At the back of the hall, temporary stalls had been set up by the Ministry of Agriculture to display farm animals. Various schools had brought their boys and girls in smart uniforms to take a look round the exhibits and their favourite locations were the farm animals. I noticed in one place a group of nursery children were stuck together holding a long piece of sugar cane between them. The hubbub from the hall was of the whole community meeting, sharing, talking and relaxing. For a nation which had seen so much trauma over the previous ten years, with two thirds of its population scattered across the world, this was a warming sight. Despite being forced to start again at the wrong end of the country, some with nothing but the clothes they stood up in, rebuilding they were, and with a lot of outside help putting back not only the essentials for living – new housing estates for shelter, new fields for cropping, new pumps for water supply, health centres for medical needs – but also the reinvigorating the culture of a small but immensely proud people.
It was heartening to see that although progress was slow, this new capital town was emerging and providing much nourishment to the social fabric of Montserrat. And I was pleased to play a small part in protecting its natural resources, both the endemic species like the mountain chicken and galliwasp, but also the more widespread nature like the iguanas.
On the last evening I saw another introduced species. I was relaxing with a beer in the dusky light straight after sunset (no green flash for me as usual). From the tangle of undergrowth that marked the boundary of our plot, there was a disturbance. I saw this small brown lump skittering back and forth behind a couple of palm trees. I strained my eyes to see what it was. It looked at first sight like a deer, long running legs on a pear drop shaped body. But it was smaller than any deer I had ever seen – barely a foot tall. And its head was more pig like than deer. It has a long and wide dark pink snout and perched above a small head were a pair of orange ears.
This was an agouti – a red rumped agouti to boot. I had seen these once before in Dominica many years before but had never close enough to be able to observe this behaviour. It seemed to have compulsive obsessive disorder. It carefully followed a route around the garden, marked by various shrubs and trees where it would pause and forage before hurriedly moving on. The route sometimes double backed but this animal was not wavering, it knew exactly what he was doing. It was following some well established foraging route round the garden, not missing any possible morsel of food. I tried to get a decent photograph of him but the light was low and this nimble little animal was too quick for me to get a steady shot. Although not endemic (it is thought the Amerindians might have introduced them) it was still part of the tapestry of natural life in Montserrat. With the help that was being given to conserve both the endemics and the naturalised species, and the rebuilding of the human spirit, no amount of rumbling from the volcano of Soufriere could obliterate this robust little island.
The agouti comes to sniff
The next day an agricultural fair had been organised in the spanking new market building in Montserrat’s replacement capital, Little Bay in Brades. Matt was interested in attending and I said I would tag along. I had been working in the villa a lot the last few days, putting the final touches to the databases I was designing and although Matt was very good company, it would be useful to see more human beings.
We drove along the main road and dropped down the ridge towards Little Bay. Beyond the current village of Brades where temporary government buildings had been set up, a new town was beginning to take shape in the valley behind the beach. A new Government office would be built, a larger jetty for both ferries and cargo boats was being constructed within a wall forming a sheltered harbour, and various civil buildings were to be constructed. The Market was one of these and before it opened to the general public it was to be used for this fair. It seemed about half the island were here, and half of those present were exhibiting their goods. There were jams and chutneys, sauces and sweets, crafts and dolls, pickles and cakes, beverages alcoholic and non alcoholic, tropical plant arrangements, fruits and vegetables, fish and meat cuts. Inside the hall rosettes marking winners of each category had been laid out. And lining the hall were many copies of Montserrat’s flag; with the Union Jack in the top left corner and a lady in green holding a harp. The lady is called Erin, a representation of the strong links Montserrat has with Ireland. Many of the original farm owners on the island had hailed from Ireland, and it was reflected in many of the surnames on island – Patrick, Allens, Farrell to name but a few. And Montserrat had embraced a lot of Celtic traditions. One of the few places outside of Ireland to have a public holiday for St Patrick’s Day, they also have developed a beautiful tartan , a wide orange and green check with white lines. Some of the women were dressed in it, it also adorned every pillar and many of the tables around the market hall.
