Qu’est-ce que c’est le Benin?

Or roughly translated: “What is Benin?” or “Talk to me about Benin.”

I learned the qu’est que c’est que sentence structure in preparation for one of our language tests, because there is always a section at the end where the testers ask you if you have any questions for them.  I like this structure because it asks a very open-ended question and gives the person on the other side of it the freedom to tell you whatever they find to be the most important things about the topic.

As I’ve been getting to know Porto Novo and Benin these past couple of months, this question has really been on my mind: What IS Benin?  I’ve been living here for awhile, and yet I still don’t quite understand this place.  And as I think about what I want to write about it here, I have trouble putting different aspects of life into the “boxes” that we all use to make sense of the world.  For instance, I read before I came that Benin is one of the least developed countries in the world and I learned some troubling statistics about malnutrition, illness and education here.  However, when I look around, I see people who seem to have enough to eat, who don’t seem to be crippled by illness, I see boys and girls who attend school even in the summer to advance their studies.  When we did our baby weighing activity in a nearby village, only one out of maybe fifty or so babies was at all underweight.  However, then I also think about the fact that as soon as one leaves the handful of main roads in Porto Novo, the terrain turns to dirt roads in such poor condition that they are sometimes challenging to drive on, and about the goats and chickens that I see eating trash around the city, and the children that I see out begging on the street; I ask myself if I would ever see these things in Washington, D.C., and of course the answer is no.  (Though, to be fair, there are things happening in DC that are just as severe as the things I have seen so far here; it’s just that they are different types of things and perhaps they are better hidden from the casual observer.)

So at any rate, I decided that the best thing to do for this week’s post would be to put together a list of brief statements about what Benin (at this point, mostly Porto Novo) is to me, based on what I have observed and experienced so far.  These are by and large still first impressions and will probably change, but it’s kind of fun to put together anyway.  Also, if there are things that I write here that you would like to hear more about, please let me know and I will expand upon them in subsequent posts.  It’s hard to gauge what would be interesting for you all, so I would love feedback if you have it.  So here it goes.

Benin is….

+A country in Africa
+Not remotely similar to the United States in most visible ways
+Similar in some ways to other African countries that I have visited

In Benin, one sees…
+Women sweeping the dirt off the street every morning even though it will settle right back on in a matter of minutes
+Laundry hanging off of balconies or on lines outside of homes
+Men holding hands with other men, and women holding hands with other women, but it doesn’t signify anything romantic, just that they are friends or they are going somewhere together
+Gas stations that are completely empty while zemi drivers fill their tanks at gaz-oil stands down the street
+Exhaust spewing out from the tailpipes of many motorcycles, cars, and trucks driving down the highway
+Taxis filled far past their intended capacity with people, luggage, and livestock
+People wearing clothing that would be considered outrageously quirky in the United States (lots of bright colors and really wacky patterns–like spaceships, chickens laying eggs, computers, dollar bills, and more–usually both in the same fabric) without people thinking anything of it.
+Far more traditional clothing than western-style clothing
+Televisions turned on for most hours of the day in households that can afford them
+Men urinating on the side of the road into piles of trash or bushes
+Women who change their hairdo completely every few weeks or month, because they keep their real hair quite short and get “weave” braided in by the hairdresser (I didn’t realize how much I identified people by their hair until I was having so much trouble recognizing people when they changed their hair style)
+Most places of residence hidden behind some sort of wall or gate, but people rarely spending their free time inside their house
+Women walking around and riding zemis with babies tied to their backs
+Food and other items being sold off of huge platters carried on the heads of walking women (who are sometimes also carrying said babies on their backs)
+People who can dance really well
+People balancing all sorts of improbable things on the backs of motorcycles–sometimes up to four people, couches, refrigerators, mattresses, etc

