I am Anna Murphy from Scotland. The two-week volunteering experience with ERuDeF has indeed been full of surprises, all memorable, and one in particular absolutely magical!
I was warmly welcomed into Cameroon by brightly smiling Bertrand Sancho, whose gentlemanly nature I immediately appreciated as he demanded to carry my heavy backpack. Sancho’s passion was so energetic that I could not help but become even more enthused about the volunteering I had come to do.
Observing a goat being strapped to the top of the bus, much as if it were one of the cabbages it lay alongside, was not exactly something I had loved to see as we headed for the expedition proper in the Mak-Betcou area. The next day, I had to take part in the ERuDeF Conservation Education Programme in G. S Njentse-Andu. I was to face a classroom full of curious primary school students, and at the time this prospect daunted me far more than the thought of an arduous five-hour trek. However, by explaining my love for the apes and why I had come to help their protection, I was genuinely encouraged by the ease with which the children picked up new ideas, thus rapidly understanding why ERuDeF values conservation education so highly.
After an initial challenge of the next day, I relaxed into the tranquil atmosphere, enjoying the misty silence of the mountains and authentic beauty of the local houses. That evening the tranquility was broken by the talkative Chief Fondu of Andu as he excitedly gave us a tour of his palace, proudly pointing out the seven separate kitchens (one for each of the previous Fon’s wives) and lecturing us in considerable detail about the ceremonial uses of his many wooden masks and sculptures. But the pangolin and plantain stew will perhaps remain one of the most vivid of my memories: the fright of being shown the animal beforehand, adjusting to the idea of eating every single part of the animal, and the peculiar texture of the skin yet tenderness of the meat inside.
From the Fon’s palace, our next stop was the Mak-Betchou Proposed Chimpanzee Sanctuary. While waiting for the porters to ready themselves, I played with the Fon’s young children, encouraging them to draw gorillas and chimps, and explaining that no, they were not for eating. I hope the message got through.
ERuDeF is certainly working hard to sensitize these traditionally hunter communities about the importance of the apes. Chadeaus, our field guide, had certainly come round, proudly chirpily explaining the economic benefits of the pigs and beehives ERuDeF had provided, saying ‘the chimps are our friends now.’ But the expedition to the forest was what I had really come for, and it was phenomenal. The blue and purple butterflies dancing in and out of the shadows, the beauty of the trees whose trunks appear to extend into the canopy, and the intertwining vines and branches below, the methodical process of collecting data, knowing that each sign recorded will help persuade the government that Mak-Betchou is an area worth protecting, were so amazing.
The excitement of a fresh elephant footprint in the mud; laughing out loud when Bedwin, our kind-hearted fun-loving ERuDeF guide, appeared into the campsite with an angry chameleon; when I went for a pee in the forest and was greeted by a spotty little frog staring right up at me; the hours of trekking, or indeed sitting and waiting for the rain to pass, are all treasured moments. The most special of these revealed itself by cheerful and raucous vocalisations on the last day, and I was blessed enough to gain a glimpse of a chimp strolling down a branch and swinging away. My grin hardly dwindled the whole walk back to Andu. Next time, the most hidden treasure will certainly be the all-elusive, critically endangered Cross River Gorilla.