July 29, 2014

Growing up in the northeastern United States, phrases such as “dry season” and “rainy season” meant very little to me until recently. On Cape Cod, it was either cold, and everyone was miserable and complaining, or it was warm, the tourists were everywhere, and everyone was miserable and complaining. While Equateur does not experience the extreme dry season/rainy season divide that many West African countries do, there are still shorter periods of time with more or less precipitation. We arrived at the beginning of the short dry season, and since getting to the office in Mbandaka two weeks ago, not a drop of rain has fallen from the sky.

Just doing a bit of brick making to help with the heat

Just doing a bit of brick making to help with the heat

That is, until last night.

In a place that is normally quite hot (the average temperature is  about 23-28 degrees Celsius, (or about 73-82 degrees Fahrenheit), afternoons can get quite long, and I am sure my computer doesn’t appreciate the puddles of sweat that develop under my wrists as I’m typing. Usually you can catch a few minutes of cool air in the morning, but when I woke up around 6:30 yesterday morning the heat had already arrived. This heat often drives people to conduct social events (particularly church services) in the (very) early morning hours.

It was around 3:30 this morning when the singing began. While I am a huge advocate of music, I’m still unsure of how I feel about it that early in the morning. As I dozed in and out of a light dream world (services can go on for hours), I heard the low growl of thunder. At first I attributed it to general delirium, but slowly and surely, little drops of rain could be heard bouncing off the awning outside my window. And then, all of a sudden, the storm arrived.

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Large rafts are built so that charcoal can be made and transported easily down the rivers; sometimes all the way to Kinshasa. Those making the charcoal live on the rafts and sometimes spend weeks on the river, serviced by passing pirogue restaurants.

 

Although three or four weeks without rain doesn’t seem that extreme, it’s not exactly normal for Mbandaka, and it is very likely that these small changes in weather patterns may be due to the greater problem of global climate change. In a place like Equateur, which already experiences pretty hot temperatures, it’s hard to imagine that scientists estimate an average temperature rise of at least 3 degrees Celsius (about 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050. Continuing deforestation here would mean less animals for food, more crop failure (due to disease and weather conditions), more sickness, and less water. Because most of the disappearing forests are burned (either for energy or to prepare fields for agricultural production), huge amounts of carbon are being released into the atmosphere; deforestation accounts for about 20% of greenhouse gases emitted worldwide. In a place like Equateur, where there are limited health and social services and has been general lack of development overall, the results could be catastrophic for the people who call this place home.

Project Equateur (or Zamba Malamu as it is known locally) is working to find ways to mitigate this deforestation through education, capacity building, dedication and trust. The complexities involved in these types of projects are plentiful and complex, and many times unforeseen. (A very simple example would be the distribution of free mosquito nets by the UN to combat malaria, which are now being widely used as fishing nets, and are so efficient that they have caused serious over fishing). Mistakes have to be acknowledged and dealt with quickly, and the Project Equateur team has had its fair share of difficulties. Despite these challenges (and all the little things, like not having a stove or running water some days, or ants shorting out the solar panels all week), life and work goes on in Equateur, and it has been an extremely rewarding experience to be a part of this team (and to have a proper shower this morning—you can’t imagine how much dirt I have been storing in my hair).

Dr. Bush does a bit of light plumbing over the weekend

 

Until next time,

 

Eva

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July 21, 2014

Many years ago Mbandaka had a blossoming economy—this city on the edge of the Congo River was even home to a Nissan factory, and the streets were lined with colorful brick houses. Now, after years of conflict and neglect Mbandaka is beginning to change again–roads are being rebuilt and more goods are appearing in shops. Mbandaka is the capital city of the province, and so it is where the Woods Hole Research Center’s Project Equateur chose to open its home office. Mr. Melaine Kermarc is the manager of the project, and oversees the day to day operations here.  When we arrived we were greeted by five kittens (as well as a dog and the mother cat), who are ready to provide entertainment at all times.

Sunset over the Congo River

The newest members of the WHRC team

Today we visited another project site, Buya 1, which is about an hour outside Mbandaka. Buya’s remaining forest is a wetland forest—meaning that it is not suitable for agriculture, aside from a bit of rice production around the edges.  However, the villagers have other uses for the forest—they fish, gather, and hunt, both to supplement their diet (of which the base is manioc, both the root and leaves) and to have goods to sell at the market.

After a large group meeting at which locally appointed representatives were present, Dr. Bush, Mr. Kermarc, and Mr. Joseph Zambo, the assistant technical director, met with a group of hunters to ask about their lifestyles. Under a shady tree nearby, Dr. Walker used satellite images (and a translator) to ask lots of questions about land use and village boundaries.

