Archive for April, 2011

Affecter (Friday, 2011 April 22)

April 22nd, 2011

Affecter means "assigned", and sometimes "reassigned". Thus, teachers are "affected" to schools, and because teachers are technically civil servants, that’s where they go.

We’re not technically civil servants, but we’ve been assigned to our posts too. Well, for the most part. There are so few ICT volunteers that we get a little bit more leeway. And there are some terribly, terribly sweet ICT posts. One in Bangangté teaching at a university in a house with a hot water shower. One in Beua, just an hour from the beach. Just unbelievable stuff, and they’re being vacated by the "big kids", the "seniors", the guys who got here a year before us (in some cases, younger than us).

We talked amongst ourselves for a while via email. Who gets dibs on which post? Having a graduate degree makes me eligible for the Bangangté post, but to everyone’s surprise I wasn’t really interested.

Why? It’s not like my post is great. The people are annoying and rude. The patois is difficult, bordering on impossible. The students are mediocre and we’ve had numerous instances of stuff disappearing from the lab. I have highly specialized skills that aren’t being put to use here. So why stay?

In a word: progress.

They say that your first year as a Volunteer is just an utter mess. It takes you that long to get the hang of what you’re here for and how to do it. I’m only finally getting the hang of it just now. Being a Volunteer is new and strange, but even beyond that, getting used to the community and their getting used to you take time. When I first got here, I didn’t have anything but hunches about most of the people around me. Now I’ve got history, reputations, precedents, grades. And whereas before they didn’t know what to make of me except an easy mark with cool toys, these days I feel like I’m finally doing some good. I’ve put a lot of energy into getting the hang of this community, learning a few words in their patois, learning to recognize faces and the layout of the village and making friends with the vendors, and changing post now would put all of that to waste.

See, there’s visible, tangible progress. Students getting better at working in the lab, at manipulating the things I teach them. One of my students in Premiere got 15/20. This is the class full of lazy delinquents and moto-drivers-in-training. There’s the fact that the prestataire, yeah, OK, he isn’t providing the things the lycée needs, but he knows now that I can help him fix machines in other schools, and we’ve already been to Foumbot twice. One of the teachers I teach has really gotten the hang of spreadsheets and says she "loves them".

The Boys have started saying "mi di fo ka" ("motherfucker"), which is bound to get me in trouble one day. It’d be fine if they weren’t 10 and 12. They also started saying "Gosh" and "Whoops". We’ve had discussions about economics, HIV, and lots of other stuff that kids just don’t get the opportunity to talk about.

The kids in the lab are starting to get into Mario Teaches Typing, which I put on the machines way back when. They seem to be getting the hang of the semicolon (they thought it was a lower-case J first) and the idea that errors are bad and to be minimized. They’re also starting to mess around with Number Munchers. Both of these are antique DOS games that I must have downloaded back in Philadelphia or something, and they’re in English, so it’s kind of fascinating that they find them so compelling. I feel a little like a dungeon master, like I’ve loaded informatique with traps and treasures and they’re slowly exploring the labyrinth, facing the monsters and slowly, as a school, getting the hang of it. I think it’s that feeling more than anything else that keeps me here.

When it comes right down to it, this is why I came here: to make the world a slightly better place. To have the maximum positive impact. And maybe I’m not waving a magic informatique wand and solving everyone’s problems, but things are happening. Bien tôt, I’ll only have a year left. And with that year, I think I could do some good here.


Désequilibré (Saturday, 2011 April 16)

April 16th, 2011

[Retcon: Zhenae is now spelled differently, so as to be pronounced in English. I’m also thinking about the changing the human language to not be English, like let’s say "Panlac". This chapter’s a little weaker; it’s just to get towards the next chapter, which is considerably juicier.]

The less said about that night before we left, the better. I woke up on Cherry Drop’s couch, which implies that I must have peeled myself off Cherry Drop’s bathroom floor at some point. It was late o’clock local time and Cherry Drop was asleep so I took a shower, then I occupied myself submerging into the past few days’ information backlog. Tracking the signal in the noise is something of a way of life for us, you could say. I contributed a little signal, a little noise while I was at it. I couldn’t sleep.

Praying for us is like looking at a walkthrough — a little like cheating. If God wanted us to do exactly what He wanted, why did He give us free will? I was desperate for direction, though, so I gave it a shot, and got nothing but stony silence. I couldn’t tell if that was disappointment with my conduct or just a steadfast refusal to give advice. Either way, I was left to my own devices for a few hours.

