You know, there’s a lot of stuff that you just learn to get over once you get to Africa. For example, when I came here, I came armed with tons of bug spray, tons of hand sanitizer, and a firm belief that I would brave through the African wildness through preparation and determination (a tad idealistic, no?). Well, 44 days later…how to put this?
When I came here, I was determined to adhere to principles of safety and sanitation that we’re taught is so important in the US. For example, when I saw ants and flies crawling all over a piece of bread, that meant to throw it away or get a new piece. Now…all gone. A quick wave of the hand and the bugs are gone, and with it my reservations to eating the bread. In fact, as I write this right now, a team of ants are carrying off a grain of rice from my plate—who could hate such teamwork and unity? Do I wish they had taken someone else’s rice? Certainly. Am I concerned about my rice at all? Not in the slightest.
Consider, also, the scenario where you open the kitchen cabinet to the sound of feet scratching and crawling away from the door and rustling through the supplies. Or maybe the weird shadows that flash when you turn on your flashlight in the kitchen instead…
–American Brandon Reaction: Holy Crap! Did that thing have two heads?!
–African Brandon Reaction: I hope they left some for me those greedy bastards.
Perhaps the point I’m making is not yet quite clear. When I first came here, I diligently refrigerated all meat and other seemingly perishable items…such as eggs. However, for whatever reason, neither eggs nor milk are refrigerated here. Initially, being the American Brandon that I was: I should refrigerate my eggs and my milk to make sure they stayed fresh and healthy. African Brandon? I’m not putting those eggs in the fridge so everyone else can steal them.
It’s coming to you now, yes? Like how I drop things on the floor that I was about to eat…
American Brandon: Oh well, I only paid 300XAF for that…that’s not even a dollar. I’ll buy another one.
African Brandon: Are you serious? I paid 300 freaking francs for that! I’ll mix it with a little bit of water and it’ll be fine.
Or that time I was told not to eat raw fruit hear because it may not be clean and people get cholera and typhoid that way…
American Brandon: Man those apples look really good…but I guess I can’t be certain they’re clean and getting typhoid isn’t worth having one apple.
African Brandon: Oh my goodness! 200 francs for one apple? That’s a steal! Heck yeah, I’ll buy 3!
There’s no hot water here, so when you take showers you take them freezing cold every time. When I first came, I cried every time I got in the shower. Now…well, actually I still cry, I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the cold water thing.
Anyway, did I mention that I’ve stopped wearing bug spray? Yep, DDT must stand for “Double Delicious Treats” because no matter how much OFF! I sprayed on my arms and legs, I’d constantly scratch and itch all day and usually wake up with 10-15 new bites on each arm. I counted this morning: I have 40 bites on one arm. I’ve scratched so hard some nights that the skin actually peeled in a few places. I remember one day I was passing by the carpenter as I scratched furiously at my arms.
“Man! These bugs are ridiculous.” The carpenter merely laughed.
“They are welcoming you to Africa!!”
“Yeah, well, why don’t any of the Africans have this many bites?” I asked bitterly.
American Brandon would diligently apply the OFF every morning because some protection is better than no protection. Yeah, well, African Brandon thinks that stuff smells so bad it’ll probably kill me first anyway. Indeed, I would say this is the one thing I’ve had the most difficulty adjusting to because I keep getting bit day after day after day. I remember I walked into an internet café that I frequent and greeted the owner with a handshake as usual–they love handshakes here, every time anything happens (be it someone sneezing, someone telling a joke, or just a general swell of emotion) it illicit a handshake—and as I shook his hand he saw my arm.
“Oh wow!” he remarked. “Have you got malaria or something?” He exclaimed (malaria is, of course, mainly spread through mosquito bites).
“Yeah I know, these bugs are tearing me apart huh?” I replied with a laugh. He shook his head and walked away in surprise. Later as he was walking back outside, he looked down at my arm and shook his head again.
“Malaria will deal with you.”
“Wait, what?!” I whirled around in my seat as he walked away. That’s…depressing, I thought with a frown.
During our meeting with the school, the instructor told us about a seminar taking place that was being put on by the Ministry of Secondary Education. He suggested that if we talked to them and asked to speak to the person organizing the seminar, we could learn more about this training that was taking place. You’ll remember that I talked to you a little bit on the phone about this? This training sounds like it will be far greater than anything I will be able to come up with and I was interested in getting involved in some capacity so I could see what they were doing and possibly even bring some training materials away from it so I could use it in our training.
