Archive for December, 2010

Retourné (part 2) (Monday, 2010 December 27)

December 27th, 2010

Back to post again. I’ve been here for 20 minutes and I’m already bored and morose. I’ve spent the last few days with other volunteers and a lot of time watching movies and TV shows. We deep-fried everything. I think I’m going to try not to eat for a day or two.

Going out to [the village where I spent Christmas], the car I was in knocked over a moto. Everyone turned around to look if they were OK, but we didn’t even stop. I was sitting next to a gendarme at the time, he didn’t seem especially upset.

And now, three car rides later, I’m back at post and "the boys" are still wandering in and out of my house. It’s weird that when you want to be alone, your best bet is to go to another volunteer’s post. Priorities for the next few days include: laundry, writing code, doing paperwork, planning at least one lesson for Monday, and trying not to spend any money. Maybe I’ll try to be sociable and stuff too. I’m not exactly happy to be back — maybe that will come when I am in Bamenda — but I am capable of smiling at strangers again.

Here are some of the better pictures [edit: almost all the pictures] from the last few weeks:

Jenny’s cat, I think his name is Aristotle, and its most recent kill.

We passed a bunch of plantations on the way down to [training]. I don’t know what the giant spiky things are, they look like giant pineapple plants.

Begin Here team.

This might be the same car we saw with a person riding on the hood, which is excessive even by Cameroonian standards.

Karen, showing off her new camera.

One of the training sessions where me and Jenny decided chemical enhancement would be appropriate. Allison is holding a connect-the-dots that Jenny drew for her, or she drew for Jenny.

I couldn’t decide which of the many "we love Paul Biya" pictures to put here. Shit gets wild on the beach.

Bus to Yaoundé. Julia, Timothy, and me.

G.I. Jake on the seat ahead of us, boozing it up with the Cameroonians.

The famed "nut balls" of our "hometown", plus the caramel my host family made for me.

Timothy, Timothy’s postmate Kim, and Kim’s neighbor Fernand. We ordered him to dance and sing for our amusement.

For Christmas we did a "chefferie crawl", where we went to one chef’s house for a party, which then migrated to the other chefferie. The first chef, informally known as "Papa Chef", was born in Paris and lives in California. This is his daughter and her husband, who is British and speaks French funny.

One of the other chefs and his wife. Her dress was the real Christmas miracle. When we split up to go to the other chefferie, somehow all the ladies ended up in his car, as if by sorcellerie.

Timothy’s friend Flobert.

Kareen, Kim, Timothy.

Who has two thumbs and needs a shave?

Papa Chef, taking pictures of the other guests using his Blackberry.

Timothy showing off his wizard robes. This fabric is a traditional Bamiléké fabric.

Bitches don’t know about my boubou.

Get out of bed, lazy bones.


Some shit we deep fried: potatoes, onions, green beans.

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Christmas (Sunday, 2010 December 26)

December 26th, 2010

We deep fried an avocado, among other things, and as we were lifting our glasses to a toast, we managed: "To surviving the holidays!" So far so good.

It still doesn’t feel like Christmas; it’s still tropical, you still sweat walking up a hill. But to the Cameroonians, it’s definitely time to fête! We spent the day with the traditional chef here, who we affectionately refer to as "Papa Chef", mostly eating and drinking. Today we spent in bed watching MacGyver. So it’s been a kind of vacation for us, and I’m getting to the point where I’d like to be doing something useful. Back to post tomorrow — gotta do laundry and dry up in time for New Year’s.


Retourné (Wednesday, 2010 December 22)

December 24th, 2010

[FB Status: And then I woke up in a pickup truck in a village called Makénéné with a film on my teeth and a clarity in my heart.]

When I woke up on the car in Makénéné, I realized very quickly three things:

  1. I was lovesick. It’s one thing to have a crush on another volunteer — a dubious thing, but a thing. Being lovesick is not acceptable.
  2. Everyone who was worried about my drinking — Jen, Suzanne, Jessica W., Timothy, and anyone else — was completely right.
  3. The last week or so has been fun, but seeing my host family is what really recharged me.

