Archive for May, 2011

Église (Sunday, 2011 May 29)

May 30th, 2011

[This should probably be tagged "fiction", but it doesn’t fit with the other fiction, and I’ve wanted to write this for a long time. Names were made up to protect the ludicrous. I don’t usually go to this kind of service in the States, so I don’t have a basis for comparison, so this might be a "religion is weird" piece or it might be an "Africa is weird" piece. Your call. N.B. the M.C. and the holy water thing are made up; see the following post for further details.]

I got up early on a Sunday to go to church, mostly to see a baptême, baptism, but also to pick up chicks. We got there a little late; service was supposed to start at 8, but we rolled in around 8:40. The ushers were readily identifiable because of their sashes, baby blue or pink depending. The one who showed us to our seats wore a Bluetooth earpiece and a Ché wristband.

"Ladies and gentleman!" the M.C. announced. "Your patience please! We’re suffering from some technical difficulties. Our organist is patching his keyboard." Sure enough, the poor sod was unscrewing the case of his electric keyboard, gripping a wire in his teeth like a seamstress with pins. I wouldn’t have wanted to be him. "We will begin shortly. In the meantime, how about some refreshing music from the Choral Group of Lower Hauts-Plateaux! And a one, and a two, and a one-two-three-four.."

A song started up, something in traditional African evangelical style, very call-and-response and with a tangibly familiar melody. People milled, chatting and taking pictures. A vendor worked the crowd, selling Bibles and chains. I looked around; the stage was silent, but there was a felt banner in blue and green that read "THE JESUS AND MARY SUNDAY MORNING VARIETY HOUR".

The choral group got through two or three numbers before the situation was fixed. The M.C. bounded back up onto the stage and, ever charming, continued again:

"Ladies and gentleman! We’re terribly sorry for the delay, but if you could just have a seat. I think we’re ready to begin." Assorted shuffling as people found their places. "Aaallll riiiight!! How’s everyone feeling today?"

Scattered applause and ululating.

"I can’t hear you!! How are you FEELING????"

Applause, whistling, cheering.

"All right!!! Are we ready to talk about GOD????"

More applause. Foot stamping, rhythmic hand-clapping. Faintly, a chant: "Je-sus! Je-sus!"

"Whoo! All right! I can hardly wait — we’ve got a great service lined up for you today! We’ve got a guest appearance from Father Fomo, a skit by the All-Star Hauts-Plateaux Players, and best of all — a baptism!!" Cheering, applause. "And now, to get us all started, our very own Father who art in Cameroon — a man who is just covered in the blood of Christ! It’s my honor to introduce — Faaaaatheeeer Kenmoe!!!!"

Polite applause as the priest takes to the stage. The organist plays him to the podium, and Lighting follows him with a spot. He hugs the M.C. — they touch temples, then again, and again. They shake hands, and finally the priest is ready to perform.

"All right!! Funny story, I took a trip last week to Bafoussam, but I’m so glad to be back. Travel’s really hard here in Cameroon, wouldn’t you say? Finding a car was tough! I had a real… Devil of a time!" Rim shot. Laughter, applause. "Seriously, folks! I had to hitch a ride with some… Holy Rollers!" Rim shot. "We’re just getting started, folks! Why don’t you give a big Hauts-Plateaux welcome to our All-Saints Marchers!"

There’s a drum beat and the organist is playing something peppy and the children of the congregation are walking down the aisle. It’s a strange kind of cadence, not a real march, but a procession with steps every few beats. It’s executed with military precision as the boys and girls, all in some kind of hooded robe, come up to the stage, then stop, then turn left, then take a step, then bow.

"Wasn’t that great? Thanks so much for marching, guys. Such discipline. You know what that puts me in the mood for? — how about a round of Father, Son, Holy Ghost!?"

The audience really loves this idea. Their wild applause is accentuated by a light show, the spots going crazy as red and blue flash. An audience member is selected somehow and she makes it up to the stage as the clapping turns into more chanting. She gets all the way up to the stage before everyone calms down.

I try to follow the rules of the game but my French isn’t up to the task. It seems like some kind of Biblical trivia mixed with a kind of shell game. The priest reads a Bible quote off of a note card, then puts it into a Bible, which is then mixed up with three identical Bibles. Then everyone quiets and the priest asks — "So, Madame Noubissi — which is it? Father, Son, or Holy Ghost?"

The audience is calling out suggestions and Madame Noubissi, the quintessential Cameroonian "mama", is struggling to follow some of them, even as she looks happy to be on stage and participating. She calls out in patois with someone, presumably a member of her family, but doesn’t seem happy with the answer. Finally she turns to the priest and says, "Son."



"You’re sure now? You say it’s Son?"

"Yes! Son!"

The priest turns to the Bibles, and, as the tension builds, flings his arm. The Bible on stage right flies open. The organist plays a sad little tune.

