Thursday, October 8, 2015

October Groove

The long holiday is over, and the school year is marching on. Wasn't it just yesterday the students arrived at the beginning of September? How is it October already?

As long as I can remember, October has always had a feel of getting in the groove. Families are settling into the rhythms of school, the weather is crisp and usually pleasant, and things just seem to move along. Here, it is no different. For some reason, the late rainy season weather here is uncannily Autumn-esque. Walking up to class with clear skies and a cool breeze, I almost feel like I'm back in the States.

School is progressing well, the kinks in our schedules are all sorted out, and we are enthusiastically tackling the challenges of teaching. There are the usual obstacles: recalcitrant students, lack of basic skills necessary for learning, lack of basic materials necessary for learning, maddeningly erroneous textbooks, and unexpected disruptions to the routine. It certainly is a struggle! “It is not easy,” is a common saying here, and it's true that life and work and learning are not easy.

One of our biggest challenges is the problem of our students' vastly different levels of ability. In Form 1, the youngest is 9 and the oldest is 14. Some have repeated multiple years. Some can complete multiplication and division with ease, some can barely write their numbers (don't even ask them to spell them out!). Some are Francophones with English as their third language; some are from the village and their English really just amounts to a few phrases in Pidgin; some have English as their second or even first language, but can't express themselves in a clear manner. The best students are satisfied with an 85% average, and that kills me! Low academic expectations lead to low academic performance.

It's all very frustrating, but for some reason (familiarity with the system and situation? wearing down? grinding down?) I'm usually generally okay with everything. I accept things as they are, not because they are good, but because there's nothing else I can do. I can't go back and change the way these children were taught in primary school! I can't, from my position right now, change the education policies and/or philosophies of a school, a region, a country.

But we can work for the good where we are with what we have. Now in my third year I have a better handle on how to present lectures and give notes and explanations that satisfy both my need to teach dynamically (or try, at least) and my students' need to be able to process everything according to their learning paradigm. Then, slowly through the year, we try to do a mini paradigm shift. We want these students to be proficient at math, and voracious readers. First, some need to learn the alphabet and how to carry the 1 when adding.

The frustrating thing is that all of this basic and remedial work is not in the set curriculum. There is so much I am supposed to cover that I haven't and can't and won't, simply because the students aren't ready for it. Yet, how do I spur the advanced learners and keep their interest, when I'm teaching the bottom of the class to borrow and carry? My returning students in Form II gave me a little glimpse of hope. They all know their times table! I was surprised, and then maybe a little smug, when even the students at the bottom of the class were able to recall their multiplication facts from memory.

We're a long way off from understanding hexadecimal numbers, algebraic expressions, and multiple-step word problems; for some, we're getting there.

Baby steps.  


Monday, September 28, 2015

Jurassic Mission (or Limbe Saga, Part I)

We descended the mountains at a glacial pace due to the thick cloud of fog. Visibility was close to nil, but we kept our eyes on the jungle just the same. At the bottom of the hill we rolled out onto a broad rain-swept plain and pushed on to the Southwest. It was dark and pouring rain by the time we arrived at our destination, a dilapidated former research facility perched on the brink of the Atlantic Ocean. Water streaks stained the walls. Tiles were missing. Paneling peeled off the furniture. Despite the cool rain the salty breeze from the ocean was always in our noses. While we had traveled through most of two regions and into a third that day, we still hadn't seen our quarry: the mythical lost dinosaurs of Africa. See, rumor has it that somewhere in the vast expanse of this dark continent, dinosaurs still lived and roamed, forgotten by time and extinction and evolution. Would we find them here? And could they open doors?

Okay, so we weren't really looking for dinosaurs. We were looking to relax. It was the last week before school started up again, and we decided we needed a vacation. After several different plans pooped out for various reasons, we decided a few days before that we would head to Limbe, a beach town on the coast a few hours outside of Douala. Our trip included much discussion—but no sighting—of dinosaurs, owing to the fact that I was currently reading Jurassic park, and the similarity of setting, and that one of our party was a huge fan of the new movie.

Despite the lack of dinos, we still had plenty of adventures.

First, we had to get down there. Limbe is some 200 miles or so away, a little longer than we are accustomed to walking, and we don't have a car. After spending the weekend securing a vehicle, driver, or some combination of those and a plan for public transport, we loaded up a car at 4:30 am on Monday morning and began our journey...

...only to have our journey stall out in Bamenda, 1/4 of the way to the shore. Our driver had forgotten to bring his driver's license and ID card with him! For various reasons, the police and gendarme controls along the highway are very serious at this time, and while the checkpoints knew him between his normal Kumbo-Bamenda route, it would be a terrible idea to try to go without it.

God can work all things for the good. We decided to wait in Bamenda and have breakfast with our fellow LMH-er Ashley, new to the country and as yet virtual stranger to us. Meanwhile our driver headed out to the taxi park to wait for his documents, which were on their way from Kumbo in the hands of another taxi driver making the trip. We met Ashley at PresCafe, one of the best places to eat in Bamenda (that we know of) but also the place with the slowest service (that we know of). We didn't mind; we had three or four hours to kill, and getting to know Ashley seemed a good way to do it. By the time the driver showed up again, Ashley had her bag packed and we all set off together for beautiful, sunny Limbe. Three cheers for spontaneity!

