Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Cameroonian Christmas

Well, somehow Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone along with my much needed and much appreciated break from teaching. Already I’ve been back in the thick of it for nearly two weeks and feel less patient with the job than I was for the first part of the year. Luckily I’m told that the first trimester is the longest because there are so many holidays for the rest of the year. I also apparently neglected to notice that the 2nd trimester had already begun before the break began meaning that next week is already time to test students again.

The break was certainly interesting and mostly good. Kribi was beautiful but we didn’t have all that much time to enjoy that aspect of it. It was great seeing the whole group again. It’s amazing how just a few months together in training really did bring us close and to see everyone again after seeing mostly Cameroonian faces everyday was more enjoyable than I’d even anticipated. I, however, was one of the few if not only lucky individuals who did not encounter any major issues while there. Over half of the group was incredibly sick with a myriad of maladies and most of the people who were not ill wound up being robbed at gun and machete-point at the beachfront bar we spent most nights in. Had I not been feeling a little sick to my stomach myself that evening I too would’ve most likely been involved.

We had negotiated to take a free personal day after the seminar had finished but with all the bad vibes floating around I decided to head out on time and meet Claude in Yaounde. I was disappointed to get a rather cold reception from fellow volunteers when I brought him into the volunteer house, especially considering that I had just been asked in Kribi to speak about my experience dating him and how it effects my relationships with the other Americans.

I suppose in some ways I can understand that a lot of people view the volunteer house as a space to be completely American and escape the natives for a day or so, but Claude isn’t like some traditional Cameroonian elder or something; in fact, I have more in common with him than I do with most of the other volunteers. When we left the house I was angry but Claude took it in stride. He said that not everyone joins the Peace Corps for the same reasons and I realized that he’s right. I signed up to be here because I really believe in the idea that human beings all over the world don’t differ all that much from one another. When I am with Claude I hardly even think about our many differences because most of them seem pretty peripheral to our true selves. I spent Christmas with his family and I couldn’t have felt more at home if I was with my own family. They discussed, joked, bickered and appreciated one another the same way any American family might.

I felt a little left behind when all the others were talking about their big travel plans to Mt. Cameroon and other tourist spots but in the end I really enjoyed the break and I think in the long run being with Claude will get me a much more intimate look into Cameroon than probably most anyone else. Plus, I still have nearly 20 months here and I don’ t need to be in a huge hurry to see everything I possibly can. To me, the holidays are far more about the company you share than where you happen to land and I am glad I made that decision. I also got to see my host family and many of the other people I got to know during our time in Bafia. They were really appreciative that I thought of them, especially those who had not heard from their volunteers since they went to post.

Another perk of being in Bafia again was getting to load up my internet key for a couple of days and Skype with Katie on Christmas morning and a bit with my family in West Union that night. Unfortunately we lost our connection before our traditional 12 Days of Christmas singing but it was great to be somewhat a part of the celebration just the same. Since my mom discovered that the phone company doesn’t actually have the international calling package they misleading sold her a month ago she is going to help me pay for internet at the house soon. Hopefully the connection will be decent enough to Skype some more because it is really amazing! Claude got so excited that he picked up the laptop and ran off with it, giving Katie a tour of his house!

I came back to discover that my closest American friend here has flown the coop and gone back to the US for good. Since being here I haven’t spent too much time with really any of the other volunteers aside from her since getting to other villages is pretty much an unavoidable pain in the neck so the reality that she is no longer here is still setting in. At least there are plenty of other people in the area so I can still catch up with them if I feel the need to. I spent the first day back in my classes going over a new list of class rules that I assembled during the break based on my ‘on -the- ground internship’ known as the first trimester. Unfortunately I don’t know if I can ever fully undo the damage that I did by coming in to class being so carefree and lighthearted. Probably the worst mistake I’ve made in country is not heeding the advice to start hard and get softer rather than the other way around. It’s funny, I’ve been watching The Wire the past couple of weeks and there is a guy who gets a teaching job at an inner-city Baltimore middle school in one of the seasons. It’s unbelievable how much his job in the classroom is like mine.

