So there is this French phrase used frequently here that drives me crazy.  It is only two words: “la-bas,” [pronounced ‘lah bah’] which means roughly “over there,” and can be used to describe almost anything.  Its meaning differs in a variety of situations to mean across the room [is that your water bottle over there?], across town [oh sure, the post office is over there], across the world [what is food like over there in the US?], or any number of things in between.  It is maddening in its vagueness.  When someone describes something as “la-bas,” it doesn’t give you any helpful information about the thing in question.  It’s great to use if you want to be vague yourself (such as when a man you’ve met on the street is asking where you live–then “over there” is a great answer) but I’m usually on the receiving end of the phrase.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week because post announcements are on Friday, and “la-bas” is a very fitting way to describe where we will all be in a couple months.  Not here, but somewhere over there.

I am super excited to find out where my post will be.  It sounds like we will get quite a bit of information when the announcements are made.  I will find out where in the country I’ll be living, what my electricity and water situation is going to be, what type of organization I will be paired with, and what my primary work project will be.  I will also be seeing which other trainees/volunteers are going to be located nearby.  A lot of people are anxious about that aspect of it, since by default your neighbors will be some of the people you see the most.  (As one volunteer phrased it, “Peace Corps kind of chooses your friends for you.”)  I still feel like I like all the people in our stage, so I’m not terribly worried about this.  I’m actually not worried about post announcements in general–just excited.  I know there is good work to be done in all of these places, and I don’t really know enough about the different regions of Benin to have a geographical preference.  There are pros and cons to each one, as with most things in life.  I do think I will feel a bit more settled once I know where I can plan on going, though.  It will be nice to know whether I should prepare to have electricity or not, what the weather will be like so I can buy appropriate clothes, and how far I will be from the bigger cities, so I know how much I should stock up on things that one can only buy there.  So I am waiting.  But not for much longer!

In other news, we started technical training last week, which was a very welcome addition to language training.  We got an overview of the health system and health issues in Benin and visited a health center just outside of Porto Novo.  The health center was pretty similar to health centers that I saw in Uganda.  I was less shocked by it than I was by them, but I’m not sure if that’s because the conditions were less harsh or if I am just a little used to seeing things like that.  Certainly it was nothing like a doctor’s office or hospital in the US.  But also it did not seem overly crowded or terribly understaffed.  Though there is only one doctor working at that center, which serves a population of (I think) about 12,000 people.  Nurses and their aides apparently take on a lot of the work here.  At any rate, I’m psyched to be delving into the health stuff, and even the small amount of training has been helpful to get ideas flowing about possible projects that I might take on once I get to post.

Tomorrow (August 1st) is Benin’s Independence Day.  We get out of training early in order to be able to participate in the festivities.  I’m not sure what I’ll be doing yet, but I hear that people generally have parties and there might be a parade.  So sounds like a fun day.  And it’s exciting to get to be here to celebrate with people, because it’s really a big deal.  Benin only got its independence in 1960, so it is still young and every birthday is exciting.  Tomorrow is also the first day of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, which is relevant for me because I realized several weeks ago that my host family is Muslim (which definitely explains why they did not try to take me to church on Sunday!).  I don’t know how observant they are, so I’m not sure if they’ll be fasting during the day as others will be, but I gather that they will be doing something.  And at the end of Ramadan (mid-September, I think the 13th?), there will be a big party.  I’m glad I was placed with a Muslim family, because I don’t know a whole lot about Islam and I think it’s a great opportunity to learn.  So I am looking forward to seeing the changes that take place in my family and across the community starting tomorrow.

Until next time, take care!

