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Teaching children in a primary school: A Cameroonian Experience

Jennifer Zschocke, Master student at the Department of English and American Studies, has lived in Cameroon for three months – she taught at a primary school and conducted research for her M.A. thesis

  • Jennifer Zschocke taught at the “Peace Home Academic Complex” in Yaounde - the primary school children loved the "white lady". Photo: private

People say that the air in Africa smells different: filled with exotic spices, sun and adventure. So the first thing I did after leaving the plane in Cameroon was to take a deep breath of African air. Well, maybe I did something wrong, but it was not any different than German air. It all started some six months earlier when I started to think about my M.A. thesis. In our Department of English and American Studies it is common to conduct field studies and to go abroad for research purposes. This is further encouraged by a variety of guest researchers and exchange students. My supervisor, Prof. Dr. Josef Schmied, suggested that I could go to Cameroon because he had contacts to Cameroonian professors at the University of Yaounde I. At first I was apprehensive because Africa was never a destination on my to-travel list, and researching African Englishes was even lower on my priority list. Still, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I would not miss it, even if my family did try to talk me out of it.

Six months later, in September 2014, I boarded a plane to Yaounde to begin my three-month research project there and it was at the airport where I got my first whiff of African air. Prof. Samuel Ngwa Atechi and his family collected me from the airport and took me to my apartment. The night was awash with light from roadside barbecues, exotic African music and people who just enjoyed another night out. The next morning I was woken by a cock’s crow and the sound of dogs and people going to the well. After a light breakfast, Prof. Atechi’s wife came to pick me up and take me for a first tour of the city. Yaounde... a place where you can get everything on the roadside (even toilet paper or a toothbrush), where the traffic seems to Europeans chaotic and dangerous, where the markets offer a variety of exotic fruit fresh from the trees, and where the people are always interested in a white person and the story she has got to tell. I really loved the city and the simplicity and openness of its people. I can only recommend stopping and talking to people, and I promise that you will learn new things every day.

The highlight of my first day was to visit Prof. Atechi’s primary school “Peace Home Academic Complex”, the place where I was going to teach during my stay in Cameroon. I was greeted by enthusiastic teachers who wanted to support the children and give them an opportunity to make something great out of their lives. Because school holidays were still on, the pupils were not yet in school. This changed a week later when I arrived in the morning for general assembly and the raising of the Cameroonian flag. 600 pairs of eyes stared in amazement at the strange white woman who came all the way to Cameroon to teach at “Peace Home” primary school. During the first break, the older pupils of grade four to six could no longer control their curiosity and wanted to know more about me. Consequently, I was surrounded by 100 pupils and tried to answer their most pressing question: How do I get hair like you? Fortunately, I expected this big interest in my person and promised to visit all the pupils in class every day. During the next two months, I prepared lessons for grades one to six and tried to teach them in some creative ways. You should have seen what a simple stuffed toy can do to 30 Cameroonian children! I brought some of my old stuffed toys from Germany and used them to teach the children about animals. Each of them could touch and look at the toys, and then they had to draw their favourite animal. I employed simple, yet creative methods to enhance their learning experience, and to support their teachers with didactic and methodological issues as well.

Yet teaching was not my only job in Cameroon; I still had to conduct some research for my M.A. thesis. Thus, I visited the University of Yaounde I to experience typical Cameroonian university life. The university campus was huge, but pleasant. Roads crossed big meadows and small woods to bring students from one building to the next. Lecture halls were always too small and a lot of students had to listen to a lecture standing outside. Still, they were enthusiastic about their studies and put up with all sorts of inconveniences. I was able to gain a lot more insight into university life by conducting interviews with some students. I learned about the problems they are facing, such as small libraries or expensive apartments, but also about their hopes and dreams for the future.

During the last three weeks I travelled to Bamenda, a smaller city in the Northwest region of Cameroon, and the time I spent there was probably the most interesting in my life. My aim was to experience some parts of real Cameroonian life and to do this I just strolled around the city and the markets. I ate food that was so foreign I could not even spell its name. I met black Germans in places where you would never expect it. I talked to a butcher who could not believe that the majority of Germans never see an animal killed. And what I most experienced was friendship and hospitality without any prejudice or resentment. People invited me to their homes, shared their food with me and enjoyed just talking to a stranger. I think that my three-month stay in Cameroon should send a message to the people: to take this hospitality and openness as model in this troubled times when xenophobia and fear dominate our daily lives.

(Author: Jennifer Zschocke)

Katharina Thehos

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