Victory lap (Saturday, 2012 August 18)

August 19th, 2012

I’m writing this from a plane again, a flight from Venice to New York marking the last leg of my trip back home, a 12-day romp that has seen me in Prague, Geneva (hi Jenny Wang!), Interlaken, Venice, and even a day trip to Florence. It has been a lot of fun, a first-world travel experience with all that goes along with it. It ends unambiguously now on this Delta flight to JFK, where the summer heat and delicate language negotiations have been replaced with clear and unapologetic American English and the corresponding American-intensity air conditioning (none of this European pussy-footing around). Certain challenges are over, or at least in remission, but new ones, like the fact that I’m shivering and can’t seem to stop talking in Volunteer Camfranglais, are just beginning.

I can’t seem to shake the feeling that my experiences and my hard-earned wisdom are worth something, so here are some highlights from my trip.

  • Prague was a lot of fun, not least due to the amazing efforts of Use It, which is apparently a bunch of groups in a bunch of European cities that publish free "travel advice for young travelers". They created a great map/highlights reel that became the tour guide. I feel like I saw all the most fun things in Prague after four days, but there’s still a ton of stuff more in that map that would probably keep me entertained for even longer if I wanted. I don’t know if you’re reading this, but you guys rock. (Anyone want to help me do one for New York?)
  • Czech is hard! But the people in Prague were super sweet.
  • I brought a lot of cash. Based on certain back-of-the-envelope calculations trying to accommodate for prices of meals and museums and so forth, I brought roughly $500 USD turned into CZK, CHF, and EUR, for three-and-a-half or four days in each country. I worried that this wouldn’t be enough for Switzerland or Italy, but in the end I had way more currency than I needed in the Czech Republic (used the rest to pay for my hotel room). Even in the other two countries it turned out I had more money than I needed; I’m such a cheapskate that when I see ordinary, "budget" restaurants that seem unfairly expensive, I just go to supermarkets to eat cheaper. Not to say I was thrifty — train tickets in Switzerland and Italy are expensive, but at least you can buy them with a credit card.
  • The Swiss railway (SBB/CFF/FFS) has a weird pricing scheme where all the prices they quote on their site are for holders of a "half-fare" card, which you can buy (as of this writing) at 110 CHF. You have to do a certain amount of rail travel (i.e. 220 CHF) for this to make sense financially. So you’ll be paying twice all the prices on their site. Thanks guys..
  • Interlaken is very, very beautiful, and their local beer, Rugenbrau, is unbelievable. The Holter Kunn (spelling?) funicular is great and they have an "after work" special — at 4:55, you pay a 15 CHF round trip, with a drink at the top.
  • Geneva is expensive and lame and is apparently unworthy of a Use It. Skip!
  • Venice is kind of like a weird theme park and it’s hard to believe that real people actually live there. Florence has a "garden" but it’s up a really, really steep hill. If you take first class on TrenItalia they will even give you a glass of wine!

A couple of people have mentioned that thank God, they can finally stop following this blog. I wouldn’t be so sure; I still have a few things left to post, not least of which is the final chapters of the fiction.


Mur (Thursday, 2012 August 2)

August 3rd, 2012

Here I am now in Yaoundé, at the case for what is probably the last time. I’ve spent the entire week juggling administrivia and Boris, who helped me down from post, and although I haven’t learned any Czech, written the last one or two installments of the fiction, found former Volunteer of my village Dinah Peck (or possibly Diana Peck?), nor seen all the Yaoundé-based people I wanted to see, I’ve still gotten to see some of my favorite Volunteers, weighed myself (around 190 lbs., making my weight gain about 15 lbs.), drank sufficiently, and performed a certain number of medical tests. I’m sure you will all be pleased to know that my stool sample was negative, my weight gain is not the result of a thyroid problem, my blood tests were fine, I’m still HIV negative, and my TB test was positive. It’s been, in short, a pretty fun and relaxing week, and I keep waking up after sleeping too much after going to bed too late with the sensation that I just had a terribly meaningful dream that helped me center and come to terms with my Peace Corps Experience.

Tomorrow I cease to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, and start being Another White Guy in Cameroon. (Although I guess you never really stop being a Volunteer.) The next three days will require a bit of finesse as I bounce from place to place. The current plan is: Friday night at maybe Claude’s, Saturday night in Bafia, Sunday night maybe with Yaya or whoever manages to get a hotel room here in Yaoundé, and then Monday it’s time to go.

One of the traditions here in Peace Corps Cameroon is that COS-ing volunteers sign this wall in the living room. Putting your name, village, years of service, and program are all pretty standard. Lately a lot of people have been adding quotes or jokes. J-Veld and Lindsey D. have this tag-team thing going on, but "Why did the fungi leave the party?/ Because there wasn’t mush-room" is lame in just the right way that I’m OK with it.

Of course, the whole thing is somewhat silly because every few years the wall fills up and they have to repaint it. And anyhow Peace Corps Cameroon is trying to move its office and thus the case. In the end, the whole thing is utterly and absolutely provisoire, and perhaps reflects a deeper, maybe somewhat depressing truth about service, along the lines that you get to fill a role for two years here, but I just don’t believe that an impact has been made. But maybe that’s just a limited form of cynicism that will go away bien tôt — certain Cameroonians have said that their previous interactions with former Peace Corps Volunteers have made them what they are, even if they were not the best students, and that perhaps the impacts of your presence or absence are yet to really be felt.

Allison decided to eschew any pretense of wisdom, and drew a hippo as a reference to a humorous and somewhat dangerous experience she had kayaking down a river and ending up face-to-face with a hippo (one of the more dangerous animals on this continent). She, thinking like me, decided to write it on a bookcase, figuring that it is slightly less likely to be painted over and might even end up being transported to a new case, providing her a better shot at Peace Corps immortality.

As for me, I spent a good long time trying to figure out how to take these biting and depressing insights about the ceaseless parade of warm bodies and shape it into a twelve-to-twenty word sound bite. As with many things, I decided that the most profound way I could express myself was with a quote, namely: "There are no sweeter words than this: Nothing lasts forever.." Out of deference to the cheerful optimism of my fellows, and perhaps a sense of perverseness, I decided to write it "hidden" under a blackboard that’s hanging on another bookcase. I feel like perhaps I could have done better with the whole thing, but all in all I’m a little pleased with the result.

Here are the names of some of the gone-but-not-forgotten, including Henry, Austin, Timothy, and Lindsay C.

Some cute pictures of Volunteers relishing their rare time together.

Our gonging-out, which is a ceremony where Admin says "Thanks" and "Good-bye" to those volunteers who have proudly served their countries. Honored Directress Lahoma is already gone — early COS, ha ha — and the new one, Jackie something or other, seems pretty sharp and quite on top of things.

I’m, of course, sitting next to Queen Cristina, and we’re both wearing our Bamiléké outfits. (Mine was a present from the Batié Mayor’s Office. I don’t know where hers came from.) Here I was responding to Francis’s saying that I was a "notable"; I was clarifying that they just gave me the clothes, specifically that I had found a notable in a dark alley in Bafoussam and decided that I could make better use of the outfit.

Volunteers who are all COSing together, meaning doing the same medical stuff and ceasing to be Volunteers on the same day, get to gong out together. Here are the rest of the people from our COS group.

The new Honored Directress.

COSing means you get the coveted Peace Corps Cameroon pin, which depicts the American and Cameroonian flags and the Peace Corps logo. (You can just barely see it near my shoulder.)

I was supported by Claude and Boris, depicted here with Jake.

Family photo! The Peace Corps sign is taken off the main admin building, and we think the orientation is quite stylish.


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.


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..


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