Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

Dispatches from Africa, Part 5: Togo to Ghana

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares a few dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana. Click here to read the other dispatches  from this journey.

Tuesday March 15, 2011: Lomé, Togo

We arrived in Lomé to another loud drumming and dancing group of beautifully dressed local performers, including two stilt walkers. The Togolese Republic is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east and Burkina Faso to the north. It extends south to the Gulf of Guinea where Lomé, the capital is located. Togo covers an area of approximately 22,000 sq mi with a population of approximately 6.7 million. Togo is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture. While the official language is French, there are many other languages spoken in Togo. The largest religious group in Togo is those with indigenous beliefs. From the 11th to the 16th century, various tribes entered the region from all directions. From the 16th century to the 18th century, the coastal region was a major trading centre for Europeans in search of slaves, earning Togo and the surrounding region the name “The Slave Coast.” In 1884, Germany declared Togoland a protectorate. After World War I, rule over Togo was transferred to France. Togo gained its independence from France in 1960. In 1967, Gnassingbé Eyadéma led a successful military coup, after which he became president. At the time of his death in 2005, Eyadéma was the longest-serving leader in modern African history, after having been president for 38 years. In 2005, his son Faure Gnassingbé was elected president.

Lomé is the capital of Togo and was once claimed to be the Paris of Africa. It is situated in the Bay of Benin. The name comes from alomé – the Ewe name for the trees that produce chewing sticks, which once grew in abundance here. There are still reminders of European colonial rule which are quite evident in the old town. However, indigenous tradition retains its significance.

We drove for about 45 minutes east to Agbodrafo where we were met by His Majesty Chief Assiakoley, an older man dressed in a white robe and a white cap. After the greeting ritual with several members of his community we learned about the special significance of the elaborate canes that two gentlemen in his entourage carried. We then walked to the Maison des Esclaves, where a few people entered the basement prison of the slave house.

We then drove to the banks of Lake Togo to crossover to Badougbe village. The countryside was surrounded by numerous plantations with plenty of mango trees, coconut palms, and Indian almond trees. We crossed Lake Togo in pirogues. Pied Kingfishers were having a successful day while fishermen repeatedly cast their large throw-nets between the traffic of pirogues transporting people, motorcycles and goods. Once in Badougbe village we visited the local school and presented the headmaster with several packets of school supplies kindly donated by some of our guests as well as by Corinthian II. The multitude of khaki-clad school kids welcomed us in their classrooms. We were entertained by drumming and colorful folkloric dance performance by the village men and women. On the way back to the lake we observed a monitor lizard tied up by a gasoline selling post.

After lunch we visited the fetish market with monkey skulls, voodoo dolls, dried toads, antelope horns, crocodile skins, grigri charms, leopard pelts, dead owls, tethered live eagles, and a few owls, hawks and vultures. We struggled with the smell of partially decomposing animal parts and with the concept of mass killing of animals as traditional rituals to address illness and spiritual needs. Unfortunately, many of these products are made out of threatened or endangered species. We drove through the city and passed the Togo/Ghana border post and Independence Square and had time to shop at the local artisans market.

During the evening, Captain Boczek held his Farewell Cocktail Party and dinner, joined by the United States Ambassador to Togo, Patricia Hawkins, along with her husband Richard Hawkins, the Deputy of Chief of Mission Ellen Thorburn and Political Officer John Kmetz and his wife Loretta Bass.

Wednesday March 16 and Thursday March 17, 2011: Ghana

The Republic of Ghana with a population of over 25 million people is bordered by Ivory Coast to the west, Burkina Faso to the north, Togo to the east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the south. The word Ghana means “Warrior King” from the ancient Ghana Empire. Ghana was inhabited in pre-colonial times by a number of ancient predominantly Akan kingdoms and trade with European states flourished after contact with the Portuguese in the 15th century, and the British established the Gold Coast Crown colony in 1874. The Gold Coast achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa in the world and is home to Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world by surface area.

Tema is the country’s most important seaport where as recently as the 1950s was only an obscure fishing village that was founded by Kpeshie fisherman who migrated to the area from present-day Nigeria. The bustling harbor city supports a population of over 500,000, as well as most of the country’s major industries. Accra is the lively capital of Ghana and was once a major center of the gold and slave trade. It has long been the industrial backbone of the nation. The city started life in the 15th century, when the Ga people who still live in the area, settled on the west side of the Korle Lagoon.

The first stop in Ghana was to visit the peculiar and multiple designs of the Casket Makers where we had the opportunity to view a collection of caskets carved into different objects, depicting the traditional African belief in the continuation of one’s profession or a new one after death. We spent a while at the Jaynii Streewise Foundation where we donated some basic school accessories to a needy group. In return they drummed and danced and sang for us. A brief stop at the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum was followed by a final spree of shopping at the craft market. Lunch was complimented by a first-class open air cultural fair dance and drumming demonstration. The next visit was to the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. As we passed the Military Hospitals, a ‘flock’ of fruit-eating bats relocated positions on the tree for shaded and cooler areas.

