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.