Thoughts on Coming Home

Peace Corps is extremely difficult, and most people will meet uncertainty, failure, and even danger on a level that we just don’t ever realize in the US.  It does weird things to your head. It is true that a deal of attention we receive here is negative.  We get called spies, people shout from moving taxis for us to go home, and there’s sometimes the drunken guy at a bar who wants to gloat to his friends by harassing the white guy.  The local word for foreigners, “ntagin”, is sometimes laced with a verbal poison that can’t be ignored.

I had originally written a piece in a moment of severe frustration on several fronts, but writing a negative post didn’t make me feel better, so I figure I should try the opposite.  Let me talk about four people that I have met and worked with whom I will always remember.

First, there’s Madame Bobo.  She’s a 40-something Muslim woman born to an extremely large family.  She was the only one of her 10 sisters who went to school—and only because she essentially demanded it of her traditional father.  She’s done so much for someone of her position and what would normally be considered her “stature” in a community like this one.  She and a previous volunteer formed a woman’s group, comprised mostly of Muslim women.  At first some of these women were afraid to leave their houses without their husbands’ permission or escort.  Now they freely assemble (this is a bigger accomplishment than it may sound), and they have started making doughnuts to sell in Lolo.  Madame Bobo organized them into a sort of union recognized by the local government, and their group (which goes by the mouthy acronym BEBODEFL) has branched out into cultivating soybeans as an alternate source of protein.  As an illustration of some of the problems we face here, her soy project (which was aided by a nearby agro PC volunteer) has had a really hard time catching on.  Maybe because it’s a foreign product, maybe because some people just don’t believe it works as a cheap, adequate substitute of protein, but nonetheless she’s been persistent in her quest to make soy a staple at the market.  Every time I pass her, she’s walking briskly and talking fast, in stark contrast to traditional pace of Cameroonian life.  She’s even petitioning to have a business PC volunteer work full-time with the group—a big step that I’ve supported her with, and it’s starting to look like this will actually materialize.  She’s been incredibly inspirational, motivating, and even though she’ll never read this, I want to thank her a million times for all the work she’s done for her community and for my own will to continue.

Secondly, there’s Fabrice.  Fabrice is my best friend and the smartest guy that I know in Lolodorf.  He’s six months older than me.  Fabrice learned English from watching movies and reading books that I’ve passed onto him.  His English has become incredible, if not peppered with absurd gems like “look at your kitten running amok” (a word he learned from a computer game involving war elephants) and “goddamn these virgin hands!” (which he apparently borrowed from a shovel-weilding Mogan Freeman in Shawshank Redemption) after he couldn’t twist open his coke bottle.  I love him for his slightly inaccurate, thickly accented idioms because he’s fearless in trying, and he knows that’s how to learn.  Our conversations have gone from about 25% in English two years ago to 100% in English today.

I really doubt that any Cameroonians follow my blog, but if anybody does it would be Fabrice.  He likes to surf with his internet key to “stream videos” and “browse some Wikipedia”.  One of his favorite games is Sim City, and he’s convinced he could be mayor of Lolodorf (he could).  But he probably never will be, because, frankly that’s the way things are.  However, I’m working closely with him on getting a student visa to study mechanics in the US.  He’s developed a whole plan—Detriot is his dream, because it seems like a pretty obvious place to study the mechanics of American vehicles, and because we read that rent has gotten pretty cheap up there.  He’s ecstatic by the prospect of flipping burgers or sweeping up at hospitals overnight in order to have the chance to attend a technical school—and then bring his skills back to his home country and open a maintenance shop for American vehicles in the capital (of which there are currently very few, as far as we can tell).

Fabrice and I have spent countless hours—in English, upon his insistence—planning his American invasion, discussing his favorite movies, and some of the more regrettable aspects of life here, politically or socially; that I had mentioned in my first draft.  Fabrice began his goal of saving up for the US after his 2-year-old daughter died from unknown medical causes about nine months ago.  Now, he works as a moto taximan during the day and a night guard at the local pipeline station in order to save up for the States.  I hope to see him over there one day.  There is so much more to Fabrice’s story that makes it simultaneously tragic and awesome, but it’s just too personal to publish online.  I wish that you could know, though, because I respect the hell out of this guy.

Thierry is the anchor of Lolodorf.  He’s a 30-year-old bartender who works 14-hour days, 7 days a week.  Despite his relentless schedule, he’s literally never in a bad mood.  It’s honestly baffling, as most of us find anything over a 40 hour workweek to be overwhelming, yet Thierry keeps such a cool that he’s not only able to complete every single shift without complaining, but he’s got the exceptional ability to save money and plan long-term business moves.  When I first arrived, he was simply a barman working ridiculous hours at someone else’s bar.  He finally saved enough money to quit and open his own bar in March.  He’s excited to be his own boss (although he still over-schedules himself) and has talked to me about his ambitions to open more bars and boutiques next to his new establishment.  I’ve seen the money he’s saved and I believe that he can and will do it.  Unlike Fabrice, Thierry doesn’t dream of going to the US and living in the fabled Western paradise.  Thierry’s place is here, in the heart of Lolodorf’s strip, and he’s gonna be king here one day.  The evidence is already there: the bar where he used to work was arguably the most popular of the many on the strip; ever since he left it’s been practically vacant.  Walk past Thierry’s new bar at any time of any day and the place is booming (the merits of this truth are questionable, but it speaks to his popularity).

Thierry is the best conversationalist in town.  We pass hours sitting at his bar, watching TV and talking about current events or how dumb golf looks (seriously, imagine an African watching golf and trying to make sense of all the effort).  He beamed when my girlfriend Kalene told him that he had what Americans call “swag”.  And its true.

Finally, there’s Jules.  Jules is another close friend of mine.  Last year he was the second English teacher at my high school.  It was both of our first years, and for him it was also his last.  He told me that he simply couldn’t stand teaching, and the students had already worn him out.  His leaving the school was tough for all, as it meant more hours for me to take or else students that wouldn’t have a teacher.  This was disappointing because I was hoping to do more secondary stuff outside of school during my second year, but there was simply no one else to fill the teaching gap left my Jules (we did eventually hire a new teacher a little over halfway through the year).

Regardless, Jules and I stayed good friends.  He’s an honest guy, and he works really hard in his field every day to grow peppers.  He knows that it’s not the most glamorous job but he feels content with it.  He lives alone and sustains himself off his agricultural production, which is something I can’t imagine doing.  He also really likes American movies, so he’ll come over after a long day of work and we’ll watch Life of Pi or Inglorious Basterds.

As I get ready to leave, one of my biggest frustrations and anxieties is worrying about the future of these really good people.  They’re all ambitious, friendly, and honest workers. They deserve better.  If they were the exact same people, only born in America, they would surely thrive and live productive, easier lives like the rest of us are so privileged to have.  As my friendships grew stronger with these people, this awkward fact would show up more and more.  Part of the advantage of being a volunteer is living “in the field” on a fairly meager salary, in order to facilitate relationships with local people.  It’s supposed to help try to tear down the socio-economic divide that might inhibit such friendships. But we end up living in this twilight space between the world we came from and the world we’re trying to work in, never fully leaving one or entering the other.  Fabrice and Jules know that soon I’ll go back to the good life.  And trying to talk to them, or anyone, about it is difficult in ways that are impossible to explain.

It’s no secret that a lot of people question the goals of Peace Corps as it enters its 50th year.  If affecting change were really feasible like most of us naively believe when we arrive, then the Peace Corps probably would’ve packed up and gone home a long time ago.  I still do question my official job here—being able to teach English isn’t the elusive skill that it was when PC first arrived. And frankly we Americans lack the cultural familiarity or raw authoritative constitution to be effective teachers, at least according to the majority of anecdotes. But in my rantings I overlook the other, more meaningful work I do here.  I’ve made a few real friends.  Not just “village friends”, like someone I make casual small talk with every now and then (although there are plenty of those too), but real actual human friends.  They have changed my life and the way I’ll forever see the world, and I really hope that I’ve done the same for them.  Ok, this is getting a little Peace Corps sappy so I’m gonna stop.  If Cameroon were a person I’d now offer to buy it a beer and talk about football.

20 October 2012

–       My mom, dad, aunt, uncle and grandma came to visit me, as in here in Africa.  Seeing them deplane at Douala International Airport was a welcome sight for me and for hundreds of swarming porters and drivers.  As soon as hugs were out of the way I laid out the battle plan.  Pascal, the driver I’d already booked on a vouch from a Peace Corps friend, was waiting for us in the parking lot with his 15-passenger van to drive us to Limbé, a beach town 100km away.  All we had to do was get the bags, duck our heads and push.  I had told my family that it was crucial that everyone bring only one rolling bag, or else transportation in this country would be a nightmare.  Advice was not followed and our first challenge was to get to Pascal’s car with all our effects.  Luckily no one else in my family speaks any French so the blitz of requests to carry suitcases, exchange currency, rent a car, buy tissue packets, or simple charity were serendipitously ignored.  We made it to the outdoor parking lot, still surrounded by over 20 full-time unlicensed bellhops and porters.

“Over here!” Pascal had no trouble finding us, obviously.  He batted away several porters with one giant hand and picked up the heaviest of the suitcases with the other.  I looked around for his promised van and saw nothing on the scale.  Pascal turned to the nearest car—a violet four-door sedan—and popped the trunk.

“This is the car you brought?! Where is your van??”

“Hey, you said only your family was coming.  I didn’t know you needed the big van…”

“It was the very first thing I said when I called you! Besides, This IS my family! We are in Africa, Pascal, the word family to you should imply at least 50 people!”

Shouting was the wrong thing to do at this time.  My words must have wafted through the entire parking lot, because now even those who hadn’t originally latched on to our party smelled an opening.  People crowded to offer services, only some of them relevant.  At least five taxis, all no bigger than Pascal’s car, drove up and some more ambitious drivers actually tried to load bags into their own trunks without any cue.  A man in the middle of it all had set his hat on the ground and was strumming a 5-string guitar; I don’t even know where he came from.

I was getting stressed.  We had to get out of the Douala airport parking lot.  Cameroon isn’t the sort of place where you fear that someone will kidnap your grandma for a ransom; it’s more the sort of place where they will physically pick her up, put her in the backseat of a nearly wasted Corolla and drive her to the nearest hotel, insisting that she should stay here and demanding 5,000CFA for the trouble.

“Dad, you and Chris go with Pascal.  Put all the bags in the car and go to Carrefour Rondpoint.  You,” I said to the taxi driver across from the pointed end of my finger, “you can take the rest of us.  Please just follow Pascal.”

