Saturday, September 28, 2013

There and Back Again

I had the chance to go to Baboua Monday to be at the opening teacher-training session there.  After much careful consideration, discussion with many people, and meetings Friday with Cameroonian and Central African officials on both sides of the border, I went.  And all went well.  (Pictures are of some teachers and staff at the training session.)

Yes, there are still many problems in the country and a lot of insecurity.  But, Baboua has been calm all along.  It is only 50 km. (30 miles) from Garoua Boulai, so It is easy to go for the day and be back in GB before dark – just to be on the safe side. After all, leaders I work with often come for the day.  Now it was my turn.

VSP Director
It took about 20 minutes (each way) to get across the border.  No problems, I just had to wait for the arrival of the right person with the key.  Talking to the officials Friday helped immensely.  From there, it took 40 minutes to get to Baboua.  Often, I could go 100 kph (about 60 mph) so it should have been ½ hour, but I had to slow down when passing through villages.  It is the safe thing to do, but there are also speed bumps.  Here they are called “dos d’an” or donkey’s backs, or, as Joe Troester called some of them, “dos d’elephant.”  Some are so wide and high; drivers have to be careful.  If they don’t see them coming, it can be very jarring!

It was a busy day in Baboua.  I went first to the Péouri School where the teacher training was already started.  (I couldn’t cross the border until about
8, so I didn’t get there until just before 9).  I greeted the teachers and introduced myself.  I had met many of them when I visited schools last December, but that was a long time ago.  They were very pleased to see me. 

In past years, all teaches (about 60) came to Baboua for training.  This year the Village School Program leadership team decided to run two sessions – one in Abba and one in Baboua.  Teachers from the schools along the main, paved road came to Baboua.  Those who work in the schools on the unpaved road toward and after Abba went there.  (I drove a lot of that road – it is in HORRIBLE shape.)   The training in Abba was first, running for two weeks.  I had not planned to be there this year.  I couldn’t get there and back in a day and that there has been more insecurity along parts of that road.
Teachers in our Lutheran schools, often called maître-parents (teacher-parents), have varying levels of education.  Many didn’t go to high school; they passed the BEPC, the test given at the end of eighth grade.  Maybe you have heard stories about schools in the past in the US when anyone who could read and write taught school.  It is similar here now.  There aren’t enough teachers to go around even with these lesser educational requirements. 

So, as you can imagine, two weeks of training is helpful to increase teachers’ content knowledge and boost their confidence.  Sessions include basic French language, mathematical concepts, pedagogy, and organization (keeping the roll book, paperwork, etc.)  I am sure the students in the Village School Program schools will benefit as much as the teachers.  Teacher response to the sessions has been positive. 

After I talked to the teachers, I went to the Lutheran station to visit my house, the people who work for me there, the house of the missionaries who left, and various people I saw along the way. 

I went back to the training session to sit in on a class – review of mathematical concepts.  About 15 minutes into the lesson, taught by an “inspecteur” from the state school system, it started to rain – buckets.  We were inside a brick building, so very dry. However, it has a tin roof.  I love the sound of rain on a tin roof at night – great for sleeping.  It is not great for teaching, though, since the rain is VERY loud.  It drowns out all voices except if someone is right beside you.  The trainer had to adjust and give the students time to copy things from the board – the schedule for the week, an outline of topics to be covered, etc.  I didn’t get much chance to see the actual lesson. 

Look sideways... Mathias, wife
When the rain slowed down, I left.  I was invited to lunch at Mathias Votoko’s house.  (He’s the VSP’s Community Developer, working with the Parent Organizations).  His wife prepared meat in a tomato sauce, rice, and manioc.  Delicious.

Then I left to go back to Garoua Bouali.  It was still raining, but just a little.  No problems on the road. I noticed that there was very little traffic on the road – less than before these problems.

By the way, I did not go on my own.  I went with a Lutheran pastor (pre-arranged) and a Community Developer who works with the FCC or Women for Christ (who needed a ride).  I was pleased to have the company.

I will now go to Baboua from time to time for meetings such as the EEL-RCA’s Education Committee meeting next week.  Leaders still come to GB to meet with me; we are working on planning and budgeting for 2014 and planning/reviewing other work.

