Archive for July, 2012

HTML (Friday, 2012 July 27)

July 27th, 2012

Second of the last three things I needed to do before I go was this book on 1ere. It came out to about 15-16 thousand words, something between 43 and 48 pages. This is the uncorrected version, there are a bunch of grammatical errors (stuff like que un, il sont, jusqu’ils, un virgule — which, seriously, feminine?). Perhaps one day I’ll merge the changes from the revised versions. My father also gets bonus points for even proofreading the last thing and finding an error in the Roman numerals.

The final product of my labors came out to be about 72 pages.

On my way out of the telecenter I ran into Queen Cristina’s counterpart, a very nice gentleman named Victor. He’s one of the nicer people here. He was at the going-away party Wednesday (which I probably should have mentioned — sometimes this village is nice to us), and at that party I’d stood up and apologized that I hadn’t really been able to work with any of the people present, who Cristina mostly knew from her work, because I’d been stuck at the lycée all the time. Anyhow, he came up to me on his moto and said that what I’d said really touched him and made him feel guilty because he’d kind of had his hands full with his volunteer and had figured my counterpart was also taking care of me. And then he gave me these two business cards for SGI, that Buddhist organization. Maybe I do need more Buddhism in my life, hmm?

Here’s the files. The last one I wrote using org-mode, rendered to HTML and then twiddled with LibreOffice Writer. This one was all ReStructuredText (RST), rendered to HTML. I’d send you the source this time too, but technical difficulties. Sorry.

Uploaded: html.html (XML document text, 153.0 KiB)


Prix (Thursday, 2012 July 26)

July 26th, 2012

So, maybe it was stupid, but I said what I really thought about Marie-Cha on that stupid video that the kids took of me with my camera. (7 minutes. 474 MB. Thanks.) I was diplomatic, maybe we can say that’s something I learned in Cameroon, and I think I just said that while I considered her a neighbor and even family, I don’t think she sees me in the same way. And even worse, I explained it when Parfait asked me, the whole affair with Boris and that she really ripped me off on the things I "sold" her (not that it’s unique to her — Pa-Na, Madame Kamga, and maybe even M. Teukeu have done the same thing). I guess I consider that my fault, since Brondone was implicated. So when Brondone came by at 8 o’clock, an hour and a half ago, asking that I come explain to her what was going on, I did it. I knew it was going to be a shitty discussion but I am a grown man.

So I went to explain why I saw the way I did. Marie-Cha, to her credit, though it was 8 o’clock, explained patiently that she had just gotten back from deliberating exams all day and was exhausted and had just started eating and she hadn’t sent Brondone to go find me and she was figuring to talk to me about it in the morning, and how basically all of this that Brondone was doing, she was just watching for the time being. But then she wanted me to explain it all the same, so I explained about how Boris still owes me 2000 CFA and I’m angry that she hasn’t been raising her kid better, and that I’m feeling taken advantage of because she haggled like a demon over the things she wanted from my house.

"Look, it’s not Boris who wants the Linux O.S. It’s me." [Which I don’t really think I buy.] "It’s not even going to be useful to him, it’s for here in the village, whereas he’s going to be in the city going to university. And it’s so easy to format computers in the city, so it couldn’t even be for him. I never sent Brondone to go ask you to burn those CDs, I just asked them to tell me when you got home so I could ask you this favor. That it’s for Boris is just something that maybe Brondone invented. As for the 2000 CFA, did you ever tell me that he owed you?"

"Well, I told Brondone."

"But you never told me. I figured Brondone was just talking about stuff that didn’t really concern him. If you’d come to me, I’d have told you, well, how can we fix this? As for the things I bought from you, I didn’t understand that you were upset about it. It was, after all, you who accepted."

"You know I don’t know how to haggle."

"You mean, in the States, you don’t haggle? When you buy things, what do you do?"

"It’s like the supermarket, right? All the prices are marked."

"You mean to say that in two years, when you go to the market, you don’t haggle?"

"No. People tell me a price, and I either take it or I leave it."

"And those things that other people bought from you, you didn’t haggle with them? What about that mattress?"

"I sold it to M. Lukong. I said I wanted 20,000 for it, that I’d paid 40, and he accepted."

"What about that thing you sold to Mme. Kamga?"

"I said I wanted 7000, and she took it for 5000."

"Look. If you really think I cheated you, and it’s worth more than what I paid for it, then seriously, anything I have here of yours, please, take it back, sell it somewhere else. I don’t want any problems with you."

