Now the question is whether the internet is good enough to post this or not…

Greetings world!

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…


So, it’s September and for the first time in memory, this does not mean the beginning of a new school year for me.  Even though this marks a change from what I’ve known my whole life, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable and I don’t long for the familiarity of the school routine.  I continue to be very glad that I am done with school.  I recently was looking through past entries in my journal–those from the end of my senior year–and it reminded me of how little I enjoyed school by the end.  Those were the days of staying up way too late, sleeping far too little, trying to do much more than was feasible, and barely staying afloat in what was supposed to be my primary activity: being a student.  So though I miss the fall weather a bit–the crisp breeze and the changing leaves of the east coast–while I am living in what I expect to be a perpetual summer, I’m nonetheless immensely pleased that my life is different now.  Even though I still feel like a student in many ways, these days bring a lot less dread and anxiety than days in the recent past.  I feel a lot healthier, too.  I sleep more, exercise more, eat better, and rely less on caffeine to function.  And when I look at myself in the mirror as I’m brushing my teeth each morning, it’s nice to see a face that looks more human than zombie, with eyes that aren’t bloodshot or surrounded by dark circles, and skin that is pleasantly tanned and freckled instead of oddly pale.  So glad I decided to do Peace Corps instead of grad school!

September also means that training is almost over (thank goodness–i thought the end would never come).  In a little over a week, I’ll be swearing in as an official volunteer and moving to my village.  Though we’re not really supposed to start any projects in our first three months at post, I think I will still feel a lot more useful once I get there, as I’ll be able to start talking to people, assessing assets and needs, and doing small things to help around the health center.  I also look forward to being viewed as a professional who has expertise and is working instead of a “staigaire” [trainee] who is just learning.  I am excited to set my own agenda each day instead of being a slave to our training syllabus, and to do the things that I see as important and useful without being bound by what other people have decided I need to do.  In some ways, this training period has been more structured and controlling than anything I have experienced in recent memory.  We have classes every day from 8-4:30 (with recommended activities after classes many days, and a half day of training on Saturday) and undergo periodic assessments and evaluations by various people involved in the training process.  I suppose this is probably useful for a big organization like Peace Corps; they want to make sure that all of their volunteers have certain core capacities and knowledge of key subject areas–essentially they want to ensure that we are truly capable of carrying out the duties requested of us.

But I guess I am struggling with two main issues rooted in the training process.  The first is still that I feel like before I was even invited to serve in PC, I had to prove that I was competent in most of the things required for the work I’m going to do; yet once I got here I received comprehensive training as if I was starting from zero.  I acknowledge that well-trained personnel are important for any organization, and I know that some of the trainees came to Benin with far less experience in the health field than I have, so it’s good in that respect that the training has been so thorough.  But it’s frustrating, and ultimately not a good use of human and financial resources, for people who already have those skills and knowledge to have to sit through it again.  It seems to me that it would be more efficient to group the training classes by level of experience–people who need more training would be together, and people who need less or more refined training would be in a separate group.  The second thing is that to a certain degree, I am sure that some of these things simply will come with practice, and that it feels to me like it would be more productive for me to be learning through experience in my village instead of hanging out here and practicing for the sake of practicing.  Part of the reason that I feel so strongly about this second issue is because when one is going to be working with people, the only way to practice realistically is to practice with people.  And I am just not comfortable with using humans as test subjects for the purposes of my own learning, even if ostensibly I’m learning so that I can help others later.  For instance, one of the activities we will be undertaking as health volunteers is running “sensitizations” with different groups of people in and around our villages on different health topics (which is basically a fancy way of saying we’ll be giving mini health classes on relevant topics).  I’m looking forward to doing these in my village, once I figure out what people know and do not know, and what information is relevant and appropriate to present to each group.  However, as part of training, we have to give a practice sensitization tomorrow to a group of random people whom we have never met from a village that we have never been to.  These are real people who have lives and jobs and children and obligations, and we’re going to be taking their time to talk to them about things that we’re not even sure will be relevant to them, and then we will never see them again.  To me, this feels a lot like we are using them.  Though at least with this activity, unlike some of the similar things we have done in the past, the discussion that we’re going to be leading has the potential to benefit them if they don’t know a lot about our topic.  It just feels presumptuous to me to take a random group of grown adults and to assume that they don’t know about HIV or how to put on a condom.  I was trying to think of when a similar situation might exist in the U.S., and I really couldn’t think of anything where someone could get away with doing what we are going to do here.  I am going to do the activity, because it is a mandatory part of our training and it will probably be good practice, but I’m very glad that it is the last of activities like this, because the whole situation makes me very uncomfortable.

