Lacking a good title

Hey all. I guess it’s becoming redundant to open each post by acknowledging that a lot of time has passed since the previous post, so I’m just going to assume that we understand each other about this fact from here on out. I am sorry that I don’t post more often, for the record. I do think about writing things for the blog quite a lot; I am just so conscious of needing to conserve my computer battery that I usually don’t act on that impulse. Honestly, that’s pretty much the only reason I wish I had electricity. I don’t mind the dark nights, and I can charge my phone and iPod easily enough at the charging station in town, but the computer I still only charge at Ali’s house in Savalou (1.5 hours and 2,500 francs away, but also you might have noticed, where my mail arrives, so I travel there fairly frequently) or at the PC workstations (the closest ones are 4 hours or 6 hours away). I feel that I would blog more if I had power. But I would also fritter away far more time on facebook and other stupid internet distractions. And I am certainly “integrating” more because I don’t spend much time locked in my house doing computer things. So there we are.

At any rate, it has come to my attention that I have not shared a lot of basic information about the place where I am living, or I may have brushed over it in passing, but not addressed it in sufficient depth. Perhaps I thought you guys might be bored by the basics, or perhaps I just felt more strongly about other topics at the moment of writing my posts, but a lot of the questions I have been getting in letters, etc have been about just trying to get a handle on what the situation is here, in essence. So I’m going to [begin] trying to put some answers out there. If you’re wondering something that I haven’t addressed, let me know–sometimes I forget that you guys are not in fact here with me and also do not share my thoughts. So here we go.

I live in a small town of about 3,500 people. At first I thought it was a village, I guess because it is pretty remote–30-40 minutes down a dirt road from the nearest city [city: (noun) a center of commerce with paved roads and electricity]–and relatively undeveloped (i.e., a lot of mud houses and no running water or electricity). And I definitely didn’t realize how big it was. I had read the 3,500 people number on the fact sheet that PC gave me when we got our post assignments, but I didn’t believe it when I visited. But as I began to walk around off of the main road, I discovered that there are a lot of houses hidden in these areas that I just assumed didn’t go on very far. Even now, after almost 5 months here, I am still discovering new ‘neighborhoods‘ that I didn’t know existed. And then I started traveling to neighboring villages with the health center staff to do vaccinations, and as we were inching (on a motorcycle) over roads that made even the most poorly maintained hiking trails that I have experienced look smooth, getting whacked by branches as we literally drove through the bush, and watching women and children get water from the river or from a pump with a pedal on which you have to jump up and down to make the water flow, I realized that I am in fact living in a bustling megatropolis in comparison. OK, maybe a slight exaggeration, but I cede the label of village to the people who live there and not here.

We have running water, but only for public use–no one has this luxury in their place of residence. There are seven communal “faucets” (like the one I posted in the photo section–there are two spigots: a low one under which you can place a large jug like the ones I use, and a high one under which you can stand with a basin on your head so you can fill it up while it is in carrying position and you don’t lose water as you maneuver the basin up to your head). You have to pay a small amount to use these faucets each time (20 francs for my 25 liter jug, which is less than 10 cents, and one jug lasts me 2-3 days right now), which I find reasonable but some people say it’s pricey. There are also four of the previously mentioned “jumping” pumps on the edges of town–this is where people got water before the improved faucets arrived–and these are free to use, but they are generally farther away from the places where people live.

Nearly everyone who lives here is a farmer in some capacity. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t do at least a little farming. Even people who have other jobs (the people at the health center, the zemidjan drivers) also have fields that they tend on the weekends or on days they have off. The major crops grown are yams, corn, yams, manioc, yams, peanuts, yams, cotton, onions, tomatoes, okra, and seasonal fruit. And oh yes, yams. Everyone grows yams. I think everyone probably also grows corn, because so much of what they eat is made of corn, but for some reason they are always talking about the yams and no one mentions the corn. I’m not sure. The farming aspect of this life is still a bit mysterious to me. People keep offering to take me to the fields with them, and I want to take them up on the offer sometime. I would be fairly worthless as an agricultural helper but I would try. And I think I could take some really cool photos.

Everyone has their own field in which they farm. Some fields are big and some are small, but everyone has something. It is totally unheard of for a man to work another man’s fields. To me, it seems like that would make sense, but people say that there would be too many problems with dividing the money from the crops if that were the case, which I can understand. Many people have inherited their fields from their parents, who inherited them from their parents, and so on. The privilege of taking on the family fields falls to the oldest son, who sometimes shares with the other sons (as explained to me “if he is a man of God”). Since the daughters will marry men who have their own fields, they are not considered in the issue of land. Farming is a family activity. One of the main reasons that people here have so many children is because they need help in the fields. They figure that if they have a lot of kids, some of them can go to school while others help on the farm. Women go to the fields along with their husbands most days, often while pregnant (up until they give birth–we got a woman at the health center the other day who had actually given birth in the fields, because she had gone to work and didn’t realize labor was imminent, and she was too far from town to get to the health center in time) or with a young child strapped to their back.

