I wrote this post and then realized how scattered-and-all-over-the-place it seemed, even more so than my usual scattered-and-all-over-the-place blog post nature. So, I’ve broken it into parts, and labelled it using a scale of :0( to :0| to :0) for your organizational reading pleasure.
The Boston Marathon bombing. Elementary school shootings. An AmeriCorps member being shot in the middle of the street while working on a volunteer project in New Orleans. An eight year-old being stabbed to death in her own neighborhood. It seems like every time I go on the internet or turn on a television, these are the only things I keep hearing about back home. Death, death, and more death. Of course, it’s understandable that we keep hearing and talking and debating about them. They are senseless acts of violence and they are tragic and scary, and they force us to realize things that we don’t want to realize about the people and world around us. That there is that capacity for evil and sadness and destruction; that sometimes, there is little or nothing we can do to prevent or stop it.
Around the same time all of these events were transpiring in the U.S., I found out one of my Terminale students had died from complications during her pregnancy. More death – though of the markedly less sensational kind. She was actually in my class, taking an exam, when she fell ill; I called some other students and the discipline master to escort her out of the classroom, and the principal drove up to the classroom in her car to take her to the hospital. That was right before spring break. I didn’t get a chance to follow up on how she was or what had happened until later, while passing through Ngaoundere during break and visiting a friend of hers, when I learned she had passed away. She’d been married eight months, and was pregnant with her first child. She would have been 21 this month. Out of a class of 70, she wasn’t a student I knew well or even particularly remarked—it’s sad to say, but before this happened, it probably would have taken me a few tries to even match her face to her name—but it was shocking. I had graded her exams. I had filled her report cards. I had taught her English. And just like that, she was gone. Her seat was empty. I would no longer grade her exams or fill her report cards or teach her English. Just like that.
A week or so later, the wife of a teacher at my school died from an asthma attack. Another week after that, the husband of the secretary at my school was killed by an aggressor, while driving his new motorcycle in town. In response to the latter two deaths, a list was circulated amongst the teachers and we each donated a dollar or two to show our support. Almost immediately thereafter, they were back at school, working and teaching, like nothing had ever happened. Maybe a “mes condoléances” was uttered, but otherwise, things were back to normal. Life moved on.
It’s true that somebody passing away from an asthma attack is many gradations and worlds and miles away from an eighteen year-old kid being shot by a stranger in the middle of a city street. To some extent, we can make sense of someone dying of a natural illness—even if it’s an illness that should be preventable or treatable, that shouldn’t kill someone out of the blue—but it’s harder to wrap our minds around murder. Even within the realm of murder, it’s easier to make sense of it in the context of motorcycle theft, than in the context of some guy opening fire on a classroom full of first graders for no apparent reason. While both constitute deplorable acts of violence, the former is fueled by poverty and greed and desperation. It’s something we can clearly see the motives behind; it’s something, at least, we can take certain precautions to try to avoid. It doesn’t make it okay, but it makes it understandable. Nobody set off a bomb at a public sporting event, or entered an elementary school with a gun and went on a violent shooting rampage. It’s reprehensible. It’s tragic and horrible. It’s not unfathomable.
I know this is my second blog post on the topic of death, and I also know I’m not really saying anything new that I haven’t said or that hasn’t been said before. But living in Cameroon, thousands of miles away from home—yet still being connected, in countless respects, to “home” through phones and email and television and Facebook and radio—has a way of putting things in strange perspective. All of the differences aside—between the deaths I’ve seen and heard about on the TV and on the internet, and those I’ve seen and heard about in my immediate proximity—what I’ve taken away from it all, once again, is the incredible resiliency of Cameroonian culture when it comes to death. I remember when I was in elementary school, and an older kid in my school died during break while visiting the beach with his family. He was playing on a log in the ocean, and a wave came and washed him under. A field was named after him at the school: “Jacob’s Field.” When students die in Africa, fields aren’t named after them. People grieve, they mourn, they move on. I can’t imagine somebody in the U.S. returning to work a week after his or her spouse was killed, and functioning with any reasonable level of sanity or professionalism. Here, it’s just part of life.
I recently read a blog post about how American media coverage tends to only focus on stories like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook shooting – both unthinkable events; both, incidentally, impacting primarily white victims. The blogger makes the observation that as a black woman, she felt numb seeing images of blond Sandy Hook children plastered across TV screens, imagining all of the countless black youth who have been murdered in the U.S., and the hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan kids killed by American forces, neither of which the world hears anything about. Not being a person of color myself, I’m clearly in no place to speak to what she is experiencing. But it’s something to think about. I don’t believe one tragedy can void or invalidate another; a young Cameroonian woman dying from lack of access to adequate prenatal care doesn’t make a young white kid whose last moments were spent hugging his dad at the finish line to a marathon any less significant or awful, and vice versa. They’re both horrible, and they both deserve talking about – but not just talking about. Of course, what exactly that entails, beyond the talking about, brings up a lot of other questions… None of which I have even the beginnings of answers to.
Enough talk about death. Some updates on life in Cameroon since my last post:
After returning from my short stay in Lara in my neighbors’ village, in the Extreme North, I continued south to Yaoundé, where I met up with the rest of the volunteers from my training group for our COS (“close of service”) conference, which always takes place a few months before volunteers actually COS. We stayed in a fancy hotel and attended sessions on resumé writing and careers in foreign service and adjusting to life-after-Peace-Corps and other end-of-Peace-Corps-life things like that. Most importantly, I learned my “official” (I put it in quotes because it hasn’t been confirmed in writing or anything like that, but it’s mostly certain) COS date: July 26th. Meaning: LESS THAN THREE MONTHS until I’m back in the U.S.! It’s exciting and unbelievable and crazy and sad and scary and terrible and great, all at the same time. While some volunteers have taken vacations to Europe or gone home to visit family during their service, I’ve gone the full two years without having left the country. Partly because I didn’t have the money to do otherwise, but also because I wanted to fully profit from the 27 months I was given to experience Cameroonian life. (Now that I’ve done so—having fully experienced going-on 23 months of Cameroonian life—a few non-Cameroonian-life things I’m really looking forward to upon my return: wearing hoodies and jeans every day, having zero daily interactions with strangers revolving around the color of my skin, consuming endless quantities of fancy overpriced blended coffee drinks and vegetarian cuisine.)