Garoua Boulai
Old Curtains
New Ones
Even though I have now been to Baboua once, it is not yet time for me to move back there.  I have accepted that I will be in GB for some time and have decided to make this guest house more my home – at least for now. 

I have been cleaning things more thoroughly, such as the drawers in the kitchen.  I also decided to get some material to have new curtains made for the living/dining room.   I never really liked the blue ones that were there.  The color was fine, but they were made with a long piece hanging down in the back – not a lining, but just extra material – and they are a bit tattered.  Plus, they were the kind that you slip the rod though a pocket at the top, making them hard to open and close. 

I found some material I liked, and cut the pieces to size so that a local tailor could hem them and put on rings.  Then, since the old curtains were down, I decided it was time to wash the windows (never one of my strengths, but I did OK with water, vinegar, and a little soap). As I was washing the windows, I decided to use a knife to get off some of the many flecks of paint that had dripped there when the walls were painted at some time in the distant past.  One thing leads to another… 

I had measured and calculated for the living room curtains thinking the material would be the same width as most cloth (about 45 inches), but what I bought was about 80 inches wide!  That meant, I could also have new curtains in the bathroom and kitchen, too!  The bedrooms have fancier, lined drapes that are lovely the way they are.  I had a table cloth made of the same material since I still had more, but I don’t want to use it until I find some clear plastic to protect it.  And, I still have material left over.  I have been thinking of “The Sound of Music” and “Gone with the Wind.”  Maybe I’ll have a matching dress made!

It seems that there is too much rain and not enough new “lawnmowers”!  The sheep can’t keep up with the quick growth of the grass.  Jean was out yesterday with the regular lawnmower helping them out.   That makes me think: in the US we always say not to cut the grass when it is wet.  Here they do.  Well, think about it, with as much rain as we have been having at this point in the rainy season, the grass is never really dry!  I hope they know how to care for the lawnmower to clean out the wet/damp grass.  It looks like an “industrial-strength” lawnmower at least.

Sanitation is always an issue here.  People are used to relieving themselves anywhere – and it doesn’t matter if it is a public place.  This is not just the men, either; I see women squatting in places I would never do it!  The hospital – a place that needs to have the best sanitation possible, has been working to educate people, but it is a never ending struggle.  People use the small bits of land around the hospital to squat and defecate.  Yesterday, new signs went up, another step in the education process.  The hospital has two latrines – one is even a VIP model (Ventilated, Improved Pits).  But people are resistant.  Sometimes when they do use them, they squat on the hallway floor instead of over the hole.  They say that a hole shouldn’t go over a hole.  What can we do to help them understand the sanitation issues??? 

I wonder what they would think if they got the chance to use a flush toilet – not only a hole, but one with water in it!  And, you sit instead of squatting.  It has a lot to do with what we learn at home and what is available to us.  Even some of the visitors to the guest house start to head outside to relieve themselves.  I am sure they are looking for the latrine (well, at least I hope so).  How can people who have had no experience with toilets and latrines, truly understand the concept of germs in the feces (that get on the hands that are left unwashed afterward).  An uphill struggle, but one that is important to continue to address.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

New Lawnmowers! And other neighbors

Even the proverbial black sheep!
 So, look at the new addition to the Lutheran compound here in Garoua Boulai!  Sheep now wander around eating grass.  Certainly a natural way to help keep the grass shorter!  And, that grass is growing fast since we are having LOTS of rain.  This is the rainiest part of the rainy season – steady, soaking rains like now and torrential downpours with lots of thunder and lightning at other times.  In between we get either overcast days or glorious sun (like yesterday).  All part of the natural cycle.

 The chickens (with rooster) continue to “visit.”  This photo was taken just outside my front door where they have made shallow impressions where they lay.  And the dogs continue to roam around.  A couple found a refuge from the rain and chill on my back porch.  (Notice they are not particularly well cared for.  It’s hard to provide food and medical care for dogs when there is often not enough for family…)

Also wandering around near my house now are some pigs.  I swear the other day I saw a pig chasing a dog!  It sure looked like they were playing although I know it’s more likely that I got that backwards.  The next day a dog was definitely chasing a pig – and caught him.  He was squealing, well, like a stuck pig.  Fortunately, one of the human neighbors went and broke them apart. 