But all of this is still fucked up. Even if I haggled for stuff at the market, it was as a buyer for stuff that I knew the correct price for. I never sold anything. And you know after two years that I’m forbidden to turn a profit on anything. I’m not the marketplace. I’m your friend and a volunteer. I trusted you, as my friend, to tell me what the correct price was. You told me I’d overpaid and you weren’t going to pay those prices. And when I said I was only trying to get enough money together to send my suitcase home, you told me that surely my mother would help me. Say what you will, but I don’t see how I can see that as something a friend would do.

And now you’re going to offer me to take my stuff back and resell it? In the two days I have left in this village? That isn’t acceptance, that’s coercion.

Fine. I get it now. Once we’re talking money changing hands, there are no more friends. To the Bamiléké, you become a marketplace. I probably should have figured that out sooner. Oops.

And, here’s the fucking thing. She’s probably even right, to an extent. To some extent, this whole goddamned thing is some cross-cultural miscommunication or something. And I’m figuring it out now when I have 11 days, 14 hours left in this country. I don’t even know whether to scream or cry. I’m sick of this place. Nothing makes sense to me. I can’t cope and I don’t even have Internet access.

I still don’t have time to finish this stupid book for 1ere. I was figuring that it would be on the order of the 3e book, which was around 10 kwords, but I am about to break 11 and I’m about 2/3 finished. Today has just been yet another day of relentless interruptions on the day when, out of all the days, I really did not need it.

I’ve learned an awful lot about being a minority here. I hope I’m not.. I don’t know. Like this.


Habits (Thursday, 2012 July 19)

July 19th, 2012

[Edit: the original title of this post was Sportif, which was also used on 2011 November 24, so I changed it to Habits, which means "clothes", or, in Anglophone, "dresses". Neither title really has anything to do with the text of this entry, just the pictures at the end..]

Today I’m in the Baffice (pet name given to the Organization "office" in Bafoussam, where running water and good-quality Internet abound), for official reasons that are completely legitimate. However, being here reminds me of Kevin’s birthday party a week ago, and specifically the aftermath, where salad was being made sloppily in the kitchen while everyone else was asleep. I’m not sure we cleaned the lettuce properly. The next morning, that salad was like an edible scavenger hunt, with the lettuce being accompanied by spoons and even a piece of chocolate. It’s the kind of silliness that feels good looking back, not "got trashed and puked red" like at other parties.

It’s raining here in Bafoussam, not hard but thoroughly, and there’s a fog and everything is muddy. Rain is generally a good trigger in this country to put me in a good mood, and if that weren’t enough I’m having some of a box of white wine that I found at the Boulangerie du Peuple. Quite a turnaround from last night, when I was so ticked off I didn’t know what I was liable to do.

See, there’s Boris who I’ve written about, who is by and large a decent dude, and there’s also my neighbor’s kid Boris, who composed the Bac this year (after failing it last year). He’s kind of a tool. He took the skill I taught him, of formatting computers, and he immediately started charging people to do it. I tried not to get too upset about it — after all, he’s probably still saving people money that they’d have to spend to go to Bafoussam to find a technician — but it immediately soured my relationship with him. Afterwards, I lent him something that didn’t come back — apparently sometimes he just finds stuff around the house, can’t identify the owner (a family of 9!), and sells it — putting him solidly on my "avoid" list. He had borrowed 2000 CFA (about $4), never paid it back, and suddenly disappeared to Yaoundé without paying me back. (Brondone apparently reminded him about the money, and he responded with something rude about how he was going to leave me with the debt or something like that.) He lies a lot and even his girlfriend(s?) know and yet still kick around with him. He’s taken money from his younger brothers — and probably people outside his family too — to develop photos, which he hasn’t.

And even barring his rotten personality, he’s an idiot technically too. Every computer failure is a virus and the remedy is always a reformat. He’s mastered that thing about indigenous knowledge where you know it absolutely, so it must be true. Even people who ought to know better, like Fokui, have been brought up short by his confidence. I hate, hate, hate people like this. It’s completely fine to not know something, but if you act like you know something when you’re talking out your ass, especially if you’re an egotistical Big Man on the High School Campus, then you’re a twat. Shit’s fucked up.

Before I continue this story, let me make it clear that I don’t like to lie. Trust is hard enough in this country, or any country, and I have found that once broken, even in a small way, it’s impossible to get it back. I think other Volunteers are more comfortable with it, especially making up things about how the Organization doesn’t allow this-or-that thing, but I just don’t do it, as a general rule.

