After 45 minutes of Google searches and Wikipedia pages, our students needed a few minutes to stretch and regroup before finishing up their research for the day.  I asked them to pull eyes away from computer screens and stand up.  Last week, we broke up work by playing speed ‘Simon Says’ (high schoolers look indignant when you explain the rules of this apparently childish game, but then find themselves racing to touch elbows or toes, hop up and down one foot or touch their noses with their tongues).  But it’s good change things up, so this week it was time for something new.  “Raise your hand if you like puff puff and beans more than you like fried chicken,” I told them.  “Now, raise your hand if you like roasted fish more than you like corn fufu with egusi soup.”  Talking about local food never fails to amuse our students.  I should have stopped right there.  Instead, I made a fatal mistake. 

“Raise your hands if you like chocolate ice cream more than you like strawberry ice cream.”  I knew this was a ridiculous question even before the words finished leaving my mouth.  Maybe I’ve been subconsciously dreaming about creamy chocolate ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s.  Feebly, I added, “I mean pink ice cream.”  Silence.  No hands. It’s not that ice cream is an unknown entity here—there are soft serve machines scattered by the side of the road around town.  However, the concept of ice cream flavors is largely foreign.  If you approach one of the dusty soft serve machines, you will quickly be informed the color for the day: pink or white or green.  All the colors taste exactly the same.

Ice cream blunders aside, class this week has been fantastic.  Last week, each student developed a project topic and research questions that will drive their work for the rest of the year.  This week, they took the first steps towards answering these questions by learning how to use Google to create an effective web search and how to explore resources on their respective topics.  (Eventually, students will take their questions into surrounding communities and gather more information through interviews, photos, and video.)  Many students had never before had the opportunity to do online research. The results were electrifying.  

Diana, who is interested in corruption in Cameroon, found a website designed for users in specific nations to report past experiences with bribery. One group, working to understand dangerous snakes in the area and reduce human-snake conflict, found a WHO-administered (and highly academic) database of African snakes, and started copying and pasting species names into Google to learn more about them.  Another group, focused on the impact of modernity on their traditional culture, read through a 30-page document from the SUNY Levin Institute’s curriculum on globalization and local cultures.  Nelson poured over a list of education statistics describing literacy and primary school dropout rates in Cameroon. “These aren’t very good,” he lamented.  George and Henry scoured through statistics on sexually transmitted disease rates in Cameroonian prostitutes, and then found a fascinating article about how the dearth of good jobs in Cameroon has led many university students to seek work in the sex trade. At one point, I glanced down at Cippora’s notes from a Wikipedia site on water pollution.  She had written: nitrogen leaching from fertilizers results in the contamination of water sources.  Worried that she was just copying down information that she didn’t understand, I asked her about it.  “Oh, that means that here in Cameroon we need to not use as many fertilizers so that our water can be cleaner,” she told me easily.  (She did not know, however, what a septic tank was.)

I’d choose to watch a classroom of Cameroonian students enthusiastically discover web research over chocolate ice cream any day.


P.S.— We made an excellent choice Tuesday night: rather than go to bed early, we stayed up until 6 am to watch the election returns at a local hotel. In a rather interesting coincidence, yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of Cameroon’s president taking office. As we watched the election returns, we were joined by several Cameroonians who repeatedly expressed amazement about our quick and transparent election process—it was a nice reminder of the elements that do work well in our democracy.