Friday, April 2, 2010

Colonialism Still Exists

The following is an article that I have been thinking about since November but only put to paper at the nudging of a friend and co-worker. It has just been published in the online JoiningHands newsletter. It's about my perspective of the forces behind and impact of globalization on a small corner of this planet. Happy reading and PEACE!

On university campuses and in café’s the world over one can easily stumble upon powerfully prose-filled readings and passionate discussions about the exploitation and manipulation of “third world” peoples scattered across the equatorial regions of our planet. Many can rattle on for hours spitting out words, phrases and acronyms such as MNC’s, the IMF, Neo-Colonialism, Core and Dependency Theory and other combinations of letters and sounds that have no meaning to the common layman. As a student of Post-World War II Globalization I know about these conversations because I lived them. For four years I dedicated my university studies to what I believe is the most complex and mystifying human process on this planet; globalization. But years of preparation meant nothing as I stood face to face with the plantations of PHP and the people of Njombé.

“Colonialism still exists.” These are the words that rung in my head as I took my first motorcycle ride on the finely trimmed dirt road through the PHP plantation and out to Pierre Youpa’s field. Pierre, like so many other of Njombé’s small scale farmers, has been forced to stand by and watch as their life’s work was literally ripped up from the ground.

Njombé, a town of 22,000 with a greater metro population of 40 000 (when counting the total Njombé/Penja area) is situated 60 km from Cameroon’s major city Douala. As one of the richest agricultural regions in all of West Africa, Njombe is low-land area with a hot and humid climate blessed (and as we will read, cursed) with the presence of rich soil that has been enhanced by the volcanic ash from nearby volcanoes. It’s prowess as an agricultural paradise has attracted international attention in the form of a monstrosity of a fruit plantation that stretches from main street Njombé to deep into the rural countryside.

This plantation, controlled by PHP (Plantations de Haute Penja), a subsidiary of French Compagnie Fruitière and American Dole, settled into the area in the 1970’s and has continuously expanded from that point on. As it expands it displaces the small-scale farmers who are no competition for this juggernaut of a plantation. The displaced farmers are then faced with a loss of livelihood, given inadequate (if any) compensations and forced to either turn in their hoe and machete or relocate to another piece of land.

Hearing about this situation in 2003, RELUFA began working with the farmers to forge a new path ahead. Through the utilization of a multi-pronged holistic approach, RELUFA’s Fair Fruit project does not work to reverse the overarching situation but rather to empower those most affected to circumnavigate the dire situation and turn their lives in a positive direction.

In November when I first travelled to Njombé I was a newcomer to Cameroon. I was coming fresh from an organic farm in South-Western Minnesota and knew nothing about Cameroonian culture and could hardly say two sentences in French. A friend who knew that I was interested in agriculture and development forwarded me the contact of Christi Boyd, who is involved with RELUFA’s Fair Fruit project. This was the birth of something special. From there the contact was made and plans to visit the fields were settled. As I had no official business my first trip was mostly as an observer.

What I saw however, was the perfect storm of globalization. An international demand for tropical fruit consumption has served as the impulse for a multi-national corporation, with tentacles stretching the span of the tropics, to establish its roots in this fertile region. In turn, the plantation has displaced the small-scale farmers who tilled the soil for generations, and has disturbed the socio-economic political balance of an entire population. The total stranglehold that PHP places on Njombé is a clear demonstration that the perceived progress that our global community has made towards justice falls well short of even a semblance of universal well-being.

Coming most recently from rural South-Western Minnesota, aka the Land of the Corn and Soybeans, I am well accustomed to giant mono-crop plantations but the PHP plantation makes the most massive of Middle America’s corn and soybean farms look like Grandma’s back garden. No joke. This plantation stretches in totality across 45 km2. Now, take a second to picture what 45 square kilometers looks like. That is 3/4's the size of Manhattan. (Whoa!)
The orderly rows of banana and pineapple fields that stretch well beyond the horizon reach around the town of Njombé on all sides and deep into surrounding countryside enveloping the region into a suffocating embrace. Along with the sheer physical space that PHP occupies - which I am truly at a loss to describe - it’s overarching presence is felt in other domains. PHP directly employs about 6,000 people in a variety of positions but you would be truly hard pressed to find a single person not indirectly employed and affected by the plantation.

