Archive for September, 2011

Rapport (Thursday, 2011 September 29)

September 29th, 2011

The closest deadline at present is the Saturday deadline for our Trimestrial Report, 2011 June-September. So that’s what I’m working on today, my "day off", after I went shopping at the market. Un rapport is a report, but it’s also used in le rapport sexuel, sexual contact. My dictionary gives "contact" as a general meaning for rapport.

I figure I’ll be sitting at my computer for a while typing up notes and observations about the fairly meager activities I fostered during this period, which (you’ll note) centers largely around summer vacation. But I figured that while I’m writing, I’m not using my Internet, so I may as well upload some pictures.

This is from the pool party at Dschang. It’s an actual swimming pool! This is at the Centre Climatique, which is a beautiful place.

Dschang also features an artificial lake.

A ceremony at one of the local hospitals. One of the local notables had arranged for some French partners to donate some medical stuff, including a bunch of mattresses and a delivery table.

The "SISTERS", the association of village women in Douala (ex-pats?). They helped somehow with the gift or something.

Some other association, this time all of local village men (J-C is the really tall one). The way the pictures are framed, it looks like they’re squaring off to fight.

This kind of ceremony is improved by dancers.

Sa majesté saying some words in honor of the occasion.

I was surprised to see a for-reals political cartoon in Bafoussam a week or two ago. The subject is the recent ban on night travel, which was protested loudly by the population. Kirikou is a famous cartoon character here, who is very very small but very strong and clever. (There’s a pop song that goes Kirikou est petit, mais il est fort. I have a copy of "Kirikou et les bêtes sauvages" if you’re interested.)

J-C’s wife Véronique (host mother #2?) called me the other day to say she was cooking something and did I want to come over for dinner, or should she just send her son up the hill with my portion? But by the time she had finished cooking, it was already dark, and they decided it would be best if I went home with the food, so I could eat at my leisure. They sent enough for two days. It’s cabbage cooked somehow, there’s fish in it too, and the complement is what they call couscous, or in Anglophone foo-foo. This is couscous de maïs, and it’s made from ground corn. It’s dense and bland but has a crisp texture. (Couscous de manioc is pretty much despised by volunteers, but couscous de maïs is acceptable. I think there’s also "wata foo-foo" and couscous de riz, but those don’t turn up much in the West.)


Semmer (Wednesday, 2011 September 28)

September 28th, 2011

Being on Zhen for so long, I’ve started to crave just a little bit of truth every now and then, the same way I crave broccoli or hamburgers or competent dentistry. It’s just one more commodity that’s hard to come by (although I hear sometimes they have it in the bigger cities). As a Missionary here you become familiar with many different shades of lying, which plays a critical if unhappy role here. And as with any linguistic skill, learning how to participate can greatly speed your integration and help you function effectively. Let’s briefly summarize.

First and foremost there’s the empty promise. This is a pretty common form of lying found on Zhen, and it’s sort of the equivalent of the Earther "white lie", an innocent-seeming lie that spares someone’s feelings. If a pup asks you if you brought them candy, you can tell them that you forgot but certainly you will bring them some next time. It’s fine if you don’t bring them any next time either, because maybe they’ll forget by then, and if they don’t, you can promise them earnestly to bring some the time after that. Every Missionary is familiar with hearing "We’ll talk about it tomorrow", which becomes the day after, or next week..

Then you have the half-truth, which you’re probably already familiar with. Someone asks you, "Did you buy that on Earth?" and you can say "No", which can mean "No, I did not buy that on Earth", "No, it isn’t mine", or "It is mine and it came from Earth but no I did not buy it". Depending on context, the questioner may be left with the idea that such things are available on Zhen, maybe even made locally. To be totally truthful, you might say something like "No, the Mission gave it to me" or "I borrowed it from Jamie". It takes a certain skill to be able to listen for half-truths. It helps to pose open-ended questions: "Where did you get that?"

Subtly different is the half-lie, hiding something you don’t want to reveal in something that someone already knows. An example: I can tell you that my last girlfriend was Morgan and that will still be true even if Lara 2 and I exchange vows at the Mission’s chapel. Obviously everyone already knows about Morgan, but I can still manage to keep the marriage thing with Lara 2 secret as long as you don’t ask the right questions.

But the real master-levels of mishonesty come in when you start letting people think things. There are lots of finer-grained levels than that, but you can start with joking and implications. You can get really good at it, really subtle. The idea is that the best lie is the one that the listener comes up with himself. You might be asking yourself if Lara 2 and I really did get married without telling anyone. Or maybe you’re telling yourself that it’s obviously just an example and Lara 2 and I are certainly not married nor even likely to get married. If I pushed a little harder in either direction, I bet I could get you to settle on one or the other.

It’s at this level, of course, where most of our memetics work takes place.

