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.]