Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top 6 Silver Linings to being sick this month

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps.

I've pretty much spent the past 7 weeks sick of one thing or another. It started with the Halloween party (mental note: do NOT share glasses with people obviously struggling to breathe) and was mostly a chest cold. Then it may have been allergies: the dust since the dry season started has been bad and it kept me awake nights for weeks. Then I went to IST (in-service training) at the ocean-side resort town of Kribi on Sunday and instead of beach-bumming and attending classes, spent Tuesday evening-Saturday morning in bed with various stomach issues... a trip to the hospital told me it was typhoid and malaria! Now after a few days at the case in Yaounde, I'm back in Bandjoun and have another chest cold. As a result, I have to cancel my much-anticipated climb up Mount Cameroon over Christmas.

C'mon, Cameroon! Gimme a break.

In any case, I thought I'd frame this in terms of the silver linings. Here are the top 6 advantages to spending the past week in bed:
  1. Avoided Robbery. If I hadn't been sick in bed, chance are I would have been at the bar across the street from the hotel in Kribi on Thursday evening at 10pm. That was where I was there Monday evening at that time. So Thursday, 4 men with guns and machetes relieved 21 of my Peace Corps peers of all their stuff. Not to discount the horror (especially the guy kicking in the bathroom door, and then hacking Julia with a machete as she cowered in the corner), but... if I had lost my Blackberry, I would have been very, very, very depressed.
  2. Avoided Sessions. Not to say the sessions were more boring than sleeping the entire day (not all of them, anyway), but... putting us in a beach-front hotel and then scheduling training from 8a-5p every day? Are you kidding me?
  3. Avoided Hotel Food. 11/43 volunteers were sick that week, the diseases I know about were typhoid and amoebic dysentery. It's kinda hard not to blame the food at the hotel. That and the inference that I have not eating the food at all listed as an "advantage".
  4. Avoided spending money. I didn't buy any souvenirs since I didn't go anywhere. The pizza Monday evening was 5,500 CFA, so it was a good thing I didn't feel tempted to go back again. OTOH, I spent 30,000 CFA on the hospital visit and medicine!
  5. Enjoyed American movies at the Case! I wouldn't have gone back through Yaounde if I hadn't been sick, and I hadn't been to the Case before. It was a great relief... just like a college dorm! I got to go to an American/European-style supermarket (Casino) and watch movies like Airplane and Spiderman 2. I also had my first hamburger in 6 months at the bar across the street, though I can't say I would recommend it. Hardly any meat. Or condiments. Soggy fries. Beggars can't be choosers!
  6. Prescription medicine! Hooray for being able to walk into the PCMO office and walk out with medicine. I got Beconase AQ for my allergies, a medicine I last saw in the mid-90s when my doctor told me it was too expensive and inconvenient to take. Unfortunately I never took it again: it's a steroid that inhibits your allergy symptoms, in my case an incessantly itchy, runny nose. I walked out with a 6-week supply, and have already started on it: very happily too!

Bonus silver lining: not going to Mount Cameroon means I can stay in and work on my websites. I'll be visiting another PCV for Christmas, and hopefully birding Mount Kupe with a guide to find the famous rare shrike. And hopefully some other stuff. I consolidated my photos, videos and sighting reports on a new searchable birding website and noticed my list for Cameroon after 6 months is a pathetic 125! I need to get out and find some of the other 800 species in this country...

Also, from comments and hit counts, I see the Books for Cameroon site is also starting to generate some interest.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

End of the First Trimester!

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps.

This week represented my last round of classes of the year. The members of my Stage will be in Kribi next week for training, and after that we have two weeks of vacation for the holidays. This is great news, since the first trimester was very challenging. I had never taught before, I had never worked with children before, I had never had a job requiring me to speak a foreign language, I had never lived and worked abroad, and my allergies were killing me most of the time. It could be bronchitis too - I had trouble breathing at night and was advised to get a chest x-ray and blood work before Kribi. But regardless, I do feel like a major milestone has been reached, and it's all downhill from here!

The students were restless this week, probably due to the impending Christmas holidays. But I did have one good class this week. My first Seconde class actually started responding to some free-flowing discussion, the topic of which was WikiLeaks. Well, really it was how computers impact our lives (the subject of the chapter), but I used the recent news on security breaches as an example of stuff that wasn’t even remotely possible before the internet and the information age. That got them going, many instantly wondering if Assange was still alive (assuming he had been knocked off by an angry government). Others espoused strong opinions one way or another over whether releasing the documents was or was not legal according to the ethics outlined in the chapter. It wasn't sophisticated discussion or anything, but it was awesome to see some spirited interaction. Finally the class was opening up rather than the usual “Oui, Madame” and “Non, Madame”.

That particular class was also in a very good mood because they had done well on the test. 98%of them passed, and the average grade was around 15/20 which is very good. The other classes did not do as well, and were far less attentive. Though I may be mixing cause and effect here.

There was also another round of filling out report cards and other paperwork. After the paperwork of the first sequence had landed so late, I was not worried. I guess I should have been. I was called at home Thursday morning (only 3.5 days after the end of sequence, and 2 weeks before the ‘official’ deadline) to be told I was nearly the last person to do the work and I needed to come in asap. I was then told to schedule a meeting (even though we didn’t have all the grades yet) so we could finish since we were the last department to do so.

Sigh. I thought I had expectations figured out (paper vs. reality), but… nope! Live and learn.

I also had some little visitors this weekend. One of my students (actually my landlord's son) wanted to see his grade before the rest of the class. But he made up a pretense to come inside my house, along with his two sisters. So they wanted to play cards with me. Well, not really. They didn't know the rules, so the girls just passed them back and forth while he watched. But anyway, they were so cute I showed him his grade. And he literally jumped with joy because he passed!

So then I showed them stuff on my computer. The little girls were impressed by pretty much every paltry thing I had in my house. I think they were impressed. Their reaction to everything was, "Ay yay yay!" The colored pencils were a hit, so I gave them most of the ones I had along with my pastels.

This is completely tangential, but I can't think of a good segue. Today I looked out the window of one of my classes, and noticed a pile of trash. It was 3 months worth of students throwing their crap out the window, that led to the back of the school looking like a garbage dump. Yet in the middle of this, I noticed a mother hen, guarding her adorable, fluffy, yellow-and-black chicks under her wing. What an amazing moment. Suddenly two metaphors (‘under one’s wing’ and ‘mother hen’) popped into my mind. Honestly, growing up in a culture where chickens never run around freely, I never really connected either of those expressions with actual animal behavior!

Seeing them like that makes me never want to eat them again.

But anyway, that led me to wonder about aspects of development. There are wonderful things about Cameroon that are lacking in the U.S., and vice versa. Good: intimate moments with free range chickens. Bad: Piles of trash everywhere.

There are more and better examples. But are these the natural by-product of the country’s stage of development? Does developing mean landfills and clean streets while chickens all get stuck in tiny cages in inhumane conditions, and only appear as plucked, dismembered fryers? Can development mean taking the best parts of one's culture and adding to it with good ideas?

Really, I'm wondering if development in Cameroon can mean becoming more like Mayberry than Gotham City? I certainly hope so.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A busy week at post

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps.

Last week, I was hard at work on the Books for Cameroon website. Friday, a few of us will meet to discuss it, along with a few other secondary projects that are underway. Another project is an AIDS/HIV awareness initiative involving Moto (motorcycle) drivers spreading the word. Books for Cameroon is a project started by Cristina's predecessor that is looking for French or English language books for libaries in Cameroon. The website is still under construction, but feedback and comments are more than welcome.

Tomorrow, I'm also hosting a small party for the ICT department at the high school. I was reminded on Tuesday that I'll need to make food as well (and I thought it was just drinks!) I decided against trying Cameroonian food, so I'll stick to simple appetizers (deviled eggs, salad, bruschetta, french fries) and a salad, maybe spaghetti also. We'll see how this goes: it's my first opportunity to entertain Cameroonians in my house!

