Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Arriving in Cameroon – Take II

June 17, 2008

Last week I had a chance to relive the excitement and fear of arriving for the first time in Cameroon, this time on the faces of others. Tara and I were chosen to be the two volunteer hosts that welcome the incoming group of trainees. That means we would greet them at the airport and stay with them for their first five days in the hotel in Yaoundé. It would also mean lots of work and responsibility.

We showed up in Yaoundé a couple of days before their arrival to start getting ready. What tat meant was stopping by essentially every Peace Corps staff person in the office and figuring out what they needed from the trainees. It was anything from the IT guy needing them to sign off on guidelines before using Peace Corps computers to immigration forms so that they could get national identity cards. There were also three things that most of them would want/need their first week in country. They would need their US dollars changed into CFA. \The banks here don’t like to do it and/or charge big fees, so we needed to figure out who in the office would be going to the states and wanted to buy dollars. Cell phones – for safety and to be able to talk to their loved ones, we went out and priced phones at the two big competitors. Voltage regulators – you don’t just plug an iPod or a laptop into the wall here because of the power surges so we went and priced these too. During any free time, we stalked the new kids. Peace Corps gave us photos and résumés for everyone so we could start getting to know them and almost half had already found each other and started a group on facebook.

Saturday night they arrived. We met 38 trainees at the airport with the Country Director and lots of other Peace Corps staff. I was surprised at how excited and alert everyone was after 24 hours of traveling. It’s interesting, what I remembered from my arrival in the airport exactly 1 year ago was fear, but what I was seeing on their faces was excitement. They looked ready to go. There wasn’t a single bag lost during the trip so we loaded up everything and everyone on a big bus and headed to the hotel. We all had dinner at the hotel, and despite everyone’s excitement, everyone went to bed right after.

The next day was set aside for relaxation and recuperation. Most everyone took advantage of the free time to do some very small-scale exploring of the capital. Because they had arrived at night, this was their first chance to see Cameroon – people selling things balanced on their heads, what the shops and bars look like, and Yaoundé’s crazy style of driving (which looks normal to me already). While everyone with jetlag was out exploring, knowing how busy the week would be, I took a nap. That night everyone got fancied up for a nice catered dinner at the Country Director’s house. The US ambassador, Cameroonian government officials, and Peace Corps staff were there to welcome everyone to Cameroon. The food was great, but there were about 7 people that got sick later and the speculation was that it was this dinner. If getting sick was something they were afraid of, they got that out of the way early. Welcome to Cameroon?

The rest of the week, for the trainees, was filled with training sessions. They were getting more shots, learning about diarrhea, getting an introduction to Cameroonian culture, and getting ready to move in with a Cameroonian family. For Tara and me it was nonstop all over Yaoundé and the Peace Corps office. We exchanged their money, bought the things they had signed up for, filled out forms, gave a couple of the training sessions, gave back the Cameroonian money that was still owed them, and answered innumerable questions at every step of the way. It was all stuff that we knew we were getting into. We were the ones that had requested the job. And while it was worth it and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, it was way more tiring than we could have expected.

Thursday morning everyone repacked their bags to be loaded on two small buses and prepared to leave the capital for the training village and their home-stay families three hours away. Thinking back to how I was a year ago, words like naïve and clueless come to mind. I remember looking at our volunteer hosts and thinking “Will I really be that integrated and comfortable after one year?” They might have had the same thoughts going through their minds, but it didn’t come across to me. It was a great group. They all seemed mature, adventurous, and ready to take on anything. I think they’ll all make great volunteers.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

What’s Wrong with Cameroon II – Upbringing

May 6, 2008

The first blog in this series got a lot of reaction. In the states I heard of and from lots of people inspired by my “call to action” that plan on sending books. And I even got reactions from Cameroonians. One of my fellow volunteers told me that someone in his village in the extreme north approached him wanting to argue against the points I had made. I was flattered. It means he takes pride in his country. But whether any or all of what I said was right or wrong, starting up a conversation about these topics could only be helpful. This blog’s topic: Upbringing. I’ll repeat the disclaimer. I’m not professing to be any kind of expert in stating my opinions of what I see wrong with Cameroon. They’re just that – opinions. I’ve been living in Cameroon for about a year now. I’ve been living a little better than the average Cameroonian, but no where close to the luxury of the average ex-patriot. I’ve been living among and working with Cameroonians on a day to day basis and this is what I see.

