Archive for June, 2012

Langage (Saturday, 2012 June 30)

June 30th, 2012

Evi asked me via email a little while ago about any final thoughts I had. I’m still struggling to figure out what those are. In the meantime, perhaps you will appreciate this Ph. D. retrospective by Philip Guo.

So why would anyone spend six or more years doing a Ph.D. when they aren’t going to become professors? Everyone has different motivations, but one possible answer is that a Ph.D. program provides a safe environment for certain types of people to push themselves far beyond their mental limits and then emerge stronger as a result. For example, my six years of Ph.D. training have made me wiser, savvier, grittier, and more steely, focused, creative, eloquent, perceptive, and professionally effective than I was as a fresh college graduate. [My italics.]

In the meantime, I’m going to write about a thing that I’ve been thinking about for a week or two. Last regional meeting, we got into an argument about whether the English language has more words than the French one. One of the new girls asserted this; she had been having trouble translating some document and she chalked this up to the insufficient vocabulary available in French. When I expressed qualms, she responded: "No, it’s true — I looked it up." An example of something she found difficult to translate: "Life Skills", a term we use here to mean the kinds of common sense "street smarts" that you need to get by in the world (time and money management, self-esteem, etc.). Everyone had something to say about it, and what I had to say came out somewhat more incoherent than everything else, so let me just express myself once the right way in print.

  1. The words "Life" and "Skills" are both available in French: "vie" and "habilité" or "competence", respectively. If you can’t figure out how to translate the phrase, it has nothing to do with vocabulary in the sense you are talking about. You are talking about phrases, not about words. And more specifically, you are talking about connotations.

  2. You can’t just "look it up". Questions of words and language aren’t like the height of Mount Everest (peak somewhere around 29,029 feet above sea level, with base elevations ranging from around 13,800 feet to 17,100 feet). The idea that you could have just found out on the Internet that the English language has more words in it is ridiculous, because the question isn’t well-defined.

    Let me rephrase. I’ve "looked it up" and I’ve seen a lot of goofy thinking on the subject ("7x more words than French", "English has about 200,000 words in common use, German 184,000 and French 100,000", "Web 2.0 is the millionth word of the English Language despite the fact that "Web 2.0" are at least two words which all already exist in the English language). Reliability of information is important in Cameroon — it’s common to hear from natives that AIDS is really a weapon created by the US to poison black people. ("Guys, guys — you’ll never believe what I just found out at the bar!").

Look, I don’t care a whole lot about the question. Maybe there are more words in English, maybe not. I don’t have a horse in this race. Certainly I don’t have any idea myself. I’m not a linguist; I’ve never studied linguistics. But I have studied people who have studied linguistics, and those authorities, when faced with questions like this, equivocate: OED doesn’t want to say how many words are in the English language, even says that it is *quite probable* that English has more words than *most comparable world languages*. Language Log visits these things from time to time too. The question is not well-defined because you need to first settle on what "word" means, and you need to settle on what it means for those words to be "in the English language". Are we counting words, senses, forms/cases? In computer science we use the words "debug", "byte" and "hexadecimal"; do those count? How about "Alzheimer’s"?

Just for laughs, I asked J-C, who teaches French, what he thought. He said French definitely had more words, because in French there are often multiple words that mean the same thing (pleurer, pleurnicher, and se lamenter all essentially mean "cry"). Of course, there are quite a few words for it in English too — weep, bawl, sob — but he doesn’t know any of those, so of course he thinks English is less expressive. Thus my conclusion about all of this: people assess how expressive the language is based on how well they can express themselves in it. That’s what really bothers me, is that the woman who asserts that the French language is defective is really just blaming the language for her own failings. I don’t care how many words there are in the language, but I don’t want to hear that it’s not as expressive because you don’t know the vocabulary all that well.

If you want my opinion, I think ramasser is more expressive than English "collect" or "gather", and se débrouiller is not exactly "to get by" nor débrouillard "resourceful".


Fusil (Wednesday, 2012 June 13)

June 13th, 2012

[I don’t remember whether I actually talked about genders on Zhen. I’ll have to revisit all the old posts later..]

