The Rains Down in Africa

Tonight as I write this, I am watching huge lightning flashes light up the sky to the south.  Directly above me, the sky is still clear, but a mass of clouds is moving progressively closer and appears to be slowly enveloping each of the stars in its path.  A cool breeze has started gently shaking the leaves of the mango tree and wafting the smells of my neighbors’ cooking through my open doorway.  Soon the clouds will be overhead and the rain will start falling, slowly at first but likely working up to a deafening drumming on my metal roof.  Tonight we are getting some warning before the downpour begins–some time for everyone without the luxury of a gas stove inside their house (aka probably everyone in this town except me) to hurry along their dinner preparations since cooking over an open fire is both difficult and unpleasant in the rain–but sometimes the storms seem to come out of nowhere.  One minute I am sitting on my front stoop in the company of my concession family, and the next I am struck by massive raindrops as thunder booms overhead.  I run inside to get my rain-collecting bucket and as I set it outside, lightning illuminates the silhouette of the unlucky 10-year-old who lives next door, shivering and looking like she wishes she was somewhere else as she fans the flame on the fire and tends to the pate that is still half-cooked.  The family has to eat, rain or not.  Or once, I was on the back of a motorcycle when the rain started.  Usually everyone will duck under some kind of shelter in this situation, but this time the rain refused to stop and we needed to get home eventually, so we decided to just go for it.  Naturally this happened on a day when I had brought my umbrella instead of my raincoat (the latter is infinitely more useful when riding a moto), and as we bumped along getting pelted by raindrops which were soaking through my clothes, I was surprised by how cold one could actually get in Africa.  I started feeling a little sorry for myself or at least cursing our bad timing as I attempted to wrap my shawl tighter around my shoulders, until I looked around and noticed that on both sides of the road were streams of women and children walking in that weather, carrying loads of crops from their fields on their heads.  And since we were in the middle of rural Benin and there is quite a distance between villages here, I knew that they probably had a longer walk ahead of them than I did a motorcycle ride.  Life here is like this.

Rain is nearly a daily occurrence right now, and while it is sometimes an inconvenience, mostly I treasure it.  It brings cool air to the hot days; it tamps down the dust that rises from the roads; and when I’m lucky, I can collect buckets of rain water that help increase the number of days I can go between trips to the water-getting place.  And since almost everyone I know here is a farmer on some scale, I praise the rain for its role in making things grow in a land without sprinklers, hoses, or other artificial irrigation systems.  I love waking up in the morning to a world shrouded in fog, seeing the trees emerge slowly from a blanket of clouds as I’m running along a road that continually looks like it disappears just a few yards ahead.

But rain here isn’t all good news and the inconvenience of getting a little soggy.  The rainy season also means more breeding areas for mosquitoes, and more mosquitoes means more malaria.  Right now, I’d say that about 8 out of 10 people who come to our health center are suffering from malaria.  There it is, written in the treatment log over and over: “Diagnosis: paludisme,” “palu,” “palu simple,” “palu grave,” “paludisme.”  It’s funny, though I know the statistics on malaria in Africa forwards and backwards, I still sometimes find it a bit hard to grasp the severity of it.  I think that as someone who is pretty well protected against the illness by my weekly anti-malaria prophylaxis and who has the comfort of knowing that if I do get it, I have the preferred treatment in the form of 24 neat little pills stored in my med kit at the foot of my bed, malaria can sometimes seem like a pretty abstract thing–something to be avoided, certainly, but not the end of the world if our paths cross.  But then here it is in front of me day after day–in the six month old baby, the gangly teenager, the pregnant woman, and the macho farmer; people with high fevers, aching bodies, terrible fatigue, and varying degrees of gastrointestinal issues.  Prick their fingers and put a drop of their blood into the plastic rapid malaria test, and in a couple of minutes one line appears, then another.  Palu est de dent.

