Archive for May, 2012

Cholère (Monday, 2012 May 14)

May 17th, 2012

I think every volunteer has a moment — maybe I shouldn’t say every Volunteer, but many do — where the stress and frustration of their service are too overpowering and they just snap. I know Ben D. had a moment like that towards the end of his service — he described utterly losing his shit when a car splashed mud on him during rainy season, jumping onto the hood of the car, and shouting obscenities in English about the owner and the rest of the country. As he summarized curtly afterwards, "I think he got the point."

I got to have that moment today too. Side note — although I learned en cholère before coming here, in-country I almost always hear faché, irritated/annoyed.

So some background — not by way of justification but just so you know. At this particular moment I’m writing this in one of those school notebooks that you see everywhere here, because the power is out. I had just finished grading 3m3-4, hands-down my worst class. I also got to proctor this exam for them, which was a bit of good luck because I was able to indicate, as I hadn’t on the exams, that this was a no-calculator exam. The kids, of course, did not like that, and spent about a half of their hour complaining that they weren’t machines, and one student went as far as to leave the class to "go to the bathroom", and then coming back to announce that it was unfair since the other classes were taking the test with calculators and it was supposed to be a "harmonized exam" — the same for everyone. My response, in English because I am sick of these kids, was simply "Life sucks".

[Just to keep myself honest, I also took the test myself without a calculator. Took me 11 minutes, 17 seconds. And all the questions came from other tests, so it’s hard to see it their way.]

So I hate that fucking class. And it was the last class of tests I had to grade for a long time, maybe ever. I could also write a blog post about grading, but suffice it to say that some errors are revealing indeed. If the answer is 70, but the student writes 17, you might wonder if he misheard the answer from someone else. You develop mechanisms to deal pre-emptively with cheating. Example, you cross out white space, or otherwise indicate that no answer was given, so that the student doesn’t come later after adding the answer to say you forgot to give him the point.

So I graded the tests and I went to school to hand them back and "do corrections", explain that most of their class is stupid and why I took off their points. Sure enough, one of the students came up to me with his paper, one of the more memorable ones which had originally said 15 but now "originally" said 16.

"What’s the answer to this one, monsieur?" the kid asked. He wasn’t one of the worst kids in his class, but I take cheating seriously.

"It’s 16," I said.

"But I put 16 and you marked it wrong."

"No," I said, "you put 15 and just now you added this part to make it look like 16."

"Added what?" he responded.

I guess by rights I could have already taken his paper and marked it as cheating but I like to give them a little more time to realize what they’re doing. "Last warning," I said. Maybe I should have said, "Be careful," mefie-toi, like I’ve heard from other teachers.

"Last warning?" he said. "Look, I clearly wrote 15 here, crossed it out, and then wrote 16, which you marked wrong."

"Last warning," I repeated. "Say it again."

"But, voila 16, no monsieur," he said. Without talking, I gave his paper a small, sharp tug, and it came away in my hand.

So far this is all very standard, way ordinary. Next steps would be to go to another teacher, present the case, and if they didn’t say otherwise, I’d take some points off, maybe go so far as to give him a zero. His grade was currently 05/20, so it wouldn’t be a big loss. But I guess he knew me well enough because his hand was on my wrist, holding me from pulling away.

I’ve always felt an undercurrent of hostility from that class — we’ve gotten by now to outright antagonizing each other — and I guess I just had a flash of being mobbed by the students I’d just failed — and when I tugged again and my wrist didn’t come away, I reacted.

There’s a blur. I have a memory of wanting to punch him hard enough to put him on the floor, but I don’t think I punched him because my palm was in his cheekbone, with my thumb curling around his jawbone and towards his jugular. Still without thinking, I said in English, "If you touch me again, I will kill you."

We held that pose for a second while I waited for him to do anything or for anyone else to come towards me. Instead, "Ça va, monsieur!" — it’s OK, I’m backing down — and I walked out with his paper. I heard someone calling my name and turned — a different student was chasing me, carrying some papers I’d left in class. I guess I’d been in a hurry. The rest of the class was laughing and having a great old time, shouting, "Killa! Killa!", I guess having understood enough of that last sentence. But I’m good at putting my feelings on a level where they don’t show, and I looked calm as I walked around the lycée.

My original plan had been to hand back all my stupid tests and then go to the market and get breakfast, and as I was leaving the school the kid chased me down. He apologized. He said last sequence he hadn’t worked hard enough and to please forgive him. He rubbed his cheekbone like it maybe stung. Normally the students just say "Pardon, pardon!", or in Anglophone "Forgive, forgive!" so I guess I welcomed the creativity. I told him I was willing to forgive that he grabbed my wrist — which he denied. Maybe I’m really crazy, or maybe it was as much of a blur for him too? Anyhow, I showed him how I knew that he’d changed the answer and how he ought to have known that I’d be angry about cheating, and finally I gave him the test back. He manned up enough to admit he’d made a mistake, or at least to pretend, and isn’t that what American culture is all about?