I ended up going down to the Ministry and miraculously we managed to go straight to the Regional Delegate—unfortunately that was the delegate of primary education, not secondary education. Apparently there were separate ministries for that. It makes sense I think. One thing that became very clear to me was that dressing sharp is tacitly required around the world. Everyone, young, old, men, women, was dressed out of a catalog. The higher ranked they were, the better their ensemble. It was no different from the principals of all the schools I’ve been meeting really. Dressing nicely is very important here if one wants to convey a sense of power. Volunteers were advised before coming here (on the Peace Corps Website) that wearing shorts of any sort here was looked down on as an adult and not a sign of professionalism or even intelligence.
We bounced around to a bunch of different officials at the second ministry (each one a higher rank than the last) before we were seated in front of the regional inspector of computer science (named Rose, she was actually a rank below the regional delegate. A very serious lady with a thick French accent, we tried to see if I could serve as a trainer there. Was it presumptuous of us to try to assist in the training? Maybe, but I don’t think there’s much harm in at least offering to help.
“Oh yes, he has experience teaching.” Andro piped up for me in response to a question by Rose.
Eh, I could have answered that but Ok…
“Brandon here is an expert in teaching computer science to both students and teachers and has a lot of knowledge and skills.”
Woah, an expert? Take it easy Tiger.
Despite the lofty praise Andro proceeded to drape over me, Rose stared from one to the other, clearly unimpressed. At some point I had to cut in to start answering her questions as I surely would have been promised as the singular chance all of Cameroon would ever have of understanding to understand even a keyboard. When we had finished, she asked me to write my name and qualifications on a note card (I tried to make them sound as technical and official as possible). As she mulled over the bit that I had scribbled onto the card, a man entered the room.
“Ah yes.” She said, turning towards him in her chair. “Though I am the director of this training, Mr. Something is in charge of coordinating the trainers…I could not make such a decision without him”. Now, his name wasn’t actually Mr. Something, but I can’t remember what it was and he sure dressed like something snappy so I figured it’s a good alias for now. Mr. Something looked over and smiled at us very beuraucratically and whispered something into Rose’s ear as she handed him my little card of qualifications.
If I had known this many people would look at it I would have added a little something to it… I thought wistfully.
“What are exactly did you want to help with?” He inquired, looking down at my card with a frown.
“Well, I think this would be better if you could show me your list of subjects so I could get an idea of what you’re attempting to do…” This was partially true, but I was also partially interested in seeing their list of topics so we could duplicate it at HINT and include them in our training as well. Shameless, I know. Mr. Something started ruffling through some papers on Rose’s desk as she pulled open some files on the computer. Andro and Kristi watched in silence, clearly intent on letting this scene unfold without getting involved now. After much searching, Mr. Something pulled out a packet of papers and laid them in front of me. I glanced through it, trying to get a feel for what I was capable of teaching.
Hmm…computer basics, that’s easy. I don’t want to teach that though, too difficult. Ah, Word that’s cake. Excel! Excellent, I’ll definitely advocate for teaching this one. Wireless networking, OK, I kind of get that. Infrastructure…hardware..hmm, some of these I don’t know all that much about…goodness, operating system design?! Really? Information systems! What? Data management?! Who knows this stuff??? Machine processors? Damn…yeah I’ll just kind of slip it back like I didn’t get to see all that… I hastily folded the packet back up.
“Yeah, I feel pretty good about most of that stuff. But I definitely would prefer to be a part of the Excel course, that’s definitely my forte as I use it a lot for my research and everything…” I trailed off. Rose clicked a bit more on the computer and exchanged a few phrases in French with Mr. Something. I sat in my seat, staring at the packet of courses in front of me, already regretting coming here.
“What about this?” Mr. Something asked, opening up the packet to the page about information systems and data management.
Damn! I bet you all do need someone that knows that horrible mess.
“Ah yeah…that’s actually one of the things that I don’t actually know that much about. Sorry.” I mustered, laughing weakly (alone).
“Ah, I see.” He said, pulling the packet away.
“Actually, could I get a copy of that packet? To have an idea of all the topics being taught and such?” They looked at each other.
“Uh..sure. I will print it now.” Rose said, clicking away again at the computer. Once again we all sat in silence as she attempted to print the course syllabus. At last, the printer started but clearly this was going to take a while. I pulled my backpack closer to me to distract myself with something.
Click. I looked around. What was that? I think I still have junk all over this thing. I need to clean it out. I thought, shaking it up and down a little. I peered inside. Where’s all my pens? I specifically brought them for these kind of meetings. I looked up and saw Rose and Mr. Something standing over the printer, investigating it.
“What happened? The printer stopped?” She said, perplexed.
Ah hah! Here’s my chance. If I go up there and whip out a miraculous fix, that’ll make me the tech wizard and they’ll have to give me a position. I smiled devilishly as they continued to peer at the thing, pressing buttons. Yeah but what if I screw it up? I have no idea what’s wrong with it—
“The power is off.” Rose said with surprise. “It won’t turn on.”
