The most common form of culture shock for Peace Corps Volunteers after service is grocery stores. When you go from a country with only two types of pasta, 5 different beers, and habitually drinking Nestle Nido dried milk to a Whole Foods with 200 different salad dressings or 500 different beers from around the world, you enter paralysis. I was ready for “grocery shock” when coming home, but what I wasn’t ready for was driving.
I had my own car again; I could go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. I did not have to take a taxi, mototaxi, or bus, and I could not believe how relieved I was. People are often worried about going to Africa from the heightened fear of Ebola, Civil War, or terrorism; what they don’t think of is the transportation risk.
When I came home I remember driving around and watching people stop at stop signs. I remember being awed when people used turning signals. I remember seeing traffic lights, speed limits, and seeing police officers pull cars over because this did not have 2015’s inspection sticker. I was in awe, and while driving I remember one day imagining an invisible force that all motor traffic has to respect. It was so mystical to me. I could picture this clear fog, holding cars in place, and forcing people to obey the laws.
Had I never lived in Cameroon and now Mali I never would have understood the importance of laws. Living abroad made me realize how one thing we often take for granted in the United States is our judicial system. Whatever your political stance is, in certain contexts laws and law enforcement are fundamental if we want society to function. While working abroad I have learned that if there is not land right justice, there will also not be food security. You can have the best improved seed in the world, you can have the top agronomist teaching agricultural field agents, but if there is not a laws protecting a farmer’s land, from what I have seen, farmers will not farm, resulting in food insecurity.
When I was in Cameroon, I lived in the Adamawa, the region of milk and honey. Cattles, sheep, and goats are the dominant agricultural business, and are ones way out of poverty and into luxury. The numbers of cows you have is how much wealth you have. When I was just arriving in country I created tension with my neighbor by asking a simple question, “How many cows do you have?” That was actually extremely ignorant and juvenile. If you’re close with the person they’ll tell you, or perhaps if their rich they might give you a broad figure, but asking how many cows you have is similar to asking, “how much money do you make a year or how much do you have in your bank account?”
Cows are a large source of subsistence, wealth, and health, in the region, which has caused many agro-pastoral tensions. One of the most notorious ethnic tensions in Cameroon is between the Fulbé and the Gbaya, as a result of the agro-pastoral problem. The Fulbé are the cattle herders and the Gbaya are the farmers. During my two years of service every season there were many instances of cows breaking into a corn farm and devastating the entire crop. This actually even happened to me, except it was sheep. One of the projects we started was a demonstration plot to increase soy production in the village. Two weeks before we were going to harvest, a small heard of sheep entered the half hectare farm and ate have of the harvest. I immediately went to the Forestry and Hunting representative to file a complaint. He said he would look into my case, but really there was not much he could do. I was devastated, but my counterpart took it in stride. He said, “this is how it happens here – animals are king!”
Where I was living in Cameroon rule of law did not protect individual farmers, and when I asked farmers how they handled land complaints they said they used black magic, they would create farms 5 to 10 km from the town, or they just did not farm. Once I heard a story of a farmer warning a cow herder that if he let his cow in his farm, they would all die. The cow herder did not listen to the warning, and soon after 10 cows were struck down with lightning. This was a rare exception. The most common solution to agro-pastoral land disputes was famers not planting or farmers planting many kilometers from the village. When doing this, they didn’t use land that was close to the village and they did not plant avocados, mangos, lemons, or other fruits, which are necessary for a well balanced diet and food security.
My first year of service I visited a farm that once had 50 fruit trees, but in one evening, said the farmer, a herd of cows entered and devastated every one. I remember how animated and emotional he was, but his only response was, “animals are king.” The next year, when I and the National Park created a fruit orchard with the youth groups of Mali, we lost half of the 200 fruit trees to free ranging goats. Feeling even more emotions than when I lost half my harvest the first year, I could not believe it happened again. Ironically though I found out that the owner of the goats was the same famer that lost his 50 fruit trees. I said to him, “How could you let this happen? Don’t you remember what happened to your trees last year!” His response, “The goats need to eat.” A survivalist mentality and a complete contradiction, but luckily I had my Peace Corps salary to support me and I wasn’t a subsistence farmer.
I do not think the agro-pastoral problem in the region I lived in in Cameron unless there is enforcement of the laws that support the farmers and not the large animals. Last week in Mali I attended a two-day workshop between government officials, non-governmental organizations, and farmers associations to develop a process by which a mediator group is in place in the event of a land dispute. In Mali they want to prevent land disputes from going to the justice system and they want the problem to be solved culturally by a group of indifferent, independent parties. This is there solution to the problem and by next year it will go into place.
Will this mediator group work? Only time will tell. What I do know is that if there are not some laws in place and laws are not enforced, the continued land disputes will continue in the most vulnerable places. Some of the world’s most nutritiously impoverished people lived in my Cameroonian Village. The people survived on mostly grains and did not have a well balanced diet. How can a farmer experiment if there is risk? How could a farmer possibly invest in a permaculture practice that takes many seasons to become effective? There are many pieces of the puzzle to help farmers get out of poverty and to improve food security, and unless there are laws in place to protect a farmer and those laws are enforced, why would these farmer’s change?