Anyhow Brondone came over last night saying that his mom (Marie-Chantal, or Marie-Cha, or Ma-Cha) had talked to Boris on the phone and he’d asked the mother to ask me to burn him a couple CDs of Linux. Normally I’d be pleased to help turn someone onto the open source thing and so forth, but I think this person would be a net loss. I told Brondone to tell his mom that I wasn’t doing fuck-all for his son until he paid back my 2000 CFA. I was hoping that she would be shocked that her son owed me money — unlike the other kids, Boris is certainly age of majority and has means of getting money if he needs — and would put the screws into him, possibly repaying my money. But really most important to me was that he be punished. (After all, the money’s small potatoes, even here.) Brondone wasn’t completely thrilled about being the bearer of this particular message, because his mother may have implied that he shouldn’t mention that Boris was the originator of this particular request. But Brondone’s been the victim of Boris’s shit too, so he went and told as I asked.

Brondone came back a little later, saying, "When I said that, she got angry!" Not at Boris, mind you, nor at me, but at Brondone: "She had wanted me to lie! For the money, she prefers that he keep it!" Well, that’s a shame. "Aren’t you going to go talk to her?" No. If I’m lucky, I will never talk to her again. "She’s probably going to come by and try to invent some story about what’s going on. But you didn’t hear it from me!"

I hate when people try to put one over on me. In French I say I hate when people try to jongler me, which literally means juggle. And Marie-Cha is my neighbor. Has she not already profitéd enough from me? Is it really necessary that she not only protect her thieving son but that she try to lie to me about it? I spent a good two or three hours angry, trying to debate the merits of trying to sell her CDs which contained only a text file saying "Fuck. You." and sundry other invective. Plan B was to look her in the eye and say "I don’t have any CDs" while taking the CDs that I do have and breaking them in half. But then I took an hour or two to organize files on my machine, and calmed down enough to have an idea. I love ideas.

Remember that Marie-Cha’s family is well-off enough to have a computer, but the lady is a Biology teacher. So when she shows up the next morning and says "I want you to burn me two CDs of the Linux system," someone told her about it. She doesn’t even try to offer a story about miscommunication or Brondone’s misunderstanding of a situation or anything.

"I’m so sorry," I say. "I deleted them. I already freed the space. I don’t have them any more."

"Way." (Weird Cameroonian interjection.) "Well, now what am I going to do?"

"If you give me a little money," I said, "I could go to the cybercafe and download them again."

"How much money?"

"Three thousand." Volunteers aren’t supposed to "turn a profit", as it were; we’re being paid already. But one good turn deserves another.

"Fine. But in that case I want three CDs."

I’m leaning now towards actually burning the CDs and not leaving her hanging. But I haven’t made up my mind.

Anyhow, while I was cleaning up the files on my hard drive, I found these pictures that Boris apparently took at the lycée. Let’s consider those repayment of my debt too.

This is Clovis and Stevine. Stevine was one of the students I liked better, although that did change once she cheated blatantly on her finals. She’s smaller than the other kids, which as a general rule means she’s smarter, because she’s younger so didn’t have to retake exams too much.

They’re all at the épreuves sportives, which is like their final exam for gym class. Or maybe it’s inter-lycee sports. They tend to dress up on these sorts of days, but I don’t know exactly who they’re trying to impress. This shot is a hell of a lot better than whoever was filming it deserves.

Youdom V. V., one of my favorite students, doing the shot-put (no idea what that’s called in French).

They wear socks when they’re being sportif, apparently.

Cameroonian girls especially tend to do this kind of glamor shot.

Probably most of these students are in my Terminale class, but I only recognize Stevine (red shirt). Check out the patterns on their leggings!

That’s Poula on the right with his hands in the air. Brilliant kid, one of the few Cameroonians to notice when I’m being sarcastic and laugh.

Boris is in the green socks.

Corneille, also from that Terminale class, who is incidentally hooking up with a chick in 3e. Check out those pants!


Binaire (Monday, 2012 July 16)

July 16th, 2012

I’m cutting back my hours at the telecenter this week. I’m leaving the village in two weeks, and I have three main large projects that I have to do, ideally before then. The projects are all written, which is probably why I’m writing less and less here. Even if I had the time and energy to work on them, I wouldn’t really have enough left to write here.

I still have at least one, possibly two entries in the fiction thing. I’ve got a vague idea of how it’s gonna go, I just haven’t written it yet. And I remember that people always like more pictures, but I don’t really have any more pictures. Sorry.

