Breaking Down Barriers: My Eye-Opening Experience in Cameroon
BY Sam Rees
9 NOVEMBER 2023
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR
This article was produced as part of the Global Diversity Foundation’s Darwin Initiative-funded project “Mentoring GEN Fellows to incubate Global South biodiversity-livelihoods initiatives”. Through the project, we coordinate a programme to support grassroots conservation organisations in the Global South in welcoming and overseeing Masters’ students from UK research institutions as organisational interns. This offers the organisation support through the production of relevant research and communications outputs and supports the Master’s students by offering them the opportunity to discover grassroots conservation realities in the Global South and conduct research for their MSc theses.
The following article is by Sam Rees, an MSc Ethnobotany student at the University of Kent, United Kingdom. He interned at the Agriculture and Bio-conservation Organization for Youth Empowerment and Rural Development (ABOYERD) in Cameroon. ABOYERD’s mission is to promote the protection of wildlife and their ecosystems while ensuring a future for human communities living within through scientific research, community-based environmental education and outreach, forest landscape restoration, sustainable community development and advocacy within conservation priority areas across the Republic of Cameroon. Executive Director Aghah Valery Binda is a member of the Global Environments Network who participated in our Global Environments Summer Academy in 2022.
Disclaimer: This article reflects the voice and opinions of the author and does not represent the Global Diversity Foundation. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author mentioned and should be interpreted as such.
Despite being on the same planet, the global north and the global south seem more than a world apart. The differences in biodiversity, culture, ideas and attitudes I encountered were only familiar to me through documentaries, movies or under-reported news bulletins. Only when you witness things with your own eyes do they become real and tangible, and their gravities suddenly fit into your worldview. Before travelling to Cameroon, I was conscious of keeping an open mind. As I was brought up by a parent who had lived and worked throughout Africa, I felt that I was prepared strongly for working in the global south. However, during my six weeks of work in Cameroon, a relatively short time in terms of research and fieldwork, I realised that I suffered from preconditioning instilled in me from living in the culture of the global north. Cameroon proved to me that this preconditioning is at the root of our global crises, social inequality, degradation of nature and the unjust suffering of majorities for the comfort of minorities. Of course, I knew that being a native Brit, I was well within the richer nations of the planet. But only in Cameroon did I realise what this really meant and how large of an obligation there is to the global south and its citizens.
During my first days in Cameroon, I felt an instant apprehension. I was greeted off the plane by oppressive heat, buzzing insects, a swathe of taxi drivers vying to sell their service and an astounding sunset behind Mount Cameroon. My contact was unable to get to the arrivals area, and with no service on my phone, I hit an instant problem. My first thoughts were something along the lines of, ‘be wary of being scammed, robbed or otherwise targeted’ as I clutched my valuables bag close. A man offered to use his phone, allowing me to find my contact. I half expected him to ask for something in return, but he didn’t. Instantly, I had to question my thought patterns and myself, which I felt deeply ashamed of; ‘Just because you stand out here, what makes you think you’ll be treated differently?’. I knew this to be the case back in the UK (despite what some will say), so I suppose I just assumed it would be the same in Cameroon. The next few days, I met many young families and newborn babies, tasted incredible fruits, and was exposed to loud noises, terrible traffic, harsh heat and roads so rugged, the likes of which I had never seen. My anxiety peaked around the 4th day, and I remember feeling as if I had made a mistake in coming here. I wanted to travel and follow in the steps of ethnobotanists who had inspired me, such as Schultes, Plotkin and Andel, revealing knowledge and bringing reverence and respect back to indigenous communities of the world, thereby saving it in the process. I felt ill-equipped to follow in their footsteps and wondered whether my place in this field would ever amount to much. By the end of the trip, this had all changed, and a newfound professional confidence and drive to continue my path had swelled within me.
My understanding and expectations of Cameroon and central Africa were both rocked and solidified in the weeks of preparation for our fieldwork expedition. I was introduced to the many locals, who had an incredible knowledge of the latest happenings in British and European politics. I knew very little of Cameroonian politics and recognised a remnant of a colonial mindset that I didn’t know was within me. Why should European politics be followed by countries so far away from Europe? I guess because, until recently, they were ruled by the same governments.