This is the kind of thing I’m thinking about when I’m doing work for Revolution Committee. I’m kicking it in Highest Gardens (my regional capital) at a bar "interviewing" local partners to help with the effort. Each is trying to convince me that he is most committed to the development of his species, most well-connected, most deserving of the per-diem that Revolution Committee is willing to provide for qualified assistance. I am trying to sort out the truths, the real truths, from the things they are saying (and not saying). Of the three Zhenae genders, all the candidates are "male". Periodically street vendors will walk in and try to sell us things. I am tired, hungry, and sober.

"… with more patience and purpose than you will ever know. Purity-force-united. Thank you." That’s the last Zhenae proposal. Vaguely threatening, kind of gravelly of voice, but mostly just angry and sad. As an Earther he didn’t strike me as a Ché or a Fidel or even a Facundo. None of them did yet. But I’m an Education Missionary and that means that at times like these I think, "Maybe I can tease it out of them". So, class, time for an exercise.

"Can you each please interpret me this sentence, one at a time?" I asked, passing them a Sumi triplet I’d constructed for this occasion. The words on it translated as: "Intention (or Deity)-problem-given".

"God gives me problems to solve." That was the gravelly-one, who happened to be closest to me. Literal translation. Not compelling. For an Indigenous Partner, I needed someone inspiring. I noted his response and looked to the next Zhenae.

"Problems, because God wants solutions." That was the skinny one with poor hygeine (by Zhenae standards). He wouldn’t be attractive to his peer group, so that ruled him out, but I was glad all the same to see a little bit of originality and critical thinking.

"God gives me problems with the intent that I solve them. No, wait." This was the one with the thick tentacles — young, probably attractive in the native culture, and now demonstrating some kind of problem-solving abilities. "He who discovers a problem is intended to solve it." He looked at me. "It’s that, isn’t it?"

I made some more notes on my clipboard and tried not to smile. "Thank you. I have your contact information, and I will let you know of our findings as soon as possible." I made a "thanks-that-will-be-all" gesture and they started to turn out of the bar. Only the last one stayed. He tried to make eye contact with me. "Yes?" I said.

"Please," he started, then made a motion analogous to a curtsy. "I was wondering, on your planet, are you an appropriate gender for me to marry?"

I hoped Jamie and Morgan were having better luck.


École (Sunday, 2011 September 25)

September 26th, 2011

I got my newest Worldview ("The Magazine Of The National Peace Corps Organization") from the Boffice yesterday. I skimmed through it despite the glossy paper to see if there was anything of interest. There’s an article called "The Power of Knowledge (For Better or Worse)" by Sheridan Larson which touches on a few gripes with the educational system in Maewo (an island in the nation of Vanatu). It’s kind of interesting, a kind of cultural recurrence of a lot of the same phenomena I’ve witnessed in Cameroon, but even worse. She notes (her italics, my bold):

The petite, turtle of an old man summed up Maewo’s attitude towards education when he sagely chuckled at my musing. "Wan kastom samting olsem bae yu no gat janis blong save." Custom things like that aren’t for you to know.

…the children of Maewo are expected simply to watch and learn. Kids gather around women weaving, staring and memorizing the actions. But never will you see a mother guiding her child’s hands and explaining the technique. Shared information is an honor. Whether elder, teacher, or mother, when someone opens their mouth to share information: complete silence from the recipient. This knowledge may be shared only once and must be remembered verbatim. Asking questions would be rude, a sign that the questioner wasn’t listening attentively, a sign of stupidity.

It’s a really interesting explanation based on culture. I’ve never heard anyone ever say anything even remotely like "Shared information is an honor" — I seem to recall hearing explanations about asking questions being rude because it means the teacher hasn’t explained well. But a lot of the other phenomena the author notes are different. Parents in Maewo feel threatened by a system of education. Here in the "Ouild Ouild Ouest" (– Yaya) parents aren’t threatened by education — most everyone recognizes the value of education, and indeed the countryside is sprinkled with lycées, some such as ours constructed by the community so that the state will send teachers to populate it.

I can almost hear Gus telling me firmly that I have to back off, that the culture here works for them and has worked for hundreds of years, so what’s my fucking problem? But the thing is, the culture is demonstrably not working for them — corruption, government mismanagement, shitty educations, lack of critical thinking skills — so what you’re really saying, maybe, is that you have to change the culture as little as possible, or more probably, that you’d be happier if you worked to change the culture in changing it in compatible ways instead of flailing around helter-skelter. Well, I guess I agree.. and it’s certainly true that I’m teaching a lot better now that I’ve got my head wrapped around how schools "work" here. But fundamentally I’ll never learn enough to do the job "right" — I have to learn to swim while trying to tread water. I’m righter now than I used to be, more like a scalpel where I used to be a hammer. But like one of our "founding fathers" said: "When in doubt, use brute force." (– Ken Thompson.)