"Oh, that’s too bad! It was Holy Ghost! That’s too bad — but as a consolation prize, take this beautiful handmade wooden cross, courtesy of Chez Mbougang! Let’s give her a hand!" The woman walks down the aisle to her seat to polite applause and the show’s theme song as the table with the Bibles rolls off onto the wings. Another choir gets up and starts singing as the organist plays another song.

"Wow, how exciting! I was nearly convinced for a second there. And did you see her face? She was happy and joyous. But it turns out that that happiness and joy was empty." Lighting is really working it — reds and yellows and a spot as everything dims. "And although you dance, and the organist plays some def jams, in my heart, I am beating a funeral drum. Because I know that your joy is empty, that there is no heart for your happiness. You! Marchers! You call that marching! Everyone wants to march but I’ve never even seen half of you at practice! And you! Organist! You didn’t think to even try out your keyboard before bringing it on stage? And you! Choir! Some of you just showed up in street clothes!" I’m not really following his train of logic here but I’m feeling a little offended all the same. I look around but the rest of the congregation is looking thoughtful and a few are chuckling. Is this a sermon? "And tonight you’ll all go home to celebrate your new baptism and you’ll put on loud music like Little Country and Tom Reynolds and you’ll dance! You’ll dance! Not one of you will go home and turn off the music and say ‘let’s just sing God’s music, that will be fine’! I just want you to know that if you go home and put on loud music, your new blessings are instantly cancelled! So forget about it!"

The M.C. bounds onto the stage and the priest tosses him the mic. "You heard the man! Let’s get baptised! Boys and girls, come on up!" Lots of milling around follows as many people, including some adults, come up to the stage and form if not a line, at least an ordered mass. Most of them are wearing all-white ensembles. Someone points out to me the priest’s son, a serious-looking boy wearing a white blazer. They all turn to face the audience and the priest leads them through a bunch of vows. The baptized swear that they believe in God, the Eternal; that they follow the doctrines of the Catholic Church; to do God’s work in their daily lives; and incidentally to give up vampirism and sorcery. They all look very solemn.

"That was great, guys!" shouts the M.C. "All right, Father Kenmoe! Let ‘er rip!" And suddenly the priest appears on the floor carrying a giant firehose. He’s spraying the assembled with what I presume is holy water and he’s got an ear-to-ear grin on his face as he works the hose back and forth. He’s staring right at me. Some of the baptized flinch in spite of themselves, but none of them run or laugh, and even after the water stops they’re standing there still looking solemn and as holy as you can be while sopping wet. The audience is cheering wildly and stamping their feet.

"How exciting! Let’s all congratulate the new Christians! Now remember what the Father said about that music, guys! Now, let’s all be good Christians and salute each other in the spirit of God!"

This is my favorite part of the service. You just reach out and squeeze the hands of people all around you. It’s the only decidedly human thing about these events. They seem like they’re saying something but even if I knew what to say in English, I certainly have no idea how to say it in French, so I just smile broadly, mime their hand positions, and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.

"Wasn’t that nice?" the M.C. continues. "Why, times like these I just feel so in touch with the Word of God. It reminds me of the time that –" He’s interrupted by a clanging bell. "Oh boy! You know what that means –"

"COMMUNION TIME!" shouts the audience.

"That’s right! And for that, we need –"

"THE CHRIST-VAULT!" shouts the audience. And they wheel it out, a giant picture of Jesus with a dial where his heart would be, bathed in the finest lightshow my little village has to offer. They turn the dial this way and that, and at last they swing open the door and they pull out plates of wafers and bottles of wine. The audience is already getting into position. "For your convenience, there’s another communion line in the back for those extant Christians out there! New Christians, up here with Father Kenmoe please!"

As for me, I got my picture taken with the Virgin Mary, bought a package of waferettes, and followed Boris to the nearest party, celebrating the baptism of one Hervé-Michel. There was lots of food and more than a little alcohol, but that sort of thing seemed perfectly normal by now — also, a lot of dancing to the music we’d been encouraged not to play. There was a startlingly attractive lady there who looked a little like Carmen Sandiego, but it turned out to be Hervé’s girlfriend of three years, so, probably better to leave that sort of thing alone.

Communion stuff is stored in here.

It’s important to wear your finest wizard robes on the day of a baptism.

I have no idea who these people are but they sure look rich, don’t they?

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Genre (Tuesday, 2011 May 24)

May 24th, 2011

You can’t write a Woman’s Studies paper on grammatical gender in nouns. You just can’t. Masculine and feminine nouns are an orthographic issue, not a social one, and nowhere is this clearer than the fact that in French, the word for vagina is masculine (le vagin). It’s just like spelling — there’s no objective, logical reason that "through" shouldn’t be spelled "throo" or "thru" — but the language has evolved in a certain way and you have to respect that. Get it wrong and you look unsophisticated. Accordingly, today’s word is genre, meaning gender, and it’s le genre.

