Archive for March, 2011

Attraper (Wednesday, 2011 March 23)

March 23rd, 2011

Last night I heard the tell-tale noises of mice again and this time I caught two — one who was just kind of standing there deer-in-headlights as I dropped a tin over him, and the other one running around in the bathroom trying to climb the wall, I think in an effort to escape. This morning I shuffled them out, sliding their prisons along the floor until I could get them outside, whereupon I deposited them into this bucket:

Life is sacred, but I didn’t want it in my damned house, so I carried the bucket down the road for a few minutes before dumping them out in the dirt on the side. I expected them to scamper away for their lives, but instead one just hid under a leaf and the other just lay there. I have a feeling that despite my efforts, I killed them anyhow, but maybe they’re just tired after the stress of being cooped up like that overnight.

Attraper, to catch, works in a lot of idiomatic senses that it really shouldn’t — you can attraper le rhume for example, catch a cold, or catch a car en route.

Haven’t been writing as much as I should be lately. There’s a post coming up soon but I don’t know when, exactly, I’ll get to it. This is the last week before Spring Break (Congés de Pâques, Easter Break), and I have one exam to give today, two tomorrow, and two more Friday, and then I leave on an epic clandoing journey of discovery, companionship, redemption, and finding out what it means to be ourselves. It’s two weeks worth of break, but really I’ve only got about six days worth of plan. Sounds about right so far.


Laning (Wednesday, 2011 March 16)

March 18th, 2011

Here is a recorded session of me trying to learn patois via French. It is taken with Pegap Anatole, colloquially referred to as "Pa-Na", who is a surveillant at the lycée. It is about 32 minutes long. I recorded it on the inbuilt mike on my D2 (personal music player), so it is very quiet and somewhat noisy. I amplified it but parts are still very quiet, and when I amplify it more it starts clipping badly.

I’m not gonna try to transcribe the whole thing — but you’re welcome to if you like. Here’s some liner notes.

