Justin's Cameroon Travels – Week 1

Day 0 (July 10)– Travel to Cameroon was uneventful. I flew from Washington Dulles to Charles de Gaulle airport in France and then from there it was on to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon.

Day 1 (July 11) - Arrival in Cameroon. Nathan and I were met at the airport by Sergeant Chef Ndongo who was holding a sign reading 'Justin Lessler', a first for me. I strongly recommend being met by a former army member with good relationships with the airport staff if you are ever traveling to Cameroon, it makes the entry process trivially easy. We jumped to the head of the immigration, and after reuniting with my checked luggage we were took the VIP customs line out.

The first thing you notice upon leaving the airport, is the smell of burning and the small brush fires in the distance. The project house where I am staying while in Yaounde is over the local offices for the Walter Reed Johns Hopkins Cameroon Program (WRJHCP). It lacks a bit in the decoration department and often doubles as a meeting area, but I have my own room and it is plenty comfortable.

Day 2 (July 12) – Not such an interesting day. Toured the offices, changed money, etc. They have very large bats here in Yaounde. They look identical to those in the US, but about the size of a chicken. At dusk thousands of them come flying out over the city.

Day 4 (July 14) – Today a group of us set out for the HEVECAM rubber plantation in one of WRJHCP's nice new Land Cruisers. There were 6 of us plus equipment stuffed into the car, but it was surprisingly comfortable. After the five hour trip we arrived in HEVECAM and toured the new lab they have set up there to support an upcoming cohort study. It is very impressive, miles from anywhere they have a modern facility for analyzing blood samples for disease, complete with centrifuges, PCR machines, hoods, and all the other essentials. The impressive part is that it is squeezed into a room that is only about 10'x10' and has level upon level of power backup to deal with frequent outages.

The plantation itself is huge, 44,000 hectares (109,000 acres), 18,000 of which are currently cultivated, and 15,000 of which are slated to become cultivated in the next few years. There are approximately 20,000 employees who live in villages scattered throughout the plantation. We met with Jean Marc, the CEO of the plantation, who was very excited because the plantation's hospital has just been approved as the first private hospital in Cameroon to be licensed for HIV treatment. Evidently rubber prices are high now as well, which I am sure contributed to his good mood.

After finishing up at the plantation a subset of us headed out to Kribi, a coastal city where we spent the night on the way to the village of Nyabissan. We stayed at a small hotel on the edge of the ocean for the night and then headed out to a delicious fish restaurant called Pieds en Mer. As the name suggests it was right on the edge of the ocean. Here I learned two things: barracuda is very tasty, and that by Cameroonian standards I leave a lot of food on the plate when I eat fish. The picture shows how much fish was left when I thought we were done, little did I know that there was another ten minutes of eating left on those fish.

Day 5 (July 15) – Today we set out to Nyabissan. On the way we frequently stopped to ask if the road was open all the way there. Consistently the answer was yes. But after six hours of driving, when we were within five kilometers of the village, we came to a bridge that had fallen apart. While it would have been easily passable with a motorcycle, or maybe even a small car, there was no way that the Land Cruiser would make it across. Fortunately we were close enough to the village to walk the rest of the way.

The village of Nyabissan is in transition. It is used to be literally the end of the road, cut off from everywhere with no reason to go there unless you lived there. For the past few years there has been extensive logging in the area, creating daily traffic through the village, which which is still accessible from the direction opposite the one we came from. The logging company built the bridge we were unable to cross, and it lasted only slightly longer than they needed. Because of the logging traffic Nyabissan has several small restaurants and stores now, and supplies some labor to the logging operation. It seems that the logging company will be out of the area again soon, at which point Nyabissan will one again be the end of the road.

The Walter Reed Johns Hopkins Cameroon Program maintains a house in Nyabissan for project personnel to use when they are working in the village. Unfortunately, when we arrived the person responsible for maintaining the house had traveled into town to pick up fuel, and we did not know if he would return that evening. So at first it looked the three of us might have to find another room in the village, which would mean finding someone willing to take us into their home. Eventually we discovered that someone in town had they key, but had not known who we were. Fortunately a villager who knew Joseph finally showed up and arranged for us to enter the house.

During the evening we met with local hunters to discuss their hunting practices and willingness to participate in research. As the sun went down several people returned from their hunts carrying a wide variety of bush meat. Monkeys, porcupines, and dukiers were all on the menu. One group was dragging in some animal that I could not recognize, and we followed the drag mark until we found the house in which they were it was taken. It turns out I could not recognize it for good reason, it was actually four monkeys bundled up together. It was as interesting to see the inside of a village home as it was to see the hunters' kill. It was a wooden single room home with a dirt floor and a tin roof. There were several beds and benches arrayed throughout the room, and a hot coal fire in one corner. The monkeys has been placed in the center of the room and the entire family was sitting around admiring the catch. A dog and a cat shared the space with the ten or so family members spanning multiple generations. The area around the house was also home to a whole slew of ducks and chickens.

Day 6 (July 16) – We woke up at 4:30 in the morning in order to accompany a hunter that had agreed to let us follow him. The hunters here have two modes, one is to set and check traps, and the other is to go through the forest with a gun, and shoot anything they encounter that is edible. The hunter we followed was taking the later tract, and was probably dooming himself to a fruitless hunt by having three people accompany him. After following the hunter through the forest for a while we eventually heard some chimpanzees, which is a rare event. This presented a dilemma, as chimpanzees are an endangered species and illegal to hunt, but we had told the hunter to do what he normally would do and were not compensating him in any way for taking us along. Normally he would hunt the chimpanzees, and needless to say we did not want him to. Nathan decided that we would tell him that he could follow the animals, but if he encountered them he was not to shoot them and we would compensate him for the lost kill, which is what ended up happening.

After returning from the hunt we had to walk back to the washed out bridge in order to catch our ride back to Yaounde. The ride back was uneventful, but was almost seven hours long. Later on we went to alocal dance club, Le Caveau. We arrived at midnight, which at Le Caveau is early. By 1:30 am it was packed with both Cameroonians and foreigners, and remained so until we left at 2:30 am. I finally made it to bed around 3 am, after an almost 24 hour day.

Other Pictures

Weeks 2-5