Thursday, June 19, 2014

We Are (Watching) Together

I arrived at the radio station tonight, intending to broadcast live. I host a weekly show called "What the Pope Says," with a fairly obvious topic. I'm working through Evangelii Gaudium bit by bit. We're right now getting to some interesting and challenging things that Francis writes about economics, society, and the Christian's duties to the marginalized.

However, upon arriving, I discovered that the station was not broadcasting, even though there was current  (meaning the power was on.) The reason? Football. Cameroon was playing Germany in what I was told was the World Cup, but that hasn't started yet. It was just a friendly exhibition match. Well, the Radio Evangelium station house is located right at Junction, and I had noticed that the place was particularly hopping for a Sunday night. Many people enjoying drinks in bars, laughing and joking with friends, and all were gathered to watch the match. Many people don't have televisions, so the bars become sports bars during football matches, with dozens of people crowding around one 17 inch screen with fuzzy reception.

In the radio house, I managed to get a couple of shows recorded while the tech guy for the radio was watching the match with his friends in the next room. I made my way back home in the dark of the night, enjoying the moonlight and the stars. With all the ambient light in the USA, it is not often that I get to enjoy pure starlight in the states.  But here, where there aren't streetlights to speak of, I can enjoy the deep surprising beauty of the stars any and every night I choose to. SAC is located on the top of a hill, and when the corn is not high, you can see most of the town down in the valley below. There are always far fewer lights than one would expect given Kumbo's population, and the whole place is eerily dark when there is no current. But that was not the case tonight! With the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon playing a match, even an exhibition match, the current was there, and didn't go out until after the game ended. We take soccer seriously here.

I was almost home when a most amazing thing happened: I knew, without listening to the radio or watching television, that Cameroon had scored a goal. The entire Kumbo valley let out a celebratory roar. I felt a little like the Grinch listening to the whos down in Whoville. It was almost 9 pm, when most people are at home and asleep because light costs money, and money is scarce. But tonight, the whole town was up and watching. You can believe the whole country was up and watching: watching an exhibition game, with no real consequences for a win or a loss, and cheering so loud at a goal that it could be heard miles up the hill. That sound just filled the whole valley, coming from every house with a light on inside. It kind of gives a different spin to the oft heard "we are together."

If this is what happens for an exhibition match, it will certainly be interesting to see what happens for the World Cup matches, set to begin in a few short weeks.

FYI, the match ended in a draw, 2-2.


Friday, June 13, 2014


Our Father:

A child of Nso' would never say "my father," but always "our father." Even if one is an only child, one speaks of "our father," as the father is a father to all. I think about that often as we pray the Our Father at Mass. This has even led to some trouble with Bible Translation, as Jesus speaks of "My Father." There is no easy way to translate "my father" into Lamnso', there are no words for it. Well, I suppose there are words, but they make no sense to Nso' ears. They use an awkward workaround in translation.

Of course, my idea of fatherhood and this culture's idea of fatherhood are undoubtedly different. Both are probably different from fatherhood in Jesus' day and age. Every day and age is Christ's, but you know what I mean.

But there is a universality to fatherhood as well, rooted in our universal Father. Our Father. The Father.

(Pictured: Our Father, Shufai Ndzendzev. He's the second biggest traditional ruler in town, second to the the Fon)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Weeding My Spiritual Garden

We have planted a garden with the help of a local man named Tatah Edwin. We also have a few small fields of corn. It is not much, and it will not sustain our family by itself, but it helps. For most people in the States, gardening/farming is a hobby: it is nice to have your own fresh vegetables in season, but you still go to the supermarket every week. For most people here in Kumbo, your farm is your lifeline: you grow most of your food, and supplement with a few small things you buy in the market with your meager wages. 

Well, the hubbub of the end of school paired with a bout of procrastination and low motivation has resulted with our garden becoming neglected. We did not water the days that it did not rain, we did not pull weeds.  Today we went out there to try to salvage what we could.

(NB: I freely admit to being totally clueless regarding gardening. I just do what I'm told. But I'm learning...)

Some weeding is easy: the difference between lettuce and grass is clear. Other weeding is difficult: is this a weed, or the peppers coming up? And just what, exactly, do radishes look like above the ground? Is that an edible coco yam plant, or the coco yam that is a weed? Some of the weeds I pulled today had grown large and well-rooted, and were difficult to pull. Some came off at the stem, and the roots remain to sap away water and nutrients from the good stuff. It is difficult and tedious to get these big weeds out, whereas the small, little weeds are easily dealt with: a small tug and they are uprooted.

As I went about the garden pulling what I hope and pray were weeds and not peppers and radishes, I thought about my spiritual life, which is sometimes as neglected as our garden. The desire is there, for sure.  I want to grow and flourish and bear fruit, but sometimes I am just "too busy" to work the fields and fertilize and water and plant and weed in my spiritual farm. What a shame! My spiritual garden will not flourish, and what good is there will be small and good, but not abundant.