I also prepared some training for volunteers on creating web sites. No sooner had I written those PowerPoint slides than I was asked to train the teachers at my school also! Not on web site development thankfully, but on Word, Excel and other basic functions. That will start Friday afternoon. Thank goodness I have the projector for both efforts! Probably no surprise, but it was already damaged in another teacher's class (a couple of pins broke on the video connector), but it still works. Now I'm keeping it with me and guarding it like a hawk :(

The students were unusually bad this week. A couple of Cinquieme students started throwing punches and wrestling and I had to run out of the class to get the Censeur. A few others threw punches or pulled my hair: then just rn away went I sent them to the discipline master. It was rather cartoony: they ran as far as they thought was out of my reach, and I had to give their names for punishment later. But overall the Derange-o-Meter still is effective. And kids on average do seem to learning the material. That's the important thing!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Step Up: the Software Industry vs. Teaching in Cameroon

As it's another rainy night in Bandjoun (we are still in the 9-month-long rainy season), I started thinking about my experience in Peace Corps so far. It has been just shy of 5 months, but I'm feeling that joining Peace Corps has been the most worthwhile thing I have ever done.

To put this in context, I spent 18 years as a software developer, most of it working for a large software company. During that time, I had so many options that I was totally spoiled. Not only did I want for nothing, I never even had to confront difficult issues. I was always interacting with people who were similar to me. Being the software industry, none of us had particularly well-developed social skills, but that was not really a problem because it was easy to find people to agree with. Plus, you didn't have to. Debate is often at the very heart of the creative process: it's the best idea that should win, and the ability to sell an idea doesn't necessarily depend upon the social aptitude of the idea's messenger. (Well, it can and often does, but not when no one around is all that socially adept!)

Needless to say, I also had many options for cuisine and housing and activities. If I didn't like a job, I could move to another one. Or I could start doing different work in my existing job... they usually saw that as "initiative" rather than, oh, say... insubordination. That concept did not exist in practice as long as some sort of results were achieved!

In fact, as a manager, the main problem I had with motivating employees was getting them to do the thing I wanted in the manner I knew it needed to be done. I could just mention something and usually they would have it done in hours or days. If the work was challenging it sold itself. The company rewarded great performance. Again, the only issue was whether I could convince them to write (for example) an object-oriented interface rather than the XML that would have been so much easier though less efficient. Something like that was often pulling teeth, but if the final result worked, no harm no foul from my bosses' perspective.

Even then, I thought my life was way too insular. I found I had little ability to connect with people who were not in the software industry. It was difficult to relate to them or find things to talk about. I also felt completely spoiled by 150 cable channels and access to any product within driving distance. Not to mention (reliable) running water, (reliable) electricity, washing machines, dishwashers, an oven and a hot water heater.

Not so anymore. I don't have any of those things. Plus, I am forced to confront issues I never had to deal with before. I can't escape anyone or any situation that is uncomfortable.

Yet I don't feel the least bit deprived. It's bizarre. For all the problems that exist here, figuring out how to deal with them and seeing the positive result is incredibly rewarding! Probably more so than any technical challenge I ever had in my old world.

I'm teaching computer literacy at the high school in Bandjoun. The high school actually encompasses grades 6-12, so I'm teaching kids between the ages of 12-16 at the moment. Motivating older kids is fairly easy: they understand the connection between success in life and good grades (or rather, paying attention and good grades). So they take notes, pay attention and on average do fairly well on tests. The younger kids (6th and 7th graders - 6me and 5me here) do not make that connection. I tried many things, including rewarding them with time in the computer lab if the class behaved. There were mixed results, initially successful and lately not so much. On Tuesday, it was as if they we were at square one again: most of the students were laughing, running out of the classroom, eating (which is prohibited) and only 2 students out of 60 even raised their hands to answer a question from an assignment they were supposed to have done a week before. It was obvious none of them had done it. They weren't very ashamed of that either (as pictured :)
So I had a long talk with a Cameroonian teacher today for advice. His suggestion: for young kids, give them candy if they answer a question. Geez, that's so obvious. I don't know why I didn't think of it. Another gem: if they're talking in class, make them write a phrase over and over a la Bart Simpson. That will shut them up and punish them, and if its a useful phrase they will learn something at the same time. Classic! Yet if that's what they're used to, it's worth trying.

We had a departmental meeting today, which I was supposed to lead as head of the department. The first one six weeks ago was a bit weird. Mostly I had trouble following the rapid-fire French. Yet I was also frequently reminded that I was supposed to be running the meeting, even though I had no idea what it was supposed to be about. As a result, it lasted 4 hours. That's way too long for my taste! Today, the meeting went incredibly smoothly, clocking 1:30. There was a logical progression, and a plausible solution was proposed for almost every issue raised. I am also proud to report that I understood everything that was said. (Granted, a few things were rephrased at my request.) Plus, we set a date for a social event for the department in two weeks. I'll be hosting at my house. This is great: another bridge is under construction!

The department was also very grateful for the projector I had bought. That was another "aha" moment I had last week. I finally realized that the students were not absorbing the content because they didn't understand it. It wasn't because of my accent, as I had suspected. It was because they have no text books, no photos and no computers at their homes. So how can they be expected to understand words on a chalkboard that have no connection with their lives? How can they understand an optical versus a mechanical mouse if they've never seen a mouse?! OK, maybe they've seen a mouse, but not a tablet PC or a smartphone. Certainly not a mainframe. I thought maybe they could make a connection if they saw pictures and video of these concepts, if not the physical objects.

So last week, I bought a projector in Bafoussam. On Monday I brought both 2nde classes to the computer lab, showed them a PowerPoint presentation interspersed with live and video demos and quizzed them every few slides for review. The subject was the components of a PC. They totally got it. It was wonderful to see.

I had disassembled all the computers, so afterwards I told them they had to apply their new knowledge and put them back together to use them. The classes on average were really happy about this, and nearly all of them were able to assemble the computers successfully. Only 2/20 reversed the mouse and keyboard PS/2 connectors in one of the two classes (I made a special point of that distinction). Only 1 in each class failed to notice the disconnected power cord. Better, I have a feeling they will do much better on the test at the end of this sequence.

The next day, I wanted to use the projector on another class, but to my delight, another teacher had noticed the projector and was already using it. So I observed his class: these same 6me students (12-year-olds) who had been so bad in the classroom were now focused and concentrating because the teacher could show them all exactly what he wanted them to do via the projector! I was both amazed and ecstatic at such fast results.

One final point I want to repeat is that I had been living in a large metropolitan area in the U.S. where there are tons of options. Not so here. But I have found that that's actually better: I have found certain market ladies and business owners with whom I have developed a rapport. You can do that in the U.S., but mostly you're dealing with interchangeable staff at megastores. Or shopping online. Here is the difference: your experience is personal, good or bad. If you develop a rapport with someone, don't even have to bargain. My connections even slip me extra product when I buy something now! One wonderful lady kept a school prop I had left in her store one time for nearly a week. And unlike some other business owners who had asked me to pay a deposit to carry away a glass bottle of pop, she didn't care and just sold me a large bottle for 325 CFA (it's 500 at the hotel even without the deposit!) It's a bit ironic that I, someone who made a career out of automating manual processes and removing the human element from everyday activities, I now prefer human interaction for some of those same activities.

So after only 5 months, I can already summarize my "accomplishments". My resume may have a ton of impressive-sounding technical stuff on it, but these I am valuing more at the moment:
  • Relating to others outside my demographic: I'd call this nearly resolved. I'm an introvert and will never be a social butterfly, but I have been able to make friends of many backgrounds in a short period of time.

  • Dealing with work-related conflicts: still needs improvement, but much better! I tend to take work-related problems too personally. I'm starting to just go with the flow and take advantage of the wisdom of all the other teachers around.
  • Food: never was much of an issue. In the past week, I've made (mostly from scratch) spaghetti with tomato and onion sauce, banana pancakes, rice pilaf with mixed vegetables, homemade potato chips, a potato/green bean/mushroom stew, and carrot salad with vinaigrette dressing. There's a lot of variety to be had with a few ingredients, and I don't miss meat at all.
  • Patience with neighbors for nosiness/making noise/asking for gifts+favors: just materialized recently. They're so sweet, take in my laundry when it rains, clean my shoes. I'm even used to the loud music on Saturday mornings - I just put in my ear plugs. (I do wish they'd stop asking me to bring them back to the U.S. though...)
  • Feeling isolated: wasn't too bad, but no longer feel that way what with the neighbors coming over to watch Cameroonian videos on my laptop, and so many other PC volunteers.
  • Patience at not understanding expectations/rapid French: dramatically increased. The rules and expectations at the high school are starting to make sense. I just had a one hour French course today, and the prof basically told me I didn't need it. I'm really down the slang and rapid/slurred speech (especially spoken by young kids) being difficult. But even then, they are now rephrasing more slowly rather than repeating at the same speed, so I'm now able to understand and pick up new expressions.

