Archive for November, 2010

Déchirer (Friday, 2010 November 26)

November 26th, 2010

It is my opinion that one of the reasons immersion works so well as a language learning technique is not because it forces you to practice, but instead because you already know, 90% of the time, what the other person is about to say, so you can quickly build a vocabulary of words that fit your context. For example, déchirer, which means "to tear up", which is what I did to a student’s paper in 2C today. She came up to me after she’d finished the test and said she’d forgotten to put her name on the paper, and after I gave it back and studiously watched her, she changed some of her answers. This was the third or fourth ridiculous stunt of bullshit I’d had in that class so I just went to the A-bomb of "I am tired of my students’ shit". She seemed pretty shocked. "You changed your answers! I caught you!" I said, practically pleading for her to see sense. "I had thought some more," she responded.

I kept the top half, which fortunately she had finished putting her name on. She kept the rest. And when the other students asked why I had déchiréd that feuille, I already knew what they meant. And when I said that she had changed her answers, they didn’t seem shocked at all.

Lost my temper in a similar way in Premiere over similar outrageous acts of tricherie ("cheating"), like moving to different seats, copying overtly from other students, discussing the problems, stealing blank papers, etc. Screamed at the littlest one for a good twenty seconds. Wasn’t enough. Had a couple students come to me afterwards and say that giving them a zero wouldn’t be appropriate, because it would "dirty their academic record". When I offered, loudly, to discuss it with them and the censeur, they backed down.

Also took a kid’s USB key in the salle today because, like I said, we do not use keys in the salle. They carry viruses. He did that incredibly infuriating "pardon" hand gesture and even started to shed some tears (which, yeah, softened me a bit, but I am more stubborn than I am maternal), and I knew it wouldn’t really be fair to steal a USB key from a student, no matter the circumstance, but I let him stew for a while before explaining why we don’t use the keys and what viruses do ("This computer doesn’t boot any more. It’s a problem with the operating system. Now I have to reinstall the operating system on this computer.") and then giving it back to him. Somehow this seemed to make a big impression on him.

And despite all of this, and despite not getting enough sleep last night due to the wedding (which was awesome — more about that later), I was a fountain of patience when the students in the lab after class started to turn off power strips without turning off computers. "No, stop that," I said, calmly, and then explained why we don’t do that, and how to do it properly, instead of flipping out at them in English like I did yesterday. So all in all I feel like today went pretty well, despite being a neverending shitstorm of disappointment.

Plus, check out this sick burn, courtesy of mom:

so here’s a question for your exam. compare and contrast these two groups (for sufficiently large definitions of group): "But for chrissakes how many fucking times are you gonna win the race-the-moto game before you get sick of it? How many times are you gonna play Spider Solitaire on Easy, with hints?" and "All of which is a fancy way of saying ‘So that’s why I’ve spent a lot of time lying in bed playing Nintendo DS’" for extra points, please explain why "pretend I’m not in a country where "computer literacy" means understanding Caps Lock." isn’t culture shock already.

Yeah, well. Back to Rocket Slime.


Épuisé (Wednesday, 2010 November 24)

November 24th, 2010

Title by request of Julia. Épuiser means to fatigue, or wear out, and I think it comes from the word puiser, meaning to draw water (i.e. from a well). Saying you’re épuisé is therefore akin to saying you’re all used up, all drawn out, or simply worn out. In our discussion on franglais this past weekend, Timothy distinguished this from the word crever, "blown out", said of a tire, which also can be used to say "I’m completely exhausted", but whereas épuisé implies that you’re tired because of working really hard, crevé could just mean something came along and creved you.

Rather than hand-writing the tests on the board this sequence, like I did last time, I decided it would be easier to control the cheating if I handed out photocopied tests for each student. This way, I could replace talking while I was writing on the board and questions about my illegible handwriting, with talking while I was handing out tests and questions about the illegible photocopies. So today I went to the secretary’s office to photocopy my exams for tomorrow, and possibly the day after if there was time, but after an hour and a half I just didn’t feel up to waiting any longer and quit while I was ahead (with the tests for tomorrow). I guess I should be glad our school even has a photocopier (photocopieuse), but it almost turned out to be more work.