At 5:30 AM I woke up to pack all my stuff in order to go "back home", i.e. where we had our first training, with Julia. Around 7 we headed out of the case in Yaoundé, where I left what were left of my sachets, and headed to Super Amigo Voyages, a 400 CFA fare. We paid 1300 CFA for tickets and not too much later we were on a bus headed out of town. We left at 8:25 and "touched down" around 10:45. Me and Julia headed our separate ways, and after I delivered a few Xmas presents that other volunteers had asked me to bring, I spent most of the day with my family, who was utterly thrilled to see me. My arrival was something of a surprise for them (and, I guess, for me), but we rapidly fell into conversation. They cooked for me my favorite breakfast — omelette and fried plantains, followed by pineapple for dessert.

I caught up with everyone, including Vlado, who can talk a little bit now — he responds to questions, occasionally names random objects ("Chaussures!!", "Shoes!!") or emits phrases like "Voici ça", "There it is", and "Je ne blague pas avec toi", "I’m not kidding around with you". It’s really adorable and a lot more fun than the mostly-mute child I left behind just a few months ago. Astride is on vacation from Yaoundé for some school in which I have no interest whatsoever; Nadege is preparing to retake the Bac, and is doing mighty well in math, English, and even informatique; Maman has been sick but I didn’t get to ask why. We talked about the most recent theft at [training], we talked about the volunteers they’d gotten from the stage after us — apparently they were party animals, like every other stage except ours. Maman said that she and one of the other mommies cooked for the entire stage rather than just a few days each week, and they regarded the fact that nobody had gotten sick as proof that one of the other mommies had fucked up during our stage. The new stage had two "desertions" pretty much right away, and the volunteers they hosted taught Nadege how to cook stuffing and cookies. Nadege says the stuffing didn’t turn out very well.

It was a real trip down memory lane going back. For three months, this little city was Cameroon for me, and it’s amazing to see it with fresh and experienced eyes. It’s much better paved than my village, and it’s much hotter. The students from model school don’t derange, they ask if I remember them (which I don’t, but hey). And it was super-nice to be someplace I knew geographically — the case in Yaoundé is a great place to be, but Yaoundé is something of a mess and I don’t really know it very well. Whereas once we got off the bus, the moto driver got lost trying to find "Lotus Bleu" and I had to direct him and point out to him where it was. (That felt GREAT.) It felt like years since I’d seen this village, but it’s only been months. Julia pointed out that if you analogize with post, there’s a real possibility that before long people at post will love us and miss us the way our training village does. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The family encouraged me to leave by 15h if I wanted to be back at post before dark, but they also wanted me to eat dinner so I didn’t really get out of the house until almost 16h. By that time the cars to Bafoussam were a little thin and I had to wait a little before a pickup truck pulled up and four of us got in the back and hit the road. Being awake since 5:30 was beginning to catch up to me and I had just started to realize that I was in a Bad State when I fell asleep, and when I woke up the following things were clear.

  1. Lovesick. If you want to touch someone but are afraid to, that’s lovesick. If you are confused and upset when someone buys you things, but you also want to buy them things, that’s lovesick. It’s a great foundation for codependency and neediness. Informaticien, debug thyself.
  2. Even though I’ve only gotten sick from it once, I think I have definitely been drinking unhealthily. I don’t think it’s just the breakup, but I’m sure it plays a part. I think it’s mostly burning out on being a teacher and volunteer, the endless work and recurring problems. I haven’t done the reading I promised I would do about substance abuse, but it "feels like" drinking relieved the tension I’ve accumulated and probably provided an escape from having to be responsible any more. While I do still believe at least some of the rationalizations I wrote Jen, namely that I’m "exploring the space" of possible Ethans, I woke up certain that I had made a hash of the last week and a half, and assuming anyone in our stage came through the last seven months with any respect for me I think I successfully deep-sixed it. Jen nailed it when she said that she wasn’t sure this is who I wanted to be.
  3. Whereas just talking to some relatively intelligent and educated Cameroonians, specifically Nadege, and the other people in my host family that really cared about me, notably Maman, made me feel like my work really did have value, and that it really was possible for me to make a difference.