In any case, this has been an incomparably rewarding experience and I'm sooo glad I decided to do it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Some Ornithological Show-n-Tell

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps.

Today I am posting a bit of a multi-media presentation. First, a few bird photos taken in the past week:
This is a handsome (and frisky) male Fire-crowned or Black-winged Bishop, defending his patch of corn on Saturday, October 23, 2010. I think they've gotten used to me and the camera. This one barely moved when we approached, and I was also able to take this video of the same bird!

This is a Fiscal Shrike. They seem to be really common here, but so far fairly camera shy. This one was even calling, but they take off the moment I take notice of them. Oh well, they seem to be getting used to me little by little. And they are still not as shy as...

...African Pied Hornbills. These guys are spectacular (though modest compared to many of the other hornbills in Africa!!) This one was calling loudly and sitting right next to the lycée, but the moment I stopped and took out my camera, he went mute. I was able to capture a short vocalization in my video here.

Other recent bird videos are on YouTube here:

WARNING: these videos are not high-quality (to say the least), but they do capture the general experience of birding here in Cameroon. Even plain-looking birds can show surprising flashes of color and/or have beautiful songs. It's also useful to capture the songs for later reference, since birding by ear can be a far more useful skill than birding by eyes alone.

Other news:
  • My living room set was delivered on Wednesday afternoon. On a rickety wagon. Pushed/dragged up a hill by one single (and rather slight) man. He asked for a tip, and I really wish I had asked in advance what is appropriate. I only had 400 CFA to give him - and he probably deserved a lot more!!
  • I bought a projector to use at the high school. It will be much easier to show students how to do things rather than try to describe it in my still-suboptimal French. We'll see how that goes - it seemed to work on another guy's Terminale class on Friday, so we'll see. My biggest fear is the device getting damaged or stolen since I got the smallest model.
  • I'm getting more and more confused about the concept of punctuality at the high school.

For more on the last bullet, here's an example: First, they publish a schedule that says that grades for the first sequence have to be filled out by last Tuesday. Yet on Tuesday afternoon, the report cards are still empty. They each need to be filled out by the professor principal. OK, so after checking on this every day for a week, on Wednesday, the names are finally filled in. However, I am also literally the only person filling in grades. One of the vice principals has also left early, so Thursday afternoon I make a special trip to fill out grades for my last two classes. I notice that I am at this point (2 full days past the "deadline") the 3rd teacher of 15-20 who has filled out any of the report cards.

Then on Friday, the vice principal for my (IT) department catches me, is clearly upset, and tells me that my department is behind and I am the last one to report statistics and I need to get him the department statistics (ie, summary of all grades) by Monday at the very latest. I mean, wtf?! If Friday was the "real" deadline for all work to be completed, they should have written Friday on the schedule in the first place. One of the other professors hadn't even given the final exam to one of his classes yet, so reporting is impossible until he collects, grades and fills out the report cards himself! All that said... being Peace Corps, it's not like you can fired for doing something "wrong", but still... still feeling general weirdness about how to interpret "the rules".

Speaking of weirdness in the extreme, I also heard something I don't ever want to hear again: someone (a Cameroonian) defending corporal punishment in school by saying that's what colonials did to motivate Africans on plantations in the U.S!! J.C... how do you even respond to something like that??

Here's the context: the guy in question was an English teacher who was answering a compliment posed by one of us volunteers, "How do you speak such good English?" His answer was that his own English teachers beat the students if they couldn't conjugate the verb "to be", etc. So he studied hard. Really, really hard, basically just to avoid being beaten.

OK... So I would agree that discipline is a problem here. Probably the biggest problem other than lack of resources. Actually, discipline is arguably worse, since the kids will not share the resources (ie computers) they have, and they often don't behave or study well enough to deserve using them. Hence why I bought a projector: they don't learn anything in the classroom, so they can't do anything in the lab. At least with the projector I can walk them through the assignment step-by-step.

Yet many of the kids (if not most) don't study, don't care, cheat remorselessly, hit, yell, chat with others with their backs completely facing me as I'm trying to teach them... it's as if they accept failure very easily and have no interest in classwork at all. But good God... I think it has been proven by now that beating people into submission is Very Bad Thing, and that positive reinforcement actually works better in the long run. It would not be a good thing to have my 300 students scarred for life by memories of being beaten by a white chick, screaming "Click with the LEFT mouse button!! HOLD DOWN the shift key! TURN OFF CAPS LOCK!!"

I really don't think those kids would end up liking computers very much... :)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bandjoun Birding

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps.

A couple of weekends ago I found a wetlands area a short walk from my house here in Bandjoun. That was some great luck! It's probably only here in the rainy season, but right now there is a colony of Viellot's Black and Village Weavers there. I also managed to find some other interesting species such as Zebra Waxbills (bright red and orange-striped finches) and a Wire-tailed Swallow! I did hear what was probably a rail of some sort, but strangely I no luck finding any waterfowl or wading birds. I'm not complaining though - the birds that were there were gorgeous, and there were fish jumping in the stream.

Wire-tailed Swallow

Viellot's Black Weaver

The rest of the town also had some interesting avian visitors. In addition to African Pied Hornbills and Green (Guinea) Turacos that occasionally show up, and the resident Fiscal Shrikes, Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleus, Splendid Glossy Starlings, Fire-crowned Bishops and other wonders, I have seen an Ovambo Sparrowhawk a few times. I managed to capture this one at the top of a tree practically in the middle of town!
Just beyond the stream and up a steep hill, I managed to find this Ashy Flycatcher also. Plus some sunbirds, canaries and mystery warbler I'm tentatively calling a Red-Pate Cisticola. (Oddly, the red-pate shows up in the video I took but not in the photo, where it looks more like a deformed Willow Warbler. Neither of the pictures my field guides bare any resemblance to the other, and I basically compared photos I found online!) In any case, this flycatcher was MUCH easier to identify.

Teaching is going really well this week. Since the first sequence just ended, I had to grade all 6 classes last week. I'm very glad I don't have more classes than that, and only around 60 students per class: it took 2 days to grade all the exams, and then 4 hours today to record the grades! Some of the tests were from students who weren't on the roster (yikes - I only now realized they were hogging the computer lab from paying students!), and other students didn't turn in assignments at all. It's also hard to reconcile the names on the papers with the roster because they all have 4-5 names which they use in random combinations. One student signed her name "Sylvie" when the prenom is least important element of the name! I had to do some detective work and elimination to figure out who it was.

I also discovered (finally seeing the student rosters for the first time today) that the student numbers the students have all been writing on their assignments are mostly wrong. I was hoping that numbers would be infallible if I couldn't read the name. So much for that plan!

Four of the 6 classes did fairly well, averaging about 12/20 (which is at least a passing grade). Sixiemes did not, averaging 9/20, the majority failing in each class. That was even after fudging the grades by turning all work other than the final exam into extra credit. The average before that was 7/20. I'm really going to have to slow down for them.

Today the subject for the Seconde class was the different types of computers. I figured there wasn't much point in following the textbook and teaching them about hybrid, analog, neXT computers and mainframes (and the whole history of the IBM product line), so I gave them the latest on PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and "smart" vs. "dumb" clients. The students were so excited to see and touch my Blackberry also, and then they were asking me price ranges in dollars, euros and CFA on all the different types of computers I described. Phew. It is so much more interesting to talk about tangible objects rather than the term definitions and historical objects (Pascaline!? Abacus beads??) we've been dwelling on for the past 6 weeks.

I am noticing also that it is raining pretty much every single day. It doesn't last long, but it is very very hard when it does rain. One issue is that if it suddenly starts during class, no one can hear anything unless you close the windows, and then the room is pitch-black. Plus, no one wants to leave school and walk in a downpour. Even after it stops, the roads are slick and muddy, and you end up at least with shoes just covered with red mud.

