27 Months

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Off the beaten path

An Ode to Matango

What follows is a small photo essay devoted to one of the truly great natural resources of W. Africa: palm wine. Known locally as matango or “African champagne” it is most often the product of the oil palm (Elaeis guineense) in the southwest of Cameroon. Elsewhere, as in the northwest, Raffia is more common which produces a distinctly different flavor and bouquet. It is often available at roadside shacks in an adulterated, watered-down form (all the better for contracting amoebas and/or typhoid, I was cautioned by a visiting Peace Corps medical officer) but every Cameroonian knows that the very finest palm wine comes straight from the tree. Unprocessed and unfiltered, the genuine product usually contains small bits of organic matter and sediment from the tree. Through the miracle of natural fermentation, the sugars in the wet pulp of the palm trunk are converted into a mildly alcoholic, lightly carbonated “wine” that is collected into a container (a gourd or plastic bottle) via a funnel often made from a banana leaf lashed to the carved top of a felled tree. When this method is used, a fire is often made at the base of the tree to hasten production of the sap. The tree may also be climbed and tapped at its crown, producing so-called “up” wine. After it has been tapped, a single palm may produce wine for several days or weeks and in quantities of 20-100 liters or more, depending on its size. It is best taken fresh from the tree when it is sweetest; storing it for any period rapidly increases the alcohol content and diminishes its flavor. Refrigeration is of course possible but thereafter it is no longer considered to be in its “natural” state.

Milky white in color and opaque, its flavor is complex, varied and the subject of much debate among its connoisseurs. No batch of palm wine is quite like any other. The same conditions that shape the product of a vineyard—age and variety of the vine, seasonal variations in climate, rainfall, soil content, and so on—similarly dictate the output of the palm tree. Two palm groves may produce vintages as distinct as a Chilean Carmenère is to an Italian Lambrusco, or a Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir is to a Spanish Mourvèdre.

But I digress. Hans, who is seldom given to hyperbole, invited me on a secretive “special occasion” somewhere in the vicinity of Small Soppo. He remained vague on the precise nature and location of our afternoon activity, but placing my unswerving trust in his judgment I followed him straight into the dense bush that begins just off the tarred road to the west of Bakweri Town. We negotiated a hilly, twisting path (where I suspect few, if any, white men had been recently) for the better part of an hour until we finally arrived at a large, whitewashed house set on a leveled plot in a broad forest clearing. There we met our hosts who took us on a short hike down a much smaller trail into the heart of the bush. With the sun slipping fast below the shoulder of Mt. Cameroon, we reached the palm grove. Back at the house with our prize, we pulled chairs into a circle outdoors and the palm wine flowed freely. The photos below tell the rest of the story.

An Ode to Matango



Bamboo Magic’ Mobile Phone & Laptop Case

I had an opportunity to stop by the 2009 South West Regional Agro-Pastoral Show, an annual exhibition for local farmers and craftsmen, here in Limbe this afternoon. The event was held on a community field ringed by exhibition booths overflowing with every imaginable vegetable, fruit and live animal cultivated and raised in the southwest region of Cameroon. In addition, there were a number of innovators with homemade products and gadgets crafted from local materials.

Amid all the displays, one guy stood apart with some creations that can only be described as a near perfect marriage of form, function, green design and a borderline obsession with bamboo. Lekuama Ketuafor is the proprietor of Bamboo Magic, a one-man cottage industry he’s started to supplement his work as a teacher.

Using a set of simple hand tools, glue, varnish, skill and loads of patience, Lekuama finds ways of using bamboo—a ubiquitous, low-cost, renewable material—in ways many people have never imagined. Judging from the size of the crowd gathered around his booth, I suspect few Cameroonians had seen anything quite like Lekuama’s creations before.

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Among the intricately decorated bamboo shoes [2], vest, palm wine calabash, cowboy hat, clocks and so on, I was immediately attracted to two incredibly cool electronics-related pieces: a bamboo covered Nokia phone and an attractive and functional laptop case. Here’s a video of Lekuama, dressed appropriately in head-to-toe bamboo wear, demonstrating these items:

The attention to detail on the laptop case is impressive, right down to the external USB port access, shoulder strap attachments, carry handle, magnetic clasps, internal elastic keeper strap and red felt lining. And how about that chic mobile phone?

Due to the time intensive nature of his craft, Lekuama makes these items for sale in very small quantities. However, his dream is to establish a training center where he can transfer his skills to young Cameroonians and build a community of artisan microentrepreneurs. Heck, I think these items would make a splash in any eco-trendy shop in the West. Any takers?



The Extraordinary Makers of Maroua

On the outskirts of Maroua, the capital of the Extreme North of Cameroon, is a place quite unlike any other in the country. Here a community of les forgerons—blacksmiths, or metalworkers—practice their craft in the relative cool of a tree grove. Several dozen men with specialized skills are gathered here for a single purpose: to transform piles of scrap iron into finely finished tools, stoves, replacement parts and other useful implements for sale to the local population. Young apprentices learn the craft while operating bellows or shaping wood for tool handles. The production here is performed entirely by hand and on a scale which must be seen to be fully appreciated.

The finished goods here include agricultural tools; hoes, rakes, pick axes, shovels, wheelbarrows, John Deere-green painted plows, pry bars and machetes; household items such as cook stoves, sieves, pans, watering cans, buckets and cutlery; down to the smallest personal items, like precision tweezers. Motorbike taxis are a ubiquitous mode of transport in the Far North, so many spares are copied (and often improved) from the originals. These include motorcycle seats, cargo carriers and fenders. Many of the pieces of forging equipment—hand-cranked bellows, anvils, hammers and sledges—are themselves fabricated from scrap iron and reused materials.

The imported versions of many of these items are available a kilometer or so away at Fokou, a national chain of hardware stores. The items produced by the forgerons are of very high quality and sold at a fraction of the cost of their imported counterparts. This generates an understandably strong market demand for their wares. Thus, scores of hammers may be heard pounding away on anvils at this place from morning until late afternoon. It’s nothing short of an appropriate-tech, human-powered manufacturing industry.

I spent the better part of an hour slack-jawed at the sight, sound and frenetic pace of activity around the forges. When I inquired how long this community of metalworkers had been working at this spot, a man told me, “depuis l’indépendance” (since independence in 1960). Digging a bit deeper into Maroua’s early history, I uncovered an interesting fact. According to the official story, the name Maroua is derived from the town’s founder, Chef Bi-Marva which means “the Chief of the Forge”. The chief was later deposed by Fulani horsemen in the early 19th century. Had the former chief been a practicing metalsmith? If so, the metalworking heritage of Maroua dates back not 50 years, but closer to 200 years.

Whichever figure is more accurate, the metalworkers of Maroua are extraordinary craftsmen and very Afrigadget!




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