6 Month Stew

Greetings, world. I am back on the grid sooner than expected because I realized that we have a report due to PC next week, and I’m having trouble getting the reporting software that they use to work on my computer. So I had to make a weekend trip to the workstation in Parakou to use the computer here. This reporting deadline means, incidentally, that I have been living in my town for six months now. Not only does that equal one-fourth of my PC service, but it is also the longest I have lived continuously in one place for quite awhile. So in honor of that, here are some random updates on life lately:
Cashews have come into season. Did you know that they grow on trees? The tree makes a skinny, yellow/orange/red fruit (almost the shape of a small, elongated apple) that tastes a bit like a peach but is also kind of rubbery and sickly sweet, and at the end of the fruit, there is the cashew nut. It’s surrounded in a casing, like a peanut, but the casing is green. People harvest and sell the nuts but discard most of the fruit (the kids eat some of it, but it’s not the kind of thing you want to eat a lot of). When you’re near a cashew tree, you can smell the scent of the fruit in the air. The nuts are expensive, though. People say that it is because foreigners buy them to use as fuel for airplanes. I think the first part is true but the second part is not. Foreigners may buy them, but as far as I know, there is no cashew oil in airplane fuel.
Our health center got “le courant” (electricity)! There have been several large solar panels fixed to the roof of the maternity building since the time I got here (indeed, apparently they have been there for ten-ish years!) but they were not functional. I could never get the story straight on whey they weren’t doing anything, because no one seemed to know for sure or agree on the answer. Then, a few weeks ago, an electrician arrived in the area and said he could wire them to power electricity for us. It was relatively expensive, but the board of the health center came up with the money and now there is le courant. Unfortunately, the battery that is charged by the solar panels is not strong enough to power our refrigerator, so we still have the aforementioned refrigerator problems, but now the midwives no longer have to do births in the night by the light of a lantern or a flashlight that is held between the shoulder and the head. It’s pretty cool. And apparently getting a new, larger battery is a possibility for later, so eventually the fridge can be transferred over to that system as well.
The hot season is arriving. Rainy season ended with the month of October, then almost exactly in alignment with the beginning of December, the weather got sort of chilly. The Harmattan, a cold wind, started blowing and the air got very dry. During this period, it still got pretty warm during the middle of the day, but the mornings and the evenings were so nice and cool. My Beninese neighbors disliked this weather, but it felt kind of like fall to me, and I enjoyed being able to wear long sleeves occasionally and use covers for sleeping, etc. Now the heat has come back, but I think the true hot season hasn’t yet arrived. We’ve been getting a little bit of rain (three or four showers in the past month or so, which people call “the mango rains,” because this is when the mangoes start getting ripe–so excited about that!), but people say that the rain will stop and the vrai heat will come after it. So I’m preparing myself. I already find that I’m sweating nearly constantly and feel as if my skin is frying after walking in the sun for only a few minutes, even though I wear sunscreen, so it’s hard to imagine how it can get hotter. It’s funny, but I’m realizing how much sense it makes that the rhythm of life here is tied to things like avoiding the sun. At first the 3-hour “repos” in the middle of the day seemed so random, but now I see that it is truly too hot to do much of anything when the sun is at its strongest. Certainly it is too hot to be toiling in the fields, which is what the majority of the people in my community do during the day. I can see how this weather could really get in the way of productivity. [The same goes for the rain, actually–because so much of life is outside, if it’s raining, life needs to pause. I’m already dreading the rainy season because I foresee it being much more difficult to get work done.]
The dry season also means the hunting season here. As soon as the rains stopped, people began burning the brush all around the countryside. I was thinking the other day that my perceptions of “normal” are really changing, because I saw a huge cloud of smoke rising up in the distance and I didn’t worry at all about what it might be, because I knew it was just brush burning. Apparently this is a hunting technique that helps to chase animals out of hiding places so they can be trapped (generally, we are talking about bush rats, snakes, and rabbits here–there isn’t really any larger game around, but people at all of those small animals). While I think the environmental implications of burning all of the brush are probably not optimal, I can’t really argue with the need to eat during this season of relative food scarcity. We are currently in between major harvest seasons (the only crop being harvested in any quantity right now is the cashew) and so it’s natural to supplement the diet by searching for a bit of meat. (For the record, I personally have no food security problem–I am not a subsistence farmer, and I have enough money to buy things to make a balanced diet in all seasons. When I speak of food security, I am talking about the people who live in my community.) It’s interesting: in many books about Africa, authors often mention the way that the earth has kind of a life of its own–it’s difficult to tame–and I think I am seeing what they mean; I’ve noticed that fields that were charred black only a month ago have already sprouted back with bright green plants that are now waist-high.
Teachers here are on strike. In most of Benin, the strike has been full-fledged for quite some time, but in my town, they have been enacting a sort of “light” version of a strike (strike Tuesday-Thursday; teaching Monday and Friday), but now it is moving towards a full strike as well. From what I understand, they are protesting because other types of government employees were given a raise this year, but teachers were not. The strike has lasted for so long now that the students are at risk of basically losing the year in terms of credits–they will have to repeat the same grade next year. And yet they have still paid for this year–a task that is not easy for many Beninese families. It’s sad.
On that note, here is some further information on the schools, because I’ve gotten a lot of questions on this topic lately. In my town, there are two primary schools and one secondary school. All three of the schools have at least one school building and multiple payottes (the makeshift, gazebo-type structures that I’ve written about and photographed already). The real school buildings are quite nice–they are made of concrete and have a solid, clean look to them. The classrooms are large and a bit barren, but open and airy to allow for natural lighting and to keep them as cool as possible. Unfortunately, at none of the three schools does the government-built school building suffice for all of the students. This is where the payottes come in–classes that cannot fit in the school proper are conducted outside under these thatched roofs. Classes in payottes are much more susceptible to distraction by things that are happening outside of the school and to the weather. If it rains or even if the wind is blowing too much, continuing class becomes very difficult. The classes are generally large–between 35 and 70 students–and the students sit on wooden benches and write meticulous notes in flimsy notebooks that they guard with more caution than any student in the States has ever even thought about using with his school papers. It’s admirable. Each student has to pay a “contribution” each semester–a collection of school fees that are used to pay for the things a school needs to function (not the salaries of the teachers–those come from the government), which includes paying for any construction of classrooms that needs to be accomplished. For the secondary school, fees are 16,400FCFA (West African francs), which is about 33 American dollars, and if the parents do not pay them on time, the students are sent away from class. The contribution is large enough that it is difficult for many Beninese families to pay, or to pay on time, but small enough that it’s difficult to finance anything significant with that budget. Due to all of this, I’m considering taking on a classroom-building project while I’m here. Stay tuned for further details on that. We’ll see.
I’ve just been reminded that one should never take things like electricity for granted, because as I was sitting here writing this blog and waiting to finish my PC report, the power went out. Now I can’t access the other report, because the PC computer is a desktop, so I have to wait for the power to come back, and I’m kicking myself for not doing it when I had the chance before. It’s funny, I get so used to not having electricity or running water, and then I come to a place like Parakou and I am so excited about those things that I forget that we’re still in Benin.
Rafiki update: mouse toll is up to three. He (Rafiki) keeps getting bigger and fluffier. He’s pretty cute. I’m posting a new photo of him today.
I have “la chance” (luck) today–the power just came back on. I’m going to learn from my mistakes and go finish that report now. Until next time:)