Laundry is another inconvenience: I washed my clothes on Friday, and I was only able to take my socks in today, 3 days later (since I don't have a dryer or anything!) Even though my neighbors were sweet enough to move the socks under the roof overhang before the first rain, it still took 3 days for them to dry. The irony of course is that when the sun shines, it's so hot that most of my clothes are dry within 4 hours. So if I'm lucky, I can have laundry done end-to-end on the same day. But the rain just rolls in at random. Last night, I saw lightning flashes around 11:30pm that went on for a while. Then thunder suddenly struck, I heard the wind come out of nowhere, and then just sheets of rain DUMPED on the roof. I don't think I've ever heard rain that hard in my life (and I am from Seattle and lived in the Midwest, btw).

Another thing I found strange was that after a whole day without power when it hadn't even been raining, we had this sudden powerful storm and the power stayed on throughout. Go figure.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A few bird videos

Today, I'm posting some bird videos that I have taken in the past couple of days. I thought it would be fun to take video as it captures the behavior and the vocalizations, even if the visuals are not always super high quality.

This is a Red-collared Widowbird (Euplectes ardens), well camouflaged in this eucalyptus tree. The red collar actually does not show in this Cameroonian subspecies, but the long tail is very evident from this angle! You can also hear its distinctive rattling call over some loud Pied Crow cawing.

Here are a few links to others videos of some of the more common birds in the area.

A gorgeous Fire-crowned Bishop (Euplectes hordeaceus) vocalizing near my house in Bandjoun in October 2010. I kept taking video and playing it back, and hearing his own voice annoyed him enough to come this close!

A frisky male Yellow-shouldered Widowbird (Euplectes macrourus) doing a territorial display near Kamgo in October 2010. He may have been responding to my pishing, as there were a lot of birds in the bushes. A Singing Cisticola (Cisticola cantans) is calling in the background.

A Black-crowned Waxbill (Estrilda nonnula) near Bandjoun in October 2010. These are very common around my house, and even though they are tiny, their bright red rumps are easy to spot as they fly away. A few Yellow-fronted Canaries (Serinus mozambicus) and abundant Gray-headed Sparrows (Passer griseus) are calling in the background - the latter call very similar to that of House Sparrows! The very light "tick" is the call that belongs to the waxbill.

The pair of Red-faced Lovebirds (Agropornis pullaria) that I posted about earlier during PST in Bafia in August. A Tawny-flanked Prinia (Prinia subflava) is vocalizing in the foreground.

Here's another (better) view of a male Red-collared Widowbird, also in Bandjoun.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Birding and adjusting... 8 October 2010

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps. For real.

Bandjoun continues, for better or for worse.

female Red-cheeked Cordon-BleuOn the upside, at least I finally got a coveted profile shot of a Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleu! This is a female, so of course it lacks the red cheek. They are very common, but are incredibly fast, especially when someone whips out a camera that makes scary noises when it turns on.

Today Cristina and I hit the road to Kamgo for a quick birding trip. The weather cooperated today, overcast for most of it, then very hot while we returned and then *pouring* rain right as Cristina got into the car to go home. Very lucky... except that I had to wait under an awning with many others for the rain to stop.

Since I wrote last I've had more fascinating experiences. First, I was surprised on Monday to learn that there was a seminar I was obligated to attend the following day. The subject: training ICT teachers to teach algorithms and network topology. Well, interestingly those were the two subjects I practiced teaching in model school. But no biggie. It took place at the incredibly large and well-equipped Lycee Classique de Bafoussam. Pictured are their big sports field and fancy-pants computer lab! The latter has actual grounded outlets, non-wobbly benches and Pentium IV computers. No internet or even a LAN though, but it was very impressive. I dug the curtains too... someone spent some time designing that space!

Anyway, I left around noon because I was not feeling so hot and I also felt that I didn't really need the training anyway. The insight offered to teach algorithms was to use an analogy of a quadratic equation. Except that that glossed over the biggest hurdle I personally had... which was that variables are not the same concept in computer science as they are in math. The one issue I had, and they glossed over it and just used a math problem. So I was a bit annoyed that I was missing teaching two classes to go to this thing... which wasn't terribly useful.

Then I was caught in the rain on the way home. It was actually a bit scary: I could see the dark clouds roll in, spewing thunderbolts as they came right toward me. Unfortunately, I was in a part of town where it is nearly impossible to get a car to Bandjoun. I waved down a few, but they just drove off when I said the name of the town. Yikes.

So I tried walking toward the taxi stand, but it was too late. My umbrella blew apart (causing many chuckles from passers-by) and then I ducked into a hardware store to wait out the rain. It did not stop for 1-1/2 hours! I finally darted across the street so I could at least sit in a restaurant/bar. It said it was that. But it was a bar, actually. No food. Darn it! But it was fine - there was a very nice guy there and we chatted. He flagged down a car to get to Marche A and there made sure I found a car to Bandjoun. That was very nice.

What wasn't so nice is that the next morning I woke up with a horrible cold. I was coughing so much, I almost passed out. Even the neighbor remarked on it since she could hear it through the wall all night. So I skipped school Wednesday also. I sent a text message to two members of the administration, and since I didn't hear back I assumed it was OK. I guess that's how it works here!

So then it gets stranger: I got a phone call from a colleague on Saturday morning. He said he heard I was sick. I said yes, but I'm better now. Then he asked if I would be in school on Tuesday. I said yes, why wouldn't I be? I'm in school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. He said, no - he just heard I was sick, so wondered if I would be there Tuesday. I said Yes. He hung up. No goodbye or anything. Weird.

So then Tuesday, I walk to school. I pass students and teachers. A large group of students is hanging out at the carrefour. I even pass one of the censeurs (vice-principals) who says Hello to me. But when to get to the school, all the doors are padlocked. There is no one there except a smattering of students. I look around, then ask one of them, "What holiday is this?" The reply: "La fete de l'Enseignant" (Teacher's Holiday).

So... no one told me this, everyone assumed I knew. Even the teachers and the vice-principal who passed me, a white foreign teacher *carrying a bookbag* toward the school on a national (not international) holiday assumed I knew this. Wow. I will never complain about poor on-boarding practices in corporate America again.

So I'm still not sure if my colleague was trying to tell me about this fete and I just didn't understand him, or if what I thought I heard was accurate (in which case I assume he ran out of phone credit rather than just hanging up when I said I would be at school on Tuesday). That was just one of several "wtf" moments caused by information someone in the school assumed I already knew:

  • That I had to attend a parade on the Fete de l'Enseignant. Apparently I even had a role to play. That would have been nice to know in advance, not the day after when I found out. I didn't even know there was a parade until my neighbor told me (while I was doing laundry)
  • What the heck an "Animateur Pedagogique" does (my role in the ICT department) and what the agenda is for a meeting with the department that he/she is supposed to lead
  • How clubs are announced and how they are supposed to function. In model school, they were all posted at the same time, no officers were elected, and we winged it with no ill effects. Here, they seem to have elections the first day and notices that announce them (believe it or not) have to be notarized by the censeur!! Stranger, no other clubs have been announced, but the members of my computer club were downright incensed that the notice was posted in only *one* place instead of being announced in person in every class in the school. (Sigh.) I would know this... how??
  • That tests are at the end of sequence, every 6 weeks. I guess that's why the students of one class were so annoyed about being given a quiz (which I only gave when absolutely none of them did their homework).
  • What the heck people are saying when they speak slang at break-neck speed. And then they get offended or groan when I don't understand them. Give me a break.

Well, anyway... it's all the continuation of this major adjustment. I guess they only get a new volunteer every two years, and everything is nationalized so Cameroonian teachers all know these rules already. Yet after speaking with other volunteers, it seems like every experience is very different. Only the ICT teachers posted in Lycee Classiques in Francophone regions have to teach in French: a small percentage of us. I haven't found anyone else expected to head a 4-person department and maintain a computer lab to boot.

The expectations of teachers are so high: we seem to be expected to carry themselves a certain way, speak and understand French perfectly, know the subject and how to make students relate to it (which I'm finding incredibly hard, given that I can't relate to THEM). I have to wonder if they are too high, especially for someone with (as seems typical for Peace Corps volunteers) no teaching background.

It will work out, I'm sure. Meanwhile, I should finally get my living room set on the 20th. I can't wait: I feel like I'm living in a cave, with only a bed and a table!