People have written books on nature vs. nurture – whether it’s your genes and biological makeup that make you who you are, or whether it’s the way in which you were raised. I think everyone can agree that it’s some combination of the two, and while I’m not going to argue which is more important, I’ll be sticking mainly with nurture – the way that children are raised.

Also to be noted is that a lot of what I might see as negative, someone else might see as just a cultural difference. Are these things actually impeding the development of the next generation of Cameroonians or am I just refusing to step out of my own perspective? I don’t know (not an expert, remember). I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are good things and I feel bad writing a lot of what I’m going to say, but these are the only things I can rationalize as causes of what everyone can agree are actual problems in Cameroon. Okay, I guess I’ll just jump in.

“A child is not only raised by its parents, but is a product of the entire village.” This is a concept that exists to my knowledge all over Cameroon. At first glance, it sounds great, like lessons and principles are taught by more than just the two parents. But if this idea is used to justify diminishing parental responsibility, it quickly becomes negative. What happens when parents don’t know where their children are or what they are doing? Tara’s two-and-a-half-year-old neighbor who can’t even put together a complete sentence wanders over to her house all the time. When Tara leaves the house, she follows and would be content to walk around with her anywhere in the town were she not led right back to her house each time. Another example is when Tara and I caught a 6-year-old girl smoking. She had found a still lit, half smoked cigarette in a pile of trash and was actually taking drags off of it. We were stunned. We told her sternly to throw it down and not pick it up again. After we walked by, we turned around and noticed that she had picked it up again and smoked some more. We ended up asking her where she lived and dragging her back, kicking and screaming, all the way to her home. When we got there we realized that her dad lives and works in another city and her mom had been away from the house for the last week. Who was taking care of her and all of her other siblings? Her oldest sister, about 15 years old.

Also to do with parenting is the way that children are viewed by society – their parents and others. There are different degrees of this, but a lot of times children are viewed as property whose role is to do chores and fetch things. If someone is sitting in a bar and wants some corn that is roasting across the street, the first thing he’ll do is look for a kid walking by that he can send to buy it. The kids lack identities in many situations too. Before they can talk, there name is bébé (even to most parents). Until they’re about 12, they’re most commonly referred to as petit. With most parenting styles they get little to no positive reinforcement. If they do something wrong, they’ll hear about it and probably get hit. Do something well and they won’t even know. In general, affection is just not shown to kids. In the US, we put a huge emphasis on education – life lessons and classical education in schools. The idea is that the generation below our own will be running the country and aspects of our lives when we get older. It just doesn’t feel like Cameroonians have this same mentality. This is probably an extreme case, but I had one Cameroonian tell me that he didn’t understand Americans’ obsession with their pets. “Once all your kids have grown up and left the house, Americans get a dog or cat to keep them company. But what happens when your wife is at the market? The dog can’t get you a beer.” He told me that when his last born leaves the house and gets married, that child will give his first born child to his parents (in lieu of them buying a dog).

Nutrition plays a role as well. This has mostly to do with poverty. If a mother can only afford starches with hardly any nutritional value and little else while she is pregnant, it can create learning disabilities and other problems with the developing fetus. Learning disabilities happen in all corners of the globe, but they seem more prevalent here. And once the child is going to school, not eating breakfast in the morning or not having money to pay for lunch often creates problems concentrating in class and on tests. Outside of class if the child is busy doing chores and working in the fields, they don’t have time to do their homework.

