Amongst the Dead Grass

You can’t drink water fast enough. You never thought you hope for clouds so much.  The dust jumps off the earth, as if the ground is too hot for even the dirt, and bellows onto everything as you slowly simmer in the balmy nights. Amongst the dead grass rolling over tired hills you have found magic in the heat. For one thing every yoga session is a hot yoga session. For another the improbability of rain makes any social event safe. And when nothing is better than a cold drink and fresh words your social life hasn’t been better.

In the past few weeks you’ve been to two very different picnics.

One on the breezy lake side of the crater lake Lac Tison with a bunch of hippie rastas. As men and women cooked together Bob Marley wooed our souls as we BBQ’d meat, made couscous (not the type you’re thinking about) with sauce and a refreshing mint lemon salad. After eating everyone dangled about like the growing mangos as trip hop music eased us into the night.

The other picnic was with rich Cameroonian bachelors, which is a totally different ball game. The parking lot the picnic was in felt like a desert compared to Lac Tison as two goats died to satisfy everyone’s hunger. Your taste buds were confused by the succulent meat, fun conversations and misogynist comments.

It had been a while since you let yourself be whisked off by friendships. You spent so long mellowing in a depression and carefully piecing yourself together with the ink of a pen and yoga that you forgot how to get back into the overflowing river that is Cameroonian social life. But man oh man is the water refreshing and fun. As your pulled from shore to shore, rock to rock, you are swept away by how caring and wonderful people are.

The other night a friend asked you what were some of your fondest memories. You recounted some cute childhood ones, but now you know that amongst the sun burnt hills and confused dust that the time you’ve spent here, the conversations you have webbed together, the friendships made, will be some of your best memories.

 

No poem. But in preparation for DEAR (Drop Everything and Read Day) day that is happening fashionably late by a week here is an image from a children’s story I made about three monkeys on Mt. Ngaoundere to share with the cute little prison suit Primary School kids.

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Development

The holidays went well. Your mother visited, which of course you realized how good it was once she left. There is nothing like having your mother around for the holidays. You were so pleased that she had a good time, even though you had to take 2nd class on the train, which was an unique 15 hour hell. 

Even though it is routine for there to be a bad class or two in a week it still surprises you how one bad hour of teaching can spoil the week. Why can’t we let go of the burning coal that is frustrated and anger? All it ever hurts is yourself, yet you routinely find yourself standing there like a fool holding a hot rock. In class you remind yourself how to be positive and focus more on the students than on your own emotions. 

The other day, while typing up the results from your teach training you realized that all the participants marked that they had changed their views on corporal punishment because of the sessions. Within seconds your burnt out self lit up with no energy for the last leg of service. Maybe 80% of your kids will fail but hey, some teachers said they changed. 

The grant to repair the primary school was funded within two days. It is amazing how easy it is to get money, yet how hard it is to make a lasting change. You really do hope that repairing the school and having the books form America will help. You know it will help. How could a book hurt? But as your watch the kids run and play and try to learn even as they’re hit for not having a passing grade you ask yourself where the change will come from. 

You have found that in Peace Corps we try everything we can to make a change when we fail to see the change in ourselves. At times the best way to make an impact on the world around you is to alter yourself first. And you have been doing that. You feel alive and developed from your constant practice of creativity, wether it be physical in yoga or mental in the over 100 poems you’ve already written. Yes you have seen a change in your community and students but for your own future you see a change you have always wanted and worked towards. 

 

Gaining Weight (101)

I’ve gained weight this past year

something that has never really happened to me

one day my pants just wouldn’t fit

I nearly said ‘I be damned’

days and months slowly creep upon someone like that

all these minute decisions that push up

lost in the folds of a skin that when faced with the obstacle of weight gain

shrugs his shoulders and just makes some more room

-welcome home. 