I decided that I wasn’t punishing anyone harshly enough for them to take me all that seriously before. Sending them out required always more distraction from class to ensure they would actually go to the Discipline Master; forcing them to put their nose to the chalkboard, though they don’t enjoy it, didn’t seem to do the trick. I have concluded that once kids are exposed to harsher forms of punishment it is extremely difficult to have much effect on them when you are trying softer approaches. One day I forced a few students to kneel, asking them if they preferred the Cameroonian method, even though it is actually outlawed. It didn’t matter anyway because I felt horrible that I compromised my own principles out of frustration and vowed to never do it again.

Finally I designed a plan to force the worst behaved students to stay after school with me for an hour on Tuesdays. Last week I made 3 kids pick up trash on the campus, whining and complaining all the while but eventually seeming proud of their work. Yesterday I had accumulated about 30 delinquents, though, and without someone to help me the only thing to do was to form a sort of detention. Since the whole concept is new to them I couldn’t get them to shut up or do work until finally the Discipline Master happened upon us. I was so frustrated and angry and he could tell so he too became angry with how the kids were disrespecting me. He called on one of them to explain why he was there and come to the front of the room. He picked up a 2x4 that was on the floor and hit the kid on the butt. He was about to continue beating him but I stepped in and explained that the reason they were there was because I didn’t like beating.

The entire day all the kids who I’d arranged to have after school followed me around complaining that they wanted to do their punishment during school hours rather than after school because there was a traditional dance in the village center that only happens every 2 years. In fact, my youngest class who I am with the last 2 hours of the day got in a lot of trouble because of a (rather clever) stunt they pulled when they rearranged the whole classroom to wash the floor before my class so that I would have to send them home early. When I stopped the Discipline Master he looked at me and said that sometimes you need to be savage to get your point across. I looked at everyone in the classroom and said, “Is that what you prefer? If everyone comes up and takes their 5 beatings you can all go to your party.” Everyone refused and when the Discipline Master left a series of them raised their hands to ask for forgiveness and I didn’t have another problem for the rest of the hour with them.

Some days I feel like teaching English to a bunch of Francophone village kids who barely even know French is pointless. Especially since they don’t seem to get over half the material no matter what. But, since coming back from the holidays, I have noticed some improvements. The things I’ve worked the hardest to drill in seem to have finally stuck and I feel proud of their work and my own. This week and last I had decent turnout for Girls’ Club even though now it is only my own students who come. They have started to open up to me more and are asking questions. Last week I talked to them about feminine hygiene and today we had a mini-sex education lesson. Next week a fellow volunteer is coming to do a yoga class with us.

Our time in Kribi really inspired me to begin some income-generating projects with the women of the village but I’ve put everything aside from my primary responsibilities on hold until after I take the GRE in February. I have been studying everyday and being reminded of how much I hate/suck at math. I only hope I can perform well enough on the other parts of it to outweigh how poorly I’m almost certain I’ll do on that section. It’s hard to believe that it’s already time to be doing something like that to get prepared to go back to a life in the US. It’s funny, some days I dream of being back there where I can wash dishes in a kitchen sink and take a shower without a bucket and a cup but at the same time I know that when I do get back it’s going to be a major adjustment and in the end I’m going to damn sure miss it here. Ever since my first time on this continent it’s been under my skin. It’s a place that just changes you in ways you can’t explain. Maybe it is that being back closer to the way humans were designed to be, farther from all the technology and instant gratification. Where, when I think of my loved ones I’m forced to sit down and actually write them a letter instead of just sending them a text message or a face book chat. Where I have to appreciate every single drop of water that falls from the sky, every positive interaction with someone, where every indication of minute progress in any sense is a blissful reward. In fact, I think on the whole I was far more stressed out and miserable when I was suffering through making payments on time, rushing from meetings, sitting in traffic jams, and attempting to balance the scales of social and professional life without losing my mind, even despite coming home to a host of modern luxuries designed to make life easier and better.

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