Except, Limbe wasn't so sunny. Yeah, there was rain, but then there was also our selected hotel. Our years-old guidebook lists the Atlantic Beach as Limbe's most “characterful” hotel, whatever that means. It is located at the Eastern end of a lush botanical garden, and it used to be the botanical garden's research facility. The rooms are nice and big, it's right next to a rocky shore littered with garbage, and you have beautiful views of oil rigs and also other polluted beaches. The facilities are rusting and peeling and literally falling down. Our friends who had stayed there before, and whose reviews we couldn't read because they were in our email inbox and our internet has been down in Kumbo for a month, described the place as a “little rundown,” and “okay, but we wouldn't stay there again.” Oh, internet... if only you had been working in Kumbo, we might have made better reservations.

The restaurant had thankfully waited for us the night we arrived even though we were over an hour late (blame the weather and the control checkpoints) and we spent a wonderful dinner eating Poulet DG and joking about our visit to Isla Nublar and whether or not Velociraptors would attack us in the night.
None did, but in the morning we had a run in with Managerius obstinatus, a terrible beast known for his stinginess and intransigence. When we had made the reservation, I informed the front desk of the size of our family, and was told that our room would be plenty large enough and that breakfast was included. Sweet! There were two big beds, and so I kind of figured that would mean about four meals, and we'd have to pay for the rest of our ravenous clan to break their fast. Well, oh ho ho! It turns out that each room is entitled to ONE free breakfast, and the rest of us wannabe freeloaders would have to pay. A few days of that can really add up, and we ended up butting heads with the manager over this issue. He finally budged a little, and told us we could have two breakfasts, because there were two beds in the room. And if we really wanted, that day we could have four breakfasts... if we had none the next day. Sheesh.

We spent the morning checking out the rocks and tide pools along the shore below the hotel, including the wreckage of an oceanside pool that has been battered to oblivion. When our driver arrived, we got the heck out of dodge. So long, stingy manager man!
Downtown Limbe doesn't really have much to offer but night spots and ATMs. However, the Down Beach area is right on the waterfront, and you can buy roasted fish and shrimp that was caught that very morning, probably right there in the bay. It was certainly an experience, and a delicious one at that. A young Fulani man gave our kids pony rides on the beach, and we got to watch the fishermen mend nets and build boats and haul in catches. Seaside Cameroon is certainly different from the rural mountains where we are in Kumbo. I loved seeing another side of Africa, and I loved eating fresh seafood. Barracuda became a fast favorite of ours during the week.
Our new hotel was outside of town several miles, and wonderful. Scenic, a great beach, clean, friendly, generous and reasonable management (more on that later), wifi (a rare luxury for us!) and wonderful food, if a little pricey. All in all, worth it.

And not once did I get the feeling a T. rex was going to burst out of the foliage and snatch up my children.

Part II of the Limbe Saga will be over at Ashley's blog, as it's her story to tell.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Long Rainy Days

Life right now: pretty normal, just everyday life. Ver yo sa', as they say here, or 'for us there is no news.' At least, no bad news. We are doing a few things...

We are teaching “Holiday Classes” to some of the children here on campus. Most are children of other teachers, but some are visiting from the city or the village, staying with Aunty or Uncle until school starts. Our focus is on the three “R's”: Reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. There are about ten or twelve students that come regularly, M-W-F from 9 AM until noon. It's like our own little one-room schoolhouse! There are plenty of challenges, but we're happy to be doing something during the long holiday. Our first year we had just arrived, and were taking language lessons and getting our sea legs. The second year, Logan was pregnant with Gabe and our housekeeper was on maternity leave, so we had plenty to do. We're also doing school work with our own children. The mixture of ages and abilities keeps us on our toes.
There hasn't been Sunday Mass on campus for several weeks, so we have taken to going to the cathedral, either for the second Mass (9 AM) or the French Mass (11:00 AM).

A knitting craze has swept up our family! Logan and I are both busy on new projects and/or projects that got suspended for a few months. Helena and James are both learning to knit carefully, avoiding and correcting mistakes. When the little kids nap, we'll all sit in the living room and knit and listen to a book on tape. It is relaxing, fun, and productive!

Mangoes are very cheap in the market right now, but I know that one day I will go there and they will all be gone. They come suddenly in May, and leave just as suddenly right about now.

We are right smack in the middle of the rainy season. It is the time of year when it rains... and rains... and rains. Most afternoons, we'll get rain for a few hours. If you're going out, you have to do it in the morning, or else you just get wet. Sometimes it just rains all day and night. The roads and paths are muddy and slippery, the market is a mess. Our kids are enjoying mucking about wearing their second-hand rain boots. Sometimes our clothes on the line just never get dry.

The natural rhythm of the seasons dictates our daily doings. We don't go out as much, because it is raining. When there is work to be done in the garden, we do it. There aren't too many outdoor events this time of year. The long rainy days are good days to sit inside and get work done, or not, and that's what people do.

All this rain means the ground is leached of nutrients, so we have to add more and more to our garden. The zucchini and other cucurbits are finished, we didn't get nearly as much as we had hoped out of them. They were struck by some sort of moldy fungus-y thing. I guess the variety we planted just wasn't suited to the climate. The melons didn't do well at all. We've been harvesting carrots and green beans and peas and green onions as the kitchen needs them. The garbanzo beans are just about ready for harvest. Our regular beans are harvested and half are threshed and ready to be eaten. Our kale and chard have done well, and we're happy for the greens. We're getting ready to plant another round of legumes in August, to take advantage of the rains until things dry up during what we think of as the Fall.