Monday, October 24, 2011

A Little Bit Out of the Ordinary

My week was a little bit out of the ordinary, which is actually a good change from doing the same thing every week. It started last Saturday, when my proviseur called in the morning to let me know that I had to be at school at 6:30AM in order to catch a bus to go to Abong Mbong for a Teacher’s Workshop. All of the teachers in the department, where I live had to go. (It would have been nice to have known a little bit beforehand, but at least I didn’t get a call Monday morning!) Because I had to leave so early Monday, I decided to leave Bertoua a bit earlier than normal, which was lucky because I saw what has to be the craziest thing ever and honestly I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t had seen it with my own eyes. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera, so you’ll just have to take my word for it!
On the way back to my village I kept seeing people carrying cassiers or crates full of beer bottles. I thought it was a bit weird, but maybe there was just a shipment. And these tiny village bars don’t get a lot of business?? (Because bars normally get 20 or 30 crates at a time) But the more we drove the more people I saw carrying beer bottles and not just in crates anymore. There were people of every age carrying bottles in bags, on their head, basically in just anything they could find. Which was a little weird, but then I saw it. A beer delivery truck had fallen over. There were people everywhere, inside of the truck, outside of the truck essentially stealing beer from this truck. They were climbing all over the truck, it was insane! I saw a gendarme truck and I thought oh they are going to restore order! I was a little naïve, they were taking the beer too!! For the rest of the moto ride I saw people running with empty bags, I’m assuming to go try to grab beer.
The interesting thing is that there was another beer delivery truck that fell over on the other side of my village. The crazy thing about this is that this road is the national highway. But it is just a dirt road. Unfortunately since the roads are so bad, there are many accidents. But on the brightside, on the trip to Abong Mbong, which is 120 KM from Dimako going towards Yaoundé, I saw that the asphalt goes almost all the way to Dimako now. Everyone has been telling me that there would be asphalt soon, but I just thought it was just talk. But since August the asphalt has gone almost the whole way from Abong Mbong to Dimako, there is only a couple kilometers left until my village! So maybe before my two years are finished they will finish the road and make it go all the way to Bertoua, thus making my rides safer. Even better, they put in a lot of speed bumps on the road!
So on Monday, I showed up bright and early for the bus, much to everyone’s surprise. I guess they don’t understand that I show up when they actually tell me too. So I waited around for an hour, which in Cameroonian travel isn’t that bad… Plus I was in a car and they didn’t make 5 people sit where only 4 should! So the ride to Abong Mbong wasn’t that bad! When we got there, my colleagues made me eat. Which was a little weird, but thankfully I did. I didn’t understand what or how long the workshop would last. So afterward I went to the high school where the workshop was and walked into a giant room full of about 300 people and I was the only white person. This was a little bizarre especially since everyone stared at me and probably was wondering what I was doing there. I sat down at a desk and waited for it to start. From about 10 – 14, there were speeches made, all in French. I am not going to lie, I fell asleep a bit, but I wasn’t the only one! My excuse is that waking up at 5 AM and having to listen to 4 hours of speeches that have nothing to do with me and in French none the less, isn’t all that interesting!
After the speeches, all the teachers split up into subjects. I went to the English workshops. That was a lot of fun because we got to listen to presentations in English. Every time they made us do group work, I got to do all the work because the people in my group were too afraid to speak English in front of me. But some of the other participants spoke so much just to show how much English they knew. At least that was fun for me to witness! The presentations were not that useful, in fact it was just like Training, but minus my friends and I playing scrabble on my kindle during the presentations.
At 1730, they finally let us go! Unfortunately none of my colleagues were still there, so I decided to go to the hotel, where the proviseur reserved a room for me and drop off my stuff. But I was starving so I went off in search of food. There was a boutique across the street from the hotel and unfortunately they didn’t have food, but the owner told me to go to the center. Outside of the boutique I was just deciding what to do, when I ran into one of the English teachers from the workshop. I asked her if she was going to the center of town and she said yes and then I invited myself to walk with them. I normally wouldn’t be so forward but I was all alone and hungry and she seemed nice. On the walk to the center, I was talking with her colleagues and they were all really nice. Half way there they wanted to stop to grab a beer, but because I was hungry and just wanted to go home after dinner. I said that I would just continue by myself, but they refused. And we went somewhere closer to eat, le petit marche.
When we got there they asked me what I wanted to eat. I didn’t really want to eat fish, but that appeared to be my only choice. But they pointed out 2 marmites (pots). I decided to investigate, after opening 1 pot I decided that that was enough, that I was going to eat fish. I asked what was in the marmite and they responded l’elephant. I wasn’t sure if I heard that correctly, because I know out in the East there is a lot of bush meat, but ELEPAHNT! I have never heard of anyone eating elephant! But they verified it not once, but three times. I decided NO on the elephant, especially since I was going to have to voyage back to my village, and I wouldn’t have wanted to if I was having stomach issues and who knows what would happen with elephant??(I say this delicately, but they really don’t lie, PCVs really do talk about their bowel movements, in fact we talk about it pretty much daily, I never thought I would, but I do ahaha…) So I decided to play it safe with the fish. The English teacher’s colleagues were are very nice and polite and I am glad that we had a nice talk about Cameroon and America (Yay goal 2!). After dinner I caught a moto back to my hotel and went to bed.
