GLOWing in the Dark

The Peace Corps experience is a huge roller coaster. Most returned volunteers will tell you that. It’s even part of the appeal of the thing–you take the terrible times with the incredible ones, and some say that one feels more alive this way than in the static sort of life that many find in the U.S. I probably rode the high part of that roller coaster for longer than many volunteers do, so it’s only fair that now I seem to be hitting a lower spot in the ride.

Recently, things have been getting a little difficult in both my personal and professional lives here (which, as I learned early on, are so intertwined here that they’re barely worth trying to separate). First (and I almost don’t want to write this because I have a feeling it’s not going to go over well with my readers), I lost Rafiki about a month and a half ago. Like many cats, he used to like to go out during the night–run around, chase things, sit in the cool shadows of the darkness, etc–and come back in the morning to sleep in the house all day. But one night he went out and never came back. I took the whole thing fairly well, I guess–probably because since arriving in Benin, I’d heard from other volunteers that the chances of having a pet survive the whole two years were perhaps a bit slim, so I had been trying not to get too attached to the little guy. I guess it worked. Emotional walls…they’re effective. Around that same time, I hit a stage of huge frustration with my work. I know I haven’t written a lot about “work” here, probably because it is generally so touch-and-go; just when I start feeling like I’m finally making progress and things are moving along, we hit another bump in the road and BAM, we’ve stopped again. And while most days, I feel like I find something useful to do, none of my projects are really coming together as they should be, and it’s so infuriating. I’m also losing patience with the state of the health center where I am based. The same problems that existed when I got there a year ago–lack of medication, equipment, trained personnel, etc–are still rampant and might actually be getting worse, despite my attempts to work with the people in charge to make improvements. I am someone who generally has a great deal of perseverance, but there are only so many times one can try and fail before the drive to try again starts to fade.

Then, in the most recent edition of “things Christina is going to complain about before she gets on with the rest of the blog already,” a couple weeks ago, I went with a bunch of other volunteers to Benin’s annual Yam Festival in a nearby city (yes, that’s right–a festival of yams…it occurs on the 15th of August each year to celebrate the first harvest of yams after the off-season. Mostly it’s a big party with a lot of yam pilé–it was awesome except for one thing) and got my purse stolen with my cell phone, camera, key to my house, and a bit of money inside. As you might imagine, this put me in a pretty bad mood–first because those are many useful and expensive things to lose in one fell swoop, and second because I should have known to be more careful in a situation like that. It’s funny, generally I feel like living here is making me more “street smart;” I’ve noticed in particular the development of that sort of 6th sense that tells you there is something wrong or danger is approaching in some way, and as such, I think I’ve avoided several potentially bad situations. But also, I’ve become so comfortable in my village that I seem to have forgotten some common sense about cities and events where there are a lot of people. The bag-snatching happened on the morning of the 15th, when a couple friends and I had gone to get breakfast. We sat down at a table near the back of an outdoor restaurant and I hung my bag on the back of my chair, as I didn’t want to put it down in the dirt. It seemed like the whole city was tired from partying the night before, and there were very few people out and about. We had a nice breakfast of omelets and coffee, interrupted only by one strange moment where a man came up in front of us, greeted us, and was saying a bunch of things that didn’t make sense. That must have been the moment when someone else snatched the bag because when I looked for it later, it was gone. It sounds obvious when I write it here, but that kind of strange interaction happens all the time here, since we stand out as foreigners and people like to talk to us despite the frequent language barriers, so at the time I just laughed and commented on how strange life is sometimes. We asked the staff of the restaurant if they had seen anything, but they were unhelpful (probably either hungover from the night before or still awake from the night before…not in the mood to help stupid yovos who can’t keep track of their personal belongings) and at any rate, it was pretty clear that the bag was gone. So that was that. Not pleased about it…as they say here “ça me fait mal”–literally, “it hurts me.” But what’s done is done, right?

So all by way of saying, it hasn’t been the best couple of months… Which is why it was so wonderful to have a really positive experience in the middle of it. Two weeks ago (or is it three now that I’m finally getting around to posting this?), we finally had the girls’ camp that I wrote you all about a long time ago, and it went splendidly. The Camp GLOW experience started on a Sunday morning, when I met up with three 14ish girls whom I barely knew, but who had been chosen for me by the administration of the school. I had expected them to be running late, as is typical here, but they surprised me by arriving even earlier than I to our agreed meeting spot. I greeted their parents, assessed the three young bodies huddled together on a bench, and asked them cheerily, “Are we ready?”
“Oui,” they answered in unison.
A pause, as I looked at them again.
“Are we scared?”
“Oui,” they responded more quickly, and with more gusto than I expected.
I tried to assure them that this would be fun and that there was no need to be nervous, but tension was definitely high as we met up with nearby volunteers and their girls and traveled the 3.5ish hours in several crammed taxis to Parakou, a city which none of them had ever seen.

