Nick Burn is MRDF’s Programmes Team Leader. He regularly visits our partners to see how their work is progressing. We interviewed Nick about his experiences on a recent visit to Cameroon, where he worked with the Presbyterian Rural Training Centre (PRTC). PRTC provides people from marginalised communities in Cameroon with agricultural training that enables them to increase their incomes.
Had you ever been to Cameroon before? What were your first impressions?
No, I had never been before. The country varies greatly from the south to the north. I was struck by the lush tropical vegetation of the coastal belt. Roadside stalls were heaving with delicious-looking tropical fruits such as pineapples, paw paws and avocados, which is a contrast to some of the more arid countries where MRDF works. Large swathes of the land are also under vast commercial plantations of oil palm, rubber and bananas and although these provide one of the main sources of revenue and employment in Cameroon, wages are not high and poverty is still a big challenge. The climate became progressively drier as we drove north, where our partners work. Here, subsistence agriculture is the main occupation and we saw something of the challenges that Cameroonians who work their own land face. Land is under pressure, as farms are subdivided between children and steeper slopes are cultivated. Rainfall patterns have become less predictable and many people said they expect to plant twice at least, as rains are erratic. Although much of the land is fertile, borrowing money to invest and develop their land is very difficult.
What do you think are the biggest cultural differences between Cameroon and the UK?
Group and community activities are really important in Cameroon. Without the abundance of ‘entertainment’ that is delivered to us in the West, these are a source of real enjoyment. People are also very generous with their time; they would happily give up an afternoon for no personal benefit to explain what they were doing. In contrast to the UK age confers respect and status, so looking young is not such a preoccupation!
What is the landscape like where the Presbyterian Rural Training Centre (PRTC) works?
PRTC is based in the North-West region. The landscape varies from hills to mountains, and with few tarred roads driving takes time! Due to its altitude, the climate is relatively cool. The land is fairly densely populated although people don’t live in villages - houses are spread out as families live scattered within the fields they cultivate.
What is the food like?
The food is very varied; the main staple foods are rice, fried plantain, cassava, yams and fufu (maize meal). One of the national dishes is ndole made from a bitter green leaf vegetable combined with fish, beef or some other protein. It’s really delicious!
Were there any individuals who made a particular impression on you?
Victorine is one of the ex-trainees who completed PRTC’s nine month intensive farming course a few years ago. Victorine only has school education but she is confident, articulate and outgoing. She has started her own piggery project and has built a new house for her children and her mother. However, it is her desire to use what she has learnt from PRTC for the benefit of her community that was so impressive. As a result of the PRTC course she has become a major influence in her local community and is involved in supporting many different groups, sharing the knowledge and expertise she gained. A measure of the respect she is held in is shown by the fact that the Government Extension Worker always involves her in training if she is available. When he recently ran a training course on bee keeping he asked Victorine to mobilise all the local bee keepers, because she is known to be capable of getting people together.
What is so important about PRTC’s work?
The nine-month PRTC training course is intensive and practical. It is divided into three teaching blocks and during the breaks the students go back home to put into practice what they have learnt. There is no doubt that the staff members are real agricultural experts, so when trainees leave they have an in-depth knowledge of a wide range of crops - and they understand how to solve problems. Most trainees are relatively uneducated when they come to PRTC – many of them have been living by labouring for others. The changes we saw in some were very impressive. We met one trainee who was cultivating okra as part of a research study with the University of Cameroon. Recognising his ability, the university is using his expertise to study plant diseases.