Then there was club. Hysterics ensue when you open the lab door in front of 40 students. I don’t mind getting pushed around a little bit, but I am worried that one of these kids is going to get damaged. So we practiced entering the lab in an orderly fashion a few times, including a comedic scene in which I yanked the fuses out of the wall, shutting off (almost?) all the computers (and possibly damaging one? It still boots, more or less), until I gave up and handed control over to the officers of the club, who exert too much control for my American taste. And then of course everyone just uses the computers to play games. I guess this is as much my fault as theirs, since they already know how to play games, and if they don’t understand the things I am asking them to do ("Find the software called GIMP"), they’ll just revert to what they know will amuse them. I guess a similar principle explains why, even when they decide they want to draw, they whip out Paint and not, say, GIMP. (Let’s leave aside the question of whether GIMP’s interface sucks. It’s not like they know how to use Paint either.)

I mean, I understand on some level that video games are still new and fascinating to them. But for chrissakes how many fucking times are you gonna win the race-the-moto game before you get sick of it? How many times are you gonna play Spider Solitaire on Easy, with hints? Or is the answer, "We’ll just put more games on the machine"?

And then afterwards, I got a support call from "the boys", who weren’t capable of operating their machine the way Big Brother Boris had set it up, and then a random girl from Première came in and wanted a bunch of English tutoring. She came with a copy of a test — the test that she was going to have tomorrow? — and wanted to know how to turn verbs into nouns — she had started with "to succeed" -> "success" and so I went with that, but towards the end when she started employing gerunds I started to wonder what the hell the teacher was looking for. Vocab? Grammar? Sure enough there was a chapter on gerunds in her notebook, despite her swearing up and down that teacher hadn’t taught anything about verbs or nouns in the time she’d been in class. Towards the end of the two hours I spent with her, I was getting fed up. It is hard for me to accept that a student in première, which is the equivalent of junior in high school, does not know words like "they", "gold", or "talk". Of course, it doesn’t help that they barely know French either. "A rebel? That’s a kind of monster, right?"

A quick glance at the Critical Periods in the Life of an Organization Volunteer chart suggests that I am towards the end of month 6 and moving into months 7-10, so there’s a forecast of "Slow work progress", "Language plateaus", "Cross-cultural frustration", and the long-awaited "Culture shock". That’s the one I’m really excited about.

All of which is a fancy way of saying "So that’s why I’ve spent a lot of time lying in bed playing Nintendo DS". Which, yeah, isn’t as satisfying as working on my "How to teach Python" stuff, or (what I really want to do) sinking into a Nerd Trance for 8-10 days and adding IMAP IDLE support to offlineimap or otherwise just writing code and pretend I’m not in a country where "computer literacy" means understanding Caps Lock, but it’s a lot less work.

Anyhow, I hope all of you are having a happy Thanksgiving, plus or minus. Tomorrow I will be at some wedding or whatever, so don’t worry about me! I definitely have plans and friends and things!

This is what things looked from the balcony in Bangou. Well, it was a little like this, only a million times more beautiful in person. See that mountain off to the right, whose peak is hidden in the clouds? Apparently there are a whole range of them.


Clando (Sunday, 2010 November 21)

November 21st, 2010

Working here as a volunteer with the Organization is a 24/7 job — you don’t "go to work", you "take leave". And leave is scarce. You get 24 days a year "for free"; you get to travel sometimes for committee meetings; you get a week off for training with other volunteers; and there’s a new policy of "mental health days" which maybe gets you a few more. Altogether it’s maybe 40ish days a year, which Respected Directress keeps saying is a lot of vacation, except it’s not vacation, it’s weekends, and it’s hardly any weekends. Which is fine; we’re here with the Organization to suffer, and if things were too easy we’d be unhappy.