Anyway, life goes on pretty much as it has for the past two months.  As far as Fon goes, I have to really get down to business with studying more intensely, I think.  I’ve barely mastered the greetings (OK, actually I still haven’t mastered them, but at least I can usually remember them), but I recently found out that I will be giving part of a speech in this language during our swearing-in ceremony, which will be in front of 400 people and also televised.  Additionally, I have nowhere near a functional understanding of even the basics of the language.  It is so drastically different from English, French, or Spanish–simpler in some ways, but it’s hard to grasp onto because there are so few similarities between it and the way I think about language, if that makes sense.  I am thinking a lot about what I need to buy for my house to make it livable in the first few days, and my host mom said she is going to help me make some of those purchases.  It’s going to be a lot of work to furnish an entire house (even if it is small), but I”m pretty excited about it.  This will be the first time in my life that I will have had my own house and I think it’s going to be kind of fun to set it up and start living independently.

Oh, and I have a new mailing address!  Mail will still reach me if it is sent to the PC address, but I think I’ll be able to check this new one more frequently once I move to village.

B.P. 337
Savalou, Benin
Afrique de l’Ouest

Hope all is well on the homefront!  Until next time:)

C’est bon, no?

It’s funny, the past week was so full of interesting things, and yet I had so much trouble writing this post. (Which is the reason it is late, in addition to the fact that life has gotten a bit busier lately, so it’s harder to find time to go to the internet cafe….)

I returned on Sunday from a short trip to visit my future home in the Collines and now I am sitting in the living room of a very nice house in Porto Novo, writing this post as I watch all of the Harry Potter movies in French with my host family.  I guess my brain is a bit confused about what my life is really about right now.  The life I just glimpsed for a few days is so extremely different from what I’ve known for most of my twenty two years, and even from the way I’m living right now.  I’m having trouble processing the whole thing enough to distill it into something coherent that I can put here, but I’m going to try anyway…

Last Wednesday, I woke up way before the sun rose in order to get on an early bus heading “up country” with my future work partner (henceforth known as my homologue, because that’s the terminology that PC uses), a fatherly man whom I had met only two days before.  I think it took about seven hours for us to reach Glazoue, which is the closest large town to my village.  It’s not on the map that’s in the sidebar of the blog, but it’s about in the middle of Cotonou and Parakou, which are both shown there.  The road there was paved and not in great condition, but also not too terrible.  There were a few sections where there were an absurd amount of potholes, and the Beninese road builders seem to really enjoy putting small speed bumps in clusters in the road when it passes through a town, which is not my favorite thing (they’re small enough to slow the bus down a little, but mainly they just yield sort of a washboard effect), but generally I was pleasantly surprised with a smoother-than-expected and uneventful ride.

My future supervisor and a few other people were waiting for us when we disembarked from the bus, and they took me out to lunch at a restaurant down the road, which was a relief because I was a bit worried that my homologue would take me straight to his house, where his wife would have prepared some fancy meal featuring many different types of meat which I would be obligated to eat because not eating it would be terribly offensive.  So we were able to broach the subject of vegetarianism in a place where there was no danger of hurting anyone’s feelings, and that worked out well.  They were a bit disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to feed me bush meat, which my homologue informed me is quite good, but I think they’ll get over it.

