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Grace and Rachel with members of Kayo’s women’s group

Sprouting Seeds : Six women’s groups (Kayo, Batoukap, Lemgo, Fonegom, Mvelé, and Toba) learned about organic agriculture and finance. These six are the first to participate in GIC Sondason’s credit program, aiming to provide women organic farmers with seeds and organic ingredients to grow their own crops. Through the credit program, women will have access to the start up capital they need to generate sustainable and independent incomes. The work with women was by far the most rewarding. The women are the heart of these families and these communities; they are the main food providers and the ones educating the children. By teaching these women organic agricultural practices, the credit program aims to secure them a source of income, encourage sustainable agricultural practices, and help to ensure healthier families and communities.

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Cabbage plant making an appearance

Cabbage Patch Kids : While our time with the School Garden Project was short-lived relative to the life of the garden, some of the germinated seeds decided to make an appearance by the time we were scheduled to leave Fondjomékwet, and just in time, too! We got cabbage! Although it wasn’t always easy, the time spent in the school garden was incredibly rewarding. While there is still a lot of work to be done, a handful of students were really starting to understand how they can focus on personal health, the community and the environment through organic agriculture. It will be exciting to see how the garden progresses!

And, CUT! : The vision for the video was to be informative, seeking to provide a snapshot of the different projects ‘Roots worked on and to have all this information intertwined with samples of the vibrant music, the strong voices of the women with whom we’d been working, and some cultural flourishes from Cameroon. At the end of our stay, we donated the video equipment (camcorder, lavalier microphones, extra batteries and memory cards) to the Dickinson-in-Cameroon program so that future students would be able to use these tools for their own projects.

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Rachel Gilbert speaks to the Dickinson-in-Cameroon students about the coffee harvesting process in Fondjomékwet

Dickinson-in-Cameroon-in-Fondjo : The newest batch of Dickinson-in-Cameroon students arrived by the dozen. The ‘Roots team assisted with the  12 students’ orientation upon arrival in Cameroon, and ‘Roots was again excited by their presence in Fondjomékwet and Bafoussam during their academic excursion to the West Region! We gave them a tour of the warehouse in Fondjomékwet where we discussed coffee production and processing, organic agriculture, the roles of Utamtsi and GIC Sondason, and our projects. We even had time to stop briefly at the high school to show them the garden. This new group has made the Roots team proud, and we look forward to seeing what this group will do with their own unique experiences in Cameroon.

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‘Roots members pose with some members of the GIC Sondason cooperative in Bafousam after a farewell dinner

More Rooted : An enormous amount of our time in Cameroon was spent connecting with people and Cameroonian culture. And just as the cabbage seeds started to take root in the Fondjomékwet school garden, ‘Roots became more and more rooted into these communities of organic women farmers, of eager-minded students, of the people who shared their stories and extended their hospitality and kindness to us during our 6-month stay. As we discovered more and more the value of our dynamic and friendship, we also felt so fortunate to be closing this chapter with new members of our Cameroonian family, with fresh memories to cherish, and with our reestablished roots in Cameroon to someday return to.

By now, ‘Roots has arrived safely back in the States, and we are all individually working on our next “life” steps. There is nothing set in stone yet, but stay tuned because, who knows, there might be a “ ‘Roots 2.0 “ in our futures…

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Once Again, Thank You! : ‘Roots would like to thank the 200+ individuals who gave monetary donations to fund our time in Cameroon;  to Dickinson College, CGSE (Center for Global Study and Engagement) and the SIRF (Student Independent Research Fund) for providing us with a grant; to Mr. Teku, Program Director of the Dickinson-in-Cameroon program, for his friendship and vigilance; and to our social-media-followers, blog-readers, friends and family who supported this vision and endeavor along the way. It could not have been done without you. With the greatest sincerity and appreciation, merci beaucoup (thank you so much)!

