Archive for February, 2012

Club (Monday, 2012 February 27)

February 29th, 2012

It is the end of a Monday and I am just getting out of 2e, nominally 13h50-14h40 but typically 13h50 until I can’t cope any more or all the students are gone. Today that hour arrived at 16h, which is kind of early. I closed the lab on the last student after I got tired of watching her do the same stupid thing over and over again while ignoring my profoundly wise, Socratic-style questions. I am tired of 2e C (I am supposed to be grading their papers even now). I am tired of the way that they chat and goof off and ignore me when I lecture and the way that they subsequently fail to perform at all in the lab. I am not sure whether I am more tired of this completely rambunctious lack of self-control or its opposite, my 2e A4 class’s abject and complete indifference.

You might not know this but when I went home for summer vacation last year, I packed a few essential provisions (as in "où sont les provisions?"): sesame oil, packed in a last-minute flash of inspiration, because sesame oil is awesome. Second: a can of stuffed grape leaves. I have been saving this can of stuffed grape leaves. It is my treasure. I have never mentioned it to any other volunteer and I have no intention of sharing it. It is In Case of Emergency. I already know that a day will come when I will need that can of stuffed grape leaves — a day when sachets and chocolate are not enough, when I cannot bear to be doing this work or being in this village. When this day comes, I will lock my door, turn off all my lights, crawl into my bed with the can of stuffed grape leaves, open it very carefully, and eat every last one.

Today was almost that day. Almost. I am writing this from the sober end of three sachets and 1/4 bar of chocolate I still can’t bring myself to grade these tests.

As I said, I cut out early because "we" had a rendez-vous at the sousprefet’s house to install some software so I absolutely had to peace out. We didn’t install all of it — for some reason Nero 7 isn’t compatible with Windows 7? — but I’ve successfully unloaded the rest of that menial travail onto one of the students of the new "informatique club".

It turns out that this is going to be the blog post to bump the Maroc pictures off the front page of my blog, so I feel comfortable adding some more pictures to this post.

This is the newly-reinstated "Club Informatique". We meet whenever I am capable of being in the lab without threatening to stave someone’s head in. From right to left, there are: Brice, me, "Steven" (although I thought his name was Simeu), Domche, and I think Poula, with the lower row being André and Fokui Justin. During this (obviously staged) shot I am saying something along the lines of "And as you can see here, the problem is that this keyboard has had the wire yanked out of it and so there is absolutely no possibility that it can ever donne."

This is Brice. He approached me because his friend had installed CentOS on his laptop and he was having problems with getting various software thingies to work. Solution: install Ubuntu. Good kid, but a little slow to see implications or work things out thoroughly. (He keeps trying to get Windows software to work on Linux or vice versa.)

"See, this is where the wire would be." On the right is Fokui Justin, who came to me with a bunch of students from the 1e class I don’t teach. The school’s other Informatique teacher gave them an assignment to "go research" algorithms (which is one of his lazier ways of getting around the fact that he has no idea what they are or how to teach them) so I gave them a crash-course. Students from that class still drift in and out of the lab, trying to learn HTML from a teacher who doesn’t really know it himself.

Everyone was doing gang signs…

… But this is my favorite: "West Region!"

This is Domche, one of my students from Tle C/D. (In my head I call him "Wolverine", because he sports this thin, not visible in this photo, but noticeable sideburn-like beard.) He’s pretty motivated, comes to lab often, and takes copious, copious notes in this giant black notebook. I really like him and it is kind of frustrating to me that there is absolutely no way I can transmit to him even a significant fraction of the experience I have with computers. The Bacc now has a mandatory Informatique section, but Domche came to me early in the year saying he’d decided to also take the optional Informatique section and could I teach him?

Funny story, actually. After that, I told him I was always around and to just come with an idea of what he wanted to learn. He asked how he could compensate me for my time and (as a volunteer) I told him I wasn’t interested in his money. He responded that it was nevertheless the way he preferred to operate and, lacking other recourse, I tried to "display some adaptability" by using the Cameroonian formulation of "no" that I’ve heard the most often: "We’ll see". I don’t know how he took it, but he said "J’ai compris", literally "I understood", but idiomatically something like "Got it".

I don’t yet have a close-up of André, one of the coolest kids in my salle. He’s younger than the other ones by at least four years, probably closer to eight, and he’s absolutely awesome. He’s one of the random kids I trust with my house keys ("Go get me more blank CDs") and yesterday he came up to me and said he wanted me to teach him HTML!

There are a few other kids I’d like to have pictures of in this post, but that’ll have to wait for the "suite". Anyhow, so this is what I’m doing after school every day when I’m not drinking or eating chocolate.