That’s odd, why would the power suddenly turn off? I looked at the power cord coming out of the back of the printer and followed it over to—Oh no. I looked down at my back pack and cringed. Please don’t tell me— I lifted it up. #$&%! Sure enough, there was the power strip to which the printer was connected, the little switch flipped to the “Off” setting. Looking up, I could see that Rose and Mr. Something had not yet discovered my stupidity. Leaning over, I kicked the switch back onto “on” (rather stealthily) with my foot. Viola! The printer sprang back to life, whirring and sputtering as it attempted to recalibrate.
“Oh…the power is on again.” Rose stated rather blandly.
Yep, so now if we’ll just move on—
“Ah, I see, you must have turned the power off” Mr. Something said, peering over the desk at the power switch next to my chair.
“Oh, yeah I think I accidently did, moving my bag and…but yeah, I flipped it on now. Sorry about that.”
Behold, the great technical savior of Cameroon ladies and gentlemen.
They ended up allowing me to serve as an assistant “facilitator” which was basically a fancy term for someone who goes around and helps people that were having trouble following the teacher’s instructions during class—a very helpful job to be sure, but not exactly one that requires one to “teach” and not a very useful use of time for me. The printer would never fully recover and the file would ultimately never be printed. As I was walking out, I thought I’d give it one last effort, hoping to leave the meeting with something to show for my effort.
“Perhaps, could you transfer the file to a USB drive?” I asked Rose. She paused a bit, and then nodded.
“Yes, Ok. Do you have one?” I bounded happily back into the room.
“Oh yes, just a moment.” As I fished for it in my backpack, Rose looked over the desk at me with slight apprehension.
“It does not have…virus does it?” Remember that I mentioned that viruses are really common in Africa and are a serious threat especially on USB thumb drives because people spread them every time they plug them into an infected machine and then into any uninfected computer afterward. But I had never let anyone use my thumb drive so it was definitely clean.
“Oh no, definitely not.” I happily replied, inserting it into her computer. I walked over to her side of the computer as I waited for the usual confirmation screen to pop up…instead her antivirus manager popped up with a series of warnings stating it had discovered new viruses.
“Virus!” She cried.
What? No way! How? I never put— It then occurred to me that I had let Deric use my thumb drive once to copy over some computer files on another computer. Well, maybe it’s only a small thing. I mean, her antivirus software caught it so— At this point the computer screen flickered.
“What is…?” her voice trailed off as she stared helplessly at the screen. I watched in horror as the computer began to cancel all programs and shut down, the system clearly compromised.
Why? Why?! Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?
It’s been a while, what gives?
Hmm, just busy actually. I’ve been engaged in a lot of different stuff from carpentry to teaching to electrical engineering (perhaps a smidge of babysitting?) and it’s all been a blast but entirely consuming. I WILL upload pictures soon (relatively) but I have to make it through this weekend first.
Today was the day we celebrated Naomi’s birthday and it was quite the event. I’ve repeatedly discussed the reserved nature of many of the people here in most situations…let’s just say Cameroonian children haven’t learned the trade yet.
Marceline enlisted my help to bake a cake for the event (I made a double layer yellow butter cake) and of course I happily consented. Baking’s fun and baking for something like a birthday party is even better because I get to feel festive or something. I think I mostly I like that people will be so happy and celebratory that no one will care if the cake is actually decent!
I kid I kid. Half kid.
Baking cakes has never been a forte of mine. I attribute this mostly to a lack of interest because I’m not really a cake person but this would not be an excuse to ruin this young girl (4 years old) birthday party. As you know, baking is usually pretty exact…well, this cake was being made much as I made the key lime pie: without measuring utensils, without proper ingredients, without a proper stove, etc. I seriously think I’ve been more proud of what I’ve put together here than anything else.
Well, long story short, the cake turned out really well. However, the kids at the party were something like little bacteria running around and touching (read: destroying) everything. What’s more, though I was told to expect a small gathering of 10, something like 38 kids showed up. On thinking of how such a thing transpired, I imagine the discussion went something like this.
“What you doing?”
“Heading over to Naomi’s house. What you doing?”
“Come with me! It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t know…”
“We can eat cake and touch all the furniture and food with our bare hands without washing them after playing outside in the dirt and touching the dog all while yelling as loud as possible and doing our best to defy authority!”
I refuse to believe that the conversation could have gone any other way. Upon walking back into the kitchen to cut up the cake, it suddenly seemed a lot smaller than I remembered.