I’ve been getting it wrong a fair amount lately with some surprising nouns — la forêt, but le verre. As a general rule of thumb you can guess from the ending — -tion or -sion is always feminine, for example, and so is -té, but -isme is always masculine — but then there are a bunch of exceptions and not-quite rules and models that you internalize — like the oft-suggested rule-of-thumb that -e is feminine. Some important ones to remember are une fois, one time, le lycée, and le marché. And then there are some minimal pairs that I tend to find baffling: une boisson, a drink, but un poisson, a fish. Le soir, the evening, but la nuit, night. La tasse, cup, but le verre, glass.

Flashback to stage, a conversation in my remedial French class with Hilarion and also Jenny and Ryan, who also hadn’t made their level — Hilarion asks what genre of spouse we would like. We exchange confused glances — is he trying to feel us out for homosexuality (still illegal as far as I know)? But no, Hilarion’s asking us what kind of person we’d like in the English sense of genre — drama, comedy, science fiction, horror, etc. I haven’t heard anyone else use this word in this sense since then — instead they use type or qualité, which could be translated as "kind".

Today we had conseil de classe, which means going over the report cards and deciding, for each student, whether they should progress to the next year, stick around in the same class for another year, or be excluded from the school. It’s about as menial as it sounds, but it’s a lot better than rempli‘ing the report cards in the first place or their accompanying livrets, which are like report cards but are submitted when a student takes a nationwide exam, I think with the idea that the graders can try to figure out whether the student knows what he’s talking about or not. It’s hard to fault Cameroon for its documents, since they encourage information flow and transparency in a way that is sorely lacking, but on the other hand I glanced at a page of student grades and noticed that a student could have a sexe of G, F, or M. I know it’s just a trivial inconsistency, but I’m kind of charmed by the idea that Cameroon has three different genres of sexes.

Conseil de classe is interesting by itself for the revealing look into the grades of the student body. 10 is nominally passing, but because we’re en brousse we passed students with 9 or above, as long as their number of unjustified absences was less than 50 (hours over the entire year). 12 or above is tableau d’honneur, and 14 or above is encouragements, and at either one you get nominated for (lycée) scholarship. Despite the massacre I delivered unto my students, the large majority of at least my 4e students advanced to 3e. I only saw one student in the three classes we conseiled that had above a 14 average — and that was Parfait, one of the boys who comes here all the time.

Conseil de classe marks the last of my official duties as a teacher in the school year 2010-2011, and I’m simultaneously thrilled about my newfound free time, nervous that I won’t be able to find something to do with it, and terrified that I’ll still have way too much to do before upcoming visits to Yaoundé and between all my vacation travel. I’ve been playing a lot of Advance Wars and if I had any Chuck left I’d probably be watching that too. The Boys keep feeding the cat things, which is fine except when he horks them right back up, which is not fine because the Boys are long gone at that point and I get to clean it up. We’ve already started doing some kind of club informatique on Thursdays from 12-15h, and my goal is that the students each produce something creative and original, even if it’s just a drawing using the GIMP. But by and large things are much more quiet, and I’m optimistic that come September, I’ll be somewhat un-burnt-out, ready to be a teacher again for another 10 months.


Choir Concert (Wednesday, 2011 May 18)

May 19th, 2011

[Here’s another one from Timothy. N.B. laïque means more-or-less "secular"; also, the exchange rate is roughly 500 francs to the dollar.]

Donfack approached me in the teachers’ office: "Oh, Professeur, mon cher," which is how he always addresses me, making me doubt sometimes that he even knows my name. He teaches French part time, and though it’s a public school and as such officially laïque he on occasion wears his little white collar. But then again, he still in the process of training to become a priest, meaning that the collar is technically fashion and holds no power. Not yet.

Having not yet taken his vows might also explain all the young women I see in his company.

"There’s a choir concert tomorrow," Donfack told me. "At three in the afternoon. You should come." Tomorrow then being a Saturday, all I had planned was to sit on the toilet and wash my clothes in a bucket. I told him, "I’d love to," which may have been an overstatement.

As on most Fridays in the village, I left the school at four, stopping by Chez Hombre for a box of cheap Spanish wine on the way home. As though I were still going through the moments of the life I left behind to come here. Back then I’d scoot over to Cork, geek out with the clerk on the new shipment from Argentina or Catayluñia, settle on something reasonable from Southern France and call it a day. I’d whip-up a little seared Mahi-Mahi, watch a Netflix with the old lady, give her a good old, red-blooded American roll in the hay and pass out with a sticky crotch and the empty bottle rolling on the warped hardwood floor. It was routine, but in the best possible way.

The routine is still there, sad and atrophied, it is no less necessary to tell myself, "this is normal. You are living your life. Have a good weekend, you’re free." So on this Friday evening I ate my bean sandwich with relish and drank my two-dollar liter of wine and watched a movie that I’d seen ten times already until the power went out and I stirred in bed as dogs howled and my neighbor yelled at her kids.

The next day I waited until three to walk up the hill to the community center. A little after three-thirty, Donfack arrived on the back of a moto-taxi. I reach out my hand, but he pushed it aside, and pulled me to him. We touch temples, one, then the other, then back again. He was wearing his collar that afternoon. "Professeur, mon cher."

