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New Summer Study Abroad Experience in Cameroon

Interview with Dr. Joshua Linder

You've introduced a new study abroad program to Cameroon.  Where is Cameroon and what's this program all about?  

When people decide to travel to Africa most people visit Kenya or South Africa - few think of the country of Cameroon. Cameroon is located in western Africa, just north of the equator.  The program takes place in the forested, south west region of Cameroon.  

This 3-4 week long program introduces students to the biological and social complexities of doing wildlife conservation in a tropical rainforest.  Students learn by experience, not lecture, on this program.  They spend 1 week camping and hiking in a rainforest national park called Korup, learning the methods conservation biologists use to survey plants, monkeys, and other mammals.  This is one of the most biodiverse places on this planet - it has an incredible number of plant and animal species.

Students are also immersed in Cameroonian culture, spending time in a few different villages learning how local villagers live day-to-day and view conservation efforts.  Through informal interviews and discussions with local hunters, farmers, businessmen, scientists, park guards, and representatives of local and international conservation organizations students gain a deep understanding of the many varied perspectives on biodiversity conservation and human economic development.  Of course, we also have a lot of fun along the way, whether watching and participating in village dancing or drumming, buying souvenirs at local markets, visiting a Cameroonian university, touring a wildlife sanctuary, or relaxing on black sand beaches, many of which are not found anywhere else in the world.  Many of the species, including many of the monkey species, are also seriously threatened with extinction due to overhunting.

Wow, that sounds really exciting! What kind of student are you looking for to join this program?  Do they have to be an anthropology major?

I want to introduce the world of biodiversity conservation to a diverse array of students.  All I ask is that the person is physically fit, has an interest in nature and experiencing different cultures, enjoys the outdoors, doesn't mind getting a bit dirty and sweaty, and is a hard working, responsible student.  I think those students with an interest in anthropology, sociology, biology, or environmental science would be particularly attracted to this program.  But I take students of all backgrounds and majors.  I also take undergraduates as well as graduate students.

What are the requirements for students while in Cameroon?

Students are expected to keep a daily journal of their observations and thoughts.  This not only helps them to remember their daily experiences but forces the students to reflect on those experiences and compare Cameroon life to life in America.  Students also maintain a field notebook - that's where all their data are recorded.  They will be collecting quite a lot of information on the plants and animals of Korup National Park, the methods used to conduct biological surveys in the forest, local people's views towards wildlife and conservation efforts, and interesting or important social and cultural aspects of life in Cameroon.  Each student will lead an informal discussion of an assigned article on an important social or biological aspect of wildlife conservation that will ignite debate among the students and their Cameroonian counterparts.  After they return from Cameroon, each student submits a final report that pulls together all of their data and observations - basically a summary of their experience.  And of course students are required to actively participate in all activities.  Because there are no lectures or exams, the more a student puts into it, the more he/she will get out of it.  I give them the opportunity, I introduce them to Cameroon and Cameroonians - it's the student's job (with my guidance) to seek out answers and to learn about the country and its people.

What language is spoken in Cameroon?

Cameroon is a bi-lingual country of French and English.  Most people speak French, but the area we work in is English-speaking.  If a student knows French, this will be a good opportunity to improve their conversational ability.  But, knowledge of French is certainly not required. Students will also learn a bit of West African "pidgin" English - a language that originated during the Atlantic slave trade era.  It's a wonderful mix of English, Portuguese, French, and local languages.  For example, a porcupine in pidgin English is called "chuku chuku beef"!  In addition to English, French, and pidgin, most Cameroonians also speak at least one or two local tribal languages.

You led this program for the first time in May 2011.  How did that go?

I think it went really well.  The group of students that participated was great and that made the trip even better.  It took the students a while to adjust to the climate, the food, and the different culture - understandable given that Cameroon is not your everyday tourist excursion.  But I was really proud of each of them - they worked very hard and persevered through some difficult moments.  Most of them told me afterwards that this was definitely a life-changing experience that opened their eyes to a new culture and a new way of thinking about the natural world.  My landlord and good friend even named his new-born daughter after one of the students!

Any final thoughts about your Cameroon program?

This is probably one of the most challenging, yet rewarding study abroad programs that JMU offers.  While my goal is to teach students about the biological and social dimensions of wildlife conservation the trip really becomes a way for students to learn more about themselves and the world.  It gives them a completely unique perspective on their life in a developed, affluent country and the connection and interaction between humans and their environment.