Benin: Week 3.5

Greetings, world. How is everything going? For me, this week has been an improvement over the previous one. I think I’m settling into life in Porto Novo a little bit, and while I’m still ridiculously impatient to get to my post and start actually working, I’m enjoying this phase a little more than I was before. Partially this change in mood is because I’m gaining some independence. I’m starting to figure out how things work, and I’ve been able to do some of the things I want to do by myself, without help from others. I made my first trip to the post office on Wednesday, which was highly exciting (keep the mail coming, by the way–I’m writing back, it just might take awhile to get to you!). I also successfully found the marche (market) over the weekend with some of my friends and bought my first Beninese fabric, which I’m having made into some clothes. My host mom says I got a fair price for the fabric, so I’m pretty proud of myself for that purchase. I also borrowed a guitar from another trainee to use for the rest of staging, until we’re back in Cotonou and I can buy my own guitar, so I’ve been playing some music, which is always a good thing in life.

Aside from that, life kind of goes along as it has been, so I don’t have much interesting news. As I was thinking about what I was going to write for this blog, I realized I that I hadn’t really described Benin at all yet, so I’m going to attempt to do that so you can get a better idea of the context in which I’m talking about things. I will take some photos eventually, but I’m holding off a bit because I don’t really have a good feel for where it’s ok to take photos and where it’s not. We were warned that some people here hold the belief that taking someone’s photo is akin to stealing their soul, and also that people may demand money from you if they think they were captured in your photo without their permission, so I’m treading lightly around photography involving or in the vicinity of people…which is basically everywhere. So for now, pictures with words (disclaimer: descriptive writing has never been my strong suit, so please forgive me if it’s bad…)

Let’s see, I guess I’ll start with the place where I live, and I’ll work my way elsewhere. For most intents and purposes, my host family lives in a single story, two bedroom, western-style house. However, from the outside, the building looks like it could be an unfinished apartment building or a duplex, with one apartment on each floor (except that the second floor is still being built and thus is vacant). This is kind of a trend in Benin–unfinished buildings of many sorts. It has been explained to me (though I forget by whom) that this is probably due (in a roundabout way) to the cultural norm in Benin that one rarely says “no” to a request, especially by one’s friends or family. So for example, if I am saving up my extra money to build a house and then your brother breaks his leg and you ask me for money to help cover the medical bills, I basically have to give it to you. So my strategy becomes then, instead of saving up and building my house all at once, as soon as I get any extra money, I will go buy some building materials and put them in my yard. Then I will gradually buy more, and eventually I’ll build my house. Then when I am asked for money, I won’t have any to give (though it also means that if my brother breaks his leg, I won’t have any money to cover it and will have to ask others for help. Basically, saving culture doesn’t exist here, which I believe is something that the business PC volunteers work on). So I suspect that this is the type of thing that is going on with my host family’s house, but at any rate that was a bit of a tangent. The house is surrounded by a 6-ish foot stone wall with a gate, through which we come and go, and which is locked from the inside at night. The floor throughout the house is tiled, and the walls are cement that has been painted what was once white or off-white but now is more yellow/brown from all the dust, I suppose. There are two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a front porch where I like to sit and read, write letters, or occasionally eat my meals.

I have my own room (which I feel a bit bad about because everyone else in my family sleeps in the other bedroom together, leading me to suspect that I probably took someone’s room) which is slightly smaller than my dorm room at Tufts last year. The room’s main features are: a door that can be locked from both sides, a bed, my mosquito net, the plastic table and one chair that PC provides us with, my water filter (also provided by PC) and my bike. It’s a nice room, and it has a big window, which allows for great air-flow when I have the door open and also lets me wake up to the sound of either the neighbor’s rooster crowing or the first call to prayer ringing out from a nearby mosque. It’s so cool–I rarely need my alarm clock anymore because I’m almost always awake before it goes off at 6:30. I have never been an early riser, and though I’m still not what one would call a morning person, it’s really nice to wake up gently to the sounds of life and not be hitting the snooze button over and over.