The results for the BEPC and the Baccalaureat are both up, but the Probatoire, which Romeo was taking, isn’t out yet. Still, I took a gander at the Baccalaureat. Almost none of my favorite students (Domche, Stevine, Youdom V. V., the bigger Brondone) made it, the exception being Poula Youta, the brilliant kid who would have made it anyhow. A lot of the useless kids got it (not least of which one of my neighbor’s kids). Kind of dispiriting.

I went to the telecenter today, because there are some "students" who need to have "make-up classes", and I’m trying to guide Cecile, the secretary, through teaching them. Nobody was there, not even the teacher who was supposed to be teaching this week. Wandered home — it’s about a thirty-minute walk. One person, who really should have known better, suggested I "look in your bag. Is there nothing for me?" Another person called out "Nassara", which is one of the nicer-sounding ways to call you by your color. I felt pretty shitty about that for a while, thinking darkly that even after two years in this village, I was still the token white guy, would always be a foreigner, and how my post combines the worst parts of living in a village with the worst parts of living in a city. Combined with the shitty results on the Bac, I just didn’t feel great. Most of the volunteers I’ve talked to these days are nearing the end of their service, and just like me, are tired.

I also put a rock in my bag, just in case that asshole asks me for anything else. A bottle of water would probably do just as well. I’m going to spray him like a disobedient cat.

But then I passed one person who called out to me "Bonsoir, monsieur!" in a bright, cheerful, polite tone. And then another, one of my favorite students from 4e, who looked happy as could be with her summer vacation. And then one of the Anglophone moto guys waved to me as he drove past. That all made me feel better.

I spent the rest of the day hiding out in my bedroom with my laptop, finishing the first of the three major things I want to do before I leave this village. It’s this self-teaching book based on the material that I taught in 3e. It’s about 25 (French) pages long, and I’m going to print it out for Josiane, who made me promise to write it as her condition for going to Yaoundé (and out of my hair) for the vacation. It’s below (but I’m about to upload it to all the proper Organization-specific resources). I hope the formatting comes out OK in .doc format, but if not the .pdf should be OK.

Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.odt (OpenDocument Text, 49.0 KiB)
Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.doc (Composite Document File V2 Document, Little Endian, Os: Windows, Version 1.0, Code page: -535, Revision Number: 33, Total Editing Time: 02:23:55, Create Time/Date: Sun Jul 15 19:09:44 2012, Last Saved Time/Date: Sun Jul 15 21:40:24 2012, 278.0 KiB)
Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.pdf (PDF document, version 1.4, 173.0 KiB)


Finale (Monday, 2012 July 2)

July 2nd, 2012

Well, if we’re talking about French, let’s talk about profiter, the verb that actually means "to take advantage of", even if it looks a lot like the English word "to profit from". I think the true Cameroonian spirit is probably somewhere in the middle.

I dug up my "staging workbook", one of the numerous Organization publications. This was one of the ones from staging, that one-or-two-day stint in Philadelphia before we flew out here. It’s got a lot of blank space for the soon-to-be-Volunteer to write out some of his or her hopes, worries, and dreams. Page 6:

  • I have chosen to commit to the Peace Corps at this time in my life because…

    I am afraid I will later never get the opportunity to make a difference.

  • I will feel successful as a volunteer when…

    • I have my 27th birthday.
    • I have my first thought in a foreign language.
    • I have helped someone else succeed.
    • I have made it home safely.

Even then, we were being warned of the dangers of setting our expectations too high, thus I chose a set of four very modest expectations. I’ve already turned 28, I have thought plenty of odd things in French, and I helped Romeo study for his Probat for almost an entire month. So why am I so bitter?

Kalika writes some African stills, just little textual glimpses of what life is like here. Nice idea, if I could force myself to write shorter.

  • A woman calls out to me and starts talking to me. She’s the woman who made food around the lycée, the one where I bought the most often. She says her child, some little asshole that I’ve yelled at before, asked for a "souvenir". "What kind of souvenir?" It doesn’t matter, whatever you could leave behind. Also, could she please have money for the medicine she needs to get at the hospital?

  • At the sous-prêfet’s house. I’ve just finished installing a free anti-virus because their version of MacAfee seems busted. The mom wants to know what I’m going to leave them. "You’re going to leave us your laptop, right?" No, I use my laptop. "But you’ll get back there and you’ll buy another one, right?" But this one has all my files. I cannot just leave it with you. (Even though I am probably going to buy at least one, maybe two computers as soon as I get home.) "Then how about your MP3 player?" Nope, going to use it on the plane. "Your camera?" My camera is nice, nicer than these assholes deserve/can afford, a metal-bodied Nikon, and I have no desire to part with it. "Well, what about your telephone? You can take the SIM card with all the numbers, and just leave us the phone." My phone is nothing special, a used Nokia that I bought in Bertoua for 16,000 CFA, and though I hold my tongue, I’d rather destroy it in front of them than give it to them. I refuse again politely. "Ethan! You are chiche (selfish)."

