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. 

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 winds of Dry Season

You had so much hope for teaching till you stepped into your first class of the new year and within a swoosh it was gone. It is hard to keep positive when a jeopardy game turns into a fistfight. The anger caught up in the school, in the students and teachers can get to be too much. The whole school system, and the society in large part, is built upon the idea of bullying. You have yet to hear a teacher five praise to a student, only call them idiots, yelling at them saying, ‘have you ever stepped inside my classroom’. Outside the school it is much the same. If you are a Grande (rich guy with influence) you can cut lines, tell people they are worthless and all around yell and no one can say anything to you. The frustration at the whole system, at the whole country, made you almost cry in front of your 7th graders.

While sitting at your favorite bean mama, even though you don’t like her beans you just like her company, you looked across the soccer field at the elementary school and decide to take the jump into working there. The Directress was onboard instantly with your plan to read to the youngest class and just like that you began reading Le Petit Prince to a room of precious, though talkative faces who love to smile widely when they say your name. The joy of the little change brought back a slight breeze of optimism as you and the children drew a Boa eating an Elephant. Even the older classes responded so well to a simple song about vowels that you found yourself walking onto the high school grounds with a smile inside.

One weekend you excitedly dawned the suite you had made in Vietnam. It is a little tight now, which you want to attribute to your working out everyday for the month of January (minus two days of just doing a downward dog), but it probably is the fact that you haven’t had a piece of fruit in months. With your post mates you are taken to the grooms house, and after spending two minutes getting your shoes off you put them back on to go to the Chef’s house for a quick prayer. On the way to the Chef’s you partake in a little parade and marvel at the different colors of the various Bubus, wishing you had gotten one already. The women, waiting at the Chef’s, are equally colorful, a village of rainbow fish. At the Chef’s would feel awkward for being made to sit on the couch while everyone else was on the floor, but you know your pants are too tight to sit down on the floor well. From the Chef’s there is a general walking around the Chef’s compound in confusion while people yell in Fulfude, making you wish you started Fulfude lessons earlier. From there you walk outside to watch the groom and the two women who found/got him a wife sit on a couch while various people throw money in a large bowl. A man yells at you that since you are white you should put some money in. A man who you know, but don’t know the name of (almost everyone you know) tells you not to worry, you don’t have to do anything. You smile at kindness. Queue a dip into town to avoid a long and awkward dinner and when you return to the village around 10:30 the party is in full swing. You and your post mate sit, yet again, on a couch while you watch people dance in a circle around a man who should be lip singing but looked more like he was just gasping for tiny breaths of air. You and your post mate join the dance a few times to numerous smiles. By around midnight you are in wonder that everyone is still awake as you make your way home to sleep.

The next day was a very different party, a party for your post mate. You surprised yourself again by making a carrot cake and apple pie. It was a relaxing day of eating, drinking and enjoying the company of friends.

Tuesday was some sort of bad day like you had never had. But a night’s sleep brought you back. The days can be such a swing, and if the days are that way then of course that means the weeks can be too. At times it feels like the giant gusts of wind that sends dancing dust devils down the street and make you and others duck from the sand. Other times it is that slight breeze you needed to keep from sweating also brings a smile your way.

Photos

Waterfall in Kumbo
Waterfall in Kumbo
Talla, in the North West
Talla, in the North West
Ngaoundéré train station
Ngaoundéré train station
Lake Teason.
Lake Teason.
Working on a water pump beautification project with students from Grass Roots Soccer (play soccer and learn about HIV).
Working on a water pump beautification project with students from Grass Roots Soccer (play soccer and learn about HIV).
Working on a water pump beautification project with students from Grass Roots Soccer (play soccer and learn about HIV). Clearly an alteration of a Keith Haring.
Working on a water pump beautification project with students from Grass Roots Soccer (play soccer and learn about HIV). Clearly an alteration of a Keith Haring.

Home

Seventy two hours of traveling later you arrive back in Ngaoundéré. You try to remember why you needed the vacation. Then the thought of school reminds you.

One train ride of manioc (cassava) whiskey.

Wait two hours on a bus to go six hours. You’re in a city whose pronunciation makes no sense, Dschang (Chang) but you get to kayak.

A road that forgot it was a road later you’re in Bamenda. Faces from training, smiles, hugs, empty places of the people that left. Pointless and frustrating training sessions. Hazy nights that have a lingering sensation of fun.

Seven hour bus ride to a volcanic beach. It is hard to tell the difference between the air and water. The rainforest spills out onto the black-sand beach as the volcanic mountains hide shyly amongst clouds. The bay in Limbe is surrounded by oil rigs. In the middle of the bay, almost spitting distance it feel, from the touristic beach there lays, obscenely, an oil rig. Wave of frustration at corruption. But damn good fish. Burgers and pizza at a rescued wild life preserve. Aw at the life around.

Night bus. Shhh, it is not allowed.

The North West is the complete opposite of the Adamawa as the earth reaches for the sky in numerous mountainous arms. One fall off a moto, deep gash on the helmet later you’re on a road that exists only in the air, dust, cough. Talla, a tiny, hilly village. So cold. Old man meeting in a room whose walls have blackened from smoke. Chug palm wine, these old men would shame a frat boy. Meet a king (?). Dragged into a secret dance that you are not allowed to describe, though it would only take a sentence. Juju (ghost) in your face. Gasp. Goat for dinner.

Waterfall back in Kumbo. Sketchy car ride at 5 am to a three hour wait for a bus where you lingered on the brink of insanity.

Yaoundé. over twenty dollars for a lunch. But it was a bacon cheeseburger. You feel like you are in Lost in Translation as a you have an Old Fashioned at the top of the Hilton after you got a free ride from a stranger.

Countdown to the train. In Ngaoundéré. You have been calling Beka Hosséré home and it finally feels that way as you return. You never thought you would have missed a toilet that was only a hole in the ground.

Christmas with Americans, Dionysus style. Pause, then New Years with martinis in a nalegen on a roof. You marvel at the beauty of the Adamawa as bats leave for their hunt with the backdrop of a blood orange sky.

It is a new year and you keep the person you want to be in your mind. You continue to wonder who has time for anything. You continue to be happy. You continue to try to love. You continue to try to hope.