Dead grass of a golden brown

Your days, unlike the unchanging blue sky of dry season, have been varied. The teacher training you did to promote positivity in the classroom, based on Design Thinking, worked about as well as it could. Your heart melted a little when the participants suggested they check up on themselves to make sure they were practicing what they had begun to preach. And on the days you see those same teachers making kids kneel outside or smack them lightly on the head you just tell yourself, maybe the smack wasn’t as hard as it used to be…. But you would be lying if you said you didn’t understand why they do what they do. A class of over a hundred students is hard to manage, and force and negative discipline does, on the surface seem like the answer when the students finally become quite. But just because their mouths aren’t moving doesn’t mean their minds are. It might sound corny, but it is because it is dead true: everyday is different. One day can be amazing while the next you have to hold yourself back from crying. Crying at the insanity of the world, crying at the meanness children can have and the poison of habit. But on the days that are good the dead grass is a golden brown, the dust a light sand, the rude children are just kids while the good teachers are prophets in the desert.

In the confounds of your mud-brick house that is pretending to be made of concrete you find yourself amongst the words of a poem a day or in the water color set you decided to give to yourself instead of the children. Even as termites create metropolises in your walls it doesn’t really matter because with each yoga exercise and each magical Sunday run you are building rivers and valleys in your soul.

To be honest you do feel as burnt out as the hills, recently set on fire to clear the land. But you are hopping that with the approaching vacation those ashes will mix with the dirt and give nutrients for you to finish strong.

 

Playing with bottle-caps (65) 3/12/15

I walked next store to buy bread and

on my neighbor’s veranda was a group of girls, dancing, singing and smiling in rhythm

like one would at a wedding or in a sixties douhop group

the girls encircled three others and started raining down bottle-caps, like one would money at a traditional wedding or party

amongst their laughter and smiles their worn school clothes morphed into bright, gay, fabrics

as the bottle-caps glistened, like falling diamonds from the sky

 

Grilled Eggplant

Time is already behind you waving telling you what a great visit he had and hopes to see you soon. Two months of school are finished. You have finally arrived at the point where you can ignore the bad students and focus on the good ones. One student finally got a perfect score on a test, with extra credit, something that only happened once last year. With your counterparts your seminars on positivity in the classroom and non-violence have been working well. Each seminar there are less participants but the ones that come every class are supporters of the idea and even recommending ways to make sure they all stay on track together. Before the seminars started you were in a dark place, you had basically gave up. But somehow you decided to start to write a poem a day and with each verse and silly poem about curtains and mustaches you found yourself climbing back out of the heavy ooze of depression. The day before the seminar started your counterpart said we should print out questionnaires for potentially every teacher at the school, and you asked why, and he said we have to hope for the best, always. You smiled, he was right. Finally free you started to cook more interesting dishes and the joy from it is like no other. You find traits of yourself in everyday activities. You are observing more. You are growing more. You are smiling more. Even the cat you got, that drove you crazy, now brings you joy as he always steals your sit the instant you move. So here is one of those poems:

Grilled Eggplant (21) 20/10/15

In simple words I lost my cool in class while teaching and threw a student’s notebook across the class

Hours alter the shame simmers like goals that keep breathing red

Till I grill some eggplants, much like how I was grilled by my students,

And try something new, mixing this and that, seasoning with cumin and salt for quite a tasteful dinner that was very much unlike me in class

I hope soon, I will be like that grilled eggplant, mushed, and seasoned with ingredients that separately are not good, but together dance perfectly on the tongue just right and are a delight

En Haut

The summer is over and you’re on top of Mt. Ngaoundere for the first time since summer started. You saw chimps in the forest of the East, your host family in the South and two weddings in the North West. When you came home though you had to rush home for a death. Your life cracked and came back together in a new way, parts tarnished, parts polished. A good friend visited for a few days before you flew off to Togo. It was nice to be with an old friend in Togo; her in the midst of the new life in her and you in the midst of dealing with a new death. You reflect on all of this on top of the mountain. Above you a golden brown hawk, or falcon, drifts gingerly on some invisible current of air. Below you you hear a cry and look to see one of the elusive monkeys of the mountain. You watch butterflies dance in a way that you could call aquatic above the almost neon grass shinning against the bluest sky. You breath in the air that stretches past the sight of eyes and feel the warm embrace of the sun. The summer is over and you feel ready.

