Drought,Migration,matrimonial conflicts and Global Warming in Northern Cameroon
Driving past Ngong, a small district 40km to the south of Garoua – headquarters of the North Province of Cameroon (Africa) women are tilling the parched earth. Their hoes go up, are struck by the rays of the sun and they hit the earth raising a cloud of dust. Half-bent over, many have kids nestled to their backs.
“They are immigrants from the Far North.” The words came from Abba my driver, who cast a sorry look at the women.
For ten years now, there has been a steady stream of people from the northernmost parts of the country into the Benue plain. Men, women and children with small bags and a few clothes, walking and hitch-hiking to find a place with fertile land and water. They also come from Chad and other Sahelian countries.
As the Sahara Desert continues to encroach, shrubs and Sudanic type forests disappear and water sources dry off, Cameroon’s river Benue plain plays hosts to more visitors. Mainly subsistence farmers. All they need is land to build a hut and a bit to till and farm.
They are climate change migrants.
The process for their integration is the same. Whether it is in the little town of Ngong or down the valley at Gonougou near the Lagdo Dam, when these migrants arrive, they have to meet the village chief. The ritual may sound exotic.
“I have come from afar with my wife and children,” the head of the migrant family would say. “We have suffered from thirst and hunger and we need a place to fetch water and grow food. Could you find a place for us?”
As Halidou Tchouto, 3rd Class chief of Gonougou tells me, the local chief would then assemble his royal court. The local “elders” would investigate the newcomers to be sure that they are not witches or wizards.
“Where are you from? Did your people send you away or did you leave of your own volition?” are some of the questions the elders would put to the migrants. This is to ensure that no curse is brought to bear on the village.
A period of observation of the migrants follows, after which the local chief can then allocate a piece of land for the migrant family. However, the migrants are made to understand that this land does not belong to them. They have only been entrusted with it for while. At any time, this could be withdrawn from their care.
This migration thing may sound simple but its effects on issues to do with re-forestation and tackling climate change are deep.
The influx of people means the demographics of the Benue plain have changed. More people have to manage with the scarce resources like wood which is the main source of energy for cooking. Many more trees are cut even in places which used to be held as sanctuaries.
A tree takes about three to seven years to mature. This means anyone planting a tree on a piece of land expects to live on that spot for as long as the tree takes to grow. Consequently, people who do not own land cannot plant trees therein. Most campaigns by government and NGOs have missed this cultural challenge, thus failing to gain local ownership for sustainability. Inevitably, they fail.
As a result the plain is beginning to look bare. In the heat of the dry season, the grass looks golden brown and the fields spread like a leopard’s skin with black spots here and there. The black patches are fields were grass has been burnt in preparation for the farming season. Cattle herders also believe this rejuvenates the grass in the long term. Experts think this burning rather contributes Africa’s very little share to the process of global warming.
Beyond the fields, on the slopes of the rocky but scenic hills that surround the Lagdo valley, what cannot go unnoticed is the sight of women trekking in the distance with bundles of dry sticks on their heads. It is their role to fetch wood to cook the family meal. As each year passes they have to go further away to lay hands on the resource. There are fewer trees around.
Aminatou is one of such women. She is not comfortable with the idea of sharing her story with strangers. But the Ardo (chief) Tchotou tells her to speak. She narrates how she leaves her homestead each day at dawn before the sun comes out from its hiding place and heads to areas that could still boast of a few shrubs. It is a 6-hour exercise on foot to and from these rare bushes.
A visit through the paths used by women like Aminatou readily reveals their courage. Vast expanses of uninhabited territory where armed assailants roam at will. Stories of women being ambushed and raped abound. But Aminatou would not be drawn into that conversation.
Paradoxically, instead of men showering praises on the women for bravery and hard work, it is common to hear that they have thrashed their wives or sent them packing. The “old boys” suspect that the women indulge in forbidden romance on the firewood trail. It is the men’s rather dim explanation for the constantly increasing length of time it takes to fetch wood.
What a world! Who would have thought climate variations could have matrimonial repercussions at this level?
Upon her return around noon, Aminatou has to cook for her children. It is another role a woman must take seriously in these parts. But Unlike the other women in the village who simply fetch wood for their homes, Aminatou sells some of her sticks. A portion goes for 100 FCFA and she could make 500 FCFA (about 1 USD) on a good day. Part of the money is used to buy a few personal needs and the rest is spent on her children. She proudly introduced me to her kids suggesting that they are better off than most others whose mothers only depend on their husbands.
As I listened to her story, I could not help holding her in high esteem. What can I really do with 500 FCFA (less than $1USD) in a day? Of course her children were not at school, whereas I was visiting Gonougou in the heart of the school year. It pained inside to see so many children just hanging about without the prospect of an education.
As I left Aminatou’s Sahr (homestead), I met a man called Django who had migrated to the Benue plain ages before. He had come to work as a fisherman. The Benue River abounds in this part where it has been dammed to generate electricity at the Lagdo Dam.
“Even the fishing is difficult these days,” he says with a lot of pain in his voice. “The water levels have dropped and when the rains come places are flooded,” he goes on.
I could read from the multiple twists on this man’s forehead and the wrinkles around his eyes that he had seen many moons and times have been hard for him. In his 50s, he has to adapt to mitigate the threats posed by changing weather patterns. He is now a rice farmer. At least, areas around the Lagdo Dam offer this possibility, which he could not find in his native Far North province.
Neither, Django nor Aminatou mentioned climate change or global warming. It is not part of their vocabulary. But they have lived a lot of instability and social changes due to continuous dryness and the caprices of the weather, to suggest something is wrong. Chief Tchouto seemed to have a clue. That is why he has organised the village into a common initiative group which has set up a green-house with a nursery for trees. A species that can grow fast and big within three years, and therefore supplement the depleting firewood resources. They were even supported by the US Embassy in the country.
It is curious how things so scientific could have such telling effects on the lives of regular people. Whenever, there is news of rain falling heavily in the northern parts of Cameroon, I feel a mix of happiness and anxiety. Happy to know that the grass would have turned green around the Benue plain and the water levels would have risen to allow old Django to fish. Anxious to know if the rains have been so heavy rivers have overflowed their banks flooding homes and leaving persons homeless as in 2007.