On Thursday we visited the Aburi Botanical Gardens located 20 miles north of Accra. The Garden was opened in 1890 on a site previously occupied by a sanatorium built in 1875 for Gold Coast Government Officials. In 1890 William Crowther, a student from the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Kew, London was appointed the garden’s first curator. We enjoyed the multiple trees representing native and exotic species including cinnamon, quinoa, cocoa, and tress planted by the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales. After the visit to the gardens we drove to the Mampong Centre for Scientific Research situated at the Akwapim Ridge. The center has over 32 years of research on herbs and concoctions whose therapy pre-date modern medicine. We visited the labs and learned about the many products to cure tropical diseases.

The travel to the airport in Accra left us all feeling nostalgic about the travel experiences that happened a mere few weeks ago.

Click here to start planning your own journey to Africa.

Dispatches from Africa, Part 4: Cameroon to Benin

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares some more dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana. Click here to read the other dispatches  from this journey.

Friday March 11 and Saturday March 12, 2011. Limbé, Cameroon

We arrived in Limbé by 7:30 am near Mount Cameroon, which was hidden by clouds. The broken peninsula is a row of equatorial forest covered small islands. Limbe is situated at the foot of Mount Cameroon in the Gulf of Guinea in the east and Bioko Island, which is part of Equatorial Guinea, in the West. Mount Cameroon and Bioko Island are part of the dominant volcano formation of the region. Limbé was founded in 1858 when the Baptist Missionary Society of London purchased land around Ambas Bay from King William of Bimbia. The city was known as Victoria until 1982.

Our morning visit took us through several villages, local markets and miles of oil palm plantations with no original rainforest left. We arrived in Buéa where the Tole Tea Plantation is located. The area is over 1000 meters above sea level and located on the lower slopes of Mount Cameroon. Between 1901 and 1909 Buéa was the German colonial capital and still maintains some of the German colonial architect including the current palace used by the president that was built by the German architect Jesco von Puttkamer. The plantation is about 4 km from Buéa and it is several hundred hectares carefully trimmed by the harvesting crews. Men and women cut the fresh tea leaves by hand or pruning tools and gathered the leaves into large baskets on their backs. The young tea leaves were then placed into big sacs that were transported by trucks to the drying tables in the metal roof buildings.

After lunch at the Fini Hotel, we visited the Limbe Wildlife Center. The Wildlife Center was established in 1993 by the Pandrillus Foundation and the Government of Cameroon. It houses gorillas, mandrills, red-capped mangabeys, chimpanzees, and various reptile and bird species that often come here as orphan young animals.

Across from the Wildlife Center we had a tour of the Limbe Botanical Gardens founded in 1892 by a group of German horticulturists as an acclimatization centre for the introduction of exotic crop species such as coffee, cocoa, rubber, oil palm, banana, teak and sugar-cane for distribution in Cameron and other German colonies. It was the most important tropical botanic gardens in the world. The Garden hosts a herbarium, laboratories, classrooms, a museum, a library and staff accommodation. The British took over the responsibility for the Garden from 1920 to 1932 under the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In 1988, a British-Cameroonian partnership led to the renovation and development of the 48 hectares of the Garden. The role of the Limbe Botanic Garden has evolved to conservation, education, science, tourism and recreation. We enjoyed the living collection of many old trees that were the prototypes of the propagation program.

Back on board and before dinner I led a discussion on the functioning and future prospects of the Limbé Wildlife Center and the complex issue of managing wildlife populations in captivity and controlling bush meat hunting while protecting conservation areas.

Saturday March 12, 2011. Limbé, Cameroon

We visited the Molyko Banana Packaging Unit and plantation and learned the complex process of how bananas are processed and packaged with international standards before they are sent to Europe. From here we drove to Bova Village to discover some local Cameroon way of life with the Bakweri people; the indigenous people of Buéa. After lunch the group split up to visit the Mount Cameroon lava flow site or to chill at the beach. The ecological succession of the site was impressive after a 12 years old lava flow. Much of the area is covered by pioneering plants that are colonizing the area and abundant mosses. Several lizards were also observed on the rocky terrain.

Sunday March 13, 2011. Sailing from Cameroon to Benin

We had a busy day at sea starting off with my lecture on Conservation and development in Central Africa: Challenges and Opportunities. In the afternoon George Brooks offered a talk on European conquests and colonial rule. Then Marius Burger showcased the Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment program. This was followed by Roger Mitchell who presented a short discussion on the volcanic eruption of Mount Cameroon in 1999. One of the highlights of the day was being serenaded by Marguerite and Robert Marsh, accompanied by Eddie on the piano.

Monday March 14, 2011. Benin, Cotonou

The Republic of Benin borders Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. The majority of the population is located in the southern coastline. The capital of Benin is Porto-Novo and the government offices are based in the country’s largest city of Cotonou. Benin covers an area of approximately 110,000 square kilometers (42,000 sq mi), with a population of approximately 9.05 million. Benin is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture. The official language of Benin is French, however, indigenous languages such as Fon and Yoruba are commonly spoken. The largest religious group in Benin are the Roman Catholics, followed closely by Muslims, Vodun, and Protestants. The land of current-day Benin became known as the Slave Coast during the early 17th century.  In 1892 France took over the area and renamed it French Dahomey. In 1960, Dahomey gained full independence from France, bringing in a democratic government for the next 12 years.