Nevertheless, to make up the difference a bit, there’s a volunteer tradition of something called "clando", which means leaving your post without officially taking leave. Apparently the more accomplished volunteers have managed to leave the country without notifying anyone. The Organization tends to frown upon such things, not least because of safety concerns — if there’s an emergency, they need to know where you are fast. But Cameroon’s a pretty safe place, right? So what’s the big deal?

I’ve been hesitant to write about my experiences flouting the rules, despite the fact that this blog explicitly violates the rules, but I just realized that the worst they can do is send me home, So, screw it. Plus, other volunteers are posting fucking Youtube videos!

This past weekend I was at a party in Bangou, followed by a cultural ceremony called the Zeuh Dance, which is apparently "performed" exactly once by a chief to honor his departed father. I say "performed" despite the fact that it wasn’t a thing he specifically did, but maybe something he put on. A large number of people danced while more-or-less walking around in a circle, and other people fired guns. (Traditional guns. This seems to be a pattern here in the West.) It was a lot less impressive than I was hoping it would be, but maybe I was just too tired from being up too late the night before.

Wrote to myself that night, the night of the dance party:

19 nov 2010

Party at Bangou. All the Cameroonians are gone. It’s 1 AM, roughly 3:30 AM in the Cameroonian context. Mostly sober now. Music is still going on, still loud, and a few PVCs are still dancing to it.

Stood on the balcony here at Xxx’s. Looked down for a while at the bobbing and weaving below, the Americans spinning and dancing to a jazzy swing tune. Four of them, two nominally attached. Looked up at the horizon, where there were maybe a dozen points of light, few enough that you could count ’em. A fluorescent light maybe at a lycee or something, a radio tower with blinking red lights, maybe a private residence here and there. Looked down again, saw the four Americans again. Realized that for better or worse, they’re my family now, so better get used to it.

Which isn’t like "man, fuck these guys for being in my family". It’s more like a recognition of an existing fact. Then there was more drinking and a few aborted attempts at dominoes — it seems like actually finishing a game of any kind at a party just doesn’t seem to work — and then I went to sleep on my sleeping pad, which has a leak or something, but did the trick. Dreamt about something warm and pleasant, perhaps failing my students. Woke up with the other volunteers. Watched the ceremony. Risked traveling at night to get home Saturday night instead of Sunday morning. Collapsed, woke up Sunday due to "the boys" knocking at my door.

There is a video that some people talked about at the party. It’s pretty funny to me. Not sure what you will think of it. You know you’re an *Organization* volunteer in Africa when… My favorite line is: "Spiders are no longer your enemy, but your trusted ally in the constant battle against bugs."

Other news: the poule de Dieu stopped by for a visit again today. She scratched around a little for crumbs, and "the boys" chased her out after she tried to sit on one of the armchairs. I’ve been thinking about what the logistics of keeping her would be, what that would even mean. Could she stay in the other bedroom? Should I build a coop for her, like mom thinks?

It’s past my bedtime, otherwise I’d post a panorama of the view from the balcony in Bangou, or write about how amazing the well was. Later, I guess…


Saison seche (Wednesday, 2010 November 17)

November 17th, 2010

It’s officially the saison seche, dry season here in the West, and the change is stunningly simple and distinct. The week before last it rained every day or two, enough for me to gather water to bathe with and even do dishes. Last week it rained once, hard, cutting power. This week it isn’t going to rain at all. Instead me and the "boys" went down to the marigot to fill my fût. This past weekend their family, as well as Madame Dorothé (and possibly children of her family too? Not sure) were down there straightening it out and it really shows. Where before there were mud pits, now there are cailloux, stones, thet have been collected from god knows where and laid out in a relatively stable arrangement. The marigot itself has also gotten some work; the kids did the equivalent of mucking it out to make it a little more smoother flowing. It’s a lot more pleasant and the water that comes out of it is a lot cleaner — it’s still a little green, but there’s less obvious dirt floating in it.

