Friday, June 7, 2013

A Cameroonian Wizard

Meet: Esembe. 

For the first few weeks here in Cameroon, this guy was always showing up at the house where I am staying, but I honestly had no idea who he was. One day, though, I figured I'd sit down and chat with him to learn a little bit more about who he was. When he told me his life story, instantly, I knew it was blog worthy.

Esembe is about 30-years-old. The first thing he'll tell you about himself is that he is a mathematics teacher at a school here in Kumba. The dude LOVES math. He is always talking about mathematics, whether it is solving an equation, the practice of mathematics itself, or his experiences teaching in school. His passion for mathematics is rivaled by none.

For Esembe, he is unique in his love for mathematics, which might be part of the reason he loves teaching it so much--Because so many people find math difficult and complex, and for this reason dislike it, Esembe wants to show them a simpler, important side to math, one that has many valuable forms of real-life application.

Esembe likes to describe the problematic state of mathematics in Cameroonian schools through the following words:

"People have no problem counting their money. But when it comes to 'x' and 'y,' they don't know what to do," he says.

Touche, Esembe.

There is another, more serious problem that Esembe also faces when teaching mathematics in school here in Cameroon: He has had threats made on his life.

Throughout May and June, students in Cameroonian schools are going through a process that they refer to as "writing exams." Essentially, the school year has neared its end and students everywhere are studying for the GCE, which stands for General Certificate of Education and is the standard end-of-year examination for students as it applies to their respective grade levels throughout schools in Cameroon.

Therefore, as a teacher, Esembe is currently administering exams. He tells me that he often catches students cheating, which normally warrants failure of the exam in Cameroon. But Esembe lets most students go with a slap on the wrist. He does so because he says that if he failed a student for cheating, he would fear for his life. In the past, he's told me, students have threatened him with knives while he is administering an exam.

Despite these issues, however, Esembe keeps on teaching and is remarkably optimistic about his livelihood as a math teacher. I'm guessing that his unusual optimism has something to do with a near-death experience Esembe had when he was just seven-years-old.

It's obvious that Esembe was born intelligent. He tells me that he has been interested in technical fields, such as chemistry, engineering, and mathematics, for as long as he can remember. While most seven-year-olds are still learning how to read books, Esembe was busy building his own toy cars.

But it was while building a toy car that Esembe was toying with electrical wires, trying to install headlights on his car, and nearly electrocuted himself to death. At seven-years-old, he was in a coma for six months.

Remarkably, somehow Esembe survived. Today, his right arm is basically dysfunctional, and he only has feeling in two of his 10 fingers--the two he proudly tells me he holds chalk with in the classroom--but the man is going strong. I'm willing to personally nominate him as the greatest mathematics teacher in all of Kumba. 

During my conversation with Esembe the other day, he said one of the most quotable phrases I have ever heard, and it was these words that actually convinced me that Esembe deserved a blog post.

"People see me walk into school and they say, 'This man is handicapped. He cannot teach.' But when they see me do mathematics, they know I am a devil. I am a wizard."

True dat homie.

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