Busy as a Bee

My Counterparts and I - The Lomié Beekeeping Trifecta! (Jean-Paul Gouffo, Yacouba Oussmanou Njindiymoun, and I)

**Warning: A few bees and PCVs were harmed in the making of this conference

I’ve had a lot going on the last few weeks, what with being called in on medhold, evacuated, moving, settling into Bertoua etc., it has been, to put it simply, exhausting, draining, and somewhat depressing. While I know the move was necessary and far overdue, it doesn’t make it any easier to leave behind good friends and projects. Needless to say, I needed a big ole pick-me-up to renew my enthusiasm and inspiration. Thankfully, this week I got just that! I headed to Bafoussam on August 5th for a 3-day conference on beekeeping. It was a very busy three days, but it was awesome! I’ll try to summarize with not too much boring detail and I’ll try to keep my oozing excitement over the conference at a minimum.

Before I was evacuated from Lomié, I had applied for a $4,000 Feed the Future grant for beekeeping with the Baka, as I described in a previous post a while ago. My counterparts for the project were Yacouba Ousmanou Njindiyimoun (the artisan who made my bamboo furniture and who often works with art among the Baka) and Martin Atangana, a local pastor and beekeeper. For this beekeeping conference, I brought Yacouba, since he was going to be the driving force behind the project and because he has accepted me and the Peace Corps with open arms. Since I was in charge of scheduling and programming this beekeeping conference, I was also in charge of bringing someone to train on ’best practices’ in beekeeping, so I brought Pastor Jean-Paul Gouffo, who has practiced beekeeping with the Baka of the Nomedjoh encampment, which is ~20km north of Lomié, over the past 18 years. With these two extremely motivated and hardworking men, I’m confident that this Baka beekeeping project near Lomié will succeed without me needing to be present.
Kim and I Working on Our Beehive

I got to Yaoundé on Monday afternoon and on Tuesday I went to the agence de voyages to travel to Bafoussam with Yacouba. I arrived and called Yacouba who told me “J’arrive!” - I’m coming! He claimed he was in a taxi and almost at the agence, so I got in the very long line to buy my ticket, assuming that Yacouba would arrive momentarily. In typical Cameroonian fashion, he was very late. I had already bought my ticket, loaded my luggage, and was sitting on the bus when the bus tickets sold out. It was then that Yacouba arrived. My bus pulled away, but thankfully Yacouba left on another bus just 15 minutes after mine along with a CED PCV (Brian Campos) and his counterpart Mohammad, both of whom are in Ngaoundal, which is near to my new village of Ngatt.

We arrived in Bafoussam and I met up with Kim, my fellow East Regionmate, and everyone met in the dining hall for dinner. Oh man, the West is quite abundant with food that I haven’t seen for a year! It was crazy, delicious, and probably added an inch to my waistline (thank God I’m moving to the Adamawa soon). Kim had just arrived from America and I had traveled from the East, so after dinner we were both pretty exhausted and decided to catch up and then catch some ZZZs since sessions started at 7am the next morning.

After stuffing my face at breakfast and having it be filmed by some random camera man, we finally started with the sessions. Day 1 was mostly theory and other information such as history of beekeeping, health benefits, beehive designs etc. While I already knew a lot on the basics of beekeeping, I also learned quite a bit as well, such as that African bees are the most aggressive type of bees. While my counterparts, other counterparts and I disagreed with the health information being disseminated (the PCV trainer was trying to claim that honey has the same nutrient value as white sugar - wrong!), it was overall an enlightening morning.

Extracting the Combs
At the end of Day 1, everyone headed over to a local economic community-based organization who dabbles in beekeeping. Someone taught us how to make a Kenyan top-bar beehive. After watching him make one, it was all of our turns. Unfortunately, since Lomi
é is so dang far and the road is nearly impassable at this time of the year, Yacouba and Jean-Paul decided it was better to just bring the disassembled pieces of our hive to Lomié and build it there, rather than attempting to transport it. Since we weren’t building our own, Yacouba, Jean-Paul and I walked around to help others. I paired up with Kim and her counterpart from Batouri, Pascal, and we finished with success!

Day 2 of the conference was mostly practical training on how to monitor hives, extract honey, and make wax, wax candles, and wax soap. In the morning we went to a local bee farm and watched the process of checking hives, making sure everything was in order, and taking out combs whose honey was ready to be harvested. Everyone donned their long pants and shirts and their homemade bee hats. Yacouba made him and I artisan rattan hats and together we constructed the veil out of the drapes from my house in Lomi
é. I was so excited to watch the process of checking the hives. I snapped away blindly with my camera (it was impossible to see the photos through the veil, so all the photos I took were a complete surprise). There were bees all around but none had any reason to sting…yet. Tiki, the Program Manager of the Agribusiness program, didn’t have any protective clothes on and he also has a huge fear of bees. Once the bees started exiting the hives, Tiki ran away as if he was being chased by Boko Haram.