I was in the teachers’ room, nominally grading papers, but really focusing more on the conversation between Mur Kang and Muh Cham. Kang’s a first-female, and apparently her husband had called her asking her to came home early. The conversation had turned a little ribald, since Cham (who is male) stated his assumption that Kang’s husband was what we humans would euphemistically call "lonely", and being male himself, was urging Mur Kang to go home and "remedy" her husband. "Please, please," he was saying, to hiccuping chuckles and sobs. "Forgive me," he added, and he moved his eyes together in a lascivious manner. That got a guffaw from everyone in the room.

Kang was playing the responsible young naive first-female, although I had seen her brood, so trust me, she’s not virginal. "But if I return now-so-suddenly, who will do all this paperwork? Mustn’t I come back again later? And it is such a far, long journey."

"No, sister, please," Cham said. "Your husband is yet young. It is necessary to take advantage of this youth. His machete will not always be this solid."

"Yet, so?" Kang threw a sly glance in my direction. "And what of Sandiego? He is quite young. Sandiego, are you taking advantage of your machete? Are you using it often?"

Honestly, I think Kang has penis envy, or maybe more precisely envy of the sexual liberation that she didn’t have on her planet. This isn’t the first time she’s straight-up pried into my sex life or implied things about who I’m sleeping with. She’s said some guys like to collect sexual encounters, one of each species, and I don’t know if she was offering or what but I’m the kind to prefer my intimacy a little more seriously. Anyhow, I knew where she was going and I had a response ready. "Well, not that often.. but I sharpen it regularly." They liked that a lot. Some of them were still barking and slapping each other when the men came in.

I didn’t hear any demands or anything besides gunfire. They hit Utkeu first, who went down with only a shrill grunt. Then they got Cham. I think Kang must have dived out a window or something. I never saw her again. I hope she found her way back to her husband and wife. I hit the floor next to Utkeu, who was hit pretty bad, breathing fast and shallow. We’d had a first aid course in training, but it was kind of human-centric. Do you apply pressure on a Zhenae? Does that damage them worse, cut off their breathing? Where was Wheaton or Lara 2 when I needed them? I seized up, completely lost, and trembled next to the dying body of my friend.

Outside I heard sounds of a struggle and the voice of Ahm Simo, the extremely gruff and angry second-female Phys Ed teacher. It sounded like she had found a firearm somewhere, either her own or from our attackers. She was shouting in what had to be an indigenous Zhenae language, a bubbling growl punctuated by shrill cries. Simo was not a pleasant person at the best of times, and I didn’t know her politics, but I was willing to bet she was on the side of the school versus everyone else.

Utkeu’s breathing wasn’t steadying. He made a rippling sound that was probably like a cough. He opened his eyes, locked with mine. His hand travelled upwards along his torso, slipped sideways. I saw control, a stubborn mind-over-matter in his eyes. He was in a lot of pain, but he was a Zhenae with a mission. He tugged a little and from some pouch I hadn’t seen came a small weapon, something like a laser pistol. "Take," he said. I moved to put my hands on it, and he let it go. That seemed like about as much as he could take, and he hissed with pain as his arm slid back to the floor. "Go," he added. "Survive." Then he closed his eyes, and visibly waited to die.

Zhenae machismo dictates that you pretend not to see men at their weakest. Instead we remember them at their best — fighting every injury for one last selfless act. It was in Utkeu’s honor therefore that I turned my back to him and stared at the pistol, tried to figure out how to switch off the safety. I was going to have to try to help Simo — or break out before she was overwhelmed. I tried to sight down the barrel, get my bearings. It had been a while since I’d had my finger on a trigger.

I breathed a quiet "hard-dream-sleep" to Utkeu, and then I left the teacher’s room.