In Benin, one hears…
+Many different languages that are not English
+People joking and laughing a lot
+The sound of horns honking nearly constantly as drivers signal to others that they are nearby and trying to pass
+The occasional American song that people listen to without having the slightest idea what the songs mean (my favorite example is my host mom’s nephew who loves to listen to and sing along with the Aqua song, “Barbie Girl.”)
+People greeting you as you pass and vendors calling out or making smooching noises to invite you over to see their wares (I am still trying to figure out if the smooching thing is impolite, but I think it is not considered so here)
+If you are a foreigner, you hear the yovo song and people yelling “yovo!”
+Music blasting from storefronts where music or sometimes cell phones are sold
+The Call to Prayer ringing out from the mosques five times a day
+Rain pounding on tin roofs that makes even a mild rain storm sound like a tropical storm
+The squeaking of the FanMilk horn (the type of horn that one might put on a child’s bike in the states), which signals that the FanMilk guy is walking down your street, pushing a cart that is insulated well enough to keep hundreds of small packets of ice cream cold even under the hot African sun.  This is the Beninese version of the ice cream truck, except that it’s socially acceptable for grown people to buy ice cream from this guy.

In Benin, one eats…
+A dish called “pate” [pronounced like ‘pot’], which is essentially corn flour that has been boiled into a mashed-potato like consistency.  This is the main dish in the southern region of Benin (compare to matooke in Uganda–same position as the favored dish, same composition of 100% carbs, same bland taste, same contribution to malnutrition in children because it fills their stomach so much while giving so few nutrients)
+Pate rouge (red pate), which is similar to above, but with more taste (and I think a significant amount of red palm oil)
+A sauce made of tomatoes and onions and oil that can be put on almost any dish
+An absurd amount of white bread baguettes, which are really cheap and sold everywhere
+Rice, beans (though usually not those two together, which is unfortunate in my opinion), a sauce made of chickpeas, a lot of fish, some chicken and goat, rarely beef or pork, and if one is vegetarian, a lot of wagassi (Beninese cheese) and hard boiled eggs
+Ground manioc flour, called gari (this is often eaten with beans)
+A lot of fried foods (fried dough of various sorts to make donut-like snacks, fried bananas, fried omelettes, french fries, etc)
+Something called yam pile (yam pee-lay) which is some type of pounded yam thing that is presented in a fat disk shape that looks the way the dough for a small loaf of bread looks when you are done kneading it.  This eaten with one’s hands and dipped in a spicy peanut sauce with either meat or wagassi.  Probably one of my favorite Beninese foods, and rumoured to be very popular in the Collines, where I will be posted.
+A porridge-type food called “bouille,” which can be made out of many different types of flour, but I think the millet flour type is best.  They often feed this to babies but adults can also eat it for breakfast.
+Lots of good fruits–fresh pineapples, avocados, bananas, oranges, coconuts (is that a fruit? Maybe not), and when the season comes, mangoes!

This is getting pretty lengthy now, so I’m going to stop, though I feel like I could probably go on quite a bit more.  This is going to be an exciting week for me, because tomorrow we each get to meet our work partner and supervisor, who are traveling to Porto Novo for a couple of days to attend this trainee/counterpart conference (I think the conference will basically answer the questions “What is a Peace Corps Volunteer?” “What do they do?” and “how should you treat them/what do they require?”).  Then after the workshop concludes, we will travel with them back to our posts and stay there for 3-4 days.  I’ll be staying with a host family for the post visit, but I’ll see my house, my places of work, and start to meet people around town.  I’m super excited, a bit nervous, and generally can’t wait!  Wish me luck, and I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Peace and love!

With dreams of lattes dancing through her head

You know how Wednesday is often one of the hardest days of the week?  Monday is hard in its own way, but at least you’re coming off of the weekend so you’re kind of recharged.  Wednesday, however, is sandwiched there in the middle of Tuesday and Thursday with the last weekend fading from your memory and the next weekend seemingly far in the distance.  It’s the “hump day”–Wednesday often feels very long, but once you get through it, the remainder of the week goes much more easily.  I feel like I’m on the Wednesday of training right now.  I’m at the point where being here isn’t as new and exciting as it was at first, but I also still have a month until I move to my posts, so I’m just stuck here trying to get through the middle of the metaphorical week.

