Ash falls from the sky at random moments to remind you the past is never truly gone. Even burnt it will find its way back to you.
Your new post mates are settling in just as you wrap up your first Grass Roots Soccer. You painted a water pump with the GRS students and almost pulled your hair out, but survived.
The principal might have turned against you but you try to brush it off.
There are days where you are as high as the ash in the sky, then you fall down and dissolve. The fire of teaching is both rejuvenating and destructive.
You are about to leave for training and am excited to see your friends.
Even though teaching is like the fire you find you are too. Burning on past memories and creating new ones out of the sky.
Bienvenue is one of this children that will forever inspire. He lives in Bissock, a small village outside of Ebolowa, the capital of the southern region of Cameroon. Bienvenue (a common name here) was, as his name suggests, very welcoming. He is the only male in his family of I-lost-count-of-how-many-girls. His father is somewhere, the only news ever really heard was that he bought Bienvenue a bike, but then took it. Bienvenue loves two things: reading and animals. His love of reading has gone unmatched with anyone else met so far in Cameroon and it breaks the heart knowing that he can rarely afford a book. Should’ve left him countless. One day, while waiting for the host family, Bienvenue described in detail his love for animals and his adventures into the forest where he used to have a pet monkey (no lie). Now Bienvenue has a dog by the name of Police (the name for just about every dog in Cameroon) that follows him everywhere. Bienvenue is an inspiration not only for Cameroonian children, but children everywhere by his love of learning, nature and people. On hard days when teaching is really like herding cats memories of this little guy are like a fresh breeze.
The winds have changed. Your lips have a faint memory of cracking. Thirst hits you way harder than it used to. Your post mates have left in a dust devil but you know their names will linger in the village air for years to come. Your students cause some other type of heat in the classroom to a boiling point. Sometimes it is a devil’s tango, you forgot to look at your lesson plan and have to wing it and your students get frustrated therein frustrating you. It is a preverbal human feces tempest.
Within the dry season there are cool winds. You are spending more time with Amadou, the child Danny your old post mate took care of. The children next store come over to draw now and you found a kid that is writing a story he wants to make into a book. You laugh with your coworkers more than squint and smile in confusion. Your house is set up, asking you to cook more and relax. Time is on your side if you just remember to look at it.
Dry season is filled with winds that change, they can be heated and knock the air out of you or they can be cool and drag your frown into a smile. Honestly living here is just like living elsewhere new, you adapt to new things, your embrace the awkwardness of getting to know strangers, it just happens that you are in a small village in Cameroon is all.
The sun has started to get searing as the shade has become like a chill memory. Your post mates that you have bonded with are about to leave to be replaced with people that you know you will get along with, but any change in social life after over two years of it still gets to you. But your couch is like no other. And the past week was the first week in a while where you found yourself with nothing to do, so you climbed Mount Ngaoundéré and watched a questionable amount of television.
Friday’s are hell. Five hours of teaching. Five hours of almost 300 students to control at different times. In the last class of the day you feel something snap as the students start talking loudly.You are frustrated. You don’t want to be that mean teacher, but what other method do you have to deal with so many? You ask what they want. They want a song. So you start writing out the only song you know by heart. Believe by Cher. You spend the next hour trying to hide your smile as you make countless unknowing children ask if you believe in life after love? The situation is flipped. Floor is ceiling type of feeling. You’ve gone from wanting to smack a child to wanting to dance.
That is how time goes though, one second you are sad and angry but one line of Cher can turn things around.
It has been over a month since you finally moved into your house. It is still barren and cold even in the hottest days. Little by little it is becoming a home.
Your village is where you are comfortable. You get tired and annoyed having to go into town for anything. The other Americans in your village are exactly the type of Post Mates you wanted, but they are being replaced soon. You are glad to know them, to see how things go in your village.
Teaching is not so much teaching as speaking loudly and staring firmly. The smallest class is 57 students and the largest is 76. There is a constant hum of little voices. You try to get things in order because if you don’t you will be overpowered in a second. It is draining and not how you wanted to teach. You give yourself six weeks to get used to it all and think of new ways to teach so many minds that want nothing to do with it. But they still love having a white teacher. The same student you made kneel at the front of the class for the whole hour will smile and wave at you on the street.
Is it the system or the kids?
All in all you love it. You love the hating but liking your students. You love the milky-way above your head as you walk home, gliding on a muddy road. You get tired of not figuring out what or how to really cook here, but you love the little dinner of a shack that makes the only beans you will ever love. You love the little disco lights in the one room bar in the village where you play chess with your Post Mates.
