My time volunteering

At the same time that Jon Snow was  in Uganda, I was a 'cadet' volunteer in Douala, Cameroun, at the College Alfred Saker, teaching English as a foreign language. I was the full-time teacher for two first form classes, one with 43 and the other with 45 students, and then I had a one-hour session with every other class in the school. 

I took a party of students to climb Mount Cameroon.

And I was drafted into directing the school play. We put on 'Le Marmite de Koka Mbala', by Congolese playwright Guy Menga, an interesting exploration of the clash between traditional and modern pressures. Shame that it rained, since the school hall where were staging the play had a tin roof...

I have a couple of pictures of the 17-year old cadet volunteer in front of his class, thanks to my VSO minder Nick Crace, who came to pay a visit.

And then VSO asked me to write three brief articles about my volunteer experience, for publication in the London 'Guardian'. I wrote about the nonsense that it was to be teaching black students, all with frizzy hair, from a French textbook featuring Betty, with her blond hair and blue eyes; about the pain that it was when one of my students died of some illness; and about my students' language skills.

A Bamileke student at Alfred Saker would have Bamileke mother tongue, then so-called pidgin-English for the market place, their schooling from elementary school up would have been in French, they would of course learn Douala, and I was teaching them English as a foreign language? And some then went on to learn German as a 'second' foreign language.

They were such talented students. But I guess I learned more from my volunteer experience than I could ever teach.



The impact of my placement

Well, I did my job teaching. My work, and that of my colleagues -- most of them French or Swiss volunteers, some of them teaching for two years to avoid French military service -- was recognized by the wonderful headmaster of the College Alfred Saker, the Rev. Thomas Ekollo.

My unforgettable moments

Climbing Mount Cameroun wearing sandals, probably the stupidest thing I have ever done in my life.

The impact my placement has had on me

As a cadet volunteer, when I then went up to university, I was a year out of step with my grammar school peers, and I had few people that I could share my experience with. So it was a bit lonely to start with.

My folks were missionaries. I was born in China, and I spent four years as a child in what was then Malaya. So I have always been open to other cultures and other people. But the VSO experience was just an incredibly rich opportunity. I travelled around Cameroun with my colleagues -- so seriously, folks, how  many of you have actually met the Fon of Bafut?

I didn't pursue the proposal by one of my Camerounian colleagues that I should marry his sister...

Douala, Cameroun


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