A few years ago, when I had a crush on someone named Judy, I just said, "Hey, I have a crush on you and I don’t know what to do about it", and then when she didn’t know either, I gave up on her. And in fact that seems like a pretty sensible thing to do right about now, when I have a tentative crush on someone who seems tentatively uninterested. But I’m not sure I want to be the kind of person who says "Hey, I’m in love with you so fuck off", and my fallback strategy of ignoring the problem until it goes away is also getting kind of old.

This is about when we started to pull into Bafoussam. Like many other cities, Bafoussam is beautiful at night, and combined with the release of the last weeks’ tension, I found that I was actually happy to be back. I’m not done voyaging for the vacation, what with Christmas at Timothy’s and New Year’s at Allison’s (money permitting), but today’s theme is retourner, returning, to my host family, my village, and my senses (or anyhow the senses of one possible Ethan). Best part: I spent the night at post, so I wasn’t clandoing!

P.S. Notable thanks go to Aunt Jeanie, my parents, and my dear friend Adam, whose packages I managed to bring home today. They sent respectively: medical supplies and "graven images" of Spongebob Squarepants; a ton of candy (including candy corn and chocolate!) and conditioner; and a towel, a spatula, more candy (including spearmint leaves — oh, that takes me back), and VALENTINES (they’re really planning ahead). Thanks guys!

P.P.S. I am looking at the postage on these packages and they are INSANE. You guys are crazy. <3

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Déshabillé (followup) (Wednesday, 2010 December 22)

December 22nd, 2010

One other thing I forgot to mention: when we were in the water, it started to rain — really pour, the first time I’ve seen rain in weeks. Some people climbed out of the water and dashed away, which was confusing — are they taking shelter? ‘Cause we’re already wet — but then later some of them came back. I guess they wanted to make sure their stuff was dry, so they put it in the bar, which was then promptly robbed. Weird that skinny dipping turned out to be the responsible thing to do.


Déshabillé (part 2) (Tuesday, 2010 December 21)

December 21st, 2010

Apparently skinny-dipping in [this town at this training event] is a tradition at this training event, which is part of why we felt a need to go out and do that. But that it was just the four of us was disappointing by the standards of other, less inhibited stages. (There was also another group from my stage that went skinny-dipping when they got here before training.) So Thursday, at the bonfire (!) that the more motivated volunteers had put together on the beach, people decided that we needed to do another skinny-dipping expedition. Apparently last year they held hands and sang Christmas carols.

So we decided to try again Thursday. I left my man-purse with Julia and then we were all in the water again, doing all the absurd things that a bunch of slightly inebriated and relatively young people do. We did hold hands and sing for a little while, but we couldn’t agree on a carol so it wasn’t really coherent. And Ben kept sneaking underwater and grabbing people to spook them. I think we were talking about that when we heard a pop noise from the bar, like a bottle of champagne misfiring. We all looked and then we heard another one, and all these people were running in and out of the bar. It looked like people were running away, but some people were running back in. Suddenly it clicked that the noise we heard were gunshots. This is when I got scared. Specifically:

  1. Am I going to die?
  2. Did anyone shoot Julia?

We didn’t know what was going on, but those of us in the water stage-whispered good advice: stop talking, spread out so that if people were going to shoot at us, they’d have a hard time hitting us. We waited a tense little while, and then we saw three men sprint up the beach, and then (it seemed) climbed into a bush. Jake was hot on their heels, but he wasn’t chasing them; he came down to the water and shouted, "Guys, put your clothes on and get back to the bar! We’ve been robbed!"

"Jake, they’re RIGHT OVER THERE!"