This Wednesday feeling has brought a bit of minor homesickness.  Today is a cloudy, humid day and I woke up thinking that it would be the perfect day to go chill out at a cafe and drink some coffee and/or a smoothie (smoothies are definitely the thing I miss most at this point) while reading a good book.  Unfortunately, as you might guess, there are no cafes of that sort in Porto Novo.  Obviously I know this but I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of wanting to go to one.  Isn’t that strange?  What a random thing to miss so strongly.  Overall I am really enjoying living here, but it’s little things that I miss.

It’s also a bit tough because I know that Porto Novo isn’t going to be my long-term home.  On the one hand, I want to meet people who live near me and build relationships and train the children to call me by name instead of screaming “yovo” every time I pass, but on the other hand, it takes time and effort to do that, and that’s a lot of energy to expend when I know I’m just going to have to do the same thing again in my new village next month.  I am starting to get to know the city a bit better, though, and I’m finding that I kind of like it once I get off the main roads.  Walking around the neighborhoods where people actually live is like being able to feel the pulse of a city, and I like getting to know the area in an intimate way like that.  It also feels like people are a bit more calm as one moves away from the downtown area, which I think bodes well for what the smaller towns/villages will be like.

I’ve switched from my Tuesday blog day because I found a superior internet cafe pretty near my house.  But I’ve still been using the internet less lately than I did at the beginning of stage.  I just feel like every time I get online, I become so frustrated with the things I can’t accomplish that it isn’t really worth it.  So I’m shifting to a more complete reliance on snail mail (though I’m obviously still going to update the blog).  Mail delivery has not necessarily been the most reliable thing, but I have also gotten some letters ridiculously quickly (9 calendar days from postmark in the US to my hands–not bad at all!).  I’m not sure how fast mail is traveling from me to the states, but I’ve heard that it’s arriving eventually.

As far as cultural integration goes, I’m still working on parts of that.  I walked out of our house today to find my host mom in the process of cutting up two goats’ heads to use in a stew.  This reminded me of how glad I am that I don’t eat meat.  At times I consider abandoning the vegetarian thing when I move to my village for the sake of integrating better, but after that little experience today I’m not feeling so excited about that idea after all.  It’s cool and a good use of resources that they use all parts of the animal so fully (and my host mom says that people here consider the stuff that we don’t eat to be the best parts of the animal), but I’m just a bit grossed out by it.  Which I guess is probably partially due to the fact that it’s new for me to be seeing the meat-getting process so up close and personal.  This isn’t unique to me, since in the states even if one eats meat, there’s a good chance that one will never see the meat in the actual form of a dead animal because it will be purchased already packaged or possibly prepared.  I have a feeling I’m going to be getting a lot more familiar with this stuff as my time here goes on, though.

Anyway, not a ton else to report so I’m going to keep this post short.  This coming week we get to visit a health center and weigh babies as part of our training.  I’m pretty excited about that.  Baby weighings are a really simple way to catch malnutrition in the early stages and intervene to save lives, so we’ll actually be doing something useful as well as getting to hang out with a bunch of cute babies.  Excellent!  So, hope all is well.  Peace and love until next time:)

