Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion

11 November 2015

As far as teaching goes, this has been one of the most difficult two weeks of my life.  I have never had so many problems with a school, and so little motivation to work on them.  Often here, it feels as though every thing that I am trying to do gets stopped by the very person who requested my presence at the school.

Last week, as the first week of the month, we had our teacher "amicale" or social meeting.  In American terms, this would be the monthly faculty and staff meeting, often held before school with donuts and coffee available to everyone.  There would be announcements and updates on the goings on of the school, and an address of whatever problems the school might be having.  Generally lasting (at least from my experience) no longer than an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and ending before classes start.  In Cameroon, this means that on Wednesday at noon, the teachers stop teaching and hang around the office till about 1, when the head of the Parent-Teacher's Association and other "notables" of the school arrive with food and beer.  We all crowd into the tiny office room and the principal starts the meeting.  We spend 1-2 hours arguing over the wording of the agenda, before actually starting on the agenda.  Then, we move on to money matters. At these meetings, it is required that each member of the faculty put in 1.000 CFA for food,  at least 1.000 into the "school bank"(if there is a funeral, birth, or some other sort of occasion, this money goes to that person... which means that there is always a lot of arguing about what warrants "special occasions" and how close the death or birth has to be to the person), 10.000 CFA into the monthly pot (every month, a different person gets to take home this collected sum), and 1.000 CFA into something that I have yet to understand. Somehow it takes over an hour to collect this money from the 12 people present.   It is the same every month, but yet we still must discuss each fee for 45 minutes before settling on the same exact fee that was decided upon at the beginning of the year.
After money matters are sorted, we must each give a "brief" account of the events of our life.  For me, this is usually a "I am so happy to be part of Bamena life" kind of sentence or two, but for others, they feel the need to enlighten the assembly about the goings on of their goats, or the food that their wife (wives) have cooked over the last month, the cold that they had last week, or... All things I'd be happy to hear, but at this point it is always around 5 p.m., and after 4 hours of sitting in a cramped space and listening to endless bickering of what seem to me to be inconsequential things, I have very little patience for this and am well past ready for the now warm beer that we are allotted.  When everyone finishes with their news, we are FINALLY able to eat the now cold food, and drink the very warm beers.  And not allowed to leave until everyone has finished their part.
Every month I am hopeful that things will run smoother, and finish earlier.  Or that maybe there will be a chance to talk about some of the actual issues going on at the school, and every month I am again disappointed that the focus seems to be on each person's individual queries and complaints.  By the time I am allowed to go home, I am usually sprinting out the door and away from my colleagues, no matter how much I normally enjoy their company.
This month's meeting was particularly difficult, as we started even later than usual, and I had a fever through the whole thing.  Being sick does not allow you to miss the meeting.

The amicale, on top of a nasty cold, made last week an exhausting and infuriating week, but it was nothing compared to this week.

As we "near" the end of sequence 2 (the second grading period... technically ends on the 27th, but my principal has decided that it will make our school look better if we finish on the 18th, I found out yesterday), I was trying to give my students a quiz to see how they're doing with the material we've covered over the last few weeks, in theory before I give them their final exams.  So this Monday and Tuesday, I gave all of my classes a quiz, that in theory should have taken them half an hour at most, but took most of them an hour to an hour and a half.  Good sign.  Because of their skill levels, I have been teaching the same lessons to the grades 5e, 4e, and 3e (7th, 8th, and 9th grades), and therefore they were all set to take the same quiz.  With my 8th grade class, things went fairly smoothly.  It took them a longer than necessary to arrange themselves boy-girl-boy-girl and put away their books and notes, but that's not all that surprising.  They took the test and finished it 20 minutes before the class was over.  We quickly went over the answers and I was able to let them go 10 minutes early, which of course they were thrilled about.  I went to sit in the sun for a moment, as it gets very chilly in the dark classrooms, when the Principal called me over and asked to speak with me in his office.  This didn't seem all that unusual as I hadn't had a talk with him in a while.  I went into his office and we started off fine, him asking me about my classes and how things were progressing.  I explained to him the difficulty I'd found with my upper two classes and their lack of understanding and how far behind they were, and the principal jumped onto this, focusing on the 9th grade class.  At the end of 9th grade, students here are forced to take the national exam, BEPC to see if they are fit to continue to lycee (high school equivalent starting in 10th grade). A student cannot progress unless they have passed this exam.  The principal had noticed, however, that I was very far behind with my 9th grade classes.  I explained to him that I was behind because the students did not know enough to be able to continue to the more difficult vocabulary and grammar, but he laughed.  He called in two other teachers to help him explain to me that, here in Cameroon, teachers are not meant to make the students understand, but to simply present them with the information and stick to the syllabus presented to them (difficult for me since I was never give the syllabus that is expected of my 9th grade students), and that if I was waiting for all of, or even the majority of, my students to understand, then I would never be able to teach the material on they needed for the BEPC.  I tried again to explain that I couldn't teach my students new ideas without them understanding the basics, and he responded again that I just didn't understand how things were done in Cameroon, never mind the fact that the reason I was brought to this school was to help change this very form of teaching.  The other two teachers then piped in to tell me that it's useless to try and make sure students understand the material and I just need to stick to my syllabus.  Eventually I told the principal that I could not and would not teach this way, and that if this is what he needed, then he'd have to find another teacher for 9th grade.  But he laughed again and gave me a syllabus for the class, instructing me to just start there next week.