I explained the situation to those in my car while we crawled through Douala afternoon traffic. Rondpoint was a temporary stop to regroup and hopefully find better transport to Limbé, where we already had room reservations for the night. “What we really need is a big van…like that one.”  I pointed to a large pink van stuck in the next lane, definitely big enough to take us all.  “Hang on,” I said to everybody.  I jumped out of our car in the middle of the highway (traffic was really slow) and knocked on the window of the pink van. The van was empty except for the driver and his copilot up front.  They were likely headed to some agency to take normal customers to some other destination.  Fortunately, anything is negotiable in Cameroon, so we quickly agreed on a rate to Limbé while I paced along outside the driver’s door.  I ran back a few cars to Pascal, dad and my uncle.  “See that van?  He’s going to take us to Limbé.  Sorry, Pascal.”  They stepped out onto the highway and I ran back to my taxi.  “OK, everyone out.  We’re getting in that pink van.  Ready?”  The pink van driver hopped out (traffic was really slow) and helped me hoist bags out of the taxi into his van.  Then we ran back to Pascal’s car to do the same.  Finally, I ran back to my dad, grabbed a fistful of CFAs and paid the taxi man his fare, and gave Pascal a fraction of our original deal for putting us in this mess.  Pascal protested.  “But, you were going to pay me 100,000 to go to Limbé…!”

“Pascal, thanks you my family is standing on a highway right now.”

____________________________________________________________________________________

OK.  I’ve been keeping a loose journal of what’s been up the past few months. But I’m going to redact most of what has happened and fast forward to now, because:

  1. I went to Europe, and it was pretty awesome, but you probably don’t care about that.
  2. It’s been summer, so my workload was lower than normal.
  3. It wasn’t that exciting, so skipping over it and using the word “redacting” makes me sound more interesting.

I’ve been in Cameroon for over a year now, and I’m starting my second year of teaching.  I’ve learned a few things along the way.  Teaching English is no cakewalk, nor is it as fulfilling as cake.  A lot of us arrive here, proud and naïve, ready to tramp into our villages with an REI backpack and some bottles of Purell, expecting do something really important.  I had dreams where I imagined myself at some level of cool between Reading Rainbow guy and the kid from The Never-Ending Story, riding on the back of Atreyu and encouraging my eager students to explore the rich jungle of the English language, quaffing down its peculiarities and happily awaiting the benefits that their education would deliver unto them.  At the very least, they could watch Die Hard movies without subtitles.  So far they’ve done neither.

They're only looking at my computer

I started my second year by walking into my principal’s office and reciting a well-rehearsed proposal asking for fewer hours.  I explained that I am a volunteer, and my work extends beyond classroom hours.  I’m supposed to be plugged into the community, aware of their most urgent needs and prepared to offer a hand or an outsider’s solution to a particular problem or need.  Yeah, Cameroon needs English teachers, but there are times where I feel like I’m simply providing free labor for an economy that can’t afford to pay a perfectly capable native to do this job.  After all, a strong minority of Cameroonians are native English speakers, a vestige from back when England controlled the western side of the country.  Plugging this hole isn’t sustainable, and it occupies too much of my time in order to allow me to leave some tangible mark on the community (a selfish sentiment, perhaps). Over the summer I’d been coming up with ideas for projects I could do other than English teaching (which I will not go into right now, to guard my visions of grandeur).  I should reiterate also that even though my job title is “English Education Volunteer”, the Peace Corps by nature is very broad and volunteers are encouraged to pursue whatever works or projects they deem useful for their posts.

I spat out this long-winded spiel in my principal’s office the week before school began (these talks always go better in your head, don’t they?). As soon as I was finished, he told me that the otherEnglish teacher and my good friend, Mr. Eyene, had just quit.  He had apparently left the school to become a full-time pepper farmer.  If I didn’t assume Mr. Eyene’s classes, they simply would not have an English teacher this year.  What the hell do I say to that?

Again, Mr. Eyene (his name is Jules) is one of my great friends here.  He’s around my age, we watch football together and I’ve been teaching him to play guitar.  But the news that he’d quit to work on a pepper farm was pretty disappointing.  I called him later that day and he told me, as he had mentioned a few times before, that having a large pepper farm was his dream in life.  I didn’t have much to say except, well, ok, do what you want to do with your life.  If pepper farming is your calling, then go to it.  However, you don’t need a microeconomist to tell you that if there is ONE THING (emphasis necessary)that isn’t lacking in Lolodorf, it’s these peppers. Sometimes the vegetable market is out of literally everything except hot peppers and maybe a few rotten onions.  It was a bit painful to see my friend abandon an honorable and profitable profession to work in a market that is, to my outsider eye, already oversaturated.  It’s hard to exaggerate how commonplace these peppers are. They are to Cameroon as IHOP is to the American interstate system.

Now I had a really ugly choice to make.  I could take less hours at the high school and pursue these projects I’d been drawing up (I’d spoken with a women’s activist group about opening a cybercafé and computer education center, for example), but by doing so I would condemn several classes to vacated hours meant for English and virtually ensure that they fail their national exams in May.  The national exams are extremely important in this country, and if you fail—which happens all the time due to, among other factors, a lack of teachers—then you have to redo the grade level.

I settled for some sort of compromise.  One project I’d had in mind for the year was an environmental education tour.  Not just in Lolodorf, but all around Cameroon.

Backstory—when I was in 3rd grade, my grandparents were gracious enough to offer me a vacation anywhere in the US.  I chose the aquarium in Monterey Bay, California.  Now, I read books on evolution for fun.  Planet Earth is the only set of DVDs I’ve purchased since high school.  I’m not a tree hugger, but I have seen way too many dogs kicked in the face (or worse, chimpanzees cooked for dinner) around here. There’s really no soft way to say it: Cameroonians, in general, have little respect for or understanding of the environment, in a place where the environment is perhaps more crucial for survival than any other part of the world.  Plastic bags rain from the sky here—if I buy a single onion it’s immediately wrapped in plastic, and if I say I’m happy to simply carry it in my hand the market lady looks at me like I’m weird for turning down something free.  Once they’re home, most locals will toss that bag on the road outside their house without batting an eye.  Once, my eighteen-year-old neighbor told me that gorillas were evil creatures, and if he could push a button to kill every single one he wouldn’t hesitate to do so.  It’s hard to stress how little appreciation so many people here have for the beautiful forestry and animal diversity in their country.

One other thing pushed me towards this project—my cat Austin, whom I wrote about a while ago, is dead.  My ten-year old neighbor, Dodo (different from the neighbor mentioned above), whom I trusted with my cat and house key as caretaker while I was away, told me when I came back that Austin had “ran away to join a gang of cats one day while he let it outside to play.”  Later that day the really young kids in the neighborhood came over to ask if I’d seen Austin, because she had been “bleeding and her head was broken.”  Dodo had also recently acquired a new slingshot, and he liked to sit on his porch and shoot at lizards and chickens.

This kid knew how much I liked my cat.  He had helped me track it down as a kitten (I wrote about that sometime last year).  He knew that it was well trained, it never bit, and it would happily sleep on strangers’ laps.  He was even medicated for fleas and rabies.  Austin won the cat lottery in terms of comfort and ease of living, until Dodo killed it while I was gone for a weekend.

I was pretty furious about the whole thing—the kid I trusted the most in the neighborhood, an otherwise intelligent and pretty good child, had shot my cat, presumably for sport.  I went to his mother, who’s also generally been very supportive and friendly towards me—and instead of punishing Dodo, or even apologizing, she covered for him.  Either she believed his wacky alibi about a feral cat gang, or more likely put “family first” and backed up his lie (I could elaborate for hours on the psychology here.  In Africa, family is everything, and although it’s a peachy sentiment I’ve seen on more than one occasion the dark side of this cultural commandment manifest itself in nepotism and dependence.  But now is not the time.)

Here’s a few quick apropos statistics: Cameroon was one of the few African countries left whereit is possible to find all of the “big five” animals in the wild—until the western rhinoceros was declared extinct in 2011.  In Waza National Park, which is sort of like Cameroon’s Yellowstone, there were over 100 lions just 50 years ago.  Today there are between five to nine. The cheetah has already gone extinct in the wild.  Gorillas have only survived in two of Cameroon’s ten regions, my own South and the Southwest.  The Cross River Gorilla, which lives close to my town and could probably be tracked by an expert hunter in a single day or two, is the most endangered ape in the world. It is numbered at around 250, and yet it is still hunted for its meat. Things aren’t looking good either for the chimpanzee, the elephant, the mandrill…I could go on, but I don’t need to, because as Americans we are usually sensitized to these issues at an early age.  We understand the concepts of “endangered species” and “extinction”, which are terms that virtually none of my students understood, even when translated into French. In general, whether by having a pet, taking a field trip to the zoo, or watching a TV show with talking chipmunks or dinosaurs or crime fighting turtles, we like animals.  That meme simply does not exist here (OK, I know I’m speaking broadly, and I should never characterize an entire nation.  But after a year of living here, I can say this pretty confidently: most Cameroonians don’t really care about wildlife, or more specifically the well-being of the fauna that are crucial to the ecosystem which is in turn crucial to human existence.)

neighbors

So I decided that this year, coupled with English courses, I would incorporate lessons and sensitization towards the unique wildlife of the Congo Basin.  I kicked off the project by inviting my friend Sean, a science teacher and the Steve Irwin of Peace Corps Volunteers, to come spend a week with me at my high school to go from class to class giving two hour lectures on the importance of the forest to survival in Cameroon and for our entire planet, and on the imminent danger facing so many animals that make these forests special.

hippo hunt

Sean, the guy to call if you need a bird ID’ed

Things went pretty well, but the project’s not over yet.  After his week here I arranged with my boss to go up to the extreme northern part of the country (the brink of the savannah, as opposed to the jungles of the Congo down south) and give the same lectures, except slightly modified to talk about desertification instead of deforestation; lion endangerment instead of gorillas.  Results to follow…

09 May 2012

My alarm goes off at 6:30am.  Usually by this time I’ve already been woken up.  A neighbor outside my bedroom window likes to sing Catholic songs while she prepares breakfast for her family of nine.  Her voice is pretty chapped and she can’t hold a pitch, but she has courage to apply a lot of volume to such a talent.  There are some Saturdays where the kids are not getting ready for school, and so they sit outside and sing with her.  These are usually the mornings I want to sleep in the most.  Still lying in bed, I’ll crane my neck up to peek out the window and look down on their family and I’ll think, that’s good that they can share a nice moment like this, but they certainly aren’t the Von Trapps.  And maybe they could sing over lunch.

Today is Thursday.  Getting out of bed is easy when I remember that I only have two days left of the school year.  All of my lessons are finished, and now I get to test them and see how much they actually learned.  I brush my teeth and put on a clean button-up and pair of khakis.  I still have a minute before school starts, so I eat a banana and listen to the guy on the BBC recapping yesterday’s football.

I leave my house through the kitchen door because the lock on the front door has been jammed for days.  I’m wearing a backpack full of textbooks, and carrying a wide scroll of exams that I will unravel and tape to the chalkboard for each class.  That is how we test here, because without a photocopier my only other choice is to write the questions on the chalkboard when class starts, but I know that while my back is turned nearly everyone will cheat.  On the way to school, I realize that everyone is walking away from the school.  I pass some students from my classes.