Dr. Walker looks over satellite images with villagers while Dr. Bush, Mr. Zambo, and Mr. Kermarc talk with a group of hunters nearby

Earlier this week, we had the occasion to visit the Botanical Garden of Eala, built in 1900. The garden, although in a bit of disarray, is home to about 5000 species and spans about 370 hectares (about 914 acres). The Woods Hole Research Center is helping the garden’s directors map out their land so that they will be able to estimate carbon storage and biomass. These maps will also enable them to locate and monitor all of the different species. WHRC is also helping Eala build capacity within their staff so that the garden will be able to function as an environmental educational center in the community, develop a plant nursery, have some experimental agricultural plots,  and draw in more visitors from around the globe.

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The last catalog of the botanical gardens was done in 1924, and although there are files cabinets full of folders like these, they have not endured the humid climate very well

Heading out to do some fishing near the botanical gardens

Otherwise, most of the week is spent in the office–Mr. Zambo and I are working to develop educational materials about climate change and deforestation. Because illiteracy is common within many communities in Equateur, pictorial materials often work best–however we have found that many of the resources that already exist to educate about climate change focus mostly on the causes in industrialized countries (i.e. factory emissions, large scale agriculture, vehicle emissions, etc). Our materials will focus on explaining the effects of climate change, the causes of deforestation, and alternative practices that promote forest preservation, while also being visually stimulating and easy to understand and identify with. While I am here we will test out rough copies in Buya 1, and, if necessary, make alterations before distributing them on a larger scale. While I am not much  of a graphic artist, the challenge has been an exciting one for me and Mr. Zambo (my french is improving daily)–and things seem to be progressing well!

Until next time,

Eva

July 17, 2014

The only thing that can be heard above the throng of voices in the Kinshasa domestic airport is the screech of packing tape. People bend over suitcases, cardboard boxes, and woven plastic bags, tape in hand, turning their luggage over and over until it’s deemed ready to survive the flight. While guards and airport employees are everywhere, security is rather inconsistent, with some packages being inspected thoroughly and others remaining untouched. We did however, get to watch as a guard removed a few rogue baggage handlers who’d managed to sneak their way into the building, skillfully tying their hands together with their florescent uniforms, the only handcuffs available.

Although my male companions were lightly patted down as we were led to get our passports stamped, I was waved through without inspection (an almost unnerving experience, especially after going through airport security in Boston a few days earlier). We waited on the tarmac after a last light patting of our carry-on bags, and then boarded the bus that would take us about 50 feet to the airplane. After one more passport and ticket inspection (which I passed again, despite my name being listed as Mr. Eva McNamara on my ticket), we were allowed to board. And then, to my excitement, and for the first time in my life, I was allowed to choose my own seat on the airplane.

Downtown Gemena

Our flight from Kinshasa took us to Gemena, where Dr. Bush, Dr. Walker and I spent a few days staying in a mission house. The Belgian priest who resides there arrived in 1959, a year before Congolese independence. Other guests included a Belgian undergraduate working on her thesis and a Cameroonian theology graduate learning Lingala (the main language spoken in Equateur province), hoping to finish his mission fluent in order to be ordained early next year. We spent a few days in Gemena having meetings with our partner CEUM, hiring a new field team for the project in Bokumu-Mokola, and getting a grand tour of their village and forest.

This was my first time in a rain forest of any kind, and I have to say that it was extraordinary. Dr. Walker, the remote sensing expert, tracked our movements through the small paths with his GPS, and when we finished our 13 kilometer trek (about 8 miles), we had a very rough map and several waypoints, which included the local water source and the boundaries of the village along the road. Along the way the group stopped often, pointing out crops (lots of corn, peanuts, and coffee), many different types of trees (including ones with medicinal and cosmetic uses), and lots of different types of traps (for mice, wild boar, and even a trench for caterpillars). Caterpillars can be sold locally, either fresh or dried, but many are also sent to the market in Kinshasa. We had the opportunity to try some at lunch—overall a bit crunchy, but pretty mild in flavor and definitely not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten. Dr. Walker enjoyed his so much that he even took a second helping at dinner.

Foraging for caterpillars

Dr. Bush inspects the queen caterpillar, the biggest (and tastiest!) one

After trekking through the forest for a bit, we heard the ominous sounds of thunder, and sure enough, not too long after, the skies opened up. In my early morning haste I had, of course, forgotten my rain jacket, but luckily one of our companions handed me a huge banana leaf to keep dry. It worked surprisingly well (at least at protecting my camera), and not too long after we came across a small house, and were able to sit inside (next to lots of chickens and some nervous looking guinea pigs) until it cleared up enough to finish our walk.

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Dr. Walker realizes it’s about to rain

 

After our tour, Dr. Walker was able to show everyone a rough map of where we had been, which will help the local field team develop a more complex map of the forest carbon storage and biomass. If you want to see more pictures of our walk (and of the caterpillars!), head over to our facebook page, which can be found here.

Until next time,

Eva