After returning from COS conference, I resumed teaching, which is nearly over for the year (I joked about school being over in my last post, but now it’s actually true. Sixième finished taking their final exams yesterday, so I just have report-card-filling; and Terminale starts their exams tomorrow, while preparing for national exams in about a month or so). Despite the fact that school is basically over, I’m also working with a few staff members to wrap up an HIV/AIDS project at the high school (it was supposed to have been finished in mid-February, but the funding got seriously delayed and we had make a decision: either abandon the project completely, or try to do it in the time we have left. The administration still wanted to go forward, so we chose the latter option). So far, we’ve trained twelve peer educators at the high school, who will in turn train their classmates about safe sex, HIV/AIDS, STIs, and other life skills. Since it’s the end of the year, we won’t have much time for them to actually put their peer educating skills into practice, but they’re going to continue what they started next year. I was having my doubts about trying to do everything we’d planned in the limited time we have left, but seeing the positive reactions so far from students, staff and community members has made me glad for the decision we made. The final stage of the project will be a testing event at the school in mid-May, so here’s to hoping that’s a success!
Of course, with every positive experience, there’s usually something less positive you have to surmount in the process. In this case… petty theft. Some back story: For our project, we give a 500 CFA ($1) per diem to the peer educators and staff for travel to-and-from meetings. Because change is always a huge pain to acquire, I’d asked a friend of mine who works at the Total station by my house to change out about 10,000 CFA for 500 CFA bills, and was keeping the money in my house until I would need it. When I went to get the money one day, I realized it was missing. I searched everywhere, believing I had to be going crazy, and finally accepted, for the sake of my own sanity, that I must have misplaced it – I knew the few people who had been in my house recently, and was certain they couldn’t have taken it. Besides, nothing else was missing, including a larger sum of money kept in another drawer right next to the 500 CFAs. I replaced the money and wrote it off as negligence on my part.
Fast forward about a week. I went to the bank and withdrew about 200,000 CFA (~$400). I usually don’t keep such large amounts of money around my house, but I needed funds on hand for various project expenses, and the bank isn’t always open when I need them (plus, the ATM machine is far-from-reliable enough to count on at such times). So, one Friday morning, I divided the money into two envelopes—500 CFA bills in one, and everything else in the other—put them in a drawer in my bedside table underneath some books and papers and other things, and left for school. This was around 7am. I came back from school at 12pm, and everything seemed normal: gate locked, door locked, my stuff untouched (including my computer, camera, and other money sitting in my living room right when you walk in). Then, about an hour later, I went into my room to get some money to go into town and buy project supplies. And… Both envelopes were gone. Vanished. In their place, I found the following note:
I immediately called Peace Corps, who took me to the gendarmes to explain what happened, and gave me the option of filing a formal complaint. After some consideration, I decided not to. The only person I’ve ever given a key to was Ila (Ismaila, the “other person like a spirit” from the note), who lives in my compound; whenever I travel, I leave a key with him so he can feed my cat. I’m 99.99% certain he wasn’t the one behind the break-in, even though he’s the most obvious suspect; my guess is one of his friends must have stolen the key from him and made a copy. Whoever it was, it was clearly someone who knew me, and who felt at least moderately bad about what they’d done. I didn’t really want to spend the last three months of my service subjecting people around me to gendarme interrogations, when nothing would most likely come of it, anyway. Plus, in a weird way, I’d almost rather not know what friend of mine has been breaking into my house and stealing my money; I’d prefer to leave Cameroon in a state of ignorance, as stupid as that seems. I changed the locks to my house and added a padlock, so it shouldn’t happen again. The worst part of it all is just knowing that somebody had been in my house, going through my things, on at least two (and probably more) occasions, and I had no idea. The night after it happened, I slept with all of the lights on in my house, just so I’d know right away if somebody entered… Fortunately, the paranoia has worn off a little by now. At least enough to sleep with the lights off.
As I mentioned in the sort-of-happy-sort-of-sad-face section, it’s the end of the school year! For the last day with 6eme, I brought my camera and at the end of class took pictures of my students to take home as a souvenir:
After class, knowing I still had my camera with me, a few students approached me asking to take some pictures of us together. I told them I didn’t mind taking the pictures, but they would have to give me 100 CFA (20 cents) for each one they wanted printed. They quickly agreed. As other 6eme students caught wind of what was happening, I soon had a mass of excited picture-takers around me. I ended up giving my camera to the class prefect and lining everybody up, to avoid the disorderly chaos that was already on the verge of developing, then going down the line and snapping photos one-by-one in an oddly celebrity-style photo shoot, like this:
At one point, some thoughtful students decided I’d been standing in the sun too long and helped me out by providing a bit of shade:
Over forty students ended up giving me money to print their photos, which I was surprised by. We got some funny group shots, too:
A final parting thought to ponder: I’ve mentioned before that in my 6eme class, I teach students as young as 11 and as old as 17, sitting side-by-side on benches together. Just to illustrate the ridiculousness of that point:
Who would believe these two kids…
…are in the same grade as this kid?