Thursday, January 19, 2012


I returned this week from an awesome vacation with my brother – we traveled all over the country, spent a night in Africa's oldest undisturbed rainforest, climbed multiple mountains, saw dozens of frogs (including the world's biggest – the Goliath frog), and ate a ton of awesome food. I had missed the village and was particularly looking forward to seeing my students and teaching again, but unfortunately, at our weekly student assembly on Monday, something happened that made school a difficult and unpleasant place to be.
Before I go any farther, I'd like to say that I normally try to avoid telling negative stories about my time here. Like anywhere, there's always something to complain about, but after a year and a half, I really believe that the good far outweighs the bad. A lot of people have this idea of Africa as a scary place, somewhere anything can happen (this second part is true – anything can happen, but that's one of my favorite parts about living here; most of the time the “anything” that happens is wonderful, like my girls club organizing itself this fall to play the high school's first ever girls' sports game, or hilarious, like all of my sixth graders last year shouting “Yes We Can!” every time I walked into the room), and that's part of the reason I avoid negative stories that might affirm these kinds of stereotypes. Also, I just think my parents and other loved ones at home probably worry enough on their own, without any extra help from me.
There's a lot, too, that just doesn't translate between cultures. This is the main reason I decided to write about my experience this week, because it is just such a tangle of conflicting ideas and beliefs. There are things that you know you can never talk about with Cameroonians – not even your closest friends. Things about American culture, like homosexuality, or abortion, or even many political topics, that are dangerous to bring up, and that just will not compute. I've been noticing too, though, the longer I'm here, that there are more and more topics like that that I just don't know how to talk about with other Americans anymore, that people who haven't lived here won't read in the same way. Corporal punishment, the subject of this entry, is one of those big ones.
Earlier this fall, I had had a frustrating week at school, and was talking to my parents on the phone about the fight I got into with a colleague about how I didn't want him hitting my kids. In Cameroon, it is technically illegal to hit kids with sticks as a form of punishment, but it is still the most common form of discipline, and most people have no problem with it at all. I talked about how I had confronted my colleague, explained to him that I really disliked it when he hit my kids, that there were far more effective strategies for discipline (lowering grades, detentions, cleaning the school, or maybe even – gasp – rewarding students for good behavior, thereby discouraging them from misbehaving in the first place (this was a particularly ridiculous suggestion)). His response:
“Well, who is supposed to do those things?”
My response: “ are. You are responsible for discipline, right?”
He burst out laughing, and said I must not understand, then switched to English (which he doesn't really speak), as if clearly the problem here must be with my ability to comprehend French, rather than with me disagreeing with his actions. We entered into a lengthy, circular argument where I explained how hitting kids was illegal, not to mention lazy and ineffective, and how when I took points off my sixth graders' exams last year when they were late, they all came on time, etc. etc. and he responded that I didn't understand how things worked in Africa and laughed at me. I finally ended things by announcing that I didn't want to work at a school where things like this happened, and left. This seemed reasonably effective, and while this colleague still walked around with a switch, I didn't see him hit kids again.
After this frustrating week, my parents called, and I told them this story, and about how pissed I was. At the end of my story, there was absolute silence. I had forgotten how much more shocking beating kids is to Americans – how do you even respond?
Flash forward to this week, and our 7a.m. weekly assembly. Another colleague of mine called a student forward and ridiculed him in front of the entire school, forcing him to kneel in front of all his classmates and be called out for being absent and for not wearing his uniform. It was painful to watch, but I was thinking, “Okay, shaming students. That is a form of punishment I find acceptable.” But then this student's class president was called forward, handed a switch, and told to whip the truant student ten times so he would learn his lesson. The class president was clearly extremely uncomfortable, but unable to say no to an authority figure. I watched in shock as he hit his classmate the first time and the rest of the students laughed, then walked away as the beating continued, and waited behind the teacher's lounge for it to be over.
After I heard the students disperse, I went into my colleague's office. He shook my hand and said, “Sorry you had to see that, but it was necessary.” “No,” I replied, “It was not.” He rolled his eyes and said, “What do you expect me to do? He disrespected me. If I didn't discipline him, he would become a bandit.” I angrily repeated some of the discipline alternatives I had offered my other colleague, but this just made him laugh. Then he proceeded to tell me that in America, we don't beat our kids, and so they come to school with guns and shoot everybody, so what was he supposed to do? I think my jaw literally dropped. I was so furious, and so confused. It had ever occurred to me before that I would have to explain to someone why it was bad to hit children – it was like explaining to someone why they shouldn't set a house on fire, or run someone down with their car. In my anger, my ability to speak French was rapidly leaving me, and so I finished quickly by telling him that beating students was the opposite of development, and as long as it was happening, he wouldn't have a development worker at his school. I then stormed across the yard and away from school, ignoring the alarmed vice principal as he chased after me. “Why are you leaving?” He asked. “Ask my colleague,” I responded, and went home.