“No school,” one of them says.  I keep walking towards the school.  I pass more students that I know, students who are supposed to be testing in about 10 minutes.  “No school,” they say together.

I get to the school, which isn’t far down the street from my house.  My proviseur is standing outside his office smoking a cigarette.  “What’s going on today?” I ask.

“No school,” he says.  “The older grades are going to take practice versions of the national exams and we need all the classrooms.”

“And tomorrow?”

“Yes, today and tomorrow and Monday.”

I remind my proviseur that I was needed in the capital for Peace Corps business (not a lie) and I would need to give my tests a week early.  I had explained all this earlier that week, and had gotten the OK from both him and my students.  Nobody had said anything about cancelling school.

I am frustrated, but I am used to frustration.  I walk home and call Ben, the other volunteer who lives 10 minutes from me.  I tell him school is cancelled today and ask if he’s busy.  Not till the afternoon, he says.  We decide to go into the town center and get a spaghetti omelet.

We meet up at the omelet shack near the river.  The place doesn’t have a name; it’s just an outdoor setup where you can buy an omelet sandwich.  Omelet stands are the McDonalds of Cameroon.  There’s at least one in every town, and they’re all prepared the exact same way everywhere you go.  The man who works at our shack is bald and skinny, with spidery fingers and dark eyes that hide under his forehead.  He doesn’t talk much.  I’m still not sure if it’s unfriendliness towards me or just his persona, but it doesn’t really matter.  He makes a pretty good sandwich.

Omelet man is whipping a cup of egg yolks with diced onion and tomato for another man sitting on the shack’s bench.  “Good morning,” I say. “We would like omelet sandwiches, but I only have a 10,000 bill.  Can you make change?”  Together our sandwiches will cost 1,000, but making change is always difficult in villages.  Sometimes the answer is no, and you go off in search of someone else who can break your bill.

Omelet man’s answer is silence.  He looked up from his egg cup when I greeted him and looked back down near the end of my question.  I look at Ben, and he shrugged.  The man on the bench laughs.  “Maybe he’s still thinking about it.”

After an uncomfortably long wait, omelet man pours the uncooked mixture into his frying pan.  The yolks float above the pan on a pool of palm oil.  For a few seconds, the oil pops like firecrackers.  “Ok,” omelet man says finally.  “What do you want?”

“Two eggs, with all the veggies and fifty francs of spaghetti.  Piment.  On half a baguette.”  Ben asks for the same.   When they are finished he hands us our sandwiches wrapped in thin black plastic bags.  I give him the 10,000 bill and he counts out the change carefully.

Ben suggests we go get a coke.  The problem is, it’s Thursday morning.  Normally by this time (9AM) all the bars are open and many of the regulars have taken up their places and the party is in full swing.  Years ago, however, some well-intentioned mayor of Lolodorf declared Thursday “clean up the town day.”  Businesses (which here consist solely of bars that all sell the same drinks and boutiques that all sell the same wares) were required to stay closed until midday, and everyone would pitch in to help pick up trash and gentrify the town center.  Anyone who violated the law and opened his or her store in the AM had to pay a fine.  No one seems to remember when exactly this all started, but I’ve been told an old Peace Corps volunteer played a part in its creation.  Nowadays, only the shell of the idea remains.  No one picks up trash on Thursday mornings anymore.  Businesses still delay their openings, lest they be forced to pay (off) the police, but the spirit of the law has faded away.  Instead, you have a bunch of people sitting around the center of town, drinking beers or just chatting or doing nothing, waiting until they can open their doors at noon.

For some reason, the Total gas station in town has always been exempt from the rule, probably because it’s the only multinational company for hundreds of miles.  Ben and I cross the bridge to the other side of the river and go inside the Total.  The power is out, and Total’s generator doesn’t seem to be working right now.  The cokes in the freezer are all room temperature.  Currently the temperature inside the Total is very warm.  They’re still out of Sprite so I take a Fanta.

Outside, we sit on a wooden plank under the shade of the gas station awning, eating spaghetti-omelet sandwiches and watching the station attendants hand crank the gas pumps to fill up the motos that pass through.  Some of the moto drivers are friendly, and wave as they have their tanks filled.  Others yell the “the whites!” in French, English, or Ewondo, as though this is the first time they’ve noticed that there are two white guys living in their village of 4,000 people.

Back over on the bridge, Lolo’s resident schizophrenic lady has taken up post as the bridge troll.  She likes to follow Ben or me around town whenever she spots us.  She usually hangs back a bit in an attempt to be stealthy, I guess.  A group of primary students is dancing around her, and she is waving a stick at them and speaking some sort of rapid, high-pitched French that is difficult to understand, especially from far away.  A few weeks ago I had witnessed a similar incident with the same lady.  I had shooed the kids away and scolded them for mocking someone with mental instability.  The lady thanked me by telling everyone in earshot that I was actually her husband, and that I always protected her.  Then she followed me back to my house and sat on a fallen tree across my yard for several hours while talking to herself, or maybe to me.  After I was advised by everyone in town never to directly interact with her.

“She’s kind of like us,” Ben says after watching her for a while.

“How do you mean?”

“Well, she can’t win.  No matter what she says, she’s still the crazy lady, and everybody’ll just keep calling her the crazy lady.  If she gets angry, like now, and tries to defy her role as the crazy lady, everyone just laughs at the absurdity of her trying to break out of her casting.”

I swallow some Fanta and nod.

“Ooohhhhh! Les blancs les blancs! Buy me an omelet!”  a moto man interrupts.  All we can do is give one of those dismissive laughs and look down at our shoes.

The bus trips around country are more enjoyable during the dry season because there’s no risk of a rain burst that will force everyone to shut their windows and ride out the remainder of the journey in a cramped sweaty pillbox.  I always try to stake out a window spot so that I can catch the virgin breeze as it whips though the bus and rattles the well coiffed wigs of the women in the back.  Often times, there will be a lady behind me with a small child, and she will lean forward and ask me to close my window so that her baby does not catch a cold.  It is a medical factoid here that a gusty wind will chill your body and can cause you to fall sick (It is for this reason that moto drivers roll around town under the basking equatorial sun wearing puffy jackets or zipped up hooded sweatshirts).  Sometimes I try to reason, saying that to the best of my knowledge the cold virus doesn’t float across long distances like dandelions in the wind, but rather from your baby’s runny nose that you are failing to wipe.  But since I am no doctor, and since this mother’s mother probably warned her against leaving  windows open in moving vehicles and trusting strange white men who read books on buses, she will usually go with her gut and think I have it out for her child.  One mother even wrapped her baby in multiple blankets like a sausage roll and hid him under her seat to shield him from his certain death.  At that point I genuinely felt bad, not only because this lady now feared for her child’s life and thought I was evil, but also because if the baby stayed wrapped up like that for very long he would risk asphyxiating or overheating, which would be an ironic tragedy.  Defeated, I slid my window shut, but I was too proud to give up the logical high ground without a fight.  For several minutes I tried to explain to the mother (and by now, many other listeners) what causes illness and why a little breeze never hurt anybody.

During this most recent trip, I was feeling fortunate that there was no mother behind me.  I had my window opened to its full glory, and I was even leaning my head and my right arm partway out, as I often do in demonstration of my faith in science.  This time, though, if there had been a mother behind me, she might have had the good fortune to ask me to close my window before the screaming pig rolled off the top of the bus, falling in front of my face and meeting the paved highway with a mighty oink.  I wasn’t sure what I had just seen, and for a moment I thought we had hit a child.  Other passengers around me had seen something fall past my window as well, and two young girls next to me were screaming louder than the pig had been.  “Chauffeur! Arretez! Mon porc est tombé!”  a woman yelled at the driver.  That phrase translates pretty much as you’d expect: Hey driver, stop, my pig fell off.

When we pulled over to the shoulder I leaned my head out further and twisted around for a look.  Fifty yards back, the fully grown hog was trying to hobble to its feet.  The problem was, its back legs were still tied together.  Remarkably, the hog acted unhurt.  It appeared to be merely inconvenienced by the rope around its legs, and took off hopping away from the bus at its maximum speed.  As the bus was easing to a stop, the pig’s owner was making her disapproval known.  She let off a string of curses, belittling the driver’s knotting ability and expanding my repertoire of foreign insults.  The driver kept his head high while shifting into his parking gear, then opening both the driver and passenger doors.  All filed out, either to assuage the situation or to watch the spectacle unfold (I count myself in the latter).

The pig hadn’t made it very far—the poor thing seemed to have tired out and was now zigzagging across the highway.  The driver, dutifully bearing his responsibility, grabbed the pig by its tied hind legs and dragged it to the side of the road.  No one seemed to be enjoying this more than a drunk man who was hollering encouragement to the driver and slapping the backs of fellow passengers. “Where’s your camera, white man?” he asked me with a wide smile.  “Shut up and help me.  This pig is heavy,” the driver barked at the jovial drunk.  “Fine,” he said. “I’ll get his front legs.  Like that, he’ll kick you and not me.”  An army officer who had been silently watching stepped forward to grab the other front leg.

And so it was that a soldier, a driver, and a drunk shuffled a panicked hog back to our bus and up the rear ladder onto the roof.  Apparently when we had left Yaoundé, the driver (in a rare display of haste [or more likely, negligence]) had only fastened the back legs to the roof rack, and he hadn’t even done a decent job of that.  I watched as he tied the hog a second time, now with the help of the soldier.  The pig had given up screaming and now just appeared to be scanning the group of forty-odd onlookers in search of someone who would take pity and help him escape.  I couldn’t help but feel his eyes were particularly locked on me.

When I got to my house in Lolodorf that evening, two things were immediately apparent.  The first was that I still had no power.  More than two weeks ago a man in our neighborhood decided to set fire to the trees and bushes in his yard in order to clear space for some crops he planned to grow during the upcoming rainy season.  Never mind that burning all your existing flora is a pretty bad idea, ecologically speaking, if your goal is to replace it with other plants.  Worse in this case was that the primary power line which covers our entire neighborhood runs directly over his lawn, and his “controlled fire” rose so high that it melted the wire in two.  After the damage was done, fifty meters of copper wiring would need to be replaced, sold at 1,000 CFA (≈$2) per meter.  $100 is a pretty big sum around here, and definitely not something a sustenance farmer would budget for on a normal Sunday.  As such, the rest of us can only wait at his mercy until he finds the money.  The real jewel to this story is the fact that the wire was roasted just after it connects to his house, so while the rest of us wait in the dark every night, we can look up the hill to see the single house with a porch light on, casting a glow over a downed power line snaking through a charred field of soon-to-be pineapples.