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A cup of coffee, a bag of papaya slices, grilled corn, three lollipops….what do all these snacks have in common? Well, I’ll tell you: You can buy them each for one pièce, which is the Cameroonian-slang for 100 CFA (roughly 20 cents). These pièces are our best friends in Cameroon, being the on-the-go snackers that we are. While the pace of every day life here is different from fast, efficiency-focused pace at home in the U.S., this is definitely an intriguing cultural aspect—quick and cheap food available on the side of the road for passers-by, children on their way to school, and commuters who want to grab a snack as they move to and from destinations. For example, a taxi drivers may pull over next to someone selling meat on a stick (soya), motion to the vendor that he wants a soya, hand him a pièce through the car window, and then continue driving. I suppose you could call it the “fast food” of Cameroon. From slices of juicy pineapple to banana-leaf-wrapped nkoki, these delicious snacks are just a pièce away. Below are a few photos of some of our usual snack stops in Bafoussam:

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For the five months that we helped teach English at the Government High School of Fondjomékwet, there was no shortage of challenges to keep us on our toes or of chances to engage with a pocket of the Fondjo community.

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Seeking to provide assistance to the school’s sole English teacher, our principle role was acting as the visiting native English speakers who could engage in informal conversation with the students who wished to practice their speaking skills. We worked with two different classes, Forms 4th and 2nd (they follow the French system of education).

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The challenges came in a variety of forms, from maintaining “order” in the classroom to figuring out how to have a reading comprehension lesson when only one student has the text book. While Cameroon is a bilingual country, we soon realized that the English that we speak in the United States is far from the Cameroon English that is spoken in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon. “Pidgin,” or “Kam-tok,” is spoken by a majority of the population and is often confused by its speakers as British English, given its origin. It took us a while to point out the distinction in class, however, it was a good opportunity to explain the different variants of the English language. Our accents were an immediate barrier, as was our pace of speaking. It became immediately evident that we had to alter our manner of speaking in order to have an effective lesson.

All in all, it was wonderful to be able to connect with the students during our weekly visits. It was a positive exchange, and we even learned some of their village language, Nufi. We’re going to miss this picturesque and welcoming village. Until next time, Fondjomékwet! On est ensemble.

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Recently, I accompanied a group of Dickinson students to a meeting with the North West delegate for the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, located in the region’s capitol, Bamenda. After working on the grassroots level with women who were paying out of their own pockets to help victims of sexual and domestic violence, I was keen to have this opportunity to ask a government official some questions about women’s issues, or at least gather a sense of the Ministry’s attitudes towards, and approach to, gender equity. I was curious, mostly, to learn about how she interpreted the status of women, women’s empowerment, and if the Ministry’s services were effective solutions for social change.

Throughout the casual conversation, the delegate appeared most enthusiastic when discussing the capacity building initiatives conducted by the Ministry through workshops, seminars and community meetings. The goal of these services is to teach women vocational skills that would encourage them to earn an independent income, as well as to educate women, and the occasion male attendee, about domestic violence. “There must be a change in mentality,” she emphasized, “in order to sensitize [communities] about this issue.” Education and awareness are at the base of this kind of social change.

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The discussion took an interesting turn when I asked the delegate about her interpretation of “an empowered woman.” Understanding that this definition would offer some cultural insight into the image of women in Cameroonian society, it was my way of acknowledging that there is no universal image of “an empowered woman”—it is very culture-specific. In response, the delegate, who I seemed to have caught off-guard with this question, said that an empowered woman is a woman “with skills;” the right to work; and the right to choose how many children she wants to have. This launched us into a whole new discussion about the expected roles of women and men in Cameroonian society. The roles of women, according to the delegate, include: responsibilities to the family, such as fetching water, keeping house, cooking, bearing and raising children, etc. The roles of men are to be the decision-makers and providers of the family’s income. Therefore, “an empowered woman” was a woman who had acquired new and productive skills, but who still conforms to the traditional expectations of women in Cameroonian society.

