Africa conquers the Andes

Monday, 18 February 2010. At 3h45 the phone rings, I fall out of bed, it’s the director of an NGO in Madagascar. He tells me the two staff that have just arrived in Kigali have been arrested by the police and locked up in a cell, he doesn’t know why. He also couldn’t know I’m in a different time zone. The two are to work with the Support Project for the Strategic Plan for the Transformation of Agriculture (PAPSTA), but I can’t call Janvier, the project coordinator, as he’s with us on the tour. So I call André, field coordinator of KWAMP, who says he’ll look into this. At 4h10, when I call Madagascar again to calm them down I hear that the problem has already been resolved, it was something connected to the visas, we don’t know the details and at this point we don’t need to know.

Short sleep till 5h30, fall out of bed, get ready, back on the road. We pull out of Arequipa after a quick trip through the colonial centre with its white stones, and start climbing the cordillera. Arequipa itself is at 2300 m, the surrounding snow-peaked volcanoes more than 6500. At 3000 m, Beatrice, our guide, start a coca chewing demonstration and distributes small plastic bags of leaves. At around 3000m, tucking our little bundles of coca leaves away in the cheek pockets, we drive past road signs saying "zona de neblina", but I think the two are unconnected.

With strong arguments about preventing the altitude sickness, Beatrice manages to convince all Africans to give it a try, except Janvier, who is apprehensive for the proximity to cocaine. Martin from Malawi claims feeling high, which is probably the altitude. At 4040 m, he doesn't feel any better. Beatrice prescribes chocolate. Here we also pass vicunas grazing next to the road. These camelids belong to the government, but the locals own the wool. We pass the Aguas and Salinas Blancas National Reserve, and Martin starts feeling better. A little further up, going through the crater of the Chucura vulcano, we encounter two intriguing plants adapted to extreme conditions: bright green lumps called Asorela compacta, and Pecnofilium that resembles a yellow-greenish pancake. Shortly afterwards we pass the highest point at Patapampa, 4910 m, and thanks to Beatrice's tricks not a single soul feels sick.

Alpaca country

However, upon arrival in Chivay, Véridianne gets hit by altitude sickness. Again the PROCASUR experts jump in, conjure an oxygen bottle out of somewhere, reassure her and advise to rest.

Meanwhile, the session starts. Carlos Leyton, ex-minister of agriculture, gives a presentation on challenges of the Southern region of Peru. The crops of opportunity per micro-region smack a bit of the priority crops declared by government in Rwanda. A real dilemma is the conflict between farmers and mining businesses, including individual miners that have no links to the place they mine and no interest in not polluting the water.

But time is short, we are rushed off to the municipality and administration of Caylloma Provine, were we are surprised by a reception with brass band, traditional dancers with men comically disguised as women. Having been invited by the group to dance on the main street outside the municipality, we are invited in. Long and fiery speeches are made, and each routero is presented with a large decorated heart of bread as a sign of friendship. The endless ceremony again moves on to joint dancing, a little surreal with giant bread hearts, and before we know it we have moved from relatively to badly behind schedule.

Back at the hotel, we are glad to find Véridianne feeling much better. In the conference room, we learn about the general setup of the Southern Highlands Project, its impact and outreach, and enjoy a short film on the project. The ensuing discussion clarifies many issues (on financing details, sustainability, poverty focus, obligations of winners of competitions, women representation, etc.) and keeps the level of attention well high with full participation until 20h00. A full day ending with a rush to the cybercafé to send my blog on its way. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get a connection tomorrow, so please bear with me.

Claus Reiner, Country Programme Manager, Rwanda