Archive for October, 2011

Hallowe’en (Monday, 2011 October 31)

October 31st, 2011

Halloween is one of those holidays that we celebrate way too much here, like July 4th and probably like the upcoming Thanksgiving, because it’s one of those ways to revel in your Americanness. This year the place to be was Buea, although there was a simultaneous party in Bangangté. It’s kind of a tragedy that we had two different parties in the Grand West, but with so many expats it’s kind of inevitable. Almost all of the ICT volunteers still in this country, including Jenny who came back for it, went to the Buea party, which included:

  • drunk nerds

(That’s Jared and Julius.)

  • LMFAO’s "Party Rock Anthem" theme including costumes

  • Jello Wrestling

This is where me and Lindsey exchanged shirts.

  • Most importantly, the "gonging out" of Jenny Wang, the heart and soul of the ICT crew.

Heather’s playing Kim, part of Organization Admin. This is the sort of joke that explaining doesn’t make funny.

Allison is playing Lahomabot.

Good luck, Jenny Wang! If we pass through Geneva, we’ll be looking for you.


Frigo (Thursday, 2011 October 27)

October 27th, 2011

Today I took another step towards domestic African satisfaction. I purchased a fridge, frigo, from a neighboring Volunteer who’s near the end of her service and therefore won’t need it any more. Here’s a picture.

It’s in my bedroom, next to my bed, so I can keep it with all the other things I don’t want to share with people. I even took this picture and then deleted it off my camera immediately so that when Brondon decides to flip through the photos I’ve been taking (as he inevitably will) he won’t find out I bought a fridge.

Unfortunately all my subterfuge was for naught because the woman who lives across the street that sells bread and food saw me rolling up in the car that was carrying the fridge and told Brondon. So the secret’s out. He’s already asked to see the fridge, and among other stupid questions, he asked (while the fridge’s door was wide open and the fridge empty) if it was plugged in and if someone had taught me how to use it.

Liz (the woman who sold me the fridge) herself bought it from Wendy, who was here in my village before I was, so it’s a venerable and time-worn machine. Singsung brand. Liz bought it for 80,000 CFA, and sold it to me for 50,000. (I don’t know how much they are "new".) Liz says if you freeze bananas you can blend them and make something that tastes remarkably like soft-serve ice cream. Suffice it to say that my taste buds have been whetted.

So this is the day my service utterly changes. Now I can buy canned things in bigger quantities and keep leftovers for later. I can cook and not have to consume it all within a day. I can have cold beverages. I’m really excited about the world of potentialities. It’s going to be grand.

That’s not all, either. Yaya explained to me that a lot of spices and herbs that I assumed didn’t exist in Cameroon are actually quite common. I’m sitting next to a bag of feuilles de l’oreillier or something like that, which are bay leaves, and while I was in Bafoussam I managed to buy thym, herbs de provence, menthe, and anise. (I forgot what it was but was able to figure it out because it tastes like licorice.) So I’m pretty thoroughly kitted out as far as feeding myself goes. And since food, like alcohol, candy, and video games, is one of my best coping mechanisms, I’m that much better equipped for the remaining 294 days of my service.

In other news, Yaya’s got her own laptop now, a 14 or 15 inch Toshiba that her family managed to acquire for something like $350. I helped her transition the last of her data onto her new machine and picked up my little netbook jonah-hex. So if anyone (is still reading this and) needs to borrow my spare netbook, just let me know. In the meantime I guess I can still use it to play Desktop Dungeons!


Voyage (Saturday, 2011 October 22)

October 22nd, 2011

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first blog post I’ve titled "voyage" but I really have no other idea what to call it. It’s just one of those "day in the life" posts that you write because you don’t know what the hell else to do, to try to give those of you following along at home a sense of what it really is to be a Volunteer.