So please file this whole goddamned experience under how I’m changing in Africa. This place makes me an animal. I will not die in here. The good news is that my teacher duties are slowly fading away, leaving me with slightly more free time and slightly less stress. 81 more days..


Faible (Thursday, 2012 May 17)

May 17th, 2012

[This section of the story kind of came to me once in the shower but then I didn’t write it down and I had to rewrite it. This is the second version, from a week or two ago, but I wanted to wait and let it mulch until I could see if it was any good. Well, as Julia said about service here, "It’s better than nothing". Here goes.]

Dear diary,

I thought the story of my time on Zhen would be a trashy romance novel — some drama, some sexy escapades and finally a happy ending. But more I feel like I’m living an Aesop’s fable. No talking animals, unless you count the Zhenae, but a very clear moral. The dangers of hubris. Not a creation myth, alas. Not like I wanted.

I still believe that God loves us, and that He has a plan for us. I flattered myself that I knew His plan, that I was qualified to be His agent. I fooled myself that it was for other people’s good, when really I was just being selfish. I can see that now. In trying to do God’s work, I presumed to know God. Maybe I’m being punished, now, for playing God.

I don’t really know what to do now. I’m lost. We set off an avalanche, and it is bigger and more dangerous than we knew. An avalanche is not like a fat-porter. You can’t land an avalanche. You can’t even really guide it. And I wouldn’t even know where to go even if I was behind the wheel.

But then, I was always better at beginnings than at endings.

I was at the school when the rebellion came.


Moto (Sunday, 2012 May 13)

May 14th, 2012

Haven’t been writing much lately. Mostly due to being busy and frustrated, but also due to realizing that mine is (as Pat Murphy wrote in About Fairies) "one of those extremely tedious personal blogs that I am amazed that anyone writes and even more amazed that anyone reads". I’ve got some ideas on stuff I’d like to write in the near future, but right now the priorities have been: grading papers (two classes left), filling out report cards (three classes), then I’ll have to do those "livrets scolaire" (all seven classes) and in the meantime I’m trying to tutor Josiane and Romeo in math (and maybe English later). So when I’m not working I’m just trying to stay sane, relatively well-fed and comfortable.

Here is a thing I have wanted to write about for a while: the six stages of a moto ride.

The moto (as previously discussed) is one of the major means of getting around town here. The Organization can kick you to the curb if they catch you on a moto without a helmet, and with good reason — I just saw a moto take a spill a couple days ago in Bafoussam. Bruises and scrapes mostly, but you don’t want to be the exception.

I’m one of the stodgy volunteers who insists on carrying my helmet if I’m gonna take a moto — that I don’t want to lose my life over something stupid like that in Cameroon. But most Volunteers give up on the helmet, French casque, pretty early on in their service, following the habits of their Cameroonian neighbors.

Riding a moto (Anglophone: "bike") is one of the more enjoyable parts of being here. I’d like to tell you a little bit about how it basically unfolds.

  • Stage one: Isolation.

Before you can get on a moto, you need to find a moto. Motos are not shy about trying to get your attention if you don’t need them — hissing and making kissing noises are the dominant ways of trying to get someone’s attention here, although you may also hear them calling "Oh, le blanc!" or other friendly greetings. Choose your favorite. Some motos won’t even be interested in going to where you’re going. Sometimes there won’t even be motos. But don’t be ashamed to ask random people who are seated on motos if they’re interested in going; no one is "off-duty" if the price is right.

  • Stage two: Bargaining.

This is when you get to choose your price. Bamiléké bargaining traditions probably deserve a post all by themselves, but choose wisely, because like in every other interaction you have, you are representing not just yourself or even America, but all of Western civilization.

  • Stage three: Acceptance.

When the moto driver, commonly called motoboy or benskineur (I don’t know what the hell that means), accepts the price and destination, you get aboard. This may involve juggling your possessions, tying them to the moto, or having the motoboy hold your things between his thighs. Climb up, always on the left side, because the exhaust pipe on the right can get hot, and once you’re all set up, call out "Allons-y" (let’s go), "OK", or "On part" (one leaves).

  • Stage four: Travel.

This is the best part, as you shoot along down the road, or weave and mosey along a dirt path as fast as you can manage. The wind is in your hair and the hills undulate in the background and the sky is so, so blue.

  • Stage five: Fear.

You may have a moment where you think, "I wonder if this is going to be the moto ride that kills me."

  • Stage six: Arrival.

When you find yourself at your destination, you can dismount and pay the guy. Gather all your possessions and go. You may have a moment of disappointment that it’s all over, but you can always take another moto again alter.

I don’t know if Timothy loves moto rides too, but he’s already talking about getting a moto when he gets back home. He’s been looking up brands and already proposed that instead of buying a pretty-good moto in the States, he might be better off buying five or six crappy Chinese motos here. I think he likes the Nanfang, but I personally think he should get a Wonda.

I’d like to stress that these stages of a moto ride aren’t the same for everyone, and some empirical research suggests that motos don’t actually exist. Still, I hope this model will help you as you make your way through the process.


