairy!

It was a little sad to see trucks heading along the road laden with several mighty trees, easily 3 or 400 years old, when the only signs of tree planting was new rubber and palm oil trees; hardly aforestation though tactically agroforestry i suppose.

En route we tried to pick up a cassava grinder to take to the Ote, the village we were heading to in the rainforest, but the only one we could find just sprayed ground cassava across the whole workshop and covered all the mechanics, and us, with the white pulp...everyone was completely in hysterics and it was certainly an ice breaker between the locals and the us but it just didn’t seem practical to take!  The owner assured us that with some adjustments it would be perfect, but it wouldn’t be ready till next week. 

At Kumba we swapped our cramped bus for a car and headed for the un-surfaced road north to Mamfe.  All our luggage was stuffed into and on top of the boot of a battered old car with a UK number plate.  On the top of the luggage below the lid was the cassava frying pan to hold everything in tightly.  Already at Kumba and out of the mountains surrounding Buea we could feel the temperature and humidity rising, back up to about 30 deg.

The arrival at Mamfe was very welcome; we checked into the same hotel as last year, the Data, which commands a promontory overlooking the river, which snakes way below sleepily towards Nigeria. It has a lovely shady restaurant and some seating under grass roofed shelters in the garden surrounded by lovely flowering trees full of birds, and a very proud cockerel that struts around. It is the place all the Chinese engineers and contractors, who are building the road west east from Nigeria as part of the Trans African highway, go to eat so can get very busy. Although the heat is about 30 deg now it feels less, there is shade, a working fridge and some cold drinks (you would be surprised how often the two are not linked in Cameroon) although tonight there is no power in town so there is no light or water. 

We were able to relax from the long journey and shower from a bucket with a half water bottle cut to make a cup. We met a worker we did a bee keeping course with last year who will be joining our ever expanding party to the rainforest. It was a really warm reunion and we spent much of the evening catching up on news over dinner which we bought him; we insisted on paying and when he saw the bill he was astonished although there were 4 of us it came to around 20,000 CFA (about £25.00) which was over half the man’s monthly salary.

Everyone was tired from the journey so we all had an early night.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

First Few Days...Buea and Beyond

From the airport we headed out of Douala on the road for Buea, a town about 2 hours slow driving west of Douala. The town in perched 950m up, on the side of Mt Cameroon, the biggest volcano in the country. The temperature and humidity dropped off rapidly as we climbed until on arrival it felt like a pleasant English summer evening. That night we stayed in the hotel Mendoza, and old British army officer’s mess, which feels as though nothing has changed since the 1960’s (although these days it is a whole lot dirtier).

My first night was a comfortable one and sleeping late till 11am I sadly missed going to church - although I’m not overly religious, it always promises to be an amazingly colourful and soulful experience. Everyone wears their best clothes and it is usually quite an occasion.

We had our first, albeit short, meeting with the Forudef team - being a Sunday we were on limited time. We needed to catch up with beekeeping in Buea as we helped one of the Forudef team last year and wanted to check on their progress, and we also had to set some time aside to prepare for our trip north to Akwaya district.

We shared news with the teams in Beau and heard about the work that Forudef had been doing over the past year. One of our major concerns from last year was the nutrition and health of the people living in the rainforest, which is one of the reasons that Gillean had agreed to accompany us this year.

Last year we had travelled with two Canadians, Mischa and Matt Taylor, who were staying 6 months in the region and had decided to focus on nutrition and diet when working with Forudef. They had set up a great program in Buea, which Forudef were now continuing. They had aimed to teach people about basic nutrition and ways to maximise this through cooking and farming techniques, because in the rural areas the diet is often very limited to what is readily available, and even then many cooking techniques lead to a loss of nutrition, Matt and Mischa have a fuller tale of this on their blog.

One of the techniques that they had been focusing for maximising the nutrition from the food had been the attempt to retain the water used in cooking to make sauces rather than throwing it away and loosing the goodness. Although it’s a simple thing, ideas like this can make a huge difference when diets are so limited.

We met a school in Akwaya last year that had wanted to do something similar, and so we sent seeds and tools to help them start a similar program to this one. The school is also somewhere we are hoping to have to the time to visit later in the trip.

Along the same lines, last year we took a trip to Ote village and noticed that the stock of chickens was very poor (they were incredibly scrawny and small!). We had talked about buying a cockerel and some hens to take to them when we visit next week, in the hope of increasing the diversity of chicken stock and improving the gene pool in the village. This idea was welcomed by Moses and he is on the case, looking for the biggest strongest hens he can find!

I know that all these programs aren’t about beekeeping, but from spending time in these villages it has become clear that the help they need is much broader than what one program can provide, regardless of whether it’s beekeeping or food initiatives. The villages have also been very generous when hosting us so we want to give something back in return, and these things seem like simple, long-term provisions that we and others (including the local people) can build on in the coming years. 

We spent so long in the office catching up on all that had been going on, and planning the work that we would do this year that we left the office too late to find food at the restaurant in the hotel. We walked down to the roadside stands to buy barbecued fish with hot sauce and sat to eat it on a rickety bench next to immaculately swept roadside - so delicious(!) - and then headed to bed.

the markets are colourful and you have to bargain but each stall holder only has a few goods to sell

ground pulses and grains are a staple

The next day we busied ourselves getting supplies for the journey north while we waited for German bee worker Leon Biermann, who was working with GIZ. He was to accompany us to the rainforest and was currently climbing Mt. Cameroon up to Buea. We were hoping to be ready when he arrived, but as we would be away for about five days we needed to collect provisions. We set out to get tinned tuna and corned beef (Brian’s ideas) but instead came back with dried fish, beans and chillies.  We could not take fresh foods as they will not keep.

dried fish is one of the cheapest sources of protein. It also keeps  without refridgeration 

Thank goodness for Moses daughter Ruth! She’ll be accompanying us on the trip to her ancestral area, which is just as well because her ideas on supplies, camping and travel in this part of the world seem very different to ours. Although collectively we have camped and travelled in many places, our experiences are mostly informed by wet weekends in Wales! This, she informs us, will not do! Moses wanted to arrange stoves and transport large bottles of gas with us, but we decided that cooking on fire like everyone else was fine – besides, it’s a lot cheaper and easier!

We met a nice guy called Ezra Gentleman who is a Canadian working with The Humanity Exchange from Canada. Ezra has a Masters in Development Economics, and is working on microcredit in the Buea area.  He was hoping to come with us to the rainforest but leaves in just over a week and so is short of time (everything can take a little longer than expected out here!).

Once we had all the supplies, we just had to wait for Leon to finish his hearty climb and we would be ready to head north and into the rainforest.

There hasn’t been much talk of actual beekeeping yet(!) but that’s coming in the next post, I promise!