"Over where?" And then he dashed off to follow them. Later he said he had been trying to get a look at their getaway vehicle, but didn’t see anything. This is the sort of reason why I call him G. I. Jake ("a real American hero"). We scrambled up onto the beach and got dressed, some of us needing a little bit more help than others, and then we went back to the bar. They had taken pretty much every wallet/purse but nobody was seriously hurt. Julia had gotten a cut on her little finger and was in tears, apologizing that they had taken my wallet, and Andrea had gotten a cut on her back, but everyone was fine. Everyone was safe. And that was so important to us.

If you’ve ever been in a weird situation like a robbery or even a car accident, you probably know more-or-less how things played out afterwards: we waited for more official people to take care of things, and we fretted and worried and debated what had happened and what was going to happen, without being able to do anything about any of it. The owner of the bar, an older French dude, had been hit on the head. We didn’t know where his girlfriend was (turned out she had taken a moto to go get the cops). Eventually Organization admin shuttled us across the street back to the hotel in a car in groups of seven or so. "New kids go first," the second-year volunteers said.

Me, Timothy, Allison, Jenny, and Jessica congregated in Allison and Jenny’s room, decided that for once alcohol wasn’t the worst way we could deal with the situation. Drank, shot the shit, and around midnight decided that the hints Jenny and Allison were dropping that they would like to go to bed were clear enough. Me and Timothy continued to talk for another hour or so before eventually calling it quits.

The next day I got an attestation de pert, a laminated piece of paper that says I lost my ID card so please don’t arrest me. I’m in Yaoundé right now, originally intending to get a new ID card but apparently the cops found all the documents (which I guess the thieves got rid of). So now I’m just hanging out and maybe I’ll go to Bafia tomorrow? I’m kind of thinking/hoping that I’ll stay away from post until I want to go back to post. But that hasn’t quite happened yet. Getting robbed is already almost a footnote to what has already been so complicated and bizarre..


Alien (Monday, 2010 December 20)

December 21st, 2010

OK, great, right now I’m in the real throes of culture shock, which is where I wanted to be when I wrote this post. The combination of high-pressure sales tactics with outright theft — not the thing at training, I’ll write about that next — plus whatever other shit is going on in my head just put me in a "fuck everything" mood. Let’s see if I can’t sublimate that into what Adam called "long-form cynical sarcastic proof that you haven’t been kidnapped/your account compromised".

So, first, Japanese culture is completely fucked. Everybody knows this because they have cartoons where tentacles have sex with animals or whatever. This fact was well known throughout the States, but we never realized that other cultures are completely fucked too.

Allison hasn’t been posting to her blog lately, probably because most of the things she does are illegal and she doesn’t want to incriminate herself. Anyhow, she’s on the record as saying that she finds this country a lot less difficult to adjust to than, say, the UK, because in the UK everything is only a little bit different. That’s not a problem here, of course.

The fuckedness of the culture here can be broken down into the following large, arbitrary, inconsistent, and overlapping categories: the people, the language, the environment, and the habits.


There’s not a lot to say about this, and certainly nothing I can really photograph. J-C is basically the best example here. I just want to share one story. One day I was taking roll in 2e. It was like this:

"Twenty two?"


"Twenty three?"


"Twenty four?.. Twenty four? Twenty four absent. Twenty five?"


"Twenty six?"



She’s really dead. Apparently she was sick. Apparently it was her stomach.

Have you tried the spoo? It’s quite fresh today.

I hope you like wizard hats. Timothy sure does.


Le Cameroun est bilingue — Cameroon is bilingual. What this means is practice isn’t well defined. Partly it comes from the weirdness that is French, such as ads for "infographie", which sounds like a strange blend of "information" and "pornographie", or "bureautique", which sounds like a strange blend of "bureau" and "erotique" but actually means something like "typing up documents". But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg; English makes cameo appearances from time to time, always in the "wacky neighbor" capacity. Sometimes it’s talking to J-C and him using a formation like "Come by around one-and-a-half P.M.", and sometimes it’s packaging that says ridiculous things like "choco pasta".

I have no idea what teleboutique means, and I don’t know if they’re serious about their cyber éspace or if they just want you to know that it’s a space where cyber is available.