He complained that there had been some scheduling problems — the village elites were meeting at the Chief’s palace — and the concert was being pushed back an hour. I turned to look about, turned back to Donfack, but he was already walking off with two young women in remarkably tight pants.

Down at Hôtel Kuchi I took a seat on the terrace. The terrace behind the hotel was at street level, but the ground dropped suddenly from the top of the hill where the road was built so that, sitting there, you overlook a small courtyard with a papaya tree in the center and remnants from an unfinished expansion of the hotel. The hill then slopes down even further into Quartier Confort in the valley below. The mountains on the far side of the valley make up the horizon — hundreds of mud brick houses bowled in between — so that on cooler mornings in the rainy season, fog settles into the valley, sinking an entire neighborhood under a lake of mist. Despite the piles of gravel and exposed re-bar it was perhaps the most beautiful view in the village. I ordered a beer.

Donfack had been right about the meeting at the Chief’s palace. Just after four o’clock I saw my first victim, the Under Chief from Famtsuet. I recognized, chiefly, his leopard-print hat from the Chief’s Christmas party the year before. He floated out onto the terrace and looked in my direction. I put my hands to my chest and bowed my head, but he didn’t acknowledge me. Perhaps he hadn’t recognized me. He was most certainly drunk.

A second man arrived wearing a pink Oxford shirt and gold, aviator-style sunglasses and followed by his entourage: three well-dressed women (tailored pagne ensembles and natural hair extensions) and a man wearing the ill-fitting suit and stubby tie of a personal driver. The man was visibly drunk as well and argued with the hostess over the price of two rooms. I paid for my beer and left.

Back at the community center Donfack gabbed my hand and pulled me along to have my photo taken with the choirs. I learned that the night’s event was not just a choir concert, but a choir competition: a Battle of the Choirs. He asked if I would sit on the jury. I didn’t want to. I never wanted to do those sorts of things: judging competitions, speaking at teachers’ meetings and the like. But something about the would-be priest — that damned collar… I don’t even believe in a god, but there was still something about the little square of white staring at me like a buck-toothed smile beneath an Adam’s apple nose. "I’d love to," I said.

The first two hours were uneventful. I checked out the decorations: hundreds of handmade paper flags and taped to the wall behind the stage were the words Festival des Chorals in large block letters made of pink toilet tissue. The two MC’s, one short, one tall, both in suits-too-large hyped into wireless mics that chewed their words into an incomprehensible mash of phonemes, static and hum. It went into this phase-shift jag and threw so much distortion that, mixed with the hedonist beating of hand drums, I was reminded of the old jungle-industrial dance tracks JD used to subject me to in high school. At one point the mic picked up the radio. I sat in the front row beside the other two jurists. Each choir made a similar show of dancing up the center aisle and onto the stage. They sang, they lifted their hands, they marched in circles around the stage. The younger choirs incorporated some charming step-shuffle-turn-step-kick routines into their acts. The choirs were mostly women or young girls, and what few young men there were refused to sing, so that the singing on a whole leaned toward the shrill and joyful cries of altos agreeing on a pitch as indecently as pedestrians agree on direction when crossing a street together.

The fifth choir, a group from Balengou, was lead by an old man with a hunched back and a tattered pinstripe suit. His leather shoes were so old they’d no longer hold a shine. He was missing several of his more noticeable teeth, but he belted his simple pentatonic harmonies proudly and with force enough to soar above the voices of his significantly younger choir. The songs the choir had chosen struck me as what I would consider classic choir music — that is, European in style as opposed the the call-and-return style typical of African choir music. The audience, which had grown considerable, whooped and hollered. People stood up and danced up the aisle toward the stage and dropped bills into a cardboard box set at the foot of the stage for that very purpose. When they had finished, the choir exited by the side door, but the MC bounded onto the stage and grabbed the hunched old choir director by the arm and made him take a bow. The old man smiled his colander smile and absorbed the crowd’s affections.

By the time the choir from Saint Jean Bosco parish took the stage, I was checking the time on my cell phone, fearing my inevitable need to urinate. Their last song was a reprise of Ave Maria, during which they broke out their secret weapon: the Virgin herself.

There was a time when I imagined that African culture might in some way resemble African-American culture. Whether it was prejudice or hopeful naiveté that could make me overlook what effect massive diaspora might have on a people’s culture, I can’t be sure. But thinking that an African choir, for no other reason than their black skin, would hit the stage and belt out gospel music, or any other style I’d be familiar with for that matter, was a grave misconception and, frankly, a disappointment. There was no gospel. No clapping on the two and the four. Could it have been that colonization by the French had sucked the soul out of Africa, or had it been the four centuries of slavery and oppression in America that forged the black community into our country’s dominant cultural reactor? It was a question best left for another day. I sat there in my plastic chair with my legs crossed at the knee and a rapidly filling bladder, and stared at the Virgin of Saint Bosco parish. She looked around fourteen, draped in a white shroud, a rosary clutched tightly in her fist, a look of infinite purity and conviction impressed upon her face. The crowd went nuts, as though it were the Holy Mother herself had descended into the room — the heavenly hosts beside her doing cartwheels. Forget that Mary wasn’t a Catholic, or that — statistically speaking — there was a fifty-fifty chance this fourteen-year-old girl wasn’t even a virgin. None of that mattered. It was the symbol. Here it was all about the symbols. I was just beginning to realize that.

