Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Dispatches from Africa, Part 4: Cameroon to Benin

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.

Cotonou was founded in 1830 by King Ghezo, after a request by Don Francisco de Souza, the slave trader of Viceroy of Ouidah, for a new slaving port. It grew from a small village to become a substantial town, thanks to the, albeit dying slave trade. The palm oil and cotton trades took over and the young city was given a further boost when the French took over control in 1864 and eventually began the building of infrastructure of a modern city.  Today the city still looks to the port for its income. Cotonou is cursed with a name that even the best tourist board would have difficulty selling, In Fon, the local language, Cotonou means “mouth of the river of death.”

As Corinthian II slowly edged to its docking position we were greeted by a band of drummers and orange-clad dancers accompanied by two colorful stilt walkers. Once in Porto Novo we visited the Ethnographical Museum that had a detailed description of the traditional ways of birth, life and death of the Benin tribes. There were many ceremonial Yoruba masks as part of the exhibition. The Honme Palace of the late King Toffia had very thick walls and very low doors that connected the various mud-plastered rooms of this compound. Our guide enthusiastically explained the many ritualistic daily procedures that took place at the palace. In the courtyard we were greeted by an energetic drumming and a colorful trio of Fon dancers who performed the fascinating Guelede mask-dance.

After lunch we headed for Abomey-Calvi. We made our way through a commotion of fish-traders, and boarded an assortment of covered canoes that took us to Ganvie on Lake Nokoué that joins up with Nigeria 15 km away. We passed elaborate fish traps constructed of dried palm fronts upon which Long-tailed Cormorants and Egrets perched. Pirogues with women and children transported their catch of the day to the fish-market. The pirogue traffic increased dramatically as we approached Ganvie, a congregation of over 27000 people living in a village built on stilts.  A canoe with drumming men dressed in bright yellow and purple colors greeted us and boarded our pirogue.

Before dinner, the Guest Lecturers, Vincent Resh, George Brooks and I gave a presentation and entertained a lively discussion on “Where is Africa Going?”

 There’s more to come – watch our blog for more on the last days of this journey.

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