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Travels in West Africa

Hello world!

Posted: October 22nd, 2010 by Jan Decher

Welcome to UVM Blogs. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!

Reading and Community Center for Kafogo, Sierra Leone

Posted: September 4th, 2008 by Jan Decher

Background of this Project

In 2006 I was approached by Nippon Koei UK to conduct a baseline small mammal survey for the Bumbuna Hydroelectric Project (BHP) in the Upper Seli River valley, Sierra Leone. The BHP will supply electricity to the capital Freetown and the city of Makeni downriver from the dam (Fig. 1). This development project that was delayed by twelve years of the devastating civil war in Sierra Leone.


Our work involved the sampling of small mammals along the Seli River Valley in the future area of the reservoir. The electricity generated will NOT benefit any of the villages upstream of the dam. Instead, some of the villages’ low-lying rice fields and palm groves will be flooded by the reservoir and travel between villages on opposite sides of the new lake will be made difficult.

Uncertainties remain about the Faculty-Led Program to Ghana

Posted: December 29th, 2006 by Jan Decher

I am in the middle of fighting with WEB CT to get my course content on the web. Unfortunately the planned follow-up Faculty-led Program to Ghana remains uncertain after first major grant request to support Ghanaian students and instructors was rejected. We did get a small grant to support a service learning element (Current idea: “Helping to build a reading room in a rural village affected by a protected area”). My Ghanaian colleague, Patrick Ekpe, at the University of Ghana Botany Department, is optimistic that we will find funding to realize the expedition – if not in May 2007, then perhaps in January 2008.

I had a holiday card from John Maxen at the Natural History Museum in London today. He has been a great logistic and moral support during and after the most recent survey project in Bumbuna, Sierra Leone, in January of 2006. Hard to believe almost a whole year has passed since that expediton began. A few days ago our local guide Minkailu from Kafogo (the one with the medicinal plant knowledge) called me again. He got the books but not the letter with some funds for the reading room project there. I promised to send more books after the course is over. Unfortunately, the telephone connection was bad and too brief. It must cost him a fortune to call me on a cell phone. The inequalities between our life and life in Africa are always present, be they economic, technical, or educational. Yet, that also makes connecting to Africa fascinating and rewarding.

Lessons from Sierra Leone

Posted: October 28th, 2006 by Jan Decher

I have been back from Sierra Leone for nine months now, working on the final report of our small mammal survey for NKUK. During our visit to Sierra Leone I had access to the internet only once at the very end in an internet café in Freetown. Needless to say I did not post any “dispatches from the field” to this Blog and haven’t visited it since our return.

I am now in the process of converting the experiences from this and several previous expeditions to West Africa into my new course “Challenges and Issues in African Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development” which is to cover everything from nature preservation to community development to indigenous rights.

In find myself torn between the extremes of John Oates’ Myth and Reality in the African Rain Forest and Jim Igoe’s Conservation and Globalization: A Study of National Parks and Indigenous Communities. The course should convey these extremes and provide no perfect answers but lead to stimulating discussions and thought.

Thanksgiving 2005 – Still Waiting

Posted: November 23rd, 2005 by Jan Decher

Still no definite go-ahead from London after we send out desired departure date (January 1 + 2) almost 2 weeks ago. I send a follow-up note today.

I also changed the title of this blog to “Travels in West Africa” alluding to the famous travel diary by Mary Kingsley from 1893. In chapter 1 of her book she has this entry upon arrival in Sierra Leone from Liverpool, England:

“We reached Sierra Leone at 9 A.M. on the 7th of January, and as the

place is hardly so much in touch with the general public as the

Canaries are I may perhaps venture to go more into details

regarding it. The harbour is formed by the long low strip of land

to the north called the Bullam shore, and to the south by the

peninsula terminating in Cape Sierra Leone, a sandy promontory at

the end of which is situated a lighthouse of irregular habits. Low

hills covered with tropical forest growth rise from the sandy shores

of the Cape, and along its face are three creeks or bays, deep

inlets showing through their narrow entrances smooth beaches of

yellow sand, fenced inland by the forest of cotton-woods and palms,

with here and there an elephantine baobab.

The first of these bays is called Pirate Bay, the next English Bay,

and the third Kru Bay. The wooded hills of the Cape rise after

passing Kru Bay, and become spurs of the mountain, 2,500 feet in

height, which is the Sierra Leone itself. There are, however,

several mountains here besides the Sierra Leone, the most

conspicuous of them being the peak known as Sugar Loaf, and when

seen from the sea they are very lovely, for their form is noble, and

a wealth of tropical vegetation covers them, which, unbroken in its

continuity, but endless in its variety, seems to sweep over their

sides down to the shore like a sea, breaking here and there into a

surf of flowers.”

(from: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=5891)

Conservation in Sierra Leone

Posted: November 14th, 2005 by Jan Decher

PouringLibation.jpgNo further word or contract from London yet. As usual these expeditions crunch on their starting deadlines. No matter how long term things are planned the actual implementation with visas and equipment orders always gets under time pressure.

This morning I read the chapter on Tiwai, the monkey sanctuary on a large island in the Moa River, southwestern Sierra Leone, in “Myth and Reality in the African Rainforest” (Oates 1999). What a sobering account of one hopeful “community based conservation project” initiated by Oates and others in 1981. But John Oates does not just blame the competing local factions and the growing political disorder in the country after 1991, but also “the tendency [of foreign planners] to design conservation plans likely to provide significant future benefits to themselves or their own organizations…”(Oates 1999:93).

The image above illustrates an example of traditional protection: Adumanya Sacred Grove in Ghana.


Oates, J. F. 1999. Myth and reality in the rainforest: how conservation strategies are failing in West Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press. xxviii+310 p.

Anatomy of a Biodiversity Expedition

Posted: November 9th, 2005 by Jan Decher

This is the beginning of a diary about my upcoming small mammal biodiversity survey in Sierra Leone. An attempt to write and reflect about this experience from the preparation phase through the actual field work to the final report stage.

It is not just a factual log but hopefully will reflect thoughts, enthusiasm, worries, and interdisciplinary connections that go beyond the task at hand: providing systematic and zoogeographic data on small mammal (bat, shrew and rodent) distributions in one region of Sierra Leone to be inundated by a new hydroelectric dam. This will be one of several biodiversity reports (pdf) to be produced for this development project.

As I write this, our proposed date of departure is January 1 or 2, 2006. Return about 4 weeks later. These dates have been submitted to the contracting agency (NKUK). We expect to be mailed a contract, sign it, and start ordering supplies, get medical checks, and apply for visas.

It will be my first trip to Sierra Leone. I have worked with a colleague from SL on previous Rapid Assessment Programs (RAPs) organized by Conservation International in Guinea and Ghana and I have a faint connection to the YMCA in Freetown through a partnership with the YMCA (CVJM) in my native home region of Westphalia, Germany.

“Freetown” also reminds me occasionally of the Graham Greene novel “The Heart of the Matter” which was set there.

I hope this weblog might set the stage or open a dialog forum for a new course/seminar on “African Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development” which I hope to offer here at UVM.

(J. Decher)

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