I slept in this morning till about 9. I just wasn’t motivated to actually do anything except try to recapture a dream I was having, based roughly on the setting of Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear, where I and all the other Cameroon volunteers were sitting on a beach, waiting for the beacon to signal the opening of the portal that would take us back to the future. The signal was going to be subtle, because the portal wouldn’t open if people from "the present" were there to watch it, and with the rail line just behind us, just off the beach, there could be people at any time. So we were all sitting and waiting, including some already-returned volunteers like Wendy, when suddenly we saw three flashes reflected in the water, though they didn’t reflect anything I could see. I charged forward, swimming with all my might into the ocean, hoping to make it to the portal, knowing I wouldn’t have a lot of time, but it was all right, and it closed over me in warmth, and it took me…

Back to Cameroon. Fuck this, I’m going back to bed. I didn’t feel guilty about steadfastly refusing to wake up since technically we were on standfast again due to election results being announced yesterday. Allison’s gotcha covered as far as that story goes. Long story short, Biya won and no one’s done anything. But although there was a deuil for the father of another teacher (M. Ignace Simo, the P.E. teacher who is exactly what you expect him to be), I could legitimately not go as long as we were technically on standfast. I could always make excuses later, "Oh sorry, the Organization told us to not go anywhere until XXXX o’clock", and that’s really all I cared about. Ideally I’d blow off everyone and waste the day in Bafoussam kicking around on the Internet and drinking and buying exotic things until nightfall. But around 9:30 M. Teukeu called me and asked me if I was already on my way to Bafoussam or what and I told him I hadn’t left the house yet and had no idea what I was doing. M. Teukeu understood and told me that if I was at Baf by 11:30, to call him, so he could show me the center where the library was that I had sponsored for Books for Cameroon.

I couldn’t kick around my house forever if I wanted some juicy high-speed Boffice Internet, so I tried to get my ass together and when we got the all-clear at 10:30, I headed out right away. Caught a car directly to Bafoussam which dropped me off in front of the bank, where I withdrew 200,000 CFA (about 5-6 weeks worth of salary) because I’m, in the words of my postmate, CFA rich, dollar poor. Called M. Teukeu as the rainstorm started to come down; he utterly insisted on picking me up in his car, and so it was that we made it to CERPIES (which, yes, is pronounced an awful lot like serpillière). He and his colleague showed me around; I popped my head into their Terminale C class which was reviewing Physics and was greeted with the same measure of respect and insolence that older kids normally use to greet a teacher who is also white.

I was surprised to also find M. Noumi, one of the other censeurs at my lycée, there and wearing a suit, but he explained that we were going to the deuil ensemble, weren’t we? So I guess even though I wasn’t dressed for it, I was going after all, which is good because you always want to support your friends when they’re having funerals, and anyhow it’d be a good time. The three of us climbed into M. Teukeu’s car and off we went. This was around 12. Around 12:20 I started to get nervous about the thumping the tire was making, and although I feared the wheel, unnoticed, coming off and condemning us to a messy death, M. Teukeu also noticed it and we pulled over to look at it. It turns out that three of the nuts holding the wheel on had come off and gotten lost. Cameroonians are terribly, terribly clever, so we decided to cope with the rain long enough to take one nut off of each wheel and use them to reattach the wheel that wasn’t staying on. Once we turned off the paved road and onto the mud path, we were going slowly enough that the problem was less the recalcitrant wheel and more the vivid fishtailing, combined with the other cars on the road. The Mercedes ahead of us wasn’t sure what it wanted to do, and then trying to pull around another car we found ourselves stuck. Me and M. Noumi managed to get us out with a little muscle and before too much longer we were at the place.

I’d blown off breakfast figuring I’d be able to grab some beans and beignets while waiting for a car or something delicious in Bafoussam, but this was the fourth or fifth hour I’d gone since waking without really eating anything. But, as my language trainers told me back during stage, in the West people sell stuff everywhere, at any time, even during funerals, so I bought 100 CFA of bananes and snacked. Snacking while I waited outside the house with what felt like almost every other teacher from the lycée for the family to get back from the church, I reflected that back in the States, I would have started to get irritated, waiting for whatever-it-was to start, whereas here I basked in the knowledge that this, standing outside while leaning on a 4×4, eating bananas and talking to other teachers, was the event I had come for, and there was no sense hurrying it; it was going to take as long as it was going to take and I may as well try to enjoy it.