‘Africans love power’ is a phrase I heard a lot from my guides. As I was given the run-through of how Cameroon came to be and the stories of neighbouring central and West African countries, I was able to frame Europe and its politics from the African perspective. Again, this is something that I thought I understood, but now I had a new perspective that changed my ideas on the lasting impacts of colonialism and how its forms had shifted. The phrase ‘Africans love power’ stuck with me for a reason I still don’t quite know. Although I am sure that it is not only Africans who love power, humans all over the world love power; it is what we do with it that matters. It was described to me how the policies of powerful men in Africa, such as Paul Biya were used to give rise to war, dissatisfaction and corruption in the country. I found myself automatically relating a lot of issues found in Africa to the ones in the UK and Europe, realising that there are many common problems and causal factors between the two continents. I was taken to a sacred waterfall one day to be ‘baptised in Africa’. We sought permission from the local chief that governed the waterfall. I was warned not to look him in the eyes, to be extremely polite and to adhere to various other customs of respect. I knew of African chiefs, clans and tribes of course, but I didn’t know how common, ingrained and important their presence is within modern societies. Later, my guide and I met with a very stern police chief to inform him of our presence in the field. He seemed very distant and suspicious of us, but everything changed when my guide and the police chief discovered that they were from the same tribe. I thought back to the phrase ‘Africans love power’ and the reverence that people obviously held for their seniors. Undoubtedly, these topics have been covered in the literature of social anthropologists, but these ideas and findings were all forming in my head from my own experience. I could feel new neurons form in my brain, a feeling I cannot forget and am eager to experience once again. En route to the waterfall, I observed many small brick shelters containing food remnants. I was told these were structures in which food was placed as offerings to various gods. I witnessed this food being eaten away by ants and wildlife and thought about ideas of reciprocity in indigenous belief systems and what locals perceived as being ‘god(s)’. I could see here a clear similarity between other religions and beliefs I had studied, as well as my own, and felt wholly connected to the world at that very moment. Later in the trip, I spent a whole evening discussing witchcraft in Africa. My guide told me about how young people may suddenly appear to be very wealthy one day and afford large houses for their families despite having no income; these gifts often take a great toll on the beneficiary. Apparently, this is common in Africa, and witchcraft is still widely practised, even for the gain of material possessions. I had studied a bit about African witchcraft and witch doctors, a subject that piqued my interest within my studies of indigenous cosmologies and spiritual practices. However, hearing stories of it occurring this way made me think about the differences between Europe and Africa: the way witchcraft in Europe was annihilated and replaced with a new technological theology, how people in the global north can seemingly become rich overnight through the use of ‘YouTube’ or ‘influencing’, and the impact this culture has on the mental health of the youth. In Africa, people can go to ‘witches’ to make a trade for whatever they desire, but with grave consequences being the price. I found these thoughts and realisations uncomfortable but extremely interesting, I intend to go deeper into this subject one day when I feel more prepared.
During my time in the field, people seemed eager to meet me. The indigenous communities of the national park were extremely friendly, and I greatly enjoyed meeting them. By that time, Africa had taught me to limit expectations, so I was careful to have none when arriving in their villages, which helped me navigate this new environment. I handed out sweets, whisky and soap to participants as gifts, who all seemed greatly appreciative. As I did this while my guides took photos, I felt strongly aware of the ‘white saviour mentality’ and really hoped that I wasn’t partaking in this form of neo-colonialism. While in the field and travelling on long dirt roads, we came across various sections of Chinese engineers and local construction workers. I saw the most massive trees being logged and driven out on that very same road. Later, I witnessed palm plantations and mono-crops of bananas and coffee beans covering entire mountainsides and stretching as far as I could see into the distance. At this moment, it dawned on me how insidious colonialism truly is. Aside from the obviously abhorrent practices of the colonial period, this economic exploitation where countries of the global south have their resources pillaged, with only double-edged gifts being handed back to them. Before my trip to Cameroon, I thought colonialism’s lingering impact was far smaller than it truly is. I knew racism and economic disempowerment were big issues, but until I had witnessed this with my own eyes, the penny didn’t truly drop. The pattern never stopped in the past 500 years; it only became hidden. Now, we sell bananas for £1 a punch in the supermarket and drink 2-3 cups of coffee a day, keeping untold acres of land in the global south dedicated to shipping cheap, tasty fruit and caffeine hits to the global north. This has been happening throughout despite the need for this land to support local livelihoods and wildlife.
The icing on the cake was when the director of ABOYERD told me about the time he had tried to come to the UK for an in-person meeting as part of an international training programme. Most other participants made it to the meeting except for him. This was because, despite having multiple jobs, a family and responsibilities in Cameroon, the UK authorities believed he was ‘at risk’ of attempting to stay in the country to work illegally. At that moment, I felt a fury I don’t believe I’d ever felt before. In the global north, we keep taking from countries in the global south, and we offer them nothing but degradation and insults in return. I felt such shame for my country at this point, as well as guilt and a new drive to change things. Witnessing the logging, the plantations, and the poverty of Cameroon has put the trueness of the global power balance into a perspective that I didn’t expect. I knew this was the case, but now I understand it.
My work experience in Cameroon has changed me. I met some of the kindest, most welcoming and smartest people I’ve ever known while also witnessing the people struggling in the hardest conditions to maintain themselves. Professionally, I’ve come away with a new network, skill set and knowledge on how to conduct research projects on a global level; these things will be invaluable to me and my future work. But I’ve also come away with a newfound drive, anger, guilt and awe about the state of the world and the role that I play in it. Being from the global north, I know now that we have an obligation to undo the work left by our recent ancestors. We need to lift each other up to move forward as a global community, or else we will tread each other down until we are all in the ground. There is only one way to get through the next century: by working together in partnership between the global north and global south until this distinction becomes redundant, and to heal the trauma, guilt and colonial legacy that is still very present just below the surface of our collective unconscious.
I want to acknowledge the help, aid and mentorship given to me by ABOYERD, in particular, Bazil Tumè and Aghah Valery Binda. I am so grateful to them for being my guides, partners and supervisors in Cameroon. I have grown so much under their guidance! I also want to acknowledge and show gratitude to Dr. Emily Caruso and Dr. Gary Martin of the Global Diversity Foundation for their help in facilitating and making this project possible.