Malaria is actually a lot like the rain that brings it.  It’s not too bad if it catches you when you’re prepared for it, but the thing about rain is that if it is unexpected and you don’t shut your windows fast enough, it can quickly flood your house and ruin your things.  It can come on very rapidly and it evolves quickly from a sprinkle [malaise] to a downpour [life-threatening illness].  But unlike the weather, malaria can be stopped in its tracks.  A few pills of Artesunate + Amodiaquine — a combination of drugs better known by the brand name Coartem — can often put the life back into a sick child’s eyes within a few hours.  Thanks to subsidies from the government and foreign aid, it’s not even that expensive, and right now pregnant women and children under five in Benin who test positive for malaria receive treatment free of charge.  It’s pretty cool–I think Benin is really using international resources/aid in the way it is meant to be used, and I see it in action every day.  And it is saving lives; people who otherwise might not bring their kids to the center because they think they don’t have enough money to pay for the drugs know that there is free treatment available so they figure there is no harm in coming to see if it is malaria.  And as I mentioned, it usually is.

Which makes it even more infuriating to me that in the middle of this literal and figurative rainy season, we have run out of Coartem.
“Come back tomorrow,” people are told as they walk away clutching pain relievers that will lower a fever and vitamins that will improve their long-term health but will do nothing to the parasite that is multiplying in their blood.
Sometimes if the malaria is severe, they are treated with an injection of quinine, a very old treatment that is usually avoided now due to its harshness on the body.  I mostly fix my eyes on the wall and will myself not to scream or throw things.  Somewhat surprisingly, none of the patients or their families make a scene.  I guess they are used to things like this and they figure that getting upset about it won’t help anything.  Which is, of course, true on some level.  But I come from a place where people get outraged when a blender they wanted to buy is out of stock and where making a scene often results in a reward of some sort.  [Sometimes I imagine trying to explain things like that to someone here…”What is a blender?” “And why does one need it?”  “It costs HOW much?” And then I stop thinking about having those conversations…]  The whole situation makes me really mad and while I’m doing my best to harass my coworkers into trying a little harder to restock quickly, I think there are a lot of factors that are out of their control and I feel pretty helpless and frustrated these days at work.

Of course, it just underscores what I have believed for quite some time, which is that prevention is the way to go.  If we can keep people from contracting malaria in the first place, fewer anti-malarial drugs will be needed, it will be less likely that the supply will run out, and it won’t be as severe of a problem if it does.  So now the issue is trying to figure out how I can work with people in my village to do this.  There is work to be done, it’s just a matter of starting to do it.

Come walk with me

Today I want you to join me on a tour of my village.  I realize that it’s probably hard to picture where the life I’m writing about is taking place, so I’m going to try to take you along with me for a morning today.  [However, since pictures with words can only go so far, you should also check out the photos that I’m in the process of posting on the blog.  If you go up to the top, you should find a tab that says “photos,” where you’ll find a few that I’ve taken since I’ve been here.]

We’ll begin at my house.  We’ll walk over the pink and black plastic woven mat that lies on the floor of my living room/kitchen and I’ll turn the shiny metal key to retract the deadbolt in the brand-new lock that I installed myself when I moved in.  I turn the handle and the wooden door swings toward us.  The room is suddenly much brighter as the sunlight floods in.  We say goodbye to my kitten, who is doing a good job thus far of scaring away the mice, and we step out onto my front stoop and greet whichever neighbors are in the yard, sitting or working.
“Afongangia?” [Did you wake up well?]
“Eeh, nfongangi” [Yes I woke up well]
“Adokpedea?” [Did you sleep a little?]
“Eeh, ndokpede” [Yes I did]
“Nko” [Something along the lines of “thanks” or “OK”]
We’ll see the chickens strutting along under the mango tree, which doesn’t have any mangoes right now because it’s not the season, pecking at the ground for little morsels of food and the goats plodding around and munching leaves or stealing a few bites out of a pot of food that has been left unattended.  We’ll likely see some of the kids who live next door sweeping the dirt yard into order with small, traditional brooms that are made out of bundles of straw and are held in one hand as the sweeper bends over, forming a right angle with legs and torso.  They will sweep up all stray leaves, bits of trash, animal droppings, and the like that have landed inside the compound gates during the night and dispose of them.  We’ll wish them “good work” [mikudazo] as we walk around them and head for the gate.  They’ll leave for school after their chores are done.

