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…