The second thing I noticed upon coming home, happily, was that my cat was still alive.  She’s still only a few months old, and this was the first time I’d left her alone at the house for several days.  I had given the neighbor kids a key to the back door, as well as stockpiles of powdered milk and dried fish.  I have a pretty high confidence in these kids, but you just never know for sure what will happen with a stash of food during a three-day absence.  Thankfully they seem to like my cat almost as much as I do, so most of her food likely made it to her plate.  They also know that when I return I’ll buy them some smoked beef or candy to thank them, but that’s me putting a lot of faith in delayed gratification.

I decided to get a cat several weeks ago in part to show neighbors (kids and adults alike) that animals can be friends.  Generally speaking, I’ve found that Cameroonians have a disdain, even a fear, of animals that we normally want to touch and invite onto our laps.  “They’re mean.  They’re dirty.  They bite you,” I often hear.  Dogs are kept as pets for different reasons here.  Their purpose is more utilitarian, mainly for protection.  And most cats are feral, scrounging whatever food they can from trash heaps and tall grasses.  In fact, there isn’t even a word around here for pet as we would mean it.  They’re just animaux domestiques. 

If I get a cat, I decided, I can show them that if you’re nice to it, then it won’t grow up to resent you and scratch your face when you come near it.  For some reason, kids love being cruel to animals (my politically incorrect theory is that since children are often beat here, they in turn need to pass the rage along so that they are not the bottom rung in the chain of aggression, and thus acrimoniously chunk stones at dogs, cats, and goats).  What’s worse, I’ve not once seen a parent scold a child for harming an animal, which is perhaps indicative of a deeper indifference towards animal welfare.  In Bafia, I scolded my host family’s kids a number of times for kicking their own dog.  This wasn’t some feral brute that would come around peeing on the deck chairs and tearing up flower beds; this was the bona-fide family mutt that ate their table scraps and followed their father into the fields every morning.

“Dodo,” I said to my ten-year old neighbor one Sunday after Christmas, “I think I’m going to get a cat.”

“Today?”

“OK, today.  Let’s go find one.”

And so we set off, Dodo and I, with no real direction or plan other than to find a suitable kitten.

We wandered through neighborhoods, asking people we knew if they might know where to find cats.  We asked the priest, the tailor, and a couple of boutique clerks, all of whom weren’t able to help.  We followed random cats on the street, hoping they would lead us to babies, but with no luck. “Barrett, let’s go to Quartier Hauossa, there are a lot of cats over there.”

“Sure,” I said.  He knows Lolodorf much better than I do.

Quatier Hauossa is the predominately Muslim neighborhood across town from me.  It is further away from the sole paved road that runs through Lolodorf, so the houses are spaced by narrower dirt paths, impassable by car, and are thus more cramped than my side of town.  If you walk through the neighborhood at the right time of day, you’ll hear the siren calling Muslims to prayer.

We stopped by Madame Bobo’s, a motivated woman who’s worked with Volunteers in the past to build toilets and plant soybeans.  “I don’t have any cats here.  But try Albin at the orphanage, there’s always some cats living around there.”

As we left her house, I heard someone call behind me.  “Hoo, le blanc, come here!”  Dodo and I turned.

“You’re looking for animals, yeah?  I can get you animals.  Dogs, cats, snakes…do you want a chimpanzee?  I can get you a chimpanzee, if you want one for your house.”  He was talking quietly, his face too close to mine, and I could smell the alcohol through his missing teeth.  “I…only want a cat. Only a cat.” was all I could think to say.

“Cats.  I have cats.  Give me 200 CFA for a moto and I will bring you back a cat.”

I chose not to give him any money, but he insisted that I at least come by some time to see what he has to offer.  Whether or not the man actually sells chimpanzees is doubtful, although possible, as there are still apes in the hills just a couple miles outside of Lolodorf.  Still, I took the man’s number and listed him as “chimp seller” in my phone.  One never knows when he might have need of a chimpanzee.

At the orphanage, Albin took us to the house of an old woman who normally feeds the nearby cats.  She was over sixty, with a disorderly house that smelt like, well, cats.  I gathered that she was inviting us in, so I followed her to the living room and took at seat between her and Albin.  Apparently she only spoke Ewondo, which is fairly rare these days in this part of the country.  I know other volunteers who struggle at post with learning the local tongue, where French is only spoken in business or formal situations.  However, French is the certainly the default language in the bigger cities, among most people under 40, and in the South of Cameroon where the traditional culture hasn’t seemed to hold as strongly as elsewhere (I know I just made a bunch of broad generalizations, and maybe later I can try to explain what I mean.  But since I’ve already veered off topic, I’ll just have to drop it in for now).

Albin translated back and forth for us as we discussed kittens.  “She says that this cat had kittens a couple of months ago, and they should be ready to separate with their mother by now.”  She indicated towards a scrawny Calico, one of several I’d noticed walking around the house.  Her fur was nappy and one of her ears was chewed down, but that’s all pretty normal wear and tear for an African cat.  Her babies were climbing in and out of an empty potato sack and seemed healthy enough.  Not knowing what other criteria to go by, I decided to take one.

“Ok, but how much should I pay her? What’s a normal price for a kitten here?” I asked Albin.  He relayed my question, and the cat-lady responded with something that sounded a little vexed.

“She says that she cannot sell the kittens.  It is not customary here to sell kittens.  Instead, you normally trade them for another animal, like a chicken perhaps.”

I did not have any chickens, and I did not know where to find chickens without going on another hunt much like the one that had finally led me here.  For a desperate moment I thought about calling the chimp-seller to see if he had the hook-up.  “What if I pay her for a baby chicken?”  I asked hopefully.  “Say, two thousand CFA?”

I smiled politely while Albin translated into Ewondo and listened to her response.  “She says that is ok.  Come pick up the kitten tomorrow at 6am.”

And so I got the cat–although I’m not sure why I had to wait another night, because I don’t think she was filing any pedigrees or running background checks on me.  When I first brought the cat home, the neighborhood kids were terrified of her, but over time they have transitioned from complete eschewal to a nervous run-around.  Now the braver children will even sneak up behind her and touch her thigh.  It’s not exactly “petting”, but it beats a kick in the ribs.

12-9-11

The semester is over and my teaching career is one-quarter complete. Today (as of writing…) is the last Friday before I get on a bus with my Proviseur and head to Limbé, the volcanic black-sand beach town that Peace Corps chose for our in-service retreat, which happens to fall just before Christmas. The idea of umbrella drinks was making it difficult to focus on my last day at work. On Fridays I have consecutive blocks of class from 7:30am until 12:45pm, and today the kids had stacked their usual Friday anxiety on top of their anticipation of Christmas break. It was a wonder they didn’t all give themselves ulcers. After spending the first ten minutes of my cinqieme class getting them to shut up and sit down, we read a short story called “Christmas in America”. The story was conceived the night before on a recycled sheet of butcher paper, and drew liberally from current vocabulary words such as trees, lights, and to wait.

We spent an hour dissecting the 200-word tome. For the second hour we dived into the accompanying reader’s guide. “True or False: December is a very hot month in America.” The answer was buried deep in the second sentence: “December is a very cold month in America, and it often snows.” Half got it wrong, or just didn’t answer. The pattern of confusion carried steadily until we got to question 5, “Why do you think Americans drink hot chocolate on Christmas?”

“False!”

“No, read the question again, carefully.”

Oh, oui, oui monseuir, je voisc’est true.”

True and false questions are one thing, but whenever I give a question where the answer isn’t explicitly spelled out in the text, it always confuses them, even my better readers. In this case, a reminder was in order. “Remember, what does why mean in French?” I asked in their language.

Pourquoi!” a couple students yelled.

“OK, good. And think?”

Penser!” said the same group.

I was able to call and repeat with the group of four or five kids for the words drink, hot,and Christmas. The problem is that even though many of them can recognize English words, they see it all as no more than that: words. Like the detective who has all the clues laid out on the table in front of him yet cannot connect the dots and identify the murderer, stringing these words into comprehensible sentences is difficult even for my smartest students. I almost literally have to spell it out for them every time. One question in English that they know quite well now, out of fear for how I will respond, is, “Sir, is the answer in the text?” If I say yes, they know they can just scan the story for words that match the question and copy several lines above and below to ensure they’ve got the answer in there, somewhere. If I say no, like with the question about hot chocolate, most of them start complaining that my story is too hard. Some of them just pack it in and start flicking paper balls and hair pens.

There is, I’ve come to see, a lack of critical thinking in schools here that really shines in moments like this. Much of the problem is institutional. Being effective in the French school system requires swallowing all the facts that your teacher forces into you, sometimes violently, and then vomiting them back up on the test day for evaluation. It’s educational waterboarding. Your opinion is inconsequential, and there’s very little emphasis on creativity or self-discovery. All that matters is that you’ve saddled yourself with enough information to satisfy the teacher as he reads back cut-and-pasted facts and bullet points that he himself spent the last month copying to a chalkboard. Think of the students as tiny drug mules who traffic in dates, definitions, and axioms which will probably be of no use to them after they complete their courses, in order to please a system that most of them will never be a part of. Perhaps the most enduring lesson that students will take with them after graduation, as they deal regularly with the harassment, corruption, and immovability of a stable 30-plus year regime and its far-reaching tentacles, is “listen, because we are in charge, not you.” End of rant.

I left the cinqieme class two hours later with my waded-up story and a Christmas tune stuck in my head, which was quickly sweated out by the dry season’s mid-morning blaze. My next stop was seconde, my oldest and usually favorite lot to teach…usually. When I got there, there were only about 25 students. I say only, as in half had already split for the holidays. This being the last day of the semester and me not wanting to waste a well planned out lesson on the passive voice with only 25 students, I made a game time decision to nix the lesson entirely.

“Today is our last day before Christmas. And today we are going to speak English. No books.” I said, pulling up a desk to sit and face them. “Bisso, what are you going to do for Christmas?”

Bisso, a stalky, popular kid with a decent grade point average rose from his two-seater desk, as is customary when a teacher calls on you to answer a question.

“Sir, Aye am going for Yaoundé.”

“You are going to Yaoundé? That is good. Do you have family there?”

“Yeeeees. Dere I have uhhhh, de grand parents, and de uncle, and de ant.”

“Great. Thank you. Julien, are you going to visit your family, too?”

“Nooo sir. I am stay in Lolodorf. I will make de food wif my muddah.”

“That’s nice, you will help make food with your mother. What will you eat for Christmas?”

We carried on like this down each row, and just as I was nearing exhaustion of the ten or so level-appropriate Christmas questions I could ask, a taller, round faced-girl with pretty features threw a curveball.

“I am getting married during the break.” The class snickered.

“You’re getting married? Congratulations.” She’s sixteen.

“Well, no sir. I look for a husband.” More snickering.

The girl sitting next to her interrupted, “Sir, do you have a telephone?” I knew where she was going with this and we’d been told during training this situation arises frequently with American teachers in older classes.