Since my initial trip 4 months ago, RELUFA has recruited me as an Agricultural Volunteer to work on an irrigation project and sent me on two more trips. On each subsequent visit my previous experiences along with an increased French capacity has enabled my insight to penetrate deeper into the culture of Njombé to see how it has been and continues to be affected by the PHP plantation. On my initial trip I was able to decipher the basics of the situation but on my second and third trips I was able to converse with people about their lives and listen to their perspectives. After talking with townspeople in all walks of life I began to understand the general perspective of the people: “The plantation is crushing us.”

During the most recent trip I had the blessing and the painful experience to listen to Salomon, a Njombé farmer, recount his story. You can read Christi's recount of the story in her letter so I will not go into the details but on a personal level it was deeply moving. Hearing these and other accounts from those actually affected gives globalization a face that no textbook or documentary ever can.

The tactics which are being used in Njombé today are the same tactics that have been played out over centuries all over the colonial world. A classic colonial tactic implemented the world over saw colonial powers remove the livelihood of a given population and replace it with one that is beneficial to the ruling authority. In an agricultural community farming is the source of livelihood and the foundation of the economy. Those who do not directly farm themselves are responsible for making and selling the agricultural materials, buying and selling the final product, trading and transporting the produce to other localities, etc, etc.

By removing small farmers PHP is successfully ripping out the heart of the town. As it systematically destroys the livelihoods of the people of Njombé it superimposes a new economy and forces the population to work directly or indirectly for the plantation in order to earn a living to feed themselves and their families.

More than simply currency, by removing small farmers from their land one of the richest agricultural regions in all of West Africa becomes dependent on foreign imports. (Those of you who have followed the post-quake situation in Haiti understand the fickle balance that occurs when a region becomes dependent on foreign food imports.) Although the tactic is the same, the old label of colonialism has been removed and repackaged into the more consumer friendly wrapper of international business.

How many of us actually know what globalization really means? Are we aware of the global implications of the seemingly insignificant consumer choices that we make on a daily basis? I personally believe that not even the anarchist apparatus that directs our global economy is aware of the impact it has on the individual and community level. Those who are truly aware are those far away from the discussions, the lectures and the scholarly articles.

In fact, the ones who know it best are those who have never spent a minute in a university lecture hall and do not even have the money to purchase the journals containing the letters, words and terms that casually paint the pictures of the very lives that they are leading. Like all of us, they have little understanding of the overarching global trends that have pushed them off of their land. What they do know, more instinctively and concretely than any published academic the world over, is that their lives are being systematically crushed by a giant fruit plantation that is much more powerful than they could ever imagine. These are the very people that RELUFA’s Fair Trade project is working with to alleviate some of the ills caused by globalization and channel them into positive and prosperous business opportunities.

While we at RELUFA work in this hemisphere, it is my hope that these experiences and observations may instill a seed of knowledge that will germinate in due time to enable the average consumer, wherever he or she resides, to decipher the hidden history behind their supermarket produce and see well beyond the pennies and Euros to make a holistic decision about the global implications of a simple purchase of bananas.

Read the article straight from the source, see some snazzy photos and read other articles from RELUFA in Cameroon check out

Peace out!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Teaching English

I have always been fascinated with the communicative power of languages and in my lifetime I have dedicated weeks and months to learning and deepening my knowledge of languages in order to increase my capacity to communicate with diverse peoples and cultures of the world. Since my arrival in Cameroon this interest has taken on a new dimension as I have struggled with whether or not I should embark on a career as an English teacher. Mostly, it's been an ethical battle that I won't go into here. But, a few weeks ago I decided to pursue it and I think it is one of the best decisions I have made in my time here in Cameroon and perhaps onwards. Teaching a language makes you look at the language which we often speak so automatically in an entirely different light. Not only do you become nit-picky about grammar and sentence structure but a new understanding forms that without a critical eye, is purely automatic. Think for a second how much adding a preposition (don't worry, I didn't know what a preposition was until about a week ago) can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

For example: "I speak of him", "I speak to him", "I speak for him" or grammatically correct yet quite unlikely "I speak in him" and "I speak on him".

One simple, oft-neglected word changes everything. Think how often we use simple prepositions like "to, for, on, in, through, of" and others and how much weight they really carry. Different verbs come with different prepositions and there is so much hidden meaning to them. When was the last time you sat and thought about prepositions? I promise you that at this very moment, in every corner of the world there are a million ESL learners struggling with this very concept. When learning English (or Spanish or French and probably the other Romantic languages as well) these words are of the utmost purpose and using them correctly can mean the difference between saying exactly what you want and making a fool of yourself.

