“I have a right! And you have a right! We have a right you knooooooow…so let’s get together and fight for our planet. And make a future for allllll!”
Sing with me now! I’ve been informed numerous times since arriving that it has only very recently been discovered that Climate Change is not just the white man’s problem any more. And it’s been really interesting to see how Cameroonians are (and are not) recognizing the causes and solutions to climate change. The first event I went to here (see previous related posts on the Fon’s 10th/50th anniversary celebration) was partially celebrated by the Cameroon Traditional Rulers Against Climate Change, there are “songs” on the radio all the time about climate change and the environment, the rainy season that was supposed to start in early May is just kicking in to gear and the British High Commission has even sponsored a “Climate Change Road Show” (which we’ll get to shortly) to visit villages raising awareness of environmental issues.
Let’s start with the general approach to climate change here–keeping in mind that this is just amongst the general populous, particularly the members of the local community I’ve gotten to know. As mentioned above climate change was until just recently viewed as the white man’s problem…the primary causes coming from the white (read: developed) world, and the impacts facing the white world. I found it interesting that the impacts of climate change were, and still to a large extent, are seen as affecting the developed world the most from Cameroonian’s perspectives. This kinda runs contrary to much of what I’ve read, heard, seen, experienced myself–the primary impacts of any global warming and climate change so far seem to have the greatest impact on areas in the developing world (think flooding, drought, drought related famine, out of control deforestation and subsequent out of control bush fire, etc etc). I guess that the people here hadn’t been so directly affected themselves though, and since as I said it was viewed as primarily the problem of the white world…so who cares.
People here started caring this past winter when, during the dry season, a particularly strong Sahara wind covered the whole region in a self-renewing layer of red dust for a few weeks. And when a white fog (which they called snow?) settled over Bamenda for two weeks. And when they planted maize in March that was supposed to sprout in early May…but didn’t until mid June. And when their water en-catchment ran out. And when the rainy season showed up essentially a month late.
At home we have all sorts of reminders daily about the impact of climate change…from what I’ve gathered from all of you in DC, this summer has been a super scorcher. There are newspaper clippings, newsreels and stories from friends living within the hurricane/flood/fire zones. However, I don’t think we appreciate how dramatically some of the environmental changes translate to major impacts on normal daily existence.
My own personal example…the water has basically been off/out for the past week. I have no idea if many/any of you have ever experienced what it is like to live with out running water but let me assure that it is incredibly inconvenient. Showering is not a possibility. I take a bucket bath–which, is sometimes nice because rather than being doused with the icey water from the tap I can heat up a pot on the stove. However, after a week of this the icey shower becomes much more appealing that a weak “bath” (read: dumping small cupfuls of water all over yourself. Let’s not even talk about the time/effort washing my hair takes via this method). Not to mention cooking, washing dishes, washing clothes, cleaning the house…DRINKING! Basically we’ve eaten out ever day for the past week because we’re saving our stored water for bathing and drinking. The water required to wash dishes (and the time and effort that goes in to the task) isn’t worth stinking up our house in the process. And let’s not even talk about washing clothes. I know I’ve mentioned before that we have a washing machine (that is actually energy efficient! woooah)…but it, of course, requires water. And we have none. And I’m running out of clean clothes. And since there’s no water…I can’t wash them by hand either. Lovely.
This water issue is pretty ironic since, after all, it is the rainy season. When I went to Santa, a village about 20 minutes from Bamenda, on Tuesday for a Climate Change “Conference” a few fellow volunteers helped enlighten me on the water issue. I should first note that the water problem is more exacerbated in Santa, where their mountain waterfalls have just begun to flow and the water catchment is frequently empty. Apparently eucalyptus trees are one of the major perpetrators in the water shortage, sucking water out of the ground. One of the strategies the local council is trying to implement to fight the water shortage is chopping down the eucaplytus and replacing them with more water friendly species. Many local residents aren’t all too keen on this idea though, because apparently eucalyptus provides a good source of fire wood…which brings me to another problem.
Burning wood/fuel generally. Nobody here cooks over an electric range, and the vast vast majority of people cook over an open fire. Using said eucalyptus wood, sawdust (made from said wood) and charcoal briquettes as fuel for the fire. This creates a lot of smoke. A LOT. Think of your backyard grill or a campfire operating continuously in everyone’s backyard and having a wood grill plopped down every 10 yards or so along any and all streets in your town. Add to this smoke the smog/-ke from motor vehicles. BIG problem #3, that is never actually addressed in any environmental awareness campaigns here. The cars on the roads here are pretty much the rejects from anywhere that monitors exhaust/emissions. We’re talking late 80’s early 90’s model camry’s etc with engines that have been revamped uncountable times, that completely lack an exhaust system. Add to that giant trucks with similar lack of exhaust and dirty fuel generally and you’ll understand why I hate walking along the edge of the main roads in town—you can’t help but end up covered in black grit from the black belches of exhaust the cars and trucks spew out. But you never will hear mention of the pollution caused by automobiles here. Maybe it’s partly because they don’t exactly have the resources or access to be able to purchase modern and/or more fuel efficient cards. But it’s something that needs to, at some point, be addressed. Particularly because to get anywhere around here you’re driving. There is the occasional large bus (ie seats 70), but they typically leave only once or twice a day on the long haul routes. Mostly people share taxis and mini-buses…and they’re all in horrible shape. I guess there is a positive in the fact that people have to car pool (car ownership being as costly as it is). When I took the trip to Santa there were 9 of us crammed in to a camry (I actually got out of the 9 person one after about five minutes b/c I was so squished between two very large humans that I started having trouble breathing. The cab I had for the rest of the ride had 8 in it, the minimum number drivers will take between towns unless you’re willing to pay triple cab fare). Anyhow, it’s a pretty black hole in the climate change discussion.