“Yes, but I do not give my number to students,” I said, recalling the most diplomatic advice I had been given in Bafia.

“Whhyyyyyy? Sir, I want to call you to say Merry Christmas.” Awkward.

The conversation quickly turned to me. They asked if I was married, or if I had kids, or if I wanted to get married in Cameroon, in that order. Then the questions started flying from all directions, and some of them were just strange.

“Sir, do you eat de dogs in your country?”

“Sir, does your mother know make the couscous?”

“Are you the racist like the white people?”

To that I responded, “if I was racist, would I leave the USA to come to Cameroon?”

One kid in the back, who’s normally very quiet, kept tossing out fringe political queries: “Sir, do you believe that Osama bin Laden is died? Sir, is Barack Obama truly going to finish the world in 2012? Is Jack Bauer like a real person?” I’m not making these up.

As long as they continued to ask in English, I couldn’t complain. By the time class was over, I had explained the difference between a girlfriend and a girl-space-friend and been invited to two Christmas dinners. I figured the day’s excitement had peaked, and the rest of my Friday classes dragged on as slow as ever (I’ve noticed that that feeling finds you on either side of the textbook.)

When the bell signaling the end of my workweek had rung, I decided to celebrate the usual way—going to the big outdoor bar in the center of town and reading my book. Whenever I read in public, I usually don’t make it more than two pages before someone sees me and comes to sit with me, whether I know them or not. This happens for two reasons.

The first is because Cameroonian society, which leans heavily towards collectivism, does not value or even understand “alone time.” While I would argue that we Americans pride ourselves as individualists and self-made wo/men, the mentality here is quite different. Being alone means unhappiness; it implies you are unaccepted or that you do not accept others. Instead, your pain is my pain, and your happiness and successes are to be shared as well. Frankly, I’m still grappling to get my arms around this mindset, but I know it attributes to a lot of behavior I’d normally find weird. It is summarized in Africa’s omnipresent motto, “We are together.” It’s why kids open my door without knocking and sit on my couch to watch me type these words in English, sometimes for hours. It’s why my neighbors don’t really understand that after a full day of class and foreign language friendships, I often prefer to make my own dinner and eat while watching a movie or reading my book It’s also why men lock hands walking down the street.

The second reason is because I am, due to no circumstances other than my skin color and country of origin, one of Lolodorf’s most famous residents. It’s not a stretch to say I live a celebrity life here:

  1. Everyone knows my name, and they often approach me on the street or at a bar as though we go way back.

  2. Sometimes they’ll quote some catchphrase they associate with me (“You are from Dallas? Who shot J.R.?? Heh? Heh!”) in an sincere but ineffective effort to relate. I’ve learned that some of them do this so they can go back to their neighborhoods and casually mention how they were chatting to their friend, le blanc, today about the arid weather as of late.

  3. Children sometimes touch me just so they can say they touched me, and I get asked to be in a lot of photos I have no business being in.

  4. I am given priority seating at any non-professional sporting event, and priority service at any large party with food; trying to insist otherwise is futile.

  5. I often look out my window to find people going through my garbage.

  6. I also have to confront the uncomfortable truth that I am undoubtedly one of the richest people in town, and I’ve probably never worked as hard as anyone here over the age of 12.

 

Anyway, I sat down at my preferred outdoor bar, by the Loukundje river, and started to speed read in hopes of getting in a few pages before my first inevitable interruption. I hadn’t even gotten my Fanta when it happened. Escalating voices spilled out from the two-top table in front of me. Six grown, drunken men that I hadn’t previously paid any heed were suddenly shouting and jumping out of their chairs, and I did not know why. I looked up to see the man at the end of the table bring his face inches from his neighbor, and unmistakably yell “chien!” Dog, which suggests that you are on a level of civilization below human, is one of the cruelest and most serious insults in French Africa. The man who had been insulted didn’t take long to find a response. He landed a one solid haymaker on the man at the end of the table, and the guy dropped like a curtain.

Until that point, I’d seen many arguments in this country. Cameroonians love to argue: at the market, on the bus, in class, during meals; no matter how trivial the matter, it seems people here love to argue for the sport of it. But every argument I’ve seen has been a shouting match that fizzles pretty quickly and is forgotten about just minutes later. This was the first violence I’d seen since arriving in country (not counting the nearby kids who like to throw rocks at each other, until their parents beat them, and they instead throw rocks at my neighbor’s goat).

The man was lying in an unconscious curl, and blood was trickling out of his mouth and seeping into the dusty ground. Naturally, people came running from inside, across the street, even across the river bridge to see what was happening. The other men at the table restrained the fighter, who was now shouting angrily at the bloody unconscious guy. Two gendarmes showed up quickly and added their shouts to the casserole of voices. As all of this was happening less than ten feet in front of me, I remained seated with my book open to my current page while at least a hundred people gathered around to watch the spectacle. Eventually the gendarmes put the angry guy on a moto to go to the local station for booking, and the still unconscious guy on another moto to go to the hospital. Everything was taken care of, save the puddle of blood running closer to my leg, and I put my head back down to continue reading.

However, the crowd did not disperse like I’d expected they would. They just seemed to move towards the river. I noticed many of them were staring into the water, looking for something. Then I saw a young woman crying on at the foot of the bridge. I put my book down and wandered over to the edge of the bank. An decayed wooden fence separated me and the onlookers from a thirty foot sharp drop into the Loukundje. Just below us, the current on the normally calm river picks up in anticipation of the rocky waterfalls fifty yards downstream. I saw my quatrieme student, Bikoué, a bit further down the fence, and waved him over to me. “Bikoué, what’s going on? Why is everybody crowded around the river after that fight?”

Monsieur, it is terrible.” Bikoué explained that during the fight, a girl had somehow fallen through the fence and into the quickening river below. Not many people had noticed because of the commotion in the bar, and now nobody could spot the girl.

Unfortunately, very few people in Lolodorf know how to swim. They haven’t grown up with the luxuries of YMCA’s and neighborhood pools, and the ability to swim is seen more as a skill than a social requisite. The hope that a preteen girl would be able to keep her head above water at this spot in the Loukundje was dim. I asked if anybody had jumped in to look, and he said no. For a moment I seriously weighed climbing down the rocks and jumping in myself, at least to make an effort, but I decided that it probably wasn’t the best idea. Although the waterfalls were more than half a football field downstream and the water looked swimmable, it was impossible to tell how strong the current really was, and I had no idea if the girl was still even on this side of the falls. She hadn’t been seen in over five minutes.

Shaken, I stood with the crowd of locals and looked, at first for movement, and then out of respect, into the river below. Sadly, deaths like this one are all too common here. What we would consider extreme accidents or negligence in the States is just part of the perils of life in Africa. You hear of tragedies from your neighbors, from the taxi drivers, on the radio: river banks become too slick, a power line falls unseen in the night, cars lack proper seatbelts, children succumb to mystery illnesses (“sorcery”). Perhaps that’s why the mood was strangely calm around the Loukundje. A similar scene in Texas would play out so differently that I hadn’t even recognized what was happening here until my student told me. A mother cried, while the rest just looked down in solemnity. The river had claimed another.

A tap on my shoulder broke me from the trance. It was the waitress. “Sir, your Fanta?” she said. She was expressionless, hand outstretched with a cold uncapped drink, as though to say life goes on.

 

11 November 2011

The other day, a student raised his hand in my 6th level (≈11 years old) to ask a question during class. The fact that someone offered a question without my usual chiding insistence is pretty remarkable, since my students generally avoid questions like rich white guys avoid taxes. This kid raised his hand during a rather dull in my computer class where I had just finished explaining the difference between an operating system and a regular piece of software such as Microsoft Word. “Yes, you have a question?” I said as encouragingly as I could in a foreign language, unsurprised that someone in the audience would desire more clarification, but surprised that that someone would actually break with tradition and ask for it. Instead, the kid hit me with this curveball:

“Why do Americans have such nice backpacks?” The equal and opposite reaction to my daily, possibly overbearing, reminder that all questions are welcomed and encouraged in my class had just swung back and knocked the words out of my mouth, like one of those Newtonian marble models.

“You, Amanda, and my sister, I mean,” the student specified. Ok, my backpack isn’t too bad, and Amanda had a pretty sturdy REI hiking pack, but…

“You have an American sister?”

“The girl who just moved in with us. Her backpack looks like yours.”

Ah, the Fulbright. I haven’t met her yet, but the word around the water cooler (Lolodorf is populated by humans, after all) is that a new white girl has just arrived in town. I know that she’s moving in with a local family for several months, and I hear she’s here on a Fulbright scholarship to do research on some nearby Pygmy tribes. Beyond that all I know is she brought a good backpack.

Even though this question was completely off topic, I was actually grateful that it was benign and mostly non disruptive. Usually when a student opens his mouth this is not the case. Being a teacher in Cameroon is causing me to change the very fundamentals of who I am. That sounds drastic, but I’m pretty serious. I’ve given it a lot of thought (especially when the power is out; it’s between that and reading books) and the tough reality is that I was just not born with the constitution of a person who successfully teaches at a high school in Cameroon. The archetypal teacher persona here is authoritarian, quick tempered, and fluent in French. None of these are qualities that I brought with me, and try as I might to fake my ability to be rough and intimidating, usually the kids see it as a permeable act. Still, If you don’t make a constant effort to corral your class, the students will simply eat you alive.

To clarify, the teachers are not mean people. I’ve gotten to know most of the staff at the school and they’re all very welcoming towards me. We have “amicals” —teacher meetings—every month, where we eat, drink, mingle, and even have an opt-in raffle for a robust pot of money. They’re all intelligent, hard working, and believe in the value of education, or else they wouldn’t be there. But in class, my colleagues know how to turn it on. I’m learning a lot from them, and on this continent, it’s adapt or die, so my newly stocked French lexicon comes with a disproportionate amount of angry words.

The Cameroonian school system (which, if you’re looking to place blame, is really a direct import of the French education system) consists of a daily shredding of students, and constant attacks on their mental and physical faculties. In the English speaking chapters of my life, I strive to be likable enough, not to make any enemies; basically never to be the guy who begets hushed moans from some corner of the room when I come into a party. I don’t really try to be the focal point of any gathering, because this is usually a polarizing position; I just don’t want anyone to hate me.

This philosophy may work well for landing a job in a cubicle or getting invited to weddings, but it has not worked well for classroom management here. Almost all of the standard practices for shutting students up are either morally or legally prohibited in the US. These include, but are not limited to: having them stand in the corner with their noses touching the wall, having them kneel in front of the chalkboard on their knees for a very long time, brandishing a rubber tube and barking threats inches from their faces (slugging percentages vary), or my seasonal favorite, making troublemakers run a lap around a distant tree during a heavy rain. I’m reticent to use any of these tactics—except the tree one, I really like that one—but by now the students are privy to my reputation as a peacenik, and some see it as their ticket to act like jackasses without fear of serious retribution (after so many laps in the rain, you can’t get much more wet).

