Into the Jungle – Meeting the herd

As we progressed further away from the camp (and from the road from which most interlopers are likely to have travelled) the vegetation became wilder.  We journeyed through a still pool of water for nearly a kilometre.  Then I notice up ahead that our way was almost completely blocked by rocks jutting out of the water.  A few of these were full grown islands on which were small trees.  I noticed many birds took up perches here, no doubt hoping they were safe from jungle predators.  As we got closer, I realised that the rocks did not cover the whole riverbed, nor even cause any cascades, the water moved smoothly through several well defined channels.  Once or twice we could see submerged rocks that slightly scraped the base of our canoe, and I could imagine in the dry season navigating by canoe would be much more difficult.  And by seeing the exposed areas around us, I could also see that in the main wet season the river level could go much higher, and again the currents might stop easy navigation.

As we followed the twists and turns of the river through these rocks we became aware of a lot of bashing in the trees to our right.  Monkeys were bouncing from branch to branch; eventually we realised they were tracking us from the bank, rushing along for a few seconds then peering out at us to see what our reaction was.

We dropped down below the rocks in to another large still pool in the river; it bent gently round the left and opened up into a long strait.  The sky had all but cleared, just the odd small cumulus cloud peppering the horizon, and the water reflected it like a mirror.  With the exception of a few slight ripples, and the odd ring created by a gulping fish, the only break was way in the distance.  Through binoculars I could see two brownish lumps above the water edge – maybe more rocks, but then I noticed something flickering above these rocks; their ears.  The rocks were moving too and causing a little ring of disturbance around them.  We were fast approaching a herd of hippos.  As we got closer it was obvious these creatures had been observing us since we turned into the strait but they were calm about it; they just watched, occasionally flicked flies with their ears and apart from their eyes and forehead, nothing else of them could be seen.  The warden was quite happy to lead us close to them, on the shore furthest away from the herd.  As we drew parallel we were aware it was not just two animals, more heads appeared from below the water also not too concerned with us.  The first animal we had spotted still intently watched us, and was well positioned between us and the rest of the herd.  It was fairly obvious this was the dominant bull protecting his family.

Into the Jungle – An afternoon paddle

We’d arrived back at the camp earlier than expected because we had missed the final village stop.  The sun had broken out and the air was lighter than it had been all day, a slight breeze taking the worst of the humidity away. We had some options; relax in our accommodations, go for a walk, or, as one of the forest wardens was keen for us to do, take a trip in a canoe down the river.  I could do the other two any time; I was not going to miss a canoe trip for the world.

The scene in the camp was as tranquil as could be, only the ladies preparing our evening meal gave any hint at activity, and they worked slowly and methodically at their tasks.  After all, they still had three hours to go before dinner time.  I went and changed out of my formal field clothes (long trousers and a polo shirt) and put on some swimming shorts and a t shirt and we followed the tall gangly warden, carrying a paddle, down to the waterfront.  Adjoining the washing area we had used in the morning, two canoes were wedged onto the mud beside the river, a red fibreglass one and a wider metal one.  Myself and Anne, from USAID in Ghana, took the metal one with the warden paddling, and Hugo and my US Geological Survey colleague, Gray, took sole charge of the other one.  We gently eased out into the channel and for the first time I looked at the small cataract upriver from the camp.  I had heard the gushing in the night but now I saw the full extent.  Although the drop was only about 5m over a succession of boulders, the width of the river here was significant so the overall effect was impressive even thought the wet season had only just commenced.

I decided I would help the warden to paddle back, to help me get some exercise as much as anything, but I wanted free hands to take photographs as we headed down.  To start with it was just nice to get used to the motion of the canoe, gently going with the flow, and looking at the thick green forest either side.  It was interesting to note that this dense forest is never wide, even before humans starting hacking away at it, but probably only extended in a handful of trees before the amount of water in the ground was insufficient to supply huge trees.   The land beyond is a less dense scrubby woody savannah.

The afternoon was growing old and as we progressed we started to detect more activity.  The flies were always with us when we got close to the shore, but they were less prevalent out in the water, although you saw a few butterflies struggling to get across this open space without tiring or being caught.We saw some plops in the water as fish started jumping for the flies that were out on the river.  Birds were moving about in the shadows of the trees.

