I Thought I was the Cynical One
Oct. 19th 2003
This is certainly turning out to be a dark year, but I shall probably describe the darkest bits in another entry. I'm not sure that the diary is the right place to put them, not when it could be read by anyone. I hope to write them though, partly just because you know that things can go pretty awry when you do VSO. I think now I will concentrate on some of the other things happening here, although be prepared for lots of private entries. The politics is getting out of hand!

I must start with something that I think I have forgotten. Ethiopian new year was quite recently (about a month ago). I was given some 'happy new year' cards. I was very pleased to see a card from a student. Not because I wanted to see a card, but because of the style of the card. To the student in question: if you ever read this, then please forgive me for what I am about to say - you have to be ferenj to understand what this means. In fact you have to be a very particular ferenj. The card was great - it was just like a card that I would send to Mark and Ali, or they would send to me. It was perfect. There were two 'cherub' children on the cover offering some flowers with a consfused look on their faces (the children not the flowers). I couldn't have asked for a better... erm more fitting card. I felt right at home, I wonder exactly how much I am teaching them.

Last weekend I managed to spend some time in the kitchen of one of the new VSOs. We had found somewhere to buy flour and I spent the afternoon baking some bread. There is definitely a difference in the amount of water the flour absorbs though. It started off as a sticky goo rather than the dough I was expecting. We used up nearly all of the flour (enough for four loaves by weight) on just two loaves. However, the end result was quite pleasing, and much nicer than any of the bread that I have had here. For some reason, they seem to add sugar to normal bread making it sweet. The cakes and biscuits are as dry as they possibly can be. I went to a local place to have a snack one night with Tekley, the handyman/pain in the bum. I was offered a doughnut or a biscuit. I took the biscuit. I wish I had taken the blue pill. It took all of my drink to wash the thing down. I kept looking around to see if anyone was looking at me and saying 'look at the English idiot, eating the coaster'.

Last night three of us went out to eat and stopped off at Terri's (the VSO with an oven) on the way back. Dave the guy she shares with is laid up at the moment with a swollen knee. We are not quite sure what has caused it. He suspects hitting it on a cactus, but there are no scratches or anything else. I told him that we could probably do the amputation ourselves, the big VSO medical kits contain hack-saws (go on, you were just imagining that they did). At Dave and Terri's we played cards, and I was amazed at how excited I was to be playing a game, it was such a joy just to have any kind of challenge against another person. Not exactly mastermind but it was such an odd pleasure.

Monday of last week was a bit of a foot down moment. We were told at lunch that we were going to Dr. Solomons for dinner that night. Dr. Solomon is a lovely guy, Ato Araya was also going to be there. However, I wasn't. I didn't want to go, a thought shared by some of the others. The fact that I had been *told* that I would be at dinner meant that I definitely wasn't going. I seem to spend too much of my time making other people happy and going to these kinds of things - things that are a bit beyond my control. The new ferenj could go, I wasn't going to be missed, and I don't think that my absence was really noted. I'm just worried that it will make me look stroppy, but I don't see why, after working that weekend, I should be expected to give up what little time I have to myself these days. For the last few weeks it has been all go with the new ferenj. It's taking a little while to adapt to the house because I have other work that I want to do in the evenings but I understand the need to do a bit of socialising.

There has been a noticable change in the Academic Commission meetings. Previously, I would argue with a structured arugment for something and then I would be told that it couldn't be that way. When in fact, if you followed the argument through you could see that reailistically it couldn't be any other way. However, now there is much more weight to the arguments, not in terms of susbtance but just people. The arguments are exactly the same, and the points that the other ferenj are arguing for are the same, there are just more people, and possibly some slightly different angles to argue on. I deliberately didn't say too much to the new VSOs about what I had proposed for the curriculum. Instead, I let them argue the same points, and I think that they are bored of me saying 'What a good idea, if only someone had suggested that previously' after every meeting (or even during if I am feeling peeved). However, they do not see the progress that is being made compared to a few months ago. However, I can see the effect it is having on the staff. Before I reserved the real hard arguing for the points that really mattered for my work - like what was in the lab. Now they are getting everything argued and seven ferenj staff pulling apart the excuses of why things have to be the way they are. Take exams as an example, we were told that we had one week to mark exams. With 200 scripts at half an hour a paper, that would take 100 hours, or more than two weeks to mark. We could, of course, be Ethiopian and give all the students multiple choice exams. We think that this is normally done to make the marking as quick as possible. In fact, most things seem to make the teaching easier, but not effective. And yes, the multiple choice is used in the English exams. I joined in with the others in making it clear that we wanted decent exams that could help to expand the minds of the students beyond the multiple choice. All of the exams that I have set up to this point have been different to multiple choice. After we had been told that it could only be one week, I suggested that we would need to cancel the exams. As usual people looked at me as if I was suggesting the most stupid thing and could not be serious. The way I see it is that there are constraints that have to be met, and if I have to suggest something odd to get people to think more, then that is what I have to do. Arguing here is like talking to some managers - people have to make you compromise. Regardless of the idea. I have learnt that if we're at A and we need to be at B, then I have to at least argue for C or D, regardless of merit, and the fact that there is no argument in reply other than 'it cannot be changed'.

We have managed to hire another member of staff for computing. Unfortunately out of the six that could have come to interview, only two turned up. Of these two, one was clearly superior, and both myself and Ray decided that we should hire her immediately. The other candidate was not bad, but I think we need to see more before hiring for the second post. She started work this Friday and has been helping Ray to set up the large lab, although I cannot see us having the labs ready, or in fact anything ready.

A bit of fun I have had this week is throwing new students out of the lab. The new students are here early for some crash courses (or clash or crush depending on which habesha wants to tell you what the 'correct' word is) in maths. I put up a sign to say that new students should not be in the lab until they have permission to use the computers - they can't use them without a username and password anyway. Of course, they didn't read this sign, and I would find them in the lab. I am making use of the teaching mantra of better to go in hard early. I'm pretty sure that they know me as the 'bastard with the beard' - yes it's big and bushy still. I even let Ray share in the fun, I hung around outside and stared at the evicted students as she threw them out of the lab. After two days of this, I haven't seen a single new student in the lab. I have seen some hang around the door hesitantly and then think better of it. Of course, I don't intend to be mean to them for long, but it will make discipline easier for next year. Hopefully, the current students will explain to them that some were awarded scores of zero when the did not follow the instructions in their exams. I have just been brought a big plate of fresh popcorn. I am kind of hiding in my room, partly because I have had nowhere near enough cave time over the last month, and partly because the semi-finals of the Giardia world cup are happening at the moment. I'm not a good person to share a room with at the moment. There are definite advantages to sharing though.