Easier Said Than Done

This is a story about expectations, complications, and perhaps naiveté.  A few months ago–about a month after I arrived at post, I decided that I wanted to do something fun for my concession family and make some sort of American food for them to try.  They were always giving me food and I wanted to reciprocate; also they often ask me about what we eat in my country so I thought it would be interesting to let them taste for themselves.  I decided that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would be a good place to start–they’re something simple that requires no cooking, and they involve bread and peanuts, which are two popular food items here.  I also figured the protein from the peanut butter would be a good addition to the diet for the kids.  So I gathered the ingredients (this involved getting a friend to pick up jelly in Cotonou, because it’s only available in the big cities, buying peanut butter in Savalou, and picking up a loaf of bread on my way back in Glazoué–bread is not usually available in my town, and if it is, it’s only poor quality baguettes).  I got home and was quite excited to share my surprise with everyone.  I have to admit, I envisioned a Jif commercial-type scene, where I would make sandwich after sandwich and cut them in cute little triangles and children would smile up at me and ask for seconds.  You may guess that it did not actually work out like that.  Here’s how it actually went down:

I start pulling out the ingredients and the kids from my concession and others crowd around my door to see what I brought back.  It doesn’t take me long to discover that it’s much harder to make PB&Js in Benin than it is at home.  You never realize how important things like a kitchen counter are until you are sitting on the floor trying to cut a loaf of bread on a plate with raised edges as your cat is making an all-out attempt to steal bites of it (bread is one of Rafiki’s favorite foods).  Also, the loaves of bread here are not like those at home; they are weird and filled with air pockets and break in odd places instead of cutting into neat slices (as I am in the process of cutting the bread, I remember that saying: “the best thing since sliced bread,” and think, Wow, they’re right…sliced bread was a great invention).  The crowd of children at the door is just growing larger and larger as I struggle with the bread.  “The bread in my country is a little different than this bread,” I tell them as I butcher another potential slice.

