The mechanical screeching of a digital cockerel shatters the already stifling morning silence with its clichéd cockadoodle-ing and irritatingly catchy tune that you just know is going to echo round your mind until around lunchtime. The alarm rarely achieves what it’s employed to do with the heat, light and the general hubbub created by these cleavers of Dawn’s crack in whose midst I find myself, getting there first. A far from pleasant analogy but given the overwhelming stench that pervades every quarter of this infuriating country, a fitting one I feel.
Half past six the clock says and who am I to disagree.
Five minutes later, the fluorescent green cocoon of the mosquito net is breached and the world is one step closer. Turning off the almost-but-not-quite-totally ineffectual fan that has spent the night neatly chopping the heat-thick air into almost-but-not-quite-totally uncooling blocks I step through into my living room where the floor is, generally, ironically strewn with the corpses of a thousand dead, or in some cases dying, insects; those that the lizards couldn’t stomach.
Nature calls and at the first sign of my Scottish loins having been girded the neighbour shrieks in whichever language she feels like, something I assume is a morning greeting, but which could easily be an insult, wrapped, as it usually is, in the dulcet sounds of cleared nostrils and expectorated phlegm; not particularly nice at any time of the day but especially unpleasant when it’s the first thing past delicate morning ears.
I won’t walk you through the performance itself just to say that it’s outside, the hole is about the size of cereal bowl and, being such a sluggard, I’m a lowly 5th in line to this far from regal throne. Can’t say what the neighbours’ approach is but all I can add is that it needs refining. The experience is unpleasant enough without the all too real spectre of the bobbing jobby: bearing in mind that with nothing in which to bob, it tends to merely languish at the side of the pool ... I’ll move on.
Breakfast, washing and dressing absorb the 15 or so minutes that I have before I have to quitter la maison and wend my way to school, invariably unshaven as when water is at a premium and time is of the essence Mr Gilette is frequently left off the bus altogether let alone expected to take a back seat. Ginger fuzz may not look very nice, but at least I don’t smell!
The walk to school is a barage of ‘bonjours’ from One and All, All and Sundry, Tom, Dick, Harry and Old Tom Cobbley himself but definitely the most uplifting one is from a gaggle of pre-school types whose naked and semi-clothed salutations sound, to all intents and purposes, like ‘Bonjour Messiah’ ... does wonders for ones self-esteem to be worshipped before the day has really begun. I hasten to add that ‘Messiah’ is meant to be ‘Nasara’ which is what anyone who is not Cameroonian is referred to as, and which is so non-descript that it is basically the equivalent of me calling everyone I meet ‘African’ - as a name, that is, rather than an adjective. “Morning, African. How are you?” “What plans have you got for the weekend, African?” “Hey, African! Want to buy some tomatoes?”
Having performed the morning ritual that is shaking the hands of each and every one of the colleagues and asking them whether they slept well, and having watched as the ranks of odourous, odoursome, odourful, olfactory oddities ooze their unruly way across the thresholds of their respective classrooms all at the hastening swipe of the school accountant’s stick, it is time to relish those final moments of relative calm before the madness begins.
At first glance you’d think there was an element of control, but it’s a thin and infinitely fragile facade whose tolerance is pushed to the limit within about 12 seconds of the start of class and whose shattered shards then chafe in all those parts that chafing should be discouraged.
What happens within the hours of teaching is of little import, suffice to say that sometimes some learning gets done, other times it’s a battle of wills between teacher’s patience and students’ propensity for making noise. There’s no point shouting as they can always out do you; sending them outside just means they get beaten. Some might say I was a soft touch, in fact, all of them almost certainly do, but here in a world where no rod is spared but rather is tested to the extreme, there are ways of getting through that don’t result in whelt marks or tears.
Four hours of teaching followed by a 30 minute break and then a further three and a half hours of teaching means that on those days when I have a full timetable, by the time it gets to 3.30 I’m stretched a little thin and not a little hungry. Thankfully it’s only Monday and Thursday that require such martyrdom.
Afternoons are spent doing those things that one must in this world where everything is fought for. Fetching water, washing, washing up, cooking, cleaning, planning lessons and, joy of joys, marking. I often considered being a ‘proper’ teacher but the concept of curriculum scared me. Still does. The concept of ‘marking’, however, is one I hadn’t thought of before and I have to say that I find it the singularly most tiresome aspect of this job. Granted, some of the things you see are mildly entertaining, particularly when you get language interference (“All the children put on their uniforms and are defiled in the street” ... ‘defiler’ means parade, or in this case, march) but generally it’s a pain in the soft parts and I don’t think anybody pays the slightest bit of attention to anything I may scribble on their paper. I suppose I could humour myself and simply write nonsense down the margins ... it’s certainly worth considering.
With life’s chores out of the way, the reins of control are then handed back to me and I can do what I want, although by then it’s usually getting close to dinner time which means not only deciding what to eat, but preparing it too. The power supply is such that you never can tell when you’re going to get plunged into darkness, so it’s best to chop, dice and slice before the sun has saddled up, packed up its monotonously predictable rays and swaggered off into its own setting.
Then it’s time to brave the insects.
My ‘kitchen’ - a term I employ in its loosest sense - consists of a solitary gas bottle and a recently purchased barbeque, both of which live outside. The gas bottle has one burner on which to cook and so meals tend to be of the one pot variety, although with the arrival of the barbeque, it does mean I can now cook two things at the same time; does life get any crazier? Meat is seldom part of my Monday to Friday diet as the local butcher never seems entirely sure what animal it is that he’s hacking at, and besides, there are various people peddling all those bits of goat that were once deemed edible, often it seems in times of severe food shortages, and, despite not knowing which part of the aforementioned beast it is, they do actually taste pretty good.
Because cooking is a wholly external affair it means much to-ing and fro-ing to stir and prod whatever it is that I’ve decided is going to satiate the Lockhart hunger. Each to and every fro means opening the door and the inevitable intrusion of a billion buzzing beasties who then serenade me while I eat with the irregular thump of exo-skeleton on light bulb and shortly afterwards the gentle patter that signals their frustrated demise as they fall from the ceiling to the floor and become one-step closer to a date with their reptilian destiny.
Evenings are spent contemplating life’s greater questions and considering the merits of my being here, of our (VSO) being here, and battling with the doubts I have regarding the validity of the beast that answers to the name of Development. As I mentioned before, with no-one to speak to, it means this poor harassed laptop has to bear the brunt, and it’s remarkably placid given the Essaitch-Ayetee that wends its way from under-worked brain through over-worked hands ... On those occasions when the greater questions are not so pressing I do what I can to fill the hours twixt fed and bed, which usually means dispatching of those insects who found the neon not bright enough and, instead, headed for my legs.
The evening routine is just that, a routine and is one based heavily around cleansing. A bucket of water, a bar of soap, a bottle of water and a toothbrush ... the details are much the same as they are the world over, or rather at home. I would part with limbs for the luxury of running water and a long soak in a bath, or indeed a fresh towel and an evening collapsed in an armchair and it’s for those reasons that I could never call this ‘home’ in the genuine, emotion-heavy meaning of the word. It’s not as tough as it could be and I know that this is life for so many, but at the same time I’ve seen the other side, I’ve sampled its succulent herbage and it definitely is greener; it’s not just a trick of the light.
This is home for now, but only for now.
And so bed beckons. The evening ablutions have been performed, the door has been locked and it’s back to the awaiting, protective embrace of the fluorescent nylon cocoon that I must return. Another day looms, and with it all of this excitement once more ...
Now you know!