30 March 2017

Visit to Mangroves and Ebikoro

Leaving Youpwe behind.

Fishermen off Youpwe.
As part of advance scouting for a school field trip, we got together a group of friends to visit the mangroves south of Douala off Youpwe. While we've checked out the Youpwe fish market, watched ship-breaking, and seen the (fish and lumber) catches coming in, this was our first boating excursion to learn about the mangroves and fishing villages.

Mangroves creeping down to take root.
The trip was organized through Doual'Art, an organization based in the Bonanjo neighbourhood which hosts art exhibitions. We were ably guided by Caroline, our pilot Oscar, Yves (who works for Doual'Art), and a first mate whose duties included bailing water out of the pirogue periodically.

More mangroves!
Caroline informed us that there were in fact several villages on islands in the mangroves, generally populated by non-Cameroonians – principally Nigerians and Ghanaians. While habitat destruction wasa problem, with people cutting down portions of the mangroves for firewood, there are also initiatives aimed at replanting mangroves – and some experts on this may be joining Blair's 3rd grade class for their field trip!

After a few minutes we were far removed from the hustle and bustle of Douala, and even spotted a few monkeys (including Putty-Nosed Mangabeys) and saw a snake swimming through the water.

Approaching Ebikoro village.
Since mangroves provide sanctuary to fish, as well as protect the shoreline from erosion, there was certainly a lot of fishing happening. We visited the village of Ebikoro, another area where Nigerians have put down roots (see Batete in Equatorial Guinea). Ebikoro is solely populated by Nigerians. We had an audience with the chief, Mr. Frank, who came to Cameroon as a child in 1957.

Church and blackboard in Ebikoro.

The chief's pirogue.
Despite their long-standing residency, the villagers exist in a kind of purgatory – subject to Cameroonian law and the whims of officials, but without the right to appeal for services from the state. Children born in Cameroon are not considered citizens of the country if their parents are born outside Cameroon, and many villagers pay for renewals of residence permits in perpetuity. The chief explained that Cameroonian bureaucrats frequently come to Ebikoro to solicit fees.

Mangrove reflections!
Meanwhile the village provides all its infrastructure. This includes wooden walkways along the main path of the village (to account for high tide) and an electric generator. All food and drink, including water, is brought by motorized pirogues from Youpwe. While there seemed to be a nursery school in the church, older students travel to Douala for school, and many of the older ones board with friends or family. Given their uncertain status, many “return” to Nigeria for schooling. Indeed many members of Mr. Frank's family are based in Nigeria. Ebikoro is fully specialized – they sell fresh and smoked fish in exchange for all their material needs.

Meeting with Mr. Frank (right). The pirogue pilot Oscar is seated to his right.
Local ordinances of Ebikoro.
On our way away from the village, we stopped so the first mate could buy some fish (sole and bar) from a fisherwoman and her daughter. According to Caroline and Oscar, the women of Ebikoro do the vast majority of the fishing, while their (generally polygamous) husbands take 10% of the proceeds. This represented a novel approach to me because, while it is often women who do the bulk of the work, paid work or jobs with cash crops generally are men's remit (thanks to colonial attitudes that made men the interlocutors with Europeans interested in paying, trading or otherwise filching goods and services).

Fisherwoman bargaining over some of her catch as we departed Ebikoro.

The excursion was thoroughly enjoyable and eye-opening. It was interesting to learn about how the people in Ebikoro lived in a somewhat isolated area with no government services. It was thought-provoking in that the mangroves sustain and support a few different villages, not to mention fisherman from Douala proper, but the environment is under strain. If the Cameroonian government had a more enlightened relationship with these (somewhat) far-flung people, perhaps they could create a more sustainable living arrangement for them and their environment.

We passed sections of the port as we made our way back to Youpwe.

As we reached the dock in Youpwe, we encountered a large pirogue/pinasse headed for a more substantial village in the mangroves, in what's called Douala's 6ieme arrondisement. The boat was filled up with rice, drinks, families, electronics, and sundry other merchandise for supporting a community off the shore of Douala.

Hopefully there will be a follow-up post with more information on the mangroves, as the field trip should also feature a university researcher who works on mangrove preservation in Cameroon!

08 March 2017

Batete and Parc Nacional (or, Small Town and a White Elephant: The Sequel)

House opening onto a square in Batete, Equatorial Guinea.
[From our August 2016 visit to Equatorial Guinea.]

Sandwiched between two bizarre white elephants (the massive, apart-from-us deserted Moca Hotel; the Parque National, recently constructed by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo) was our visit to Batete, a small hilltop town in the south of Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea.