The next day at the workshop was pretty much the same, except they said to be there at 9 but they didn’t show up until 930. And then all the workshops were supposed to stop at 11 for the closing ceremony which didn’t start until 1430. So I was basically sitting in my desk when people kept coming up to me and asking what “La blanche” was doing here. After awhile this gets annoying, especially when you can smell the alcohol on their breath. So finally when one man wouldn’t stop calling me “La Blanche” and wondering out loud why I was mad and if I hated Africans. I finally turned to him and told him my name isn’t “La Blanche” and then I asked him how he would like it if I called him “Le Noire” and then he got offended, because he obviously didn’t like it. Thankfully there was another man who was very nice and polite and explained that it is impoli to call Americans or Europeans, or basically anyone by their skin color, and that HE as a teacher should know better! I love people like that, who stick up for me! It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I really appreciate it.
After the closing speeches, we finally finished around 16, and then we proceeded to “Item 11” or food! After eating, some of my colleagues walked to the center of town to catch a car going to Bertoua, so we could just hop off in Dimako. Unfortunately I always get in the WRONG car, because everyone was fighting with the chauffeur over the price. They kept saying that it was 1500CFA (3$) to go to Bertoua and 1500CFA (3$) to go to Dimako, even though Bertoua is 30km from Dimako. Many people thought that price was unfair, I just kept quiet and just went with what the majority thought. After we had failed to get them to lower the price, we still had to wait an hour to fill up the bus. Unfortunately, at this time the sun had started falling and it was getting dark. Although I was in a hurry to get home before it was completely dark, the chauffeur, however, was not in the same mindset. He stopped for everyone on the side of the road, even if they weren’t in a village. At one point there were 21 people in the first 4 rows alone. That doesn’t include the last 2 rows, where there was at least 12 people plus a couple of children. By my estimation, there were 40 people in this Coaster bus at one time. I think that might be a record even in Cameroon.
This bus ride had to be one of the most amusing, at least of my time so far (this is including the time, I got conned and didn’t even end up with a seat, during site visit). It seemed as if one thing after another had happened on this trip. First off the charger, the guy who helps the chauffeur, collect money and load the bus with both people and bags, refused to give me my 500 CFA change. He said that he was going to use it to help another passenger pay. Fortunately my colleagues stood up for me and got my 500 CFA back. It is very ironic, because he wouldn’t accept money from this one woman, because she didn’t have it all right away and when she got off the bus, she just left without paying. I think he should have at least taken what money she had offered, but I guess that is just his loss.
All along the way we kept picking up people and when we were finally full (even by Cameroonian passengers), some of the people offered to pay the ones who just got on to get off because there was just no more room. Unfortunately, they didn’t take the offer. I really wish they had left, because within the group was the craziest man ever! He wouldn’t leave me alone and kept trying to talk to “La Blanche,” for some reason he thought I was Spanish so kept trying to speak Spanish (even though I haven’t spoken Spanish since high school, I knew that what he was saying had NO relation to Spanish, in fact it was more Franglais) He kept trying to talk to me using anything he had, from saying that he was a handsome man, to trying to give me a dead porcupine. He kept waving the dead animal in my face, and for those of you who had any doubts, that is NOT the way to court me. He would not give up for a good 30 minutes, and kept trying to get me to leave the van with him. But the funniest thing was that when he finally left he fought with the charger over the porcupine, he succeeded in getting it, but then someone in the bus said “But the white is staying with us!” It was very funny. I think that this was honestly the funniest ride I’ve had in Cameroon, but luckily (I guess) I have 22 more months to see if that will hold out.
On Wednesday, school went back to normal (especially since no teachers or admin was there). But while I was teaching the sophomores, I heard this noise; I wasn’t sure if it was an animal or a person screaming in pain and looked out across the street, where the gendarmes offices are. And saw that it was a woman screaming and there was a crowd gathering. I asked my class what the commotion was all about and they told me that it was people being sent to prison, in ironically Abong Mbong, where I had just come from. The funniest thing about this was that they got a WHOLE bus to themselves, talk about comfortable! But I doubt the comforts of a prison in Cameroon…
Unfortunately in class on Thursday when I was doing roll call I found out that one of my 6th grade students was one of the people sent to prison. Apparently he was taking bottles from the truck that had fallen on Sunday. That wasn’t the problem I guess, but that he argued with the gendarmes when they wanted to take the bottles he had taken. I am really distraught about this because he was a great student. He clearly likes English and is good at it and the fact that a 12/13 year old got sent to prison over such a bull shit issue sucks. I really hope he comes back soon, but I’m not really sure what the procedure is for this. The only thing I can is on verra

