It rained all day and all night, and the forest flooded. When we arrived, it was easy to wade across the river, but now the fast currents made it impassable. The waterfall was now raging brown with the sediments and muds, and I would no longer dare to swim there. But we are absolutely ready to leave. We had packed up all the tents and gear, and hiked to the river to make our crossing and return to civilization. What to do? A helicopter to rescue us? Not likely. Or sleep in the forest until the river goes down? But that could take days, or weeks, and we had no more food. We talk about the options, and luckily our cook knows this forest well. He lives nearby in the village of Manyemen and grew up here. He hikes around looking for possible spots to make the crossing. He returns, and we lug our stuff to a spot where two trees have crashed down across the river. But the water is still too rapid there and the logs are slippery. Most of our team of 13 people can’t swim. We decide to look further, getting all the more desperate. Finally our sentinel returns with news that he has found a spot where a single huge tree has fallen across the river. It is overgrown and he has to cut back the sprouting twigs and branches and make this slippery “bridge” crossable. It is not only the people, but also all the equipment, including tents, and scientific supplies for 13 people for 3 weeks. After some time, we dare the crossing, crawling like armadillos with our backpacks over this massive log. We shout with joy once we make it to the other side.
But where did we end up? In a flooded swamp. Our hearts sink again. So now we have to create more bridges to cross the murky water. While we are waiting, the ants mercilessly attack us, and rain pours on us in our absolute wetness. But the guys on the team are experts with machetes, and we cross over more logs and wade in waist-deep water; our rubber boots full of brown muddy slush. We finally make it to land, and hike out to the road where our trucks are already waiting for us. Exhaustion and exuberance. This dedicated group of students is truly remarkable. They have collected blood samples from hundreds of rainforest birds, and identified thousands of mosquitoes for the project. When I first came here 3 years ago and initiated this work, I would never have imagined that 5 Cameroonian PhD students and numerous Masters students would dedicate the most precious parts of their lives to the project and become experts in the field.
We had some good times too. Swimming and bathing in the river near the waterfall (before the storms) was the highlight of each day. Listening to the insects and watching the numerous colorful butterflies. Hearing the birds, and finding many of the exact individuals that we tested last year, like old friends coming back for a visit. The rains and deafening thunder entertained me while I was safe and relatively dry in my tent. But overall living in the rainforest isn’t easy. This time I got amoebas. Awful experience. And while brushing my teeth the first night, a small, but rather venomous green snake slyly watched me. It is the science that drives us. The destruction of the forest in this part of Cameroon is unparalleled. We were all shaken when we saw the clear-cutting before our eyes. Just a few kilometers from where we were trapped by the river, the forest is entirely gone. It’s happening quickly. The road to this region has been paved now, so they can take out the trees faster than ever. We are studying how this affects the disease transmission in this large-scale experiment. What happens to the mosquitoes, and the birds, and their diseases? Will another disease emerge from the rainforest, like Ebola, or HIV? The people in the village of Manyemen are certainly eating a lot of bushmeat. You know something is wrong with the economy when a chicken costs nearly $10, and a monkey just a few dollars more at $13. The students will study these questions, and become the next generation of Cameroonian scientists in the process.
Now from the laboratory in Buea, we are going through all the samples and drafting some scientific papers for publication. The Southwest Region of Cameroon, which the separatist movement is calling Ambazonia, is under major upheaval these days. Recently the internet was shut off for political reasons for 93 days. The central government retaliated with harsh measures against the people demanding more rights and autonomy for the region. That meant no email, no Facebook, no web, nothing, for more than 3 months! It meant driving to Douala to check email. It brought the English-speaking parts of Cameroon to a standstill. They still go on strike every Monday. Even now, there is no reliable internet at the university. This morning I said to myself, well at least there is electricity. But now that is out too. It is nearly impossible to work these days without a reliable internet connection. All the databases and literature are online. But the students and professors carry on, and just shrug it off, because it is so normal to lack the basics here. I have learned that when the electricity works, it is time to charge the laptop. The inequalities in this world are too apparent these days. The injustices are not sustainable and will have to change. Science brings us to unexpected places and deeper realizations.