Malhonnête (Sunday, 2012 June 10)

June 11th, 2012

[Edit: I just renamed this post to "Malhonnête", due to a namespace collision with the post of 2012 March 4th, which was the first to be named Confiance…]

… which is the closest word I’ve found to "trust", although as usual things are a little more complicated than that. Warning: this is gonna be one of those long, wordy, rambly posts that I post because they make me feel better. Indeed, let’s start this off with an anecdote about applying to the Organization. There’s a part where they interview, both to see if you’ve got The Right Stuff but also to try to figure out where might be appropriate for you. I remember my interviewer, a nice young lady about my age, asking questions like "If you happened to get assigned to a non-alcoholic country.. would that be a problem? If you got assigned to an extremely alcoholic country.. would that be a problem? And what do you do to blow off steam, or when you’re stressed out? If you didn’t have those things available.. would that be a problem?" I think I said I wrote to work out my feelings, and I think I also said I went dancing. Well, there’s not a lot of dancing in Cameroon, so I guess that’s why I’m still here, despite the Party line that most volunteers stop writing home after the first few months once things start to make a little more sense to them. And I guess none of this is ever really gonna make sense to me. To me, home represents the place where stuff makes sense.

So if that wasn’t rambly or wordy enough for you, dig in. I hope you like text.

Friday two-days-ago I was going to go to Bafoussam, but before I could skip town, André showed up. I’ve written before about André. Suffice it to say that due to the weird magic of the "African family", I regarded him in a weird way like my son. I guess that’s why I lent him money in quantities outrageous for a 5e student and let him borrow my electronics for extended periods. Over the last year I’ve lent him 35,000 CFA (nobody else has borrowed more than 5,000) on the basis that his father normally gives him something like an allowance (not a cultural norm here) but when Dad’s on the road, André runs out of money, so could he borrow maybe 10,000 and then reimburse me when Dad gets back home?

So Friday, André visits to work off some fraction of the debt with promises to pay back the rest, so I put him to work washing dishes and he voluntarily grabs the broom and, as he often does, goes into by bedroom to sweep. I’m frankly not comfortable with people being in my bedroom — that’s where I keep my goodies, and money is often lying out or the place is otherwise generally not for other people. But he swept as much as he could before I went to Bafoussam. I was good this time, didn’t drink too much, and when I got home, I noticed that my Nintendo DS wasn’t working any more. The memory card was missing.

Now, I’ve wanted to accuse kids of having taken things and then found them in my house later. But I’ve owned this thing for four years. I’ve never seen the memory card disappear. It isn’t something that goes missing easily. I even found another memory card and tried to shake it out of the thing. No matter what I did, I couldn’t simulate a situation where I was able to play in the morning but then the card fell out and at night it wasn’t working any more. That card was taken. And there was only one person who could have done it.

Realizing this threw my Friday night into a pretty shitty state. This isn’t the first thing to go missing from my house, just completely missing, without even the courtesy of peer pressuring me into giving it to them (which I also hate, but outright theft is worse). I’m already throwing two precious years of my life down this useless rabbit hole. Why isn’t that enough? Why do they insist on my electronics too? But I told myself this was mental state mostly due to physical state and I resolved to deal with it in the morning.

So Saturday in our little English review I ask Romeo if he knows where André lives because I would really like to ask him about this memory card that I’m pretty sure he took. I don’t have any proof, but there’s really no other way this could have happened. And today (Sunday) bright and early, 6 AM with a chill in the air, we go to his house. And we drag him out of bed around 7 (which isn’t polite, but aggressive times call for aggressive measures). And I ask him:

"André, did you by any chance pick up a memory card yesterday, while you were cleaning my room?"

"No, not at all."

"Because I have this video game. You see where the memory card goes? There’s no memory card. And when I turn it on, it says it couldn’t find any of the files on it. Do you understand? The memory card that was in there had the games. Without it, I can’t play on the thing any more. So you didn’t by any chance take the card so you could copy the games?"

"No sir, I don’t know anything about it."

"Because I brought another memory card of the same size. See, this is how you put it in the game. And you see — tap, tap — it doesn’t come out. It doesn’t fall out. Someone took it. And you were the only person in that room. You didn’t maybe take it by accident, did you?"

"No sir. Let’s go back and look for it."