Nonetheless, I am really enjoying my work and have found a great deal of passion for the work. Below is copied some excerpts of an introduction letter that I wrote to one of the language centers in Yaounde. I post it here because I think that it explains my interest in teaching English as well as the philosophy I use in my classes. Those of you familiar with Book 5 of the Ruhi Institute courses will recognize some familiar language.

"To whom it may concern,


I was raised and have lived the majority of my life in the United States with brief stints in Central America and now Cameroon. From the very beginning I received a very language heavy education with strong emphasis on grammar, literary techniques, pronunciation and rhetoric. Combine this education with my first hand experience as a second and third language learner (Spanish and subsequently French) I believe that my life experiences have trained me well for a career in language education.

In the United States I worked with English Second Language (ESL) students, mostly from East Asia and the Middle East, and since my arrival in Cameroon three months ago I have begun instructing an English course to native French speakers at the American Language Center in Bastos.

I strongly believe that the inability to effectively communicate across language groups is the tallest barrier to cross-cultural understanding, cooperation and global progress that we as a planet face. In Cameroon, a bilingual nation, bilingualism is of the utmost importance. In order to maintain unity and progress at our maximum capacity and velocity a dynamic consultation between all citizens, both Anglophone and Francophone, is imperative. However, language barriers that constrain consultation continue to persist and impede upon the unity and progress of this great nation. Therefore, as an English language instructor, I make it my personal responsibility and pleasure to increase global communication and thereby promote international communication and well-being. For me, language education and learning is much more than a career, it is a service.

... my lessons employ a variety of techniques in order to bring students towards oral and written fluency. We achieve this goal by improving upon student's "power of expression"; one's ability to accurately and articulately express their inner thoughts, opinions and beliefs as well as outer needs. By doing this, students are empowered to obtain everything that they need and desire, whether it be material, emotional or spiritual. In so doing, students achieve the capacity to hold a dialogue and consultation within and across cultures and thus themselves become bearers of unity."

Warning: Shameless plug approaching. If you are interested or know someone interested in group or private English courses, you can email me at or call me at 99 98 57 96.

Language is an extremely interesting topic that I've been thinking a lot about lately but for now, I'm out. More on this subject later.


People of the Corn, Meet West Africa

As many of you know, since my return from Guatemala in the late Summer of 2008 I have been making tortillas pretty much non-stop. Not your typical supermarket or Mexican food tortillas. These bad boys have a smaller circumference and a bigger belly. The Bulldog of the tortilla world. Anyways, that practice pretty much came to a stand still upon my arrival in Cameroon. In my first week I took advantage of the local vegetable market and got my hands on some freshly ground corn flour. Thinking this would be quite suitable for tortillas I went ahead as anyone trained in the art of tortillas guatemaltecas would and began the ancient and oft-repeated process of tortear. Well, the preparations turned out just fine but the final product turned out to be far too grainy. I gave up. For the next 2 and a half months I wrote it off that the corn here was too grainy and just plain not the right type for tortilla making. Afterall, Guatemalans had been making tortillas since practically the beginning of time (no joke, Mayan creation myth literally says that man was molded out of corn) and thus their corn had been bred since God knows when to be perfect for tortear.

Now, since that very first attempt I’ve been scouring supermarkets and any other place that might have a corn flour for my blessed Maseca. Although easily located in even the smallest of small-town America grocery stores the blessed corn concoction is nowhere to be found in Yaoundé. As delicious and plentiful as the local vegetable production is, even during the dry season, without tortillas my diet has been simply suffering. But, there is always light!

Last week I was speaking with ASOY’s science teacher Thom, about my predicament and he inspired to try out the local corn once again. With his nudging, I took out the leftover corn flour from my first attempt at tortear and grinded the living hell out of it. Then I sifted it using a flour sifter and took out all the larger granuals. Then, I repeated the ancient process that is taking place right now in millions of Mayan homes and made the tortillas.

This time, there was no overly grainy taste and the final product was actually okay! While the taste of Cameroonian corn is still not ideal for tortear, the corn, once ground into dust is actually quite tasty!