As we entered the University of Parakou gates, a flock of young Beninese women welcomed us with a chorus of “Bon arrivé!” and helped to carry the girls’ stuff. These were the tutrices and junior tutrices of the camp–essentially the counselors/junior counselors, a role that we the volunteers shared with them. The tutrices are model women who are chosen from each participating community to act as sort of mothers away from home for the girls, and the junior tutrices are girls who had participated in the camp the year before and were chosen to come back as helpers because of their good behavior/performance. We were led to the home base room for the camp: a classroom that usually hosts the university’s English classes. The room was big, open and airy, and reminded me more of an elementary school room than one of a university. I remember feeling that way about university classrooms in Uganda, too, and I think it’s due to the climate; because it’s so hot, everything needs to be open, whereas in the climate-controlled environment of American universities, we prefer to close our rooms to keep out distractions. At any rate, the room had been decorated by the tutrices/junior tutrices prior to the campers’ arrival and was quite welcoming. The girls, tired and hungry from traveling all morning, were given a local frozen juice treat, bissap, and a fish sandwich on a baguette as they arrived and checked in.

After they were done eating, we took them to settle into the dorms where they’d be staying. The university has some extremely nice dorms that look kind of like modern apartments and have twisting staircases and are generally beautiful. These were not the dorms that we secured for GLOW. Our rooms were in an old, somewhat dingy, two-story brick building (apparently the less expensive option for students who don’t have the money for the nicer lodging). The locker-room style communal bathrooms seemed to be perpetually flooded and the rooms themselves were tiny, containing only a sole bunk bed and a tall, skinny cabinet for depositing personal possessions. Fine for a week, but hard to imagine spending my entire college career in a room like that. Even so, considering what the girls were used to from home, I think this dorm ended up being a good choice. My girls were assigned to a room on the second floor of the building, and it was the first time that some of them had ever been on the second floor of anything. I didn’t even consider this as I plowed up the stairs and wondered why they were taking so long to follow me. My friends and I realized later that stairs might be a tricky thing for people who had never used them before. The dorm also featured electricity and running water, neither of which was a thing my girls were used to. They were so excited to have their very own lightbulb with a switch in their room, and I knew they would sleep at least the first night with the light on all night, just because they could. (Unfortunately, the power went out that first night and they actually ended up being rather in the dark…) The rest of the campus was nice and rather college-esque, and I think it was a good environment for the camp. As we were standing at the bottom of a huge, shiny lecture hall on a tour of the university, I mentioned to the girls next to me that they could be back there in a few years as students, sitting in those desks, which is a possibility that probably doesn’t seem real to most village young people, but I hope that somehow for at least a few of the girls, seeing it may have helped it to become more real.

The camp followed a pretty normal kind of trajectory for that kind of thing: the beginning was a little rough and we were all wondering if we’d make it the entire week, but by the end the time was flying and it didn’t seem like enough. I think participating in camp gave me a good glimpse of why people enjoy teaching. It was the most amazing thing to see the transformation in the girls over the course of the week, and I suppose teachers see even bigger changes over the course of a year. The girls arrived quiet, shy, nervous, and reserved. Then as they got to know each other and us, they started emerging from their shells. Some of the activities we had were a lot like school–they were sitting in desks, and there was a lot of talking–but without the boys to overshadow them, we started seeing them participate and really shine. We had discussions about all sorts of things, ranging from the practical and straightforward, like malaria, clean drinking water, and book-keeping to the more taboo and complicated, like birth control, sexual harassment, and violence against women. We had three sessions in the computer lab, where many of them used (or even saw) a computer for the first time, while practicing the basics of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Paint. We had a panel of professional Beninese women come in to share their experiences–a session that was truly inspiring and seemed to leave a big impression on the girls. And we had fun–playing with a gigantic parachute, making friendship bracelets, painting and drawing. And as the week progressed, I felt the change in the atmosphere of the entire room, as well as seeing individual girls blossom and grow. In those six days, in a safe environment away from the obstacles of everyday village life, I think many of the girls were able to forget about all the things that tell them “no you can’t” and started feeling that it was really possible for them to do big things in their lives. And during the closing ceremony, each girl’s face was shining as she walked to the front of the room to receive her certificate of participation and a surprise bag of goodies that we put together for them each, including a new school uniform, which is actually a pretty big gift and was highly appreciated.

The day my girls and I returned to village after camp, I was walking home after a busy afternoon of attending a funeral and then an impromptu trip to see a concert in a neighboring village when a man called out to me from the restaurant/bar on my way home. It was the father of one of the girls who I’d taken to camp, and he had been looking for me because he wanted to thank me. He insisted on buying me a drink, and as we were drinking and attempting to communicate through my limited Fon and his limited French, he told me that his daughter had told him all about camp and showed him what she learned and presented the new uniform. He kept telling me how happy it made him, because he was just a farmer and he had never gone to school, but now his daughter was doing so well and had so many possibilities open to her and now she had seen Parakou and the university, and maybe she would be president of Benin someday.

And so I think the darkness will not last forever. Until next time, CMK.

2 thoughts on “GLOWing in the Dark

  1. The happier part of this entry is so wonderful! I hope those girls are able to live to their potential.

    And I’m sorry about Rafiki–I hope he’s making many unauthorized doors in cat heaven.

  2. Wow, thank you for sharing your wonderful camp experience, that is truly a light in the darkness. What a difference you are making in those girls’ lives. Once the door is cracked and they can see that light, they will fight to keep it open.

    As you know I am so sorry about Rafiki, I know you must miss him. But glad about your new feline friend.


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