It’s rough when you have to speak another language all the damn time just to be understood, but it’s even worse when that isn’t enough and you have to speak your native language at a soul-crushingly slow pace because someone wants to practice. Fine, let’s practice, but I’m bilingualer than you are and when the bottom drops out of your aptitude I am going to club you into comprehension.

Sometimes the people here are industrious, and you have to admire that they’re willing to put bottles into their walls and break them instead of going out and buying real barbed wire. But at the same time, is even that much necessary? Why can’t it just be a wall?

Sachets really deserve their own post; here I will only note that if you ever wanted to be drunk but without the inconvenience of having to drink a whole beer from a heavy glass bottle, you should be interested. 100 CFA (20 cents) buys you 5 cl of 45 proof alcohol. Buy ’em in bulk and save!

P.S. This is an idea that we’re bringing back to the States with us.


Weirdness here includes: people play checkers, but on a 10×10 board instead of an 8×8 board. Putting things on motos in general is weird. J-C arguing with taxi drivers over 200 CFA until there are no more taxis and we have to hire a moto to carry my furniture and another to ride.


If "Habits" is weirdness in-the-head, then "Environment" is weirdness in-the-world. So, for example, the fact that light switches are often but not always the opposite of what I’m used to back home (so, down for light instead of up for light). Or even the lightbulbs themselves. Maybe this is European style or something, and I don’t hate it, but it’s just one more goddamn thing that doesn’t fit.

Depicted: a mandarine or orange. Oranges here aren’t.

This sort of insanity even extends to the plant kingdom. I’ve seen plants that don’t make sense. Here’s one from the Lycee.

Here’s one where the leaves are also flowers.



I often find that it’s easier to stop thinking about this as an African country not too far in distance or character from my own. Instead I think of myself as an astronaut in a "first contact" situation, bravely exploring a world and society that is completely alien. This is almost too easy sometimes — everything down to the red dirt supports it.

Cameroon is a really beautiful country — especially once you subtract the Cameroonians. There are times when I really love it, especially when I’m on a moto ride through the hills with the sun on my arms and the wind in my face. But I’m starting to wonder if that’s Stockholm Syndrome.

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Déshabillé (Part 1) (Sunday, 2010 December 19)

December 20th, 2010

This week has been IST, for which I have had three vaguely-stated and simple goals:

  1. Make an utter mess of myself using recreational chemicals, preferably alcohol.
  2. Have sex with another volunteer [deleted: prioritized list of opportunities sorted by attractiveness and availability].
  3. Recharge, somehow, so that I am willing to return to post and continue to work instead of giving up on this country and going home.

This post is the story about accomplishing goal #1. The title, "Déshabillé", means "undressed".

So I kicked off Saturday by clandoing to visit Jenny’s post, and then going into town to see a "concert". That week I had bought a bag of twenty sachets, figuring that Jenny couldn’t be relied on to feed my developing alcoholism. I started Saturday with seven sachets, acted slightly embarrassingly, and crashed at a Volunteer’s post. Sunday morning, me and Jenny had some sandwiches and headed out to IST, the milestone we’ve all been struggling to achieve. ("Just make it to IST," I told myself, "You can do this.") We passed through Douala ("most insecured town" according to the Organization; not sure what that means). Getting to the douche, literally "shower" but also apparently giant fountain, to find a car to the right city involved going past, and naturally going into, a supermarket. Jenny and I went in, with her commenting that it made her so happy to see all this stuff, and how much she wished she had a camera!.. to take pictures of completely normal things like meat, cheese, soy sauce, and ice cream. Wandering down the toys aisle, we saw a "FunStation 3" and boxed SEGA Master Systems.

Eventually we got to the beach and got into the water. This was still Saturday, when I was idealistic enough to believe that I shouldn’t drink too much while in the ocean (or with intent to go into the ocean). The waves were rough and we got tossed around and scratched up quite a bit. Then back to the room for more AC and hot showers. I made crude passes at Allison ("No thanks") and Jessica W. ("I’m not looking for that"). This set the template for the majority of our time in [training]: go to sessions until 17 o’clock or so, using any means necessary to get through them without screaming; then go to the beach; then party with the nerdkin.