I tried my best to make the cake last through all the kids but half way through I was starting to get warnings from the other volunteers that the slices were looking kinda big and wouldn’t last through all the kids. As the slices got smaller and smaller, the looks on the kids faces as their slice was handed to them was somewhat tragic yet comical at the same time. Clearly Baku was not pleased to watch Noya happily smack on a full slice of cake while he was handed some crumbs with icing (not literally). In the end we made it through and the adults even got to try some so it was a success of some sort.
For quite some time I’ve been desiring some chicken to eat. I’ve been subsisting off of eggs, bread, and bananas and the only meat I get is the ones prepared by Cameroonians which means that it always comes replete with maggi (the traditional pepper spice put on almost EVERYTHING here) and lots of oil. The maggi is ok in small quantities (which is never how it is prepared) but the oil is excessive. Also, the meat is almost always either beef or pork despite the abundance of very loud chickens and roosters that stroll about the streets or onto people’s porches.
I’ve asked Genesis about them (since we have about 6 that are always in our yard) and he said that they belong to random neighbors and at nighttime they all return to their homes. Somehow the same devil of a rooster finds himself wandering outside my window every morning at 3:00AM with the apparent unyielding desire to make the loudest morning calls he can. Some day I’ll eat one of you I often think as I rise out of bed.
Well, today I decided to ask Jones how one would go about getting some fresh chicken. I asked Deric this once earlier and he told me to go to a cold shop where they would sell it frozen. Unfortunately every cold shop I’ve been to sells only fish or beef or pork.
“Jones, can I talk to you for a moment” I asked. Luckily for me he was sitting outside the lab, apparently with nothing to do. He looked up with what may have been a trace of concern so I thought I’d jump right to the point.
“Where can I get a chicken?” He looked off into the street as if thinking.
“What kind of chicken?”
“I want a fresh one.”
“You can buy a live chicken—“
“No no, I didn’t want a live one,” I said, laughing at the thought of me walking around the house with a pet chicken. “I want one that’s raw, and cut.”
“Oh I see.” He thought some more. “If you go into the market…” he pointed down the street, “you can get a live chicken there.”
“But I want it cut…”
“Yes they will cut it there.”
“Will they take out the insides too?” I asked, making a scooping gesture with my hands.
“Yes, yes. They will clean it, take out everything, and you can go home and cook it.” This was delightful news. Not only was this the freshest chicken I’d probably ever eat, it was probably going to be the most bizarre experience I would ever had. However, as always, the issue of price was still to be settled.
“Jones…how much does a chicken cost.”
“Hmm…” he thought a bit. “A chicken can cost somewhere from 2500 to 3500…maybe 4000 for a big one. 3500 is a big one.”
“So if I got a big chicken, I’d pay 3,500?”
“Yes.” He said with a smile.
“So I should not pay more than 4,000 for any chicken.
“No!” he said emphatically with a few shakes of his head thrown in. It looked funny enough that I thought I’d ask the same question again just to see it but resisted the urge.
“Ok, I think I’ll buy one now then.” Jones looked over at a man that he had previously been talking to before I came.
“Uh…why don’t you wait and he will go with you.” He gestured to the man. I know the African tradition is to look stoic at all times but this guy didn’t exactly look happy to be going on this trip with me…and to be honest, neither was I. I didn’t want a babysitter. I told Jones I needed to go the house first before I could leave. Once I came back he looked around a bit.
“Ah, I wanted you to go with that man though. You should wait to go with him.”
“Because I want someone there who knows and can negotiate the price to make sure you get a good price.” I smiled.
“Nah, that’s OK Jones.” I replied, skipping off the steps into the sidewalk. “I think I can manage. Just don’t pay more than 4,000 right?”
“No!” His reaction was worth asking again.
Now, I don’t consider myself a master trader—far from it. However, I will say that battling for a price is something I do enjoy. Before I understood this, whenever I saw Mom trying to get a “deal” at the mall, I was somewhat embarrassed and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t pay the price that was given to her…just like the supermarket. However, I would later work in the mall as a sales rep and I have to experience other people trying to negotiate the price down with me! It was odd because I couldn’t come home to Dad and tell him that I lost us money because some bloke at the mall argued the price down on me. But I also didn’t want to see us just lose business all together…so I learned.
Trading is mostly a mind game. You have to be willing to deal with people getting angry at you, you have to be willing to get angry at other people, you have to be willing to make up stuff, and you have to project yourself as in control. It’s hard because both parties are fully aware that the other party is trying to do all these things, so it’s a matter of who cracks first.
As I walked up the street, I spotted the massive clump of people: the market. This was the smaller of the two main markets in Buea. This one sold almost everything from shoes, TVs, pots, and shirts to limes, tomatoes, and yams. I wandered a bit looking for my target: the chickens. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect.
