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.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you will find that some of the issues you describe are a sympton of poverty. Poor children all over the world, including the U.S., are often left to fend for themselves because the parent(s) try to make ends meet by working, often far away from their homes. Perhaps if you tried to imagine these children, as childre, rather than Cameroonian children, then you might be able to step outside of yourself and see their plight for what it truly is.