I am not sure who come into some money and was able to buy this livestock.  It is all free-ranging, though!  I don’t mind any of the noises they make – and I didn’t mind the frogs either.  But, recently, as it gets dark, the cicadas (or some such insect) start to “sing” and it’s like fingernails grating on a chalk board.  Several times I have had to leave the living room because their noise was so loud and grating.  I am glad they don’t sing all night – or all year long!

Otherwise, life continues as always.  Please continue to pray for peace in the Central African Republic.  The need is great. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Teaching, Doing For, and Past Experience

I am writing this blog entry on Friday, the thirteenth.  In the US that conjures up ideas of superstitions, scary movies, and bad luck.  Here, not so much. 

OK, time for a little trivia from Wikipedia!  Friday the Thirteenth wasn’t considered unlucky until the 19th century.  The first reference in English was in 1869.  Before that, Friday was often considered unlucky and so was 13, but they weren’t put together.  In Latin America, Tuesday the Thirteenth is considered unlucky, not Friday.  In Italy it was Friday the Seventeenth! 

Maybe most of this has missed Africa because the cultures here have tended to be more oral and to pay less attention to days and dates – seasons are more important.  (That’s my personal, undocumented theory!)  Other superstitions certainly exist here… Certainly, once any superstition exists, it is easy to find “evidence” to support it.  Anything unlucky happen to you today?!?

Friday, the Thirteenth and a variety of other recent activities had my brain running to one of its favorite tracks:  considering the line between teaching/training and doing for.  As a teacher I was always been aware of where that line so that I could encourage (and even insist sometimes) that students think for themselves, develop their own skills, and build their own self confidence. 

Now, I am looking at the same line in very different ways.  First, I am working with adults and am not formally their teacher.  I am here to advise.  Unfortunately, some people think that means I will do things for them.  Should I be the one to organize the agenda for meetings and lead the discussion?  How much influence should I have on the decisions about what activities and plans?  I want some say, obviously.  I am here to advise and must bring in my views/ways of doing things, but where’s the line?

And, given the fact that I am the one with strong computer skills, it has been natural that I “help” there (i.e., type reports, organize information in tables, etc.)  This aspect is clearer.  It is in our plan to have me teach computer skills to the teams I work with – as soon as we can be in the same place long enough to have time to do it.  I don’t mind doing the computer work (i.e., bending the line much further toward doing for than teaching/training) as we continue to work to develop my colleagues’ skills to do it on their own, even more so in these difficult times in CAR. 

Recently, my thoughts are turning more to background and experience as I think about teaching vs. doing for.  In particular, I am thinking, particularly, of financial accounting and maintenance. 

We come from a culture where stores, contractors, and most everyone else automatically give us a receipt for purchases and work.  While people’s abilities to organize and process financial information vary widely in the US, people are aware of the basic components. 

I now live in a cash-based economy (that also includes barter).  I can get a receipt, sometimes, if I ask (or if I provide one and they only have to sign it).  Larger stores do give them, but those kinds of stores are in larger cities, such as Yaoundé.  People don’t have the habit of keeping track of money they have, spend, earn, etc. 

Another aspect of this culture currently is the idea that some people should be exempt from paying – it seems to be a perk of being in a position of power.  A powerful person may stay in a guest house and expect not to pay.  The State Education Department can organize a trip to visit the schools of our Village School Program and expect us to pay.  (Fortunately, we had someone negotiate to change that expectation since our leadership team in currently involved in teacher training and not available to go.  The officials agreed to go on their own and not expect us to pay.  Good!  It wasn’t in the budget!)  Another example is the former rebels/now military in CAR who aren’t paid their salaries and feel that they have the right to extort the money out of local people (having them pay extra “taxes” to sell in markets, setting up extra tolls to drive on the roads, taking cattle or crops, looting…). 

Now, imagine, in the climate I just described, trying to teach leaders within the church to be fiscally responsible and keep accurate records.  Some people have developed the habit of spending money they get however they want without paying any attention to the budget.  They created a budget because it was required, but don’t see any connection between that and what they do with the money.  As missionaries we are now trying to help them better understand the connection between planning and the budget.  Not easy for many to see.  It is not that they want to steal the money (well, mostly not that).  They want to carry out the mission of the program, but they have no experience or training in ways to do it. 