Madonna and child, Batete.
Visiting the former Spanish Guinea, we were forced to rely on our long-forgotten Spanish classes. Approaching an old colonial outpost notable for its old church (constructed mostly from wood in 1887), we expected more of the same. We asked a couple of older ladies where the old church was and were promptly informed, “There is no new church! That one's been here for centuries.”

Mural recounting an early meeting between local peoples and foreign clergy.

We passed a number of downtrodden yet beautiful colonial buildings (despite the oil boom, Equatorial Guinea has preserved a large number of charming buildings) and crossed a small square. An older lady called after us, and soon was inspecting our Tourism Permit (despite warnings that this would be checked repeatedly by surly soldiers in a country with an infamously paranoid leadership, this was the only time we had to show this particular document). She then started calling out in pidgin English, sending men in various directions in search of the church key.

The Batete church's main entrance.

In a somewhat remote portion of Bioko, we were surprised to hear multiple people speaking to each other in pidgin English. Our impromptu host, Mary, explained that many Nigerians had come to work on Bioko Island (then Fernando Po) in the 1940s and 1950s. Mary, in turn, had lived in Nigeria for 14 years, in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Aba.

Some of the stained glass is original to 1887.

[Under the first post-colonial president, Francisco Macias Nguema, Nigerians were arbitrarily arrested and several died in police custody, prompting Nigeria to evacuate all their citizens. Macias also persecuted the original inhabitants of Bioko, the Bubi people, and banned a people that relied on fishing from using boats.]

Batete church interior.
Despite several searches, the key did not turn up so we set off with Mary (who was greeted throughout town by kids exclaiming “Abuela!”) to the church. It was quite a beautiful building, if a bit worse for wear like so many older buildings. From outside the entrance you can also just see the ocean down below (not very dramatic in pictures on account of rainy season cloudiness). While we did not enter, one of the men who'd searched for the key helped prop up a window and we stood on a ledge for a view of the inside, which was quite charming and seemed to received a fairly recent paint job.

Commemorating the church's centennial.

Afterwards, Mary took us for a tour of a boarding school. One of the Paraguayans that help run the school, Antonio, was kind enough give us a tour. They have an active gardening and farming program, which the students help with.

Boarding school in Batete.

Screams don't teach.
Equatorial Guinea's flag, coat of arms, and a talking drum in the school's auditorium.

One last charming building in Batete.
We then caught a taxi back down the hill to Luba and onwards to Malabo. With a few hours to kill until takeoff, we decided to check out the new Parque Nacional in Malabo II. The massive park's construction had finished the month before, and many features (some bathrooms, a couple of buildings) were not yet completed. All the same, the setting was truly bizarre, especially considering the old church in the hillside town we visited earlier that day.
Parque Nacional, with presidential statues and choo-choo train people-movers.

Closeup of the president. If he's this well preserved he may well stay on for
the additional years ("37 + 37") the billboards around town call for.
Upon entry we walked across a large granite square (passing an amusement park-style train for taking families around) to a massive statue of Nguema Mbasogo. He looked out beneficently on the square, and we headed off to check out the manicured lawns complete with music spouted from speakers variously disguised as rocks, mushrooms and tree stumps.

The pagoda house, Parque Nacional, Malabo.
We then traipsed around the grounds for a couple of hours, admiring the manicured lawns, (transplanted?) trees, statues based on the art of EG's different ethnic groups, paddle boats, fancy bathrooms, artificial islands representing the three smaller islands between Bioko and the mainland, and of course “First Lady Planked Road.”

Golf cart stopping at the science section of the park, notable for its rainbow rings and marble orbs (they represent the solar system).
A nice backdrop of the park (until Malabo II completes its planned range of multistory buildings for bureaucrats and oil workers) is Pico Basile, the volcano that rose up to form Bioko Island. It's part of an arc of volcanoes stretching from São Tomé and Príncipe into the western Cameroonian highlands incorporating Mt. Cameroon, Mt. Manengouba and Mt. Oku.

Pico Basile, as seen from Parque Nacional.
While Parque Nacional was certainly a nice diversion and a welcome bit of green space (it's much larger than the closest competition I've seen in the region – Bois Sainte Anastasie), one does wonder about the amount of money lavished on this Central Park of Malabo. For a country with an average per capita income around $12,000, the country could easily afford to uplift its people. Instead, the vast majority of the population languishes in poverty.

First Lady Planked Road. I'll let the sign do the talking.