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Teacher's Day, Church and Amicale

Well as you can see since I have access to the Internet that Standfast is over a little earlier than expected, although as they love to say here on sais jamais (one never knows) so they could put us back on Standfast at any time.
A lot has happened since the last time I updated my blog. October 5th was “International Teachers Day” (even though Cameroon may actually be the only country that celebrates it) and you would think that since it is a day for teachers, we should you know actually teach, but we all got the day off! Normally all the teachers wear the teacher day’s pagne because there is a big parade through all the towns with all the teachers. While since it is an election year, all the requests for public gatherings were denied (obvious they don’t have the American 1st Amendment here, never thought I would miss it so much = ) ). So instead of the usual parade, I was told that I should just do house work or allez au champs (work in the fields). I did neither and decided to finally finish Les Mis. In the afternoon I was told to go to my high school because there would be a party. So all the teachers were there and we ate (even though I was told I didn’t eat enough comme d’habitude) and they drank beer, I had a Fanta =) When the teachers started to dance inappropriately I decided it was my time to go home, especially since they all wanted me to dance.
The day after, Justine called me and wanted to see if I would come to Bertoua so we could get some provisions to hold us over until the end of Standfast, I jumped at the thought  and after class we met up in Bertoua. We went to the Boutiques and grocery stores, bought apples(!!!) on the side of the road. And around 5PM we decided to go home before it got too dark and it started to look like it was about to rain HARD (Side note: When it rains here in Cameroon, literally everything stops. No one goes out, the streets are empty. You would think that the Cameroonians are made out of sugar or that it is acid rain. And the answer is neither, they just hate getting wet, kind of like cats.) Since it was so late and the weather was so inclement, I didn’t have time to call my usual moto drivers, so I chose one of the only guys there willing to go to Dimako. We gased up as usual for the ride and before we even left Bertoua we got in an accident.
Now I don’t want to scare any of you and before I tell you the story but this happened a week ago and I am OK! I didn’t bleed or anything, it was more of a shock than anything else.
We were cruising along and all of a sudden a car was trying to enter the road and we just ran straight into the car. Right before it happened I saw the car and felt the moto try to break, but I knew in my gut that something bad was just about to happen. Right when the moto hit the driver door of the car, both the moto driver and I fell off the moto and went in front of the car. Luckily I was wearing my Peace Corps provided helmet, so my head was ok. But when I got up I was disoriented I burned my fingers on the motorcycle. I was so shocked and amazed at what just happened, even when you see accidents, you think this can never happen to me ( I guess I am still young enough to think I am invincible). So I was standing in the road and literally 50 Cameroonians young and old started yelling at the moto driver and the driver from the car. I was in such shock I was just standing there and finally people noticed me and told me to sit down, but I was shaking so hard and couldn’t move. I tried to call my friend Sam, in the Southwest, to let her know what had happened, but unfortunately I ran out of phone credit. She called me back and I let her know what happened. This was all happening while the mob was still in the road yelling at everyone about everything.
After talking to Sam, I calmed down a bit and let Justine know that I got into an accident. Luckily for me, her moto was stopped because of the rain and her driver knew my driver and offered to take her back to me and then go back to my village. Unfortunately it was raining so hard and for a long time that I just had to wait at the bar. (Oh yeah the accident happened right outside a bar!)  
When she finally showed up about 2 hours after the accident, I wasn’t really thrilled with the idea of getting back on another moto especially as it was still raining and it was pitch black. No matter how “dark” it gets in America, here in Cameroon, there is almost zero light pollution so at night it is DARK and you can’t see anything! Also at night is when all the trucks are on the road, so the thought of a 40 minute moto ride in the dark, in the rain, surrounded by giant trucks, was almost the last thing I wanted to do right after I was just thrown off of a moto. Thankfully Justine let me sit in the middle, which is the “safest” place because you are just wedged in between two people. Unfortunately with every bump in the road just aggravated all the bumps and bruises I got from the accident, sitting down wasn’t so much fun, and it still hurts a little. And every time we passed a truck I was praying that we wouldn’t have another accident. Luckily we made it to my village an hour later, safe, but COVERED in mud. (I have pictures that I’ll put up later).