Tuesday for dinner we went to a bar we found called "Lotus Bleu" (same name as a bar back in the training village). We had no choice but to eat grilled fish and soya, street meat, while we drank. Then a street vendor came by and sold us magic wands (picture will be coming later). Then they played horrible American pop including "Barbie Girl" and "Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Room)". We found ourselves enthralled and unable to stop dancing. Then we hurried back to the hotel, where we combined Tampico, a very sweet orange-ish drink (somewhat like Sunny D) with gin. This worked perhaps too well. So when we went back to the beach in the dark (not my idea! But somehow we all knew we were going to skinny dip) I found myself singing, aloud, at the top of my lungs, "cancun ’89":

Why can’t we just stay
Where the ocean is warm all year?
Fruit hangs from the trees
Do just what you please
And nothing is the same

The sun rolls down the beach
Sand gets in your eyes
Lean in for the kiss
Tans astound the crowds
Nothing is the same

—world of science, "cancun ’89"

The waves were still too rough on Tuesday, so being naked entailed getting scraped on the sand a lot. And very quickly the alcohol caught up with me. Suddenly I was terrified of drowning and staggering around the sand. After this point, things become unclear; the other people there (whose names are withheld to avoid incriminating them) would have better recollections. I remember calling out to them, afraid that they too would drown. They say that they came out of the water to find me humping a tree (still naked), although the minority opinion is that I was just hugging the tree and unable to stand. Everyone seems to agree that I then fell down. Apparently they tried to get me to put at least pants on, but this required more coordination than I possessed. I am reputed to have said "Hey guys, guess what? I’m NAKED!" This is when the Cameroonians showed up and wanted to know if everything was fine. "Yes," my wonderful friends said, trying to stand between my spread-eagled form and the Cameroonians, "Everything is great."

I rolled a 20 on a coordination check and somehow managed to get underwear on. I had already been wearing the shirt (I think I had been trying to get dressed when they found me). One of my friends wrapped a skirt around my waist and with my arms around two of them, we managed to head back to the hotel. I am told that I said "I think I’m in love with one of you, but I don’t know which one." Eventually they deposed me in the hotel room I was sharing with Timothy, where I commenced to remove the alcohol from my body and to wonder whether or not I was going to die. (I didn’t.)

My friends report that after all the excitement, they all breathed a collective sigh of relief. "What time is it?" they asked. Consulting a timepiece, they learned the terrible truth: 10:30 PM.

Timothy and I had a heart-to-heart Monday about how Jessica W. worrying about me, and how she didn’t like to see me bashed out of my skull (and how neither did Timothy, come down to it). Wednesday morning, I told Timothy that I think I’d gotten it out of my system. Time will tell, I guess.


Côte d’Ivoire (Tuesday, 2010 December 7)

December 7th, 2010

Just overheard some fascinating discussion in the teacher’s lounge at the Lycee. People are talking about the recent political crisis in the Ivory Coast, where the election somehow failed and produced two presidents. One teacher in particular made some very cutting remarks. "They’re crazy over there, to elect two presidents. Here in Cameroon, we vote for Paul Biya ONE HUNDRED PERCENT. We don’t have any two presidents stuff. Here, a good president has to hold power for at least thirty years. It’s not like in your country, where yesterday it was George Bush, today it’s Obama, tomorrow someone else again! When are they gonna take their money?"

Also interesting is that the trip that was planned a couple weeks ago that the president was going to make to Bamenda to celebrate the 50th year anniversary of the Cameroonian Army got cancelled because the commander of the BIR (a branch of the Cameroonian armed forces which was being trained by an Israeli national under contract) died in a helicopter accident. The trip is scheduled for this week — tomorrow and Thursday — and since Bamenda is the seat of the opposition party, the Organization is a tiny bit nervous. No crises here in Cameroon yet, but I keep thinking that if the country got evacuated, that would be a really convenient way to stop being a teacher. But our security officer called me today for unrelated reasons and she sounded just chipper, so I guess that’s not a strong possibility..