I don’t have any pictures of the New Marigot, but here are some of the kids working on it.

Marie Chantal, who is the mother of "the boys", is behind Dorothé here. I think the girls in the background are Ma-Cha’s kids.

Muck, muck, muck.

A hundred liters, bitches.

I also tried to cook sweet-and-sour cabbage wedges yesterday. It didn’t work great, but it was edible, and it’s a little better today. Maybe next time I should follow the recipe more exactly.


Poule de Dieu (Tuesday, 2010 November 16)

November 16th, 2010

So it turns out that Bonheur’s name is not actually Bonheur, it’s Brondon, which isn’t relevant to the story except that he says a few things and I’d like to have his name right.

I think this happened Saturday, after we got back from the deuil — which I haven’t written about, but I was a little tipsy and it was hot, so I was sitting on a chair and trying to rest. Suddenly I hear Brondon hissing, and I look to see that in the doorway is a black chicken. Brondon was trying to shoo it out. It didn’t look hostile, just confused, self-conscious, perhaps hungry.

"Une poule," he said ("A chicken"; interesting grammatical side note on the difference between poule and poulet, which is the same difference between "pig" and "pork").

"What is it doing here?" I asked.

"She’s looking for food."

I laid my head back down and considered this for a while. The next day I would discuss eggs with Cristina, and she would tell me that instead of buying the standard eggs for, e.g. 1700 CFA for 30, or one-at-a-time for 75, she preferred to buy the oeufs du village, "eggs of the village", which tend to be a little smaller and with a much brighter yolk, for 125 apiece. The brighter yolk, she would say, indicates the better health of the chicken, which are the free-roaming chickens that you often see in villages in Cameroon. The eggs you buy by the alvéole, literally "pit" but also the cartons that hold 30 that they use to transport eggs, tend to come from chickens in giant wooden buildings who don’t get a lot of sun or love, and probably only get what they need to survive, so the eggs are lower quality.

Brondon returned to cooking or doing dishes or eating or whatever it was he was doing and so it came to pass that as I sat and looked wonderingly at the doorway, the chicken came back. It was a little more insistent this time, standing its ground as Brondon shooed it away with short lunges and sweeps of the arms.

"Why is it here?" I asked. "Where did it come from?"

"She’s a poule de Dieu," Brondon said. A chicken of God. "She was probably used in some ceremony and then they let her go."

Which, I guessed, meant that she belonged to God now. "Do I have to feed it?" It seemed awfully rude to show no hospitality to God’s chickens. Does it bring good luck to feed God’s chickens? Is it like praying?

"It’s only that you don’t have a place to keep her," Brondon said. "If she stayed, she’d shit all over." Indeed, the chickens that my host family kept back in stage stayed in a little closet near the kitchen, and on my first night there I stepped in their chicken shit. I mulled this over, considering the possibility and concluding finally that he was right.

But the idea of a poule de Dieu stuck in my head for a while. What must it be like to be a poule de Dieu? Assuming you weren’t sacrificed or eaten, of course. Your existence had only really been intended for one thing; afterwards, what did you do? Of course it was hungry — it was unemployed. And increasingly desparate. At this point it was trying to get in through the glass pane in the door.

Somehow I began to feel a kinship with this chicken. I’ve had this goal, to be in Africa teaching computer science, for a long time. That it’s actually happened often seems like a giant accident, but sometimes (in the words of Neal Stephenson) that the events of my life "are wood behind the point of a spear". But then what? What do you do after your life’s work is over? One day I will have to come to terms with this. One day soon, I will be a poule de Dieu too.

I left then to try to find the chicken. I got to the courtyard in front of my house, looked around a bit, but she was gone. The courtyard is pretty empty right now, not a lot of plants or anything, so a chicken can’t really hide anywhere. She’d flown the coop, so to speak.

"She left," Brondon said. He’d come out to see what I was doing.

"I wonder where she went?"

"Maybe she’ll stay with someone else."