I am eternally grateful that I am OK, I realize that that accident could have been a lot worse. The only causalities were the motorcycle (the handles bars were no longer attached and the wheel was bent beyond recognition) and my computer (the screen shattered and now it is ungodly slow, but at least it works just a little bit…). I also really appreciate that everyone gossips in the Peace Corps and at the end of the weekend, many of my friends from Training had heard about the accident and called or texted me to make sure I was ok. This made me feel a lot better!
My first full weekend alone in Dimako was spent mainly at my house, since it hurt to walk, I think I bruised a bone in my foot in the accident. But on Sunday I did finally make it to the Catholic Church. For those who know me, this may seem like a surprise, that I willing went to Church on a day that wasn’t a holiday. But Cameroonians are all very religious and they don’t understand anyone who isn’t religious, so for integration purposes (and the fact that I don’t want anyone trying to convert me, I’ve already had Jehovah Witnesses come over to my house) it is just easier to go along with it. Unfortunately Mass in Cameroon is a little longer than the American Mass I am used to. In fact, it was 2.5 hours, even though the priest said he kept it brief (I am not looking forward to the day where he is long!) I talked with some students and teachers after the service, it was all very nice. So I am actually looking forward to going again, even though the “pews” are more like the things you kneel on without any cushioning, it wasn’t very comfortable. All in all the Church experience was nice, it is a little different because it’s in French and even the local patois, but it is interesting, so that helps with the whole 2.5 hours.
This week I had to give all my students (yes all 340 students) tests and grade them. The Cameroonian education system splits the year into 6 sequences and you have to evaluate the students at least once during the sequence to give them a grade for the sequence. This week marked the end of the 1st sequence (which also means 1/6 of the school year is already done!). So I reviewed with everyone before the tests, gave them the structure and examples of questions that would appear on the test. And then I finally gave them the tests. Although I have only finished grading 3 out of the 4 classes I teach, I am really happy with the results. The average so far in all my classes has been passing. There have been some kids who really get it, and they seem to be the majority. Although there are some people who don’t get it all, there aren’t that many of them and honestly in classes of 130, 110, and 80 it makes it easier for them to slip through the cracks. I hope though with time everyone will do at least moderately well in my class. But it gives me hope that I am not a lousy teacher! My students have actually learned something despite the terrible teaching conditions.
On Wednesday the 11th my school had their Amicale. I am not sure how to explain this because I am still fuzzy on what exactly it is, but essentially every month people cook food, all the teachers come together and put money into a Tontine (again don’t ask me, but unfortunately it’s not the cool animal in Star Wars) and talk about problems. I went and it lasted FIVE hours, I even showed up late, so I missed about an hour. Everyone had been drinking palm wine the whole time, so they were all drunk and arguing about I have no idea (as good as my French is, the accent here still gives me some problems, add to that slurring and every talking at once). Maybe next month I’ll tell you more about Amicale, because apparently I am in the group that is putting it on, we shall see how this goes…
Oh I had a really great conversation with my Landlord, from here on out Mamita, this week. She said how happy she is with my behavior and how people in the village have come up to her to let her know how respectful I am. Which I think is a major compliment! And she also said that she is going to clear some space in the yard for me to start my own garden! I am really looking forward to that. (PS She killed a mouse in her house, so maybe that was mine?? I haven’t seen it in awhile!)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

