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:)

One thought on “6 Month Stew

  1. Thank you so much for your wonderful, informative and inspiring descriptions of life in Benin. We take so much for granted here, and complain undoubtedly more than the people of Benin. I hope the hot season isn’t as bad as it sounds like it will be.

    We miss you but are so proud of what you are doing, What a lifechanger! Keep us informed about any plans for a classroom-building project.

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