  • 00:00-01:58: A student is here to justify her absence. She’s spent the entire fourth sequence in the hospital. She’s in one of my classes so I have to correct the grade I already wrote in her bulletin. Pa-Na asks why she took so long to justify her absence, and she replies "Je devait sortir de l’hôpital pour venir ici faire quoi?" ("I had to leave the hospital to come here and do what?")
  • 01:58-03:56: Pa-Na asks me about how I spent my weekend. You can probably catch the word "week-end", which is borrowed into French and also patois. ("Because weekend, we don’t have that word in patois," Pa-Na says.) I went to le carrefour, one of the other landmarks in this village. He went to Bafoussam. These sentences start with pronouns: "Nge" is I, present tense. "Ou" is you, present tense. "Nke" is I, past tense. "Ou ke" is you, past tense.
  • 03:56-05:47: Pa-Na shoos some students from trying to distract us. He receives a phone call? I consult my notes. Mostly silent. I probably should have edited this out.
  • 05:47-07:30: We discuss how to ask/give names. A word-for-word gloss of the phrase is something like "Name his who is it?" "Eh", falling tone, is patois for "yes". "Ngang", rising tone, is patois for "no". "Oo you, non?" means "You understand, right?" and the response is "Nge you", "I understand". M. Teukeu, probably my favorite person at the lycée, walks in around 7:20, and I try to form a sentence saying what his name is.
  • 07:30-08:00: I try to address M. Teukeu in patois, and he responds with something I have never heard before (shot down). Apparently it is yet another way of saying "I’m fine".
  • 08:00-08:30: M. Teukeu wants to know if there are patois and maternal languages "chez vous", in your house, meaning in the States. I try to explain that the answer is no, but that immigrants bring their languages with them.
  • 08:30-11:10: Pa-Na is walking me through the conjugations of "Name his who is it" for each form: me, you, him/her, etc. Some higher-level students walk in and laugh at me, but we soldier on. 09:07: "Po suku", "élève", "student", from "po" meaning child, and "su-ku", school. (Aside: patois have these linguistic relics adopted from English, despite their current French context. Timothy has mentioned this about his patois too. I don’t know why.) Pa-Na gives the name of each student. 09:16: "Yiy", to see. Pa-Na is pointing at a name embroidered on a student’s uniform. ("You", to understand, comes from the verb to hear.) 09:54: "Ze zi", he sure sounds like he’s emphasizing low tone, high tone. Tonal language or just an intonation? 10:43: "Di suku", classroom, from "di", room, and "suku", school. 11:00: "Ze zap", "ze", name, and "zap" the possessive for "they", which is "wap".
  • 11:10-12:00: I ask the students if they wanted to see Pa-Na or what, and they deal with whatever while I review my notes. Pa-Na wants them to come back during "the grand pause", the half-hour break from classes.
  • 12:00-17:30: More random crap. 12:00: Using the verb "kie", to read, in sentences. "Mwa anye" can mean a book or a letter. 12:30: "My mother sent me a letter." 13:10: "Tcha", to send. 13:22: A complicated sentence: "She told me to greet the students." 13:35: Pa-Na gets snippy with me; "Écris!" "Write!" 14:05: "Tcha eze", to greet. I cannot tell, listening back, whether it is the same "tcha" or a tonal difference? 15:00: "Mbem tcha zu", "I also greet you". "Zu" here definitely relates to "ou", since it changed from "tcha ze" to "tcha zu". 15:28: Pa-Na pulls out an analogy in English: if someone says Good morning, you also say Good morning. I respond "Yes". 16:00: Pa-Na admits that "ze" changed to "zu", to mean "you". "Tcha ze" is like an infinitive. It sounds like he’s saying "zu" is a compound of "ze" + "ou". 16:30: I try to apply what I know productively to form "Nge tcha zi", I greet him. I sound very pleased. 16:50: Patois for "I greet you, ho!" "Tcha ze wei", from "tcha ze" and "wei", you-pl. 17:12: "Mbo!", at the end, is just an exclamation.
  • 17:30-19:25: I ask whether patois has the idea of using you-plural to show respect, as in French. It does not. 18:18: "Ngang!" Pa-Na explains you can show respect by starting with "Mr. Principal". 18:47: Pa-Na translates "ou tcha za" as "you greeted me", in the past tense, despite the fact that I wrote up above that "ou" is present. He then walks through the possible conjugations: greeted him, greeted us, greeted them, etc.
  • 19:25-19:50: Pa-Na shoos some kids away. They are too little to be his department; the other surveillant takes care of the younger kids. I review my notes.
  • 19:50-19:58: I am trying to formulate a question: which constructions take "mbem", meaning me, versus which constructions take "za", also meaning me.
  • 19:58-24:05: Pa-Na says hi to a lady passing outside the window. Then, J-C walks in and they begin speaking patois. You can get a sense of what’s going on: 20:23: "argent", money. 20:48: "vignt mille", twenty thousand. 22:08: "C’est elle qui a commencé!" "It’s her who started!" 22:53: "Ça coute cher, ça coute cher." "It’s expensive, it’s expensive." 23:04: J-C addresses me, first I think a half-question in patois (which I couldn’t catch at all) and then immediately in French, "Did you understand what was said? Were you able to trap little bits and pieces?" Pa-Na repeats the full question in patois, and tells me that I’m able to already translate it. I’m completely overwhelmed, and Pa-Na gets a little frustrated. J-C parts or has already left. 23:45: Another student tries to bother Pa-Na, but he refuses to deal with her: "We’re busy."
  • 24:05-25:30: I reform my question: why "mbem" in one case, and "za" in the other? 25:17: Pa-Na finally understands the two cases I’m trying to contrast, and says, unhelpfully, "It depends on what you want to say." 25:25: Another student. "We are busy. Way!" ("Way!" is like an exclamation of annoyance, not always directed at the annoyant.)
  • 25:30-32:03: The German teacher walks in, we exchange salutations in patois, and tells me that I am already very good at patois. This motherfucker speaks English, French, German, patois, and probably something else that I don’t even know about, so it’s kind of like he’s humoring me. I try to express that Pa-Na just scolded me for not understanding what J-C said, which prompts us to study the phrase that he used for pretty much the rest of the lesson. 26:30: J-C wants to know what time the next hour starts. 27:00: Turns out that "you", to understand, has become "jou", in what J-C said. 27:13: Also, "mbe" is like a question word, "did you". 27:30: Also, the verb for to speak has changed from what I will write as "rhom" to something like "ngom". 27:50: The last syllable, "ai", may be part of the verb "ngom-ai", or it may be "a question mark", as Pa-Na says. 28:12: "jou" is apparently used in imperatives as well as questions, and you cannot use "you". 29:50: It sounds like "ngom-a" may actually be the verb to speak? 30:50: And it’s necessary to change both verbs when asking this question. So it wasn’t strictly speaking possible for me to translate the question at first.