One thing that I guess I’ve learned in order to work with the culture instead of against it: students tend not to ask when they see or hear words that they don’t know. So ask, ask, ask, always ask when you use a sophisticated word. Never assume they know it just because it’s French. I’ve found that students don’t know the word chiffre, a digit (as opposed to a number: 123 has three digits). Kim said some of her students don’t know the word "precursor". I had a student ask me about the English word "rebel" — rebelle in French — and then concluded, "Oh, wait.. I think I know this, a rebel is a kind of monster, right?" So ask. Of course, they probably won’t say "No I don’t know that word".. but you’ll learn to tell the enthusiastic "Yes Monsieur, of course we know the word" from the markedly different "Yes" or even silence you’ll get when you ask about a word like vulnérable.

One time a week or two ago, Parfait asked me to help him with his math homework. It’s kind of groundwork stuff for getting to the idea of symbolic algebra and functions. Programmes de calcul and schemas which show results of operations being used as operands in other operations. After working on one problem for a while — note, not after reading it the first time — he turns to me and asks, "Monsieur… what does this word mean, ‘double’?" He’s 13, and of course it never occurred to me that a kid of that age might never see or learn a word like that (although, thinking on it, I’m sure he’s heard it before), but I’m kind of impressed that he even thought to ask (given the habits of his colleagues).

The Boys have started showing up on Sundays for tutoring. But I have enough stuff to do without handholding. They need to learn to read, and they need to learn to ask about things they have never seen, and they need to learn how to fucking look words up in the dictionary. Until they do that, math and English are always going to be baffling beyond measure. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy..


Surpris (Friday, 2011 September 23)

September 24th, 2011

The English word "surprise" comes from the French past participle, surpris, of surprendre, which etymologically means "to overtake". You can even see the -pris past participle of the root -prendre, "to take", which also occurs in entreprendre (translated by my dictionary as "to undertake"). Saying you were surpris can therefore be seen as being overtaken by an emotion or sensation.

Cameroon is occasionally quite surprising. I remarked (remarquer, "to notice") on this as I carried my two bidons full of water up the hill from the market, one balancing precariously on my knee as I rode a moto home. There’s a telephone charging on my desk because one of my students hadn’t had power since a few days. It’s a telephone I recognized from America, a brand that would likely be familiar to many of you: an Apple iPhone. For reals. This is the sort of thing that makes me hesitate to qualify Africa or at least my area of Cameroon as "poor". (Things are different in the Grand North, where "food security" is a real issue. Not so much in the Grand West.) Former Volunteer Wendy wrote about similar sensations — things are definitely different here, but poverty is nebulous and hard to capture exactly.

A New Yorker might walk around Virginia and notice an appalling lack of how few houses are two-story. "The poor souls," he may say to himself. "They don’t even have the money to build a second story on their house." Is he right? Of course not — cultural tradition favor ranch-style houses, and there are no economic pressures to "build up" as there are in New York. If you walk on the road to the chefferie here, you’ll see houses with dirt floors, made apparently with bricks of mud. Windows that don’t close? That can seem like poverty — but then, we never earthquake-proof houses in New York either.

One thing that’s made this year better than last year is that I’m enough better in French that I can let my personality show a lot better. I don’t try to always be patient and calm-sounding. Now I modulate my voice so that listeners know I’m pissed because I asked them to read me something from the board and they’re clicking things or staring at the screen. I wouldn’t have done this last year, just done a slow burn as my students failed to heed the answers I was giving them, tried to put a polite face on their burgeoning failure. An angry voice means Listen to what I am telling you, which apparently they need to hear. In English I’m a bit of a crass person and my language isn’t pure by any means, so I’ve started incorporating some authentic-sounding French swears/rudeness to be compatible. One I like is Je m’en fou [de …] (sp?) which I can’t find in a dictionary but apparently is equivalent to "I don’t give a fuck [about …]" — as in: "Monsieur! The accents on this computer don’t donne!" "Leave it, I don’t give a fuck about the accents."

This year I can make fun of my students for being unable to read things, or because my other classes two or three years younger have already figured all this stuff out. I just made fun of a student for asking me to buy her an orange. "Go work," I said, using tu form without thinking about it, "ramasses some money, come with it, and you can buy one!" What surprised me was the mama from whom I was buying the orange was as pleased as I was. "C’est ça, papa. C’est ça." Of course, an orange vendor already knows the value of working and that nothing comes for free, so isn’t afraid to lose the sale. (Maybe she’ll sell it to someone else later.)