OK, back to birding. Here are a couple more photos from this morning's birding adventures. The first is of a Singing Cisticola. He did sing beautifully! The second is an African Blue Flycatcher, a gorgeous little guy that I've even had in my yard once.

Singing CisticolaBlue Flycatcher
Til next time...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Reflections on Peace Corps and Survivor

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps

This week I suddenly realized why I like Survivor... OK, so it's only been a guilty pleasure for the past 2 years - I only got into it in Season 19 after catching 2 episodes in season 18. I was very anti-reality show prior to that, and mostly I still am. And Season 19 of course was the first Samoa ("Russell Hantz") season, so for me it was as entertaining as a train wreck. Still, I came away from each episode thinking that it was a kind of cool idea to be somewhere without technology or any sort of luxury, meeting new people, getting excited over possibly getting a hamburger at the end of a reward challenge. Well, maybe that inspired me to apply to Peace Corps, and it was somewhat prescient since I haven't even seen a hamburger since May!

Anyway, so I could not resist the temptation to stream the first two episodes of Survivor Nicaragua. That was very interesting to watch, since we saw a few players melt down somewhat dramatically on camera. And I can now say that short of criticizing anyone, I totally get it. The challenge with that type of situation is the social game, not the physical hardships.

Case in point: On Tuesday, I had a breakthrough and got my two classes into line by promising them reward if they behaved. On Wednesday, my first class did not respond to the same thing in any way. So I denied them going to the computer lab. And they just continued, actually pointing fingers at each other while continuing to misbehave themselves. So I eliminated them from reward next week too. Next week I will have to escalate to the discipline master, and butts will (probably) be spanked.

The second class started off calm and respectful and remained that way. Happily, they got through all the material in 45 minutes it took me 2 hours to get through with class #1. So I agreed to take them to the lab. Yet because there were 60+ of them and only 20 computers, I split the class and asked the "chef de classe" to copy some text on the blackboard for others to write down while the first class went to the lab.

What followed was a horror show. The first group was really into getting to use computers (some for the first time ever!) and they were sooo excited. So I told them to practice using the mouse and/or keyboard with two simple exercises. I returned to check on the classroom, and found half the remaining students were gone already! The few that remained were all girls, diligently copying the text the class master was copying on the board.

Once they had finished, I took them to the lab. But the first group WOULD NOT LEAVE! They just refused to go. Some of them looked me right in the eye and told me they were part of the second group - a total lie! No one moved and I was forced to cut off power and chase everyone out. Then I identified the second group and brought them back in, having to physically lock the door to keep the others out. Yet the first group lingered outside the door, most of them boys, claiming they were in the second group. Well, that's a simple problem to solve. Next time, girls go first!! That will be MUCH easier.

Yikes. That got me thinking ahead to next week. The Seconde class was not much different, and I had to cut power to get them out of the lab also. They also refused to do the homework I had left on the board, so Monday I will send a message by giving them a test over that material. IE, "too bad for you". If you had done the homework you would have passed the test. As it is, unless you have a computer at home (and only 1/3 do) you will probably fail. Very sad, but I'm running out of options without having to bring in big guns like "failing" and "discipline master".

Anyway... it's all relevant to the Survivor episodes I watched because it's all part the social game. The manipulation, the lies, trying to get out of work, trying to force their own advantage at the expense of everyone else... it's incredibly draining to witness. Especially since I know a lot that they don't. Example, if they actually paid attention and taken advantage of this rare opportunity of having a former Microsoft software developer teaching them computer science, they would have opportunities in the future that they wouldn't otherwise.

So I really related... and appreciated the Holly/Jimmy Johnson peptalk. I realize that it's important to treat these setbacks like any other challenge, not lose heart, stay confident/sane/consistent throughout this and to learn from my mistakes. I am representing the entire U.S., and I feel (probably not inaccurately) all white people as well. So there's no room to react inappropriately, and at the end of the day no real reason to either.

I have to say that all the other challenges: the lack of consistent electricity and water and internet, the lack of furniture or most luxuries, the inability to order a pizza if I'm out of food... none of that counts for anything at this point. The social game is the killer here. Yet I already see that it's soooo much more rewarding a problem to solve. Teachers are the people who can have the greatest impact on your life, outside your immediate family, so just that knowledge alone is a major inspiration! Even if it's just one kid that comes away with something s/he wouldn't know otherwise.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Third week of teaching in Bandjoun

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps

It's been an interesting week to say the least. Last week was a bit rough, what with three consecutive days of 4-6 hour meetings (with no bathroom breaks or anything) and some large and unruly classes. This week things have calmed down substantially.

Last Tuesday, I learned to my surprise that I was supposed to be the head of the department (Animatrice Pedagogique). I learned this on my way home as the proviseur was waving at me, wondering why I wasn't attending the A.P. meeting. Hmm. I had been told by nearly everyone that another lady was the department head, and she's the one who had given me whatever information I had at that point. Well, anyway, that was at 1:30pm. The meeting let out at 6pm! I understood about 25% of it, between heavy rain, people speaking quickly/softly and just generally being unfamiliar with how anything works around here. I guess I was supposed to report on my department's progress, which of course I was unaware of at that time. I hadn't even met my colleagues yet, much less had statistics to report!

The following day the school let out early for an 11am general assembly meeting. That one let out at 5:30pm. Fortunately, it did include food and beer at the end. And I did get to meet my colleagues finally. I was also asked to post an officially-stamped notice of our departmental meeting which was supposed to take place on Thursday.

So... at 11am Thursday we had the departmental meeting. But not before I was called at home because the server wouldn't boot. So as I was debugging the server (turns out the memory sticks weren't positioned correctly), one of my counterparts waited outside the door for the meeting to start. ...which it didn't until 12 anyway. That consisted of finishing paperwork from last year and discussing random issues about the IT department. Basically, students aren't into Computer Science (big surprise, since the equivalent of 6-7th grade books read like college material) and I'm supposed to lead a computer club on Wednesday afternoons. And there's some paperwork I'm supposed to do, like check up on everyone else's classes and give suggestions to the others.

So after teaching my own classes, and maintaining all the hardware and software in the computer lab, I'm also supposed to do that... oh, and also fill in for anyone in the department who is absent. And 2/3 have classes at the university so they will definitely be absent at times. Yay.

No one said this would be easy, right? "Toughest job you'll ever love" or something?

Anyway... I had even more problems of my own. After the meeting ended (at 3pm!) and I went to photocopy the scheme of work, the secretary told me the printer wasn't working. Can I fix it? Well, no. Sorry. It needed a new printhead which is $125 refurbished and $500 new. That's kind of expensive. You could probably buy a new (used) printer in Cameroon for that.

Then on Monday, I had my two Seconde classes, each of which got a bit testy. The first class interrupted me to ask me to teach in English, and once I said anything in my native tongue, others yelled at me to speak French. After the first hour (of two), they completely checked out, so I told them to take a 5 minute break. After no response, I wrote it on the board. The response: Madame, do we copy that into our notebooks? (Copy "5 minute break" into their notebooks??) Madame, can I go outside? (You're on break - yes, obviously!) Geeeeez.

Anyway, so then I thought we can do exercises in the computer lab for the rest of the time. Because there are only 20 computers and there were 67 students, I said let's try going to the lab in shifts. 20 students write their names on the board, and the rest do an exercise in the classroom. I took the first 20. They didn't understand my instructions, which were to simply open a Word document in Notepad and check out the extra crap Word adds to the document. Then I returned to the classroom after 10 minutes and found no one in the clasroom understood their instructions (which was simply to identify and describe the functions of keys I had circled on a picture of a keyboard). Not quite sure if it's a language thing or a motivation thing!

The second class was checked out before I even got there. So I simply lectured for an hour on terminology like Data and Processing and Data Processing. Because that class only had 31 students, I took them to the lab together. After I gave them instructions, everyone immediately opened Solitaire and Pinball. So then I told them that the first person to complete the assignment will get a reward. They all immediately started doing the work. At least creating the Word document. Unfortunately, none of them understood the part about opening Notepad. So I ended up going around to every single student, walking them through every step myself. (Sigh) Then they all wrote their names on the board, expecting a reward!