(I secretly love that Domche’s still doing the live-long-and-prosper sign.)


President (Monday, 2012 February 20)

February 22nd, 2012

Sometimes, when I don’t put the date in the corner of the board, my students get upset. This year I’ve been cultivating something of a Mad-Hatter Willy-Wonka style persona (Last year I started from the assumption that I was their friend. You’re not their friend. You can never be their friend. You are an authority. They are your children. You are therefore their parent.) so I’ve been putting all kinds of things up in that corner when they complain that I forgot. They’re used to the French style of dates (20 fevrier 2012) or the English style (February 20th, 2012), but they don’t like informatique style (2012-02-20 or 2012 fev 20). To tweak them I’ve started putting all kinds of other crap up there, my personal favorite being "42 Septober 2088", but also a simple "aujourd’hui" ("today"). My 4es go utterly apeshit when I do things like this. They’ll beg and plead with me that they be allowed to go up to the board and correct it. When they didn’t like "aujourd’hui" I decided to correct it myself to "demain" ("tomorrow"). Personally I was hoping to provoke a riot, but not quite. (They’re just 4es.) The lesson being that: I don’t fucking care what the board says. You already know what the date is. And more to the point, I don’t care whether you write it correctly in your notebooks or not.

I’m telling you this because it’s the first thing I came up with when I wrote the date at the top of this entry. I had a hard time writing it at first because I’ve been drinking. I’ve been drinking because it’s President’s Day, or at least says it’s president’s day and that’s good enough for me.

A real man rides a bear!

I’m ACTUALLY drinking because every day is a 10-hour day, with today’s hours being attributable to:

  • class (4 "hours")
  • faire-ing the marché (1.5 hours including a much-needed beans-and-beignet breakfast)
  • lab time (5.5 hours, including 7 minutes of standing around and watching M. Diffo play Spider Solitaire badly while insisting that he finish the game he just started)

I got the chance to repose a little bit after yesterday (what we call "Sunday"), which was only a 6 hour day in terms of time spent in the lab, but an 8 hour day when you count the amount of time people spent standing outside my door and playing music while waiting for me to grace them with my presence.

Things I have not yet worked on today include: grading my 3es (or any other class), cooking anything, becoming a better person, etc. I’m probably going to starve while pleuring my eyes out, clutching this awful bottle of "Djindja" (i.e. "Ginger") whiskey, 1500 CFA, which is actually the worst thing I’ve drank in country, even worse than the other thing that I said was the worst thing I’ve drank in country ("Samurai Rum-Cafe", also 1500 CFA).

Things I hate: people knocking on my door after 19h, by which time I become increasingly undressed, especially after I drink.

The lab was a little bit bad today because (my fault!) Domche asked some questions: "How does one go about writing a program?" and then "How does one make that program enter into the menu of programs that I see if I click in this corner of the screen?" Both of which are legitimate questions but I think I made his brain catch fire by breaking out the terminal emulator and doing a bunch of tab-completion (which made him so angry that he explicitly asked me about it) and making things happen that, even to a Tle C student, might resemble magic. Domche, if you ever read this, I’m sorry. I’ll be honest, I’m not really good at teaching. I just watch where the first student stumbles and then I remember that, oh, right, actually, none of the things I took for granted make sense to you yet. I still need to explain what a terminal emulator is, why I used it, tab-completion, etc. whereas students tend to think of files as things you see in a window.

You know why else I’m drinking? Because I had been planning (always a bad idea in Cameroon) to wake up, go to the school, photocopy my exams, and interroge my class of 4e. Instead what happened was that I went to the secretary’s office, printed out my exam, and then there was no paper to photocopy it, so I was like "Whatever, going to the market", and then when I got back to the school, someone had taken the secretary’s keys so even the single exams I’d printed out before photocopying were lost to me. End result: 4m2 didn’t take a test today. Whatever! It wasn’t even a very good test! We’ll try to give it to them again on Wednesday. Otherwise, bottoms up!

When Boris came to visit this weekend (oh, did I mention? This is why I drink) we went to a bar (naturally) and the first drink I offered a toast along the lines of "à la santé" ("to our health"). Boris responded, "To Jenny". (Who is probably in Ethiopia or something. Did you know Ethiopia was never colonized, even by Egypt? History is fascinating.) This was of course before I started insulting the drunk who had hit me up for a beer by saying that everyone from this village is a drunkard.

You know what I wish I’d had before I started writing this blog post? Pictures of the students that were in the lab today. I’m gonna film the shit out of them, just you wait. I even kept my camera in my bag but I just haven’t had circumstances line up just yet. Soon. Soon.

Look what I picked up two or three market days ago! They definitely do not fit me.