In Cameroon, many women are economically empowered and active in civil society; however, they lack power and representation in the political sector, which makes way for widespread discrimination. The delegate expressed that her current objective is to penetrate the political sphere and get women more involved in politics. She sees this approach as being essential to women’s empowerment. However, she added that, “an imbalance of [women’s] empowerment is a bad thing.” According to her, there needs to be a change in the mainstream image that is linked with empowerment amongst Cameroonian women—an image that supports the idea that acting more like men is what women should aspire to. She sees these skewed interpretations of empowerment stemming from a lack of education. So, in other words, empowering women too quickly would be irresponsible, because women have not yet been educated about what it means to be empowered.

To be candid, that thought had never crossed my mind before this moment. Never had I even contemplated that there was some kind of timeline or formula for empowerment, for the granting of basic freedoms, or for recognizing a fundamental human right. In the end, this meeting left me with more lingering questions and mixed messages about the purpose and vision of this ministry. Is the monitoring and management of empowerment a strategy that will be ultimately effective? I’m not so sure.

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International Women’s Day, or le huit mars as it is often referred to here in Cameroon, is a day of celebration—a flurry of dancing feet, clanking beer bottles and deafening music. Though it might go without saying, it’s our favorite holiday. This year, we’ve been fortunate to get to know many incredible and inspiring women farmers through our work with Utamtsi and GIC Sondason. So, for this Women’s Day, we celebrate them. They are truly the backbone of a community and an integral part of sustainable development. They’ve also been a joy to meet and get acquainted with over the past three months—they motivate us in our work and inspire our learning with their spirited determination.

Colette Bakam, women's delegate from Mvelé and Fonegom

Colette Bakam, women’s delegate from Mvelé

Women farmers attend a meeting in Kayo

Women farmers attend a meeting in Kayo

Women farmers from Lemgo

Women farmers from Lemgo

Women sorting coffee beans in Fondjomékwet

Women sorting coffee beans in Fondjomékwet

Rachel and GIC employees, Guenolé and Marline

Rachel and GIC employees, Guenolé and Marline

Sister and brother in Fondjomékwet

Sister and brother in Fondjomékwet

 

 

 

 

Woman farmer from Lemgo

Woman farmer from Lemgo

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‘Roots is half-way through its 6-month stay here in Cameroon, and we’d love to take this mid-way marker as an excuse to share with you some highlights from our time here thus far. Uy, time travels fast!

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‘Roots in Fondjomekwet

A ‘Roon Reunion: Back in Cameroon for the second time feels so good. After spending an enriching and challenging semester abroad in 2011, we weren’t sure that it would be possible to top that experience during this post-grad go-around. While this time is certainly different, we’ve rediscovered the many aspects of this country that we had grown to embrace, and we have also learned so much more as we continue to get to know Cameroonian culture on whole new levels. Every day is an adventure—a learning experience and constant reminder of what continues to draw us to this culture and environment.

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Christophe Tekengne, director of GIC Sondason

Meeting Our Mentors: Getting to know the people behind the scenes—from those who make the GIC Sondason cooperative operate to the organic farmers who produce the coffee purchased by Utamtsi—has been an exciting and insightful experience. Not only have they truly made us feel included in this community, but they have also been so gracious in sharing with us their knowledge about the integration of environmental, social and economic factors in the context of Cameroonian culture. There are no better guides through the inner-workings and community dynamics of culture than actual Cameroonians.

Coffee purchasing underway.

Coffee is purchased from a farmer

Coffee Harvesting and Fair Trade Practicing: From spending a couple of days walking through the coffee harvesting, de-pulping, fermenting and drying of coffee beans to joining Utamtsi as it conducted its annual coffee purchasing from organic farmers, it’s been such an incredible and educational experience to witness the whole coffee process and real fair trade practices in action.

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Dickinson-in-Cameroon students and faculty pose with Catholic University of Central Africa administrators in Yaounde, Cameroon

Dickinson-in-Cameroon, Version 2013: Twelve new students of the Dickinson-in-Cameroon program arrived at the Nsimalen airport on January 21st to begin their 5-month study abroad in Yaoundé. ‘Roots helped out with the week-long student orientation as they became acquainted with this intensely new culture and environment. It has been wonderful to see the strides they have already taken as individuals and as a group.