We got up too early, so we could catch the bus to Grace’s Action, sneaking out of town like bandits to continue the party somewhere else. Buddy met up with us at the bus station. Cherry Drop was talking to a Zhenae. Cherry Drop’s Sumi is hilarious — it’s like a fruitcake, littered with raisins of delicious chewy English slang. "You are travelling? So, we also travel. You travel, like, where? Wow, cool!" Buddy found a Little Egg Person for breakfast, but I didn’t feel much like eating. Then it was time to board.

So it was that we escaped under the cover of darkness. The first leg of the trip was difficult, because I was afraid I was gonna throw up, but I closed my eyes steadfast and I managed to make it through. Cherry Drop showed me and Buddy the picture she took of me passed out on her bathroom floor — OK, it’s true she was there when I needed her to be, but that woman seriously does not care about other people. Buddy broke out some of his offworld candy and I feel like that replenished me somehow. I felt even more better when we stopped for a brief layover at Grace’s Point (which, yeah, confusing, but it’s Grace’s Point and then Grace’s Action) and grabbed a River drink. The Zhenae in front of us got ice cream, which prompted Cherry Drop to get some too.

That same Zhenae had studied English, which I found out when Cherry Drop let loose a "Shit!" and she fired us a dirty look. We struck up a conversation at the next police checkpoint, when the bribe-taking process started to take a little too long.

"What are they doing?" Buddy asked. (You have to admire his deftness. We were on vacation, but you never really stop being an offworlder or even a Missionary.)

"It’s a checkpoint," the Zhenae said. "They are taking their money."

"What money?"

"He wants a bribe to pass. Zhenae are a corrupt, dishonest people." She was shaking her head in disgust. "We have resources for improve our world, but the corruption prevents. The policies of dictators supported by Sumi."

Ah, right, that’s why she’s speaking English. The Zhenae hate their former masters, much though they all speak their language. It’s too late to cry over that particular spilled blood, but they do it all the same. At least she’s man enough to admit that it was Zhenae manning that checkpoint.

When we got into Grace’s Action, it was dusk, nearly dark again already. Grace’s Action was lit up like a Roman candle. You take for granted the absence of light pollution back home, but it’s alive and well on Zhen, just like the promiscuous advertising in Capital City. This is the kind of thing the Zhenae was talking about. People live on this planet, and it seems to work well enough, but it really could do a lot better, if only.. what? No idea, really. I don’t think blaming the Sumi or even themselves is the way to go, but how do you communicate that in awkward bus-ride half-interactions?

"How can you change it?" I asked. Silently: take some action.

"How?" she repeated, tasting the word. "Uncertain. The Sumi need to leave us alone."

I counted to ten, as I had taught myself to do in training. I considered my options — couldn’t browbeat her, couldn’t get mad. And anyhow, who was I to say she was wrong? I was just tired of stasis, an entire population doing isometrics on this planet.

We got to the Mission House in Grace’s Action with no great fuss. Travel on Zhen is either boring, or terribly, terribly interesting, so all told I guess we lucked out.


Sahel (Thursday, 2011 April 14)

April 15th, 2011

Maroua is the capital of the Extreme North region, which (together with the North and the Adamawa regions) are called the "Grand North". The first, best way to access the Grand North is via the train, which goes from Yaoundé to Ngaoundéré, and then buses from there as normal. As you take the bus to Maroua, you can’t help noticing the climate. Outside is not green, as in the Grand South, but instead sandy and beachy. It’s hot in the bus, but assuming you convince a Cameroonian to open a window, the wind blowing in from outside is even hotter, hot and dry, like a blast furnace. Even cold drinks in the Extreme North don’t "sweat" condensation like they do down here; there just isn’t enough moisture in the air. I wish I were able to use words like "Sahel" and "Harmattan" convincingly here, but I’m not. It’s just so hot and so dry. We went through bottle after bottle of water on our trip to Waza National Park (see previous picture), which we saw from the top of our van (!). Jenny took the picture, btw; that’s her in the checkered kerchief at bottom of the picture.

Music was a theme for this trip, starting on the train up to Ngaoundéré with trash80 – "pain fade down" and Ballboy – "I Lost You, But I Found Country Music". I was tasteful with my portable music player, but Cameroonians often fill the silence with music, especially music from their telephones, which prompted Austin to fight back on the bus to Maroua with music from his. We started with the wonderful "Fuck You" by Cee-Lo Green, and then some stuff by Tupac I think. Austin said this song starts with a sample from Star Trek 5, or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, once he shared this bit of information, he told us that he had "broken a Knowledge Egg on your head-piece".