Sexuel (Saturday, 2012 Feburary 11)

February 11th, 2012

"Monsieur!" my Terminale students shouted as I entered the room. "Have you heard? The lycée is sexuel!"

That’s the first and best introduction I got to the scandal at the lycée. Apparently a student walked into the proviseur’s office to find him seated with a female student on one of his two sofas. It’s not clear what the two were doing that alarmed the interloper, but now the story is that he’s been picking up (draguer) students ("as early as 2e", Brondon says, "or even 3e, if it’s an older girl"). An impromptu rassemblement was arranged so that these rumors could be properly quelled. The girl who walked in wasn’t able to name an exact date in full public view of the whole school, so obviously she’s making it up or whatever and certainly not being railroaded.

Madame Ann, the orange lady at the school, had been trying to encourage me to "leave with" Dulisse, one of my smarter students in 1ere. It’s not good, I kept saying, for a teacher to hook up with his students. This whole affair’s been helpful in making that point clear. Madame Ann’s take on this has been 1. "Is he even capable of that kind of activity?" (Our proviseur is beginning to show his age.) and 2. "Obviously that sort of thing happens but I have a hard time imagining that a man of his cunning would use his office instead of just going to a hotel in Bafoussam. I mean, the man has a car."

This is Youth Week so I didn’t have class Friday, instead being obligated to go to a matinée culturelle where the youth of our village presented whatever stupid bullshit they do, mostly dances and a few skits. Also, "interpretations", which are straight-up lip syncing performances. It is traditional for people to show their appreciation for these acts with money, either collected in a basket or rubbed on the forehead in a manner suggestive of wiping off sweat. Some of the acts were enjoyable in one way or another — I especially liked the dance number set to "Le Prince Charmant", starring a girl who exuded the kind of confidence you get from being the prettiest girl in an 800-person high school — but mostly it went on too long. One thing that always squicks me about this type of event is the gyrations that the kids do. It’s not just the underage girls, but sometimes even the underage boys. My feeling is that if you’re too young to need a bra, you’re certainly too young to need sparkly bra straps. Sexuel indeed. I’ll try to upload videos of the whole spectacle when I next get my hands on some decent Internet.

The kids in the lab have been pretty well-behaved lately, not sure if it was the threat to their game time or the threat of violence. I also suggested that if they didn’t shape up I would delete GTA, then destroy all the computers, burn them and then pee-pee on the ashes. For one reason or another they’ve started to "take conscience" and they are either trying to develop moral sensibility or pretending really hard. Last Wednesday a good number of them told me I shouldn’t open the door to the lab at all because of how unorderly they were being, and then one of them had the idea that I should open the door, then go inside the lab and close it and let in students one at a time.

So the students are starting to manage themselves. One of them even stood at the door and tried to control the crush of students, letting them pass one by one until he just gave up and ran to a computer. I kind of like seeing this sort of thing, but I never know if a given student is bossing people around just because he can, or trying to get a monopoly on the good computers for him and his friends, or what. (Smart money says they’re not doing it out of a sense of duty or fairness.) I guess they’re not really sure either, and this is all part of their development into a capable and informed citizenry.

As for beating the kids, one thing happened that made me regret ever raising a hand: in all this self-discipline discovery, one of my favorite little kids, André, was trying to get some kids out of the lab during class hours. His threats and pleas fell on deaf ears. So what did he do? He went for the stick, the same stick I used just a week or two ago. Really drove home the idea that I’m modeling behavior for these kids. Then again, Kalika writes that they like hitting each other so maybe it’s no big deal. Another time in lab, one of my Terminales was getting jostled by littler kids on the same bench, and without skipping a beat he turned around and said "I’m gonna break your head, eh?"

Haven’t been writing much, mostly due to lack of time. I have a report to write on what I’ve been doing the last four months (teaching, you goofballs!) and I should probably be writing tests. Mostly I’ve been in the lab, working with the three or four students who actually want to learn something. Home stretch..


Violence (Thursday, 2012 February 2)

February 2nd, 2012

As you probably know, I follow most or all of the Volunteer blogs that I come across. Most of them don’t impress me at first but some of them are really good. Eriika is from one of the newer stages and she’s a pretty good writer. Here is her post about a ghost story that I never got to hear in full. I read this on Tuesday night when the power was out and freaked the fuck out. I’ll note that I always thought the word sounded more like "Macaque", but it’s not my patois so I’ll leave it to them.