You find yourself sitting in the waiting room of the Norwegian Hospital in Ngaoundere waiting for blood tests. The waiting room is a tin roof with benches that became a music hall when it downpours. You end up waiting three hours and buying your own syringe, yet never got too mad or frustrated.You wanted to white man your way into being seen quicker and even thought of bribing someone to get you ahead in line, but you decided to wait like everyone else. You looked around you and realized there was no reason to be impatient or frustrated, what else was there to do? You couldn’t go do the other things you had planned because of the rain and if you did somehow this task would be sitting there waiting for you.
Patience is born in poverty out of necessity. You have to wait for help, for water, for food, for friends, for credit to call home, for bread, for electricity and even family. Waiting is an act of hope and when you are stuck in a place with nothing with at times nothing to do all you can do is hope. That is what you have been learning in your village and at work being around so much poverty. Patience. Hope.
Some poems written recently:
Rain in Africa (16/09/2014)
The sky becomes shared time
as it falls in fatigue
like an exhausted man on a bed
-liquid sigh splashing
the bed twists and forms to his body
His breath cool as it swirls
around quite mouths
for the tin roof is loud
but the silence is warm
The voice hurts
the air is half frustration
carbon dioxide of poverty
relearning how to breath
but the chalk is chocking me
White man (26/09/2014)
Are you a girl?
Where is my candy?
Can I go to America with you?
Why are you here?
That is a good idea.
Find me a wife.
-let me fix what the white man
breaks, makes, fakes.
-The world is irate
After a week your house is ready. The house is florescent blue and pink to match the candy land feel of your landlord’s house who is a silversmith. While staying at the case (a peace corps hostel basically) in Ngaoundéré you’ve felt true boredom and lazyness. You let yourself have a holiday of beer to sub do the lethargy. Sometime in the early week a $100 of yours disappeared, yet you aren’t as mad as you should be. All attention is on the house, yoga in the morning and reading naked in bed. You’re excited to get to know your little village over the mountain, since you’ve learned that Beka Hossere means behind the mountain. You’re excited to start what you’ve been waiting for, even though the thought of actually teaching is a little too much to handle. You’re just excited to stop waiting for something.
Your time in Bissock and Ebolowa is drawing to a close. You are happy to be done with training, which besides model school has felt completely pointless, but you are sad to say good bye to most of your stage (training) mates. You barely think about what life will be like once you are at your future home because it is as difficult to think about as the idea of Cameroon was before you left. Instead you try to take a second look around you.
Cameroon, when looked at the right way, feels like a cartoon. The motos honk is outlandish fashions as they whistle by with obtuse cargo, like Tom running with a piano to smack Jerry. The dust from the moto needs an onomatopoeia buzzing in the air as you imagine the cliff the dwindling dust is sure to reveal. Gestures are outlandish in the face of utter calm. Chickens seam to look up in fear when you talk about them, as if they know their fate. Women wear dresses you don’t see how they move in. Children run with their arms in the air like wings. The same child carries water you’d find heavy up the same small cliff you struggle over at the spring. The children at school sit still and stare silently till you leave the room at which point they burst into glee as if you were the teacher from The Peanuts. People somehow pass the whole day without getting their shoes dirty when the roads are dirt. Men stand in front of grills all day without feinting, cutting meat and waiting in the heat for customers. NGO white toyatas feel like photos in a cartoon setting as they go by. Beers are always twice the size as in the States, making hands look smaller. Every taxi or van looks like a clown car. There is an insect that as far as you know is called you have to kill that.
Remembering in this way is not meant to separate it from your reality but merge it with your past memories across the world and those Saturday mornings eating cereal while watching Looney Tunes.
The child is crying. Each time you play with him he seems to find a way to hurt himself. Around the child is an acid wash earth tone everywhere. Splattered on the walls that all eyes see the ground becomes crimson, bleeding back into the earth. It hasn’t rained in over a week and a half and the dirt and dust have begun leaking out of your nose, classic allergies.
You have been teaching a model school to equal part satisfaction and frustration. In one week you have your worst day in Cameroon and one of your best when a history club you run goes better than you could of ever expected. The school itself is a forgotten memory of a time when someone tried, all cement has disappeared under dirt as holes from god knows what litters the walls. In one room “où va le monde” (where is the world going) is written innumerable times.
You think about how people talk about Cameroon as unmodern and modernizing. Cameroon is not modernizing, nothing is, modern is now, saying otherwise disassociates the poverty around you to it’s connection to the current world and your life. You want to pin the frustrations you have of no one thinking critically or outside of the box on some fault of the Cameroonians at not catching up. The fault is with everyone, things we buy support the corrupt economy, not looking at nations not drowning in blood supports governments that ignores its people. The world is always one.