Dang, are these chickens even here? I wandered a bit, looking for some sign of fowl. I started to wander into the deeper parts of the market when I finally smelled it before I saw them.
At last, I thought as I walked towards them. I could see them now, two rows of pens (sp?) full of white fluffy chickens. I’ll need a prop first, something to use as a distraction. I spotted a lady selling bananas and bought 5 off her. As I entered the row of pens, I slowly peeled off a piece of a banana and chewed on it. Multiple sellers in the same location are the best possible solution because it’s easier to walk away and you can make them anxious by talking to other sellers.
“Hey! Hey! You want to buy a chicken?!” A lady sitting on top of the fence of the pen gestured over to me with a stick in her hand.
“Maybe later,” I replied, continuing to walk down the aisle. I continued to walk a bit, making sure to look at each clump of chickens. Every time I stopped to look, the owner would leap to their feet and attempt to show me their chickens. As I declined, they would return to their spot and call after me as I left.
Ok, I’ve seen all the chickens. Now I’ll go back to the first lady and feel her out a bit. I placed my hand on the side of the wooden fence and stared down at her chicken, remembering the 4,000 number in my head.
“How much for that chicken?” I asked, gesturing randomly at one of them.
“Which one, this one?!” I nodded.
“3,200.” She replied happily. I tossed one of the banana peels and began to open the next one as I walked walked away, shaking my hand.
“Wait, wait! How much do you want for it? These are good chickens!” She cried, picking one of the chickens up by the feet and hanging it, upside down, before my face to expose it’s fluffy pink belly. “They are clean!” She continued, pulling away tufts of feathers from the belly as the chicken clucked and thrashed from being held in such a manner. I turned and looked at the chicken.
Is this clean? I have no idea what a dirty chicken would look like, I thought confusedly.
“Ok. 2-5” I said. In Buea that means 2,500XAF.
“I can tell you are student yes?” I nodded. “Yes, I will sell to you for 2-6. And then, cleaning and cutting is 200. So 2-8 total.”
“No. 2-5 for everything.” At this she dropped the chicken (on its head for that matter) incredulously. I started to walk away.
“I will look for some more chicken then.” I replied, starting on my third banana.
“Hey! Do you want me to hold this for you?” She pointed to the dazed chicken on the ground. I shrugged and continued to walk away. After a couple more exchanges like this with two more sellers, each one thrusting their chicken in front of me to show their pink bellies covered in white feathers (although most had the decency to hold the chicken upright, I came upon two men who were in front of a pen that had only 5-6 chickens left. I was skeptical, as this likely meant they were less desperate to sell the ones they had (one of the pitfalls of buying early in the day is they do not get as desperate to sell what they have yet but you do have the better selection to choose from), but I listened anyway. The two had watched me argue and barter with the other sellers and started off right away by picking up a chicken and putting it in front of me.
“2-7 for this chicken.”
“Why should I buy your chicken for 2-7? There are many chickens here for 2-7.” I stared at him. “2-4.” To be honest, I had no idea what a 2-4 chicken should have even looked like. I was negotiating here based purely on the principle that if I found a 2-4 chicken, they would try their hardest to sell it to me for 2-8. He dropped the chicken to the ground.
“I cannot sell you for 2-4. I bought these chickens in Molyko for 2-5. How can I go buy a chicken for 2-5 and then sell for 2-4?”
“Then why’d you pay so much?”
“Listen,” he said, appearing exasperated. “People can come from Douala and buy a chicken and they would sell you this same chicken for 3-5!” He said, gesturing at the pen next to him.
“I’m not in Douala. I’m in Buea. 2-4.” He looked away and I sat their waiting for a bit. After about 5 seconds his friend said something to him and then he turned to me again.
“Ok, I just talked to my friend here. He said to take off 100 to be nice to you. We will sell you for 2-6 then.”
“This is not a 2-6 chicken!” I declared. “This chicken is small! Show me that one!” I gestured at another chicken next to it. Is that chicken even bigger? I can’t tell. BLAST! I have no idea how to tell the difference between these chickens. He picked up the other chicken. “Too small!” I cried. His eyes widened at me to the size of tennis balls as he seized the chicken back up from the crate.
“This is not a small chicken. Here, take it!” He shook the chicken at me, wanting me to hold and feel its weight for myself. I already felt bad enough for bartering the price for a chicken that I would ultimately send to its death, the last thing I wanted was to be holding the thing by its wings…not to mention I had no idea what the thing had or had been touched by. Nonetheless, refusing to grab the chicken would reveal myself to be a chicken indeed; I had to grab it. I grabbed the chicken and shook it (gently but not too gentle).