So, yeah, patois. An eternal struggle. But probably the most fascinating thing going on here.

Uploaded: lesson-20110314.mp3 (MPEG ADTS, layer III, v1, 128 kbps, 44.1 kHz, Monaural, 29.0 MiB)


Serpent (Tuesday, 2011 March 15)

March 15th, 2011

I love Tuesdays, and I’m even starting to love Monday nights, because I don’t have class Tuesday. It’s the only time I am fairly certain I will be alone; the Boys from next door are in class so I can just do whatever I want even during the daytime.

Today, however, my nerdy reverie was disturbed by a rustling. Holy shit, is that a snake? Why is it in my house?? (Lizards sometimes hang out on my porch and run into the house when threatened, but I’ve never seen a snake.) But when I got up to freak out about it, it turned tail and fled. So I went back to being a nerd.. until an hour or two later when I saw it again out of the corner of my eye.

Sorry about the low quality of these pictures; my "real" camera is déchargé.

He’s finally getting ready to leave. That’s my raquelet, which functions sort of like a mop.

He’s checking out my garbage here.

Finally chased him out of the house; even went out onto the porch to scare him off with a broom. Some students from my première class came in to the compound at just that time and addressed me in patois. Rather than engage, I thought it would be fun to respond in French. "Do you see that snake over there?" I got the response wanted; one of them flinched. "Where was he?? In the house??" And then they picked up a heavy piece of wood and attempted to smash the snake to death with it. I didn’t stick around to see if they succeeded.

So back to being a nerd. I have something interesting I’ll be uploading in the next day or two. Stay tuned.


Repos (Friday, 2011 March 11)

March 11th, 2011

It’s 8:30 on a Friday and I don’t feel exhausted or bitter or anything. In fact I feel kind of happy. I’m not sure if it’s the aftereffects of physical exertion — shot some hoops at the lycée, puised some eau — the fact that I’m almost over my cold, the sudden reappearance of free time, or a reflection on how classes went today, but I’m feeling loose and ready and maybe a little bored. I’ve been letting the dishes pile up out of habit, because I "don’t have time", but I didn’t know what else to do tonight so I tackled most of them. "Repos" means rest, like the verb "se reposer", literally to rest oneself. Flashback to a language training session where the language trainer Marcel asked us (in French) since if we wanted to eat, it meant we were hungry, what does it mean if we want to sleep? And Peter saying "Tu es fatigué", "You are tired", to which Marcel said, "Si on es fatigué, c’est qu’il faut se reposer." "If you’re tired, you need to rest." The answer he was looking for was the verb "avoir sommeil", to be sleepy, which in American English tends to just get folded into "tired". But I digress.

Among other essentially unproductive activties, I’ve been going through old todo list items and checking them off. Since I stopped reading most of my news feeds since I came to Africa, I’m able to take back some of the space I let fill up with recommendations. An appalling number of the things I dog-eared for later are really curio at best. But that’s what I get for having such high standards. Slightly more productive is time spent polishing my patch series for offlineimap, which, distressingly, may be the most useful thing I’ve done here. Cf. Rose’s recent experience teaching "why". This is the bread-and-butter of what we’re supposed to be doing here, and mostly, I haven’t. I’ve started emulating her example by addressing certain classes, asking them why they think I get upset when they just copy whatever another person has doing, or talking individually with the smarter students and explaining to them that they need to learn how to help without giving the answer. There’s a palpable gravity to these situations; sometimes they really do focus and listen to you, because they are really just impressionable children. But I haven’t yet found that one gem of hard-earned wisdom which will change lives when I speak it. Maybe after spring break. Or maybe next year.

