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...