So we ask leaders to create plans and budgets and they do.  Then later we ask them to show how they plan to spend the next installment of money that’s coming and, more often than not, they don’t look at the plans or budgets.  We also ask them to keep complete financial records with receipts, etc.  They do, but records are incomplete, or, receipts are all jammed into a box/bag that takes hours to sort through and understand.  I know, there are lots of people in the US who also lack organizational and financial accounting skills, but here it is much more wide-spread.

Still, “the show must go on.”  We need to run program activities and at the same time try to train more and more people in the ways of planning, budgeting, accounting, and reporting – and particularly in the ways that these are related and actually beneficial for the program!  I currently think that in order to have all these things happen, those who are able (like me, as adviser) have to have a more obvious role in leading – tending further toward “doing for” than I would like.  At the same time, I want to talk, explain, show, and lead in such a way that little by little I am pulling out and those I work with are picking up the necessary skills.  In CAR, especially, it is critical that programs continue – need are dire! 

The other area I have been thinking about is maintenance – of houses, cars, equipment, everything.  Again, I know that there are varying levels of skill among those in the US in this area, but the general expectation is that things will be maintained – especially for public or company “stuff.”  Here, that expectation generally doesn’t exist.  One of my 

current theories is that people are so busy trying to survive that they don’t pay attention to longer-term concerns.  For example, there aren’t enough cars, buses, and trucks, so owners/drivers overload those that exist.  While more people and stuff get where they want to go, it wreaks havoc on the vehicles that are also poorly maintained.  People need money now. Other people need to get somewhere now.  So, why not overloaded trucks, cars, and motorcycles???  (These pictures are courtesy of the internet, but I have seen some that are similar…)

Most people here also don’t have the habit of maintaining their houses either.  Here’s a picture taken under the kitchen sink in my guest house.  I had the handyman come to fix several things, including the leak that is being caught in the bucket lid under this sink.  His comment was, “We don’t need to do anything about that, it doesn’t leak much.”  I continue to insist so said he will bring someone back “soon” to look at it.  (Yes, I could probably take the time to figure out where the drip is coming from and what might be done to fix it, but it is actually the handyman’s job – don’t want to do it for him!)

Visitors to the guest house are always impressed with the house.  It is the size, but also the fact that it is maintained.  Others could do the same with their houses, but it is harder – more people live in most houses and there is less money to use for up-keep. 

Finances, maintenance, well, and education, in general, all mean making investments (that may be costly) in the short- term that will yield long-term benefits.  Ah, yes, delaying instant gratification – many young people (and adults) in the US have problems with this.  Subsistence living makes this even harder, as does lack of experience and habit.  But, we must work for development and long-term gain. 

Let’s teach without “doing for.”

Sunday, September 8, 2013

And a Little Child Shall Lead Them...

I have been thinking about all children's curiosity and natural openness.  They want to know and explore.  At the same time, cultures teach their children to respond differently to what is different and new.

These thoughts are often on my mind, but never more so than in church last week.  I have noticed for some time that about six kids usually sit in the pew beside me.  Some are there each week and some are change.  A teenager or adult often sits at the other end of the pew with them.  Last week, they were even more open to me than usually.  They vied to sit in the spot next to me.  In fact, at one point in the service I had one sit on either side of me to avoid an argument. 

One little girl kept reaching out to touch me.  I believe she was fascinated by my white skin and the fine blond hairs on my arms.  I had to stop her, though, when she decided to touch my glasses – she made prints that made it hard to see clearly!  Most of the children next to me spent a lot of time smiling at me.  What joy they impart.

I have similar experiences when I walk through town.  It is often the children who greet me first.  They are much more likely to smile at me and wave.  (Many adults stare the first time they see me, looking stern.)  Most children laugh with joy when I greet them in their language – and some adults do, too. 

How do we train our children in the USA?  I think it is more common to discourage them from greeting those who are different than they are.  We discourage the natural curiosity.  I understand stranger-danger, but I think it goes beyond that.  I know, too, that here I am white and privileged which affects children’s responses, but, again, I think it goes beyond that.

What do you think?  Have you ever thought about it?  I would love to hear your perspective.