Still, all in all, stuff’s great. Ate rice three, possibly four times today — although the middle time was spaghetti-rice, light on the spaghetti. And there’s only two weeks left until spring break.


Enrhumé (Tuesday, 2011 March 8)

March 8th, 2011

I’m kind of sick but not to the extent that I have a fever or anything. I just feel like crap for no reason and don’t feel like doing anything. I keep taking my temperature hopefully but no dice — 98.6, like clockwork. (The thermometers we were given are Fahrenheit.) Le rhume is a cold (la grippe is the flu), so to have a cold is to be enrhumé, "enrhumed".

Right now I’m sitting in my house with my landlord, who wanted to talk to me about something tomorrow, but J-C keeps flipping out about this guy and insists on being present désormais ("henceforth", "from now on") at every interaction between us. J-C is at the lycée today, which is maybe three hundred meters away, so he’s going to come by after he finishes class. In the meantime, I’m just sitting here awkwardly in my house with the landlord and waiting.

I’ve paid rent for January, February, and March, plus apparently I paid two times for October, so I shouldn’t have to pay until the end of April, but the guy (Tiyou something or other) has an eye condition and apparently also has "tension", which I think is high blood pressure, and he’s going to a hospital tomorrow so he’s probably gonna hit me up for money in any event.

It’s also la Journée Internationale de la Femme, International Women’s Day, which isn’t a big enough deal for the school to close, but is a big enough deal that women teachers don’t go to work. They might be défilering somewhere too, but I just can’t be bothered. They have their own pagne and there’ll probably be people drinking and I’ve just had my fill of défiler.

I guess the good news is that I don’t really mind sitting here and being awkward. On the agenda after this is: being a nerd, trying to recuperate, and waiting (17 days until spring break).

Ah, here he is. They’re talking in patois now. Sweet, I’ll just sit here and whoooo.

Edit: It turned out it was to address that I paid one month twice. J-C just basically chewed the guy out in a patois/français mélange. Good times.


Mentir (Saturday, 2011 March 5)

March 5th, 2011

Got the most recent Times today with the other mail that Jenny left with Ryan in Bafoussam today. Issue 4, 2010 (PDF; 1.4 MB) has a short piece called "The Everyday Nuances of a [Organization] Volunteer", which caught my eye with the line "That’s five ‘little lies’ I had told, and it wasn’t even 10 a.m." It’s an interesting read about the "white lies" we tell during service. It’s surprisingly easy to tell people here "versions" of the truth that suit our individual needs at the time, from claiming to be married to saying that our organization forbids us from doing certain things. This is one of the peculiarities of being what we are. If we were immigrants or refugees, say, maybe we’d feel an obligation to be honest with these people, to be the best we could be to start the new rest of our lives.

I like to think of myself as someone for whom honesty is a deep personal commitment, but I break the rules a certain amount. The word "mentir" means "to lie". As a teacher, you hear it a lot in the phrase "Il ment!", "He’s lying!" I’ve listened to Cameroonians getting out of obligations, and they don’t seem to feel a need to make up stories or provide excuses like we do; they just say "No, I’m not doing that". And because of the inbuilt hierarchy of the society, nobody ever asks "Why not?" (although I guess they do sometimes ask the same question again).

This comes back to an ongoing problem I have with managing people, especially people here in my house. When I’ve been "performing" all day and I want to power down, and someone walks into my house to hang out, or to eat my food, I sit and seethe. But the truth can set you free, and it doesn’t even have to be a spectacular truth. Other volunteers just say "Can you leave? I’m tired/I need to work". And that’s culturally acceptable, I guess.

Today I watched Ryan take sugar cane from a kid on the street, just because he wanted to. That’s also culturally acceptable, I guess, but I couldn’t control my appalled facial expression. He figures the kids take so much of his crap that it’s only fair. It’s just another approach to navigating the two cultures in which we find ourselves. Ryan’s always been especially good at "playing Cameroonian", in haggling or in ordinary discussion.

So I’m still working it out, I guess. More later, maybe.


