It has been awhile. Things have been in motion and it has seemed very busy. It’s also [unsurprisingly] much more difficult to access internet from my new place than it was in Porto Novo. All the same, this post comes to you from my new house in rural Benin. I arrived here last Saturday and have been in the process of settling in since then.
The biggest news since last post: I am now an official Peace Corps Volunteer! (Sometimes I think about how much work I’ve gone through to get to this point, and then I remember that it’s all for a volunteer position and it does seem a little funny.) At any rate, our swearing-in ceremony was two weeks ago and went fairly well. It was a lot like graduation, in that all the work was done by the time the day rolled around and the actual ceremony involved a lot of speeches by middle-aged men with about two minutes of action for us: the act of raising our right hands and pledging to work towards the goals of the Constitution and things like that. It was a bit of a different oath than I was expecting, and we said it in English then in French. We took a cultural cue from the Beninese and coordinated our outfits for the day. I’ll try to get photos up soon, but for now, imagine this. For a lot of ceremonies here (especially in the cities where people can afford to do things like this), the people organizing the event choose a certain fabric (or tissu, as it’s called here) and everyone who will attend buys that tissu and gets their outfit made out of it. Then on the day of the ceremony, one sees a mass of people who are all dressed alike (people in meme tissu). So we did that–all the new health volunteers had meme tissu as did each of the other sectors–I’ll try to get photos up soon, but we’ll see how that goes with this internet that can barely even load this site. Anyway, the speech in Fon went fine; it wasn’t great, but people definitely did get a kick out of hearing us speaking the local languages (however badly).
And now here I am. I’m settling into the new environment as easily as I think could be expected. Of course there has been some culture shock and some adjustment that is definitely still occurring (living without electricity and without furniture presents some challenges; it’s a bit overwhelming to be suddenly immersed in an environment where everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand; plus it always takes a bit of time to orient oneself after a move) but overall I am quite pleased to be here. I think I will probably feel a bit more at home once I set up my house a little bit more, because right now it is just two rooms (three if you count the 3×4 foot room that is just the shower) with cement floors and all of my stuff sitting on the floor. My mosquito net is tied to the bars on the two windows in my bedroom and my mattress is on the floor tucked inside the net, so it’s not such a bad sleeping situation. I will get furniture eventually, it’s just that I opted to use my “settling in allowance” to buy things that are only available in big cities, namely a guitar and some fancy food items like oatmeal and peanut butter, in addition to the basic things that are necessary for everyday life (pots, pans, silverware, etc) so I’m waiting until we get our October living allowance to order furniture.
I am just in such a different world, though. Even though for me it feels like I’m living a bit of an ascetic life, I still feel like I have way more than the people around me. I have a gas stove while they cook on open fires; I have a suitcase full of clothes while many people seem to have only a few outfits; I have a mattress while others sleep on the floor or on a woven mat. And of course I have lots of shiny, special things that nobody here has, like this computer, my iPod, a bicycle that was built after the 80s, etc. Though some of those things stay hidden inside my house and nobody really knows I have them, I’m still pretty conscious of how different I am, in terms of status, I guess, from the people I’m going to be living with for the next two years. It really makes me wonder about the absurdity of it all–about the extremity of the disparities that exist in this world. But that is a subject for another post.
Even though I am face to face with a lot of difficult issues, in a selfish and simple way, I have to say that my life is pretty awesome right now. My days generally start early, when I wake up to the rooster crowing right outside my window. If it’s still dark out, I ask him to wait a bit (rooster snooze alarm–the next big thing) and when he wakes me up again and I can see the sun, I get up. Then I head out my gate onto the main road that runs through the village and beyond for my morning run (which, since we’re being honest here, involves varying ratios of running to walking depending on the day and how hot it already is, etc). It’s an amazing way to start the day, feeling the orange-brown dirt under my feet, breathing in the clean, clear morning air (such a contrast from Porto Novo where the air was always filled with fumes and exhaust), seeing the green of the trees and the fields of crops, the blue sky, the mountain-like hills in the distance, and the road snaking down the hills in front of me with few other people on it. Eventually I decide it’s time to turn around and I head home, where I find the children who live in my concession, sitting either inside or outside the gate. They greet me with smiles and a few simple greetings in Fon (and they still get such a kick out of it when I respond correctly in Fon–it’s great. Sometimes each of 4 or 5 children will ask me the same thing just to hear me respond in their language). I go inside and take a cold bucket shower (just the right amount of refreshing after a run) and either get ready for work or for whatever else I might be doing that day. I do those things, walk home (undoubtedly stopping to greet about 10 people along the way), and make dinner (crouching on my floor over my stove for the moment, sometimes by the light of my lantern). I eat while sitting on my front stoop, watching the women who live in my concession make soy cheese (which I think is basically tofu and is really good) and the children play and chase the goats away when they inevitably wander through the gate. And when it gets dark, boy can I see stars. It is pretty incredible.
Work days seem to be shaping up to be M,T,Th,F and possibly Saturday from 8/9-12 and then 3-6 in the afternoon. I wasn’t sure about this whole “repose” [rest/break/like siesta] thing in the middle of the day, but I think I could get used to it. It’s so hot in those middle of the day hours that no one wants to be out doing things anyway and it gives me some extra daylight hours to read or write, both of which are possible but more difficult after dark. I’m keeping Wednesday open to go to the big market in the neighboring town, and once I get the hang of transportation, I hope to also be able to go pick up mail from the new address on those days. Work itself is still very much a learning process right now. I feel pretty limited in my usefulness by my lack of ability to communicate in Fon at the moment. But I think that will come, at least a little. And right now, I think a lot of the work is just being here and getting people accustomed to me and also for me to see how things work here and what the issues are that I could feasibly tackle.
And in my free time, I’m reading quite a bit, writing letters, cooking and baking (my neighbors and others seem to enjoy tasting the American things I make, which have actually turned out fairly well so far despite being baked in a makeshift Dutch oven–aka my large pot with an empty can inside and a small aluminum cake pan perched on top of the can, with the lid on the pot), playing guitar, and just sitting and enjoying the crazy life that I’m living right now.
There is so incredibly much to tell, but I suppose we have two years to examine the intricacies of this life together, so for today I am going to keep it simple and leave it at that. Sorry for the long absence from the blogosphere, but I think I’ll be able to post more regularly again from here on out. I’ve got the internet situation figured out; electricity to charge my computer is the limiting element in this equation now. But I’m already starting to see that quite a few generators exist in this town, so I bet in time I’ll figure out how to utilize those resources to stay connected to the world. In the meantime, my address is in the previous post–if you write me I’ll write you back! Hope all is well, everybody. Peace and love from Africa…