In fact, this isn’t the first time when people have encouraged me to be harder on kids. It’s not like in America where the first response is, "You can’t talk to my kid/that kid that way!" Here the idea seems to be that if you come down hard on them, they’ll shape up, and if you don’t, it may be too late by the time you do. Lindsay tells a story of a girl at her school who got ferociously beaten for stealing money from her own mother. But remember that the punishment for a thief later in life can be a fatal beating, and you start to wonder if the school isn’t showing more compassion than you thought.

A student from my shitshow class Première last year came to school with a "letter of engagement", saying basically "I’m sorry for being such a shit last year, this year I will make an effort to do better." She had been given the assignment to get each of her teachers to sign it. I did, because she had been a smart though disruptive student, but first I lectured her about how she needed to be more serieuse this year, and that if I caught her cheating even the slightest bit, I would march her right up to the proviseur and demand that she be excluded. M. Anatole applauded this, as he applauded M. Kwamo refusing to sign the letter (on the grounds that he didn’t believe she had really understood what she had done wrong, and hadn’t really owned it yet, so wasn’t really interested in reforming). M. Anatole: "My daughter got excluded from lycée, and I applauded!" — for the same principle that he values someone being as strict with his children as he could be himself. It’s true that Mlle. Makegne probably isn’t really interested in getting any better, maybe doesn’t see it as a problem that she doesn’t care about class, but until she has the same epiphany that a lot of smart people do, that you don’t get a free pass on work just because you’re a little sharper, that no one is going to save you from yourself, she’s not going to reform. And none of us can give her that epiphany either.

My premières aren’t much better this year. Actually, they’re still the shittiest part of this job. One of them continued to ask me to give him credit even after I had gone into my next class. I was halfway through erasing the blackboard, so I took the eraser and rubbed it on his scalp and forehead, leaving him chalk-y and (by Cameroon standards) deplorably filthy. He’d followed me into my 4e class so they all burst out laughing at him, which also helped. It’s a line I never would have crossed last year, almost physical discipline, a sign of fury so great that I could feel myself shaking. Although, I guess it could also be mercury poisoning. Ha ha.

Anyhow, I went to their class later and told them I was annulling ALL of the credit for that hour because I’d been so fucking infuriated by their piss-poor conduct. Every time I get into a rant like this, I suddenly feel everyone paying attention and realize that I don’t have a really solid-sounding rant to recite for them. Should have prepped better. How do you say piss-poor in French? I’ll have to ask Claude.

In the cahier de texte, the log where I write what I cover in each lesson, I wrote "BARRÉ avec CHOLÈRE", "CROSSED OUT with ANGER". I also bitched at some of the administration about what a shit class it was and one of the surveillants apparently went in there and told them that if they pissed me off again, and I so much as indicated the student who was being a brat, they’d exclude him directly. Nice to have reinforcements. I don’t know why it’s the literary series première that’s such a pain in the ass, but the séconde of the same subject is also shaping up to be delinquent. M. Teukeu exhorts me to really gronde them (my dictionary says "to scold" but I think gronder sounds a bit harsher than that) when they get out of line. Pick one who’s being a pain and turn him over to a surveillant, tell them that he needs to have a good punishment. If there’s no surveillant, think of something severe for him to do and WATCH him, oversee him doing it. You know how students are with a new teacher, he said. They’re testing you, he said, and until you come down on them they are going to think they have free rein. Well, it’s true that the salle d’informatique could use to be cleaned more often..

Figured something out today that I’d been seeing for a while. A monitor was turning on but not displaying anything from the computer. Unplugging the VGA showed a normal "No signal — check connection" message, but plugging it in showed nothing. Turns out some kid had turned the contrast all the way down to zero using the front-panel buttons, rendering the image utter blackness. Something to be aware of when you’re like "Why did this monitor suddenly stop receiving video?" I need to dump this sort of thing in the Volunteer Wiki..

46 weeks left to my service. Not that I’m counting or anything.


Carte (Saturday, 2011 September 17)

September 17th, 2011

One of the oddities of learning another language is having to cope with homonyms. Try to translate "token ring", for example, and you’ll discover that "to ring", like a phone, in French is sonner, whereas a ring that you wear on your finger is a bague, and a ring in the sense of hoop is anneau (this is what they call a basketball hoop). It’s an important concept, that one word doesn’t always encompass every meaning — although sometimes you’ll be surprised: droit is the French word for "right" as in the direction, "to your right", but also "right" as in the legal sense, "right to bear arms".

Carte is a confusing word because (and it’s always feminine) it can mean "card", as in the cartes de séjour that we all have as legal residents in Cameroon, or as in playing cards, or carte mémoire, any memory card, such as the SD cards you put in your camera. But it can also mean "map", which makes sense if you associate it with the English word "chart". Let’s not even get into à la carte, which seems to derive from carte meaning menu (???).