  • I had a going-away party a few weeks ago here in village for the volunteers and terribly-few locals I cared about. Some of the teachers invited themselves; others heard about it afterwards and wanted to know why I didn’t invite them. Anyhow, the lycée is also "throwing" a going-away party for me. During the planning, it was proposed that everyone, including me, contribute a little money. I turned to Marie-Cha, my neighbor and they Boys’ mother, and (trying deliberately to invoke some kind of maternal instinct) wondered, "Wait, is the lycée saying goodbye to me, or am I saying goodbye to the lycée?" She took my side at the time, but later she came by my house to explain how everything was going to go down.

    "Everyone has contributed one-one thousand five hundred," she said (repeating numbers like this is a Cameroonian way of saying "each"). "That will pay for food and the red wine. Now how are you going to receive us?"

    "Receive you?" I ask, already knowing where this is going. "I don’t understand."

    "Look. Everybody is contributing a little bit. That is going to allow the purchase of certain things with which we will say goodbye to you. Right? So, what are you going to bring to say goodbye to us?"

    "What do you think is good?" I ask, resigning myself.

    "Bring some of those mushroom brochettes that you had last time. And you can bring the beer."

    "How much beer? One casier (like a milk crate, but of beer)? Two?"

    "If I say two, is that too much?" (A casier counts 12 beers, so roughly 6,000 CFA.)

    "I don’t know if I’ll have the money," I say, which is true, since I’m trying to save some money to give to Cristina to bring my suitcase home. "How about one-and-a-half?"

    "One-and-a-half. It might be petit. It’s the day that they’re giving out the prime de rendement (a performance-based bonus to encourage teachers to actually teach), so everyone is going to be there. There may be many je m’invites (self-invitees). But if that’s what you can bring, then it should be fine."

    So let’s do the math. 4,000 CFA of mushrooms and 9,000 of beer makes 13,000 CFA. I’m contributing as much as 8 teachers (1,500 each) for a party that I don’t want to go to for people that I mostly don’t care about. It’s happening Wednesday, which is the 4th, Independence Day, so I’m counting it as "goal two", cultural exchange.

I can’t say that every single Cameroonian I know is trying to suck me dry — it’s just that it’s so tiring and so dispiriting when it happens. It’s hard to even know if they’re treating me like this just because I’m a foreigner or if they’re just "joking" the way they "jokingly" make passes at women all the time as a way of complimenting them. Either way I’m tired of it. I want to go home.

Not to dwell on the negative, though. Lots of people have also asked what they can give me as a going-away present, or proposed ridiculous things like giant 50-pound bags of peanuts or other produce. Romeo’s mom, the crazy orange lady, even showed up with a dress she sewed for my mother (it’s a little small; I’m gonna see if I can’t give her more fabric so that she can try again). Boris suggests that I shouldn’t turn down any presents — it’s rude (see Eriika’s writing about abrasive kindness and forced hospitality) and besides you can always re-gift them to the people who ask for souvenirs.

Queen Cristina says that she thinks it would be hilarious if, once I get the proper emotional distance, I become one of those Volunteers that misses their host country so much and it was just the best time of their life. Maybe I will, but I think of this experience as my second collegehood, and even six years later I still don’t think back fondly on my first one.

All volunteers face this, the terrifying disconnect between what you think you came here to do and what the locals think you came here to do. I think everyone "understands" that I came here to teach, and not to distribute things or money. But still, people ask me for ma part, my share, and everyone wants to profiter from my leaving, want to take something or expect me to give them something. Is this how you treat a respected professional who let’s say sacrificed two years to try to improve your country? I wish I felt more appreciated for who I am and what I did, not what I have and what I gave. I’m sure this isn’t unique to my experience.

I think Cameroon is a fine country, once you subtract all the Cameroonians.

I came here to do a job. I came here because I wanted to be able to look back, fifteen or twenty years from now, and say, "I was there. I helped." And I guess it wouldn’t be easy, or else everyone would be doing it.

My final thoughts are this: some people say that you regret the things you don’t do more than the things you do. Well, I came to do something, and I did it, and I saw it through. I’m proud of myself. But I’m not sure that I would do it again.


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