Soon (but actually not that soon, because the bread takes forever) I have a small pile of relatively flat chunks of bread that can almost pass as slices, and it’s time to start making sandwiches.  I shoo away the flies that are gathering in the kitchen (one of the most annoying things about my house–since I haven’t yet gotten the screen door that I ordered 6 months ago(!), flies have a tendency to come in when I am cooking) and open the peanut butter and the jelly.  The kids are whispering to each other now, wondering what I’m going to do with these strange things.  They have never seen jelly before and think perhaps it’s crushed tomatoes in a jar.  I say the word for “strawberries” in French, but they have never seen a strawberry so they still don’t understand.  They are familiar with crushed peanuts, but they usually crush them themselves (a lengthy and difficult process) and use the paste immediately to make sauce, so we are in uncharted territory now.  I select the two best-looking “slices” and set them on a plate.  Carefully, with a spoon, because I thought my friend Ali was being silly when she insisted on finding butter knives for her kitchen, I spread the peanut butter on one chunk of bread and the jelly on another.  As I put the slices together, I hear a collective gasp of surprise from the kids–they think it is so odd that I would mix those foods like that (I think they are still thinking the jelly must be tomatoes, so I can understand their surprise–tomatoes and peanuts? Ew.).

Finally I present my masterpiece (probably the ugliest PB&J the world has ever seen) to the oldest kid there, who is already one of my buddies.  He and the whole crowd of children shrink back a little as I come to the door.  He looks at the plate, he looks at me, he looks at the plate again.
“Pour moi?” he asks me slowly, as if he really wishes it was not for him.
“Oui, pour toi!” I affirm, with a reassuring smile.
He laughs nervously, shifts his weight a bit, glances at the other kids, who are murmuring amongst themselves, and reluctantly reaches out to take the plate, as if it is something that might bite him.  The other kids shriek with the excitement of watching something funny happen to someone else while avoiding the unpleasantry oneself.  My buddy is trying very hard to be polite about this situation, but the food I have given is very odd.  He looks at it again.
“On mange ça? [One eats this?]” he clarifies.
I tell him yes, you eat it, and that in my country, it’s one of the favorite foods of children.  I encourage him to try it–he’ll like it.

We look at each other for what feels like a long time.  He’s still standing there with the plate, and I realize that he probably has no idea how to eat a sandwich, even if he wanted to.  Just like I had no idea how to eat their food when I first got here.  (Actually this still happens to me even after nearly 8 months–just yesterday I was presented with a meal I didn’t understand how to eat.  I had to wait for the person I was eating with to start taking bites so I could copy him.)  So I take the plate back, cut the sandwich into a bunch of bite-sized pieces (or try to…as noted, the bread doesn’t want to cooperate) and pass one out to each of the kids.  They take them, say “merci,” and run around the side of the house giggling.  I see them carefully inspecting the sandwich bits, peeling back the bread to see what’s inside, and taking tiny tastes of each thing.  Eventually, some of them get brave and just eat it.  They think it’s not too bad, but they’re not totally won over.  Some of the kids carefully deposit their pieces inside a container to “save for later” or to show their parents.  I don’t know if they ever ate them or if they fed them to the goats when I wasn’t looking.  But overall, it was a mildly successful cross-cultural encounter, and I do think they thought it was fun and appreciated the gesture.

As you might have guessed, I am not only writing about sandwiches here.  I am currently experiencing a lot of the “easier said than done” type of problem in my work life.  I’ve been preparing for Peace Corps for so many years, it’s ridiculous.  Unlike the paths that led some of my fellow volunteers here, mine was a concerted effort to end up doing this type of work.  And so I feel like I am well-prepared for this job; I studied public health and international development extensively during college, and I came in with a ton of ideas about what types of projects I could start on, as well as a lot of motivation to do them.  So honestly, while obviously I knew that things would be hard (if this was an easy job, more people would do it, or the work would already be done), I’m a little surprised at exactly how hard the “real work” is actually turning out to be.  [I put that phrase in quotes because PC is not only about doing development work–it is also about cultural exchange, in helping Americans learn about other countries, and helping people from other countries to learn about Americans.  And even in terms of trying to be an effective agent of change, it’s essential to build rapport through community integration; this means that personal and work lives are intertwined to such a degree that you really can’t disconnect them.  But even so…]