 I am still lost with how to approach this issue.  The entirety of my Peace Corps training focused on "student-centered teaching" as opposed to "teacher centered teaching", meaning we are meant to focus on the students' needs and level of understanding as opposed to where the government program claims they should be.  The grade-levels before 9th grade promote all of the students, regardless of whether or not they should advance to the next class, so by the time they all get to 9th grade, there are many students who still can't read or write, and have no idea how to do simple addition, much less conjugate english verbs in the conditional, or construct a thesis and essay about deforestation (which is a recommended topic by my new syllabus).  I had started at the basics because when I asked my students to introduce themselves in english (something they should have been taught before sixth grade) they were unable to do so, either in writing OR verbally.  We ended up spending a month just on learning how to introduce ourselves and our friends, yet I am expected to teach them advanced grammar that I myself struggle with.  So, I will spend the next few weeks trying to devise activities and lessons that will enable me to both teach them the basics and introduce the very advanced lessons expected of me. Really though, it's hard to stay mad at the other teachers for too long.  We are all working within an education system that is, in my opinion, broken.  There is very little chance for success, and even if the students do manage to pass this 9th grade exam, they will be thrown into more of the same in high school.  The number of students who make it through to the end of high school is minuscule, and then the number from there to make it to university is even smaller.  The education system relies on reputations of schools, so the schools kick out students that might need more work, rather than helping them to improve.   That and many students in these small villages see very little use for a higher education.  Half of my 9th grade students are repeating the grade for the second or third year in a row, and most of them simply want to pass this year so that they can stop going to school and start working.  As much as I try to stress the importance of education, it's hard to explain to a girl with two children and no means to feed them, that continuing with her education is more important that finding an unskilled job, especially since so many of my students see adults who did get their university degree and are still stuck in the same kinds of jobs.  With all of this stacked against the students, it's hard to keep myself motivated and not lose hope some days.  But every Thursday, walking home surrounded by all of my students picking flowers for me and pestering me with questions about my life in the States, I am reminded why I'm here and what I'm working towards.

Roads Go Ever On

7 November 2015

It has been a long time since my last post, so for that I am sorry.  I've been struggling a lot lately with the idea of what I should talk about this time through.  I feel as though the frustrations and rhythm  of my day to day life have been expressed in my last couple of posts, and what I have left unsaid I can't yet find the words to describe.

The month of October has flown by and we have arrived in the exciting month of November, which is usually one of my favorite times of year.  I always look forward to the changing colors of the trees, the complete dispersal of the Alabama heat, and the beginning of snowfall in Minnesota. Here, however, I have none of the things that indicate the coming of the holidays or even the shifting of the seasons.  I'm told that we are quickly approaching the dry season, but there seems little evidence to support this.  Without time changes, the sun continues to set, as it has since my arrival in May, around 6:30-7 pm every night, and rises every morning around 5:30-6 am.  The temperature is getting slightly warmer with rain every two out of three days instead of every day, but the cool breeze persists (and is often stronger) even on the sun-only days, and no matter what I'm still obliged (thankfully!) to bring a sweater with me wherever I go.  I'm not meaning to complain about the weather! I am very very lucky to be stationed in a region of Cameroon that allows me to wear sweaters and jeans comfortably for the majority of the year, but I am finding it hard to wrap my head around the idea that we are heading into November, when the sunshine and breeze remind me of an April at the beach.

Weather and a lack of deciduous trees aside, life in Cameroon is starting to fall into ... not a rhythm really as everything is too unstable or unorganized for that, but a habit perhaps?
On Mondays and Tuesdays, I wake up around 6 - 6:30 to exercise before work, then I go into school and teach two two-hour classes, before heading home, stopping by to say hello to my neighbors and sit and chat with them for a little while.  Once home, I usually eat a very late lunch (generally around 3-4 pm) and futz around with one thing or another until around 5:30-6 when I make dinner and watch a movie.  After the movie I tend to read for a while and then go to bed.
 On Wednesdays, I spend the morning catching up on work and around 2-3 I go into Bangante to go to the market.  After market-ing, I have a beer with Cristina and some colleagues who live in Bangante, and then head home to make myself dinner and go to bed.
 On Thursdays I have school early, so I wake up and head straight there to teach, before getting home around noon and exercising or doing work until 2 or 3, at which point I either head into the Centre Bamena to see people, or I find a project in my house to work on.
On Fridays, I tend to head to either Bafoussam or Bafang (the two bigger cities near me) to go to the bank and have a meal or a drink with the other volunteers in the area.  I often meet with volunteers to discuss a project that we're working on together or get advice about a project I'd like to do in my village. Sometimes I stay the night, but mostly I come home to sleep in my own bed.
The weekends vary depending on what is happening in village and in my own life.  Sometimes I take Saturday to rest and breathe, or to catch up on my socializing in village. Sundays I usually have my neighborhood children come help me wash my clothes and clean my house, and we all watch a movie and do arts and crafts together afterwards.