So, a goofy nomadic American kid kicks it in Guatemala for a bit, eats a ton of and subsequently learns to make an ancient cuisine, brings it with him to West Africa. Adopts the practice to the current surroundings and bang! We have globalization. Please believe that after my visit stateside this summer I will be returning with a handful of traditional Guatemalan tortilla corn seeds and bring the process of globalization full circle. Who knows, maybe in a generation or two Cameroonians are as well known for their tortillas as Guatemalans, saber…

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Dance of Oneness

These past few days I was blessed with the opportunity to accompany a woman named Chirsty who represents the Presbyterian Church and a development organization called RELUFA on a visit to a Cameroonian village that has been plagued by a monster of a plantation covering a total of 50 km that continues to expand. Since the 1970’s the banana and pineapple plantation now in the hands of PHP, a daughter company of Dole Fruit co., has been steadily engulfing the village countryside and as it does it gobbles up outlying small plots held and worked by the villages’ small commercial and subsistence farmers. When PHP does decide that it would like to expand even further the farmers whose land has been targeted do not have any option but to submit their land and although they are compensated they do not receive a fair price. * RELUFA works with local food driers and farmers that have relocated after an evacuation to package and sell dried fruit as Fair Trade produce to local and international consumers.

My first morning in town a local farmer named Pierre was kind enough to take me to his field and teach me farming, Cameroonian style. In general Cameroonians are exceptionally difficult to correctly gauge ages but Pierre was by far the most challenging. I decided that he had to be between the ages of 20 to 40 but was later informed that he was 53! Despite the hardships he has endured Pierre is one of the kindest, jovial and generous individuals I have ever met. After facing evacuation twice he decided that he never wanted to go through that process again so he bought new land and relocated far far away from town and close to the tiny village of Bobo. The trip out to his field included a ride through town, a twenty minute and several mile drive through one arm of the plantation and then an extra 5 or so minutes through the “bush”. This new plot was deep and without a motorcycle would be nearly impossible to reach. During the trip through the plantation I was continually shocked by the enormity of this seeming never ending plantation. Just as I thought the plantation was surely coming to a close we turned the corner and came across another leg. At times we came to points of higher elevation and one could look out towards the horizon in all directions and see nothing but the expanse of this plantation. For those who are familiar with conventional American agriculture this plantation put the biggest of American conventional cash crop fields look like a hobby garden. Seriously though, think about it, 50 kilometers!!!!

Upon arrival at Pierre’s distant plot I soon realized that this farm was like none I had ever seen before. The farms that I am accustomed to are generally laid out in a relatively orderly fashion with as much direct sun exposure as possible. Pierre’s plot, however, was quite the opposite of this. The entire plot was covered with a light shade of papaya trees and underneath, between and around the trees was a seemingly chaotic mixture of hot pepper, yam, eggplant, peanuts, various cooking greens, corn and beans. But, upon further familiarity the chaos turned into a brilliant vision as the different crops worked off one another for their mutual benefit. The papaya trees gave off a light shade and in the context of equatorial sun allowed more than enough sunshine pass to the levels below. The corn stalks climbed to great heights often towering over the short papaya trees, beans climbed the corn stalks, while the various leguminous crops offered a valuable boost to the already fertile soil. Pierre showed me some of his tricks, and we planted some Papaya trees using machetes as shovels and we ate peanuts straight from the ground. Pierre was sure to emphasize that peanuts right from the ground “C’est ne pas mieux.” (They are never better.) On our way back out he loaded me up with a lifetimes supply of papaya and corn to take back and share with friends in Yaounde.