Retreats and holy days certainly go a long way to getting me going again in my spiritual life, just like this half-day blitz in the garden went a way to getting us back on track horticulturally. However, it is much better to give your soul the care and feeding, as well as watering and weeding, that it needs. Sin is a weed, and if you don't pluck it up early, it gets thick and rooted in habit. Really, it is God who does the "weeding" of sin, but God can only weed while I am open and willing to let myself be worked on. I need to spend time in prayer, God's best weeding time, and I need to let Grace water my soul, especially the Grace of the sacraments.

I will always have weeds in my garden, they are a fact of life. My choice is whether to allow them out of sloth and indifference, or to get busy on my knees. 


Max Gardening
Max planting seedlings for nursery

Pumpkin leaf and cabbage

Our garden - corn in background

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Chaotic End of School Year

Where to begin? The third term is primarily for the final exam, and is only one month long.  Not much happens, except for exams, and it is difficult to teach even review classes without a hundred interruptions and distractions and disturbances.  Students are literally climbing the walls outside of the classroom.  The last week of school the teachers are finalizing their marks and having meetings and discussing who gets promoted and who doesn't. Meanwhile, the students are straining against their chains, yearning for the freedom of the long holiday, becoming bolder by the hour, and getting exponentially antsier each day.

The way the marking works is that each class has a "Class Master," whose job it is to compile the marks for one class, and calculate averages, totals, etc. It is a tedious job, especially when done on a spreadsheet. By hand. When the final marks are calculated, they are recorded in individual report card books. I am the "Form II Middle" class master and in charge of recording all their marks on the Master Sheet, though their chemistry, biology, physics, geography, French, English literature, English language, history, computer, religion, food and nutrition, calligraphy, integrity, and labor teachers all have to record their own marks in the report card books.

After all that was (mostly) complete , the marks were discussed at a meeting called the "Class Council. " During Class Council, the staff eventually decided to promote practically every student regardless of performance, because bringing in school fees through enrollment is a concern and if a student is asked to repeat, the parents will take their school fees elsewhere, at a school that will place their child in the next level.

The teachers were then set to the task of finishing filling out the report cards and preparing them for distribution. This requires a perfect storm of conditions, and if one condition isn't met, it causes a cascade of delays and disturbances. So, if the office printer is on the fritz and the computer lab key is with another teacher that has gone off campus, well, you'll just have to wait to get something printed and copied. Or, if the principle is not around because he's at a funeral for another priest, even if you're all finished with your tedious recorded-by-hand marks, you still have to wait for him and his pen, so he can sign all the report cards before they are removed from the books.

We ended up working late into the night attaching letters to report cards and removing report cards from the stacks when the student owed fees or library books. It was a fun time, laughing and working and spending time with the die-hards, but an exhausting time. Really it was the calm before the storm of the total chaos of the following day.
The whole next morning was a flurry of students running around and lugging trunks, teachers running around looking for more staples and calling for specific students, vendors selling snacks for the road, buses and taxis coming and going, teachers surrounded by throngs of grabbing hands as they try to orderly distribute report cards.

Then the panic set in. So-and-so didn't get her report card because she didn't turn in a library book, and she returned all her books, so it must be a mistake, and the bus for Yaounde is leaving and she needs to get on, and where is the library madam, because it is surely an error? Or, the bursar says I have not paid my fees, but I gave my money to Mr. So-and-so. Or, I paid for space for my trunk on the bus, but the list does not indicate my trunk. 

Six hundred students had a thousand complaints and crises, and they were handled all at the same time in a throng of students eager to make payments or clear up misunderstandings in the bursary. There were many students who discovered that returning SOME but not all library books is not truly sufficient to cancel a debt, nor is returning OTHER library books that they did not sign out (but thanks for returning them!) Other students discovered that Mr. So-and-so did indeed recieve the money, but it was never passed on to the bursar. He had to be tracked down, and the money discovered tucked away and safely forgotten. Some students were victims of mistaken identity, whereby "Clinton" owed money, but was it Fomonyuy Clinton, or Tamnjong Clinton? There is another Mohammed in another class, was he the one who signed for these Library books? All the while students pushed and jostled in front of each other trying to be the next one served, with no semblance of a line.

One poor boy discovered he had no debt to the bursary or library, and his class master did not have his report card. It was just swallowed up by the Chaos. At one point, after the hubbub had finally died down, one student came to the bursary to see what fees he owed. My wife was the only teacher there for the moment as the bursar had stepped out. Logan dutifully searched for his report card, with the boy grabbing and being pushy the whole time. When she showed him the fees owed written on the back of the report card, he snatched it and ran. He stole his own report card! The guards had to be sent to track him down.