The school year is starting and you feel prepared. The first year of teaching is always the worst and no one is good at it at. You know what you need to do this year and are excited to do a better job. Somehow in the midst of the challenges of teaching in Cameroon you love the process, you love seeing knowledge and learning build. You know you have found something you want to do, if not for your life then for a good portion of it. You have literacy projects planned for the primary and kindergarten that you are excited to develop. The children are happy to see you again, and who can’t be happy at the laughter and smiles of children? Outside of Peace Corps you have to start getting your life ready for afterwards; grad school applications. In reality you have less then a year, about ten months.

Time has become some passing comment.

Before the summer your hope was gone, sapped dry, like a child sucks a honeysuckle. You felt like the end of dry season, dirty and cracked. About you now are seas of green with islands of ancient rocks perched atop the waves. At night the spill of the milky way stretches beyond the reaches of comprehension. The cool air of the moto drive makes you forget the frustrations, for you are going somewhere, it is the journey, and you are ready for the challenge.

Beka Hosséré
Beka Hosséré

The Boy Who Bikes in the Rain

You got caught in your favorite bean shack (that you call the diner) in a fresh rain of the rainy season and wrote this about your favorite village kid:

The Boy Who Bikes in the Rain

The rain falls as it does,

The plants breathe in deep, reverberating neon green.

The dirt roads play at being rivers

As a boy on a bike zooms by

Woosh

Each time he enters your site he is in a new position on the bike,

Like some comedy montage;

First no hands

Then no feet

Then jumping over a slight bump,

As the clouds above descend below.

You later ask him why he biked in the rain

And he said it is because he always wanted to play in the rain and never had.

Isn’t that the essence of spring?

Breathing in deep, trying a new color of green?

Termite Wings

The sky is clearly frustrated, almost constipated with rain as you stare out over the rolling hills of the Adamawa from your school. Off in the distance you see a goliath of dust emerge, cranky, woken by the bellowing winds of a sky releasing anxiety. You stare transfixed as the first exhale of weeks of sun swirl around you. Some instinct, thousands of years old, tells you to turn just in time as the goliath rushes by, eager to work off its frustration with a dash across the countryside.

The days up to this have been great. One of your counterparts has shown you so much work he has done and work he wants to do with you that you feel almost obsolete. You are eager to plan during the summer with him to help encourage teachers not to insult or hit their students.

Teachers here act more like frustrated and mean big brothers than educators. You’ve heard stories of smart kids not responding to a question they know the answer to because they don’t want to be called stupid or forced to parade around answering questions till they eventually get something wrong so that the teacher can reassure him or herself that they were right in the child’s perceived ignorance. You would be madder at teachers, you are mad, but you know where they are coming from. For months you were not yourself, for months you were the teacher waiting for the stupid answer, just wanting to make a kid kneel at the front of the class so that you could feel some semblance of control in such a chaotic situation. What prompted your switch was just fatigue, you got so tired of using so much energy to be someone you weren’t. But how to help other teachers to make a switch when all they’ve known are teachers, bosses, cops, store clerks, moto drivers, mayors even religious leaders being rude, mean and condescending to assert a meager image of dominance to secure themselves in a world of so much insecurity and unfairness?

During a day of constant rain you deep clean your house. No small feat when to mop you must bend over with a bucket of water and questionable rag, Cinderella style. Afterwards you sit on your now clean floor, worried that you just dirtied it and watch the grey sky during a pause in the rain. Spread sporadically across the sky are termites flying in what appears to be no particular direction. This happens after every rain, and soon you’ll find their wings on every feasible surface outside, the termites themselves already gone, probably eating away at your mud-brick walls. They hide somewhere out of sight, for god knows how long, developing, growing, and after a dose of falling sky they emerge, flying, liberated of a moist, suffocating dirt. So you wrote a poem:

With the sighs and cries of the tired sky come termites,

Deep from some place unseen,

So it must be serine.

The termites fly in the liberated air,

Hesitant of future rain,

But glad to be able to fly after months of

Living, growing and just being.

Tired you watch,

Learning how to grow,

How to develop unseen,

To wait for a fresh sky to fly in.