At the gate, I’ll slide the metal latch to the right and push the door out.  Now we’re standing on the main road that runs through the village, looking at a small pile of trash on the other side of the road.  If we ate oranges for breakfast (and we probably did), we will throw the peels into this pile and the goats will eat them later in the day.  Since there isn’t formalized trash collection here except in big cities, a combination of goats, chickens, and fires constitute the waste management system, and piles like this exist until they are burned.  If we turned left, we would be following my running route, passing an Evangelical church which I attended with my work partner and neighbors a few weeks ago, and heading towards Glazoue, which is the nearest large town–the one with the market–and is about 20-40 minutes away by motorcycle, depending on the condition of the road when you’re traveling and how fast your driver is going.  But we are going to turn right and go into town.

You can see the town proper from here but it will take us a few minutes to walk to the center.  We tread along the road, which is formed of orange/brown dirt and gravel; it slides and crunches under our sandals.  On the side of the road, we will see some men doing manual labor that involves a lot of digging with these odd shovels that have bent handles that allow for a swinging motion that involves scooping towards the body/between the legs while bent over.  I think they are working on the drainage system that routes rain water into these homemade gutters, but I’m not totally sure.  We’ll greet them and wish them good work as well [mikudazo].

On the right, across a large field with the skeletons of two soccer goals, I will point out the primary school, a modest looking two small concrete structures facing each other with sheet metal roofs and walls covered in a checkerboard-type collection of square holes to let in light and help air circulate.  There are also two rectangular, gazebo-type structures with straw thatched roofs that house classes that do not fit inside the classrooms.  Since school will be starting shortly, we’ll see children walking in small groups across the field.  They are required to have their hair either shaved or cut very short, so you will have to look at the clothing or for the presence of earrings to tell if you’re looking at a girl or a boy.  Many of them will be excited when they see us and will either shout “yovo” and wave if they’re kind of far away, or if they are nearby or passing us, they will execute a kind of curtsy motion and say “bonjour,” “bon soir,” or “nko.”  Those who know me will yell “Christine!” and I’ll reward dthe use of my name with extra smiles.  Some of the little ones may approach for kind of a high five/handshake combo and will smile broadly when they procure it.

We’ll continue on, passing on the left some type of government office that never appears to be particularly open and the path that leads to the faucet where I get my water.  We’ll greet a group of men who are working with wood in an open, thatched-roof structure just past that, and then the tailors who sit in a similar structure next to them.  We’ll hurry a little at this point in hopes of passing a group of houses on the right before being noticed by the kids who live there, as they will undoubtedly start screaming “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” over and over again, which I find to be a bit much.  On the left, we’ll see a woman sitting on the ground on a piece of fabric in the shade of the side of a house and arranging her oranges in small pyramids for sale, or using a small razor blade to remove the thick green peel in a spiral or thin strips for easier consumption by her customers.  Behind her, through a gap in the houses, we’ll glimpse the interior of the village, where most people live, and where I don’t go very often (but I think I should–once I get a few more solid Fon phrases under my belt, I am going to walk around back there and saluer (say hello/greet people) because I suspect that there is a sizable group of people who don’t really leave that area so I never see them).  It looks like a maze of small concrete or mud buildings grouped close together, most with the walls crumbling to varying degrees, with small dirt paths running between them.  Women sit outside on low stools or rocks and bend over pots of food, dishes to be washed, or tubs of laundry.  Most are wearing a rectangular cloth wrapped around their waist that continues to their calves or ankles (called a pagne) and either a t-shirt that appears to have made its way over from the West or nothing on top.  It’s not uncommon to see women sitting around the home/yard shirtless, but if they are going out they will put nicer clothes on.  If the men haven’t yet left for the fields, we might see them standing around doing manly things like talking to each other, eating pate, or inspecting their motorcycles.  Small children are running around and playing in the dirt, wearing big tattered t-shirts or nothing at all.  It’s not that they don’t have nicer clothes; they do, for the most part, but those are saved for special occasions, while general life can easily be lived in t-shirts or naked.