At the end of the day, students either got their report cards or they didn't, they either passed on or they didn't, and we said goodbye and see you next year and have a long, happy, holiday.

Missing in this account is every chaotic thing that happened in our house and at the school, including the twice-burnt beans, the football match sing-along, the very welcome visitors, the sticker distribution, the white-out snatching, the calculator switching, the gossipy snitching, the sibling rivalry, our lack of food because we didn't have time and/or forgot to go shopping during the press of the crazy week, or anything else that added to the chaos.

But now it is over, and except for the GCE exams we must "invigilate" next week we are through for the school year. Praise God! What are the best three things about being a teacher?  June, July, and August.

We will enjoy the holiday, but we don't plan on being idle.  Stay tuned.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Mourning By Celebrating

A friend of mine recently invited me to attend a special event. Vitalian's father was a member of a traditional singing/dancing/drinking group...  and I'll be darned if I can remember the word for that kind of group. This is what you get for not writing things down right away, I guess. The group may be attached to a Juju, I'm not sure. There were costumed warriors, in the least.

In any case, Vitalian's father died twelve years ago, and since then the group has not paid proper respects with a mourning celebration. Until now. The remaining members of the group, and family members, and friends, and whoever else is around in the neighborhood, all gathered at the deceased's compound to sing and dance and drink and feast. All day long. The singing is a kind of repetitive, rhythmic affair. It continued for most of the time I was there. I could hear it coming up from the valley as I walked down the bishop's hill to meet Vitalian, and I could hear it as I journeyed home. Instrumentation consisted of a drum or two, half a hundred voices, and twice as many swords.

As I entered the compound, which had gone to ruin since Vitalian's father's death, I noticed a common ceremonial greeting that I have seen before: the participants draw their swords (or cutlasses, they are called) and clanged them together twice, in a methodical way that is reminiscent of warfare but far from it. When I asked about the meaning of it, all I got as an answer was, "it is our tradition."  It seems the meaning of the tradition is lost to most, because I asked a handful of people and never got a deeper meaning than "tradition." It might be a secret, but I highly doubt it. I think that people just don't know anymore.
Man with cutlass
I sat and watched the singing, until someone invited me into the ruined house, which was nothing but newly made benches fashioned crudely over the remains of crumbled mud brick walls. I was given a horn brimming with palm wine, a sword to greet others properly, and then I watched. At SAC and other places almost everyone speaks English very well, but here it was all Lamnso' and pidgin. I mostly just stood still, greeted with my limited vocabulary, and took in the sights.

It was fascinating!  I watched a whole goat roasted over an open flame. The same goat had been alive and was led around the compound when I arrived.  The crowd numbered around 100 or so at one time, but people came and went constantly. There were mostly men and boys. Only a third of the people there could have possibly known the father as a friend, given their ages. 
Vitalian leading goat

Goat being roasted
Everyone wore traditional dress, at the very least a traditional cap. I had to wear a cap to even attend. I have learned that people here often don't like to be photographed but I was encouraged to take my camera and snap as many photos as I wanted.
Man in traditional dress
After an hour of dancing and sword clanging and drumming and singing, everyone gathered and sat in a circle, while men constantly made rounds serving palm wine from calabashes. (It is bad luck to serve yourself.) Men who knew the Father gave speeches in his honor (there are always speeches!), and mimed battles, and told jokes. At least, that is what I think was happening, it was all in Lamnso' at this point. The boys were even served palm wine into their outstretched cupped hands, slurping it up before it drained out. I think they got more on the dirt than in their mouths. Then, the drumming and singing and dancing started, and after a bit I left with Vitalian to his brother's house, where I was served food,  It was fufu and njama-njama, of course. It's always fufu. People eat fufu nine meals out of ten.

Mourners dancing
While I was there, the singing-dancing-warring-juju group sent some costumed men to beg/demand/collect something to drink, And Vitalian was ready with little packets of whisky and rum to give to them.

All told, there were several goats and many fowl consumed, along with 200 liters of palm wine... by the time I left.  There were still hours left to go, and the mourners would continue until it was time to go, which was whatever time they needed to leave to walk back to their houses in the dark. 

It was all very fascinating to see, and I loved how the people celebrated the life of this man dead over a decade. It was especially uplifting to see people who probably never knew or barely knew the man celebrate him. I was frustrated that people could not tell me more about the traditions. It seems that oftentimes there are traditions that people have here that are either lost or waning. We've heard tell it used to be that every so often people would gather in a square or junction or large compound and have a huge bonfire, and they would tell stories and sing and dance and pass on the tradition that way. Now, the young people have no interest in what their grandparents have to say and sing, and prefer to spend time on their phones, and even the internet for some. Some technological and cultural advances come at a cost.