The fact is that Cameroon, being a terribly confusing country, is no less confusing when treated physically. I’ve tried to address this with my feeble on-again-off-again work on OpenStreetMap, but there are more things in this world, dear Horatio, than are dreamed of in your crowdsourced mapping websites. One time when I was walking around Yaoundé I saw a store with a sign "Maison des Cartes" and thought, Yes! Finally I can get a map of this crazy mixed-up city. I walked in and was surprised when I found out that actually it was a maison of greeting cards, cartes des vœux ("cards of wishes", "wish cards").

I am telling you all this so that you understand why I had absolutely no problem blowing 10,000 CFA (about $20) on a map of my village, which was apparently made by one of the surveillants at my lycée. He says he had it printed at Yaoundé and that he went to university for cartography, both dubious claims but I’m completely willing to shell out some of my hard-earned cash on a one-of-a-kind product. There’s the added benefit that I can feel like I know my village that much better, without ever having to set foot outside my door or being subjected to the hassle of having to actually interact with people. I meant to go over this map in the GIMP and highlight the places I’ve actually been, but I’m lazy.

Click, as always, for the full version. You can see the lycée there, and also the marché. Walking between the two is about ten minutes downhill to the marché, or fifteen minutes uphill to the lycée. I spend almost all of my time in village somewhere between those two locations. Cars to Bafoussam pick me up at the marché and proceed north-east on the red line (the route goudronée, the paved road). The first stop on their root is the other black dot, what we call "the carrefour", where carrefour is French for "intersection" or "junction". Cristina, my postmate, lives on the north-bound road from that carrefour. One time I walked it and it took me half an hour to get to the carrefour, plus another half hour to get to her house. Conclusion, I’ve probably seen less than ten percent of what is properly "my village", which is actually pretty huge when you look at it!

Of course, M. Nzeugang himself is depicted in the lower-right corner. This map is exactly the same as the one behind glass in the Hotel Grand Moulin in Yaoundé. Look for it when you’re passing through!


Pressé (Monday, 2011 Septemeber 12)

September 12th, 2011

Sometimes in transport you’ll hear "Pardon! Chauffeur, on part! Je suis pressé!" or similar, which translates as "Come on, driver! Let’s go! I’m in a hurry!" But the semi-literal idea of being pressed (pression means pressure) is kind of catchy when there’s eight zillion things to do. Was the beginning of the school year like this last year? I don’t recall it being.

Last Wednesday, as I was cooking, I started to feel a little congested, and couldn’t stop sneezing. One of the Boys suggested that I had the flu and that he’d be immune since he’d had it in Yaoundé or Bafoussam or someplace like that. Sure enough, my fever mounted with sincerity until around midnight, when it was 102 degrees. I took some Tylenol and managed to get some sleep, and when I woke up on my day off, I was back to 98 degrees. Despite its being my day off, though, there was assemblée générale, so after I did laundry and dishes I went to that. It was short enough, and then beer was produced, and I managed to talk M. Teukeu into buying my next 100 hours of Internet on his way back to Bafoussam, then I got back home and my temperature was up to 99.6. Cyclical fever is associated with malaria, and I wanted to go to the pool party on Friday in Dschang, so I decided to go to the hospital to get some malaria tests done. They sadly informed me that they couldn’t really do it, since it was already almost nighttime and the lamp in the microscope was kind of broken, so could I come back tomorrow during the daytime? I already had three hours of class plus I still hadn’t arranged my hours with M. Dinesso plus I also had 2000 CFA of tofu on order that I needed to pick up. So going to the hospital AGAIN seemed like it would be super annoying, but maybe I’d get lucky and wake up at 5 AM again when my fever broke and I found myself in a puddle of sweaty clothing.

But instead when I got home again I wanted to take my temperature again as I got dressed to ward off the chill. Turns out that putting shirts on isn’t compatible with mouth-things like thermometers, which fell on the floor and broke. Whoever is responsible for Cameroonian Volunteers having mercury thermometers, congratulations! You utterly ruined my evening, which was spent frantically doing research and obsessively trying to clean mercury as best as I could before I could relax. Mercury gets EVERYWHERE. The good news is that handling it or even swallowing it isn’t that dangerous, because it has poor absorption as a liquid. What you have to watch out for is mercury vapor, which has very good absorption — but a very short half-life in the blood, so that’s something too. For four or five hours I wrapped duct tape to my fingers and tried to gently pick up miniscule little balls of mercury that I’d tried to ramasse with a piece of cardboard, and put the tape with the mercury in a ziploc bag before the mercury fell off. By the time I was finished, my legs were sore and my feet had fallen asleep from crouching because I was too terrified to put my knees on the floor that might have gotten mercury on it. It was midnight, and I had produced a ziploc bag with mercury in it. At least I was able to air my house for a few days while I fled to Dschang.