My best friend at school came to my house that afternoon to check on me and ask what had happened. I explained the situation to him, and he nodded thoughtfully but didn't seem to understand why I had reacted so extremely. “But what about your students?” He asked. “They didn't have English class today.” “I know,” I replied guiltily. “But I can't work someplace where those things are happening.” To the same degree that this situation was so shocking it was difficult to explain to Americans, it was so commonplace here that it was next to impossible to explain to Cameroonians. First, that someone would care about students getting hit; second, that someone would stand up to someone in a position of authority; and third, that an abstract principle (the importance of not hitting students) could outweigh the importance of doing one's daily work (teaching). I think these are the three main factors that have made my reaction on Monday so difficult for even my open-minded colleagues to understand.
Not wanting to punish my students for my colleague's inappropriate actions, I did return to school the next day and taught the rest of this week. I decided for the time being that my policy would be one of avoidance, and I was successful in avoiding this particular person for the rest of the week. I also decided that every time I saw a student being hit, I would go home, and if something as extreme as Monday happened again, I would think about leaving permanently. The next day when I returned to school, my premieres (Juniors) asked me where I was yesterday and why I had left. I explained to them that I didn't agree with my colleague's decision, that hitting students is illegal and if I had stayed at school, it would have been the same thing as supporting it, which I couldn't do. They seemed to understand, and I reflected that even if everyone doesn't understand now why this practice is so offensive and inappropriate, they at least understand that it makes me really upset, and that might cause some of them to start questioning it themselves.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I often feel way out of my element, totally under-prepared to deal with some very serious situations. There's an episode of the Office that I think about a lot, where Michael Scott has organized a race to raise awareness about rabies, but has a breakdown towards the end. He says something like “There are so many people out there, and they have all these problems, and there's nothing I can do about it.” Pam's response is, “Yeah, but you shouldn't worry too much about it. There are other, better people trying to solve these problems.” I regularly feel like Michael Scott at the end of the Fun Run, except that I am supposed to be the other, better people fixing the problems, and I often wonder who decided I was qualified enough to be given that much responsibility.
Traveling back up from vacation, I met a French woman on the bus from Ngaoundere to Maroua. I asked her how long she had been here, and she said just a couple weeks – she was here to visit a friend and do some tourism. Then she said to me (in English), “You've been here awhile, haven't you?” I said yes, a year and a half, and she said, “I can tell. You look used.” I realized later that she might have meant “used to living here”, but I thought that “used” was an excellent adjective to describe me right now. Sometimes I feel like the last year and a half has led me to be adjusted, comfortable, and happy. Cameroon feels like home, to the point where I have trouble explaining certain things about my life to Americans, and can't always turn the French off in my brain, or filter it out of my English, even when speaking to other anglophones. But other times, I feel the year and a half like a weight on my shoulders that has gotten heavier with each case of amoebas, argument at school, bout of homesickness, culture clash, and miscommunication.
But I don't feel like that most days, and this is what I have been trying to take away from this week. It was so easy to go home on Monday and say “I hate school,” which quickly became “I hate the village,” which quickly became “I hate Peace Corps.” But then I took a step back and realized that wasn't true – I was frustrated with one person at school, but there were literally at least a hundred other people there (mostly my students) that I adored. And that is why I am here – for those people that give me shit for missing class, that come to my house to make sure I'm okay, that hand me worksheets they found on their own to be corrected. I'm here for my terminales, who today shouted “He lies, he lies!” (with 's'!) when another student made an outlandish claim, and for my troisiemes, who independently elected a representative today to stand up and apologize on behalf of the entire class for the students who were late...these are the people I will be trying to focus on for my last few months.


  1. Beautiful and touching post, Rose.

    Most people, Cameroonians and Americans alike, are so deeply conditioned to accept all the things that have come before them and that surround them without question. You have reflected to them what they can't see because no one else challenges them to think about things that are so commonplace, like beating children. If you can even plant one seed of questioning in one person, or the next generation of leaders such as your students, then a positive change may be able to come about. It might seem futile to make a fuss to you now, but I think your response has the potential to enact real change for that village.

    I don't think you should ever question whether or not you are qualified for this kind of responsibility. The truth is, we all have to wake up and take responsibility for our lives and respond to the world around us in a positive, life-affirming manner. It's about time we stopped passing the buck to someone else, and you, Rose, have done just that!

  2. Sorry for the late response, Rose. This sounds hard. You're so clear-headed and brave. I am a graduate school friend of your mom's. I wanted to comment because George Packer describes the identical problem in his book about his Peace Corps experience, The Village of Waiting. Wow. Good for you. Shifra (not sure how to post!)