OK, so that's food for thought. I suspect my expectations are way too high at this point. I was thinking they have all had Computer Science for 4 years by now so they must know something. Yet I notice that because it's not really required on the national exams, and it's only 2 hours a week, they don't really absorb anything and they don't care unless I give them some material reason to care. So that's good information.

Anyway, today I had a breakthrough. The first 5me class was unruly last week, and I sent 4 students to the discipline master. It had no effect, so I ended the class early. I motivated the second 5me class by telling them that they wouldn't go the computer lab if they behaved that way. And it worked. So today, for the first class I drew a "Derange-o-meter" on the board, and told them that I will color it in as they misbehave. If they reach 40%, they don't go to the computer lab this week, and at 80% they don't go next week either. Mwah ha ha. Well, they initially didn't settle down, so the meter went to 10%. They immediately settled down. I gave them a quiz, one student immediately started cheating, so the meter went to 20%. No more cheating (visibly anyway).

The class ended up at 30%, so we went to the lab. Overall, it was a successful experiment. I graded their quizzes and as expected (since no one listened the week before) only about 15% of the class passed (and 2 obviously cheated - identical answers!!), but they did actually pay attention this time.

The second class did not go quite as well. They got to 50%, so they didn't go to the lab. But upon that realization, they were quiet as doormice through the end of the class!

I really hope I don't have to do this for the 6mes tomorrow. They are not supposed to go to the lab technically, and yet they cannot really get into IT or really learn much without actually touching computers! It's pretty obvious to me, anyway. I do want to give them that opportunity, and yet they have to do the work and actually study the material at the same time. So this adventure will continue to be interesting.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Batie birding 13-Sept

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps.

There won't be much content to this post. Suffice it to say that I had an enjoyable 4 day weekend! I only have class Monday through Wednesday mornings (with the intention that I will work in the computer lab in the afternoon or Thursday/Friday). I left Wednesday right after class intending to return Thursday, yet there was a power outage Thursday, and then school (and everything else) was closed for the end of Ramadan on Friday. The announcement only came on Friday morning. So it was a very relaxing impromptu long-weekend!

On Sunday, I was back in Batie to do more birding with Cristina. Since the previous trip was a spectacular success, we decided to try it again, taking different routes. We saw more Guinea Turacos right away, along with a few squirrels. I have no idea what kind of squirrel, but it was cool to see a wild mammal for a change!

Actually, looking in my Audubon guide to African wildlife, it looks like they could have been Gambian Sun Squirrels. They were gray, spotty and had short ears.

Pictured is the ubiquitous Dark-capped Bulbul. That was probably the least interesting bird of the day, but it was the only one the instamatic camera I'm using decided to focus on... Two exciting lifebirds of the day were the Yellow-spotted Barbet (one bird sitting in shade and calling softly) and the Green-backed Woodpecker. Those were only the second barbet and the second woodpecker species of this journey!

Only one raptor though (a Common Kestrel being harrassed by a much larger Pied Crow!), and no migrants (yet). Very slim pickin's this time.

As for other things, I must say the scenery was gorgeous. On the left is the tree in which I first noticed the male Green-backed Woodpecker. There was another turaco bit further down the trail.

The trail was also extremely steep and muddy. I'm not sure how we got up and down it!

Wildflowers here are amazing. First and foremost because they attract birds (notably sunbirds).

And some are just plain beautiful in their own right. These look like lilies you could find in a nursery or as a potted plant. Other "house" plants I've seen growing wild here include Poinsettias, Dieffenbachia, many types of orchids, mangos, guavas, avocado, and pineapple. I'm not really up on plants, so I'm sure there are many fascinating species I have missed through ignorance!!

I just liked this picture because I think it reflects very well what the rural parts of this area are like. It's heavily cultivated (hardly an inch remains here), there are non-native eucalyptus trees planted at left for wood and erosion control, a "moto" (the default transportation, it seems) waits to be used along a red-dirt trail. And that red dirt/dust gets everywhere, and is very hard to wash out by hand.
Still, there is a certain beauty and tranquility in this scene. It was very quiet on this trail: bird song was the only thing we could hear for much of this trek. The hills just roll on and on, and get more and more beautiful.

This is Cristina photographing some local kids. At first, they were sort of curiously following us and shouting "la blanche!" ("white woman!") as nearly everyone does here for some reason. But then we started talking to them, and they shyly let us take their picture. Very cute moment!

And finally, I just love Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleus that are found all over the West, but they and my camera have not cooperated. These two photos should represent Bigfoot-like evidence of their existence here. You can clearly see there is a bird with a lot of sky-blue on it, and the little splotch on the cheek is supposed to be red! They really are beautiful (I assure you!!)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Week 4 in Bandjoun

Classes started this week! I teach Monday through Wednesday mornings, and each day I teach two sections of the same grade for two hours each.

While its only been 3 days, here are a few first impressions:
  1. Attendance. On Monday, I had been warned that most students would not show up. Yep, I started the first class on Monday with 7 students, and the second started with 4 and ended with 2! Even many teachers didn't come, leaving large numbers of students hanging around outside. Fortunately, the majority of each class (40-50+) was there on Tuesday and Wednesday.
  2. Behavior. The students in each of two 5me (7th grade) classes diligently copied down a computer lab assignment step-by-step (often laughing at the obviousness of the wording). Then once in the lab, not one of them actually did it. They were raising their hands only to ask me how to find the games (!) So I went around and opened Word for each of them, and then they just stared at the screen. I'm pretty sure the problem is that they don't know how to type. Those who did type were typing gibberish, so... I'll need to incorporate that into the program. Good to know!
  3. Language. The students understand me if I speak French slowly and use very simple sentences. The 5mes did not understand "favorite activities" (activite preferees) but they did understand "What do you like to do?" (Qu'est-ce que tu aimes faire?) Some other useful French so far: Circulez! (Move along: for loiterers who want to watch the Blanche teach through the window); Taissez-vous! (Be quiet)

This will be a fascinating year... I do wonder how much information they can retain only from 2 hours of instruction per week. My hope is that the subject will be interesting enough that they want to learn it. The only way that really can be true is if they get computer lab time, and they actually do the work while there. Should be interesting!

On a different note, the power just came back on after a 1-1/2 day delestage. Yet yesterday, without power or running water, I still managed to do bucket laundry. I had taken my postmate's advice and hoarded water for just such an occasion. Better still, I actually got my sheets sparkling white! No small feat between the cold water, lack of washing board (used a collander instead) and the bright rust-colored mud and dust on everything. So this is... week 15 in Cameroon, and I have just now figured out how to do laundry properly. It is not easy. I really miss washing machines and hot running water.

Surprisingly, I am not missing having a refrigerator. It is very appealing to my environmentalist tendencies to just buy what I need and cook only a portion or two. All the food is locally-grown, its obvious if its fresh or not, and its all organic. I haven't gotten sick at all, much less from eating unrefrigerated food. Then again, I'm cooking it thoroughly before eating. The only exceptions are peeled fruit and bread that I wouldn't refrigerate anyway.

Bird notes: more of the birds I was seeing in Bafia are starting to find their way up here: I came home Wednesday to find a Ovambo Sparrowhawk in a tree next to my house! The Common/Rock Kestrels that are usually there have moved on. I have also been hearing Barn Owls outside the house every night this week, and I saw the first Mosque Swallow of Bandjoun yesterday. And since its September, I should be expecting migrants soon, though I haven't seen one yet.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Sierra Nevada Red Fox Story

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps

Today, I'm going to take a break from blogging about birds and Peace Corps to talk about a story I read yesterday. You see, I'm currently without a TV and am dependent on online sources for news. So I started using Twitter to keep up on news stories, and in general it works great. I can quickly scan headlines and find just the stories I want to read.

So yesterday morning, I jumped when I saw the following tweet via BreakingNews/LA Times (Note: all Bold formatting was added by me)

Sierra Nevada red fox, thought to be extinct, is sighted near Yosemite National Park - latimes

OK, so that sounds like an entire species (I hadn't heard of) has been rediscovered. That would be really cool and exciting! So I click the link and read the LA Times blog.