Outside the gates of my house, there are a few palm trees. One thing that you notice about palm trees after you get over the novelty of them is that they occasionally drop massive coconuts which hit the ground with alarming velocity and little warning. It’s kind of terrifying to walk near them. There is a small dirt road that branches off a larger dirt road and leads to our house; it loops around and passes the houses of some of my family’s friends before it hits the larger dirt road again. Both of these roads flood pretty significantly when it rains, and they resemble rivers more than roads during big storms. There is also trash on the ground in most places here because there isn’t really a waste management system. There are no public trash cans, so people generally throw their trash on the ground when they are out and about. And waste from the home is burned in small trash piles every so often, giving the air a frequent scent of fire and burning. Recycling has become a distant memory as plastic burns with the rest of the trash and releases toxins into the air every day. I guess trash management is something that PC’s environmental volunteers work on sometimes, but I get the feeling that it may be considered too large a problem to be tackled by a single volunteer.

The main road near my house, which takes me to school every day, is paved in a cobblestone sort of a way. It’s not the smoothest thing to ride a bike over, but it’s definitely more even than the dirt roads, which put my small amount of mountain biking experience to work. The roads are lined with small businesses, which generally don’t exist in what we think of as stores, but are more along the lines of street vendors that sell out of carts or set up their wares on a blanket on the side of the road. The most frequent type of vendor (and most interesting, in my opinion) is that of what is consistently labeled “gaz-oil.” These are men who sell contraband gasoline that has been smuggled across the Nigerian border. This gasoline is unregulated and unrefined and is probably responsible for a lot of the smog that clogs the air of the city during the busy hours of the weekdays, but it looks really cool in the huge glass gourds in which they store it. I don’t know if the glass is tinted or if the oil is a kind of yellowish/green, but the color is especially striking at night when the vendors set glow sticks or lights of some sort behind each gourd, making the oil glow with a neon green light. I’ve seen very few actual gas stations, which I guess are regulated by the government and are more expensive than the guys on the side of the road, and it seems like the gaz-oil business is big here. It’s also a way in which people re-use plastic and glass containers from other things, so even though recycling is unknown, the re-use part of the recycle triangle is done really well here.

So there are a few of the sights and smells around Porto Novo. I’ll close with one of the sounds that I’m becoming very familiar with: the yovo song. This is something that small children, older children, and even some adults find to be the best way to greet a foreigner who is passing by. It’s a song/chant that goes like this:
“Yovo! Yovo! Bon soir!
Ca va bien, mer-ci!
Et chez vous?”
Which translates roughly to “White person! White person! Good afternoon! (Though this lyric does not change if they happen to be singing it in the morning, and I think it contributes to the phenomenon that a large percentage of people tend to say “bon soir” to me even when it’s not the afternoon.) It goes well, thank you. And for you?” And it can be sung over and over and over a surprising amount of times in the amount of time it takes to ride one’s bike past a group of children. It’s a little more intense than the simple yelling of “mzungu! mzungu!” that I was used to in Uganda, and it’s in danger of becoming the soundtrack to my life here.

Anyhow, that is more than enough for now. All the best until next week!

An exercise in patience

To begin, a quick recap of some of the more interesting lessons I have learned (or re-learned) since arriving here:
+Not knowing what is going on or why certain things are happening is part and parcel of this game; being OK with that is a survival skill.
+Do not count on being able to wear any part of the same outfit two days in a row when packing for a trip. Rain starts suddenly and heavily here, and you can be completely soaked through in less than a minute.
+Even melted American candy can be sold for a decent price to other volunteers in culture shock (that sounds mean, but we bargained and I think she ended up with a fair price).
+Peanut M&Ms are one of the best candies to pack, because they do not melt or explode
+Getting mail is even more exciting here than in the States (I know, I was surprised too. I didn’t realize another level of excitement existed, but it does!)
+Mosquito bites on your feet are by far the itchiest, and even heavy duty DEET bugspray will not protect you if you insist on kicking your feet against your mosquito net when you sleep.
+Nothing wakes you up in the morning like dumping a bucket of cold water on your head.
+Buying your lunch from some lady scooping food out of a cooler on the street is less sketchy than it sounds.
+No matter how far you walk in search of lunch, you will find basically the same thing everywhere: rice or pate with spicy sauce and fish or hard boiled eggs.
+Frozen things do exist here! (They did not in Uganda for the most part, so this is a pleasant surprise.) A great popsicle-like treat can be bought for about 20 cents and is widely available in the city.
+Three things cross cultural and linguistic boundaries with great ease: Disney movies, soap operas, and sports.
+Never, under any circumstances, do all of your laundry at the same time.
+More to come as I learn more…