That afternoon I went back to my hosts’ home, a local dryer, where Christy interviewed another local farmer to collect his story of evacuation. Instead of watching the interview I decided to hang out with the kids of the family. In true African form the kids right away put on some “musique traditional”, began dancing and exhorted me to join them. Now, I have never danced African style so of course I look like a complete fool and the lot of them begin cracking up and calling over their neighbors to watch the white kid try and fail to dance African. Before this event I was told by my host that white people never walk around these parts and in fact the only white people in the whole town are the bosses of the plantation who never ever associate with the village let alone walk through the “quarter”. In my previous strolls through town I was accompanied by gawks, smiles, hello’s and of course the whispers of “Le blanc”. So, needless to say a white dude freely cruising the streets, living and having fun with Africans was quite the strange sight. So, soon enough a crowd of about 15 neighborhood kids, boys and girls, from those who can barely walk to the age of 25 gather around the house on both sides, pack open doors and windows to watch this white kid dance with their African friends. At first it was a giggle fest as I struggled to pick up the subtle movements and powerful hip gyrations but with a little bit of practice I got the hang of it, the laughter subsided and was replaced with looks of pleased awe and verbal compliments. Then the best thing ever happened. As if it had been verbally communicated the entire room began to shuffle and within seconds the strangeness of the situation was forgotten and a dance emerged that transcended and merged color lines, culture and all other barriers that falsely separated us, a dance that stood as a celebration of our underlying and intrinsic oneness. God willing, the impression that this one sliver of a moment has made on me has also been implanted on the youth of Njombe and our shared dance has planted a seed whose fruits will bear the bounties of eased racial tensions and contribute towards the advancement of true peace.

From riding on the back of motorcycles through the dirt roads of the quarter to zooming past acre upon endless acre of the PHP plantation, planting papaya trees with machetes, whispers of “Le blanc” and one magical dance, this trip holds a tremendous place in my heart that God willing will only be the beginning of the work towards justice and oneness that I am given the bounty to participate in during my stay here in Cameroon.

[* This past summer I interned at an organic farm in Minnesota and although it was for only 5 months and was not even my land that farm became a part of my being. I lived and slept on that land, breathed its air, worked its soil and ate the boutnies of nourishment that it provided. I observed the crops, wild vegetation, trees, insects, watched the sky above and noticed the interaction of these factors with my own actions, the transformation of the seasons and the ever-changing weather. From my dirt stained fingers to the very blood in my body, I was Easy Bean Farm and Easy Bean farm was me. 6 weeks ago when I left Easy Bean Farm it took a toll on my spirit and for that reason I can get a glimpse of the emotional, spiritual and mental damage that these relocated farmers, many who have worked the same soil for generations, must feel.]

Jammin' at the Holy Day

I arrived in Cameroon on the eve of Friday the 6th of November and less than one week later I was able to attend the celebration of the Birth of Baha’u’llah hosted by the Baha’is of Yaounde 1. Now, being raised in a Baha’i family and for the past three years been a Baha’i myself I have celebrated a multitude of Holy Day celebrations in various settings, with a diversity of people and in a wide range of places. However, in all these dozens of experiences I have never once had a Holy Day celebration like I did that evening in Yaounde. Outside of the obvious factors of color and language this celebration contained a spirit the likes of which I have never seen anywhere. It began with a man named Antoine wearing traditional African formal wear opening and welcoming us to the celebration and was followed by a passionate speech by one of the members of the National Spiritual Assembly, also wearing a traditional African tunic. I soon learned that in West Africa there is never just one speaker and directly after the planned speech was over another man, wearing a brightly multi-colored suit stood up, completely unplanned, and gave a passionate impromptu speech. Although my French was not at a level to comprehend it totally he seemed to cover points that he felt needed to be addressed. After this man sat down Antoine came back, closed the ceremony but as if it was planned, round after round of individuals got up to lead the assembly in song and praise. The energy that these songs exuded far exceeded the passion and energy that I have ever witnessed at any musical fireside or devotion. Ever. A true testament to the powerful and re-energizing spirit of the West African culture.

As the powerful beats of these devotions vibrated the walls of this tiny concrete enclosure one young man picked up one of the hand-made Djembe drums from the corner and began pounding away to the rhythm. I thought this was a grand idea and so naturally, went to pick up another of these drums. I did not even ponder the fact that in the eyes of many attendees the mere color of my skin marked me as the least likely candidate to bang to the rhythm. I turned around, Djembe in hand, to a shocked crowd and hoots and hollers from the man dressed in the bright suit. I gave them all a reassuring knod, grabbed my seat and began jamming away. The other drummer and I jammed the night away and after it was all finished, shared high fives of mutual gratification.

As Baha’is we are called to promote the oneness of humanity at all times and in the states this was something that was intellectually very easy to do. But here in Cameroon where I am immersed in a completely different culture and stand out worse than a horrendously sore and gangrened thumb, even doing the simplest tasks of going to the market, walking the streets or even playing the drums, is a demonstration that beyond the differences of physical appearance we are each and all capable of the same actions and we must all partake of the same daily tasks and participate in discovering what it means to be human.