We are a symbol-driven people. All of us. They give us meaning. What’s shocking is how well they do. In Cameroon it’s an honorable title from a village chief, a fetish, or an Armani tag sewn to the outside cuff of a second hand suit. For us "modern" Americans, it’s "War on Terror!" the brand name on your cell phone or whether or not you spend an extra 50 bucks for a pair of hemp sandals so you can feel good that some kid in the Philippines makes an extra seventy-five cents a day than the kid who sews swooshes on Tiger Woods’ hats. Money that kid then spends on a knock-off Dulce & Gabbana t-shirt from China.

I’ve been thinking about writing and what it is that make a good story, if any such thing is likely to stagger forth from my trembling, eczema-ridden fingers. Is it realism? Is it a moral, or some kind of theme that pats these happenings into an edible whole? The two are often mutually exclusive. Either way, make of this what you will. These things happened and then something else followed. A whole mess of shit preceded it all, most of which we will never know. I can’t tie it all together without feeling like I’m dumbing it down.

There was an intermission after the sixth choir. Intermission was the debut, the dévoilement, of a CD of songs produced by the local parish. The choir featured on the disk (the home team in tonight’s event) took the stage and sang the title track, "L’Hymn de Saint Joseph." They sang it once through in a three-part choral round. They sang it a second time in a Macossa. Then, for good measure, the priest played both versions over the PA.

And after they’d set the hook good and tight, the bidding began. It became clear why we’d all actually been invited out for the evening, why these women and girls left their villages on foot to participate in this competition. The first three copies of the disk were sold for 10,000, 7,500 and 9,000 francs to the Mayor, the Sous-Prefet and the wife some ministerial delegate I did not recognize.

The priest’s money made, the competition was allowed to continue. The group from Fite Micheal de Saint Joseph was all old women in white, their hair hidden beneath white headwraps — spotless as lambs. The first two songs were more of the same. The lead woman sang stanzas into the awful microphone and the rest of the women joined her on the refrain. Three of the women broke rank somewhere into the second song and snuck out the side door. They returned during the third song to perform their theater. One woman in drag, the caricature of a hunched old man in traditional Bamileke robes, leaning on his walking stick. Following him was a traditional Bamileke woman. She had a rope tied around her neck that the old man pulled as he led her to center stage. The crowd laughed and howled, privy to some inside joke or classic children’s tale that I was too foreign to understand.

At center stage, the man forced the woman to her kneel before him and brandished a dagger from his robes and, miming palsy, held it trembling to her throat.

At this, the crowd again roared. More lost than before, I thought back to all those dusty Sunday School stories and tried to make the connection. Were they twisting the story of Abraham and Issac, replacing the son with a daughter or a wife? I failed to think of other biblical tales of human sacrifice. I was sure they’re had to be others, but I’d been raised Southern Baptist; we didn’t focus too much on those stories of Jews and their brutal god. How could our faiths — given the same source material — differ so greatly?

The old man reached back with the dagger, his palsy exaggerated into a farce. His hand came down, trained to plunge the dagger into the forfeit throat. In mid-swipe, the old man’s hand stopped, frozen. No, not frozen, grabbed. A large hand gripping him at the wrist. I followed the hand up to an arm, a shoulder. Standing behind the old man, dressed in heavenly white, was black Jesus. The audience roared.

He was wrapped in bedsheets with a crocheted afghan around his head and a furry scarf tied around his waist that wasn’t exactly white but a heavily-bleached pink and covered with glitter. He was tall and stood with his back straight as a broomstick. An empty, powerful look on his face. His eyes neither closed nor open. In the uproar, another woman came from stage left and pulled the sacrifice from her make-believe altar and in her place put a bleating kid.

As I was beginning to see the allusion, that Jesus was intervening in the woman’s sacrifice, that her place on the sanguine altar was being taken by a pure lamb (a goat being the closest thing they have to a lamb), the crowd verging on hysterical joy, the pint-sized goat decided he was having none of it. He fought against cord around his neck and broke free.

I’d seen some strange things in my time here. I’d seen two men riding a motorcycle up a hill while carrying a second motorcycle on the seat between them. I’d seen topless woman called a fool in the town square by a man with no pants. I’d seen a mangy bitch lying in the middle of the road, sleepily licking its prolapsed vagina — like a child sucks its thumb — while motorcycle taxis tore by on both sides. But that night for the first time I saw two priests bowl over an old woman in their pursuit of a frightened goat.