So I think Tuesday is going to be my blogging day for awhile. Internet cafes are more difficult to come by than one would expect in the capital. But on Tuesdays, we have training at this interesting place that is like a mini village within Porto Novo. They are doing all sorts of cool things with organic farming and different methods of raising livestock as well as some other things that I haven’t figured out yet. And they have an internet cafe! [Albeit a very slow one…I tried for almost half an hour to post my previous blog and was about to give up when I finally succeeded. Very frustrating.]

Frustration is a bit of a theme in my life right now, unfortunately. It’s mixed with other, more positive themes, but all the same it exists. I had a bit of a debate with myself about whether I should include this in my blog, because I feel a bit like it’s too early in the game to be frustrated, but I feel like I have a rapport with my readers partially because I am honest about what I am doing and feeling, so I thought it needed to be mentioned. Things are generally going as well as could be expected for the first few weeks, I think. (Though it also feels like we have been here for far longer than 2.5 weeks.) I am making progress with my French, learning about the culture, getting along with my host family, and making friends. However, I guess I’m anxious to move on to the next phase. Peace Corps training seems to be very comprehensive. This is probably a good thing, especially for people who lack experience with travel or need a lot of structure, but I’m used to living a very independent life and I feel much like a child right now, as I go between my homestay (where I am limited in what I know how and am allowed to do) and training (where we are shuffled from activity to activity in a way that is a bit reminiscent of middle school). The PC staff here are amazing so far, and I’m appreciative of all the help, because it certainly is an adjustment to move to another country that is so different from what one is used to. But I came to Benin to help others, and the opportunity is so close, yet I can’t quite grasp it. Basically, I feel a lot like I am repeating my semester abroad. I’m doing a lot of learning and exactly zero things that are useful to other people. I know that it’s early and this may sound a bit ridiculous to you. I know that training is important and an effective program cannot just throw people into a community and expect them to do the right things. But on the other hand, I kind of want to know what the point was of the ridiculously long application process in which I showed how qualified I was if we were all going to start at the bottom of the training ladder anyway.

But that’s enough negative energy for the moment. It’s something I’m working through, and I know that in the big picture, two more months isn’t that long. It’s just that as you all know, I’ve been waiting for this for so long, telling myself that a year wasn’t that long, that six months wasn’t that long, that two months wasn’t that long…and now I’ve finally made it to the other side of that waiting game, and it turns out there is more waiting! I used to think that I was a pretty patient person, but I’ve come to realize that in some ways, I am really not. So I guess I’m working on that right now.

Last weekend we had a fun training experience, called “demystification,” that took us out of Porto Novo and into various smaller towns and villages throughout southern Benin so we could experience the real life of a PCV for a few days. (In addition to being an opportunity for us to get a better idea of what our placements might be like, this is also rumoured to be a technique that is used by PC to weed out the people who are not serious about going through with the commitment or are on the fence about changing their minds. Though as far as I know, we still haven’t had anyone decide to go home yet, so I guess people weren’t too shocked.) We were split into small groups and each group was assigned to a current volunteer working in the same sector. I was actually quite surprised at the high standard of living that my host volunteer had at her post; she had a very nice little house (2 bedrooms plus a bathroom) with running water and electricity! It was basically right off of the main road in a good sized town and she said she could get most things she wanted/needed without walking more than five-ish minutes. Honestly, the experience really threw off my mental image of what the next two years of my life are going to be like, because I was definitely envisioning a hut in the middle of a village without running water or electricity. From what I understand, that is still a possibility, and other host volunteers had living situations more similar to that than ours did, but I guess something more “modern”/urban also a possibility. Though interestingly, it looks like I will definitely have a house and not a hut, because the regulations for PC housing in Benin are different than those in other countries, where volunteers definitely do live in huts sometimes.

