Murphy’s Law, for those who have never heard of it, is the idea that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. I’m not actually sure who Murphy was, but I do recall hearing once of a pretty funny experiment that proved his law surprisingly true. At some point, a scientist organized thousands of schoolchildren across Great Britain to butter pieces of toast on one side and drop them from a height of 20 feet or so, and record whether the toast landed with the buttered or the non-buttered side up. The results, drawn from this huge sample size, showed that the toast landed on the buttered side far more often than on the non-buttered side. Evidently, whatever can go wrong probably will. Our class in Limbe this week was, in some ways, another indicator that Murphy’s Law remains as valid in Cameroon as it does in Great Britain.

Our lesson for the week, part of the second module of the YAN curriculum, is an introduction to e-mail. Per our plans, we were to teach kids about effective methods of communication through a fun game called snowball, wherein students throw wadded up balls of paper across the room containing messages they have written to their peers. We then planned to show a five-minute video about how the internet works (not a bad introduction—I learned something from it, too!). Lastly, we planned to pair students off and, given the help of a guiding document on creating and using an e-mail account, students were to create their own e-mail usernames and explore this very cool tool.

Sadly, though, this is not quite what class looked like. We had a lot of sun playing snowball with our students, and were just about the show the video when the rain started. Rain in Cameroon starts suddenly and falls hard, and in our tin-roofed classroom, the sound is nearly deafening. When we teach in the rain, we pretty much have to yell. And as for showing a video on my laptop to 24 students? Impossible, even with the volume turned up as high as it can go. Luckily, Clara saved the day, jumping in with an impromptu lesson on how servers and routers work. 

It was at some point during this mini-lesson that the power decided to go out. In our dark room with no working computers and thunderous rainfall overhead, we did some quick thinking. Jumping to the end of the lesson—the only part of our class for the week that required no technology whatsoever—we told the kids to hope for an end to the rain. I asked the lab assistant, who has been invaluable to us so far in matters of computer repair, whether he thought we would get power back. “Probably not,” he said. “This is Africa.”

Miraculously, he was wrong. Within five minutes, the rain slowed and the power flickered back on, and we continued with our lesson. The class went smoothly for the rest of our time in Limbe—students opened the instructions, read along with me as I read to them, and then opened up Internet Explorer and began to create e-mail addresses. Yahoo is popular here, so many students created yahoo e-mail addresses; however, Gmail is slowly catching on, and several of our students created Gmail addresses instead.

There were a few challenges that occurred during our students’ time on computers, as well. The first challenge was posed by the computers themselves. Computers in the Cameroonian media labs are of varying quality, and all are between five and seven years old. About half are infected with viruses that jump onto a flash drive the moment a flash drive is plugged into the machine (thank goodness for Clara and my Macs, and for the Disk Utility that we use to scrub our flash drives every few minutes during classes when we are using them). The Internet, too, often proves fickle in our schools—on some computers it is fairly fast, while others creep along to access basic webpages, in a manner reminiscent of dial-up in the United States in the mid 1990s.

Our students’ varying levels of experience posed one last challenge in the classroom. Before our first class in Limbe, we were anxious about how our teaching style would go over in front of students who were not particularly used to critical thinking or discussion-based classes. However, were gratified to find that, when given an interesting prompt or a challenging question, our students were amazing—we had every hand in the air to answer our questions, dissenting points of view being expressed from opposite sides of the classroom, and a lot of very high level critical thinking going on. Interestingly, this week proved more of a struggle, not because we were asking students to engage in critical thinking or debate—they have already proven quite capable of succeeding at both—but, instead, because we were asking students to apply skills that many had likely never learned. Asked to open Internet Explorer and go to, some of our students navigated to the page in an instant; others scanned their computers’ homepages trying to figure out how to follow our instructions; and others, who had created an e-mail address but had never learned to use it, typed their e-mail address into the address bar of the computer, only to be confused when their computer responded contrary to their expectations. We did our best to circulate to each pair in the class, showing them how to follow each step; but by the end of our time in Limbe, we had only made it through about half of the planned lesson

We are learning, through experiences like these, to never assume that our students have learned basic skills like how to use a webpage. Some have; but many have not. We are also learning, though, that given instruction, our students are highly capable and very smart. In the end, our class really wasn’t an indication of Murphy’s Law; it was more of a reminder that teaching students here (or, really, anywhere) often progresses differently from what is expected. We can’t wait to return to Limbe next week, to finish this lesson and more on to new things. One thing is for sure: our students will leave class next week, if they have not already done so this week, with an e-mail address and the skills to use it.

Written by Josh

PS: A word of explanation on the photos below, since none of them come from this lesson. The first two are from Buea Town, and show some concepts we have discussed earlier: Josh leading students in a silly introductory name game-slash-dance party, and Clara explaining “exponential growth” to the class. The last three photos are from a very cool event organized by our friend and local YAN coordinator Walters. Walters has set up an organization of young men in the community under the name “HADY” (which stands, rather impressively, for “Humanitarian Association of Dynamic Youth”). HADY runs guide and porter services for tourists interested in ascending Mount Cameroon (we’ll be going with them in January!). The profits they accumulate are reinvested in the community; here, for the purpose of a back-to-school book drive for at-risk or orphaned students. I’m not a big one for prayer—something that is mandatory at the beginning of any community gathering here—but that first picture is just about the cutest thing I have ever seen. And in the last one, you just might make out a laughing white face (yours truly) amidst students holding up their cool new school swag.

PPS: we’ve added a few photos from our time in Kumba to Wednesday’s blog post. Check them out if you have a chance!