There are two main ethnic groups in my community. The majority of the residents are of the Fon/Mahi variety–Mahi is a slight variation on Fon, but the languages are mutually understood and the people consider themselves very similar. The language that I am trying to learn is Fon, though I suspect I am picking up a mixture of the two, because I don’t know enough to differentiate them. Then there is a second group of people who are somewhat nomadic and are originally from Nigeria, called the Peuhl or the Fulani. I’m still trying to work out why the names are different and which one they prefer. They look different from the Fon/Mahi, dress differently, decorate themselves differently (they do a lot of tattoo-like things and wear a lot of jewelry), and practice Islam. They generally live a bit apart from the rest of the community, in what people call a “camp,” I think because the structures in their space are a little less permanent than the houses that are built in the town proper. The houses in these communities are mud huts with thatched roofs (much like what I stayed in during my rural homestay in Uganda) and generally very small. The work of the Fulani is raising cattle. I don’t think they farm, at least not as much as the people who live in the town proper (though actually some people of this ethnic group do live in the town proper, so perhaps they farm). I find the Fulani extremely interesting people–I often see the men moving around with their herds of cattle as I am running in the morning or when I am traveling on the back of a motorcycle, and it just seems like such a fascinating life. I recently decided that I’m going to start learning their language as well and I hope that with this step, I can learn a bit more about them and open the door to do some health projects with them too.

This is getting very long already, so I guess I will save the rest for another time. Upcoming topics: schools (they exist, there is a semi strike right now…more on that later), weather (it was pleasantly almost cold for a while, now it’s going to be HOT. I’m scared.), and work (what exactly ARE you doing there, Christina? Fair question. Next time.).

Rafiki is doing well. He still isn’t full-sized but he’s growing. He caught his first mouse recently–not in my house, but outside in the yard. He then proceeded to bring it inside the house, which is exactly the opposite of what I want him to do. I freaked out a little (not too much), and insisted that he bring it back outside. But he doesn’t listen well, in any language. So I was doing a little dance with him wherein I waited for him to pick the mouse up in his mouth and then I grabbed him to bring them both outside, but then he would often drop the darn thing again, and it would scurry away, so I would put him down and he would trap it again, and it went on like this for a bit. My concession family noticed my dilemma (and thought it was hilarious–I did too) and eventually one of the kids came in and picked up the cat in one hand, the mouse in the other, and said “allons-y” (let’s go) and placed them both back outside. I closed the door and sat outside on the front stoop as they told and re-told the story and we all laughed. I think Rafiki ate the mouse, but I didn’t ask too many questions.

Until next time. CMK.

P.S. I posted new pics recently–check them out:)

So This Is Christmas

Greetings.  It seems as if it has again been quite awhile since my last post.  It’s so weird; it doesn’t feel like very long, but then I look at the dates and I realize it has been more than a month.  I guess since my life is going at a slower pace right now, it feels natural to write with less frequency.  That, combined with my rationing of my computer battery due to the electricity situation, is inhibiting my blogging a bit.

At any rate, as I’m sure the American media and culture have not let you forget, both Thanksgiving and Christmas have passed since I last wrote here, and New Year’s is creeping up quickly [and now that has passed as well; I thought I was going to finish this entry before New Year’s but my battery ran out, so this is not as timely of a post as it could have been].  Spending the holidays outside of the U.S. for the first time was interesting.  Certainly I celebrated differently than I ever have before, but both days were nice in their own way.

So, Christmas.  I’m not sure if I have addressed this directly here, but my town is very Christian.  We have one mosque but seven churches for a population of roughly 3,500.  Though there are also a fair amount of people who practice more traditional religions–mostly voodoo.  But much like in the states, it seems that celebration of Christmas is not limited to people who observe the holiday for religious reasons.  People have been talking about the upcoming “fête” [party] for weeks.  As such, I decided it would be good to celebrate here and see what a Beninese Christmas was like.  I also was feeling like I had been away from village a lot lately, with Thanksgiving and then our first “in-service training” which took us away for an entire week only a couple weeks ago.  It’s important for my work that people see me as part of the community, as someone who lives there with them, so when everyone was asking me if I was going to celebrate here or somewhere else, I made a point to tell them that I was of course celebrating here.

But I also wanted to have some sort of an American Christmas with my Peace Corps friends.  I have two close friends who were also conveniently posted near me (the young women from the photo on swear-in day), one of whom is married, thus making us a cluster of four.  So I got the idea in my head that I could invite them to my place for Christmas–then we could celebrate together but I would also be there with my community.  Ali had hosted for Thanksgiving (she lives in Savalou, a lovely city where we share a post office box, and has a beautiful apartment with running water and electricity; you may have noted how pretty it was in the photos) and Rachel had hosted us a few months ago in her house which does not have electricity but is pretty large and nice because there are two people living in that house instead of one, so it seemed like time for me to step up.  They accepted my invitation, and shortly after they did, I started wondering what I was thinking.  I have no furniture.  Where are they going to sleep?  Where are we going to prepare our Christmas dinner?  I have no electricity.  What are we going to do after the sun goes down?  I do not have plumbing.  Would they end up being really sad that they were spending their Christmas like this?

