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.