Thankfully, public and government perceptions about smaller, more localized issues fare a little better. The Climate Change “Conference” was actually a play, keyed in to the issues that are particularly plaguing the NW region. Let me first say that the play was definitely the way to go. Cameroonian’s have a serious habit of falling asleep during any and all speaking engagements that aren’t relatively interactive (see previous post on the Courts, and note that there’s a sign in our offices saying that falling asleep during meetings is prohibited). Back to the play–this is a traveling effort, the Climate Change Road Show mentioned in the title…and it’s designed to raise awareness and educate on fighting the “monster” that is Climate Change. It was a big, theatrical effort that concentrated on a green army designed to fight the monster. I was diggin it, and more importantly so were the locals–particularly the older folks who were singing along and boppin their heads. Importantly, the actors involved in the effort also presented some solutions—planting 5 trees when one is felled, and replacing unsustainable varieties with those that are more environmentally friendly; using high efficiency smoke boxes when smoking fish and meat rather than firewood; using natural fertilzers. My friend, Philly who works for the Santa Counsel (she’s a VSO) that co-sponsored the event has been helping local students develop compost systems and new forms of renewable energy. There is definitely progress.
However, as I think is fairly evident this is all on a very local level. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a GREAT first step…but there are some seriously flawed aspects of the broader approach to dealing with the environment here. First, the problem with vehicles described above. Another major issue is waste disposal. I’ve previously mentioned that there is absolutely no system of waste disposal. So basically everything ends up just being tossed wherever its former owner feels so inclined. This very often means in to crop beds…and the chickens around here are most frequently found feeding on rubbish pits rather than corn or corn meal (since people here eat the variety of corn that we in the US would save for livestock. As a side note, it’s not bad, when it’s toasted over a fire it kinda tastes like popcorn and if it’s boiled for, like, 5 hours in its husk it has a fairly buttery taste and nice toothy texture. Anyway.) Laborers are currently working on digging a trench for…something…alongside the road that runs basically from Doula to Bamenda. I had noticed them working on digging when we were first on our way up here, and the effort has finally arrived at Upstation. As I was out for a run this morning, along the freshly dug trench, I noticed that every 50 yards or so all of the earth that had been dug up was actually a trash pit. Old trash bags, yogurt containers, barely decomposed relics from some point in fairly recent history when that specific spot was used as a makeshift dump. The problems with the trash also bleed into problems with the water, as all of the water ways through the town are overflowing with garbage rather than potable water.
Since this is my first time in Cameroon and the region I wouldn’t recognize any variation in termperature or weather patterns. However, I must say I was surprised that during my first two weeks in Bamenda it barely rained at all–a fact highlighted by my local friends who kept saying there’s no way you could call this the rainy season. I think the rainy season has finally settled in…it’s rained 90% of the day for 5 of the last 7 days and the temperatures have cooled dramatically. It’s actually quite nice and fresh. But the late arrival of the rain, and the heat that accompanied the extended dry season has left some farmers hurting and has changed the duration of some fruits seasonality. I gotta say I can’t really complain about that last thing as there have been mangoes 5 for 20 cents since I’ve arrived. Yum. But Cameroonian’s have told me it’s generally shifted market dynamics and can really impact families livelihoods where most people depend on subsistence ag. I guess on the subject of food I’ll make one last interjection–meat isn’t all too common here. People eat very little of it (and dairy, because from what I’ve been told there aren’t really any dairy cows around and they don’t use goat milk for anything) as it’s expensive and fairly sparse. And to be honest, being here doesn’t exactly make me super enthusiastic about eating meat generally…the beef is all string and chewy (if you saw the bony cattle you’d understand) and chicken is expensive, tough and doesn’t taste of much of anything. Furthermore, eggs, which are a staple here are all white. As in the yolk is the most faint shade of yellow you can think of…because rather than receiving a natural diet, the chickens eat trash. So, relate this little foray into food and environment back up to the stuff I was talking about re: trash and the like.
Generally, I think it’s great that the developing world is starting to recognize that Climate Change isn’t just something that affects the white world. I’m even happier that they recognize some of the aspects of living here that contribute to environmental risks and degradation. I just hope that this thinking on the local level can extend into overarching policy and government changes. Let me also included my little legal tree-hugger schpeel that I think trade restrictions should be eased to allow for environmentally friendly advances in technology to flow more easily and to allow for more liberalized trade in goods produced with less environmental impact. I also hope that more people can be like the crowd in Santa and recognize that although we in the developed world didn’t exactly set a positive example for how to develop sustainably, it can be possible for other parts of the world to do so.
Anyhow…that’s my little geo-societal lesson for the week. Sorry it took so long to get up here! This week has been incredibly busy. There are a few ongoing things I’ve been doing at work and I’ve had some social obligation to tend to every evening. I’ve been meaning to sit down and write every evening this week, but I’ve been so exhausted by the time I get home at like 8pm that I’ve just been grabbing a bucket bath and hitting the hay early. Packed social agenda ahead as well (which I totally can’t complain about): dinner at a neighboring family friends house, Friday at the International Hotel with the usual suspects followed by some late night cabaret, Saturday showing my support for North America at a Canada party and then throwing a 4th of July BBQ at the Mansion on Sunday to help remind my British friends what they’re missing:)