School Speeches and Mix-ups, Life in Bertoua, and Politics

Monday morning bright and early I was at school at 7 15 for the raising of the flag and I got the surprise of my life. The principal of the school was actually there! I hadn’t seen him since the start of school a few weeks before then, and even when he does show up it’s not until 10 or 11 in the morning. (Now I know how my Dad feels when he sees me out and about in the morning!). Since he was there so early, he gave a speech to the students about showing up on time, being prepared, having their uniform, blah blah blah. And it wasn’t until 8 AM he finally finished his speech, yes a 45 minute speech, that cut into half of my class. All the while this speech was occurring, the surveillant generale was walking around making sure everyone had their hair properly cut, and if it wasn’t he would cut lines into their hair. (A week later, some of the students still have the lines in their hair) I think the point behind this was to humiliate them into getting their haircut.

My 6th grade classroom. There are about 120 of them and normally each bench has between 3 and 5 students, it's a little cramped =) 

Class this week went relatively well. Expect for the mix-up with my class schedule. They changed it without telling me. So now I teach the Freshmen, and they thought that I wasn’t going to teach the Sophomores anymore, but I wanted to stop with the 7th graders. So another English teacher showed up in my Sophomore class and then come up to me and are mad because they thought I didn’t like them and was running away from them. I had a talk with the Surveillant Generale and it is all worked out right now. So after 4 weeks, my work schedule is finally done. I work until 14 on Thursday now and until 12 30 on Monday, but I only have one hour on Friday, which is better than the 7:30 to 8 30  class I had. So in general I like my schedule and my students, of course there are trouble makers but I think give it a month there won’t be anymore more problems. Like I had in my first class with the Freshmen, where one student said I was “his Michelle” and another said I was “his angel” I put them in their place saying I’m not YOUR Michelle nor am I your angel. I am ONLY your English teacher. I think it’s important to set these boundaries early and often =)

View of my school from the main road 

On Thursday we signed up girls for the Girls Club and I was also informed that I am doing the Journal Club, so helping the kids write in English. One student already asked me to help him with lyrics for a song he wants to write about our school. I also briefly talked with my principal about the possibility of doing a library at the school. I think it would be helpful especially for the kids who don’t have enough money to buy books, they can access them at the library. So I am going to be looking more into that later. But with my 2 clubs and teaching classes (oh and I joined the women government workers association) my plate is sufficiently full, so I just want to focus on making my work as good as possible, and not spread myself too thin, too fast in the beginning.