Not all the students are bad, it’s just that the plurality wear very well that universal teenage mantra of not-giving-a-fuck. It doesn’t help that most of the classes I teach are junior high-aged. They drag on the progress of those who do want to learn, and they give a bad name to those in the third, most elusive camp; that is those who don’t actively disrupt but don’t really pay any attention either, instead preferring to stare rather lifelessly at the photos of Beyoncé and Lamborghinis which cover their notebooks. By this point I’ve pretty well mentally sorted my students into their respective camps, and my time is divided between policing the first group, teaching the second, and shepherding the third.

It also doesn’t help that I’m terrible at remembering their names. Almost everyone here has a French-Christian first name—lots of Oliviers, Jeans, and Kevins—which they often don’t go by. When doing grades and school stuff, students go by their family names—Ntsama, Ndtoungou, Ngouong, Ngongo, Nguiamba, Monobo, and so on, which are embarrassingly difficult to read off a hand-written roll sheet. I usually delegate this task to the class president, whose name also escapes me, because he never calls on himself. Since my classes are essentially lectures to a large audience, I figured I’d just take the college professor route, who may recognize faces but has little idea which student matches with which name. Now it seems that not knowing very many names has made classroom management harder for me, so I’ve been making a belated effort to call students by their names and commit more of them to memory. Fortunately, not all the names are hard to remember- I have Elvis and Robert Dylan in the same class, as well as Bangbang, who does not pronounce his name the way I wish he did. There’s also Paul Biya, the 13-year old named lovingly named after the 30-year incumbent president.

My favorite class to teach right now is probably my computer class. I was a little worried about looking like a fraud after seeing the syllabus for the higher level computer courses—binary theory, the advantages of different information networks such as WAN vs. MAN, and setting proper margins on Microsoft Word, something I imagine Bill Gates still fusses with. Thankfully, I deal with the youngest kids, and our work with Microsoft Word is limited to typing one’s name and, optionally, what they ate for dinner. Lolodorf High has a great computer lab, which has twelve functional computers as long as there is power in town (still no generator, but I’m working on it). Unfortunately, there are 68 students in my computer class, most of whom do not have computers at home; several have never used a mouse. As with English, the subtle oddities of using a PC surface when teaching to others who have no existing mental framework of the subject. I can’t explain why you click one time to open the Start Menu, hover your mouse without clicking to navigate the stacked layers in the drop down menus, and finally double click to open a saved file or program; you just do. Thus the first fifteen minutes of every class is spent spelunking through the Start Menu to find and open Microsoft Word, a process we’ve done weekly since I started teaching the class but still troubles all but the brightest. Once it’s open, the real magic begins. And I mean that kind of seriously—you know the scenes in the early Harry Potter movies where the kids are in class, experimenting with some new spell but creating mostly mayhem? The teacher, being the only one with any degree of mastery over the process, walks around briskly; correcting, uprighting, thawing, or extinguishing all imaginable errors. Well, sorry for the lame analogy, but that’s how it goes in there. Sixty-eight eager but mostly clueless first year kids, me, and several gigs of mayhem. At one computer, six students have managed to turn the text purple in size 6 wingdings; at the next station, someone will have unintentionally inserted a hyperlink to Jiffy Lube. One thing they all do well is type in ALL CAPS. I HAVE TOLD THEM THAT WHEN YOU TYPE IN ALL CAPS, IT IS VERY ANNOYING TO THE READER. IT IS LIKE YOU ARE SHOUTING AT THEM. WORSE, THEY     PUT    ABOUT    SEVEN     OR    EIGHT     SPACES      BETWEEN        EACH    WORD,   SO       EACH      SENTENCE    ENDS     UP       LIKE       THIS. I don’t know why they think this is a good idea, but they must’ve picked it up somewhere, because literally every one of them prefers to write this way. It’s not even consistent number of spaces, its just after each WORD they jam the space bar an indiscreet number of times until they’re content. At this point, they know what I’m going to tell them—

“Stop that. How many spaces between each word?”

“One, Sir”

“Yes. And how many capital letters in each sentence?”

“Only one….Sir”

— but they still try and SLIP IT PAST ME AS IF I WON’T NOTICE. A couple of the savvier students even shrink the font size AND KEEP THE CAPS LOCK INTACT, AS THOUGH THIS WERE A REASONABLE SUBSTITUTE. I don’t know why they detest the lower case, but I think it has something to do with the way my neighbors yell for each other outside every morning at 5:30, and the volume at which they leave their TVs during dinner. Noise is power.

We’re reaching the end of the 6 weeks period, and I have to test them on something. I’m thinking I’ll let them work in groups of twos and have them turn on the computer, open a Word document, type one sentence (with appropriate spacing), and save it to the desktop. Hopes are high, but realistic. As long as I don’t get too many breathy shouts, I’ll be pleased.   

Party Pygmies, Part II

We all finished dinner around 6:30, and the pygmies had told Florence that they don’t generally start their rituals until around eleven or midnight. I’m not sure why it was necessary to wait that long, but who am I to meddle with sacred tradition? I had about 5 hours to kill, and the reticent pygmies all seemed pretty occupied with their new cigarettes and watching their children fight over who could suck the remaining drops out of the discarded whiskey sachets. After two hours of whittling bamboo sticks and talking idly with our small gang, I decided to lay down for a bit on the bench. Luckily, it hadn’t rained that day and the sky wasn’t obscured by clouds.

Nights like that are rare, but the cloudless, lightless, plane-less sky is definitely one of the most beautiful things you can see here.

At some point I dozed off, awoken several hours later by sizable, more loquacious crowd sitting on the recently constructed benches around a campfire. Things seemed to be gearing up and whiskey sachets were distributed. I’m not a fan of the sachets, as they’re really just bags of flavored ethanol most likely stewed in some rusty backyard oil drum under the regulation of a brewmaster who probably never received his degree on the subject, much less considered a food safety course. The Pygmies, however, can put down the artificial whiskey as though the rat they ate for dinner had come back to life inside their stomachs and they were subsequently trying to drown it.

The show went like this: twelve or so young women, all between the ages of 12 and 18, were sitting on the ground in front of a long wooden plank. One of them would start to sing an uptempo folk song, and after a few lines the others would slowly join in, and then eventually the entire clan, including the men, would be singing. Each girl held a heavy wooden drumstick-thing in each hand, and after a few bars they would find their “groove” and start banging out well-coordinated rhythms on the plank in front of them. Their drumming was impressive and seemingly random, but still coordinated. Being accustomed to western music, I kept trying to feel out repeatable pattern, but no such pattern was distinguishable. But somehow, the girls seemed to all be on the same page confidently hitting all their pauses and crescendos in stride.

Next, a man wearing a long grass skirt and something like scarecrow’s hat would literally jump out of the darkness and into what became the dance circle. He looked like a cross between the Wizard of Oz character and Majora’s Mask. He would show off his moves, which mostly invovled some quick footwork and unsettling stares, until the song was over. Then the chief or someone would set an upside down ballcap in front of us, as is customary for anyone seeking a tip. This isn’t so weird, except for the fact that usually in these situations a small group of performers sets out a hat for a much larger group of observers—yet here, the numbers were inverted. Plus, we had already donated a hefty sum of in-kind donations. Still, in an effort to show our honest gratitude, as well as not look like a cheapskate, the three of us threw a fair bit of change in the hat.

 

 

The ritual continued until the Pygmies had played out their entire repertoire. And then they did it all again. And again. I remember checking my phone and seeing the time read three in the morning. The tip hat was still prominently displayed at the edge of the dance circle, unsurprisingly filled with donations only from the three of us. Apparently disheartened by our lackluster offerings, a guy sitting next told Florence told her that they would keep singing and dancing, “as long as they were motivated to do so.” As she relayed this message, I watched prepubescent girls suck down whiskey sachets that I had bought them on my government salary. So much for the Save the Pygmies Foundation. We told Florence to politely tell them that we were very much appreciative, and that we had enjoyed their music, but it was very late and we needed to sleep. We got up and the chief showed us to a hut where we could sleep. Ben and I rolled out our sleeping bags on a wooden frame; Amanda was given the opposing hut. It didn’t take long to fall asleep, even as the drunken singsong yells of the Pygmies’ celebration continued on the other side of the mud walls.

I woke up at dawn with tiny ants in my sleeping bag.

After cleaning myself off and waited for the rest of our group to gather around the fading embers. Florence and her husband were already awake and made me some tea, but most of the Pygmies were still asleep. Apparently their party had lasted until not long before I had woken up. Ben and Amanda emerged; we gathered our things and thanked our hosts for letting us stay.

On the hike back, I still failed to spot any elephants or primates. But I wasn’t completely out of luck. After we got back to Ngoyang and the main road back to Lolodorf, we had several minutes to kill while we waited on our moto escort to drive out and pick us up. We heard shrill calls coming from a small building behind the boutique we were waiting in, and the owner said that was just her monkey acting up. Lucky for us, she was happy to show him off.

 

Party Pygmies, Part I

The box of spaghetti I just ate is stamped with an expiration date of May 2009. It was found cached in a footlocker in my room by my predecessor’s predecessor, but being wheat pasta, throwing it out would have been criminal. My roommate, who has been here two years and established herself in my eyes as a very credible cook, has assured me that eating things like this is perfectly normal here. I could also tell she was salivating over the prospect of wheat pasta after sustaining herself mostly off low-grade bags of Asian imported noodles whose label probably translates as “cheap shit”. As I poured the spaghetti into boilng water, I had to salute its storied history. This is a pasta that has not only known three American tenants, but has been around long enough to recall the rise of Twitter and the presidency of George Bush Jr. It passed the smell check, though, so it was good enough for us to eat. Luckily, the box was huge, but we didn’t stop there. We chopped up pretty much everything we had in the kitchen—green beans, peppers, onions, even some lime—because we were starving. It’s been a solid twenty four hours since our last square meal, and the time between was filled with lots of hiking, awkward handshakes, and grilled rats.

Sunday afternoon, the three local volunteers—Ben, Amanda, and I—made a trip out to see a Pygmy village about 10 miles outside of Lolodorf. Amanda is leaving the country in a couple weeks, and this had been one of the last things on her bucket list. This week, she called a local, a friendly woman named Florence who was born a village very near the Pygmy camp and knew the area well. It was arranged that on Sunday, she, her husband, and the three of us would make the trip and spend the night, in order to get “the real experience” (not my words). On Sunday afternoon, they showed up in traditional African style, that is to say, four hours late and unapologetic.