In theory the park was on our left and should have been pristine, but early on at several points we could see a dugout canoe moored in the mud, and here and there on the banks some vegetable crops or the odd manmade fence.  No doubt people were nibbling away at the park’s resources.  In some places the clearings were blatant as instead of the thickly vegetated fringes, the trees hanging low over the water’s edge, we could see the bank and exposed soil, and maybe here or there the odd large tree chopped down.

Into the Jungle – Land use in the scrub (2)

Although the dryland rice covered huge areas, and occasionally we would see sorghum or maize in fields, more intensive cultivation would happen in the valley bottoms.  In these lowlands all kinds of crops, including rice, would be grown, in paddies, in carefully raised mounds of earth.  Irrigation systems would allow careful application of water from nearby rivers and lakes to the fields, neither depriving nor swamping the growing crops.  Some of these had been created in existing bas fond, but others seemed to have been grubbed up out of the gallery forest – depriving a much richer biodiversity of its rightful place.

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The national park has a much richer vegetation

Another activity was prevalent deep in these gallery forest close to rivers.  This part of west Africa is well renowned for its mineral resources.  One mountain on the border of Guinea and Liberia has up to 40% pure iron in its rocks but gold is also present in decent quantities.  Many artisanal miners dig up the silty basins of rivers looking for the finest dust fragments of the metal.  Locally it produces a mess of whitish fine dust that coats every leaf and soil crumb, and makes the streams milky for miles downstream.  But these hand dug pits are tiny compared to the destruction by logging, large scale mining and shifting agriculture.

As we passed back through Kortor, with all our friends of the morning waving us as we passed through, I realised just how richer the forest was close to the park.  You could feel the distinct coolness, the moisture both trapped in the air and on the ground, and the innumerable species of plants, and no doubt animals, that were thriving in this environment.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Into the Jungle – Land use in the scrub (1)

The drive back to the camp went through a mixture of woody savanna and open fields and I saw for the first time the dynamics of the shifting agriculture or swidden as it is sometimes known – all aspects were on show en route.  We would see the heavily forested river valleys, generally untouched by this form of landuse, and the long stretches of woody savanna; this is fairly thickly wooded land but able to survive the harsh dry season between November and May.  It had a lot of herbaceous grasses and other plants that grew vigorously in the wet season – as much as 3m high by the time the rain stopped.  This would then seed and dry out and thick scratchy material was left behind as the trees lost their leaves and were reduced to knobbly skeletons.  The mixture of leaves and grass became a tinder box as the dry season progressed and natural fires from lightning strikes in particular might ravage through the understory, leaving a black and white scar across the landscape.  Most of the trees would survive as would the seeds, rhizomes and bulbs in the soil ready to rejuvenate the grassy layer the next wet season.  One or two trees here or there, weak from age or damage, might succumb to the fire and their ashy imprint left on the ground would be all that remains after all their years of life.

Many fires are started deliberately.  Indeed the first step to shifting agriculture would be the chopping down of many standard trees and lighting the bush.  If done correctly it could be controlled within a tight area to be prepared for cultivation, but so often it would spread dangerously into the surrounding shrubs.

The herbaceous layer of these forests are vigorous and if the ground is not tilled and weeded before the dry season, they will grow back more strongly the following year.  Along our route back to the camp,  there were lots of examples of patches of ground in various stages of clearance.  Eventually though people would plough or build mounds of soil, and dryland rice would be cultivated in these patches.  The goodness in the soil, however, without further inputs from manure, compost or fertiliser, would dry up quickly and the fields would be abandoned and left to regenerate first into herby fields, then shrubs and given time in to small trees and back to woody savanna.  As you went round the countryside you would see this checkerboard of clearance, cultivation, abandonment and natural regeneration, but it would be hard to determine exactly which stage it was at.