Friday I almost overslept, managed to teach ALL the classes, visit the hospital again BOTH to give blood and then AGAIN to get the results (it’s not malaria), fend off M. Dinesso (no I’m not giving you anything. No I’m not even selling you anything), draw up a schedule for who’s going to be teaching what class in the lab on what days, and still made it to Bafoussam in time to visit some stores to get a crossover cable (câble croisé) so I could do a demo showing off what a network was, at least to a small extent. Right now I’m exhausted but at the time I felt great, super accomplished, especially when I was presented a price of 2000 CFA and I pulled out my trump card — "You know it’s not for me, right? It’s for my poor students at the Lycée de [Village]" — which surprisingly often gets responses of "Wait, you’re at Lycée de [Village]? I’m FROM [Village]!" Price went down to 1000 CFA and I made some new friends, who may be coming by this week. Between that and the tofu, I’m beginning to think that my village is the best. Apparently people from my post are envahisseurs, "invaders" — they’re just all over the place. Playing this card has worked for me in Bafoussam, Yaoundé (the spaghetti-omelet sandwich guy is from my village, and so is the guy who runs the draft beer bar, and Hotel Grand Moulin has a big map of my village in the lobby), lots of places where you wouldn’t expect it to. The guys from the shop mused that it has to do with the hills here, and the associated high costs of investing or starting a farm here. It’s just way easier for us to diasporate.

Got to the party before sundown, drank, danced. Dschang is a college town, but college doesn’t start until next month sometime (around the elections?), so it was almost a ghost town. Still, it’s just an unbelievably beautiful place. The swimming pool was nice too. Barely slept; up again to head to the lake (!) and have a brief drink before heading out again to Bafoussam to hang out with Barbara and Billie, who are both leaving soon — Barbara because she’s been transferred back to Yaoundé (where her family is) and Billie because she got a visa (or a green card?) and is going to the United States for a few months. Hung out there and ate, crashed there, woke up Sunday, watched a movie, headed back to post where I could wash my school bag that I’d left soaking so I could get the tofu oil out. Too tired to do anything but plan my lessons rudimentarily, but through some stroke of genius luck brilliance, all of my classes on Monday are lab hours, so it wasn’t as hard as it should have been.

I’m almost done with classes today. Mostly they went fine. Surprise, all of the Compaq machines stopped working over the vacation. Not sure why, they’re not lighting up at all. Maybe it’s a problem with the power supplies, which are some quirky Compaq thing that are screwed on using Torx screws. Whatever, we mostly have enough computers if students are willing to be friendly. The only thing that sucked is that I couldn’t get two computers talking sufficiently for a demo. The Windows machines were missing drivers, and the Linux machines didn’t have any kind of server software at all — HTTP, FTP, even telnet or SSH — so instead did another theory lesson in 4e about the shapes of networks. I’m downloading the Windows drivers now, but I’m already anticipating a night full of bouncing from my house with the Internet to the lab to try to get this stuff working before class tomorrow. Come on, I just want one demo..

So I’m tired. Even with fourteen hours a week instead of sixteen, I still have to plan those lessons, I still have to draw up my projets pédagogiques. Every day I don’t have time to do those things, I half-ass them, and that makes me a shitty teacher, and that makes class harder, and that makes every day that much more of a struggle, and that makes me even less inclined to actually do work on anything. This is the vicious cycle I got into last year, and it can be quite vicious indeed. I STILL need to somehow convince Dinesso to change his 4e class with my 3e class; that would make my life easier because I wouldn’t have to anticipate the different material we’ll have covered by the end of the year. But despite all of that, everything’s going all right so far, by and large. You know how it is: when it’s good, it’s really good. But when it’s bad, well, you know how it goes.

I haven’t had anyone to answer to in a long time
So forgive me if I’m rusty
I can take the time if it’s what you want
So here I am now, there you are
‘Cause when it’s good, it’s really good
But when it’s bad,
Well, you know how it goes
‘Cause we are alone and we are together
Each inside our own heads, we can be like this for hours
And we can be good, yeah,
If we try to be good
If we try, I know that we can be good

—Via Audio, "We Can Be Good"


Debut (Monday, 2011 September 5)

September 5th, 2011

Something changed in me and all of a sudden I am overcome with a need to do a lot better. Was it the shitty half-lesson I gave in Terminale? The smiling faces of my former colleagues and students? It’s true that life picked up a great deal for me last year when I finally settled into the structure of the school year; maybe it’s just that.

I asked Ben yesterday if he’d planned his first classes yet and he said no, "I’m not going to plan for something that I’m not sure is actually going to happen." Of four classes I had today, two were actually present even a little bit. I got a sense of sincerity from those few students who made it — not surprising I guess — and I don’t know if that’ll last but if anyone is going to be insincere, it ought not to be me. So I gotta step it up a bit.