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Rachel and Grace explain the purpose the school garden to high school students in Fondjomekwet

English and a Garden: Working with high school students at the Lycée de Fondjomekwet has been a great opportunity to introduce environmental education to the community youth. ‘Roots volunteers one day a week to teach two classes of English at the high school and one day a week to the development of a school garden. Each student at the school is required to participate in “Travail Manuel (TM),” during which students complete tasks to help maintain the classrooms and school grounds. ‘Roots is using this project to unite TM with environmental protection and organic agriculture education. The hope is that the students will have an engaged-learning experience.

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Flower in Fondjomekwet

New Meanings of ‘Roots: Not only have we become rooted in our work here, but we’ve also grown as a group. Having been abroad together in Cameroon back in 2011, our friendship and shared vision have continued to grown throughout these months as we continue to reflect, realign our goals, and look for ways to improve our efficiency and communication. As friends and co-workers, we’re realizing more and more the importance of healthy support system, organization, positive re-enforcement and balance in our work environment.

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Chefferie in Fondjomekwet at sunset

Looking Ahead: For the second half of this journey, there is much to look forward to, such as: the further development of our current projects, like the school garden, the microfinance program, etc.; continued investigation into the Utamtsi community via blog posts and photos; the visit of the Dickinson-in-Cameroon students to Bafoussam and Fondjomekwet; for mangos to start appearing in the markets; and for the end of the dry season.

We want to extend a big thank you to those of you who have been following our activities via Facebook, Twitter and our blog. Your support is very much appreciated, as we continue to uncover and learn more and more about this community and sustainable development. Thank you again, and stay tuned!

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This post was written by Fernanda Maschietto. Fernanda joined us for one month as part of a 6-month trip, looking at different sustainable agriculture/development initiatives and working with organic farmers in Cameroon, Europe and South East Asia. Pretty awesome, right?! ‘Roots could not have been happier that she attached some time in Cameroon towards the end of her trip. Thank you, Fe, for your insight, positive outlook, knowledge, and your friendship. We can’t wait to see you again! Bon voyage back home to Brazil!

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I came to Cameroon to learn about organic agriculture and fair trade in the field. I arrived at Utamtsi/GIC Sondason office in Bafoussam in the middle of a meeting with about 20 farmers and my first impression was a warm welcome from everyone in the cooperative, already making me feel part of the group. I kept seeing this sense of community throughout the month that I spent in Cameroon, and I believe it is one of the secrets of the success of Utamtsi.

In this post, I would like to share some examples of how the Utamtsi’s work goes beyond the organic practices in the field and reaches a growing community, an essential part of making agro-ecology and fair trade a sustainable alternative.

First of all, Utamtsi operates in Cameroon through the GIC Sondason, a cooperative. That already tells us what to expect: Utamtsi transfers knowledge on organic practices, financial education, and so forth. The farmers then exchange information and cooperate amongst themselves. The relationship between Utamtsi and the farmers is very close. There are frequent meetings in the villages and, almost everyday, there are farmers in the office in Bafoussam who have come to ask questions and discuss ideas. Among the visits to the villages, the ones that surprised me the most were the meetings with farmers that are not yet part of the cooperative. After talking to other farmers, they were convinced about the advantages of using organic products to improve their yields and the health of their families. They wanted to be part of the group.

Another interesting experience here was seeing the work Utamtsi is doing to involve the academic community in the region. They started an experimental field in the University of Dschang to show how organic farming can be more productive than traditional farming. Also, they held a International Conference about Sustainable Development (see post) for the second year in the university, contributing to the longevity of this thematic discussion since it is still new in Cameroon.

Finally, I was able to partake in the visit of a group of Germans, organized by Utamtsi, to Cameroon. Their objective for the trip was to learn about the coffee making and purchasing process—to know where the coffee they drink comes from and who produces it. This interaction between consumers and producers was something amazing to witness and unfortunately not many companies can be as transparent as Utamtsi.

These were just a few examples of some of Utamtsi’s partnerships and trustworthy and fair trade business practices, and I couldn’t be more thankful to them and to the CameroonianRoots team for making my visit to Cameroon full of discoveries and inspirations!