Once it got dark we headed over to the airport for our 20 minute flight back to Douala. Ferry service certainly seems like a good idea (a Cameroonian colleague of ours took a much longer ride from Limbe to Calabar, staying quiet as much as possible so she could pass as a Nigerian...), but Nguema Mbasogo has a similar dim view of boats and ships as his predecessor Macias did.
Bridges of Parque Nacional by night.

27 February 2017

Moca – A Small Town and a White Elephant

Since we planned to visit Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, we got in touch with the Drexel and UNGE-affiliated organization for tips on where to stay. It quickly emerged that the only game in town – well, a 30-minute walk outside town – was the Hotel Moca.

After combining on rides in a van with an exuberant Moroccan mother-daughter(?) duo, we eventually arrived at the hotel from the nearest significant town of Luba. To our surprise the Moroccans did not enter the hotel but instead walked straight ahead past a barricade into an enormous walled compound.

After settling in and finding no other guests but plenty of agreeable hotel staff, we traipsed back into town to find some food and drink.

The road back into Moca from Hotel Moca.
The first bar we found had a couple of surprises. First, it was run by a Cameroonian woman. She moved to Bioko Island five years ago, after a dispute with the Cameroonian education ministry led to the shutting down of the private school she ran. So now she was in Moca running a bar and general store, along with a couple of sewing machines for additional income. She also got satellite TV and was kind enough to share some coulacasha stew with us while we watched CRTV. The Cameroonian channel coincidentally featured the Fondom of Oku, including interviews with the Fon and his son, David, who showed us around the palace in March 2016.

The Fon of Oku and his son.

After a few beers we then walked back to Hotel Moca.

The turnoff towards Hotel Moca at night.
The next day we went on a hike with a couple of BBPP volunteers from the U.S., along with Fermin, who guided us up the hill for a view of Lago de Biao, the crater lake outside Moca. Since it was the rainy season the visibility was variable. The hike wasn't as arduous at Mt. Oku or Mt. Manengouba, and we had an informative time talking with Fermin, Dan and Dana about the local agriculture, BBPP's other projects (including drill tracking and recording turtle egg laying in December), and the state of the bush meat trade on Bioko Island. BBPP makes tallies of the amount of bush meat for sale in local markets (small antelope and large rodents being the main sellers). The government's enforcement of a bush meat ban has varied, but at times has had the effect of making the bush meat trade more lucrative.

It was a misty and overcast stay on Bioko Island!

After our damp hike we decided to decamp once more to the Cameroonian bar, where CRTV was now showing the Olympics. Cameroon's ladies volleyball team (who won the African championships on home soil a few months before to qualify for Rio) were a spirited team but could not overcome the Russians (I assume this is a sport with less doping than others).

Allez les lionnesses!

We then headed back to Hotel Moca for dinner. It turns out the Moroccan ladies live and work on the compound of a palace belonging to Teodorin, Nguema Mbasogo's son, who has a taste for expensive cars and palatial residences in Europe and California. Most of his cars and homes in France were seized by French authorities in an anti-corruption drive; his father appointed him vice president of Equatorial Guinea in the hopes of bestowing diplomatic immunity on him, but that has been unsuccessful so he is based in EG these days. One of his previous positions was as Minister for the Environment while simultaneously owning large stakes in timber companies.

Aside from referring to Moca as a "city," the sign was quite accurate.

There were several other Moroccans in Moca, working at the (usually vacant) palace and (also largely empty) Hotel Moca. There were of course Equatoguineans on the staff, too, but I remain curious about how a large number of Moroccans migrated to southern Bioko Island for work.

Approaching the dormant entrance!
We had a nice enough dinner while the national TV channel showed an aerobics program, and otherwise relaxed after the hike to Lake Moca. Each morning the rooms were made up, even if no one stayed the night.

Nice long hallways to ride your tricycle down!
One pleasant surprise of the trip, given the warnings of guidebooks and travelers, the BBPP staff, and the ordinarily difficult tourism permit process, was that we were stopped very infrequently by soldiers. Apparently after the latest coronation of Nguema Mbasogo (“37 more years!”), a new group of ministers were considerably more relaxed in the aftermath. Quite a contrast for a country that is shifting its capital to the mainland to better head off coup attempts – the most famous being the one bankrolled by Margaret Thatcher's son in 2004. I'm a little surprised Nguema Mbasogo would do this, given that all of the oil is near Bioko, but I suppose being close to one's hometown and surrounded by kinsmen has its appeal – witness Yamoussoukro, or Gbadolite, Mobutu Sese Seko's hometown (which benefited from government largesse even if it never became DRC's capital).