When it was all said and done, the scores were tallied leaving a three-way tie. It was near ten o’clock, pitch black outside, and I hadn’t had dinner. When asked how to break the tie, I told them to give it to the guys from Balengou (their act took the least time.) I snuck out back to piss during the closing prayer. Grabbed a fistful of meat-sticks and went home. It wasn’t a routine evening, those are becoming rarer by the moment; it wasn’t even particularly pleasant (goat chasing aside — I laughed my ass off at that) but I was there.


It came from a Third World Supermarket. (Tuesday, 2011 May 17)

May 17th, 2011

[You may recall Timothy from around Christmas. He’s a writer but doesn’t want to go through the trouble of having a blog, whereas I want to share the people I know with the world at large. So we reached a compromise: occasionally I’ll put shit he wrote on my blog. Here is the first. Sorry Timothy, I had to edit out the name of the Organization to avoid being Googled; plus we don’t indent paragraphs, this is 2011.]

Tonus Natural Fruit Juice. Ginger flavor.

Today’s wondrous product come from the $ema¢o grocery store near the [Organization] office in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Even if you don’t understand a lick of French you can assume that this product is natural and has something to do with both fruit and ginger. Let’s ignore the facts that ginger is neither a fruit nor particularly juicy and instead focus on the packaging for a second.

You know, a lot of people spend shitloads of cash to go to school to learn how to seduce people into buying shit, but just this once let me give you this lesson. Call it a freebie: Words are indispensable. Don’t believe me? Well, just ask yourself, "if I loved ginger, just fuckin’ craved it, would I buy this?"

Okay. Now hold that thought while I make one… small… little…

Words are indispensable.

Well, as you can see, the cap’s off the thing, so I not only bought it, but I’m drinking it at this very moment. And you know what?

Not bad. A little gritty. But not bad.


Lécher (Thursday, 2011 May 12)

May 12th, 2011

["Santiago"? I wanted a name that sounded, well, unhinged. At least you’re not getting another Narrator named "Narrator".]

We burst onto the scene fashionably late, me, Buddy and Cherry Drop, late by about a day and a half, but that meant the party was in full swing already. The Mission house was more-than-full; people were already provisioning couches, sofas, floor space. It was Iago’s going away party, so he was in evidence, as were Wheaton, Jamie, Laras 1 and 2, Lily, Bauer, Sonja, etc.

My priorities were drink, food, and shower. Drink was well under the control of Jamie and Buddy — it was unanimously decided that it would have to be a sachet night. I sought food; I returned with a plastic bag full of omelette, salad, and meat. With the immediate needs taken care of, I needed to wash off the burnt-celery smell of being too long in a closed space with Zhenae. I needed to do it soon, because if experience was any indication, before too much longer I wouldn’t be safe standing in a shower.

A few sachets later, I found myself weaving through the kitchen, where Buddy and Lily were arguing over which Missionary cluster could outdrink the other. They were settling the argument with sachets. They locked eyes and tilted back as I wandered out to the porch.

I sat down next to Sonja and was starting to size her up when the door in the front wall opened and in walked Neena and her friend Cass. Neena looked delicious, and I had a vivid memory of the way she’d looked at me in Low-at-the-River, back when I had a reason to be polite, dignified, restrained. That was a lifetime ago, before the mess in Capital City, before the meltdown in Mountain Reflex. I guess it had been a week.

I tried to play it cool, stared at my glass (sachet and juice). Neena’s no fool though, and I’m sure she noticed, but then she and her friend were gliding past to the kitchen. I tried to flirt with Sonja but my heart wasn’t in it and when she turned her head to talk to someone else I decided to go to the kitchen too. Buddy and Lily were still there conversing. "Don’t one or both of you have a boyfriend?" I slurred. For once I was reading the situation completely correctly. Then I put my arms around Buddy and licked his neck.

"He just licked my neck, didn’t he?"

"Yep, he just licked your neck."

I giggled, then I licked it again for good measure and then I guess I must have left because I staggered into Lara 1, who wanted to Talk. Specifically:

"We need to Talk," she said. "Listen: she doesn’t know what she wants." Followed by fifteen minutes of sloppy conversation that really doesn’t further our story. Highlights: I told her what happened in Mountain Reflex, she told me that appearances notwithstanding, Morgan still cared very deeply about me, I swore her (Lara 1) my undying allegiance, she told me I was a good guy, I asked her not to repeat what happened in Mountain Reflex, she swore she wouldn’t, I complained that the whole thing had just come out of nowhere and then suddenly I caught a look at her profile and she looked so old, aged, sallow, sunken where she used to look lean. Maybe it’s all the travelling, maybe she’d just gotten off the bus too. Then she lay her head back (we were seated at this point) and closed her eyes.

"Hard-dream-sleep," I said, using the Sumi salutation. I got up and turned to leave, and suddenly there was Neena.

Thinking back now I wonder how much of the conversation she’d heard. She’s sharp, though, and I’m sure she worked it all out one way or the other. At the time, though, it didn’t occur to me to wonder. I could only say: "Hi".