My refrigerator is still broken, and my package is still stuck in Douala, but I finally feel like my house is really my home, and my neighbors notice when I am gone for more than a day.  I have a family who has adopted me into their lives, and expect me to stop by after school everyday, and to attend their family meetings.  They feed me whenever they can, and if I'm ever in need of produce, they are more than happy to give me whatever I need from their farm (their main source of income).  The family consists of the Papa, le chef du cartiere Monsieur Bellesse (maybe?), his wife Mama Clementine (or Ma Clem), their sister in law, Mama Anne, and all the children: Sylvia, Nelson, Tchikinya, and Adora (those are the children living at the house anyway).

 Sylvia braiding Mama Anne's hair

 Mama Clementine in her Market day best!

Adora hoping for some bread.

Tchikinya thrilled to be the center of attention

and Mama Anne now "camera ready", and everyone else. 

This is the family that often gets me through the week and makes a lot of my frustrations worth it.  They laugh with me, they laugh at me, and they support me. They are my village support system. 

Yet despite their support, they could not seem to understand the idea of Halloween.  How do you explain the day that the dead are permitted to walk the earth, that is then celebrated in the United States by children dressing up as pirates and princesses and storm troupers collecting candy from their neighbors? I tried, but mostly I got many dark looks at the idea that we make light of such an ungodly and terrifying eve.  Most of the people I know in village are both very religious and very superstitious, and for most of them, the ancestors are part of everything.  They are in the insects that crawl through the house, the sacred trees found in most family complexes, and the very air we breathe. Not to say that they worship any of this things, but the ancestors are a modem of communication to God.  For Cameroonians, at least in my village, the ancestors are always around, listening if you please them, and ignoring you if you offend them. So when I presented the idea that there is one night a year that spirits supposedly descend upon us and terrorize us (and that we dress up in costumes and carve pumpkins and eat candy till we are sick to commemorate this), I was met with polite smiles and confused nods... the most evident sign that you are so incorrect that they don't even know how to argue with you on this point.  It's the same look I give to them when they try to tell me that drinking piss will get rid of my pimples.  Euff. Horrifying.  :P 

So to celebrate Halloween, I headed to my friend KC's house in Bafang.  He and his postmate Rebecca (who is also wonderfully and amazingly from Alabama!) were throwing a party for all of the volunteers around us.  The party was themed Bollyween, since KC has a very strong connection to the Bollywood culture.  Most of the volunteers found sari's or other Indian-style clothes, as they are sold everywhere here, and much of the more modern style here can be very similar in appearance, and we all got together and danced the night away to Bollywood music.  It was so much fun, and such a strange experience.  With upwards of thirty American volunteers in one small house, the outside world of Cameroon quickly disappeared, and we were all given a sense that this was a typical Halloween party back in the US.  

It was both amazing and difficult.  Amazing to feel so comfortable again and have so many people understand everything I said, but difficult as the whole thing was so discordant with my life at the moment.  It was a wonderful break from the infuriating moments of Cameroon, but a jarring break from my day to day life here.  Returning to my village the next day left me with one of the hardest moments of my life in Cameroon. After a night of heartfelt conversations and understanding, I was exhausted, and both mentally and physically ill from the disjointed-ness of the 48 hour span.  I couldn't quite put together the world of the Halloween party with the world of Bamena.  They don't seem to fit, and, surprisingly, this disjointedness caused a day of mental unrest and exhaustion.  I missed horribly being surrounded by Americans who understood me and where I am coming from, who understand and share the frustrations of life here without belittling them, and who were able to validate my opinions and beliefs without trying to convert me to a religion or change how I think about life and the people in it.  It was very hard to go back to school after that weekend, but it helped me understand a bit why the Peace Corps tries to prevent volunteers from spending all their weekends away from post.  It's hard to want to stay solitary in village, when KC and Becca, and their houses with sinks and running water, a boulangerie that always sells snickers and twixt, a boutique that makes hamburgers, and free internet, are only a 45 minute car ride away.  And I must admit, that, since my bank is in Bafang, I tend to head over there every few weeks.  But every time I'm away from my village for more than a night, it always feels good to get back "home".  My bed all to myself, my couch wonderfully cushioned, my kitchen always stocked with fruits and vegetables and honey, and most importantly my neighbors, always welcome me home with such enthusiasm and security that it is hard to stay away too long, even with the temptation of snickers.