It was one of those days. I had just been at school from 7:30 AM until 6 PM, teaching, planning, talking to teachers, teaching teachers, organizing club meetings, figuring out what projects to do next….I was exhausted, and the only thing I could think of besides that tall glass of water I’d have when I got home, was what on earth I was going to eat for dinner. And to make it better, as soon as I opened my door, set down my bag, took off my shoes, and flipped the switch….the power was out. Again.
In America when the power goes out, it’s almost like an exciting exotic holiday, where for that one rare moment you realize nature has taken over, and you are forced to actually light candles, and heaven forbid, step away from your electronics, and talk to people, or read a book. Or that’s how it was back when I was a kid, before the onset of handheld devices that have amazing battery life. Unless you counted my Gameboy Color…..The point was, a loss of power, meant a free pass to excuse yourself from any work or any obligations, because it was so rare. But here in Cameroon, if you excused yourself every time the power went out, you might only get things done three days a week.
To go back to my story, I was just about to give up on cooking when I heard a tap tap tap on my door. It was at that moment, I realized that I had almost forgotten that it was Tuesday night English class, as 8 kids armed with pens and notebooks piled into my candle lit living room, energized and ready to study. Ever since my first few weeks of living in the neighborhood, a slow trickle of middle school and high school students had started coming to visit me, asking questions about English, taking whatever I threw at them and attempting, despite their feeble understandings of the language, to speak and understand me. It soon came apparent that we had so many interested students I needed to make an official evening or two during the week for them to all pile into my small apartment together. Our neighbourhood class became an eclectic group of eight 11-18 year olds, boys and girls, from five different local schools. Some were bilingual speaking French and English, some were literate and able to spell perfectly, some were somewhere in between, or not even close. Our goal: everyone had to learn something, and we all had to help each other.
Working with these kids gave me an opportunity to really understand the youth in Cameroon on a micro level. Rather than that sea of 100 heads in my classroom bobbing in front of me, trying to copy down whatever I scribbled on the board, these kids were real, with personalities, knowledge, and real life struggles. We could talk frankly, about life, school, and family. Living in Cameroon can be a challenge, but being a preteen or teenager in school is universally rough, no matter where you are from. How you navigate school, make and keep friends, learn about your sexuality, and discover the dangers of the world can seem impossible as you go through that stage in your life where you start building your identity as a unique human being. Needless to say I personally don’t miss that age one bit.
I didn’t quite know what it was that brought them back twice a week in the middle of the night to my house, whether it was the colored pens, or the music from my computer, or the photos and random things in my apartment. Not for the food, since I never have any, or the “comfy” plastic chairs. Perhaps they came to avoid the chores at home, or perhaps to hang out with their friends. But as I watched them lean closer to the one candle, copying down notes, reading together, I realized it was also something more. Despite the low light, and our feeble scraps of paper strewn across the table, I realized these kids had something that maybe is missing in the youth in America: the burning desire to learn. As we sang goodbye and they wandered off into the dark, I realized why I always let them come back every time, despite my exhaustion. They were starving to learn something real, and practical that could perhaps help them in their future someday. And I could never refuse to feed them knowledge, light or no light. That is the power of learning.