Similarly, on the way to Waza, we felt a need to break into song. Turns out Yaya has some sort of battery-operated portable speakers. First song: La Roux – "Bulletproof". This is the song that kind of got me into all this mess, way back in stage, and so I guess it was fitting that it get me out too. Ashes to ashes and all that. There’s a bunch of other musical selections too. I’ll make you a mixtape sometime. TL;DR: Oh radio! You’re so good at simplifying my complex emotions!

Consensus is that I’m suffering from "[Organization] goggles", a phenomenon where your vision is limited to the 150-200 Americans in the country with you rather than realizing that in fact, there are plenty of fish in the sea, plus other aquatic life if you get really desperate. Sure, maybe. Doesn’t matter what it really is. In the meantime it’s housekeeping, closing all the windows I left open and trying not to feel sheepish or nonplussed, sweeping out and throwing away all the things that mattered to me and replacing them with safe, unimportant things. (Is that too sanitized for you, Esther? I thought it was pretty clear. Send me an email and I’ll translate.)

Also with regard to music:

I’m not the boy I used to be
And although I’ve more or less accepted it
Although I’m no longer trying to change it
I still regret it
I regret it every day

—Ballboy, "I Hate Scotland"

I was startled to find that I didn’t feel that way any more. I don’t regret who I am. I’m more or less exactly who I want to be (for the moment — despite what I said earlier that maybe this isn’t who I want to be). Actually? Honestly, I kick ass. For once I don’t feel like a confused little boy, lost in a world too big to understand. I feel like I understand exactly what’s going on and I am prepared to deal with it.

Other stuff: Red Dwarf episode 103, "Balance of Power". I have all these tests I have to grade, but I keep watching episodes of Chuck (and hey, blogging). Outside, it keeps flirting with rain, and lord, do I need a rainstorm, but at the last minute it always turns away coyly. Turns out I have a hirondelle, "swallow" nest on my veranda. Business as usual, no?

P.S. All my love to Adam, Jen, Jenn, Suzanne, my parents, Aunt Jeanie, and all you wacky characters from back home. I miss you.


Se tromper (Wednesday, 2011 April 13)

April 13th, 2011

One thing I utterly love in French is the verb se tromper, "to make a mistake", but literally "to fool oneself". Be careful because tremper, "to soak", sounds almost exactly the same. Mnemonic: "trompe l’oeil", which we adopted into English, means "fool the eye", or idiomatically "optical illusion". It’s dangerous to argue from etymology, of course, but I love the sound of it, "fooling yourself", so much more willful than the English equivalent. I love the careful way Brondon sometimes finishes a thought with "si je ne me trompe pas","if I’m not fooling myself", "if I’m not mistaken".

There is a student named Annick, a young lady with the same kind of twitchy tic and the same quiet, muttering-to-herself cadence that my first boss did. She invited me to see a local museum, but I was still on spring break and couldn’t make it. It’s hard to navigate these situations; does she just want me to appreciate her culture? money? marriage? Today she cornered me in the lab, and after haltingly discussing it for a while in French (I will go some Sunday), she saw me lend my USB key to Parfait, having loaded it with software (including some games).

Annick: You are really kind.

Me: [Soft, sad smile.]

Annick: Unless I am making a mistake.

Me: Yes. You are fooling yourself. [Exit stage right.]

OK, better get back to grading tests. Only five classes left! Sigh.


Springbroken (Friday, 2011 April 8)

April 8th, 2011

Spring break is almost over, and I’m on the long journey back to post. It’s been a long, strange trip and overall I’d count it as a success. I hope to write about it later, once I figure out how to leave out all the important parts. For the time being, here’s a picture we took on our for-realz African Safari.


Aléatoire (Saturday, 2011 April 2)

April 2nd, 2011

The GPS trail would probably tell the story better than I could. I’ve seen it overlaid on a map of Capital City, and it doubles back in lines and knots, tangles like my hair on a sweaty day. Also like my hair, I’m perversely proud of it. It’s a scar on my informational life like the ones on my corporeal one. But GPS tracks don’t tell the whole story, so I’ll have to see what I can do to fill in the rest.

I caught the early Chameleon down to the lower level of Capital City. I had a long trip before I got to Up Station. I wanted to make sure I had my ticket as soon as possible, since I wanted to take the shuttle with two other Missionaries next month (which turned out to be a bad idea, but that’s another story). I caught a taxi going south.