The first leg of the trip was a twenty-minute ride out to where the trail begins. Our fleet of motos cut through beautiful forests and a number of tiny villages with unpronounceable names for non-native tongues, except for one called “Cité de Vatican”, where I imagine the Pope summers. We arrived in front of a small boutique in a village called “Ngoyang”, more or less, which was the last pit stop before the hour hike through the jungle into Pygmy town. The three of us Americans were armed for the trek with knee high rubber boots, backpacks, equal quantities of water and bug spray, headlamps that made me feel like a dork even out here, and long sleeve shirts in spite of the thick heat. Our Cameroonian counterparts carried small handbags and wore flip flops.

Although the other four were well accustomed, this hike was the first time I’d ever really gone out “in bush” in Africa. I was hoping against reason that on the way we would pass a family of elephants, or at least couple small primates. Unfortunately, we didn’t pass anything big enough for me to take a satisfying picture of, but at one point a yellow beetle did manage to fly underneath my glasses and hover between the lens and my eyeball. Still, the scope and breadth of plant life was amazing. Tree trunks as tall and wide as their natural enemy, the factory smokestack, rose into the foggy sky and blocked out most of the sunlight. Florence and her husband pointed to various vines and fruits lining the trail and explained how Pygmies have used them as traditional medicines for centuries. The path was narrow but remarkably well kept, establishing the Pygmies’ reputation not only as resourceful doctors but also accomplished housekeepers.

After more than an hour, we reached a clearing not much bigger than a football field and lined by about ten square, mud block houses. A group of small children were playing near the point where our trail emerged into their encampment, and I quickly learned the easiest way to distinguish Pygmy children from a typical African child. While most of the kids in Lolodorf, Yaoundé, or pretty much any city I’ve visited so far like to yell the color of my skin at me and share a laugh with their small friends in celebration of their quick wit, Pygmy kids did the opposite: they stared, horrified, at our white trio, the way you would look at a group of otherwise normal people whose hair was on fire. None of us knew any of their language, and our attempts to wave and “bonjour” them made them run for their shacks.

The tribe was overall welcoming, if not extremely timid, but they loosened up once we sat down and our guides told them we weren’t simply tourists, but rather volunteers who lived and worked nearby. Their disposition further increased when Florence suggested we open the gifts we had brought for them. When people come to visit Pygmy tribes, it is expected that you’ll bring some gifts in exchange for their willingness to be looked at. I was completely OK with the concept of this exchange, but two days before our trip, the Pygmies had explicitly asked for the following: twenty kilos of frozen fish, a couple giant sacks of rice, three cartons of Gold Seal cigarettes, and 20,000 CFA (roughly $40) of individual whiskey sachets. These goods had been delivered earlier in the day by moto, but the Pygmies had thoughtfully waited to unwrap their gifts until we arrived to demonstrate the gratitude and rehearsed surprise.

Now, inside the primary hut, the majority of the adults (which were no more than twelve) busily divvied up equal portions of fish and rice, and snatched up packs of cigarettes for immediate consumption. As for the whiskey, most of them eagerly ripped into one or two of the sachets, but hundreds more were stored away for the inevitable party to come.

 

 

That evening, the five of us visitors sat on a makeshift bench erected for our arrival, eating chicken and plantains Florence had brought from Lolodorf and prepared in advance. A couple of the Pygmies sat outside near us, just watching and not doing much of anything else. Truthfully, this is likely what they would be doing anyway, except tonight they had strangers to occupy their gazes. Although none of them seemed to speak French (if any of them did, they didn’t make an effort to let us know), the presumed leader, a young, strong, but short man who wore an Italian football jersey and ancient jeans, chatted with Florence’s husband in local tongue. Apparently, their village has been in this location for about 50 years. In the past, the pygmies resisted permanent settlements and instead roamed through the bush, but lately their nomadic lifestyle has become impossible to sustain. Today they mainly farm for subsistence, as well as hunt at night for their own food and to sell whatever is left to nearby villages. As for their legendary appearance, yeah, they’re pretty short, but not at the dwarfish levels one might presume. Most of the men were maybe a little over five feet, the women less than. Another feature that distinguished them from other nearby Africans were their faces. Aside from having recognizable noses and bone structures, they all had an intangible difference to them. They all looked tired.

As I’ve told people who have asked, Cameroon, especially my part of Cameroon, is not really National Geographic’s Africa. Blessed with abundant natural minerals and oil, good soil, and sea access, Cameroon has more fortunate and stable than most of its arid and landlocked neighbors since the colonial era ended. No doubt Cameroon’s got its problems, but thankfully extreme malnutrition and starvation aren’t major issues in most parts of the country (again, I say this in comparison to other African countries).  The Pygmies, as isolationists, do not mingle much with the Cameroonian economy and are therefore not very tethered to it. Without getting too preachy or speculative, it’s safe to say that the last century hasn’t been very kind to their lifestyle, and it was reflected in their eyes. The way Lolodorf children look upon your foil wrapped granola snack is primarily out of curiosity. Here, that look was different.

As we ate in the dusk, a couple pygmy women came out of the main hut and said something to Florence. Afterwards, she translated their conversation for us. They had said they were cooking dinner, and wanted to make us something traditional to show their appreciation for our gifts. Florence smiled, as she was familiar enough with Westerners to anticipate our reaction to what she was about to say next. “They’re grilling a rat for you.”

The chunks of meat they brought out honestly didn’t look that terrible. I mean, you’d know you weren’t looking at a plate of carnitas, but the meat didn’t clearly identify itself as rat carcass, either. The smell, on the other hand, offered some clues.
In hindsight, I guess I attribute it to white guilt, but Amanda and I tried a bite. It wasn’t very good, but I’ll leave it at that. I remembered watching 1 a.m. reruns of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern during college, and recalled his advice to “always try everything at least twice.” After the second bite I was able to authoritatively announce to myself that rat sucks, and close the book on the matter.

10 September 2011

(Most of this story was written 2 weeks ago, before the 9 day blackout killed my battery and had me reading everything from Stienbeck to the dictonary to pass the evenings)

It’s 19h30 in Lolodorf, and right now I imagine hundreds of families are sitting down at their tables, all waiting impatiently for their fathers to dig the ladle into the large serving bowl of rice and djama djama with chunks of bone-in fish. After they have scooped the biggest and most tenderized morsels onto their plate, hundreds of fathers push the serving bowl back into the middle of the table and do not wait to eat while the older sons, younger sons, mothers, and daughters take their respective helpings. If I had been present in any of these homes, I would have qualified as ‘guest’ and probably fallen in the serving queue at number two, between father and older son. But I am home, making spaghetti with my roommate. Although tonight, in a weird way, I will be present in homes all across Lolodorf— but not just yet.
Tonight we have electricity, which means that all over town, hundreds of heads are turned not towards the family, but towards a medium-sized tube TV, which is airing reruns of Fils de Jardiner and turned up to the literal maximum volume to overpower the sounds of thousands of chewing mouths. The program will break for advertisements, and one of a dozen or so commercials will cycle on—either for Coca Cola, Camlait dried milk products, 8 hour no-check tampons, or McDonalds (even though there are no McDonalds in Cameroon). With volume still at the maximum, fathers will hopefully seize this lapse in third-tier drama to ask their children how their first day of school went. And hundreds of children will respond, as we do at home, about how their physics class seems hard, or how the French teacher already assigned homework. Maybe I’m being egotistical, but somewhere in the midst of this debrief I believe the majority of these kids will bring up (loudly, of course, to be heard over the blaring commercials) the new white guy at school. Maybe they’ll even mention me by my new, weightier title, Mr. Browne.

By now I’ve been in village for over three weeks, and I doubt very many of Lolodorf’s 6000 or so residents haven’t seen or heard about the new le blanc hanging around. After all, human nature still presides here, and a young blonde haired white guy (“Are you German?” “No.” “Are you French?” “Does my French sound like I’m from France?” “Ahh, you are from America. You are a tourist!”)
gives them something to gossip about. The reality that I was becoming a local conversation topic was more or less expected, but it was beginning to weigh heavily in the days building up to school. It seemed that everyone I had met recently already knew who I was, and what I would be doing, and had heard from someone else that I could get them a USB key or help their son get into college in the States.

The night before my first class at Lolo High was occupied by a mixture of self-examination and “you-got-the-wrong-guy” mentality. I knew that my first impression at the lycée was critical, as all the kids would be getting a load of the new guy. I figured if I can fake being cool, they might mistake me for, or at least mentally link me to Bruno Mars or David Guetta or some other interesting white male they’re familiar with thanks to television, and the ensuing school year would be a breeze. The trick was to strike a balance between being hip enough to entice them with the “he’s not just any old teacher” routine, while still being stern enough to actually get something taught. This meant spending a good deal of time in front of the full length mirror and repeating the phrase “Hello, everyone. I’m Mr. Browne. You may be seated,” while trying to find that golden ratio of the right amount of smile and proper tone of my nubile French. The idea of everyone referring to me as “Mr. Browne” sat uneasily, because thus far in life the only people who have referred to me by that name in any seriousness are bank tellers and the folks who answer customer service phone calls. At least the latter are often foreign, so I would be used to the accent. Still, I wore the name like someone wears wet jeans after exiting a log ride.

Any possibility that the students hadn’t heard about the new white teacher they would have this year was effectively eliminated this morning, 10 minutes after the first school bell of the year. I had received my teaching schedule a few days before, and it is similar to American college schedule in that I teach certain hours to different classes and grade levels, in a cycle that repeats weekly. I didn’t have class in the morning for the first two periods, but I decided to head up to school around the opening bell— 7:30 am—to speak with the proviseur and take care of a few things. As I clomped up the muddy path and the lycée came into view, I realized I had made a crucial mistake. This being the first hour of the first day, the students were all lined up in orderly rows reflecting their grade levels, wearing their prison-gray uniforms and listening to opening remarks from the proviseur and his small staff. I quickly realized my error, but it was too late to do anything about it. Worse, I was approaching them at a right angle, for the students and staff to plainly see. 100, 200, and then pretty soon 800 heads turned to get a good look at le blanc strolling up to the school in the middle of the opening speech. If the proviseur was a general encouraging his phalanxes for the battle that will be this school year, then I was the surprise attack that flanked him perfectly and caught the whole army off its guard. Although the proviseur continued to speak, I saw his eyes glance over as well, taking with them the attention of the entire crowd and effectively surrendering any gusto his words had held.

Luckily the rest of the day passed with considerably less disruption, by me or by my students. My classes were generally well behaved and very attentive, but this was possibly more out of curiosity about who I was rather than a desire to quench a summer-long thirst for English lessons. This is of course only day one, and the atmosphere feels more like an eerie calm that storm victims describe before a category four hurricane.