Normally at this kind of event, there’s a kind of buffet-style thing controlled by caterers with angry faces and strict rules, stuff like "at most one piece of a meat, be it fish or be it chicken, per plate", none of which prevent the first people up from taking way too much food and leaving hardly any for the people who go up later. But someone had displayed some kind of critical thinking and food was packed in little aluminum take-away boxes, precisely rationed with one piece of chicken, one of fish, a handful of plantain chips, a bit of cake, and a little packet of piment. Following M. Teukeu I grabbed a little box and a piece of bread and a canned soft drink, labeled in English and Arabic as "Linda" (pomegranate flavor, or grenade in French, whence our word grenadine). Of course, eventually wine came out, first boxes of Peñasol, and then (oddly) bottles of Peñasol, which are higher-class and actually taste different. Around 15h it seemed like it was time to go.

Piled back into the car, witnessed a little bit of repartée between M. Noumi and M. Diffo (who had chosen to accompany us back) about how M. Diffo graded his papers in the secretary’s office instead of his own, and whether this meant he was trying to flirt with the students. Went to M. Fotso, who’s also a censeur (we have four now for no really good reason) and drank more wine (something something Saint Jean? The light wasn’t very good in his house). We were down to two wheel-nuts again, and M. Teukeu hazarded taking another from one of the front tires. That got us to a crossroads where a bunch of kids were pushing or possibly pulling a bus which was going God-knows-where. While we waited for that little circus to calm down, Teukeu tightened the nuts again, but once we swerved around the bus and plowed on down the road, Teukeu pulled over again and discovered that we’d just lost another one. We walked the few hundred meters we’d just driven, but we couldn’t find it. We decided to just keep going, M. Teukeu saying, "Ça sort où ça sort", something like "It is what it is" but (to me) with overtones of "The tire may leave the car at any point and we may all die".

We managed to make it back to the paved road after some more intense fishtailing, and from there we got to (I think) the ancien péage, the old tollbooth, which is different (of course) from the new tollbooth. There was a bar and we found more of our colleagues still drinking, and I thought we were going to join them but a few minutes later we all climbed back into the car and got to a mechanic. I stayed inside with Mme. Wana and Mama Rose, who were going back to Batié by way of Bafoussam with me, M. Teukeu, M. Noumi, and M. Diffo. Mme. Wana and Mama Rose were talking about how to best organize the réunion, meeting, that one is obliged to throw in honor of newborn grandchildren. It seemed that if possible, you delay the meeting to as late as 9 or 10 AM, which gives you enough time in the morning to make a big batch of couscous and legumes. I decided that if the car was broken I may as well drink one of my "in-case-of-sachet-break-emergency" dealies that I’d brought with me back when I expected a mild day of relaxing in the Boffice. Soccer brand. Don’t buy it. It’s the worst brand of sachet I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something. M. Diffo wanted one and so did Mme. Wana, and I was happy to get rid of them. The technician changed the tire; apparently the fixtures where the wheels ought to screw on had been worn away and so the nuts weren’t holding very well. We continued without incident to Bafoussam, where M. Teukeu dropped me off where cars going to my village are. It was 5:30, and I try to be home by 7, but that still gave me enough time to stop by the supermarket and buy rice or whatever the hell struck my fancy (about 13500 CFA worth of random crap, including rice, more pickles, and a bag of couscous arabe, what we think of as couscous).

Got once more into the car, this time the car that would take me back to village, and was surprised when next to me climbed the carpenter who works in my courtyard. We had a fun discussion about the economics of living in the village vs. in the city, what kinds of materials he buys and where he buys them, and what his plans are for the future (moving to the city because food’s cheaper). I was also immensely gratified when he mentioned that he often wondered if the Boys didn’t bother me, seeing as they spend so much time at my house and as a grown man with a real job, I have need of rest, lesson planning, etc.

So that was Saturday. Tomorrow’s market day and I’m gonna ask all my favorite vendors if they cultivate soybeans, because I think it is legitimately possible to make there be edamame here in this village. I’m also possibly going to buy a fridge from Liz, who’s very near the end of her service, which should open up certain culinary possibilities. Side note, I finished Apocalypse Chow the other week, which is kind of a fun book, but most of the recipes call for things like "precooked polenta" and "15.5-ounce cans of chickpeas", stuff which either isn’t available even in big cities like Bafoussam or is prohibitively priced for a Volunteer (I’ve seen cans of sweet corn and petit peas but never seriously considered buying them). It seems like the kinds of constraints that Jon and Robin Robertson face when they’re facing down a hurricane are just different from the kinds of constraints that you face when the nearest, best market only operates once every 8 days. I’ve learned a lot about living without a fridge, though: tomatoes do go bad but some can stay fresh for a long time, so check all of them daily; string beans can last about a week, and carrots a little less than that, though some will start disintegrating and molding before then; cabbage can stay good for weeks if you just peel off leaves.

