Living in the Community – Heat, Dryland, Wetland and Water

I did find the heat at night very difficult to deal with.  When you looked at what Fintonia was built on, you saw in the main that it was sitting on bare rock.  It was a massive dome shaped hill of stone that had a few areas where soil had built up, but usually you dug down more than a few inches and you were on the bedrock.  I realised it was for a good reason; in the wet season you wanted to be in the driest possible place.  With all the buckets of rain that would fall daily from May to October, you didn’t need to live in waterlogged soil and you wanted that water to run off into your surrounding valleys, not fill up your living spaces.  The downside was that during the dry season in particular, these rocks heated up intensely through the day, and at night radiated back into the houses.  This was why I was so hot at night and no amount of aeration of the rooms was going to make a difference.  I saw that many people in the houses around us would take rush mats out on to the veranda or onto the ground in front of their houses and lie there at night, idly chatting , trying to rest.  It was just that amount cooler to be in the open air and on soil than in a bed in a claustrophobic room with a concrete floor radiating through the heat from the rocks below.  Of course these people had to deal with the mosquitoes but maybe it was still more comfortable.  I could have really done with a hammock with a mosquito net to form a cocoon strung up on the veranda.

We continued our work with our guys each day, we worked on more types of plot.  One day we went into the valley bottom and walked one of Demba’s own fields of rice.  A healthy crop of green shoots were wallowing in a thick muddy soil; the sun on our backs and the humidity rising from the sodden soil made it a challenging environment to do work.  Added to this was the boundaries of the field – raised bunds built to contain the water during the early growing period were now strewn with tangled weeds.  We walked the entire bund together first to look for any challenges and mark out where the key turning points were.  Then we left Demba to carefully plot out his field.  He had calmed down a lot since his first rash enthusiasm.  He was a man who did not like to be shown up, and seeing how Karim and Alusine had patiently become quite expert in how to operate the GIS made him all the more determined not to be left behind.  We also walked some family plots with houses, and finally went up into the scrub to look for fields in the dryland areas.  These proved hard to find and I often have trouble with these myself.  To determine that there is a field here is not a problem, but to both identify the boundary between field and scrub, and determine the status of a field like this is very tricky.  People cut the scrub or burn the excess vegetation off in one season, but may not get around to returning to the site for a couple more years to cultivate.  By that time the scrub vegetation, the herbaceous bits at least, will have invaded back and parts of fields can look neither cultivated nor natural.  Where do you draw the lines here?

It was obvious the number of these fields in the drylands were increasing and the scrubby forest degrading away.  We were told later that we should not concentrate on these lands.  There were issues not only with who should be giving out this land to farmers, what they were taking for themselves and effectively squatting, and even in defining where the boundary between one village’s lands and another’s was not an easy task.  When the populations up here had been low it was not a massive problem but ,even with the losses in the civil war, the pressure of population up here was starting to fill in gaps between the villages – an ever increasing demand for land to graze and cultivate crops.  As I had seen, people walk a fair distance from Fintonia to tend their crops; others have stopped this commute all together and set up their own small villages in other places closer to where they are cultivating.  I wondered at the availability of all the other amenities a settlement needed – was there enough water in these areas in the dry season for example.  Fintonia was in a good site.  the hillside we could see against glowing evening skies was a massive rounded rocky outcrop and several permanent springs exuded a fresh supply of water for the village.  I had seen the small dams they had put up to tank the water, and it was piped down into the river valley and back up to the small hill on which Fintonia sat and the head of water from the dam was enough to sustain pressure from a number of taps set around the village.  The rubber pipes were mainly on the surface.  One reached a standpipe about hundred metres from our house, but the pipe, exposed to the elements and all the human activity, had sprung leaks.  It did mean while someone was using the tap to fill large buckets or bowls, often you could stand over a leak and collect enough  for a pan or kettle of water without having to wait your turn.


In Demba’s rice fields

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.

Capturing the Diversity – Dampier’s Drip

Before desalination, this must have been the supply for all the barracks and residences, stores and everything.  Rain did happen on Ascension, but apart from on Green Mountain it was very rare.  We truly were on a desert island.  The water catchments too, were not the first solution to gathering water.  When Ash and I had come down the mountainside from our rat monitoring walks, I mentioned to him that one location I had never been to was Dampier’s Drip.  It was only a short detour from our route back to Georgetown, a small track broke off at one of the final hairpins as you descend and took us to a shady tree glade hard up against where Green Mountains steep sides meet the lower plains.  William Dampier was one of Britain’s most famous explorers at the turn of the 18th Century, and circumnavigated the globe.  His name adorns many placenames from South America to Australasia.  He had to abandon his ship, the Roebuck, in Ascension Island off Clarence Bay in 1701 and was marooned on the island for five weeks till another passing ship was able to pick him up.  He must have thought what a godforsaken island Ascension was – the harsh volcanic landscape would have been much more stark than now – most of the vegetation we see today has been introduced since those days.  The crew’s prime concern must have been to get some freshwater, and they must have searched long and hard before locating this little cliff.  If you look up you might see that although it can hardly be described as a valley, there is a definite V shape, with outcrops of very soft lava cliffs worn into caves and hollows,  and the water from the rainfall and clouds up on top could come down to this point.  It became a place where water collection was common place and there are still old tanks there.  Old shards of bottles have been collected up, quite perversely perhaps.

The tale of Dampier finding this crucial water source has passed into island legend and his name is attached to this location.  A wonderful tale of survival in the wilds, except for one big detail.  If you follow Dampier’s very accurate description of the route you need to take to find his water source, it takes you to the other side of the ridge and into Breakneck Valley.  It makes more sense that a reliable water source is over the south east side of the island where the wind tends to blow from (and the water catchments were situated).  But obviously someone thought that this Dampier’s Drip gave enough supply to build the tanks.