There are just so many obstacles in the way, so many hurdles to jump over, so many things that can go wrong at any given time, and things move so slowly.  Some days, work feels a bit like getting out of bed to go run full-speed at a brick wall, hoping to move it a tiny bit, and then going to bed just to wake up and try again the next day.  I suspect that it will get easier as I learn how to do things here and as I practice more and more, but it can be very frustrating.  Take for instance the example of strengthening the vaccination program at my health center.  I selected this as my first major project because it was something that my co-workers had suggested as a possible project when they applied to get a PC volunteer, and because vaccination is something that the health center already works on and with which people are already familiar.  I figured it would be a fairly simple project and would be a good way to ease into the work.
…Not so.  It turns out that there are a lot of things that go into creating a successful vaccination program, and I’m still working on trying to figure out how to coordinate them all.  First, one has to have a refrigerator in which to keep the vaccines.  We have this, but as I mentioned, since we don’t have electricity, it’s powered with petrol.  This means that if the person in charge of buying petrol is not very diligent, the fuel can run out and the fridge will turn off.  Petrol can only be bought in bulk in the market town, Glazoué, which is a 30 minute motorcycle ride away, and vaccines spoil quickly in the African heat.  Additionally, the thing just kind of stops working sometimes–if the “chimney” hasn’t been cleaned recently enough or if the quality of the petrol is not good or any number of unknown reasons.  So it is not always a reasonable assumption to think that we will be able to store vaccines for any period of time.  But let’s just say for the moment that the fridge is working.  The next step is to collect the vaccines from the regional hospital in Glazoué, which involves not only finding transportation to get there (possible enough if you’re willing to pay–more difficult if you’re looking for a free ride) but also filling out the necessary paperwork and getting the signature of the person responsible for the centre (who is not always present and doesn’t actually live in town).  Then upon arrival in Glazoué, you have to find the person in charge of the vaccines there (hoping that he hasn’t traveled that day or gone home early) and he has to have vaccines in stock.  Sometimes they run out and he has to go get more from a larger town with a larger hospital several hours away.  You also need to remember to pick up accessory materials, such as syringes and cotton for injections, and hope that those are also in stock.

Assuming all of the above steps went smoothly, you can start making plans to actually do the vaccinating.  My town is the seat of a county-type area, and as such, our health center is responsible for vaccinating in many of the smaller surrounding villages which do not have health centers or whose health workers are not trained in vaccination.  This is the part of the vaccination program I am aiming to strengthen; we do a fairly good job of reaching the people in town with our weekly vaccination session, but in the surrounding villages, the ball is really being dropped.  But to do mobile vaccination like that, you have the problems of transportation (who will drive? How many motorcycles do you need? How bad is the road that leads to the destination? Some of the places can’t be reached during the rainy season…), paying for gas, alerting the target population, taking into account events that will interfere with vaccination (such as market days and harvest season for certain crops), and making sure the work at the health center is covered while the vaccinating team is gone.  Remember, this is in addition to all the other things mentioned above.  And if even one of these pieces is not aligned, the whole plan falls apart.  And since our target population are farmers, if we don’t get moving very early in the morning, we have lost the day in terms of vaccinating, because the majority of the mothers will have gone to the fields by 8 or 9AM.

So it’s a struggle.  I am making progress, and that’s not the only project I’m working on.  I’m also doing health education-type work, laying the groundwork for a nutritional monitoring system, and trying to strengthen various parts of the town’s infrastructure in relation to health (such as installing hand-washing stations at the schools and working to expand the available foods in the market).  But as I said, none of it is as simple as it sounds like it would be.  For every project that I can explain in a few words, there are about eighteen steps and seventeen people who need to do something to make it work, and some days I wonder if I am fighting a losing battle.  Maybe I am, but I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge, and I rather think it’s my purpose in life to do the things that other people neglect because the think they are impossible or not worthwhile.  So I guess that means that my life won’t be easy.  And hey, as long as it’s going to be difficult, I might as well have fun and get some interesting stories along the way, right?

P.S. I posted new photos this weekend, and Rafiki has now gotten himself stuck in the mango tree two times.  I think he is either going to learn how to get out of the tree or not to climb it soon.  I’ll keep you updated.