Temoiner (Friday, 2011 March 4)

March 4th, 2011

Wednesday, on my way back from getting bread and returning beer bottles (consigner, to deposit — 150 CFA a bottle, which you get back when you return them), I ran into a nice older couple who decided to start talking to me about God. Turns out they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses (temoins de Jehovah) and I think they have a salle just up the road towards the chefferie. They left a French "Awake", "Réveillez-vous!" for me to read, and then they asked for a donation. Basically exactly the same as Jehovah’s Witnesses back home, except I had to debate theology in French. Guess it’s better than grading papers.

Temoin, a witness, is also a verb, temoiner, to witness, and it happens to also be a helpful counterexample to my recent theory that English is more regular about noun suffixes then French. In French, it’s silence, "silence", but silenceux, "silent"; there’s "danceur" for "dancer", but "cuisinier", cook-person. In English it’s often -er, like driver, dancer, singer, but we don’t say stealer, cooker, or witnesser. So I guess it’s a crap shoot. Thanks, linguistics!

My Premiere class today was only 8 or 10 students, which was great. They did a little better on this sequence’s exam, which is good.. still show an appalling lack of creativity and originality for "literary" students. I blew up at one, even picking up a stick and banging it on a desk for effect, as the other students laughed inappropriately. Not sure if they were laughing at me or at him. It’s probably bad form to blow up at a student who really deserves it, since it signals that you’ve lost control in some way, and let them bother you, which is of course exactly what you are never supposed to let a bully do.

He had copied another student’s program, failed to understand it, and then asked me to give him credit, calling me "nduk", patois for "white person". It’s probably a little better than "le blanc", which refers directly to color — "nduk" is distinct from the patois word for white, which I learned once, and is "just the name given to Europeans", according to one of the other teachers. It’s still not extremely polite (though maybe not outright rude), and it’s an ugly word — you have to swallow the word, to borrow a phrase. Not as nice, for example, as nasara, in Fulfulde. (We compare notes on this sort of thing when we get together.) Ah, I hear it now; some lowbrows are wandering around outside. I guess losing my temper really was a tactical error. I try to respond with "le noir"/"la noire" ("black") when I hear it, but lately I’ve been stepping it up to "le nègre" — which my dictionary translates as "sometimes offensive Negro". Side note: expect me to be extremely politically incorrect when I get back; that’s just how service is. It’s just weird that growing up white in a Caribbean neighborhood means I know more about actual racism than a country full of for-realz Africans.

I guess the good news is that it wasn’t really that bad as far as Premiere classes go. I need to talk to the brighter students about how to really help their comrades, and I promised to give another remedial class Monday. I figured out a neat trick, which is to focus on the slowest student who wants to learn, and just teach "at" him/her. Focusing on one student lets you bring a lot of the old tutoring tricks to bear on the teaching problem — ignoring the noise/disruption from other corners of the class, ferreting out problem spots from signals on the face, mental models of what they’re likely to understand/not understand — which are a lot harder to wield at the front of a class. Of course, it should have been pretty obvious to focus on the students that actually want to learn and aren’t just being useless for fun. I’m a slow learner, I guess.

This week’s been a little bit of a challenge; 4e and 3e didn’t do so great on the tests, although there’s always a few that do perfect or almost-perfect, and giving back a test like that is basically a ready-made discipline problem. Jenny and Ryan are in Bafoussam tonight, going out and drinking, and right now I’m having a bit of FOMO ("Fear Of Missing Out"; also, one of my students’ names) despite the fact that I really would rather sit here at the computer and consume chocolate.

I just feel lately like I’ve been giving a lot, putting a LOT of myself into this stupid country with its stupid students. I’m developing that eyelid twitch that I tend to associate with sleep deprivation, although maybe it’s outright stress. I feel my blood pressure rise when the Boys walk into the house, because I know they’re just gonna sit around, do nothing, fuck around with my electronics, eat my food and ask stupid questions when I’d really rather just not deal with them. All I want right now is to sleep in, eat sustainably-made pancakes and watch 30 Rock in bed — and I’m all out of 30 Rock. This duty I have to be a volunteer teacher is starting to feel less like an opportunity and more like an obligation. Also see months 7-10 and 11-15 in the chart.

At least I graded and handed back all the tests for the 4th sequence. Any classroom you can walk away from..

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