Don’t get too caught up looking around or you will trip over the homemade speed bumps that are in the road at this point.  They are composed of small logs laying horizontally across the road with dirt packed into a mound around them.  Men on motorcycles (women don’t drive here, though in the cities you can occasionally see a woman driving a moto) will slow down and creep over the bumps.  You’ll notice that some of them are balancing huge sacks of yams, corn, or charcoal on the backs of their motos.  The sacks are generally dirty white and made of plastic or burlap and are probably about five feet long and roughly the shape of a very large, heavy body pillow that is stuffed as full as possible.  They stick off the sides behind the driver and visibly weigh the moto down.  You’ll be amazed that they don’t tip over, but these guys are good.  They are transporting the goods they have grown or manufactured either to their house for storage or to the market for sale and they are careful with their loads.

Now we are passing what I believe to be the only restaurant in town.  On the right, women bend over huge blackened pots that remind me of cauldrons, stirring rice and beans or pate (eaten morning, noon, and night here) and a few customers stand around eating off of metal plates.  ON the left is a large gazebo with low tables and wooden benches and chairs where people can sit and eat or enjoy a cold beverage (I think they have a generator-powered fridge, but I’m not sure).  This is what distinguishes it as a restaurant; there are several women who prepare food for sale in the town, but they are mobile vendors who sell you lunch from large platters or basins that they carry on their heads, whereas here you can sit and be served.  Though no one is taking advantage of that luxury right now, people will filter through later in the day.

More likely than not, we are starting to sweat by now; though it’s morning, the sun is already beating down on us with its tropical rays.  But this is normal for life here so we will continue onward.  On our right, we see a small yellow booth with a short length of a power line connected to it.  This is the phone charging station.  A young man works here and will turn on a generator that feeds electricity to the power line and charge people’s cell phones for 100 francs (roughly 20 cents).  The same guy also mans the table in front of the booth that holds about 10 wine-sized bottles of gasoline.  When motorcycles stop in front of his table, he runs out with a funnel and one of the bottles.  The driver unscrews the gas cap, shakes the moto a little to see how much he needs to buy, and gasoline from the bottles glugs into the tank while the passengers wait on the back.

Now we are approaching the main [read: only] intersection in town.  This is where a lot of the action happens, and where we are most likely to run into any variety of people that I know.  On the left side of road, we’ll find the petite marche [small market], where vendors sit under the shelter of a sheet metal roof and sell their goods each day.  The things available here vary a bit from day to day, but one can usually count on finding smoked fish, pimont (a hot pepper used in nearly all Beninese cooking), cans of tomato paste, beauty products for skin and hair, some shortbread-type packaged cookies, and a bit of fruit (usually oranges right now, but occasionally pineapple or bananas appear).  The vendors are still setting up since it’s morning, but when we return I’ll stop to chat with them and buy fish for my cat or oranges for myself (100 francs and 50 francs respectively).

If we turned right down this road, we would be heading towards the health center which is about 200 feet down on the left side.  It is a large-ish compound with two small, pink concrete buildings, a communal water faucet, two large trees, and a medium sized garden in which I have no idea what grows.  We’ll explore the health center in more depth in future posts, so for right now we won’t turn here.  We’ll just stop by the “house” of the zemijans, which is on the corner of these two roads.  We’ll duck under the low straw roof and find anywhere between two and twenty zemi drivers and their friends hanging out, either on benches or reclining on the backs of their motorcycles (and if we pass by again during “repose,” we will undoubtedly see some of them taking naps on top of their motos, which I think must require excellent balance.  I will attempt to speak some Fon with them–they are some of my best teachers and always fun to talk to–and then we will take leave and continue.

After a few more steps, we are standing directly in front of one of the more notable monuments in the village.  It is a life-sized, ceramic, and very white Jesus Christ on the cross.  He is situated in front of the Catholic church that takes up a large plot of land on the right.  The actual church building is fairly simple and made of concrete, like most things here, and is set back a bit from the road, so Jesus really takes center stage as one passes by.  Just beyond the ceramic Christ, we see the town’s water tower rising above everything else.  It features the Beninese and Japanese flags to commemorate its funders, and as I think I already explained in a previous blog, it provides an improved water distribution system for the village, in terms of easier access to [relatively] clean water.