No doubt the Robertsons would do a lot better with the vegetables and tubers you find around here (plus maybe they’d buy a fridge and supplement with things from the city), but I’m still kind of feeling it out. Every time I see a spice of any kind at a supermarket, I grab it. (Recent finds include canelle, which is cinnamon, and curry, which is just curry.) I’m starting to mess around with my sesame oil from back home, and mustard can stay fresh for a long time (doesn’t go great with pasta though). I faked a Spanish rice last week using some of those sachets of tomato paste and a lot of wishful thinking. So what if we didn’t get evacuated? There’s only 299 days left for me here, and when I’m back home I’ll start to miss being an instant celebrity and the many fascinating ways people judge me based on my skin color. I’ll have to switch back to the ways I used to use to be weird, like growing my hair out and dressing funny.

I had a handful of pictures and things I wanted to upload when I was in Bafoussam today, but you know how that goes. Guess you’ll have to wait until next time. Now that there was no Cameroonian revolution, expect more of the "fiction" on the same subject, full of effusive retcons and extemporaneous sacrilege..


Fier (Wednesday, 2011 October 19)

October 19th, 2011

Today was a good day, my first good day since before exams, possibly my first good day since the beginning of the year. Good days make me happy, and technically French for happy is content — my neighbor Marie-Cha, approx my parents’ age, could tell I had been drinking wine the other weekend because I seemed content — but Boris in Douala at least, and I suspect other youth-y types too, use instead the word fier, literally "proud". My own armchair-linguistic theory about this (and of course I have one!) is that content sounds too passive and low-key, like it does in English, so kids are starting to switch to fier because it sounds more active and enthusiastic. Of course, this requires that the French word have the same connotations as the English one, and there’s no reason that should be the case…

I can think of three or four proximate causes for my fierèté:

  1. I bought a jar of pickles last week for one-five (approx $3). They are so, so good. Also, watched "Hot Fuzz" the other night.
  2. Finished grading papers. Calculated all the grades. Haven’t been in a hurry to fill out report cards yet, but maybe soon.
  3. Quality of Internet is acceptable. Cut out last night just before bedtime, but tonight I’m getting a pretty reliable 6-7 kilobytes/sec.
  4. Wednesdays are my Fridays, since I am free Thursdays. Fridays are also my Fridays, but I’m more often trying to go someplace on the weekends and not as able to just relax.
  5. One of my students from première came to me to look for extra lessons. In première I teach programming, it’s probably the most advanced material I teach or can teach at a lycée, and the "arts" première class I have is still kinda delinquent. That a student might recognize that he’s having difficulty, and try to come for more information, more practice, or whatever, is really heartening and encouraging. That I was able, after two or three hours, to kinda bring him up to speed, that he kinda got what the program was doing and how integers versus strings played a role, was cool. A lot more satisfying than talking about even RISC vs CISC (which nobody should care about nor ever will understand).

I’ve also been reading Lindsay’s blog. (Lindsay’s a couple villages over from me, close enough that we have the same patois, she’s the one dating Claude.) Here’s a post from about February about Christmas. She writes:

It’s funny, some days I dream of being back there where I can wash dishes in a kitchen sink and take a shower without a bucket and a cup but at the same time I know that when I do get back it’s going to be a major adjustment and in the end I’m going to damn sure miss it here. Ever since my first time on this continent it’s been under my skin. It’s a place that just changes you in ways you can’t explain. Maybe it is that being back closer to the way humans were designed to be, farther from all the technology and instant gratification. Where, when I think of my loved ones I’m forced to sit down and actually write them a letter instead of just sending them a text message or a face book chat. Where I have to appreciate every single drop of water that falls from the sky, every positive interaction with someone, where every indication of minute progress in any sense is a blissful reward. In fact, I think on the whole I was far more stressed out and miserable when I was suffering through making payments on time, rushing from meetings, sitting in traffic jams, and attempting to balance the scales of social and professional life without losing my mind, even despite coming home to a host of modern luxuries designed to make life easier and better.