"The Station."

"Traveler’s Station?"

"Uh, maybe.. for the shuttle."

And off we went, the driver weaving through the light-but-manic traffic with the polished ease of long practice. On the GPS map, this is the first set of smooth curves as we swerved over to the sidewalk to canvass other passengers and dodging the big-porters and fat-porters carrying their numinous cargoes. We picked one up for Central Post, and one for the Palace of Justice. Try not to judge that last one. She’s probably not actually going to the Palace of Justice, it just makes a convenient landmark. Meanwhile I was untangling my emotional mess with the same practiced ease that I was untangling my hair. Start at the top; what’s the problem? Run your fingers through until you find it, a knot. Then, what’s causing all this fuss? Tease individual threads out, one at a time, resolving each one into an atomic, indivisible factor and cancelling it from the equation. Eventually the knot just disappears; it’s just yourself, in an inconvenient configuration. It’s the same with emotional stuff, but it takes longer and it hurts more.

I worked on that for a while — the hair, the meditation — as we made our way through the intersections and traffic circles. We let the guy off at Central Post. We passed fruit stands and hardware vendors and billboards written in Sumi or, puzzlingly, in English. "Study in Ukraine!" Advertising is advertising, of course, but you get trained in letting it roll off your psyche like water. And it’s hot, it’s always hot in Capital City, but the taxi windows were open and when we got up to speed, the breeze just carried the heat away. On balance, it was all very pleasant. That’s when we got hit by the first big-porter.

It just swept in from the right, trying to merge with us at the cobblestone intersection. The hoverpad slammed into the driver’s-side door. No religion has a prayer to cancel inertia; ours has come close but we’re still not yet there. So the whole car skewed off the road and into a bar, which was convenient enough because it gave me something to do while I waited for the Police to show up and assign blame.

Three bulbs of wine and a box of Hello Cookies later I was free to go so I picked up where I left off. I could have taken a moto if I thought it would have made a difference, but I figured to do the taxi thing again since I was increasingly unconfident in my ability to remain from falling off of a moto. Hailed a taxi again, specified Voyager Station directly this time, and off we went.

It’s good that I didn’t take the moto, because the second big-porter would have probably taken me right off the thing, and wearing a helmet is about as effective as wearing a head of cabbage in that sort of situation. Not a pleasant way to go. Instead, the front half of the taxi crumpled up like a whiskey sachet and me and the other passengers in the back got thrown around like livestock. The driver was hurt really badly, crying in pain and praying in Sumi and another language I didn’t recognize, I guess his tribe’s. There was a lot of blood and I didn’t really know what to do. We have Health missionaries who are former nurses or doctors. Me, I’m in Education. I can’t do much beyond call for help in mediocre Sumi. And even that wasn’t really necessary; other Zhenais were already scrambling to tear the vehicle open, stop the bleeding, sending for professional medical assistance. The Church of the Universal Stochastic encourages to find the signal in the noise, and two accidents in one travel was probably a Hint. But it could have been a challenge, too, a gauntlet that I needed to run to show how badly I wanted this.

We fool ourselves into believing all kinds of things.

Soon enough I was on my last taxi, the one that broke down a few hundred meters from Up Station. I was dirty now with the effort of even this little bit of travel, and my hair didn’t seem any less tangled than when I had started. I was dizzy and sore and I was thinking about going to a White Market to get some soy sauce or something to make myself feel better. I was trying to ignore the telltale taste of glueworm in the back of my throat and I am sure the Zhenais at the train station thought I was a sight.

"Bedroom for May shuttle. Supplication."

"It’s possible. Five thousand Sum."

"Here." I paid with a crisp new bill, and he gave me my reservation slip. "Gratitude."


We’re all unique quantum events but at that moment, stuck in the middle of Capital City having accomplished what I thought I wanted, I felt more utterly unique than I ever wanted. Ever feel alone in your own head? It was like that. I had a bad feeling that I’d find myself at the end of the night in a dark corner at the bottom of the bottle of soy sauce. It’s been like that for most of my life. The moral of the story is that sometimes you get exactly what you ask for — and it usually turns out to be not what you wanted at all. But that’s why I came here, to make that kind of mistake, to throw away the prudence and put my faith in the randomness of experience.

I’d had enough for one day, so I decided to go back to the Mission.

Decided I’d walk it, though.


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