“See? This chicken is not so big.” I began to lower the chicken gently to the ground, thought better of it, and just let it drop before looking at the guy again. “2-5.”
“I cannot sell it for 2-5!” he yelled. At this point I thought about it for a bit.
Am I really arguing over 100XAF? Over 20 cents? For some chicken?
“Ok, 2-6 for the chicken, and then 200 to have it cleaned.” I replied as I paid him. As they took the chicken behind the stall to cut it up and gut it, I thought a bit more on what the carpenter had once said to me when I asked why he merely accepted the price most people offered for his goods (“People here, we work only to make our daily bread. If we have made that, if we can eat at the end of each day, then we are fine.”). Why was I arguing over 200-300XAF and declaring myself to poor to pay their price? The difference was less than 2 quarters yet I fought it as if I needed that. Had I just deprived someone their daily bread? I looked over at the other sellers, bored, as they stared gloomily at the ground around them. The man returned and handed me a black plastic bag with a chicken’s toe sticking out. And here’s my reward for spending all that time arguing I thought as I walked away.
Despite this, I was immensely pleased that I had done so well. 2,600 was near the low end of what Jones told me, and honestly I had no idea what a small chicken even looked like. As I passed the lab on the way back to the house to freeze it, I thought I’d pop in and show Jones my work.
“Hey Jones,” I motioned for him to come over. When he was outside I placed the bag in his hand with the toe pointing angrily into the sky. “How much would you pay for this chicken?” Jones shook it a little bit and looked off into the distance.
“Perhaps…I would pay…3,500…or somewhere around there.” Yes! Victory! I smiled from ear to ear and did a little dance on the steps. Jones looked at me, very surprised.
“I paid 2,600 for this! I argued the sellers down!” He smiled a big smile and gave me a high five.
“You are beginning to become like one of us now!” He said with a smile. “You just need to speak pidgon.” He added. It was true. Had I been able to speak pidgon, I probably could have shaved another 100 or 200 off.
All in all, it was a great experience and I had to fight the urge to go back and buy another chicken.
Ah, today was a splendid day. Superb!
Today was the first day of teaching the holiday classes. As I mentioned earlier, HINT was offering lessons on computer basic skills 2 times a day for 40 underprivileged youths and I’m the main one responsible for developing the curriculum and teaching the classes…exciting.
I actually woke up early today (I’ve been miserably giving the whole waking-up thing the same performance I do for school classes) and was in the computer lab an hour before the class started with a belly full of eggs, bread, and a stray butterfly or two. And though I felt a little nervous, I was pretty calm because I don’t really get that nervous or shy in front of crowds. With about a half hour to go, 4 of the other volunteers entered as well (Amber, Andro, Kristi, and Eric) and began to mill about the lab. Theoretically they would be helping teach but in truth none of us knew what to expect. It was a little weird because as the students started to file in at about 5-10 minutes past 9 (in “Africa Time”, being somewhere at 9:00 means remembering that the appointment exists and making a commitment to leaving the house soon) I started to realize that everyone was expecting me to have a clue about what I was doing…yikes.
While I had indeed written the very manuals that the students would be using, and while I knew this information like the back of my hand, instilling a sense of trust while simultaneously engaging the students while also successfully filling their brains with knowledge was tricky business. I like to think that my teaching style was drawn from the multitude of teachers I’ve had the experience of watching and learning from as a result of moving to over 8 different states while attending over 10 different schools before the age of 18. Teaching is such a joy because you have the chance to really engage with people that are trying to learn!! It’s creative, it’s challenging, and it requires you (or at least dopes like me) to think quickly on your feet to adapt to unexpected questions (“Why can’t I hold the mouse like this?”) or bizarre problems (“My computer screen has a dragon on it that won’t go away”).
I thought it went extremely well and there were ultimately about 7 students in the morning section. The second best part after actually teaching the class and enjoying it was the recognition I got from all the other volunteers afterwards. Even some of the other people volunteering here that were merely in the room but not involved with the teaching congratulated me and gave me praise for how well I taught the class and carried myself. Andro has even started to call me Professor. It kind of reminded me of interviewing at Wake and UConn when interviewers from both schools asked me if I ever considered teaching/being a professor. I remember finding the idea intriguing at the time and even interesting that multiple interviewers had asked me the same thing. Of course now I still struggle with whether I even want to go to medical school vs. being a professor but that’s for another time.
Anyway, I think I’m still on a bit of a high from that great experience. My only concern is how fast we go through everything! Not that the students can’t keep up, because I make sure that everyone can understand everything as we go along. It’s only that we’ve nearly finished the entire Introduction to Computers portion in a single class when that manual took me about a week to make! I’m sure we’ll tear through the Windows basics as well and possibly even the Internet basics section too which hopefully means we’ll dig deeper into some of the Microsoft Office programs. Sweet.