I looked off to the right. The sun was setting, and the clouds were all red and yellow. There was nothing for it, so I went back inside.

I don’t know where the chicken is now, but I hope she’s doing all right, supplying some lovely oeufs du village to some neighbor or maybe living free, like the feral chickens Gus told me about in Hawaii. Apparently they get by; they can flap up into a tree or something if a situation looks dicey. I know it’s unconventional, but somehow I hope for something like that for her — a life free of convention for a liberated chicken.


Déchargé (Monday, 2010 November 15)

November 15th, 2010

Gosh! Haven’t written in almost a week. Partly that’s due to not having power; it rained Wednesday and power went out during club, and then steadfastly didn’t come back for the rest of the week, nor the weekend either. Strangely enough, power was back in the rest of the village, but not here at my house or the school. It finally just came back in my last hour of 4e.

During this time I gradually used every single electronic device I had until it was completely out of power. In English we have a clumsy phrase "out of power", but in French you can just say "déchargé", discharged. Whereas the English word "discharged" brings to mind all sorts of other meanings — "I discharged my duties.. as a soldier in the Army of the North!" .. "The patient presents with a variety of discharges.".. etc.

It’s kind of fascinating the kinds of social structures that exist here for the unreliable power situation. You can ask a storekeeper to charge your cell phone for a while, or leave it with a friend, or go over to their house to charge stuff. I ended up going over to Cristina’s, she’s the other volunteer here, she lives about an hour away, for four or five hours to make an attempt to charge everything, mp3 player, handheld game, electronic ink reader, laptop, spare battery.. I didn’t get everything, but I got enough to make it to here and now, so I guess that’s enough.

Being without power for a period of time like that is a very interesting experience. I became lethargic, unmotivated. I have five classes of quizzes to grade but all I wanted to do was lie down or go to bed. I don’t think it’s just me, either; Marie-Chantal said something about how when the power is out, you just want to sleep, you don’t feel like working.

There’s a lot of other stuff to write about, but it’ll probably be a little while..


Poverty (Tuesday, 2010 November 9)

November 9th, 2010

Went to Bafoussam today to buy a ton of groceries and some housewares — specifically something to use with the non-stick frying pan that I bought, since I don’t want to scratch it up any worse — and wound up with a bleach explosion. This makes the second time since I got to country! Not a big deal, except that another shirt is now kitchen rags, and I have a bar of bleached baking chocolate. It’ll rinse off, right?

Also, I have spent almost all of this month’s allowance already (again). Big ticket items this month were a fût, a barrel or cask, although it’s really a garbage can that I’m going to use to store water, which cost 17,500 (I didn’t try to haggle; that seemed fair enough for me); a dishdrain (3000 CFA; similar); some cans of meat (beef pâté??) at a thousand CFA each; another bottle of peanuts for 2000 CFA (should have haggled this?); spices (paprika, garlic, and basil, at about 1000 CFA each); and a certain amount of caramel, which is a little like peanut brittle.

That’s mille franc of caramel, and it was good too, better quality than what you get in the village. Picture graciously taken by Christine.

Here are some other random pictures to provide context:

This is Judicael. He’s in the same family as Bonheur and Parfait. He’s in one of the troisieme classes that I don’t teach.

This is about half of their family. They took my camera with them to church one day and took a lot of pictures. From right to left: Judicael, Bonheur, Boris (my terminale student), and Maewa (who is in one of my 3e classes).

Chickens. Parfait half-covered the flash, I think, but it’s a pretty striking picture, isn’t it? They brought this home yesterday — their mom was in Bafoussam, I guess she got them there.

Close up of the chickies.


-glais (Thursday, 2010 November 4)

November 7th, 2010

Today’s post is titled after the third and probably least significant part of the word Camfranglais, which was coined to describe the mélange of languages that one speaks here. ("Il va die", "he is going to die".) It happens to be the part I know best, which is why Parfait and Bonheur have been coming with a certain frequency to study English. My approach to teaching English at this level has been a little more fruitful than my approach to teaching computer science — I can correct pronounciation in English, which I don’t do in informatique. Mostly I think they just want to make sure they’re understanding correctly — English classes are taught only in English, so it’s easy for them to get lost, misunderstand a word, etc.