The same dirt bleeding down the wall behind the crying child comes from the same chaos of all of us.
The train rocks you awake to the beat of a M.I.A. song stuck in your head as the trees start to fade into rolling hills. You walk off the train, a tan color drapes across the city as your host hugs you.
How long has it been since you’ve been hugged?
The dry heat is refreshing, like coming out of a dirty pool. Staring at the ramparts of various mosques you are happy for a change of scenery. After a day of running water and a pretty good cheeseburger that was gone before you even saw it you ate it so fast you meet various other volunteers that help assure you that there is a future outside of the blur of training. The next day you consume copious cups of coffee and spaghetti omelet sandwiches, which need to catch on in the states yesteryear. Queue staring children and a few men hitting on the girls you are with and you are on a crowded bus to Meidougou. It is more of an oversized van where you feel like a background character in a Scoobydoo episode as all the fifty or so heads bob in contrast to the lackadaisical vehicle and still background of obscure green blobs meant to be trees. In Meidougou you see your host, a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), in action, always a smile amongst her sea of children, almost like a pie piper. On the side lines of an ultimate Frisbee game her students try to talk to you in English. This is what you want, to connect to students and get them to want to learn and talk English. But how to get there still is like a distant cloud in the Adamawa landscape, floating towards you with all the time in the world.
Back in Ebolowa, with a bloody finger from opening a sachet with a knife, you are impatient with everything. You got a glimpse of how your life might be for the next two years and you want it. You learn after days of grinding your teeth that you will be posted in Beka Hossere in the Adamawa, five kilometres from Ngaoundéré and it feels like a warm déjà vu of a happy memory.
Back home you find yourself locked out of your house, hungry, tired and slightly entertained as you sit in the grandfather’s house watching Congolese music videos with the children. Once your host brother gets home he shares his loneliness at his wife and child being yet still away. The next night you find yourself talking with your host brother over moonshine for hours. He grows restless with the wife away and appears after you brush your teeth with commands to put on your shoes because you are going to his friend’s house. The road was dark as you avoid a barking dog while shadows danced around a bound fire. A woman, the size of the log she drags, tosses the wood into the flame, the embers mimicking fireflies. Your host brother tells you to follow him into the house that seems to materialize out of the periphery. Inside the house pop music leads you inside to a dead woman on a dinning room table, candle light praying around her. A rag wrapped around her chin and knotted at her head gives a medieval feel to your utter shock. Your mind is blank as you try to do the most respectful thing, hold your hands behind your back. Your host brother says a pray, crosses himself and leads you outside. Around the fire he talks to whom you presume is your friend before leading you away. On your way home you simply don’t know what to think. You did not know her and you did not feel anything but shock. Are you supposed to? Is there something wrong? Are you just fucked up? Or was it just a death? The people around the bound fire weren’t wailing and crying, should you have? Is this culture or a humanity thing? Your mind continues to race and go blank as your host brother introduces you to a lady who promptly proclaims that you two are going to have sex. Your shock is shocked. You feel an auto pilot kick in as you say, “non, ça va.” Life truly moves on. A death is a death in a context of fighting for the next day. Life and death are always next to each other, laughing, crying, being.
In ngandre there is a large hill trying to be a mountain made of a generation of stones with a boulder posed at the tip of the hill that would make a mean troll at night. Staring at the precarious boulder your mind goes to Sisyphus and his ad infinitum push and descent and Camus’ idea of a smiling Sisyphus. You know your time will be like his never ending work and you reassure yourself that like him you’ll be smiling.
If your life were a fairytale:
Pierre, the rooster, always reminds you, maybe a little loudly, that it’s time to wake up around 5:45.
Once Pierre leaves your baby mouse friend, Gus, gives you words of inspiration during your morning yoga.
Rebecca, the spider by your clothes, advises you on fashion as you dress.
Peter, the roach, flies into you for a hug as you open the latrine door.
When you go to the farm with your host brother Harry, and all his bee cousins, tease and taunt you.
Harry always pisses you off, but at night Sebastian and all his firefly family consul you.
At training you’d like to talk to Jacques and his colorful lizard gang, but they always run off somewhere, probably under the bleachers to smoke.
Buz and his dog friends remind you of an absentee brother.
Sheryl and her bird choir can’t help but practice everywhere all the time.
Sometimes at the end of the day you like to offer Liz, the hen, to babysit her chicks so she can have a date with Pierre, but she tells you he is no good.
As night slowly washes around you and the sandman starts to drizzle sand on your eyelids you say goodnight to your friends and hope to see them tomorrow, because without friends where would we be?