The next few minutes are a little foggy. I have no idea what I said, if I managed to accomplish anything with the tatters of charm or wit I had left. I’m sure both her and her friend, standing behind and off to the side, could read just how entranced I was with her. So maybe it was just my sincerity. Like: I was sincerely astonished by how fresh she looked. I was sincerely interested in the dress she was wearing. I was sincerely attracted to her lips, her eyes, her skin.

I don’t really understand how she did it. In principle she’d just gotten off a bus too, but she wasn’t rumpled, or sticky, anything. It’s a woman thing, I guess. You know how some women, they make beauty completely natural? Like "disheveled" is just a river in Egypt. Case in point: Neena didn’t smell like burnt celery.

Instead she smelled like cinnamon.

The next morning Jamie, Buddy, Wheaton and I were up bright and early again on another adventure. Wheaton was going to take us over the border into a neighboring state. Strictly speaking this would be legal in certain circumstances, which didn’t apply, so it might have been illegal, but according to other regulations it was probably legal but anyhow definitely against policy. Well, Jamie’s a big fan of adventure and the last week had taught me the hard way that Jamie’s vacations are generally better than mine, so just stick with her and everything’ll work out.

Half a bus-ride later I got a message from Neena, a scathingly funny indictment of how I was "chain-smoking" rebounds, "lighting one from the ashes of the last". Yep, she’s sharp as tacks. "Ouch," I said to myself, then snickered, then I grimaced, and finally I deleted it and napped until we got to the next town, where we were to descend and switch to motos. We rode across hot sand and dry riverbeds, past scrub and occasional herds of animals. Eventually we got to the border, stopped at a government building with a flag out front, basically the same Zhenae color scheme but subtly different. We paid a "crossing fee" bribe that was actually probably a legitimate fee, although it might have been a legitimate bribe. Either way a few minutes later we were under a sincerely woven thatch hut drinking a local fermented grain product, plus some standard Zhenae beer just to be on the safe side.

"This is really cool," I said, marvelling at how lucky I was to be here, on this planet, steeping in the local color (and flavor). "Thanks for this, Wheaton."

"It’s my pleasure," he said, though of course his face was as neutral as always. "I really enjoy when I can show off the bounty of my post."

"It’s just so surprising, man," said Buddy, his eyes tracking a skitter, "How peaceful Zhen is. Like, the Mission just withdrew from Nairv. The D-Range just declared martial law. All the Sumi colonies, really, none of them are really stable."

"I wonder why Zhen’s different," Jamie said.

"Too many racial groups," said Wheaton. "There’s no unity. Without unity, there can be no war."

There was silence for a minute. "That’s totally Newspeak," commented Buddy, turning it over. "But I like it."

"It’s gonna be interesting when the next brood-group shows up in a few months. I wonder if they’re gonna be professional like ours, or party people like the others."

"Is our brood-group really more professional than others? I mean, you’ve seen a few," asked Jamie of Wheaton.

"No, but yours is more mentally unhinged," he responded with a significant glance in my direction.

"No, that’s just Santiago," Jamie replied. Then suddenly they were all three looking at me. "It just came out of nowhere," said Wheaton.

"If you please," I replied loftily. "I maintain that my behavior in Mountain Reflex was rational and carefully plotted."

"I think you mean erratic and carefully rationalized."

"Come on," I continued. "Ever drink too much at a party? Felt like crap? Made yourself throw up? That’s what I did, just with emotions. Puke and rally. Completely reasonable. Hinged, I’m super mentally hinged. Oh, shit," I said. "I just remembered I licked your neck last night."

"Dude," Buddy said. "You totally did."


Ronronner (Thursday, 2011 May 5)

May 5th, 2011

Jenny‘s gallivanting off in the States right now, and I’m catsitting for her. Her cat’s a little dude named Aristotle (her rationale being that in Cameroon, she needs the assistance of the Father of Logic) and he’s pretty sweet now that we made it back to post. Pets and kids are a good combination, though (as with my presence) the novelty’s bound to wear off eventually. In the mean time I’ve learned a lot of cat-related vocabulary: griffe, "claw"; griffer, "to claw/scratch with claws"; un chaton, "kitten"; and of course, ronronner, "to purr". Not to be confused with ronfler, "to snore" — a distinction that is important both linguistically and biologically. (Personally I prefer the English "to purr".)

He’s an outdoor cat and it’s been a bit of a compromise figuring out how he can have free passage in and out of my house without it compromising the security of my house. Every window in my house has a giant metal grate on it, and in theory he should be able to sneak in and out, but he doesn’t like it. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable leaving my door open for him at night. He likes raw eggs (and I guess cooked ones too) and it’ll be interesting to have him here for a few weeks.

