Rain and River in Cameroon


Deforestation in Cameroon

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.

Crossing the river.
Rainforest Ravinder

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.

Waterfall before the storms, nice swimming

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.

Manyemen, Cameroon

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.

An amazing team!

Following the Ark of the Covenant


Following the Ark of the Covenant in Aksum

They look like they could be Halloween ghosts, these thousands of people walking through the town of Aksum in Northern Ethiopia. All wearing clean white shawls, men and woman alike, they are devoted followers of the Ethiopian orthodox church. This chilly 5 am morning, we follow the Ark of the Covenant, of Indiana Jones fame, from its home in an Aksum chapel, through the village in an old town loop. Actually this is a replica of the Ark, because the true one never leaves its chapel, and people wonder whether it truly exists. We pass the mighty stelae that mark the Axumite tombs of kings that governed from here more than two thousand years ago. They rise above the street in the candlelit dawn.  The Ark is on top of one priest’s head, with ceremonial umbrellas gracing the procession. When the candles get too short, the devotees drop them onto the street, and I step on a few to put them out. But then I realize that maybe they should burn out on their own, because no one else attempts to step on these mini-fires.  While they are walking the men and women chant, in their ancient Tigrinya language that uses the squiggly script used everywhere in this country. One hour after its beginning, the procession ends, and the city returns to its business, the white shawls disappear like apparitions.


Procession in Aksum
Street scene in Aksum

I simply love Ethiopian food. I have never been in such a vegan friendly country. Ethiopian orthodox Christians are required to fast some 180 days of the year. This means they eat a vegan diet, and drink no alcohol for a large part of their lives. In Addis Ababa, I enjoyed just walking into any restaurant and getting a delicious meal. The same is true in Aksum, the food is flavorful, and I even risk getting sick by eating fresh salads. I love the spongy injera and I think I could eat it every day. What am I doing in Ethiopia?  Well, it turns out that Ethiopian Airlines is the cheapest way to get from Stockholm to Douala, Cameroon.  Why not stop, eat and explore for a few days?  What I experienced is a true pride of the people for their country and their culture, and genuine friendliness and helpfulness.

A 14-year-old young man living in Aksum was my guide. He found me at the holiest church in the country, the St. Mary of Zion church, next to the chapel that houses the Ark.  Most of the boys want to earn some money. I told this young man when he approached me that I wouldn’t give him any money, but he simply expressed that he wanted to accompany me for the day, and be friends.  And that is exactly what he did. He showed me the Tomb of Akeb, and the Palace of Queen Sheba. He showed me where to eat lunch, and helped me bargain for my white shawl. And at the end of the day, he said he would try to get an email address so that we can communicate, but even when I offered to give him some cash, he refused.  This generosity of spirit has struck me with many of the people here. Perhaps it is the home-grown religion, or the lack of colonizers, but to me, Ethiopia seems different than the other countries I have visited and worked in. But still TIA – This is Africa. That is the acronym that I learned from one of the taxi drivers in Addis. There is corruption, there is poverty, there is exploitation, there is overpopulation, there is the terrible history.

Shoe shine

The museums in Addis Ababa are nothing to really write home about. Lucy, the Austalopithecus afarensis skeleton is the highlight of the National Museum. The Ethnographic museum is dusty, but housed in the University of Addis Ababa. More interesting to me was watching the students celebrate their graduation. I spoke with one woman who had just completed her engineering degree, and had so much optimism, and vibrancy, but little hope of getting a job soon. Many boys line the streets working as shoe shiners, for the walkers in the wet streets of these somewhat chilly rainy July days. Taxi drivers are plentiful, and they complain about the corruption in the government while they try to cheat me for a little extra cash. I didn’t see many tourists, but I would easily like to explore more of Ethiopia.