The first paragraph says in part:
"The genetic signature [...] and a fuzzy photograph [...] have confirmed the existence of a supposedly extinct red fox..." (LATimesBlogs)

Wonderful news. I'm very happy. Then I read on to paragraph 4:

"The Sierra Nevada red fox (vulpes vulpes necator) lives at high elevations" (LATimesBlogs)

Hmm... confused. Why is that in the present tense? Also, Vulpes vulpes is the Red Fox, a common animal with a nearly worldwide range. This means the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator) is a subspecies.

Paragraph 5 then adds:

"However, the only known population of the Sierra Nevada red fox is a group of roughly 20 animals clinging to survival in the Lassen Peak region, about 150 miles to the north." (LATimesBlogs)

I'm very confused now. That means this species was thought locally (rather than globally) extinct from that area. That's a very important clarification, and the tweet/headline was misleading.

Now I'm curious about the rest of the story. I do subsequent searches to discover some more facts. One of the first things I find (on Mercury News) is this quote:

"The animal's fortunes until now were considered so poor that it has actually never been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act." (MercuryNews)

You know, until now, I didn't realize that's how the ESA worked: that an animal in such imminent danger of extinction would be considered beyond help(?!) Yet evidently getting a species listed is an arduous process that it can be cost-prohibitive to do so. That's sad if true, since it would give us misleading information. The Sierra Nevada Red Fox is currently listed as Threatened on both the California and Nevada state mammal list, while some other mammals with presumably larger populations (several bats and the Mountain Beaver) are listed as endangered.

"'Having a second population really gives us reason to say [...] it's not a throwaway species,' he said. 'So let's actually put some resources into understanding it and trying to save it.'" (MercuryNews)

I also didn't realize there was a "throwaway species" policy. I do wonder why would this one be considered as such. There are other endangered subspecies listed in California, such as California populations of Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Willow Flycatcher and Clapper Rail. We have managed to save animals with smaller populations than that under the federal ESA: Black-footed Ferrets and California Condors come to mind. I recall there were only 8 ferrets and 5 condors at their populations' low points. Both species were bred in captivity, have been reintroduced into the wild and have recovered to several hundred individuals.

A couple more notes:
1) I didn't find an online source (other than those recent articles) that listed the Sierra Nevada Red Fox as anything other than "rare" or "threatened". At least one states that it was never common.
2) At least one user posted a comment that they have seen red foxes elsewhere in the southeastern Sierras. So there are perhaps other populations of this subspecies besides the two cited by the recent story.

So my skeptic chimes are ringing here. There is no doubt that it is fantastic news when scientists notice a new population of a rare animal. I don't disagree that the fox should be protected if it is as critically endangered as they claim. Yet it sounds equally likely that this is a subspecies that is (and always was) rare, is not well-studied or understood, and that we'll find more populations once more people start looking for them. I actually do hope it's the latter.

That said, maybe I'm still just cranky about the alleged "rediscovery" of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker :-).

OK, back to the lycee!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Week 3 in Bandjoun

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps.

So as not to completely discriminate against other wildlife here in Cameroon, I decided to post a couple of pictures of animals that are not birds! Both are from Bafia since I haven't managed to get one of the incredible butterflies here in Bandjoun to hold still! At left is one of the grasshoppers that used to hang around the house we used for training. The amazing pattern and green/yellow color on these guys really blew our minds when we first noticed them.

The second exhibit is what thanks to the BBC website I now know is a Common Agama Lizard. I was calling this a rainbow lizard since it's not in my ACommon Agamafrican wildlife book. It's not a very good picture since they were very skittish... but that was another example of the incredible biodiversity here. There are also all kinds of organisms that aren't quite so nice (schistosomiasis, filariasis, malaria, etc. etc.) yet it's all part of the tropical ecosystem!

This week, I managed to get 65% of the computers in the lab working, plus internet and the printer operational. Then a hard disk crashed on one of those that had been working. Oh well. It's amazing that they work at all: they are PIIs and PIIIs mostly with Windows 2000 stickers on their cases. The power was blinking about every 5 minutes at one point, causing all of them to reboot. I'm happy we have as many working as do at this point!

Two of us volunteers also found a nice hike here in Bandjoun - actually near a tiny village called Kamgo. It's a short walk up avery steep hill, but it quickly levels off and has some amazing scenery. The camera battery was dead, unfortunately, but to describe it: the road follows a ridge, and you can see first Bandjoun nestled in a valley, then you see green hills rolling one after another without a house or field in sight. Plus, I managed to add one more year bird: a Black-shouldered Kite! This little raptor was kiting for us along the road, and even sat long enough to let me take a picture with Lindsey's camera.

There was some standard fair (though gorgeous birds) up there: Northern Double-collared Sunbirds, Fire-crowned Bishops, Baglafecht Weavers. En route, we even found magnificent Black-and-White Casqued Hornbills and another Guinea (Green) Turaco! It seems that you just need to get a few hundred yards away from any population of people, and the great birds just fall out of the sky. Literally!

Back to reality... tomorrow is the first day of school at the high school. I will be teaching two blocks of 2-hour classes for the Seconde level (equivalent of 10th grade). I don't have a text book or a scheme of work (yet), so the plan is to do introductions, outline the classroom rules and do some high-level review what they (should) already know. According to the syllabus, they should know stuff like basic network architecture, how to do binary math, and how to format text in Word. This year they will learn how to use Windows commands, basic preventative maintenance tasks, hardware and software architecture, and what computer science consists of. It's definitely my hope that that program will be as much fun for them as for me, but... well...

Monday, August 30, 2010

A few more bird photos

I found one advantage to the grainy bird photos I'm taking: they are VERY fast to upload over this slow internet connection. But that's about it. I am seriously thinking of how I can have my nice camera sent over here from the States!

One thing that deserves mention is that at my house here in Bandjoun, I have a couple of resident Blue-shouldered Robin Chats. I think they're just gorgeous (black/rufous with a bit of sky blue on the shoulders), and not too shy either. One was just singing at dusk this evening from a wire, and then swooped in to land right in a yellow-flowering bush in front of me! In Bafia, I only saw them during early morning hours, and they did not sing at all. Here is one I photographed early morning near the building where we had Peace Corps training in Bafia. I have not been quick enough here in Bandjoun to get the photo, but I'm working on it!

Another species I did not see in Bafia but have a lot of here in Bandjoun is the Baglafecht Weaver. They are also a bit skittish, and the only photo I have taken is this rather blurry one. It doesn't look much like the field guide other than the black mask and yellow eye, but between my two books and process of elimination, I am fairly confident in this ID.

It has been overcast, so between that and my digital zoom, it has been challenging to get decent photos of birds!

(Many) thanks to Cristina, here are some of the African Gray Parrots that were hanging out by the lycee in Bafia. That morning, there were three in this Acacia tree on my street, and three in the treetops of another Acacia across the street, and this photos is about the best one that came out. At least, they look like parrots more than just blurry spots! You can *almost* make out the red tail on the one on the left.

On more work-related topics... today I managed to get one more computer in working order... ironically by removing the A/V software that was using 100% of the 32 MBs of memory! I shudder at just about every component of that sentence. I also got the server connecting to the internet, another outlet installed and a couple of UPSes working. Better than that, I managed to find a good/affordable electrician I will definitely use again.
I still have one more box to fix tomorrow, and a few more to scavenge after that. I need to try to piece together at least 4 more functioning computers out of 6 already-parted-out boxes: the 6 that are PIIIs (the best available in the pile of non-functioning stuff). I've been given the goal to have 30 functioning computers by the beginning of school on Monday, and I am only 50% there right now. There is a pending shipment of 10 new (donated) PCs that should come next week. So fingers crossed on that! I'm not sure what kind of miracle I can pull out from a pile of dusty computers with Windows 98 stickers on them.
On another note, I did finally break down and buy a gas canister for 30.000 CFA... Tonight, I enjoyed steamed rice with green beans/carrots/onions and sweet and sour sauce (made from mango juice). I made spaghetti with fresh tomato/onion sauce a few nights ago, and scrambled eggs and hash browns this morning. So I think it was worth it!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

More on birding in Batie

As mentioned in my previous post, I went birding Sunday morning for a few hours with Cristina, another Peace Corps volunteer in the nearby town of Batie. This was an amazing experience. We did not know where to begin, so we just took a dirt road leading behind Cristina's house. Yet it yielded 10 lifebirds in around 3 hours, and some wonderful looks at scenery and some exotic birdlife. We may have even heard monkeys in the distance at one point!