Dispatches from Africa, Part 3: São Tomé

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares some more dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana. Read the other dispatches from this journey.

Monday March 7, 2011. São Tomé

We arrived in São Tomé around 6:00 and with an early rain. Several dolphins welcomed the ship and a beautiful mist and clouds covered the island. The archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe comprises the two main islands and dozens of tiny islets scattered about 180 miles off the west coast of Gabon. The islet of Rolas straddles the Equator. After disembarking via Zodiacs, we traveled through the densely vegetated slopes of the island’s mountain. The volcanic island has a very fertile soil and altitudinal gradient that makes it very favorable to all kind of tropical plants including coffee and cocoa. The steep slopes have extensive coffee plantations shaded with very tall trees. The São Nicolao waterfall is a beautiful sight surrounded with a large variety of ferns, mosses and many other plant species thriving in the humid environment. Buffet lunch at the “Pestana Hotel” was excellent with a variety of tropical fruits.

At the Mote Café plantation, once a prolific colonial agricultural state, we visited the complex building and machinery to transport, dry and grind the coffee beans. Several local people performed colorful local dances with music from traditional instruments. In the afternoon we visited the cathedral while a musical funeral drove by.

The national museum has a wealth of colonial artifacts from the colonial times including European furniture and weapons used during that time. The fort that hosts the museum has a magnificent view of the bay and contains several old cannons. From the museum we continued our visit to the fishing village of Panfuto where dozens of large dugout canoes in all conditions filled the shore line. Many fishermen were preparing the nets for the night fishing and others played cards while waiting for the right time for departure. On the way back from the fishing village we enjoyed the “Danza Congo” at the “Plaza of Independence.” Men and women dressed with masks and colorful costumes performed an artistic and complex carnival dance.

Tuesday March 8, 2011. Príncipe

Príncipe is the smaller of the two major islands of São Tomé and Príncipe. It has an area of 136 square kilometers and a population of around 5000 people. Its highest peak is the Pico de Príncipe that rises to 948m in a dense forest area that is part of the Obo National Park. The northern and center part of the island were formerly coffee and cocoa plantations and have now reverted to forest. The town of Santo Antonio is the capital of Príncipe with an estimated population of 1500 people.

We arrived in Príncipe very early in the morning and soon after several fishing dugout canoes began to arrive after night fishing. Several of the villagers installed their canoes by the M/V Corinthian IIwith loads of fresh fish, coconuts, bananas, and many other fruits.  Disembarkation was by Zodiacs and we had the opportunity to observe all different lava formations partially eroded over years from the ocean. We arrived at the beautiful Bom Bom island resort and large beach to drive to Santo Antonio. The town has colorful houses from the colonial times and a lively market with fresh fish and vegetables. This day was the last day of carnival and also International Women’s Day  and celebrated with colorful dances, food and drinks. We also visited the once magnificent colonial housing and coffee processing building that supported the economy of that time. The buildings have been abandoned and overgrown by vegetation.

In the evening I presented the lecture on “Smithsonian’s Ten Years of Biodiversity Research and Conservation Program in Gabon”.


Greek Island Cruise Update – Possible Palace of Odysseus found on Ithaca

Monday, March 28th, 2011
Vase depicting Odysseus and a Siren

Vase depicting Odysseus and a Siren.

We are thrilled to announce that our Journey of Odysseus tour, which visits islands and cultural sites throughout Greece and Italy, will now include a new archaeological site on the island of Ithaca.  Smithsonian travelers will be among the very first travelers to visit this exciting new excavation!

The three-story structure, unearthed by Greek archaeologists last October, is believed by the excavators to be the palace of Odysseus and Penelope.

We have specially arranged for the leader of the team that made this remarkable discovery, Professor Thanasis Papadopoulos, to lecture aboard ship and lead us on an excursion of the palace. Being among the first to visit this site in Ithaca, Odysseus’s home, will be a fitting and exciting end to our own odyssey.

Like being first? Click to see details about our Journey of Odysseus cruise around Greece and Italy aboard Corinthian II, June 2011, and make your reservation today.

What do you think? Was Homer’s Odyssey a work of fiction or history? Is the palace Odysseus’ home, or did it belong to someone else?

Dinosaurs at the Smithsonian

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010
T-Rex at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC

T. rex at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Recently, 7-year-old Aidan Isenstadt of Elkridge, MD, found a dinosaur jawbone at Dinosaur Park in nearby Laurel, MD.  Since 2009, park officials have allowed the public to dig for fossils there; nine-year-old Gabrielle Bock also found a dinosaur tailbone there.

So what’s the best way to treat your own kids to some hands-0n discovery? Check our our brand-new Planet Earth and Beyond Smithsonian family adventure right here in Washington, DC. You and your kids (aged 9 to 12) can spend four days here at the Smithsonian, learning about science, nature, exploration, and discovery from Smithsonian’s scientists and experts.