That’s the current events here in Cameroon. Life goes on, I guess. I really wish I would hear more from you guys, though! For example, what’s Mike Dirolf up to? Who’s this chick Francis is flirting with on Facebook? What about those guys with steady jobs?


Reprendre (Monday, 2010 December 6)

December 6th, 2010

I have been thinking lately about doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. Motivation: imagine you are in class and you ask:

Teacher: OK, class. What color is the sky?

Student, raising hand and being called upon, says: Air!

Teacher: OK, good, the sky has air in it. But what color is it?

Different student, too excited to wait to be called upon: Monsieur! It’s air!

This experience repeats itself with a certain frequency. I was going to say everything in this country is like that to some extent, but I think actually it’s only my experiences at the Lycee. I saw one kid restart a machine, watch it boot up, get to the login screen, palpably not know what to do, and restart the machine again, six times in a row, looking increasingly agitated to the tune of "Why won’t this work???" to the extent that he wanted to tear out his hair (which is of course impossible because students at the Lycee are required to have shaved heads).

And it’s really not just the students, either. In the above interaction, the teacher is trying the same question in the hopes of getting a different answer too. This was brought home to me a Saturday or two ago where I spent about ten minutes running through the same "Why does it say 6? What if I change this number to 4? What will I have? .. But I see 2. Why does it say 2? What if I change this number to 10? What will I have?" cycle with a student before realizing that he was not going to break out of the loop himself so it was really up to me to try to get him to realize that the things he was saying were laughably inaccurate and that it was necessary to figure out what was really going on. And I’ve had experiences trying to debug machines or install OSes where I’ve fruitlessly retried the same procedure several times over, possibly with minor variants, out of desperation or complete ignorance. And it never works. The only thing that works is trying something different.

It feels so unfair when you ask a clear question like "What color is the sky?" It doesn’t feel like there’s a better way to ask it. It shouldn’t be something you have to negotiate. Is it a language barrier? Some twisted effect of the Cameroonian educational system or context? Is it important that they learn to answer questions based on what the question is asking instead of what they memorized? The whole thing is kind of a mess.

Today’s word, "reprendre", means something like "to do over".


Mariage (Sunday, 2010 Dec 5)

December 5th, 2010

Exam week. Still have report cards to fill out, but I thought for the moment I’d write up the wedding I was at last week. It was the marriage of J-C’s daughter Solange and some guy I didn’t know. I later found out that the couple had been affianced for five years, and that they’d met at school.

After I got to the wedding, I was seated with the family of the bride. J-C said to be there at 19 o’clock, by which time it was already dark, and I was surprised that things started at almost exactly 19 o’clock. I was seated next to some kindly gentlemen who translated all the local-dialect into French for me, which I have consequently translated into English for you. So, accuracy may not be terribly great. But the first speeches were in French: first, the patriarch of the family (of the bride, I think) gave a short speech welcoming everyone, then J-C gave a speech thanking everyone for coming and because of how important today was, let’s not waste time.

Then, a relatively aged woman on the groom’s side of the family stood up and said, in the local language, "I don’t know what you’re talking about with today being special. I came here because I heard there was food." And two women from the bride’s side of the family went over to this lady and talked to her, and with a clear air of humoring this old lady, agreed that they would look for some food. So then they went off for a while and everyone just kind of hung out and chatted.

Apparently in the Bamileke tradition, weddings take place between families of brides, who provide foods, and families of grooms, who provide drinks. Also apparently, even though the "negotiations" for the wedding had been settled between the two families, in the interests of suspense and "theater" weddings include a little bit of dramatic re-enactment. Everyone knows this coming in, and expects and appreciates it.