Early September, 2011

When the thick rain beats down on my neighbor’s tin roof, it sounds like popcorn.  Luckily, my house is a little more modernized, and therefore more insulated against the African storm that introduced itself shortly upon my arrival in Lolodorf yesterday morning.  Still, the organic orchestra keeps me from focusing on much else.  The torrent hasn’t really stopped, save for a few intermissions; a pause in the fury where the dark cloud draws in its next big breath and prepares to belch more rain on the helpless below.  I’m sitting at my window, eating fried potatoes.  The power has been out since this morning so there’s little else to do than watch the fog roll over the nearby hills, or mountains, or whatever these lumps classify as.  I wonder if this is the rainy season everyone says is coming.  I can’t imagine otherwise.

To my right, I see the neighbor’s door swing open and Yvette, my very welcoming neighbor, darts across our shared patio.  It’s one of those rains where you feel threatened even under cover.  Yvette has come to my door to offer a plate of stewed beans and potatoes.  I’m not very hungry, but I accept out of politeness.  Back inside, the lights return for only a minute, and then once again flee the storm.  I eat the entire plate.

Overstarched and disconnected, I agree to myself that I have no excuse to put off sweeping my floor.  I see Cameroonians sweeping all the time, in defiance of the dust that finds its way into places it never should.  It’s no secret to anyone that their floors will be made dirty again in a depressingly short time, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from manually dusting every corner of every room for the fleeting satisfaction of a proper house.  One thing you have to admire about Africans is their dedication to cleanliness.  They hate having a dirty floor, dirty clothes, or a dirty bike.  To an outsider, it seems fruitless knowing that there’s a war of attrition between them and the unrelenting dirt outside.  Admiring their persistence, I’m inspired grab the hand bristle and corral what I can towards my front door.  Ten minutes later a significant amount of dust, soot, and bugs has accumulated at my door, ready to be banished, when I notice out the window a stranger cutting through the raindrops and approaching my stoop.

I pretend not to notice, but seconds later he rings the doorbell.  Maybe it’s another neighbor, here to offer more potatoes.  I open the door to greet a tall man wearing black plants, a black long sleeve shirt, and small glasses.

“Bonsoir”

Bonswarh”  I cough back.

“I am here with the proviseur.  If you are free he would like you to join us.” He says in baritone French, over the rain.  He motions up the driveway to a black car idling on the side of the road.  Earlier that day, I had taped a hand written note to the proviseur’s office at the school asking for a meeting to discuss this school year.

“Yes, I am free.”  I respond.  I was shirtless, wearing only gym shorts, and the pile of dirt still lay between us.  “I need just a minute.”

I shut the door and quickly put on pants and a clean shirt while the man waits outside.  I choose to leave the dirt mound for now, rather than sweep it over the threshold in front of present company.  Stepping over the mound, I exit my new house in Lolodorf, lock my door, and join the unknown man through the storm into the unknown car to head off to an unknown location.  This is Cameroon, after all.

My escort runs around to the drivers seat and I hop in the back.  Two other men are inside the car.  The one in the front passenger seat turns around, and I recognize him as the proviseur that I met on my site visit to Lolodorf two months ago.  The other man, in the back seat with me, is unfamiliar.  He is wearing a white button down shirt and large, gold-rimmed glasses that crown his bald head.

The proviseur shakes my hand and reintroduces himself.  “And he,” the proviseur says, gesturing to the man sitting in the back with me, “is now your new boss, the le nouveau proviesuer du Lycee de Lolodorf.”

In Cameroon, teachers and school staff are employees of the government, and can be affected— relocated anywhere in the country, at any time— by government decree.  Two months ago I met the man in the front seat, my boss at the time, and we discussed what I would teach and the role I would have at the school.  Now he is telling me he has been affected to Kribi, the beach town an hour or two south of here.  His replacement, and my new boss, smiles next to me.  “Welcome to Lolodorf.  Would you like to join us for a beer?”

The rain is still coming down as the car pulls over off the main drag in centre-ville.  Four car doors swing open to reveal four umbrellas, which scramble out and reconvene under the awning of the bar.  As we seat ourselves the waiter comes over and greets my hosts as friends.  They order three 33’s and look to me.

“Make it four, please.”

The former proviseur gets up from the table to search for snacks.  I turn to my new boss to ask him about himself.  He tells me he was born and raised here in Lolodorf.  He was most recently a philosophy teacher until being promoted this summer to proviseur of the lycee.  I seize the opportunity to build a conversation.

“I love philosophy.  I took some courses in college and it’s really fascinating.”

“Ah, yes.  Who do you enjoy reading?”

Shit.  Time to act real.

“I read a lot by Hobbes and Rousseau.  Mostly the political stuff.  I also really liked Kant.”

We talk about Kant for a little bit and I do my best to recall what I’d learned in college.  Suddenly those years feel more distant than ever.  Then I realize, what was I expecting it to feel like?

At some point, Kant’s idea about world government was brought up.  According to Kant, who wrote over 100 years ago, the world was on an inevitable trajectory towards one world government.

“I don’t know if it’s a good trend or a bad one, but I think it’s natural.  The world gets smaller and governments get bigger.  Look at Europe.  It used to be a bunch of kingdoms and small states.  Now it’s almost all a part of the EU.  It doesn’t move backwards.”

“Yes, but this is Africa.  Africa is very different.  We here are too different to be subjected to one body of laws.  Consider, my son, have you seen the pygmies yet?”

“No, but I hear they are around here.”

“They are.  And their lives are very different from what I, or especially you, know.  We cannot expect them to fall into an African Union with the rest of the continent.”

“Yes, that is true,” I say, carefully.  “But perhaps they must.  They are independent, yet they still live in Cameroon.  They already have to follow rules they didn’t write.”

“Kant’s idea’s were interesting, but I don’t think that will happen here.  Africa is too diverse, and Kant wrote as a white man, a Westerner.”

“Maybe.  I hope you’re right.  But I do notice that the world moves in one direction, towards….” I interlock my fingers to indicate a French word I do not know, the idea being assimilation.  “Nous sommes ensembles.” The unofficial mantra of Africa, we are together, seems a propos.  “Whether you believe we came from Adam, or evolved from something, either way our origin is the same.  Humans are not that different from each other.  We want to work together, to form communities.  Voila, globalization.”

The proviseur didn’t see it the way I did, but in fact I have seen evidence of my argument everywhere, and well outside the realm of politics.  When someone like me comes to Africa, one expects, more or less, a National Geographic program.  Deep in the bush that purity may still exist, but only where the Coca Cola trucks can’t find a parking spot.  Development, it seems, is a double-edged sword.  Every car needs a Texaco fuel station to keep driving, and every TV broadcasts CANAL and France 24.  Hell, my host brother in Bafia knew more MTV songs than I did, and by a large margin.  It’s great to see Africa develop, but development here seems to be synonymous with Westernization.  Culture, economics, politics; we are together, and it’s survival of the fittest.

I snap back to reality as the former proviseur, now the principal of Kribi, sits back down.  He has ordered a platter of beef and onions, and I am very grateful.  We each grab a toothpick and fall back on small talk.  The fourth man, the only one whose role I haven’t yet identified, reveals himself as the treasurer of the lycee.  All money spent goes through him.  Given what I’m about to ask, he’s a good friend to make.

The bar overlooks the Likoundje river, which runs through the core of Lolodorf.  As the men speak quickly and colloquially in African French, my attention is pulled to the family washing clothes on the riverbank near the small rapids.  I wonder: which is better?  Hand washing by the riverside, or a secondhand American made washer and dryer? Which one leads to a richer Africa?  I don’t know.

I catch myself in the habit of zoning out and snap back to the table.  My proviseur has just finished his second beer.  I remember something else I learned in college, during a psych course: the part of the brain that controls feelings of happiness is most active after two beers.  Now is the time to ask.

I change the conversation, somewhat unnaturally in my awkward French.  “I understand you want me to teach computers here, too.”  I say.  “I’d like to do that.  Computer skills are important.  It is the future, n’est-ce pas?”

“Yes.  We were hoping that you would.”  The proviseur smiles.  Having already visited, I knew that the computer lab he had inherited housed fifteen working PCs and was in need of an instructor.

The thing was, Lolodorf had had a computer teacher.  A Peace Corps Volunteer, in fact, assigned specifically to do so.  The volunteer was a very qualified computer specialist, but had found conditions here unworkable.  Power is chronically unreliable around here, and it turns out that teaching computers is difficult in the midst of a week-long blackout.  After several months, the volunteer felt frustrated by the lack of progress, as well as a number of other reasons best left undiscussed on a public blog, and requested a transfer.  My understanding is that Lolodorf asked for another IT volunteer, but somehow ended up with me, an English teacher, as that volunteer’s replacement.  There may have been other factors I’m unaware of, but I don’t try to hard to make sense of it.  Learning to work within both Africa and the Peace Corps means you just have to roll with things.

“I have spoken with the last volunteer here, the computer teacher, and he says that teaching here was very hard for him because of the frequent black outs.  We both think it is necessary for the school to buy a power generator.  Without one, I don’t think I will be able to teach computers.”

I had just laid my first test out for the public education system of Lolodorf.  I know how much generators cost here, and I also know the school fees each student pays.  If my numbers are accurate, then I don’t see why the school can’t afford a generator.  The problem is, money in Cameroonian schools has a well-known tendency to…disappear.  I’m new to Lolodorf and I realize that is a very general statement, so I won’t say much more on that topic for now.  [I’m sorry— I know that last bit as well as a few other things I’ve written here are vague and possibly incomprehensible to people who aren’t familiar with the situation here.  I try to be as clear and descriptive as possible, but sometimes that is hard to do without risking reproach later— especially with the way computers and Internet access are spreading rapidly over here.  It’s great for Africa, but bad news indeed for my WordPress.]

I now had the attention of all three men at the table.  My old proviseur, the one who had been moved to Kribi, seemed in favor of the idea.  My new boss was more skeptical about the feasibility, costs, and ability to sustain the fuel.  The treasurer just listened.  The three of them began to discuss the idea in their own conversation.  That is to say, they turned to each other and spoke at a speed of French at which I could only comprehend subjects and phrases, with little hope of injecting anything to the discussion.  After several minutes, the new proviseur turned to me.

“Mister Barrett.  OK.  We want the students to learn computers.  It is very important, yes.  We will get a generator for the school.  We promise to have one by October.”

“Great,” I smiled.  “Then I would love to teach them.”

I had decided upon coming to Lolodorf that pushing for a generator at the school would be my first goal.  Although I’m officially here as an English teacher, my job duties are in fact much broader.  While some volunteers stick pretty rigidly to teaching, for others it falls into a secondary position as they work more with the community doing health, education, or organizational projects.  It’s really up to the volunteer the amount and variety of work that you do here.

My ultimate goal would be to get all the computers online.  Africa, like the rest of the world, is moving quickly in this direction and I’d love to see Lolodorf be a model school for its computer lab.  It already has fifteen computers, a hefty total by national standards.  Step two is securing a steady power source, and right now I had a promise to do so, albeit a shaky one.  These are the promises I’ve been warned to be wary of, and I won’t call it a victory until the generator is humming behind the school.