So that’s personally. Professionally I still have way too much to do and not enough time or motivation to do any of it (i.e. that’s why I’m writing this now). Partly that’s due to it being exam week, and needing to proctor exams. In French the word is surveiller, "to watch (over)", but in Anglophone they say "invigilate" (which, yes, sounds like a medical condition). It is hands-down the worst work a teacher has to do and borders on capital punishment. The job is to watch students take exams and make sure that nothing, nothing actually happens. You are condemning a person to being intentionally bored this entire time. Performing this duty for four hours in a single day is rough; six or seven is a Herculean effort that leaves you blurred and crushed, too épuisé to even think. Towards the end of the day, I tried to strike a delicate balance between trying to look attentive and secretly working on mind candy like how I’m going to write my solution to Project Euler problem 11, the product-of-numbers-in-a-grid one, in a functional manner. (Tentative solution: repeated indexing, none of this fold/filter/map nonsense.)

I’ve also spent a certain amount of time people-watching. I’ve been in classes this week that I don’t normally teach in, so I get to see students that I normally don’t pay attention to. Some general observations:

  • Each class tends to have one or two students with glasses. Wearing glasses is a tacit admission that you have mal aux yeux, ("eye pain"? "bad eyes"?), so Cameroonians don’t wear glasses unless they really have to. Which is a shame; in my culture, glasses are the norm and they are a tacit admission that how you think is more important than how you look.
  • There’s also one or two per class with slightly lighter skin coloring, with astonishing calico eyes, or gray. I have no idea of the genetics at work here.
  • From the shoulders up, students look terribly similar, especially since boys and girls are obligé to have shaved heads (the principle being that if you don’t have hair, you can study instead of arranging your hair). Even telling the gender can be a bit of a problem. At my lycée, you can glance at a student’s thighs — light blue means a knee-length dress, so a girl, and dark blue means a pair of slacks, so a boy. But some lycées put the girls in light blue blouses and dark blue skirts, or have other, more complicated color schemes (I’m sure I’ve seen all black, as well as tan top, purple bottom). A clue that seems to work pretty well is to check for earrings. Most, but not all, girls wear earrings, and no boys do.
  • One girl in one of the 5e classes reminds me soooo muuuch of the little girls back home; glasses, braids along the edges of her head, and a very studious look. She’s just missing the little barrettes and maybe a set of braces. Adorable. Not sure how she got around the head-shaving rule; maybe it’s because it’s the end of the year?
  • One girl in one of the 3e classes today had the word "LOVE" on her arm — but it didn’t look like it was written in pen, it looked like a scar (cicatrice) from a burn.

I just finally got my Internet back yesterday, so that’s another reason why I’m not doing any of the stuff I should be. I know I owe Rita an email, plus a kind of time-sensitive one to Chiz — I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll get to it soon. But in the meantime I still have seven classes of exams to grade that I haven’t even touched yet, so don’t be surprised if it takes me a little while..

Special ♥ to my parents, whose package included Peeps snowmen as well as hearts — vital medicine when, as they say, "The spirit wasn’t really willing any more, but the flesh was very very strong".


Champignon (Wednesday, 2011 April 27)

May 1st, 2011

Haven’t had much in the way of Internet access lately. Can’t tell if it’s just Camtel’s usual bag of suck or if there’s a proximate cause — weirdness at the Camtel office yesterday that is too trivial to really go into.

Suddenly the end of the school year is upon us. I knew it was close, but I thought I still had like a month, since the 6th sequence started only a couple weeks ago when we got back from spring break, but apparently finals start Tuesday. I’m falling behind on basically everything — still have to calculate grades for the fifth sequence, fill out bulletins, etc. — and it still hasn’t been regular about raining. I have to write the comprehensive exam for 4e; my AP (head of department) wrote them for all the other levels. Writing a comprehensive exam is way easier than any particular exam, because there’s enough actual material over an entire year to pick from that you don’t have to struggle to find questions.

Without Internet I’ve been watching more Chuck (and ♡ Jenn and Johnny for providing me with some missing episodes) and cooking a little more. This is supposed to be mushroom season, but I never see any in my podunk little village — but in town yesterday I bought 2000 CFA worth, a plastic bag full of mushrooms with caps like dinner plates. Mushrooms are the best rooms, FYI. Times like these I wish I was a real cook, but I was just so happy to have real mushrooms that didn’t come from a can!

Today I’m experimenting with soybeans, which are really easy to find dry — three liters is about 1000 CFA — and apparently it’s pretty feasible to make your own tofu! They sell tofu in the north, and it is awesome, so it’d be great to have some here too. Some other volunteers in the West have taught mommies to make it the way they make grilled meat brochettes or beignets, little balls of fried dough, but it’s not quite here yet in our village. My postmate has the technique down and she’s going to do a demonstration this weekend. Trivia: apparently the French name for tofu is "viande de soja", soy meat. Also: normally you’d strain out the soy solids from the soy milk using cheesecloth, but we don’t have any here so we’re using couches de bébé, diapers (that have been boiled to be on the safe side).

So here I am waiting for my soy milk to coagulate! I didn’t measure anything so I’m sure it’s gonna be a disaster but what the hell, you only live once. (Actually the first batch came out OK — my soy sauce has gone bad though, maybe during my trek through the Extreme North?)


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