 My front yard view from my porch

Petit a petit I am getting to know the villagers more. Most people know my name and if not they know I am replacing Renee. It’s really funny because most of the time, people want me to buy things from them or what not. However, I had the weirdest encounter this week. I went to this new place to see if they sold bread, they didn’t but I wanted to have a soda. Normally in Cameroon, if you buy a soda or beer it comes in a glass bottle and they reuse the bottles, so you can’t keep the bottles. So normally I ask if I can buy it and then bring the bottle back the next day, sometimes if you have a bottle you just constantly trade, so give an empty and get a full one. Well I asked and the guy said no, but there was a lady who said no let her get the soda! I tried to tell him that I live right there and my school is there and the bar is on my way, he still refused. And the lady said she would give me a bottle so I could give it to him, but I told her it wasn’t worth it, I didn’t want to cause problems. The lady insisted again, and she questioned the guy as to why he wouldn’t sell me a soda. He answered with that is my strategy. So basically his strategy is to lose money or I guess my money wasn’t good enough for him… I then went to another bar next to my house, got a Coke and returned the bottle the next day and it wasn’t a problem!

 View on my moto ride to Bertoua

As this is my last weekend in Bertoua and most people ask what do I do here, I’ll give you a brief outline of mine and Justine’s weekends here. We get into the city around 13:30 after our classes and we eat lunch at the Omlette Shack. Which is literally a hole in the wall with a gas stove and they make omlettes or avocados salads (not so much anymore because the season is over =/) You can get what you want in the omlettes that is if you want tomatoes, pasta, or beans. Although we once thought chameleon was on the menu because on the next table there was a chameleon, I have no idea what they had in store for it but at this point nothing would really surprise me! We normally sit and talk for 2 hours about what happened during our week, what was bad, what was good.

After lunch we go to the grocery store, which is overpriced, but they have ice cream, so we sometimes treat ourselves (we often need it after the weeks we have!). Then we head to the CASE to relax, unwind, and check our e-mails. For dinner we normally have grilled fish at a bar or get biftek at the Muslim place (yes that is what we call it and the other Cameroonians, I hope one my Fulfulde will be good enough to order food in, but I am too scared most of the time). Grilled fish comes with either plaintain chips or baton de manioc (which is disgusting IMO). Biftek is like a stew of beef and assorted veggies, you can get it with pasta or rice, I get it with bread =)

Saturdays we dedicate to doing our shopping, so we get vegetables we can’t get au village and lots of canned veggies (because they don’t rot, we’ve already had a lot of bad experiences with rotten vegetables). We are still buying little things for our house,  sometimes we stop at the post office. We used to have to spend an average of 3 hours at the bank to get our money, but now with our ATM cards (that came 6 weeks late) trips to the bank are a lot less painful now! After our errands are done we go back to CASE and relax. Doing anything here can be exhausting, the constant yelling at us, staring at us, the haggling, all under the hot sun, it can get old fast, so it’s nice to just lay down and relax. Then we have dinner, usually what we didn’t have on Friday night, life here is really exciting no? On Sundays we get anything else done that we didn’t get a chance to do on Saturday and then we catch a moto to go home. 

Spaghetti Omlette with Bread. Yum Carbs!

As a PCV we are not supposed to participate in local politics or even give an opinion because we are also representatives of the US Government. This is the most difficult for thing for to do because of my Political Science background and in general I am just an opinionated person. The campaign season here in Cameroon only lasts 2 weeks. We are already 6 days into it and it ends on the day before the election. It appears that overnight all of Cameroon sprouted posters and Ads for Paul Biya, the incumbent president. My village has signs everywhere and literally one day they weren’t there and now they are everywhere. Apparantly, Paul Biya is the choice of Dimako (not surprisingly because he recently gave everyone in Dimako mosquito nets). I have only seen one poster for one of the 22 opposition candidates and it was tiny and on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, so I don’t think that guy has a chance! Luckily where I am there isn’t a revolutionary spirit, so things are pretty calm. However, earlier this week I found out that there was a riot in Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon. (For more info look here I guess that is the upside of living in a relatively small village, nothing like that really happens, so I feel relatively safe in Dimako. But I guess that is why there is Standfast next weekend, on the off chance something happens (but don’t worry I let them know where the nearest place a helicopter can land in my village, yes they seriously asked us that). So no updates from me until the election results come out.  I hope they come out soon because I am invited to an engagement party at the end of October.

Ps If you have some free time check out my friends’ blogs. One even has a picture of me on my birthday on her blog. She’s in the East with me.