Into the Jungle – Fintonia and its water

Straight after lunch we took a very enjoyable walk that kept us awake.  During the meeting, the elders were interrupted by an interesting man.  He had returned to Fintonia after living in Ealing in West London, where he had been studying.  He had the air of both external education, and one which wants to be seen to have had an external education.  The elders seemed to tolerate his interventions but I am not sure they respected all his views.  He did advocate a lot of what STEWARD was about.  He talked of the need to conserve the watershed.  He remembered as a boy that the springs dotted around the village would never all dry up in the dry season.  And he wanted to show us where one of these springs had been dammed and the catchment above conserved so that the village could have good water all year round.  We followed him out of the village through some well goat-grazed vegetation and down to a stream, rising up through some thickly forested land we came across a small triangular lake held in by a short concrete dam.  The problem with all dams are that they don’t just hold back the water, but also all the detritus brought down on the current, silt and leaves and branches.  The dam was clogged with this material.  But it was an example of how good management of water could help a village.  A thin black plastic pipe led back from this location down the stream and then up into the village to a standpipe in one of the streets.  With a little bit of cooperation amongst villagers, the dam could be cleaned out, and future conservation of the forest above it would help preserve the aquifer from which the water came.

On a later trip, I discovered how many villages are sited in these locations.  Fintonia itself was on a low dome of rock with the houses firmly stuck on top.  I imagine that this helped in the rainy season – the water escaped in all directions away from the houses, the ground beneath them was never waterlogged with all the associated bads that come from that.  The surrounding hills were also based on these domes of rock, but with much more soil and vegetation than the one at Fintonia.  With all that going on, when it rained, the water would more likely soak into the soil and percolate into the rock itself, hence being stored in the aquifer.  At various points around the dome, the water would discharge into these open springs, but in a much more controlled way than after rainfall, and that water would be sweet – having had the soil and dead vegetation that would get mixed up in larger rivers and flash floods filtered out.  It was an excellent system.

Our guide here, the man from Ealing, with his white cap and blue flowery shirt, and most importantly a notebook and pen in his hand to prove his educational superiority over his fellow villagers, talked at length about the issues here, wider than STEWARD had budget for but important points – better education, better ability and support to make community decisions, better basic tools to get the job done.

He enjoyed lecturing, and made some good points, but we had to move on.  There was at least one more village to visit that day, and it was further away from the camp.  We headed back to the vehicles and although delayed for a few more moments while Stephanie and Annie dealt with a whole bunch of STEWARD administration  – since communications was so poor they had to take any opportunity in the field to have face to face meetings with their extension officers.  By the time all that was complete, it was decided we would have to abandon our plans to visit the final village; we’d never reach there, do our business and get back to the forest camp in time before dark.

Into the Jungle – Fintonia for the first time

We returned to the vehicles and thanked our hosts before heading off to the next village, Fintonia.  This was to become a very familiar place to me later in the project, and was where the acting paramount chief lived, the chief of chiefs of all of Tambakha.  The drive was relatively short, relative to the previous day anyway, and in about 45 minutes we were driving across a stream (where naked women were taking their ablutions and who giggled at us as we passed) and into a much more substantial village than Kortor.  A wide street with houses that gave way to a mosque, a community centre and off to one side a health centre.  At the head of the hill was a small roundabout, and we turned down another equally long road of houses.  About half way down the vehicles were parked and we gathered on the veranda of a low house with a rusty corrugated iron roof, some washing hanging outside and a few women sitting on a low wall chatting.  It took some believing that this was the paramount chief’s house.  But there were a few tell tale signs, the most obvious was a large drum hanging from the roof.  A small man wearing a brown safari suit came out from the interior of the house and we all went up to greet him.  The paramount chief had recently died and this man was acting in his place till a new one could be appointed.  He took his seat at one end of the veranda and patiently waited for the meeting to start.

One of the villagers; I seem to remember he was the secretary for the village, beat the hanging drum loudly several times, and Momoh reassured us that “the elders will be here soon”. And sure enough, one by one various men would walk in, some well dressed, others in wellingtons and overalls, greeting each other and introducing themselves to us.  A large crowd of onlookers had now gathered outside, first brought in by the cavalcade of cars that had passed through the streets, and partly because since the drum had sounded, they knew a big meeting was to happen.