If we continue past the water tower, we will pass the small general store that sells eggs and phone credit (two important things in my life) and will come to the site of the market.  Unless it is market day (Sunday), the stalls will be empty, but on Sunday there will be about fifty women sitting out with their wares under the thatched roofs of the market structure.  They will try to sell us plastic flip flops, second-hand western clothing, different types of flour-like substances, tomatoes, onions, and goods for the house.  If we walk to the back of the market, we will find men congregating around the stall where a type of traditional Beninese alcohol is served in bowls fashioned out of hollowed-out something (perhaps a type of gourd, or a large coconut? Not sure…).  The drink is some type of fermented corn concoction and is extremely cheap.  Drinking it is decisively a man’s activity, though, as the only woman who is in this part of the market is the one who is selling the drinks.

Finally we leave the market and you may think that we have left the village, but if we continue down the road a few more minutes, we will find the secondary school, which I believe serves the purpose of both middle school and high school in the American equivalent.  We will see flocks of older children, mostly clad in khaki uniforms, heading towards the two long concrete buildings.  To me, the school has an unfinished look, as the classrooms are entirely open on the side and the students can step in and out of the room without being bothered with the door.  They are also in the process of building some new structures to add to the school, so on some days the kids come to school with hoes and machetes instead of pencils and paper and work on clearing the land to make room for the new building.

This marks the end of our tour; my town ends here.  If we continue down this road, we’ll eventually run into the next village, where there is another PC volunteer who is teaching English at the secondary school.  But for now, we will call it a day and turn around to head home.  Thanks for joining me, and I hope you got a feel for life here.  Until next time, peace and love from Benin. CMK.

How does one get a cat around here, anyway?

So, this is the possibly expected/somewhat obligatory culture shock post. Last week, I woke up around 2AM to a distinct and very loud crunching sound. Still kind of groggy and disoriented, I didn’t think much of it, figuring it was probably the goats who spend the night outside my house. But then it sounded awfully loud, and I thought, “hmm, the goats don’t usually eat at night like that…let’s just make completely sure that it’s outside.” And so I groped for my headlamp and shined it around the room, which resulted in furious scurrying in my ceiling (which is composed of woven straw mats suspended by wires running from one wall to another), and then a small, furry creature with a tail ran right across the top of my mosquito net and out the door. That was my first encounter with the mice. Since then, I’ve woken up every night to them either eating my ceiling or running around my house. We have also surprised each other occasionally during the day when I have switched rooms or entered the house quickly. I feel like a total wimp, but I have to admit that they are really getting to me. I feel particularly vulnerable at night since my bed is on the floor. Even though I tuck my mosquito net under the mattress very tightly and I know they can’t get in, I still get very startled every time I wake up to something padding across the floor next to my head or shaking the mosquito net as it traverses the top or side of it. As much as in some ways I already feel at home here, I’m not sure if I’m going to ever be able to feel totally at home in my house if I’m sharing such close quarters with a family of mice.

Then, just after the discovery of the mice, I had a run-in with another thing that can make one feel pretty homesick: illness. I think it’s par for the course when one is living in a developing country to get sick from time to time, and it wasn’t even anything serious–just a 48-hour flu-like virus that I self-treated with the help of my PC med kit and medical care manual. But still, as I was lying on my mattress sweating and shivering, listening to the mice running around above me, wishing I could just hop in my car for 2 minutes and pick up some juice from the grocery store, in between dragging myself out of bed in my pajamas to open the door when concerned work partners and neighbors stopped by to see how I was doing, I found myself wondering, “Why did I want to do this, again?”
Right…I thought I could make a positive change in the world.
Yeah, but it’s so difficult!
Of course it’s difficult, silly. You knew it wasn’t going to be easy or fun all the time. And it’s probably precisely because it’s hard that it is important.

So those were some particularly bad days, which have now passed. But I’ve realized that even ordinary days can be pretty tough right now, and some days when I get home, I am so exhausted that I can’t even believe that I haven’t actually done any real work during the day. But just living life is a lot of work right now; there are so many new things to figure out.