Here commences one of the themes of the visit: eating a ridiculous amount of local food with my hands.  It’s an acquired skill to eat things of a consistency similar to mashed potatoes and gravy without the aid of silverware, but after this week I feel like I’m a lot better at it.  I finally got to try most of the Beninese foods that I hadn’t eaten yet (due to my host mom’s continued habit of making American-style food for me at most meals, and dutifully shielding me from the Beninese foods that Americans don’t tend to like) and I actually didn’t run into any dishes that I truly disliked.  I wouldn’t necessarily choose to eat some of these things on a daily basis, but all of them were fine in moderation.  Of course, I didn’t quite have the luxury of eating anything in moderation, because my hosts felt very strongly that I should eat A LOT.  This is a cultural thing that I suppose stems from the fact that malnutrition is still a problem here and food is not always available, so when it is there, it’s probably good for them to eat a lot.  Also, I gather that it is seen as prestigious to be able to afford to prepare certain foods/a large amount of food, so they were probably acting on cultural norms that are in place to honor guests.  And I know enough to realize that it’s important to people to know that you like the food that they’ve made for you, and the way to show this is to eat a good amount of it.  However, I am not in fact a malnourished Beninese child, nor am I accustomed to eating that amount of starch/carbohydrates at one time, so I felt very cumulatively full, and like I must have gained at least five pounds by the time I left.  As my friend put it after the visit was over, “It’s the surprise meals that get you….You eat a big dinner at 7:30, and then they come around with more food at maybe 9:30, and expect you to eat again.”   And they were always so surprised when I said “but I just ate; I’m not hungry,” as if they hadn’t been sitting there piling more and more food onto my plate two hours before.  It was pretty hilarious, if kind of frustrating at some moments.  I got very tired of hearing the phrases “il faut manger” [one must eat] and “tu manges petit; je ne suis pas content” [you eat little; I’m not happy], especially because, as I continually pointed out to them, I was in fact en train de [in the process of] eating a lot every time they said those things.

Anyway, I got a bit ahead of myself with that section on food.  After we had lunch in town, I got on the back of my supervisor’s motorcycle (a bit of a challenge in a skirt–I’m still working on doing that gracefully) and we rode for about 40 minutes through the countryside to get to our town/village (henceforth referred to as “my village,” though it may be large enough to be considered a town…it feels like a village to me, so I am going to use that terminology for now).  The landscape on the way was so beautiful, and not quite like anything I’ve really seen before.  The best word to describe it is “green.”  So many different shades of green–bright green, dark green, yellow-green–as far as the eye can see.  The name of the region, Collines, means “hills” in French, and that is indeed a fitting name, as it is the land of rolling hills.  (Definitely not mountains, to clarify from a few posts prior to this.  Small hills, that I’m sure will seem much bigger when I’m trying to ride my bike up them, and a few large rock monuments that are sort of similar to Castle Rock-type things in Colorado.)  We passed by field after field of crops of different sorts, as well as fields that looked natural, with short-ish, broadly branching trees interspersed throughout.  And at some points, one could see mountain-like ridges in the distance.  I don’t quite have the words to adequately describe what it looks like, but when I move in, I am going to take my camera out to the countryside and attempt to photograph it, so you’ll see it then.  The basic idea is that it’s ridiculously pretty.

When we rolled up to my village, I immediately thought “OK, wow, I can see myself living here.”  It is small and I like the feel of it.  Some of the other villages we passed through did not feel as open and welcoming to me (as much as you can make that kind of a judgement in a few minutes), but my village made a good impression from the beginning.  I am pretty sure that it is more rural/less developed than anything I have ever experienced before.  Most of the houses are very simple cement or mud brick rectangles with one to two-ish rooms and sheet metal roofs.  This threw me off at first, because in rural Uganda we learned that only the people who had slightly more money could usually afford to build that style of house; the sheet metal roof was a sign of prestige there, because everyone else had huts made out of mud and grass.  But after spending some time in the village, I think the building materials that exist here may just be different from what is readily available in Uganda, because I have seen very few huts here and I really don’t think that most of the people in my village have a lot of spare money.  It is a farming community, and I think most of the cumulative income of the village is generated by selling their crops at the local markets.  As was previously mentioned, there is no electricity in the village (the health center keeps its vaccines in a refrigerator powered by a kerosene-burning generator), nor is there running water in the sense that we think of it.  There is water that can be accessed from a few public faucets, due to a development project that was completed last year by the Japanese and Beninese governments.  The village now features a huge water tower that collects water and disperses it to different faucets throughout the area, so people no longer have to walk so far to get water and they also don’t have to manually pump it out of the ground; they just have to pay 30 francs (about 60 cents) to fill up a sizable water jug.  One rather shocking thing that I found out was that there are almost no latrines in the village.  There are a few that are only for the private use of certain people (such as the one located in my backyard) but most of the community uses the bush as their toilet, which is obviously a major public health issue.  So that’s something I may try to work on in my time there.  Though latrine-building wasn’t really on my radar as a possible activity, mostly because it isn’t really in my repertoire of things I know how to do and it can be kind of tricky sometimes, from what I understand, I’m sure I can learn if that turns out to be something that the community sees as a priority.