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The 2nd Conference for Sustainable Development was held on Monday, February 4th at the University of Dschang in Dschang, West, Cameroon. The University of Dschang is the renown throughout Central Africa for its rural development program; however, terms like ‘organic agriculture’ and ‘sustainability’ are brand new even in Cameroon’s best academic institutions. Introducing these concepts in an academic environment is the first step towards increased awareness and focused research in this area. The conference, which was initiated by Utamtsi with the help of University of Dschang professors, was a great opportunity to bring different speakers together to discuss topics related to food security and food sovereignty in Cameroon.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the speakers:

Dr. Christophe Tankou (University of Dschang) presented on the sustainability of farming systems, based on farmers’ practices.

Dr. Oben Fritz (University of Dschang) shared his research on the effect of long-term farmers’ practice of integrated soil fertility management on nutrient status of a Typic Dystrangdept under potato-based cropping system.

Vincent Gnyonkeu from the International Association For Environmental Proctection discussed the introduction and utilization of biochar in the system of vegetable production.

Rachel Gilbert and Grace Lange addressed the question, “Can organic agriculture feed the world?”

Pit Mau, representing EM e.V. Germany, presented on his findings, concerning EM & livestock.

And, David Ngoh Sama from EM Cameroon spoke with us the positive effects of EM technology on leafy vegetables in Cameroon.

For those interested, @Cam_Roots live-tweeted throughout the conference (#dschangconference). You can catch up on the tweets here.

Despite a power outage towards the end of the conference, it went smoothly and was followed with an engaging Q&A session. Like many of these organized conferences and discussion initiatives, they can only continue to grow and expand over time. It was intriguing to see the reactions of the audience to the presentations of research by the guest speakers, and it will be interesting to see what new research will stem from the questions raised and the discussions held. We can’t wait to see what next year’s conference will bring to the table.

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The mud-brick church was packed. Somehow 500+ people, including GIC Sondason planters, foreign invitees, Utamtsi employees and guest speakers, managed to fit into this little parish for an annual meeting and celebration.

The purpose of this large gathering was: to hear from select delegates about their function and experience in GIC Sondason; to recognize individual farmers who have done a good job embracing organic practices; and to talk about organic agriculture, specifically the usage of a new technology, Effective Microorganisms (EM).

It was wonderful to see many familiar faces—farmers that we’d had the great pleasure of meeting as we visited various villages to conduct coffee bean purchases and information sessions about GIC Sondason’s microfinance program.

The meeting was carried out with multilingual flare—speakers shifting between French, English, German and various native dialects. Though the meeting lasted 5 hours, the energy in the room steadily built up and was spirited and palpable.

The gallery below goes through some of the highlights from the meeting and the party that followed. Enjoy!

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In 2010, Dickinson College and the Catholic University of Central Africa (UCAC) began a partnership of academic exchange. Students who attended the Dickinson-in-Cameroon program and who exercised an adequate grasp of the French language were invited to attend as part-time students for the semester. UCAC has hosted 15 Dickinson students in the past three years and hopes to have a hand full of students from this year’s group, as well. Back in Carlisle, Dickinson has provided a grant every year, since 2010, to a UCAC student. The partnership is extremely important for both the in-country and foreign students– an opportunity for Cameroonian and American students to engage in a new and prestigious academic environment with quality professors. This relationship between Dickinson College and UCAC supports a shared vision of academic excellence and a global education. 

When I was abroad in Cameroon during the spring of 2011, I took two classes at UCAC. It was a great opportunity to experience a Cameroonian class environment, practice my French in an academic setting, meet fellow Cameroonian students, and hear opinions and lectures from professors that reflected a unique Cameroonian perspective.

On January 29, 2013, Dickinson and UCAC renewed their contract in a small ceremony, hosted in the library of UCAC’s main campus in Yaounde, Cameroon. Representing Dickinson College at the ceremony was Norm Jones, Dean of Diversity and Student Development and Assistant to the President.

Here are a few snapshots from the ceremony:

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