Malhonnête (Sunday, 2012 June 10)

June 11, 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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