Yesterday was a fun day with my carpentry stuff as well. The carpenter (I still don’t know his name) and I went into some lady’s house to fix her bathroom door, kitchen cabinet, and dresser cabinet. It was pretty fun and today was the first day that I started hammering stuff. I was a little surprised with how much he let me do unsupervised as he was attending to other things because he had no guarantee that I knew what I was doing!! And, of course, I screwed it up. Not that bad though, I only bent one nail which he had to come and fix. He wasn’t mad though so that made the learning experience easier.
The lady whose house we were working on is an interesting lady. When I talked to her about where I was from (people can instantly tell I’m American when I start talking) she was familiar with CA and with cities in NC. Surprised, I asked if she had lived in the states and she has! Not only that, but she most recently had returned from Germany where she spent most of her time. She seemed irritated that the carpenter said this job would take 1/4th the time it actually took but he accused her of thinking too much like a German and expecting people to do stuff on time (clearly this is not the African way). They then both agreed that she was a Bushwa or something like that. It means a person that left Africa to go somewhere west that has come back. Apparently she got used to that bizarre ideology where people actually use time literally and did stuff on time. Imagine that.
They argued frequently but it was half seriously half jokingly (maybe ¾ serious ¼ joking) but I tried my best to stay out of it (they would frequently say stuff like “You understand how precious time is” or “You know that is not Africa’s way right?” and I would pretty much agree with whatever some declared that I knew).
Today I was mostly busy working on training manuals for the students. The classes start on Monday and I’m nowhere near prepared. I shouldn’t say that…but I’m definitely not as prepared as I need to be.
I tried to bake a key lime pie yesterday…RARGH! The stupid oven here does not have any temperature markings on it. Only a big flame and a little flame and your guess to whatever is in between. Well, I had been looking forward to this for a long time. I bought all the ingredients last week and finally started going to work. Well, as I was squeezing the limes (which were super bumpy but I assumed it was something to do with Africa) Marceline came up to me and stared at what I was doing. Periodically I would come over and explain what I was doing to her because she wanted to learn how to bake.
“So, now you’re squeezing the lemons and mixing the juice with the condensed milk?”
Lemons? I thought, looking down at the dark green limes in my hand.
“Well, no these are limes. But yeah, I’m trying to collect maybe a half cup of the juice for the pie”. Did I mention that I was doing all this without any measuring utensils? Yep, all of this was being measured with eyeballs, fistfuls, and a dash of hope.
“No, no,” she said looking at me puzzlingly, “those are lemons. You see how bumpy they are on the outside? You can tell from that.”
What?! Green lemons?! I dipped my spoon into the juice and tasted it. The strongest lemons I’ve ever tasted too…
“So, wait, your lemons are green?” I asked with a sigh.
It wasn’t the end of the world. Some recipes that call for limes can be substituted with lemon juice. The exact substitution ratio is dubious and there’s not much that is actually done to make the lemon juice taste like lime juice. However, this recipe called for Key limes which can only barely be substituted by normal Persian limes (the big green ones most people are familiar with). Using lemon juice instead of Key limes was a pretty big stretch. Oh well. They must have thought I was pretty weird making a Lime Pie with lemons.
The pie was challenging to make for many reasons. Even besides the lack of accurate measurements, actual limes, an oven with specific temperatures, and an actual pie pan (I could only find a cake pan), the pie was meant to be mixed using an electric hand mixer. As you know, condensed milk is thick stuff and mixing it all up by hand is tiring, lengthy, and quite frankly not that effective. What can you do? At the end of it all, I was quite proud of the pie I ended up with. No doubt it would taste different, but hopefully it would still taste good. This was a new recipe…Cameroonian Lemon Pie. …
I would never taste the Cameroonian Lemon Pie. The pie is intended to be cooked at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Figuring that these ovens weren’t as strong as the ones in the US, I left it in for 20 minutes at almost the highest heat (big flame symbol). Big mistake. I came back and the pie was bubbling and brown on the top—disgusting.
C’est la vie I thought bitterly as I sat on a chair and stared at the pie. Marceline wandered into the room followed by Jerry (the guy who spoke to me about fufu and eru). She poked the charred surface softly with a spoon.
“Is it…supposed to be brown on top?”
I put my face in my hands.
Day 20 (July 5th, 2010)
Can you believe it, they forgot to bring me on the trip! It wasn’t intentional though, there had been a misunderstanding the night before which led the others to believe that I was no longer going. Oh well, they’ll be going again next week so I’ll have to go again that time.