Part of what changed is that suddenly I found myself playing the Scheduling Game. You know that one? It’s the one you played at the end of every semester in college, where you had a huge mess of shit to do and the only way to get through it was to play connect-the-deadlines. I’m very good at this game, even when I don’t enjoy playing it. Example: today was market day and I needed a little time to go to the market, but that was OK because two of my classes just.. weren’t. I still need to go back to the carrefour to get some new clothes I had made, and I think I can do that tomorrow after class. I have a bunch of laundry, I guess I’ll do that Thursday, and then maybe go to Baf and buy more Internet and maybe a mattress. Friday is a pool party in Dschang, although I might be late because we might have our assemblée générale that day too. Tonight, I have to write this post so that you know I’m OK and not to worry, then I’ll resume planning my generic "Hello I exist" lesson plus a first few steps in the classes I have next.

Themes this year:

  • Quatrième: Networks. And by god, my students are going to learn how to use a web browser, I don’t even fucking care.
  • Troisième: Binary. Hex. Boolean logic. If I’m lucky, I can trade Dinesso this class for the class I’m missing in Quatrième.
  • Séconde: Hardware. Maintenance.
  • Première: Dinesso told me, or anyhow I chose to interpret him as saying, that the only real thing to teach in première is the algorithm. It can’t be that hard.. can it?
  • Terminale: "Everything". Yeah right. I’m probably going to teach based off on an imaginary program, the syllabus in some parallel universe whence came last year’s deplorable Bac/Informatique.

OK, so let’s get this party started! All aboard the bush taxi. Final destination: graduation.


Revolution (Monday, 2011 September 5)

September 5th, 2011

We worked fast over the next week, while we were still together for Medical Week. We submitted to the tests and to the samples with the normal amount of distaste, but our real work was elsewhere. For once we pored over the Mission literature, indulged the bureaucratically-designed manuals on Behavioral Change Techniques and Memetic Design. We were in a hurry — Jamie and I agreed that the coming election in a few months would be our best target. We wanted Zhenae to want a change badly enough to vote it into office. But if that didn’t work?

We were going to start a revolution.

"Where’d you come up with this idea, Jamie?"

"I think it was the first time I was peeing in a latrine, flashlight in my teeth, while Zhenae pups climbed all over the walls trying to figure out the intricacies of my biology."

The idea was brilliant in its simplicity. Item one, Zhen was stuck in some kind of stasis. Item two, the tendency of Creation was towards progress. Item three, we were tired of being stuck on this useless planet. So when Jamie had one more painful discussion with her boyfriend back home, that had sparked something in her — and now we meant to spark it planetwide. If that meant hard work, well, that was fine; that’s why we had come in the first place. We were no strangers to hard work. It was Thursday, after all — somehow it was always Thursday on Zhen.

We passed the week developing materials to encourage civic action. The hardest part was the virality. It wasn’t enough to just convince one Zhenae to vote differently. Even if we convinced everyone we knew, it would never be enough. We needed to convince them to speak out, to convince their friends too. It was tricky to capture existing Zhenae sentiment — "things need to change" — and turn that into the message we wanted — "and I need to change them". You can’t press too much when you’re bending memes — they can press back, and then things get ugly.

And of course you don’t want to destroy indigenous economies of freedom-fighters and civil unrest. And the literature we were working off of was terrible. Sometimes I knew more on the subject than the nebulous Mission authors.

So it was hard work. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was Morgan.

The door banged in and I looked up, half afraid that we’d been discovered already. Jamie was at a bookshelf, looking over her shoulder back at where the bang had come from, where Morgan stood in shade, and behind her, sunlight, and behind that, a thick wall to keep the riff-raff out. I started but I regained my composure quickly — vanilla again by the time Morgan was sitting at my table, looking over my notes. I wanted to say something tetchy, but I knew better, so much better.

"Hi Morgan," I said. "Something the matter?"

"You’re up to something," she said. Blue eyes locked on mine. "You and Jamie.. something’s different. You’re taking Medical seriously. You haven’t been at the bar or in the House or anything. What’s going on?"

I’d have told her, of course, but for Jamie, who was really on the hook here — her idea. So I looked past Morgan at her, ignored Morgan’s stare.

"We’re blowing this popsicle stand." Morgan turned in her chair to face Jamie. "See, civil unrest can cause the Mission to withdraw. You heard about the D-Range, right? All we need is a little bit of rioting. That could happen at the upcoming elections. And if it doesn’t, well, maybe we can help ’em out a little bit. Then we can go home." Best case scenario. I’d settle for a planet-wide spirit of civic pride and optimism, but if we hit the jackpot, we’d go home.