We could not all fit under cover for the meeting, and several people sat on benches provided under the tree; there was a good breeze and it was still just before noon, so it was tolerable for those outside.  The same series of prayers, introductions, explanations and ratifications went on as in Kortor and we then were told that lunch would be provided followed by a tour of the STEWARD activities.  STEWARD maintained an office in Fintonia at the top of the village so we drove up another small street.  The office was one of the most substantial in Fintonia, and painted brightly in green and white.  It had a small compound round the back where cars, motorbikes, generators and other knick knacks were kept; the edifice itself contained a couple of offices and a spacious veranda both front and back.  In the centre of the back yard was a large satellite dish, which provided the only solid outside communication with the world for miles around.  You could not even get a mobile signal round here.  I had brought my laptop with me, taking it out of its bulky case and wrapping it carefully in amongst most of my clothes and wrapped in a kikoy.  It proved that it went on a bumpy and useless journey as I never turned it on once for the whole trip.  But there were others who could not resist downloading their emails.  So while we sat on the veranda and waited for lunch, they retreated into the offices and gawped at their screens.  A lady turned up with several helpers carrying a pile of white plates, several heavy enamelled pots and ladles.  She laid them out on a table an invited us to partake.  Taking a huge chunk of sticky rice, and pouring over a chicken in peanut sauce spiced up with some chilli, and drawing a glass of water from a nearby plastic barrel, we tucked in to our hot heavy lunch in the midday heat.

Into the Jungle- A tour of the projects

Which was to tour the STEWARD project activities in the village.  For me it was exceptionally useful to understand what had been done so far, and Kortor, probably because it was closest to the best of the remaining forest, had embraced a lot of the activity.  We wandered down to a large stand of gallery forest and saw how a tree nursery was being developed – various indigenous species being nurtured from seedlings under the canopy.  An area around the village had been demarcated as a community forest – a shared resource managed through the chief for everyone.  While the nurseryman explained the progress, a couple of monkeys watched us from their perches high in the canopy.

Next, we trouped into the community forest itself.  Mainly down in a small stream valley, the vegetation was thick and dense, but in a mature way rather than a scrubby thicket.  The huge buttresses reached up above our heads to support the mammoth tree trunks, the canopy shading out most of the light, but plenty of  vegetation thrived in the space below.  You could hear from the chatter of bird and frogs that there was a lot of fauna here too. We reached an area which had once been cleared but was still part of the community forest and the destination for many of the nursery saplings.  Amongst the natural trees, fruit crops were encouraged and banana and plantain were evident in great numbers.  Out in this more open space we could look back at the huge gallery trees and sense their scale and spread.  It was pointed out to us that you could see denser patches of leaves in the canopy, which were nests pulled together by chimpanzees – barely a kilometre from the centre of the village.  To an outsider this was a draw dropping moment, to come so close to one of the world’s most iconic species, a vanguard for conservation but to the villagers they were a bit of a pest.  It is bad enough having dumb insects and rats coming in to your fields and house to steal your food, but to have as intelligent a creature as a Chimpanzee causing you problems was intolerable.  Another conservation conundrum.

In the Jungle – Meeting in Kortor.

In Kortor we started with a meeting with the elders, extension workers and selected individuals from the community.  The vehicles were parked under some trees and we were guided through the houses to a large spreading tree.  From every angle, people brought out seating – long planked benches, plastic moulded chairs, stools, wooden chairs, armchairs –  and placed it around the tree.  The morning life of the village was going on around us, cleaning the breakfast dishes, some washing, changing babies, a little purchasing in the one or two stalls established in people’s houses, and some coming and going to the surrounding area to farm or collect firewood. Almost every house had a goat tied up either on their veranda or next to the house. We were watched intently by all, especially by the children with nothing much else to do and to whom a white man was, while not a novelty, certainly a rarity.  Over the visits to Sierra Leone I was forever being shouted at by children as we drove through villages “foute foute foute”.  The grown kids would do it immediately, the smaller ones would be encouraged by their older siblings or mothers or grandmothers.  It was a game and all it meant was “white man”.

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Ready for the meeting

The elders and the local chief approached and we greeted them; Momoh said a Christian prayer, the local Imam offered blessings and the chief said a few words.  The secretary of the village – like the Parish clerk in the UK I suppose, helped to translate and embellish the comments that whatever we were here to do, the chief would give us every consideration.  I kept quiet as I was still so new on the project but the chief recognised Annie and Stephanie from their previous visits and they gave some background on where the project had got to and what plans we had and what we wanted to do today.

Into the Jungle – Conservation against Livelihoods

We were ready for our first appointment and since it was with the national park staff we didn’t have far to go.  As some people were still cleaning their teeth and abluting, the rest of us gathered in a big square.  This made it quite a tricky meeting as you never knew which way to face.  As well as the park staff, our big partners working in the region; Bioclimate and CARE international staff were also present so it was quite a crowd.  But formalities through, plans made, and outcomes highlighted, we piled into our vehicles and drove to the nearby village we passed through the night before – Kortor.