The beginning was very much like Bandjoun (or what little I've seen of the Western Province so far): Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleus, Common/Orange-cheeked/Black-crowned Waxbills, Village/Spectacled/Dark-backed/Baglafecht Weavers, Narrow-tailed Starlings and the ubiquitous Pied Crow. Cristina's neighbor Billy started to follow and point out these birds, and suddenly said there was a "red bird". This turned out to be a brilliant male Fire-crowned Bishop who scared up some Red-headed Queleas. We had seen those before. Yet following the bishop to the other side of the road, I noticed a pair of striking black and red birds in a treetop, sporting very reptilian-looking bills: Double-toothed Barbets! That was my first lifebird of the day.

The second came moments later when I spotted a few tiny black and white birds, which turned out to be White-bellied Tits.

Billy started trying to call us some perdri, or partridges. We did see a Double-spurred Francolin shortly after that, but I was more interested in a bright green and red bird that darted from tree to tree: I decided it had to be a trogon, but which one? I started to hear the call, and unsuccessfully called back to try to draw it out. But later upon listening to recordings, decided it must have been a Bar-tailed Trogon.

While doing that, we managed to scare up a Gray-green Bush Shrike, a striking bird in the native growth that peppered the cultivation in this area. By now, we were close to the bottom of a small valley in which there was a belt of riverine habitat. So the birds were getting better. This is where I first noticed a Green Turaco, quietly observing us from a treetop! Very exciting, especially when it flew from branch to branch, exposing the brilliant red wings.

The trail became more and more narrow and slippery, but we decided to push on when we found a Black-headed Tchagra, a handsome shrike that responded to my pishing near the stream! A few sunbirds, including the iridescent blue/green/red/purple Splendid Sunbird, even stayed long enough for us to admire them!

We were apprehensive about descending to the river, partially because of the treacherous trail but also out of fear of snakes... but we pushed on, tempted by all the bird songs we were hearing! After crossing, we managed to find a Senegal Coucal (very common), White-chinned Prinias (seen before), more sunbirds and some Black-and-white (or Bicolored) Mannakins... but we were finally rewarded when a brilliant blue bird landed at the top of a tree in the photo above: it was a Splendid Glossy Starling! Later, a few more joined. I was thrilled since as previously noted, I had come up short on colorful starlings to that point!

A bit later, I noticed a Gray-crowned Black Finch in the undergrowth by a small farm. It disappeared quickly, but was very striking by the gray crown and black underparts - most likely a female since it had very few spots on the underparts.

By this point we were hungry, so we turned around. But after crossing the stream again, we found two more Green Turacos, one which flew flashing its brilliant red wings, and a second that posed for us on a branch for a few moments just at eye level. At this point, we heard what we thought might have been monkeys in the distance.

As always, a few birds went unidentified. There was some sort of cuckoo-like call. A different low hooting (which started slow and accelerated a bit like a western screech owl) may have been something interesting, but the bird itself eluded us. There were a few nondescript brownish birds as well which may have been early migrants or juveniles of some sort. Two of the more distinctive ones I identified as a Leaflove and a Little Greenbul.

Many birds were gathering nesting material, and the whydahs (Pin-tailed, Red-collared, Yellow-shouldered) were showing enthusiastic mating behavior. The Pin-tailed Whydah in particular put on a great show, flying around and landing on banana leaves while pursuing a couple of females. Another great day of birding here in Cameroon!!

Birding in Batie

This picture does NOT do justice to this poor Green Turaco, who sat so patiently and let Cristina and I admire him for minutes on end today! The photo should should show a tail and wings of dark violet, a pale green head (you can barely make out the amazing green crown), and Cleopatra-like white eyelines.

Moments later, the bird took off, revealing bright red under the wings! He was life bird #2,082, one of 10 today.

Unfortunately, I did not get photographs of the others. Still, an excellent few hours of birding in Batie, a cute town just 20 minutes from Bandjoun.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

End of first week at Post

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps

Milestone! As of today, I have been at post here in Bandjoun for one full week. It has been a fun and interesting week as I've been able to furnish my house (more or less), hang out with other volunteers in the West, meet some of the people I'll be working with, and start getting the computer lab at the school in order. I don't have any new photos to post, but I wanted to get some initial impressions down.

First, the computer lab at the high school: I first saw it in early July when I just walked through and saw a huge pile of broken monitors in a corner, and 28 PCs all set up - 10 connected to a network. I thought that was great. Then on Tuesday, I returned to the school to meet the principal and find out my class schedule. The latter wasn't ready (though they told me I would be teaching 6, 5 and 2 - the equivalent of 6th, 7th and 10th grade in the US system), so the proviseur gave me the keys to the lab and wanted me to start putting it in order right away. So I briefly tried each machine and found that the vast majority had issues ranging from broken mice and/or keyboards to having bad hard drives or not booting. There was a printer in the server room that responded to a print request, but ejected a blank piece of paper. Toner was 0% on both cartridges! The modem that is supposed to connect the network to the internet did not respond at all. So I decided to return later and inventory the whole situation.

So that was Wednesday: over 8 hours, I managed to fix 15/28 of the computers to the point where they would at least start and run Word and Excel, in some cases scavenging parts from the other 13 broken boxes. The others I relegated to a pile sorted by make and model and plan to part them out later on. Today, I went to Bafoussam to try to get some RAM for a 16th machine that will not start or even run Windows setup because it only has 32 MB presently! I tried to find toner for the printer, but I may need to order it: the shop I went to didn't seem to have that particular type in stock, but there are more shops to check I suppose.

So... with around 11 days til school starts, I have some things in order, and a lot of work left to do. I haven't even started lesson planning yet, though I have already decided to spend a bit of time on keyboarding and security. Only one box has AV software (and thanks to it is too slow to be usable) and I also noticed that that free product didn't detect the viruses that are actually present in the lab(!!) Curses to whoever wrote Tazebama and its kin. t

Sadly, my USB key also got infected while I was using it to fix the lab machines. That gave me a scare, but thankfully the AV product I was using on my laptop caught the problems right away and I was able to fix them manually.


I've already been to Bafoussam probably 4 times in the last week. It's surprisingly easy to get around, as long as you're going between the center of Bandjoun and anywhere on the road to Marche A. You just grab a taxi in Bandjoun, and 10 minutes later you're in the market. My postmate was kind enough to show me around on Saturday so I could get some stuff in the "Frip" (not sure if that's the spelling), a more informal market area behind the main market in the center of town. You can get pretty much anything there, mostly used stuff, and all obtainable really cheap if you bargain aggressively.

Now that part is very hard: I got a guy down to 5,000 CFA for a blanket, but my postmate's reaction was so indignant ("more like 1,000!" she muttered at him), I just walked off and got a similar blanket for 3,000 across the way. They seem to start at least 4x the actual price, but there's also a "foreigner price" aspect you can't detect if you're new at this, as we all are. I still haven't quite figured out the bargaining thing. I just know you lowball, seem disinterested and be prepared to walk away. It's exactly like buying a car, only doing that exact dickering for every item you need in your life (other than most food) - ugh. At least you don't have to sign papers or talk to the manager.

Marche A is really impressive, especially after spending 11 weeks in the residential part of Bafia! It's almost like a mall in the sheer volume of people, stores and stuff you can get there. We walked through a hundred yards of shops selling electronics, then a long stretch of housewares, then clothing, then pagne, and it just goes on and on like that. Most of it is at least partially covered, though the passages between them are generally open-air.

Even neater than that is sitting in a sidewalk bar or restaurant, and the street vendors come up to you, one after another, selling any type of merchandise that can be carried. Here's a list of stuff I've seen sold by wandering vendors: men's suits, children's shoes, bras and panties (not kidding), screwdrivers and hammers, cigarettes, toilet paper, tissues, sunglasses, watches, jewelry, and many, many items of food: peanuts, popcorn, shish kebabs, cooked potatoes, fried plaintains, bread, beignets, "plums" (a meaty purple relative of avocadoes). Who needs to go out when you can drink a beer or a coke and the salesmen come to you??

Overall, tis has been a rewarding and fun experience already. How else can you have this type of adventure, other than being given a difficult job with limited means in an exotic country, with a tiny amount of money and a near-empty house to furnish?