We’re getting our post assignments in a little over two weeks, and I don’t exactly know what I am hoping for. In much the same way that I felt about getting my country assignment for PC, I think I will be OK with whatever site I am given; I just would like to know so that I can start preparing mentally and otherwise. I guess I am hoping for something more rural than urban, because I feel like it will be easier to get to know my community if it is a small community rather than a large one. I’m very much on the fence about the electricity question, because on the one hand I want to live at a level similar to the people with which I am working, but on the other hand, it would be really nice to have electricity. Mostly, I would just like to be able to charge my computer and my phone on a regular basis, and I’m sure it would be awesome to have a fan that I could turn on when it gets hot. I can use my headlamp for light, and all of my other electronic gadgets can be charged off of my computer, if I can just charge my computer battery in some way. Whatever the situation, I’m sure I will figure out how to make it work. I’m just really curious to find out!

Yovo is the new mzungu

Yesterday I rode my mountain bike home from ‘school’ through the streets of Porto Novo, following a man on a motorcycle who was sent to pick me up, to chants of “Yovo! Yovo!” with my bright red rain poncho ballooning behind me and another trainee trying to follow me the whole time. Life in Benin is fun.

Things have been going well here. I moved in with my host family a few days ago, and after spending the first night basically staring at each other because I think they were convinced I was the most incompetent French speaker on the planet (not far from the truth) and because I am not one of those uber bubbly people who knows how to immediately put everyone at ease, things have been improving. I am spending most of my free time studying French from the five million books that PC gave us to use, playing with the small children who run around my house (and attempting to speak French to them, but if you’ve ever talked to a three year old in English, you know that they don’t enunciate very clearly, so I understand almost nothing that they say. And it’s a bit demoralizing when a three year old gets exasperated with how little you understand, haha!), and watching a lot of French television with my host family. And since training consists of almost exclusively French lessons right now, it’s not actually that surprising that my ability to carry on a conversation has improved after only a few days.

The training part of Peace Corps service (known as “stage”) is apparently one of the most difficult, and I can see why. You are living in a new place, with people who are basically strangers, and following a fairly rigorous training schedule. I think I’m fortunate to have already experienced a lot of the same kind of stuff in Uganda, though this is definitely a step up in terms of difficulty because of the language barrier. In Uganda, living with a host family was tough at first even though they spoke English, and I’m definitely experiencing some of the same challenges here. It’s funny how little you notice all of the things that go into living life every day when you’re familiar with the life you are living. (Does that make sense?) Like, even things such as “where do I put trash?” and “what do I do with my dishes after I finish eating?” are totally foreign when you’re living in someone else’s house. So it’s a bit of a struggle to figure all that stuff out. And the struggle is exacerbated when you don’t share a common language.

However, my host family is awesome! It’s both a small and a big family. Technically, my host mom only has two kids, but a ton of other people seem to live here sometimes and drop in at other times. The family is really laid back, which I like a lot. They eat dinner sitting on the couch or on the floor, my host mom doesn’t mind when I go out with my friends, and it seems that their idea of church is watching religious television on Sunday mornings (fine by me because the gospel people on TV repeat themselves a lot, which is very helpful for learning the language). It’s just a really chill atmosphere here, they have semi running water and electricity, and the house is pretty near the school where I am completing my training. It’s a 10-15 minute bike ride or a 5 minute zemi ride, depending on weather, traffic, etc. After pedaling furiously behind a motorcycle guide a few times, I am comfortable getting to and from school by myself, and I love being able to use my bike for the commute. At times, it’s a bit scary to ride on the street with the cars and the zemis and the uneven road and the occasional goat, but mostly it’s really fun. Porto Novo is actually a lot smaller than Cotonou, where we spent the first few days of training, and it has the feel of a small town rather than a large city.