Ceremonie (Sunday, 2012 April 30)

May 2nd, 2012

After we got back was the Books for Cameroon ceremony, which I mostly avoided, playing gopher and otherwise trying to try to defray the amount of hassle Cristina was no-doubt going through.


The beneficiaries. My proviseur is bottom-middle, looking directly into the camera.

This is my neighbor, who makes wooden food (and apparently beer).

Some French people who were unable to go to the ceremony because it started two or three hours late.

The Chef was so proud of her efforts that he made her village nobility. Her official title is "Mafo something something" which translates as "queen of development". One of the things I really love about my postmate is that she hasn’t let becoming royalty go to her head!



Diaspora (Saturday, 2012 April 29)

May 2nd, 2012

The Books for Cameroon sorting got pretty massive, pretty fast, and though Spring Break started, I hardly even noticed — I was still in the lab every day that I wasn’t helping to sort. It got kinda tense because time was running out: Cristina and I had COS Conference, and the ceremony of giving of the books was going to be just after we got back.

But then there was COS Conference. COS is an Organization-specific acronym for "close of service", and there was a three-day conference for us to learn how to do it well — both Organization procedures and details, and larger issues like how to get a job and transition back to civilian life.

Traditionally, COS Conference is held in a swank hotel, as part of an implicit message of "Congratulations! You made it!" This year it was at a hotel near downtown Yaoundé — there was air conditioning, hot water, and even a swimming pool! Yaoundé is a lot nicer when you’re submerged in AC all the time.

This conference was markedly different from other Organization "training" events, lighter somehow. Less stuff each day, less intense sessions. I don’t know if they think a Volunteer at this point in their service is burnt out, or just out of patience with Washington’s idea of "training". But, we are Volunteers, and we drank a lot after those sessions.

A few useful or interesting bits of information were shared with us, but the priority for us were:

  1. Language testing, to measure our post-service levels of French.
  2. COS dates, i.e. when am I going home.
  3. Information on whether or not we are going to be replaced.

In true Organization fashion, none of these were fully taken care of until after the conference was over.

  1. Language assessments are done in the Organization with a test called the LPI, the Language Proficiency Interview. Attentive readers may recall that this test gave me a hard time in stage. They are treated, both by Volunteers and Admin as though they are a real thing. In fact, lots of Volunteers are angry or upset about their language levels, feeling they deserved higher grades — a feeling I understand and can identify with. I’ve also had lots of fun discussions along the lines of "I still can’t believe Cherry Drop got such-and-such a level; her French is terrible".

    But here’s the thing: the LPI is completely Organization-specific. Go ahead; Google it. It doesn’t even exist outside of our little ivory tower. I tried looking for strategies on passing it back in stage and came up empty. It’s a non-starter. So, yeah, you’d like to hear that your French got better after two years of speaking it imperfectly. But it’s like putting your Klout score on your resume — some group of mendicants assigned you a completely arbitrary level based on vague and indeterminate criteria? Wow, way to be qualified/disqualified for a job! Come on, guys. Anyone who actually cares how well you know French is going to find out the traditional way: by talking to you in French. (Though we can all agree that Cherry Drop will probably figure out a way to turn this to her advantage.)

    Language levels came out a few days after the conference, and were followed later by emails of the form "Dearest ETHAN, you was scored ADVANCED MID on the LPI". Official!

  2. COS dates were apparently screwed up due to Washington. People who had applied for early COS dates hadn’t all heard back yet, and they would have had priority on the first batch of regular COS dates if they were rejected, so we all got to sit on our hands for a week or two after the conference ended and wait-and-see. Allegedly Washington had a hard time processing everything because Mali just got evacuated.

    At first I got the earliest COS date, which was awesome, but then I managed to change it to a later date (?!) to better coordinate with friends I want to see in Europe. I officially cease being a Volunteer August 3rd, and expect to be home a couple weeks after that.

  3. I told my boss that I think my village is awesome but my school is dysfunctional and that I don’t think we should be high on the list of getting another volunteer. My school really wanted another volunteer, of course, soit informatique or soit English, and there’s certainly a handful of deserving students.. but I’m betting the small group of incoming volunteers will probably be more effective anywhere else.

Other random tidbits: when someone in the States asks you about your experience as a Volunteer, you get 15 seconds max. We saw the American Embassy in Yaoundé and it was sweet. Talking about resumes and interviews got me really excited to go looking for another job!

The view from the hotel room. So exciting to have stories! This is "Rond Point Nlongkak", pronounced like "Long Cock".

Everybody got dressed up for dinner at Honored Directress’s place.

In front of the hotel. Prices for alcohol were ridiculous and they wouldn’t let us bring in drinks so the first night we sat outside here and drank (apparently way too loudly).

Jessica Worful.

The whole family. Honored Directress is the one lying down (lower left).

Trying to look busy.

We also went to a stupid monkey park which was almost two hours away. Here’s Timothy trying to fit in.


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