And of course I want to give him a chance to clear his name before I accuse him, so what the hell, we go back to my house, and we go over the entire room again, and of course it isn’t there. But André denies taking it, and he even asked me to buy him a memory card in Bafoussam, so why would he steal a different memory card?

But in the meantime André’s father has followed us to my house. And unlike in the States, parents don’t usually take their children’s side. "Did you say goodbye?" asks André’s father. "Why did you leave without saying goodbye?" And because I am a sucker, I tried to defend him — "He probably wanted to leave so quickly because he saw how worried I was.. we did tell his older brother." The father all but glares at me. "His older brother — does that mean me? Or his mother?"

"Well, thanks André, I guess it isn’t going to turn up today," I say, already having assumed André’s innocence. Perhaps it will turn up when I am packing my house, I think.

"What’s going on?" the father asks. "I’ll explain it in a second," André says, as he’s leaving. "Have a good day, sir."

So I’m still reeling in another emotional fugue brought on from not enough sleep and dodgy physical states and I think about a nap and start setting my house back in order. I have opened my bedroom door and I can see André and his father out there, and Romeo in leaving is talking too. I try not to worry about it. I settle in to read another chapter of Accelerando when Romeo knocks on my door.

"I just spoke to him," he said. "He admits it."

"What? What does he admit?"

"That he took it. He says he saw it on the floor when he was sweeping. I told him, did you ask M. Ethan before you took it? It was on the floor but was it your floor? Can you just pick stuff up like that? Even if it’s on his porch, you need to ask! But his father found out and he called his mom, and she looked in his phone and found the memory card, and she’s coming here with it."

So here’s another emotional fugue. I was completely prepared to forgive him if he admitted taking the memory card and it came back with the files on it, but I realize now that I’ve been played for a fool. He didn’t find shit on the floor. Ockham’s Razor. He took it, plain and simple, the obvious solution all along.

Skip ahead a little bit and the parents come in, frog-marching André, and the mother tosses his phone on the table and says, emotion coloring her voice, "I opened his phone up. I found this memory card. Is this it?"

"I’ll take a look," I say, and I plug the thing in, but it’s been wiped. All the files are gone. It’s hard to be sure, but it does look like something of sufficient quality that only an American would own it. "I’m not sure. It sure could be this one, but all the files have been deleted."

"He says he found it on the floor when he was sweeping."

"Well, it was in this little device," I say, and repeat the demonstration, tapping the game against the heel of my palm to show that I find it unlikely that the card was on the floor without outside agency. "And when I asked him he said he hadn’t seen anything yesterday."

"Mom!" he starts, "Because he said he was looking for one that had games on it, and this one was empty –"

"You dumb bastard!" she cries, or words to that effect, and really starts laying into him. Parents don’t spank children. When they slap, you can hear the crack of skin-on-skin from clear across the lycée. They aren’t giving warning taps. Her technique isn’t very good, clubbing more than punching, but she’s balled her fists up and is really doing her best to make sure he doesn’t forget this.

"He says you gave him 200 CFA that day too."

"I don’t think so, I’m pretty sure I didn’t give him anything."

"Sir! You gave me 200 CFA!" he says, but my perplexed look sends her off the handle again — literally, she picks up my racquelette (kind of like a mop) and beats her son with the handle, hitting him so hard that it breaks, and then using the broken end to continue, looking for a moment as though she’s going to skewer him with the point before she decides to blunt the point on the floor. He’s crying and she’s reading him the riot act — "I’m going to grind you up and put you in the stew tonight," she says, and "C’est moi qui t’a accouché", "I’m the one who gave birth to you" (and isn’t that a stereotype too, "I brought you into this world so I might as well be the one to take you out of it"?).

This probably sounds pretty serious to you but once there was no danger of a stabbing I watched somewhat calmly. Theft is a serious offense in Cameroon and loco-parentis-types punish it very seriously. Remember, the parents will beat their kid, but if he grows up to be a thief, an angry mob will beat him much worse. I’m not feeling very generous either, a bit betrayed and on balance a little pleased I don’t have to beat him myself. As Timothy said about the discipline problem in his school, "When kids act up in my class, I send them to the discipline master, and he beats them, because I’m educated and I get other people to do my manual labor."