"I’m in." Morgan turned back to me, but she was looking at my notebooks. "These are good ideas but you need broader support. I can translate this stuff into the Swollen Language and get it around the Outer Islands. For the election to even be contested, you need those votes." Then she leaned back and looked at me, with Jamie behind her also studying me.

"Can we trust her?" I said, sounding plaintive and hating it. It was a stupid question, because Jamie probably trusted her already. Could I trust her?

"I want to go home too," she said. "Face-facts-forward, Sandiego. Anything else is sentiment. I don’t have time for sentiment." We were Missionaries. That meant we were practically family. There was only one reason I couldn’t trust her — because she’d hurt me, personally. But that was already months ago.

"The Outer Islands would be a big help," said Jamie. Which meant: this is still my ship, and I think we should do it, but I’m leaving this up to your fragile emotional state. I slapped my forehead a few times. I didn’t shatter. Vanilla, I told myself. No problem.

"Fine." I spun my notebooks to face her. "I’m done with Medical tomorrow, so I’m leaving Saturday. Here’s what I’ve got. You want to start translating now or should I beam you a copy?"

"Beam me a copy," she said, as her eyes ran across my slogans and demographic projections. "But I’ll start translating now. You go to the bar. People will start to notice."

"Notice what?"

"You’re sober. That makes us uneasy. So cut it out."


Mal-à-l’aise (Sunday, 2011 September 4)

September 4th, 2011

Tomorrow is when school restarts — the rentrée scolaire — and I’m a little uneasy. Uneasy is an understatement. I’m not ready. I don’t want to be a teacher again. I want another week, maybe two. Actually, saying "another" suggests that I want a week like these weeks have been — what I want is a week where nobody bothers me, where I don’t have to deal with anyone at all, where Brondon doesn’t show up to ask questions of such mindblowing vapidity that I want to clando anywhere at all, just to not have to be here. I know that’s arrogant and judgmental, I know he’s a kid and he’s bored, but I have a life too, and it’s not fair that he gets to usurp it!

I’m at least grateful that my schedule for this year looks a little better. 14 hours instead of 16. No 7-hour Fridays. Friday afternoons off entirely. But what I really want is 12 hours, or even 10, so that I can work on other non-scholastic things: teacher training, or training anyone at all really. Ryan apparently does training at a church group, not because they have a special need but because at least they’re already meeting regularly. I’d like to work on our infrastructure for Volunteers — our wiki needs a lot of love. I’d like to write a bunch of stuff on how to make sense of Yaoundé. I’d like to do a journalism club where I can start teaching people to ask annoying questions and share the answers. And I think Admin including Exalted Directress would like those things too, but I just don’t have a whole lot of fight left in me to make those sorts of things happen. "On va arranger," one of my censeurs told me last week — "it will be fixed" — but that could mean anything, specifically it could mean nothing at all. My boss Francis will be coming by, hopefully early in the year, and maybe he’ll lean on my school a little bit too. I guess we’ll see.

I got to see Claude today. He had mentioned that he was pleasantly surprised that I came back to Cameroon after my time in America. Well, I’m a little surprised too. Relatedly, here’s Zara’s post about ETing. Zara was a bit of a surprise, because she was geographically very close to me (in our Contact Cluster), and she was already at the one-year mark (way beyond when most ETs happen). Ben mentioned that Christine’s blog doesn’t mention at all her impending ET; her last post is a few days before it happened and all it says is that she had been sick for a while. I don’t have any news about Elizabeth G., who ETed around the same time as Christine. Claude exhorts me to keep in mind that it’s really only 9 more months, and that such a brief period of time is hardly anything at all.

Here’s a post by Kim, one of the new volunteers in our cluster, which includes some pictures of her new bedsheets (and matching pillowcases!). Check them out, they’re really quite charming.


Allison (Friday, 2011 September 2)

September 2nd, 2011

Allison is one of the few/proud informatique teachers in our stage, but since she’s posted to Anglophone, she’s actually a "computer science" teacher. She used to live in a mansion, complete with glass chandeliers, with running water but almost no réseau, what we would call "signal". So hardly any cell phone or Internet. Running water means water at one temperature, and that temperature is cold, so showers at her place were a real adventure. She’s moved now to replace one of the exciting old posts vacated by our predecessors. She’s working with the Ministry of Education now, so she isn’t constrained to the school year; she’s already hard at work. She’s also the de-facto leader of ICT Committee, because she’s the most motivated and organized member.

Here she is depicted at Bafoussam, capital of the West region. She is friendly and good-natured with the edge of sarcasm that goes well with good nerds.

The magic wands that me and Allison bought at training in Kribi. 500 CFA. Mine is sitting on my desk. I have no idea what to do with it.

Allison’s blog is at Adventures of A. Her cat is named Nasara, which is Fulfulde for "white person".


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