Hello friends. It has been awhile. I apologize. I kept trying to write an entry the past few weeks but nothing flowed. Each time I started, I would get a few sentences in and then get stuck. It’s not that there is nothing to write about. I think it’s more that there is too much to write about; it’s overwhelming. It also occurs to me that I’m getting used to living here. Things that at first seemed new or exotic or shocking are now seeming average to me and blending into the routine of every day life.
I find that I think a lot less frequently about life in the states these days. When I first arrived, I was constantly comparing the things I did and saw with the life I used to live. Now sometimes I forget that there is another way of life out there. It doesn’t seem strange anymore not to have electricity. When it gets dark, I just light my lantern and continue about my activities. While I still often have to give myself a pep talk before starting my cold bucket shower, I rarely think of hot showers that come out of a faucet. I’m starting to sleep through the first crowings of the roosters, which I’m actually a little disappointed about; but I still never set an alarm because the sounds of life outside my windows still wake me up plenty early. I’m so used to motorcycles now that when I see or hear a car on our road, I automatically look to see who it might be. And I’m so used to seeing black skin everywhere that sometimes when I meet up with my Peace Corps friends, it takes me a minute to get used to how weird they look.
Dirt roads, small crumbling houses, faces with deliberate scars cut into them (some ethnic groups here do this, I think as part of a coming of age thing, and sometimes it is also done as part of traditional healing practices), children clad in khaki carrying their books on their heads, bright and wild fabric clothing men and women from head to toe…these things no longer warrant a second glance from me. The initially harsh-sounding tones of Fon being spoken have turned into a song-like cadence of greetings and responses that I recognize, the sound of babies crying is not as foreign as it used to be (generally more babies per person, combined with closer living quarters, means I hear babies much more here than I ever did in the states), and the beat of traditional music with its cowbell-like accents has become just another part of the soundtrack to life here.
I’ve been in Benin for 4½ months now, which is the longest I have ever been out of the states. It feels like longer, not in a bad way but just in that my previous life seems so far away that it feels like I must have been here forever. I’m really settling in. I know this because as I was thinking about what interesting news I had to write about, these are the things I came up with:
- We recently got four new speed bumps on our road–two at one end of the village and two at the other. They are made of cement and each one is flanked by two smooth concrete posts painted white with red tips, which are so pretty that I can’t help but touch them every time I walk past.
- The pope came to Benin yesterday. It was such a big deal that most kids didn’t have school and many people didn’t go to work. I heard a bit of the coverage of the event on the radio, which is the only connection most Beninese people had with the event as well.
- I’ve realized that my village is not in fact a village but actually a small town. More on that in a later post.
- I carried my water back to my house on my head for the first time last week (previously I was strapping it to the back of my bike). As expected, it is difficult, but I was pleased to find that I could do it. Though let me tell you, the short distance between the pump and my house feels a lot longer with 25 liters of water balanced on your head.
- Rafiki (my cat) is now more the size of a paperback book than a passport, and I haven’t seen or heard from the mice in quite some time.
So basically, life goes on. The days are long but the weeks are flying by. Time almost feels as if it is standing still, perhaps because all of my days are so similar. But the funny thing is, I’m not at all bored. I think I am getting better at just being here, being alive, and being present in the moment. And I’m happy.
In other news, it has come to my attention that it’s almost Thanksgiving. Though the date on my cell phone continues to advance towards November 24th, none of the other cues that usually tell me that the holidays are coming are present in my life now, and I guess I don’t quite believe it. There are no changing leaves, no snow, no Thanksgiving break to look forward to, no final papers that I haven’t started which are weighing on my mind, no family members calling to talk about Thanksgiving plans. There is only the simplicity of everyday life–the walk along the familiar stretch of road between my house and the village center and the greetings in Fon called out to the same people, the decisions about what to prepare for each meal, and the time spent looking at the stars and the moon each night–all of which assures me that each passing day is the same as the last, and as the next. It’s just those numbers after (or before, in French) “November” that are telling me that something special is coming up. It’s quite odd, I expected to feel homesick around the holidays, but instead I just kind of feel like that date on the calendar doesn’t have any meaning in this world, without the contextual factors that make it significant in the U.S.. It’s only when I think of past Thanksgivings and what I would be doing if I were in the states that I feel the twang of homesickness.
Given all this, I’m not sure what I’m going to do for the holiday. I will celebrate with some other volunteers on the weekend (we have plans to make mashed potatoes, apple pie, and cinnamon rolls, provided we can find apples and potatoes in the market this week, and we will improvise the rest…limited availability of necessary ingredients and cooking facilities will limit our ability to imitate an American meal, but it will be fun to be together and to try anyway) but since the actual day is a Thursday, I will go to work. I have toyed with the idea of taking the afternoon off and cooking American food for my friends in village, but I’m intimidated by the task, especially given the “kitchen” that I have to work with. Still, it would be fun and I think I’d like to celebrate in some way, so I might go for it. We’ll see. In reality, a lot depends on the ingredients I am able to find in the market this week.
I know I have rambled on enough already, but Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on and appreciate the good things in your life, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many things I have to be thankful for. So I thought I’d share my list here, because I feel like sometimes my writing may focus more on the negative things than the positive ones, but there are so many good and joyous things in my life right now. So at risk of sounding really cheesy, here it is…
In no particular order, I am thankful for…
- The opportunity to be here and have this experience that is so wildly different from what would otherwise be my life
- My family and friends at home who have already been so incredibly supportive through the beginning of this journey
- Every single piece of mail that I have received since arriving here. It means a lot to hear from you guys and to know that in your busy, high-speed world, you took the time to write and send an actual letter
- Every person who is reading what I write here. Some of you I know and some of you I don’t, but regardless, I really appreciate you finding it worth your time to check in with me
- Good health–it truly is a blessing
- Anti-malaria prophylaxis…such a luxury that I wish everyone here could share
- Cell phone and internet access, and the fact that I am able to use my computer
- The warm and welcoming feel of the community into which I have been placed
- All of the friends I have made in village so far
- Having so many other PCVs nearby and being able to see them fairly often
- M&Ms and other goodies sent in care packages by the people who are too good to me
- Books and music
- A rain-proof roof over my head
- My own little house, which is really perfect for me right now, even though I know you guys don’t believe me
- My mouse-chaser and companion, Rafiki…the only one with whom I can talk in English, French, and Fon
- The way that Beninese French does not require the type of accent that real French does
- All the people who continue trying to talk to me in Fon and help me learn, even though most times the only response I can give is “I don’t understand”
- The zemijan drivers with whom I have made friends and who I can count on to drive safely and to not overcharge me
- Every bowl of yam pilé that my neighbors share with me
- $1 beers shared with friends
- Peanut butter and soy cheese–these are the saving graces of my diet here
- Tennis shoes. I think I have one of the only pairs in this town, and I am grateful for them every morning.
- The opportunity to have attended so much school when so many people do not have that chance, but also the fact that for now, I am done with that
- All of the privileges granted to me by the chance of birth and the possibility to use those to help those who had less chance
Happy Thanksgiving! Peace and love from Africa.