A place in the Congo River Basin forests

Ndongo people: reawakening the spirit of the forest

 / ©: Peter NGEA
View of the South of Nki National Park, at the borders between Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville.
© Peter NGEA

About 75 km up the River Dja from the frontier town of Moloundou in southeast Cameroon, a small village nestles along the riverbank.

One of the last villages along the river before the wilds of the gazetted Nki National Park take hold, Ndongo looks picturesque from a distance as visitors approach it from the river. But get a little closer to Ndongo and the picture that forms is a bleak one.

Ndongo before

The village is now a far cry from 20 years ago, when a foreign logging company came to the area. Life was good at first. Not only did the people have fairly good roads, but so did the timber lorries that began carrying wood away on a round-the-clock basis. It made movement easy for the locals.

One could feel the economy of the village booming as bars, restaurants and a church opened up. To the villagers, the logging company had brought what they believed were the best things in life.

Booming times thanks to logging

There was work for many people. Bobu Claude, 65, who worked as a “sawyer-man” for the company recalls: ”there was work for everyone, especially as the patrons of the company always behaved as if in haste and asked us to fell trees even all through the night.”

For those who had worked during the day, nights were spent in make-shift bars with dozens of truck drivers waiting for their loads bound for the port of Douala, over 1,000 km away on the Atlantic coast of Cameroon.

”Even our daughters made some money by dancing with the drivers and very few people were interested again in farm work”, says Lobbo, an elderly man.

The spirit of the forest is forgotten

Lobbo recalls that around that time, traditions such as the famous Jengi festival began ebbing away. Jengi is a special spirit of the forest that is believed to protect all the people.

“Everyone was so busy working with the ‘Whiteman’ that no one cared. The whole place was permanently filled with the noise of chainsaws and heavy machinery. No one thought of Jengi.”

The whole place was permanently filled with the noise of chainsaws and heavy machinery...

Lobbo, Ndongo elder

WWF arrives at the village

When the villagers were informed of the arrival of WWF to their area a few years ago, many thought: “this must be a crazy logging company coming to sell after the market.”

“Why should we believe in conservation?”

“At first it was difficult to convince them about our mission”, says Leonard Usongo, manager of the WWF Projects in southeast Cameroon. And with the Nki and Boumba Bek National Parks in the process of gaining protection status at that time, Ndongo’s 300 villagers were worried that conservation would mean even greater isolation for them.

“What do we gain from it? Nothing! Why should we believe in conservation?” demands one man whose fields are being ravaged by gorillas and chimpanzees, both protected species.

According to Leonard Usongo, “we cannot convince a community of the need to protect forests if we don’t acknowledge their problems or their poverty. We have to reassure them that our work is not in conflict with them but something that will result in a permanent resource for them,” he insists.

A better alternative to logging forests

The ghost left behind by the logging company helped. The people believed that better management by the loggers would have been different for them and future generations.

WWF’s presence is raising hopes. The villagers enthusiastically participated in the construction of a modern base house for the WWF South East Project in Ndongo and they are keen to be part of the conservation work. “Everyone comes up to me asking to take part in either anti-poaching drives or eco-monitoring missions in and around the park”, says Vincent Anong, WWF Field Assistant for Nki.

With the help of WWF, the people of Ndongo have set up an anti-poaching vigilance committee.

“We would know when there are strangers in the area and why they are here, because they would have to stay in the village. Poachers know that this village is against poaching so they come into the reserve by river without us knowing because there are no controls,” says Jean Pierre Eled, a local who works for one of WWF’s partners in the region, the German Development Agency (GTZ).

A revival for Ndongo?

Hope is returning to Ndongo. WWF is encouraging the villagers to form village-based Resource Management Committees that will take care of income from forest resources for the village and is engaged in efforts so that Ndongo receives “community forest” status for the benefit of the local population.

It may not be too late for Ndongo to recover from its sad past as the people now realize that if the forest dies, so will their way of life.

We cannot convince a community of the need to protect forests if we don’t acknowledge their poverty problems.

Leonard Usongo, WWF

 / ©: Peter NGEA / WWF CARPO
Children in Ndongo, Cameroon.
© Peter NGEA / WWF CARPO

And then the logging company pulled out

No one imagined that their forest, so teeming with trees and wildlife, could end up empty. It happened so suddenly! The company pulled out in 1988, leaving behind broken machinery and a land so devastated it could pass for a desert.

Ndongo after the logging fury

Today, Ndongo is isolated. It takes between 2 to 3 days for a person to travel to Moloundou by dugout, a traditional wooden boat. The villagers can’t travel by road anymore – there isn’t any left. And it is this lack of road that is the root of all their difficulties.

Largely reliant on their cash crop, cocoa, the villagers have to wait for the buyers to come to them. In turn, they are paid much lower than market prices for their produce because the merchants know the villagers have no bargaining power and must sell at any cost.

Needs and despair in the village

The village has no school or teacher. No one wants to come and work in a village that is so remote. For the children of Ndongo, the nearest public school is 7 km away and their education is suffering.

The women bemoan the lack of a health centre. At times, they say, people have died on the way to Moloundou in the dugout. “It’s a game whether someone lives or dies,” one woman cries.

The villagers are angry. “A road would mean life for us,” the village chief, Dieudonne Komanda, explains in a resigned voice. They have asked politicians for years to build one for them, he adds. But despite many promises, they are still waiting.

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