(My italics.) I hesitate to endorse her perspective all the way — "the way humans were designed to be" involves procreating by 20 and dying by 40, and I certainly wasn’t more stressed out in NYC than I am here. But it’s true that this place changes you in ways that you can’t explain, soit the place itself or soit the experience of being a Volunteer here, alone, a long way from home..

Here’s a pasthèque, watermelon that I got at the last market day. It turns out it wasn’t as ripe as I’d hoped. Still, kinda bite-size, considering.


Anaïs (Sunday, 2011 October 9)

October 12th, 2011
Uploaded: Samy Diko – Anaïs.mp3 (Audio file with ID3 version 2.3.0, contains: MPEG ADTS, layer III, v1, 128 kbps, 44.1 kHz, JntStereo, 4.0 MiB)

Here is a song that I heard once upon a time in the weird linguistic limbo at Up Station in Bamenda, neither wholly Anglophone nor wholly Francophone, but somehow a little of both. It is therefore one of the songs (like "Quality Doctor") that I’ve been hunting for a while. It turns out to be by a performer named Samy Diko; I bought a CD "of his" at the village marché yesterday for 300 CFA. It’s all MP3s so I’ll probably be uploading a few more of them.

The lyrics go:

C’est toi qui m’as tout appris
Les bonnes choses et les mauvaises aussi
Dans tes oreilles, je t’ai murmuré,
Dans tes bras, je me suis confié, Anaïs (ah oui)
Je t’aime, je t’ai donné mon coeur, ai
Tu m’as laissé tomber, tu est allée ailleurs
Tu m’as laissé tomber, tu m’as brisé le cœur
Les projets que toi et moi, on avait
Tu les as laissé tomber pour aller ailleurs
Aujourd’hui tu est allée à villa, tu laisse tomber [et ta beauté???]
Là où toi et moi, on avait commencé
C’est toi qui m’as tout appris
Les bonnes choses et les mauvaises aussi
Anaïs, pourquoi tu m’as fait ça?
Toi et moi, depuis nos debuts
Mais aujourd’hui tu as vu la lumière du jour
Tu as laissé tomber.. la torche
Anaïs, Anaïs
Il n’y aura pas une autre comme toi
Tu m’as laissé tomber, tu m’as brisé le cœur
Tu m’as laissé tomber, tu est allée ailleurs

—Samy Diko, "Anaïs"

Translated with no regard whatsoever to poetic beauty:

It’s you who taught me everything
The good things, and the bad things too
In your ears, I murmured to you
In your arms, I entrusted myself
I love you, I gave you my heart
You let me go, you went elsewhere
You let me go, you broke my heart
The plans that you and I, we had
You let them go to go elsewhere
Today you went to the villa, you let go [and your beauty???]
Where you and I, we started
Anais, why did you do this to me?
You and I, since our beginnings
But today you saw today’s light
You let go.. the torch
There will not be another one like you
You let me go, you broke my heart
You let me go, you went elsewhere

It’s obviously a breakup song, but as a linguistic note it’s interesting that he uses "tu" forms to address the woman who dumped him. "Tu" forms predominate here in Cameroon when addressing singular people — only in rare, formal situations do "vous" forms come out — but still I like to think that once you’ve achieved a certain level of intimacy with someone, they can never become a formal "vous" for you ever again.

Uploaded: Samy Diko – Tromper.mp3 (Audio file with ID3 version 2.3.0, contains: MPEG ADTS, layer III, v1, 128 kbps, 44.1 kHz, JntStereo, 4.0 MiB)

For contrast, here’s another song by the same artist. You can here that the melody he sings is pretty much the same, but the background changes. It’s like that in a few other songs too, which is maybe why none of them grab me the way "Anaïs" does.