I haven’t seen much of the city yet, so I can’t comment too much on it, since my experience is basically confined to the area around my house and around the school, and the small bit of road in between. As a general and premature observation, though, I would say that it seems like Benin is a bit more calm than Uganda. Certainly more calm than Kampala. Kampala was a very hectic city with many things going on all the time, and generally the people that I met were very high-energy. I don’t know how many of you have read the book “Eat, Pray, Love,” but in it, the author mentions a conversation about how people and cities each have a word that describes them. For instance, for New York City, she thought the verb would be “achieve;” in other instances, the the word might be a noun, like “mother.” You get the picture? At any rate, I have been thinking a lot since then about what Kampala’s word would be…I’m pretty sure it’s a verb, and I tend to think it is “SURVIVE!” With an intentional exclamation point because it is a powerful feeling. Everyone is trying so hard to get the next hundred shillings, to get on the next taxi, to sell the next airtime card…it feels as if everything hangs in the balance of the present moment. Have you ever had the feeling that if you can just get through the task at hand, then everything will be easier? Kampala feels like that to me, except it’s like that moment is repeating over and over and over again. Benin is not like that. (At least not so far–pas encore, as one would say here). It’s much more laid back. In fact, word has it that there is a siesta-like occurrence here from 12-3, called repeau. Schools and some businesses break at 12, go home and eat lunch/take a nap, and return at 3. Peace Corps apparently does not observe the repeau period, because we have training from 8-5, with a short lunch break in the middle. But that’s okay, because as Americans, we’re pretty used to having things to do all the time, and I’m already a little confused about what to do with all of my free time.

As for weather and food (the two things that people tend to ask about when you go somewhere new)…it’s the rainy season right now, so the weather has been really moderate. It actually hasn’t rained too much thus far (except for two days, when it poured basically all day), but it has been cloudy and humid. Not terribly hot, but probably between 70 and 80 each day? I’m totally guessing on the temperature; it’s just not something that people talk about here (or maybe they do, and I just don’t know the French words for it!). Food has been pretty tame so far. I was prepared to eat meat if necessary but it really seems like I won’t have to, at least not frequently. Frequently-seen foods for each meal have been as follows:
Breakfast: Oranges, bread, coffee
Lunch: Rice, onion sauce, this strange fried cheese called wagassi, sometimes hard boiled eggs
Dinner: Vegetables (onion, mushrooms, carrots, sometimes lettuce), pasta, oranges, the cheese again
The wagassi is something that I’ve been eating a lot of, because the Beninese are really conscious of the need for protein, and since I don’t eat meat, I get a substitute protein at most meals–either eggs or “cheese.” Apparently this cheese is made in northern Benin and may be made out of soy beans, but I am really unclear about that. It has the texture of tofu but it tastes more similar to cheese, and they call it cheese, so it’s a little mysterious. It’s not bad, though. They do seem to cook with a lot of oil here, particularly palm oil, which is terrible for you, so that is unfortunate. However, I haven’t actually seen a lot of Beninese dishes because my host mom has had a lot of other American volunteers in the past and she keeps feeding me somewhat American food. I had french fries with ketchup for dinner the other night (with vegetables and wagassi, so it did have a Beninese twist). It’s really nice that she is going through the trouble to make me food that she knows I will like, but all the same, I didn’t come to Benin to eat American food, and I really don’t miss American food yet. So today I asked her if sometime soon we could make “pate,” which I know to be a traditional Beninese dish (and from what I’ve heard, I think it is very similar to the posho that I ate in Uganda), and she said we will make it soon.

At any rate, this is getting pretty long and I don’t want to use up too much battery on my computer, so I’m going to stop writing now. Now I have to go look up the words to ask my host mom if she knows where an internet cafe is, how much it should cost, and how to get there. Wish me luck! Hope all is well at home:)