Montserrat’s colours in evidence at the fair
Over the course of the next couple of days we spent training the guys in the techniques and discussing the issues around land ownership in this part of Sierra Leone. We would start early in the morning and we tried out different types of plot. After the initial trial in the small open clearing opposite the house, we ramped up the difficulty. I realised there were different types of land use in many Sierra Leone villages and Fintonia was a classic model. In the centre of the village were most of the buildings. The immediate surrounds, particularly at the back of the houses, were store houses, latrines and a hard pan of land used for most domestic activities – cooking, washing, laundry, fixing bits and pieces. In the plots behind this there was usually a kitchen garden where high value and small crops were grown. I’d seen maps the previous year of villages in Guinea where the word “Peppiniere” was used. I was a little confused at first but comparing that to where I was in Sierra Leone I now saw it was the same kitchen gardens, predominantly where higher value chillies and other peppers, herbs or spices were grown. The big cereal crops were grown much further away; I suppose since land was at such a premium close to the housing. Two types of this agriculture existed. Sierra Leone was riddled with little river valleys; the humpy bumpy nature of the terrain here meant you were likely to cross one of these every kilometre or two. While some dried out on the surface every season, they still contained a high water table of wet, organic soil that was vital for good yields. Irrigated rice cropping occurred here but also vegetables and some fruits would be grown. On surrounding hillsides land was much poorer quality and drier. Here other cereal crops such as maize and dryland rice could be grown. The scrub was being extensively slashed and burnt to make new fields for this kind of cropping. In between the dryland and the wetland Fintonia had conserved a wedge of high value forest. Yes some agroforestry went on here, but the forest was also used for beekeeping and the clay extraction, and other activities; there were pools for bathing – women in one area, men in another.
Fintonia – with thanks to Google Earth
We had one more stop that morning in the small village of Kansema to the east of Madina Oula. The sun had come out again and the village looked very pleasant, mostly thatched rectangular houses in the centre shaded by mango trees. We were greeted by a couple of men and we waited as the chief came out of his house and his secretary started to direct the locals to obtain some seating. As was now a routine, various chairs and benches, even a bucket or two, were dragged out of all the nearby houses and we had our meeting right there in the centre of the village.
As in all the other places we visited we attracted a lot of attention. At one point I looked across the road to a shady open wooden shed and was greeted by about twenty pairs of eyes of children staring back; new ones would arrive every minute and shuffle inside to keep cool, as well as for them to feel safe from their shyness. We could not get away without inspecting the community forest so we trooped up a gentle hill to the north. As we headed up the view to the south revealed itself. So far in Guinea, the land had been gently undulating and, without the forest of Sierra Leone, you could see for miles across the plain. Here we were close to the border and the northern edge of the Kuru Hills abruptly rose up and imposed itself on Kansema. Deep in the hills were chimpanzees and elephants, so close to a manicured human landscape on the Guinea side. Here was the physical evidence of the fine balance needed for thriving environments but sustainable livelihoods.
The children watch
A tour into the fields
The Koro Hills make a striking backdrop
Substantial water pump
In the fields
The future of Kansema
And so to work. Another busy morning started with a meeting in the STEWARD office just opposite the guest house. Then we travelled a few kilometres up to a new school. A large number of guests had been invited in to get the formalities achieved as efficiently as possible. This included chiefs, politicians, representatives from various farmers organisations and a few others. In many senses this trip was a launch in the field of the third phase of STEWARD’s work in the region and it was vital to sensitise and observe due respect for the key decision makers in the region. Without their support nothing was going to happen.
Across the large trial plots
Well in the centre of the plot
Everyone introduced themselves and I surprised a few of my colleagues that I could muster enough French to apologise to them how bad my French was and that I was ” géographe qui travaille avec le teledetection et les Systems Information Geographique” . Slightly sweating I sat down again and hoped no one would ask me to speak again.
The next part of the morning was spent at one of STEWARD’s activities from past phases; a large development plot on a hillside outside Madina Oula. Several hectares had been hedged in and different organisations were working on improving the ground and making demonstration sites to teach farmers new techniques. There was plenty of scrubby space up here for expansion, but there was still a lot going on, as we were treated to orchards, beehives, fruit shrubs, tree nursery, bananas, crops, and goats, pigs and cattle. At each part of the compound we met up with various collectives, including a very enterprising women’s group that was developing their own ventures up here. We inspected their plots, the wells, the trees and animals, even the compost heaps. I absorbed it all; I am fascinated when people want to impart their specialisms on you, and whatever I could retain could be useful for Kofi and my work when we returned to Freetown; helping people map the activities out here, and do spatial analysis and comparisons with other data.