Rosalie posted lately about discipline. I really admire Rosalie’s spirit and gusto and idealism and willingness to take a stand for her beliefs and all that, but my values aren’t the same as her values. Before I came to this country, I probably would have said, as she does, that corporal punishment is just unacceptable and hitting a student is bad, but this is one of those things that Cameroon has changed in me. When students annoy me — and they usually annoy me — I can make a dry remark about their intelligence, I can yell at them, but they tend to just brush that off. I can tell them to get the hell out of the classroom and they drag their feet and take their time, or they’ll just stay there and look at me with puppy eyes or beg forgiveness. But once you start kicking a few of them, man, you get your way fast!

Timothy said last year that all our non-violent methods of discipline are so laughably ineffective on our students because they aren’t calibrated to our culture. They don’t really understand that you’re angry or that they’ve fucked up until physical pain (or the threat of physical pain) is applied. This is certainly not optimal, but it is one of the realities on the ground.

Rosalie says she doesn’t have problems of discipline in her classes and she doesn’t use any punishment more painful than docking points. Rosalie is a heroine in my book and watching her manage a class is one of the best things you can do in this country, but I’m not having that kind of success, especially outside of the classroom in contexts like Club Informatique. Since I installed a bunch of SNES games on my computers, the kids have gotten utterly bloodthirsty. They will crowd around the lab door for hours waiting to see if I will open the lab or not that day. They will stay in the lab and play until dark. Students have told me that I need to stop opening the lab because the other kids won’t even go home any more, they just want to play on the computers all the time. I said if a child didn’t want to go home that’s the problem of the parents, to instill that kind of responsibility in their children, and students have said, "Yes, monsieur, the parents hit them every single day but they still prefer to stay here."

The point being that now I am faced with children who may one day stab each other to get into the computer lab. EVERY single time I open the lab door there is a mosh-pit of squirming little bodies all trying to get through the door at once. It’s my second year coping with this kind of thing and I thought once the novelty of the lab wore off, they’d be a little more blasé about it, but no such luck. Last Friday I refused to let them in until they formed a line and could only let a few in before it became the familiar type of mess. I closed the door and waited for them to calm down and order themselves again, and while I was waiting I identified a couple of my Terminales who wanted to actually work on the computers. I told the mass of kids that I was letting my Terminales in and the rest of them were going to stay outdoors until they were calm. But when I opened the door, they all rushed in! Open defiance! This is what the old-school authoritarian Cameroonian teachers would refer to as "insolence".

Of course, like Rosalie I don’t want to hit the students, not least because it’s technically illegal, so I turned off the power to the computers and screamed at them to all leave until Monday. That led them all to standing outside the door, periodically begging "Please, monsieur, forgive us!", basically making noise and being nuisances, and even dragging benches over to the windows so they could peer in at what was going on. Eventually they came into the lab without permission AGAIN. So out you go again, no computers until Thursday. But they KEEP coming in and they KEEP playing video games so now I’ve started dragging kids out of the lab by their ears. Their behavior is frankly unacceptable, and the forms of discipline I have been trying to impose just aren’t taking. But you know what worked really well? When a strapping lad from première grabbed a meaty-looking switch and brought it to the lab door with a certain expression on his face. They cleared right out, then.

We’ll see if they behave any better tomorrow, when the punishment is formally over. If not, I’m deleting all the games off all the computers. It shouldn’t be this hard.. So remind me, Rosalie, why I shouldn’t just slap ’em around a bit? She writes that it never occurred to her to have to explain why beating kids is bad, but I don’t have too many reasons not to.

Ultimately this is the story of all development work. It’s easiest to work within the constraints of their culture, to limp along with them using the tools available. It’s way harder to fight that culture, to go outside it and bang on it until it works better, and it’s not what I’m good at.

A bunch of villageois kids sitting on what should be a fountain, but doesn’t work. Among them is Kamgang Basile, easily the worst student in the school. Somehow he graduated 3e and he’s in me 2A4 (Séconde Arts) class, which is probably my worst class. They’re raising their hands and shouting "No, no, no!" because I didn’t ask permission to take their picture. (Obviously the polite thing to do would be to ask first, but these are the kids who have never been polite to me and thus do not merit politeness.) Afterwards they asked me if I was going to use it in my "reports" or to show "the behavior of blacks". Then they said that the only fair thing to do was to pay each of them 200 CFA.

This is the kind of bread we call "gateau". It comes in rectangular bricks like these. This particular one is getting mustard and tomatoes to make a sandwich out of.

Timothy’s library. (We’re using it for a regional meeting.)

My Terminales are learning HTML. "When it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad, well, you know how it goes.."

Babies! This is the baby of a German woman and a Cameroonian man. He can be described by the word metise, which is something like "mulatto". (Describing the race or color of someone in Cameroon is not inherently rude as it is in the States.)

We decided to refresh ourselves at Air Force One, which is either affiliated with or at least neighbors with Denver. (These are bars, naturally.)


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