Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On the Ring Road

So we’ve been traveling quite a bit this fall season, and it’s been the perfect time for it too!  Last year it just seemed strange to go through Halloween and Thanksgiving when it was clearly still June outside.  The Ring Road took us to new heights in the mountainous North-West Region, and with that came much cooler temperatures, which was just what our Northeastern blood called for!

We have been working with an NGO called PICTRA-Cam (Promoting ICT in the Rural Area in Cameroon) on a series of regional teacher training seminars.  Jack, of course, has been teaching on computer basics and Kiyomi has been teaching time management.  The time management sessions have at times felt a bit ironic, since things still move on Cameroon time, and what with waiting for officials to show up and sanction and officially open the seminar, things don’t actually get rolling until two or three hours late – and then roll right into the importance of timeliness!  But, as they say here, c’est Cameroon!

We’ve now been to the furthest points accessible on the Ring Road by car, and that was an adventure!  Several times we were asked to get out and wait while our vehicles were pushed out of mud pits that pass for roads.  This was sometimes problematic because the bystanders aren’t just willing to help push a stranded vehicle and send you on your way – they are only to happy to watch and laugh until the right sum is offered in return for their assistance.  We were stuck behind another stuck vehicle for a while at one point because, people said, the driver was greedy and wouldn’t pay beyond a certain price.  We thought it was interesting that the driver was considered greedy, and not those extorting him…

Anyway, eventually we did get through all the muck and mire and made it to our various destinations.  The North-West is a gloriously beautiful place, and we got to see first hand why this area is called the Grassfields Region, with its rolling hills of grasses and wild flowers.  For the most part, each trip went something like this: get up early, travel on rough roads in beat up old vehicles all day, arrive in town and run here and there trying to track down the delegate – who must be officially greeted before anything else can happen – find a place to stay, argue with our NGO colleague that certain things, like running water, locks on the doors, really are necessary, find another place to stay, remind our counterpart about the necessity for dinner, find someplace to eat, fall onto a damp, thin mattress atop a pallet of thin wooden slats and hope for sleep. Get up early the next morning, rush through breakfast, rush to the hall, rush to get everything set up, sit for two-three hours while people file in and wait for the officials to show up – they’ve all been told we’re starting at eight, and it’s considered very gracious for them to show up by ten or ten-thirty, and then what with the singing of the anthem (always beautifully done, in full harmony) and the word of prayer, and the word from this one and that one, we’re lucky to get rolling before noon – which is, lunch time!  The teachers always protest that they only want a fifteen minute break, and always take an hour and a half.  Somehow we get through, and even manage to get somewhat back on schedule, until the guy presenting on the internet gets up, wastes most of his time talking theory (this is a practical seminar), and he always begs just five more minutes, and takes another hour.  Then we go for dinner, have another restless night, and get up early to do it all again.  You would think that the second day, since we don’t have to wait for officials, we would start on time, but no, inexplicably, this is not the case.  Then we pile back into our vehicle and get back to Bamenda very late, though our colleague always sees us as close to our door as possible.  Through all this are constant power struggles with the delegation over giving us food and providing the use of a hall, chairs, electricity – all to be loaned at exorbitant cost, to be assessed later.  Our group was able to eat, on our own, for between 3,000-4,000 francs CFA, while the delegations routinely charged, for the same food, between 50,000-60,000 francs CFA.  But just saying the food wasn’t desired wasn’t enough, instead our colleague put himself through all kinds of verbal gymnastics and avoidance strategies so as not to offend when he declined to be robbed.  If you ever forget that Cameroon is one of the most corrupt nations in the world, you will be quickly reminded.

Generally we found the teachers to be bored-to-moderately-engaged, usually with questions intended to try to trip up the presenters (which failed), or long soliloquies about why integrating ICT wouldn’t work or be useful to themselves (it’s a national requirement), and that they needed free laptops – at which point the entire hall would erupt in homecoming game victory cheering.

Our first stop together was Oku, which claims to be the highest occupied point in West Africa, and begs the question, what made people settle so high up before motor vehicles?  Oku was settled by people fleeing indigenous slave trading groups in the valleys, when they found a place so far up in the mountains, near the mouth of a spring, where they could be safe to live out their lives – and their descendants are still there.  Oku is also known in the region for having the best honey around, so of course we brought some back to Bamenda with us.  In Oku the delegate refused to have the teachers pay for registration, claiming he hadn’t received an official notice, though he’d repeatedly been in contact with our colleague.  It was finally settled that registration would be paid per school, rather than per teacher, which ended up not covering expenses.