There are simple, daily life things, like how to get water from the pump (First, where is the pump? Then, as it turns out that it is not actually a pump but a faucet that needs to be turned on by someone with the key…who is that person? Where are they at different times of the day? If I go through the trouble to bring my empty water jugs to the faucet, will I be able to find them? Then, how to I carry the water back? People here carry the huge jugs on their heads…am I strong enough to do that? If I’m not, think of how much of a fool I will look like. Children of 6 and 7 years of age can carry those jugs…you get the point), how to cook for one person with unfamiliar ingredients (because of the lack of refrigeration, I can’t keep any leftovers. The other night, I accidentally cooked about 4 times as much boiled yam as I could possibly eat. Luckily I was able to give the extra to my neighbors so it didn’t go to waste, but I felt rather silly), and where one can buy eggs or phone credit or kerosene for a lantern (just today, I took my empty kerosene bottle to get it refilled only to discover that they don’t sell kerosene at that particular stand–it’s only gasoline. How one tells the difference between the oily liquids in the bottles is still a mystery to me).

Then there are the socio-cultural things which are a bit harder to figure out and are probably more important. These include things like determining which people one should actually stop to talk to on the way to work and for which people a greeting called out while walking suffices, figuring out how to tell when an invitation of various sorts is serious and when it is a joke or you are expected to say no, learning which clothes are acceptable and proper to wear to work and other places, and figuring out when one should stop the children when they’re singing the yovo song because they’re trying to be obnoxious and when one should just let it go because they mean no harm by it.

And then of course there is the language thing. While everyone around me is very excited about teaching me Fon, and I’ve mastered a few greetings and responses, I’m still at a total loss in most situations. I can’t understand conversations between other people and when I’m talking to someone, if the conversation deviates at all from a specific script that I know, I have no idea how to continue. It also just takes a lot of energy, patience, and humility to learn a new language, and some days I just want to interact in a language I know. But then sometimes even when people are speaking French to me, I still don’t understand, because after all, my French is not great. It’s good enough to get by in most situations here, but I need people to speak slowly and clearly and to speak a kind of elementary version of the language rather than academic French. So sometimes they speak to me in Fon and I don’t understand so they switch to French and I still don’t understand, and it’s a frustrating encounter on all sides. And I’ve found that especially in situations where I am a little upset or angry or frustrated, my ability to speak French decreases significantly and the only words that come to mind are in English, which of course only makes the situation more upsetting or frustrating for me.

And finally, just getting used to the speed and realities of daily life at the health center is also a challenge. Work there seems to involve a good amount of sitting around, which I’m trying to accept while also trying to figure out ways to make good use of that time. Essentially I am looking for a balance between the American attitude in me that says I should be doing something productive all the time and the more foreign (to me) idea that it’s OK to just “rest” sometimes. And then I’m also working on finding another kind of emotional balance and learning how to work in a place like this where one sees so many heart-wrenching things. Even in the two weeks I’ve been here, I have already seen a lot of things that make me cringe and things that make me sad. And obviously I have faith in my ability to improve things here in some way, but I know that I won’t be able to change everything. In the middle of rural Africa, there are just so many things working against the survival of children and mothers, especially. I know that even if I pull off the most awesome of projects, children are still not going to get enough to eat, mothers are still going to die during pregnancy and birth, etc. And those are the realities that I need to get used to. It’s a delicate balance that I think involves thickening the skin a bit so that one can exist without being debilitated by how upsetting it can bee, but not so much that one stops caring. Because not caring can be a defense mechanism–it can help you feel less pain because you can tell yourself that the pain of others is not your burden to bear–but I think you need to feel a certain amount of pain and have a certain amount of anger and indignation to be motivated to try to tackle massive problems like these.

So, those are some of the challenges. I don’t mean to sound like I am complaining. I am still overwhelmingly happy to be here; it’s just that just like at home, there are good days and bad days, and bad days are I think a bit amplified by a smaller support system and a lack of knowledge about how to ameliorate problems when they arise. And as I’ve said all along, I want to write honestly for you, to take you as realistically on this journey with me as is possible through words and photos transmitted over thousands of miles. And as such, I feel that I shouldn’t remove negative feelings or experiences from the narrative, even though I am tempted to do so sometimes, mostly because I don’t want to worry people at home. All by way of saying, in this post I have laid out some of the difficulties of life here (for me–the difficulties of others are still being discerned and explored and will be discussed at length later), but even in the days that it has taken me to write and edit this draft, the feelings of shock and “what the heck am I doing here?” have subsided and my confidence is returning. So don’t worry. Life isn’t easy, but I kind of like the challenge; it keeps things interesting. So, until next time, eyizande!