They send André home to go fetch the other thing he owns of mine, and he walks away on his own power. The parents are appalled, about as appalled as I am, and though they don’t really know the whole story, they know enough to know that I helped their son from time to time and one does not repay generosity with theft. They’re not happy with him at all, because Friday was also the day the kids got their report cards back, and André failed again. "I asked him to calculate how much I spent on him this year. Over 150,000 CFA," dad says. "Starting at the beginning of the year. He failed last year too. I negotiated 75,000 CFA to get him back into school." (Meaning bribes for the proviseur to change overlook a failing grade and let him go to the next year.) I reflect that this is the first and possibly only time I will see a parent-teacher conference from this side of the table.

We talk logistics, trying to figure out how André could have deleted the files on the card.

"Did he use his phone?" I say.

"It doesn’t work," mom says, turning it on to show me. "After a second it just shuts right off. But he might have used mine. In fact, now that I think about it, he borrowed my phone that night. He was manipulating it all night in the bedroom with the door closed. I even asked him, ‘What are you doing with my phone? Your dad’s gonna call. You better give me that phone back when he calls.’"

"You can definitely delete files with the phone."

"I know. Once I had a memory card that I’d bought myself and one day it stopped working, and I went and asked a guy about it and he sighed and said, ‘Miss, there’s nothing on this card. Those children have erased everything.’ So I know they can definitely delete stuff by pressing randomly like they do."

"It shouldn’t even be that random. Can I try on yours?" And within fifteen seconds I’ve discovered how to delete files and even format the memory card.

We all sit there for a moment. I’m still kind of emotionally shocked about being lied to — and having bought it — and I offer them some water (so that I can drink some myself). We all commiserate about how shitty André’s being — both as a student and just generally as a kid, to have failed. He’s a smart kid, we all agree. He just doesn’t have the willingness to apply himself. And now dishonesty. "A smart kid," his mom says. "And everyone liked him. Now this." Eventually they leave. Eventually André comes back with the MTN key (without the MTN card, but beggars can’t be choosers). He wants to explain himself. He says he found the card on the floor, and that he said it was empty. "No," I say, "there were things on there. And you deleted them." By this point I’ve done enough technical stuff to be sure it was the right card. I try not to be sure about things, but this is 100% — same card ID, ghosts of the deleted files haunting the empty space left on the card. "Whatever. I don’t want to see you again. I hope that you find yourself in a strange and complex world, trying to do some good, and that someday, nobody steals from you."

"Sir.. what about the memory card you said you’d bought for me?" (In case you were worried about his health: he’s fine.)

"I’m keeping it. I don’t want to give it to you any more." And then I close the curtain on him. I think about getting something to beat him with too, though, just in case he starts annoying me.

André’s parents did chastise me a little for letting this happen. His dad reminds me he didn’t want me to let André into my house again. Even my neighbor Elise (overhearing that I lent money to her child) muttered darkly about Parfois les blancs sont bêtes, "sometimes whites are idiots". And I guess I am stupid, or at least a pushover despite two years in aggressive Bamiléké country, because I try to treat kids essentially like adults. But they’re not really adults, probably not in our context but certainly not this one. I don’t even think the adults here are adults. I guess I was trying to teach the value of money, but instead taught them that you can get a whole bunch of shit for free, until someone catches you. And then you get a beating. Or maybe I’m mixing cause and effect — maybe he already thought that, and then he did it. I’m not sure if the parents’ physical discipline made an impression — I kind of doubt it — but mine, telling him he’d disappointed me (still my trigger after all this time) probably didn’t do anything either. The Boys say that they think tonight, when he’s sitting alone, his conscience will judge him. I hope so. He really knew how to play me — and even Romeo said he faisait beaucoup confiance au petit-là, trusted that kid a lot.