As we were making to leave, a middle aged farmer in navy blue overalls who had been following us around the plot invited us to cross the road to his own fields. He took a lot of pride in showing what amounted to a miniature version of the official demonstration plots. He had a set of small trees in plastic packaging ready to be planted out; he was multicropping to reduce pests and diseases, he composted and manured, he had a kind of drip irrigation system. This was extension in practice and it might only be a little win for STEWARD, but it was encouraging to see it happening.
I was glad of the sleep, despite being several hours behind UK time, I was fatigued from nearly two days on the go. It meant the next morning I was not too groggy to wake up for an early breakfast. Jean Luc insisted we travel as early as possible to the office; any later than 8 and we would spend the whole morning on the road. So after a quick breakfast we met our driver at the reception and descended the windy road into Petionville. We got through the town centre quite quickly but soon had joined the steady line of traffic down the main road towards the airport. We did well though, it took only two hours to get to the Ministry of Agriculture compound at the back of the airport.
The ministry’s building was a large colonial style edifice with striking yellow painted plaster walls, a green roof and white highlights on the large window frames and balustrades. Mainly two storeys but with an extra storey on stumpy towers and surrounded by tall shady trees; it must have been one of the grandest buildings in the neighbourhood. It also showed that agriculture had had high status at one time in the country, no doubt related to its plantation history. From the appearance of the buildings at the back; 1960’s and 70’s construction there had been some investment in agriculture then too, but it was to these newer constructions we headed towards. For the main building had been a victim of the earthquake, its facade badly cracked in several places, surrounded by a wooden fence it was out of bounds to everyone. Regrettably I could not see that Haiti would ever have the money to rebuild it.
The old building unsafe after the earthquake
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FIsheries round the back
So behind one of these buildings a small door took us in to a series of modest rooms that acted as the Fisheries Department’s national headquarters. I met the staff including the chief fisheries officer and we had several meetings. My main intention was to establish the meeting with the national GIS office and this achieved I talked with staff about what data they did have. A GIS had been established in the office, as I find in many places, but the staff were not confident in what existed on it or how the software operated.
We lunched in the staff canteen, as far as I could make out, but it was quite unlike any canteen I had ever been in. A short walk across the compound under the shady trees brought us to a house, little more than a chattel house with gingerbread roof and balustrades. The main seating area was an open terrace with room for about twenty people. We sat and had our dinners ordered – that old Caribbean thing about having a big plate of hot steaming rice and peas loaded with some hot spicy meat or fish. Washed down with the sweetest soda you could imagine. But the ambience of this location; a quiet oasis in the Port Au Prince valley and the good quality of the food made it a pleasant lunch.
Vegetables were grown on the island, but you tended to have certain people who were more savvy about making produce in quite a harsh climate. Cathy and her husband had a lovely house perched half way up Side Path overlooking James town and James Bay. They were distinctly based in the dry part of the Mediterranean zone. Not only was the rain water supply not sufficient for the vegetables to grow in , but the salty winds desiccated leaves with disastrous effects. They had all sorts of canny tricks to trap the moisture in and shelter the delicate plants from the harshness of this hillside environment. And every drop of water was conserved and reused.
Cathy Hopkin’s veg plot – coping with salt, wind and lack of water
On the Sandy Bay side of the island, perched almost in the clouds, people had other problems, an excess of water and humidity which allowed fungus and invertebrates to thrive in amongst their produce. The other predicament they tended to have here was that one crop would prodigiously crop for a couple of weeks but then not be available for the rest of the year. So there were weeks when you were eating pumpkin till it came out of your ears and yearned for a dish of it the rest of the time.
Sandy Bay (Mount Pleasant) had other problems
Seeing the number of microclimates and niches in the valleys and on the hillsides, I naturally assumed that you could grow anything anywhere, as I had been used to on several of the windward islands of the Caribbean but fruit especially was a problem on St Helena. Having imported goods brought in on the RMS meant that diseases could easily be introduced and decimate local fruit bearing trees. While procedures at the Customs department had been improved over the years, major infestations of several diseases in the past had destroyed many fruit trees and people were reluctant to put in the long term effort of re-establishing orchards with the overhanging possibility that all their hard work could be wiped out in one season.