Diary entry: Will Hulme at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Limbé, Cameroon

Posted on March 27, 2018

RSS fellow teaching at AIMS Cameroon

A 24-hour learning environment

It’s late and I’m tired. A cluster of students are studying, wearily but resolutely, under the bright lights that illuminate the side of the rented hotel building in which they live and work. They have five hours of teaching the next day, including two short assessments (‘quizzes’), and two assignments due in three days.

Passing them as I head home at around 11pm, I ask if they plan to go to bed any time soon. They grin. One student, who recently recovered from a bout of malaria, dead-pans: ‘AIMS is a 24-hour learning environment; we don’t sleep’. She’s exaggerating. Though I later realise ‘a 24-hour learning environment’ is the de facto AIMS motto and it certainly reflects the prevailing mood tonight. ‘You tutors have it easy’, she continues, knowing that I’ve just spent the whole evening in my office marking assignments. I’m exaggerating. I spent ten minutes getting a snack from the bakery up the road.

It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the demands that my joint responsibilities of tutoring plus writing up my PhD would entail. It’s just that, before I left Manchester, I was fond of picturing the ‘extended writing retreat in tropical climate’ part of my upcoming adventure more than the ‘today’s afternoon lecture is extended until 6.30 and there will be an as-long-as-it-needs-to-be tutorial from 7.30 onwards’ part. I’ll admit, this disproportionality may have skewed my expectations.

Tonight is an unusually late finish but it’s normal to stay until around 9pm marking, or writing my thesis, or writing up teaching materials, perhaps after an evening tutorial. A knock on my office door might unexpectedly herald the start of an hour-long one-on-one, discussing anything from course materials and assignments to scholarship applications and careers in data science. This has recently involved trying to answer students’ questions about the Borel-Cantelli Lemma or Lebesgue integration in a manner that belies my own unfamiliarity with these topics. Though I usually get away with it, avoiding the kind of indignity and ridicule directed to many of my ill-prepared secondary school supply teachers, occasionally my mask of scholarly credibility slips.

A photo taken at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Limbé, Cameroon

For instance, I was recently scrawl-erase-scrawling a confused and imprecise non-explanation of different modes of convergence on an old blackboard when it became clear that my audience was lost. As they fired their questions at me, I turned from the board and raised my hands, stained surrender-white with chalk, to request a ceasefire. I sheepishly explained that, actually, medical statisticians tend not to use Measure-Theoretic Probability and I personally haven’t had to think about any of this stuff since my undergraduate days. The students were unsympathetic. Tonight, however, I think may have helped more than hindered and I’m pleased to end the day with a mild sense of accomplishment.

The short journey home is dark and quiet. It takes me past two of Limbé’s countless churches. Past the carwash, in essence a shin-high pool of murky water diverted from the Limbé river, that’s still being used after-hours. Past the wildlife centre, whose screeching chimps can be heard from my office. Past the two roadside shack-shops selling beer, plantain crisps, and other less essential items. Though it’s dry, the clouds towards Mount Cameroon are flashing spectacularly with lightning, fixing my eyes to the sky and making me stumble on the uneven, rocky ground.

Back at the tutors’ residence, I greet the security guard who’s sat outside on the swing watching videos on his phone. He’s dressed in the statutory bright yellow uniform that distinguishes him from the Gendarmerie and Police, who are occasionally targeted by Anglophone separatists (though not in Limbé, which has always felt peaceful and safe). The grounds have sugar cane and avocado, paw paw, cashew, plantain, and coconut trees. During the day, they’re sparsely decorated by assorted colourful songbirds, lizards, and what I guess are dragonflies. The building, either a big house or a small mansion, is clean and spacious though equipped only with the bare essentials – the nearest fridge is where the beer is sold around the corner.

I go up to my room, switch on the ceiling fan, check if the running water is back (no), check if my beard looks any less patchy (nope), and briefly consider a Duolingo session to practice my French (no way). It’s late and I’m tired. I go to bed.