Making Wax Body Soap
We all watched the honey extraction process for a while, and at the last hive, I decided to get up nice and close to see things better. As my fate would have it, this was the time that one of the beekeepers tilted the top-bar at too much of an angle and dropped the entire comb, causing a swarm of angry bees to gather. Kim and I started backing away slowly trying to stay calm (because bees can sense fear), as we made our way out of the hive area, we picked up the pace. Just when I thought we were in the clear, a bee entered under my veil. I remained calm and shook it out, but it then decided to enter my shirt…along with another bee. I then stopped, tried to stupidly shake my shirt to get the bee to leave, but that just ended up angering him (duh, Karen), so he bit me, and then soon after another bit me on my neck. It didn’t hurt too bad, especially for being only the 2nd and 3rd stings of my life and by apparently the most aggressive bees in the world. I removed the stingers and quickly ran out of the area. While I did get bit (which resulted in the death of those two bees), the whole experience of seeing honey extraction was completely worth the pain!

In the afternoon we headed to a beekeeping cooperative and watched the process of transforming honey (I.e. removing the honey from the comb), creative wax blocks, fabricating wax candles and wax starter sheets for beehives, and finally how to make wax body soap. It ended with us sucking on fresh honey combs, which might just well have been the highlight of the conference - and almost caused a riot over who got the last few bites of the leftover comb.

The morning of Day 3 involved another field trip to yet another bee farm. We watched as homemade melted wax was spread on beehives to attract bees, and then we watched the beehive get placed up in a tree (which apparently is better than placing it on the ground). After that we all headed down to see a series of beehives. We weren’t allowed to talk and we had to go see them in groups of 7 so as not to anger the bees. When we went down, bees landed all over us, but it was awesome because all the hives were super productive and well-populated. After many photo ops with my counterparts posing among the bees and pretending to work, we left the area. When I thought I was in the clear, I lifted the veil on my hat so I could see better. And yet again, with my awesome luck, I wasn’t in the clear and another bee came up and landed right under my lip. I tried not to move and waited for it to leave, but it wouldn’t. Then, again, I dumbly tried to get under it and flick it away - and of course, it stung me, as I should've foreseen. I ripped the stinger out as I felt the throbbing arrive to my lips. At least that would be the last sting of the conference!

Brian, Kim, Mohammad, and I (and some random dude)

When we were back at the hotel and conference hall, my counterpart and invitee Jean-Paul did a presentation on his beekeeping project with the Baka in Nomedjoh. He showed videos of Bakas climbing 50 meter tall trees in the rain forest to find honey and a few other videos showing the miraculous healing capabilities of apitherapy. He also shared his experiences and successes and struggles of doing beekeeping with the Baka. Everyone loved his presentation and learned quite a lot about beekeeping in the East and about traditional Baka methods of honey foraging.

The day ended with all the counterparts and PCVs receiving certificates for attending and completing the conference. We all gathered for one large 'family' photo and then dispersed for dinner. After sessions let out, a few PCVs and I and Mohammed (the counterpart from Ngaoundal) went to the local frip to see what we could find. After walking around the market for a while and munching on some scrumptious popcorn, Kim and Pascal (Batouri), Brian and Mohammad (Ngoundal) and I and Yacouba all headed out for some shawarma. We were the trifecta team from the East and Adamawa. Pascal, Kim’s counterpart, was extremely nice and knowledgeable, already having worked in beekeeping for some time already. Mohammad is hands-down the funniest and friendliest Cameroonian I have ever met - I’ve never known a Cameroonian to have such a great sense of humor, lively personality, nor have I known any other Muslim who goes to the night clubs and ends up dancing longer than any American. Yacouba loved hanging out with all of us, and we introduced him to his first shawarma ever. The evening was great. We joked, talked about the conference, shared our ideas on future projects, and enjoyed each others company. We all decided that we are going to work on organizing an East and Adamawa region-specific beekeeping conference that will be more specific on the climatic and local needs of our regions, and at this conference (perhaps to be held early next year), our counterparts will be the trainers. We are all really looking forward to it.

Saturday morning was spent enjoying the last of the free hotel food before everyone split off in their own directions. Yacouba was going to Foumban to visit his family, Jean-Paul was going to Mbouda to visit his mom, and Kim and I were headed to Yaounde. Thankfully, Mohammad accompanied us on the extremely long bus ride back to Yaoundé - and if it were not for his humor, the bus ride would have felt a whole lot longer. It was a jam-packed three days full of endless activity (which was overwhelming) and seeing a lot of other PCVs that I haven’t seen in a while (which was also overwhelming), but it was an amazing experience. Sadly, the freezing climate of the West gave me a bad cold which lasted the entire conference and which I’m still trying to recover from, but the whole conference experience was definitely one of my best Peace Corps experiences thus far. While learning about beekeeping was amazing, I think the highlight of the entire conference was meeting Pascal and Mohammad and getting to better know Yacouba and Jean-Paul. They are such fantastic, hardworking, and motivated individuals who are so excited to start beekeeping projects and collaborate with one another in the future. It was that aspect that has renewed my enthusiasm in my work here and gave me a much needed reminder that everything is going to be OK!


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