While the national park is on the far side of the Little Scarcies River, the camp we were staying in is on the Kortor side, indeed the land has been granted as a gift from Kortor’s chief.  There have been problems raised with this, as it means the park wardens do not have a proper presence in the park.  Their role is to try and conserve a large area of land and there are examples of incidences of occasional cultivation, firewood collection and even logging going on.  Perhaps bizarrely, there are several small villages in the park.  When the park was declared, some people did not agree to the compensation and relocation package, a rather nice way of saying they were being evicted.  Even thirty years later these villages still stubbornly live on.  Fortunately it looks like their footprint is fairly small; what is more damaging is the pressure at the borders from villagers heading in to raid resources, including bushmeat and trophy animals.  The problem is worse on the Kilimi side where there is no permanent park warden presence – at least in Outamba there are some people trying to moderate the impact and publicise the usefulness of the park.

It is a tough job and it contains the usual variance between conservation against livelihood that tasks communities, governments and international organisations worldwide.  We all agree in principle that the conservation of our biodiversity is essential, but when the poorest people live nearby, who are we in the west to limit their opportunities when we have heavily transformed our own environments for our own economic gain.

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The Centre of Kortor

To arbitrate in this debate, STEWARD tries to have an impact.  By showing the value of keeping forests and harvesting their fruits, medicines and game sustainably, it can maintain a balance of biodiversity and resource for the communities.  STEWARD has high respect in Tambakka Chiefdom and also in the other places it works.  Few development projects have made it to these remote parts, and STEWARD has been careful to build up the trust of the chiefs, elders and communities close to the park before suggesting changes in the way they operate.  Two key people in this were Momoh from Bioclimate and Martin from CARE.  With very different styles, they had become highly respected and liked members of the communities across the region; and if you were introduced by them to anyone, you were already given a lot of consideration.  They were invaluable to outsiders like me who were only on the ground for short times.

Into the Jungle – Settling in camp

Stephanie was struggling with the rental drivers.  They had used up far more fuel than they expected and needed to get some more.  Since the last filling station was in Kamakwie (on the other side of the Scarcies River), I think the solution was to buy some local expensive fuel from containers.  But we were on a tight schedule.  We had a full day of meetings in several villages in Sierra Leone, followed by more tomorrow before crossing the border in to Guinea on the following day.

A lady brought in from the last village we had seen had been cooking up a dinner of fish and rice, and stashes of bottles held by us travellers were brought out, including Amarula, whisky and a bottle of red wine.  We sat round, phased a little by our long journey but fascinated by where we now were in the midst of the area where the project was acting on the ground – about 350 km north east of Freetown as the crow flies, more like 500km the route we had taken.

We retired relatively early; the camp had no generator so we only had firelight, a couple of lanterns and our own torches or phones to light the world by.  The thunder rumbled around and it poured in the night.  I tried to arrange my stuff as best as possible around the room, the most useful and valuable items in the mosquito netting with me – I was having no false scorpions terrifying me again.

A few pages of book read and I was ready for sleep, and awoke only when the soggy dawn broke.  There was patchy activity in the camp and I saw for real what it was like.  I was in one of four rectangular cabins under the trees and behind me, about 30m away was a long drop toilet.  Across an open grassy area where our vehicles were parked were another series of cabins, this time metal rondavels perched on a bluff above the Little Scarcies River.  In front of my cabins were a couple of picnic tables where we had ate the night before and alongside it our hired cook was back boiling eggs in  a large pot and getting some water under way for us to make coffee – traditional African Nescafe sachets with Nido and St Louis sugar cubes of course.

In the trees off to my left was a large open area surrounded by bamboo benches and tables.  And out beyond the rondavels was our ablution area.  We took a plastic bucket and headed down to the river to wash.  I was content like most to strip to the waist and clean myself as best as possible but one or two dove in the river.  The waste water went into the bushes and I headed back for my boiled eggs.  It was a typical boy scout breakfast, as along with the instant coffee from a big box of sachets, we had white bread, margarine and red jam, flavour indeterminable.  Hugo had found some ripe mangoes at last at one of the last villages on the other side of the river and we all had a juicy slice.