I feel like this is one of those things that happened to make me more racist but I don’t remember how. They didn’t offer to replace the handle of my racquelette but then again I only need to use it for another 58 days..


Reconnaître (Thursday, 2012 June 7)

June 7th, 2012

Some words are really difficult to translate into French (lately I’ve been thinking about "home", "acknowledge"/"acknowledgment", "mind", and even "get"), and at first "grateful"/"gratitude" gave me a hard time too. But if you open your trusty M-W French-English dictionary, issued by Organization Cameroon Headquarters in Yaoundé, to page 534, you’ll see that "grateful" is translated as reconnaissant, literally "recognizing". Oddly, "gratitude" is translated as reconnaissance or also gratitude. Thanks, the French language!

Anyhow the point I’m trying to get at is that I was recently "recognized" in some way for the "work" I’m doing here in Cameroon. Honored Directress intercepted me at a bar in Yaoundé and said she’d received this weird Congressional thing from my Congressman, and that it was a really nice thing saying thank you for serving as a Volunteer. All of us at the table looked at one another like, "Wait, why Ethan??" and I even asked her "Do they know how much I drink?"

So thanks for the recognition, the Honorable Ed Towns — but if it were me, I’d prefer to recognize: my postmate Queen Cristina, Kim from the next village over, Rosalie in the Far North, and maybe one or two others. Side note: there are four different Volunteers all over the world just from our voting district?? New York is amazing.

While I’m uploading stuff, here’s a blurry picture taken by the Boys of one of my students, the one named "Nouyock Luther Theo" — the one who stood up almost two years ago when I said I was from New York, and said "Monsieur, that’s my name!" (Apparently "Nouyock" in local dialect means notre chose, "our thing".) He’s even wearing traditional garb for my borough, the hoodie:

Here’s a slightly better one, where he’s looking a little like a Volunteer himself.


Telecentre (Monday, 2012 June 4)

June 5th, 2012

As promised, here are some pictures of the telecentre.

You can see it’s not a big place, just the four computers. Still, they’re pretty well-equipped — scanner, photocopier, printer, and UPSes for each machine. The girl in the shiny jacket is Cecile, she’s the "secretary" and somewhat-manager of the place. Like most people who know "secretariat", she has a relatively large amount of fairly shallow knowledge about computers. Example: she knew a keyboard shortcut to toggle the case of text in Microsoft Word.

One of the machines. They’re new, and they’re the TEG brand, which allegedly comes from Dubai. Word on the street is, not great quality at an extremely reasonable price. Flat-screens!

The auxiliary appliances.

Cecile is showing Josiane something. Josiane’s been coming too, trying to snatch up whatever little knowledge she can get before she goes away for the summer.


Paresse (Saturday, 2012 June 2)

June 2nd, 2012

I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but "they" say about service as a Volunteer that "the days go slowly, but the weeks go fast". It’s true; I’m counting 66 days until I’m the hell out of this country, and each one is unbearably long and tedious but I can still remember one hundred days left of service, or counting back before I knew when my COS date actually was back in April. Yesterday I was at the school for hopefully the last time, this time for sure, to proctor and grade the practical exam in Informatique. Mostly kind of lame secretarial kinds of practical exercises, but still not so bad.

I foolishly believed that with school over, I’d have oodles of free time to do things like write in my blog, upload photos, or otherwise be semiproductive. Instead the government is opening a "telecentre" and it’s semi-functional, although only as a "-centre" because there’s no Internet connection yet. Still, it’s a neat place and I’m giving training there, so that keeps me a little busy, and outside that, I’m still giving last-minute tutoring to one or two students who haven’t yet taken their Probattoires. And of course people are still here all the time to bother me for whatever trivial reasons. So, still tedious. Some of these kids are likely to go to the "Big City" for the vacation to sell stuff and thereby earn a little money for their school fees next year, so when that happens my life will again get incrementally better. Until then..

I haven’t been able to upload pictures as much as I’d like for a variety of not-awesome reasons, most specifically because my camera’s been lent out a little more than I’d like and then because on top of that, I haven’t had a great connection. But soon, hopefully.


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