I also happened to use my langue maternelle today to chew out a couple of students. Losing your temper and blowing up in another language has a number of compelling advantages as composed with other techniques. One is that your students are not just culturally discouraged from responding, but completely and totally incapable of it. Another is that you can tell them exactly how you feel, not having to settle for what you know how to express. Anyhow, I felt a lot better afterwards. Highly recommended for any volunteers reading this.

The students in question were some of my 3m4 class who wouldn’t stop joueing, and after I had told them once (in French) to shut it off, that he knew the rules, I felt no qualms about shouting at him to get out of my class, especially the little annoying one who is always making noise. After they moved to go, and then hung out a while, I shouted "Do you think I’m stupid? Get out of my class! Get out! Get out! Get out!" And then when the little annoying one didn’t move fast enough, I took a few menacing steps towards him. It’s illegal to hit students, but the implied threat worked wonders. He still kept trying to sneak back in, though.

There’s an old story among my group back home about a teacher who flipped out at a class once and ranted something that started with "Fuck! Fuck! You putrid bastards!" Let’s say I understand him a lot better now. (Even if the story goes that he was actually a substance addict.)

But other than that classes have been fine, I’m feeling way more on top of things this week than I have in a while. Sure wish I had Internet, though..


Meubles (Encore) (Wednesday, 2010 November 3)

November 6th, 2010

Today I finally received a substantial part of my kitchen. Voila:

I "ordered" (commander) this table about two months ago. He said it would take a few weeks. Then there was some stuff about how he was sick, and then he was helping at the hospital doing vaccinations or something. But today he brought it to the market and I was able to hire a pousse-pousse to get it up the hill. Total cost: 9500 CFA.

This provides an opportunity to discuss my other cooking equipment.

This is my "plaque à gaz", which is only about a hand’s breadth high. It’s basically just two knobs and sparkers. There’s a marmite, "cooking pot", which has some water in it for pasta.

This is where the bouteille is. There’s a knob you turn to put gas on, or to turn gas off.

Posing with the new equipment.


Éloigné (Tuesday, 2010 November 2)

November 6th, 2010

[Edit: this post was once called Déconnecté, but that name was taken by a post on 2010-10-15. The new name, Éloigné, translates as "made distant", and corresponds to the fact that I’d left my Internet key in Bangangté.]

Haven’t had Internet for the last few days due to stupidly leaving my Camtel key someplace. Should be getting it back soon. I was talking to some other volunteers lately about how not having bought Internet has changed their experience, and how at first it’s tense but then it changes to feeling like you don’t have a pressure to keep up. I feel like I almost had a moment of that, but then it went away. Mostly I’ve been a little bored, feeling like there are lots of things I would love to be able to do this week, since I have a little bit of free time, but cannot because I’m déconnecté. This translates into: doing housework, going shopping (iron: 6000 CFA; frying pan: 4000 CFA), cooking a little bit, and helping Parfait and Bonheur with their English lessons. They come to me with notebooks full of notes on what happened in class, which was given entirely in English, and they try to make sense of it all while I watch.

This is my day off, but I was still dragged into school for two or three hours to help various administrative people with computer stuff. Somehow I still managed to scrape together exactly enough time to watch Serenity, which was long overdue. It made me feel a bit better, counteracted the looming feeling that my service here is going to be the foundation of shared experiences which makes me feel nonunderstood by the people I care about.

Still haven’t quit service. The Big Meeting with all the other people from my training is in a little over a month. You can do it, comp sci..

Here are some random pictures of Emily that I took at graduation. These weren’t staged or anything, just my typical "Surprise!" kind of shot.

Emily is lavishly and profusely photogenic.


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