The next two years of my life

Well, the big day finally came! On Friday, all fifty four of us received our post assignments:) They were announced one by one and as our names were called, we each stepped forward and found the name of our town on a massive map of Benin that the staff had drawn in chalk on the cement floor of the classroom. It was quite suspenseful–sort of reminiscent of being assigned to cabins at summer camp or of being picked for gym teams (even though there was nothing wrong with being last this time, one still got a little nervous as the crowd of waiting trainees got smaller, thinking “what if they placed everyone else and just forgot about me?”). But heureusement (happily), we all had a spot on the map. I’m quite pleased with my post, given what I know of it. Without putting my exact location out there on the internet, here are the basics:
+I will be in the Collines region of Benin–sort of the middleish of the country, and widely rumoured to be one of the most beautiful parts with rolling hills that might or might not be mountains, depending on one’s definition of mountain.
+My town has about 3,500 people, which is on the smaller side but not tiny
+My house has three rooms and no electricity
+Several of my friends from stage are also going to be in the Collines region, so we can probably see each other fairly frequently (and one of them has electricity in her house, so I should be able to charge things there when I visit)
+My water source is located 20 meters from my house, but I don’t know what kind of a source it is. We will find out in a few weeks when I visit my post.
+I have a private latrine somewhere either in our outside of my house (this is one of the things that PC Benin requires in all its posts–everyone has a “toilet” of his or her own)
+I will be working with both the local health center (centre de sante) in my town, as well as with an NGO in a neighboring town
+My Beninese counterpart (the person with whom I’ve been assigned to work) has been doing community health work for almost as long as I have been alive
+The closest large town to my post has a weekly market that is apparently the largest in Benin and is well-known for vegetables (excellent news for a vegetarian, especially in a country where I have been told that many volunteers can only find tomatoes and onions at their markets)
+I will be the first PCV in this village, which means that my life is going to be more difficult in some ways (i.e., I will have to get my own furniture made because I will not inherit it from my predecessor, people will not be used to having someone around doing the kinds of things I’ll be doing) but I think it’s pretty exciting to be the first one
+It sounds like I will have a lot of freedom in terms of finding and selecting projects, but it looks pretty similar to what I expected–a lot of work with mothers and children, working on nutrition, malaria, HIV/AIDS, immunizations, sanitation, etc.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Like I said, I am pretty content with it. I think our supervisor worked really hard to try to give everyone the type of post that they wanted, and he did an amazing job for me. I wanted a small town, not in the southern part of the country (weather is better, meaning less humid, a bit farther from the coast. Though my info sheet about my post said that region has some of the most extreme temperatures–so I guess I need to prepare for some serious heat). I would have been fine with being placed farther north, but I kind of think my location is perfect because it is far enough from the coast not to be in the weather zone that I dislike, yet it is still close enough that if I was very sick I could get to the PC doctor in Cotonou fairly easily (from what I’ve heard, it’s probably about six hours from my town). Even though Benin is a fairly small country, some people in the north will have journeys of nearly 24 hours between their posts and Cotonou because the roads are largely unpaved and in disrepair.

I’m still adjusting a bit to the idea of not having electricity. Given what I saw on my de-mystification weekend and what other volunteers had said, I had been thinking it was somewhat likely that I would end up with electricity at post. So when I read the part on my info sheet that asked “Is the village electrified?” and the answer was “no,” I was a bit surprised. I’m sure I will adjust and on the plus side, life will be much simpler and much cheaper. But we may have to adjust this weekly blog post agreement. Bi-weekly or monthly seems a bit more likely. Though once I get settled into life in my village, I will probably have less to write about anyway. The good news is, this means that communicating by mail is actually going to make sense! I’m so excited. I was talking to a current PCV who lives in a nearby town, and she said she has found it more efficient to rent a post office box in her town than to have people continue to send things to the Peace Corps address, so my friend and I are looking into doing that. I’ll keep you posted (ha, posted!) but anything sent to the PC address should still make its way to me eventually. It will just be a bit slower once I get to post, and considering how slow it has been even during stage, this concerns me a bit. Which is why I’m considering the other option. But we will see.

That’s really the big news for the week. In other news: 1)Training continues to go on. I think we have passed the halfway point now, which is great news. 2)Independence day turned out to be less of a big deal than I thought it was going to be. Even though the preparations for the holiday were a big story on the news for weeks, it turns out that most Beninese people seem to celebrate the holiday by staying home and taking a nap. At least that’s the consensus that the other trainees and I came to while we were sitting at the buvette (pub/bar) where we had all congregated because our families weren’t doing anything that day. 3)I survived my first encounter with food poisoning this weekend, which of course wasn’t fun, but I’ve come out the other side still swinging, so that’s what matters. 4)Ramadan also continues, and along with it, much prayer. In addition to the customary calls to prayer that happen five times every day (though sometimes I am sure it’s more), there is a new call that occurs around 4am every day now, to wake people up so that they can eat before the sun rises. While I don’t love being awoken at 4am every day, I’m sure it’s much more difficult to go the entire day without eating, so I’m certainly not going to complain.

In conclusion: SO EXCITED ABOUT MY POST. Life is good, friends. We get to visit in a few weeks to see our house, meet people, and get acquainted with our village. I cannot wait. Hope all is well with you! Peace and love!!