Eventually the women came back with some serving pots and placed them on the table in front of the woman who had complained. But instead of being grateful, she stood up and said "This food isn’t cooked! You need to find a woman to cook it for me!" So off the women went again, and everybody hung out for a while. Eventually the women came back with a fairly old lady, to which the response was: "She’s too old! I want food that’s been cooked by a nice young woman!" And a dude from the groom’s family stood up and said "For the best possible food, we want a beautiful young woman who comes from the country of Barack Obama!" So off the ladies go again, nonplussed, but hospitable to the end. At this point it became clear that the pretense, looking for a woman of high quality in order to get food of high quality, is sort of a proxy for looking for a woman of high quality to marry a man of the family.

They come back pretty quickly with two women, both of whom are covered almost head-to-toe. They present these women to the groom’s family and ask them to pick which one is the one they’re looking for. The idea is that if they can’t figure out without seeing the woman face-to-face, they don’t really know what they want. But after a few minutes of poking and prodding and fervent discussion, the groom’s family decides: neither of these women is the one we are looking for. So they send them both back and the women go off to try again to find a woman that meets the high standards set by these people.

After a few minutes they come back and say things like "The planes aren’t flying to the US any more," and "We need to get visas". The groom’s family responds by shaking the ladies’ hands, saying things like "Oh, thank you maman", but this expression of gratitude is really cover for putting money into the ladies’ hands. (Whether this offers a cultural precedent for bribery and corruption is an exercise for the reader.) So it goes back and forth a few more times, including amusing theatrics from one of the ladies who is pretending to be a taxi driver, with the other claiming that they’re out of gas, or that they got stopped at a roadblock, and each time more money coming from the groom’s family to pay for these unexpected eventualities. And after a few more dog-and-pony shows, the groom’s family picks the right bride. My gentlemen friend observers noted that they went around a few times too many, which means they had to pay more in the end than they really ought to, and that this is poor form on the part of the groom’s family. But out came the bride and she sat down with the groom’s family.

Then the reverse discussion began, with the bride’s family seeking a suitable man for their little girl. Out came first an old man, followed by a kid (probably a student at the lycee), and then finally the real groom (and possibly another?), covered and veiled the way the brides were. The bride’s family picked the groom correctly, and out he popped wearing a shirt that I swear to god looked like the NES cartridge for Legend of Zelda. I’d post a picture but I don’t have the memory card reader right now. With the happy couple united, the bride went off to change into an outfit of the same fabric. They were quite brilliant.

Then was the actual wedding ceremony. This involved reading some stuff from the Bible (P.S. J-C’s family is very Christian), saying some vows, and notably after the bride had finished her vows, she poured some soda into a cup, and after the groom had finished his, he poured a different soda into the same cup. The idea being that, as these two drinks are no longer separable, so it is with this couple.

Then we ate a lot.

Other neat trivia: the groom’s family also decided to go home a little earlier than strictly called for, which was extremely poor form, since this meant they had to hurry the bride out of what is no longer her home and (among other things) wedding photos. My gentleman friend observer called them on this, but they just kind of rudely brushed him off.

Eventually it became 1 AM and I decided I was going to walk home, and my friend Celestin decided it would be prudent to walk me back. Then I had class the next day, but it was just giving tests so it wasn’t impossible.

I thought this wedding was so cool. Like Gus says, weddings tend to have a performance aspect to them, but it’s not often that you find weddings that have a narrative. I started to wonder a little bit what it would be like to have a wedding with an antagonist. How would that have to work? Would people pick up on it without ever having had the cultural background? Would a note like "With antagonist played by Paul Herbig" on the invitation or something like that suffice? Would people get legitimately upset with the people who were "holding up" the wedding, not realizing that what they were seeing actually was the wedding?

Side note, in these modern enlightened times, when you want a wife, you go to the bride-to-be’s grandmother first, and she’s likely to ask you, "So where’s my wood?" And it’s OK to just give money — in Bamileke tradition you pay essentially everyone in the family for the bride instead of being paid by the bride ("dowry"). But in some households it is still obligatory to carry wood on your head to the grandmother in order for her to grant her permission.