Instead of seeing rural Cameroon, Genesis and I went around to local radio stations to spread the word about the grants we were trying to offer schools to receive a computer lab. It was quite interesting. The first radio station we went to seemed to be the most popular of the three. Though we listened to the guy (a friend of Genesis) interview some coach about the World Cup, when we got there we learned that it was only a recording and the guy wasn’t there; we’ll have to come again later.
The second station we went to was run the a large Presbyterian Church in the region. When we got in, we learned that the Radio Station only did broadcast announcements from 5-10 am and 5-10 pm (it played music in between). There was a lady there (who didn’t really seem to appreciate us being there) who was the program organizer.
“What is it you would like?” she inquired tiredly. Genesis explained our program for schools and what we were trying to accomplish.
“Ok,” she began, releasing a heavy sigh from her equally heavy body.
“We were hoping,” Genesis replied, somewhat hesitantly, “that you could find some time to fit us into a time slot. Maybe you could interview Brandon and some of the other volunteers to discuss what they’re doing here, how long they’ll be here, etc.” The lady did not seem to hear him.
“Do you have some sort of information…that I can use?”
“Oh yes,” he dove into his briefcase. “We have pamphlets here that you can use with some very brief descriptions of what we do…” I looked at the pamphlets as he handed them over to her. “Yes, these are brief descriptions of what we’re involved with…”
Brief? Genesis the thing is covered front and back with nearly 10 different sections! At any rate, the lady didn’t seem to mind but merely stared at all the paper he had unleashed upon her, appearing lost.
“So…” I began, uncertainly.
“Will the students pay for these?” she asked, referring to the free lessons I would be teaching over the summer.
“No, these classes are completely free. And we are providing the school labs as well nearly free as well. We cover most of the cost.” The lady didn’t seem too pleased, or rather, increasingly unpleased.
“We run an ICT lab here for students at our school and…” she said, gesturing in the air with her hand in a manner that left me confused as to what she was trying to convey.
“People in the area?” I finished.
“I can not advertise this on our radio. We run our own lab and running this would be in conflict with our own lab, it would be bad for business.
“I see…ok” Genesis replied, starting to pull away the sheets on the free summer courses.
“Do students use your school?” I piped. The lady turned slowly to me and fixed a stern look at me.
“Yes, during the school year.”
“Everyone uses it, students, adults…everyone.”
“But, just making sure, the students have to pay to use it right?”
“Yes they pay, everyone pays,” she responded rather irritably. I shut up after that.
“All this free stuff you all are giving out,” she said with a smile, slapping carelessly at the papers. “You must be really rich.” She finished with a laugh. Genesis and I laughed as well (I’m sure at the hilarity of anyone thinking our position was rich).
“Either very rich or very hard working” I replied.
“Yes, we are very hard working” Genesis added. The lady smiled a bit more.
“Well, I think we’re going to need a fee from you to pay for us…to help us sustain you know?”
“Ah, ok yes of course.” Genesis responded, apparently unfazed. In retrospect, he must have been expecting this the entire time. I suppose one gets used to the culture here after enough time. We ultimately agreed on paying 2,000XAF per broadcast day and for them to broadcast about our school labs for 3 days (Wednesday-Friday).
The next radio station was another Christian one, this time run by a pastor. I would find later that even though “Our radio station is your radio station” (which the Pastor enthusiastically told us when we asked to broadcast a message), we would not be without paying fees. “So…how will we pay for all of these free things?” the pastor asked, pointing to the fliers that we were asking him to broadcast about on the radio. We would later agree to pay 1,500 XAF.
Some girl (maybe 20-21) moved in for a bit today, I’m not sure why. There wasn’t really room for her so they just dragged a mattress on the floor and slept there. I felt a little bad for her as I walked by but I’m not sure she minded since I’ve seen many people here sleep on a mattress and to be honest, sleeping on a mattress isn’t really that bad…much like a bed. I tried to wash my clothes today but of course there’s no washing machine so she helped me wash my clothes. She has a pretty smile which is nice because it’s not often that people here smile at you.
Day 19 (July 4th, 2010) Tomorrow I’m going into rural Cameroon to see some of what Genesis described as “the poorest of the poor.” This should be pretty interesting since I’ve really only seen city life the entire time I’ve been here. I wouldn’t say I’m excited because it’ll likely be a little depressing to see how some of the people here have to live…but I will reserve judgment until I get down there. The unfortunate thing is that I must get up around 6:30 tomorrow to leave (Sabrina and someone else is coming as well). I also went to the big Muea (butchered spelling) market today and got some stuff to make pancakes with. I’m going to try making pancakes for everyone tomorrow as well 😛 We’ll see how it goes.