At any rate, for the post visit, I stayed in my homologue’s house, but I also saw the house where I’ll be living for the next two years.  I’ll post pictures soon (maybe today, depending on the internet situation), but I’ll describe it quickly anyway.  I will be living inside of a concession (a group of houses) with a tall cement wall around it and a gate that can be locked from the inside and the outside.  There are two one-story cement buildings in the concession; both are duplex-type structures and I have half of one of the duplexes as my house.  It’s a simple house (exactly what I was hoping for), with a sizable bedroom, a small living room/kitchen area, and a room for bathing.  It has cement floors and walls, a sheet metal roof, and a “ceiling” of woven mats that is supposed to keep the house from getting quite as hot when the sun shines.  Currently, the walls are painted a teal/sky blue/green sort of color which I’m not crazy about, but the landlord assured me that I can paint it whatever color I want, so I’m thinking that will be one of my first projects when I move in.  But my favorite part of my house isn’t even inside: it’s the huge mango tree in my front yard.  It’s not mango season right now, but come February or so I will be able to eat mangoes every day for free (YES).  The tree itself is also very nice and I am looking forward to sitting under it and reading, writing letters, etc.  And as a surprise perk, the house actually is wired for electricity, because apparently my landlord has a generator that he turns on from time to time, so this is excellent news.  I will get the experience of living without electricity most of the time and won’t have to deal with the hassle of an electric bill, but will be able to charge things and benefit from the convenience of electric lighting at night every so often.

For the remainder of the visit (when I was not eating mass quantities of food or inspecting my house), I did a lot of walking around/meeting people with my homologue and supervisor and worked on perfecting a look of friendly, contented blankness while they talked about me in Fon, which is the local language of the village.  They were pretty good about explaining things to me in French so I would know what was going on, but they would customarily end an explanation with “c’est bon, no?” [it’s good, right?], which started to make me a bit crazy by the end, because I had probably said “Oui, c’est bon!” [yeah, it’s great!] about two hundred times and that was obviously the only answer I could give; but I think it was just very important to them to know that I was liking what I was seeing and that I was having a good time [and would be coming back to stay].  As I mentioned before, I will be the first volunteer in this village, and it’s clear to me already that my arrival is a big deal there.  I met all of the local authorities–the chef du village [village leader/chief in the political sense], chef du terre [the more traditional/cultural leader], chef du arrondisement [the person in charge of the larger area, similar to a county in the US I think], the police chief, and the military chief in the area.  They all were very gracious and seemed pleased that I would be there and told me to contact them if there were any problems.  The police/military here don’t make me nervous the way the ones in Uganda did, and it’s nice to know that I have the police chief’s cell number in my phone in case of emergency.

When I got back to Porto Novo, I found out that in our most recent language test, I finally hit the level of French needed to be able to swear in as an official volunteer on the 15th.  This is fantastic news because a)it takes off a bit of the stress that I was experiencing related to language and b)it means I get to start learning Fon, which is highly important because I realized during my post visit that very few people in my village speak French.  (And obviously, English is virtually unknown.  So basically, as another trainee put it, French is going to become my English now.  Ha.)  I started Fon classes on Monday, and HOLY COW it’s tough!  It’s a tonal language, like Chinese, so you can say what sounds like the same phrase to us English-speakers with the wrong intonation and it will mean something totally different than what you intended.  Additionally, there are a lot of sounds in Fon that don’t exist in English and are really hard for me to make.  It’s a bit discouraging but I know it will get easier, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to start learning before going to post, because having some Fon skills is going to be very necessary for successful integration into my village.

Anyway, this has become WAY too long now so I’m signing off before I babble on any more.  Hope all is well on your side of the pond.  In peace, CMK.