Long story short, they came anyway and they took it like champs.  I guess all of us PCVs are prepared to live in such circumstances when we sign up for this gig, so it’s really not that big of a deal.  They brought their own sleeping pads/blankets/etc (I know, I see you all cringing at my lack of hospitality…I felt the same way) and stayed two nights.  We cooked our “Christmas dinner” on Christmas Eve–sweet potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie (a very orange/brown meal)–while listening to Christmas music playing from my iPod.  We sat on my mat and played Yahtzee, caught up on celebrity gossip/the latest fashions/had all our love problems solved as we flipped through American magazines that Ali’s relatives had sent in a package, and laid outside and looked at the stars after dark.  We also created quite a stir walking through town on our way to buy sugar and flour for our pie (FOUR white people all at the same time) and the community really seemed to enjoy meeting my friends (or “brother/sisters” as they were often called) and were excited that they had come to visit.

They left early on Christmas morning to go back to their respective communities to celebrate there.  When my favorite zem driver (whom I also count as a good friend) arrived at my house to take them away, I was surprised to see a live chicken hanging from his handlebars (they tie the feet together and can transport a surprising number of birds that way).  At first I thought perhaps he was just stopping by my house on his way to bring the chicken to his house but then it became clear that this was part of my Christmas gift, in addition to several giant yams and multiple shopping bags full of peanuts.
…A note on having conversations in a language that you do not speak or understand very well: you may find that when doing this, a helpful strategy is to pick out the words that you know and fill in the blanks with things that seem to make sense based on the context and what typically happens.  It’s much like reading, actually; if you come across a word or words that you don’t know, you can often still understand the meaning of the sentence by looking at other clues.  However, you may also find that sometimes when you do this you end up saying that yes, you would eat a chicken if someone brought it for you.  Oops.  As I was processing the events that were happening, I remembered him mentioning peanuts and chicken in a conversation the day before, but I had thought that he was saying that was what he was going to prepare for the holiday and he was inviting me to eat with them…not so!

We had a confusing few minutes where I tried to see if I could gracefully get out of taking the chicken, but eventually upon consultation with my friends, we decided I should accept it.  Ali has a photo of me holding the little guy right before they left, probably looking extremely baffled, and next time I see her I will certainly post it.  It was a very generous gift, because chickens are somewhat expensive, but as you know, I do not typically eat meat, and it was a rooster, which means that it is explicitly meant for eating.  Still, I was pretty amused by the fact that I received a chicken, and I was chuckling to myself about it all through the church service I attended with my concession family (it’s an Evangelical church, and the pastor lives next door, so I am invited to mass every Sunday and I go sometimes; it’s typically 3ish hours long and entirely in Fon, so it’s not my favorite thing to do, but I recognize that it’s important for community integration so I try).  He brought me a chicken–ha!  This goes on the list of things that distinguish life in Africa from life in the US.

When church was over, we came back home and I told my concession family that we would eat the chicken together if they helped me kill it and prepare it (read: if they did those things for me, they could eat it).  So they did, though they made me watch.  It wasn’t as bad as you might think; or perhaps living here is hardening me a bit against things like that.  Mostly I was just surprised by the amount of work that goes into transforming a live chicken into something edible.  It’s not easy and it takes awhile.  And it was mostly the kids who did all this work; kids here grow up so fast and do so many things that American kids would never be allowed to do.  They fried the chicken with lots of spices and it was pretty good–I did eat a little bit because I couldn’t have them telling my friend that I didn’t even eat his gift.  But I gave the vast majority to them.  And I didn’t try any of the weird parts of the chicken that they eat that we do not in the states, like the feet.  They really don’t let any part of the animal go to waste, which is admirable, and I guess the only sensible thing to do when meat/protein is so expensive and hard to come by, but I’m not ready to try those things yet.

The rest of the day consisted of me walking around the village and chatting with people/wishing them happy holidays, joining some friends for a cold Coke at the restaurant/bar, eating with my concession family, and passing out small gifts to the kids who live in the concession.  It was simple and low-key but really a wonderful holiday.  I realized how lucky I am to have found so many friends here in such a short time, and I also realized that I think I am starting to become a part of this community.  When I was walking around, people kept greeting me by name and calling me over to sit with them and inviting me to eat, and I felt very welcome and accepted.  Warm and fuzzy things.  No snow, but it felt kind of like Christmas anyway.

So, happy holidays (late) and happy new year!  Hope all is well on the home front, and I will try to post again sooner next time.  In peace, CMK.