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:)