That leads to the education system itself. First problem – class size. Classes in any grade can easily get up to and over 100 students. This makes distractions more prevalent, makes it harder to hear the teacher and see the board, and takes away individual attention to the students and their questions. One other thing it probably takes away is the ability of teachers to plan dynamic lessons. Most of the emphasis in Cameroonian schools is placed on memorization and passing standardized tests. Most students are never taught critical thinking skills or encouraged to be creative. One example of a lack of creativity was Tara’s English class on Halloween. She taught them about the American holiday and made a short trick-or-treating skit that each student would reenact asking for candy and telling what they were dressed up as. They were encouraged to be whatever they wanted and to ask for the word in English if they didn’t know it. Of her 90 student class, all but 2 said they were dressed up as a witch or a princess (even boys) which were the only two examples she had given in class. The other two, if you’re interested, were a doctor and a Christian. Maybe also because of class size, class control and discipline are big problems. Although it is illegal, the most common forms of discipline are physical punishments. Students are hit all of the time. Some teachers carry around a rubber strap that they use to strike the kids with and just about every education volunteer has a horror story about someone coming into their class and hitting their students. Most teachers that refuse to hit their students make them kneel on their knees on the concrete floor for the rest of the class. Kids are also given cleaning and yard work responsibilities for misbehaving. Last but not least within the education system are payoffs. I’ll get more into corruption in my next blog, but this is one place where it happens. Money or sex for the high school exit exams, college entrance exams, and other things are not uncommon. This reduces students’ motivation to learn and doesn’t bring them to the realization that hard work pays off.

I wish I had a way for everyone back in the states to feel good about doing something to help some of these problems like I did with the reading issue. But I think the best way to go about dealing with most of these issues is for people to start having open conversations here in Cameroon. You can agree or disagree with anything I’ve said but the truth is that Cameroonian kids are the future of Cameroon and we should always be thinking of ways to mold them into better educated and more capable leaders and citizens.


Monday, June 2, 2008

Business Classes

May 30, 2008

Yesterday rapped up my first full round of business classes. I taught business and math skills at a girls' center in Baré early on, but it felt more like a warm-up to teaching. There were a couple of girls that I was proud to have taught, but a lot of them would talk, not pay attention, sleep, or just not show up. For the classes that I just finished, I did everything from start to finish. I marketed them, I found the classroom, I enrolled local entrepreneurs, and I taught the classes, adjusting preexisting Peace Corps-provided lesson plans to the needs of my community and my own teaching style.

There were 12 classes, each one lasting two hours. I only once a week, so finishing up a project that lasted 3 months felt like a pretty big accomplishment. The classes covered entrepreneurship, feasibility studies, goals and action plans, cash books, inventory, budgeting, marketing, income statements and balance sheets, leadership, financial services, and business plans. Planning the lessons, even already having lesson plans, was pretty time-intensive because (shhhh!) the majority of these things I’ve not even done in the US.

The last class was a couple of weeks ago, before my trip to Yaoundé, but last night was a reception that I planned so that I could give my students certificates proving completion of the course. Everyone paid $10 to take the class to offset the cost of photocopies and the classroom as well as to motivate them to be there each week. Photocopies are pretty cheap so there was a lot of money left over. It paid for a great spread of food and a room for the reception at my neighbor’s house. She runs a catering business and was the perfect person to know for the occasion.

For the vast majority of our work here as PCVs, we don’t get to see the fruits of our labor. Development is a slow process. Occasionally I’ll run into someone who’ll talk about a volunteer 10-15 years ago who changed their life, but in the here and now, we just have to hope that we’re making those kinds of positive impacts in peoples’ lives. So the reception last night was a rare and special occasion for me – an opportunity to receive positive recognition for the work that I’m doing here right now. There was even an impromptu moment where each of my about 20 students stood up one by one and shared why they thought the class was so important to their individual lives. I think the words that spoke to my the most were when someone stood up and talked about how those who have the means tend to leave the country for Europe of the US. The general thinking among far too many Cameroonians is that those living in Africa are suffering while everyone in the developed world is just living it up. This student was saying that my class empowered him to realize that he could succeed right here, that his hard work would pay off – the American Dream in Cameroon if you will. It was great to hear.

After everyone finished eating, I handed out the certificates one at a time and then we took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures – more than I took at my high school graduation. I even took pictures with the photographers that were there. This is a very Cameroonian thing to do and you just get used to it

So after about a year living in Cameroon, this was a nice boost to motivate me to continue doing what I’m doing. Next week when I pick up the new volunteers at the airport I’ll have one more positive experience to share.