Our next stop was Ndu.  Ndu was colder than Oku, though apparently not as high in elevation, and is supposed to be the coldest town in Cameroon.  It’s chilly temperature and frequent rainfall make for a good environment for growing tea and the tea fields along the way into town are a beautiful bright green.  In Ndu we found the teachers to be highly engaged and interested, with thoughtful questions and considered responses.  We also liked Ndu because we stayed in the nicest family owned hotel – the bed was comfortable, there was no mold or ancient filth on the walls, and while there wasn’t hot running water, the proprietress kindly heated water for us over a fire.  We were also able to get hot and caffeinated drinks at any time – a vast improvement to the more readily available beer or syrupy soda beverages.

From there we went to Nkambe, which was still cold, but lower enough in elevation that hot beverages became unavailable.  Nkambe was possibly the worst hotel we have ever stayed in, and several times found ourselves laughing hysterically because what else could we do?  The room was tiny; there were hooks beside the bed that Jack put our coats on, and then found that he couldn’t turn around because there wasn’t enough room between the bed and the wall for his legs.  The walls were coated in some kind of brown spotty, drippy filth and the ceiling spotted with black mold.  Our first room had no lock, just a flimsy sliding latch put in with two small nails, and the door knob came off in our hands when we tried to leave.  The second room had a deadbolt we used to pull open the door, since the doorknob in that room was absent as well.  In some rooms there were panes of glass missing from the windows, sheets with visible body fluid stains, and none of the bathrooms had been washed in recent memory.  We asked to have our bathroom cleaned, which was done readily enough, but the managers felt it was sound business practice to turn off the water every day and only let it run for a few hours at night, so the entire hall constantly smelled like a latrine.  That night, our lightbulb fell out of the socket onto the bed.  We missed lunch that day and didn’t eat for about thirteen hours, and were followed by the local fou (village idiot really – not nearly as funny as depicted in the media), who repeatedly muttered incomprehensible things and threw his hat at the two of us, while largely ignoring the Cameroonians with us.  He followed us back to our hotel and stood leering from the darkness while we ate our meal, and Kiyomi yelled at him that he was being racist and to go away, which, after shaking the bush behind her chair, he did.  Our seminar got pushed from the hall that had been reserved for us through proper channels by ELECAM, the oversight organization charged with guaranteeing free and fair elections in Cameroon, who claimed that hall through other-than-proper channels, and said their needs were more important than educating 100+ teachers in computer usage, as is required of them by the national syllabus.  But we were able to secure another space and continue on with the seminar.  We got to spend a good part of our second day with a fellow volunteer, newishly arrived, and got to talk about home and commiserate about being expatriots.  We were followed again by the fou, who this time informed us that we were monkeys and should go back to our own country.  So, yeah, there was that.

Most lately we went to Wum, our last visit up on the Ring Road.  Wum is slightly lower in elevation that Bamenda, and, we thought, considerably warmer.  The delegate there denied being informed of our coming, knew nothing about any ICT seminar, but somehow the teachers knew when and where to come, and what registration would cost.  The room provided for the seminar had no electricity, so another hall had to be found.  By the time all was said and done, the seminar was starting so late that Kiyomi decided to forgo presenting on time management – the irony was too great, and she suggested it was perhaps better this time to simply practice better time management ourselves than to preach it.  Our colleague still suggested that if Kiyomi wasn’t going to present the topic, perhaps someone else could, but reason won the hour.  The hotel was nicer than Nkambe, though we still had to ask for the toilet to be cleaned, because it hadn’t.  Ever.  Wum gave us the thinnest mattress we’ve yet experienced in this country though.  On our way back to Bamenda we got to stop at the scenic overlook at Menchum falls, which follows the confluence of the Menchum and Mezam rivers.  We all jumped out of the bus and took pictures, and nobody in the vehicle with us minded the stop – many of them had never been to look at the waterfall before either and were glad of the opportunity.

So now we’re finished with the Ring Road.  The rest of the seminars will be close enough to Bamenda that we can go and return in a single day, and sleep in our own bed!  As with so much that we do here, the results of our effort may appear less than promising, but we’ve heard so many stories of past volunteers having an impact and being remembered by people today that we choose to believe our work will do the same.  If one teacher learned one thing and shares it with their students, that’s a win.  PICTRA-Cam’s long range goal is to set up solar powered computer labs around the region to give access to computers and the internet to teachers and students so, for our colleague, this is just the beginning.

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