Standfast (Saturday, 2011 October 8)

October 8th, 2011

Today’s the start of "standfast", our state of heightened awareness due to elections. Naturally, I’m tipsy, just got back from drinking with M. Teukeu (have I told you about M. Teukeu? Only my FAVORITE CAMEROONIAN EVER including my host family) and my neighbors (all teachers, so like family). M. Teukeu somehow got appointed to an electoral commission or something. He’s going to be leaving tomorrow bright and early to make sure the elections are conducted fairly, while I’m going to be sleeping until at least 8 AM, probably later, and then correcting papers until I no longer care about anything (i.e. probably Monday). Did you know I’m a contact Volunteer? Well, I am, charged with the duty of ensuring the security of my village (me and my postmate) as well as neighboring villages (Charmayne, Kim), and also bigger cities than us (Liz, Kalika). So let’s talk security.

Standfast is like level 1 of a list of "shit is happening" states. It’s like code yellow. It means "stay in your stupid village and try not to do anything stupid". Our standfast (this time) is going to go until around the 24th, during which time the elections will hopefully have concluded safely with everyone satisfied with the way there were performed (spoiler: the current president is going to win). But maybe things won’t be that simple. Maybe there’ll be some riots or even a real political action, in which case, please be aware that: After standfast is "consolidation". Consolidation means "get together with nearby volunteers so if we have to send cars to find your inebriated ass, it’s at least straightforward for us". If we get to consolidation, it’s pretty much a ticking time bomb, because at that point we’re in someone else’s house (unless we consolidate at my house, in which case I’m good), we’re living out of our backpacks and showering in a pit latrine, and we’re running out of money and it basically comes down to: do we go back to post and try to continue our lives? OR do we evacuate this fucking hole-in-the-ground, leave them to sort out their issues and continue with our lives? We can’t punt this question forward forever — if (as Mike said) it’s a coup, then no big deal, give it a few days and we’ll be back before breakfast. But after X days, it becomes a civil war, and the Organization is very, very concerned with the safety of its Volunteers. So either we’ll let it go and return to state 0 ("normal") or we’ll go to state 3, Evacuation, which involves everybody going home, or some subset of Volunteers going home, probably carried to the airport in those giant Range Rovers the Organization drives amidst gunfire and riots.

I’m not concerned, of course. M. Teukeu (in numerous discussions on the subject — and despite my fictional writings, I’m not encouraging locals towards armed revolution) has quite reasonably pointed out that this country loves peace, and that peace is one of the foremost concerns for people like him. He doesn’t want to live through another génocide Bamiléké where people watch their own families being killed/raped in front of their eyes. And as much as I want to get out of this country, I can’t blame him. Nor can I blame the other Volunteers (i.e. every single one I’ve asked except for me and Jenny Wang) who are eager to finish/start their work in this country and have nothing to gain from an evacuation except frustrated ambitions. I’m the only one who wants to go home, who wants to pack it in and start with my Real life. Because this isn’t, it turns out, what I’m here on this earth to do. I’m here to write software, believe it or not, and the extent of what I can do here is therefore kind of limited.

(Can I take a minute, therefore, to talk about France? I’m scanning the "génocide Bamiléké" page that I linked to and among other things it says (in French) that "According to Shanda Tonme, the silence about the genocide is explained by the privileged position occupied by France in today’s world and the lack of patriotism on the part of Cameroon’s leaders". OK, sure. Pop quiz: who the fuck cares about France? Seriously. Do you think their political might is worth a damn? How about their economic prowess? No. The only thing I care about chez the French is their wine. So why the fuck, where the fuck do Cameroonians get this idea that the French are this global power? Movers-and-shakers? Fuck, stop speaking French and just listen for once.)

So here’s where shit might get real, but for the benefit of all the other Volunteers who don’t want to go home, I hope it kind of doesn’t actually get real. I hope it remains as placid and peaceful as it normally does in this country. I hope that for their sakes, as little changes tomorrow, the 9th, the elections, as has changed in the last thirty years. (Paul Biya. Isn’t it interesting? Cameroon being a democracy with a political head who’s had power for thirty years, who is still considered "the last of Africa’s ‘strong man’ dictators".) And in the meantime I’m correcting my feuilles, the tests from the last half-week of exams, for the first sequence. Only five more repeats of this bullshit, and then I’m home free..

P.S. Got an MP3 for you! I’ll try to rip it and hopefully upload it tomorrow, amidst all the grading.

[Edit: so incoherent when I blog drunk. M. Teukeu spent the night here because he normally lives far but has to supervise elections here in my village.]


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