Hello all. Seems like it’s been quite awhile this time. I can’t really say that life has been busy, but life has been going on in a nice, fluid continuum in such a way that it has taken me very much by surprise to realize that the year 2013 is now upon us. The entire year of 2012 passed with me lost in the daily goings-on of village life, while you all were doing who knows what in that crazy world we call the US. During that year, I lost touch with so many of you, and even for those with whom I still have some contact, the occasional e-mail or letter doesn’t even scratch the surface of telling about the year of life that has passed. So all I can say is that I hope that you had a lovely year in which you accomplished things you wanted and shared with ones you loved.
I know that for me, 2012 was a year that I will never forget. It was a year of many small joys, successes, failures, and surprises and a few larger ones. It was a year of learning new things, many of them things that I imagine my grandparents probably knew and worked hard to make sure I didn’t have to deal with–things like how to get water from a well, how to grind food when you don’t have a food processor, and how to wash clothes by hand so they actually get clean. It was a year of French–of getting better at French, of wishing I was better at French, of occasionally dreaming in French, of being embarrassed at my village-level French when encountering well-educated people–and of Fon–of making small progress and picking up a word here and a word there and finding myself able to piece together simple conversations and even slightly more complicated conversations at times, but also being frustrated at how impossible it is to communicate on a deep level with such an understanding of a language. In 2012, I saw my first dead child, had my first real case of malaria (pretty sure the other “malaria”s I had were other things–turns out when you really have malaria, you know it), waded across a thigh-high river while pushing a motorcycle on a vaccination trip, lost a cat, attended many, many trainings, rode in taxis with more people crammed into a 4-person space than you would believe possible, carried many jugs of water on my head from the pump, spent many hours helping kids with their English, weighed a lot of babies, oversaw the vaccination of even more babies, started learning the art of schmoozing with influential people, talked to many people about family planning and spacing of children, got very used to riding on a motorcycle, became accustomed to eating all sorts of African village food (I barely even miss American food anymore–just give me some boiled corn paste or rice with sauce and I’m just good), spent a fortune on sending letters to the U.S., stopped craving the internet (life is so much simpler when you’re not connected all the time), put aside my fear of making a fool of myself and started dancing in church, ate a lot of yam pile, spent hours and hours looking at the stars, listened to hours and hours of traditional Beninese music, learned to rock Beninese outfits with an American twist, and perhaps most impressively, avoided becoming the subject of vodun gri-gri.
2012 began and ended in the village I’ve come to think of as “mine,” not in the sense that I own it, but more that it owns me. I have, at least for a time, become the property of this village. In the year between the first New Year’s celebration and the second one, I seem to have made friends and built a family of sorts. At the end of 2011, I didn’t know how to celebrate the new year here and I ended up asleep before midnight on New Year’s Eve for the first time in a very long time and mostly just hanging out with my concession family for the rest of the celebration. This time around, I still managed to miss the New Year’s Eve celebration (because they apparently don’t start until midnight, unlike the U.S. where we celebrate from early evening and it peaks at midnight–I had been out at 10ish and nothing was going on so I went home and the next day everyone was like “You should have been there last night!” Ahhh…), but on New Year’s Day and the days following, I ended up out in the village eating way too much at different people’s houses and drinking with different groups of friends at the two bars in town.
This way, I got a much better view and understanding of the fête (literally: party, but meaning holidays in practice) than I did last year. The bars particularly were an interesting illustration of the celebration because it’s the only time of year that they ever fill up. Normally they do a very slow business of perhaps a few people a day, but during the fête there isn’t enough space for all of the people who come in to splurge on a soft drink (550 francs–about one US dollar and enough to buy 6-10 meals for one person….) or a beer (600 francs) in celebration of the fact that they’ve lived to see another year. The owners of the bars must have spent a fortune to power their generators nearly non-stop for three days so that lightbulbs turned on at night and their patrons could have the rare treat of watching music videos on TV while they drank. The teenage girls who serve the drinks were as busy as retail workers on Black Friday, trying to ensure that everyone had a drink and also paid before being shuffled out the door, while simultaneously and subtly avoiding the advances of intoxicated men, and extra people dressed in their best holiday clothes stood outside both bars, waiting for a seat or just watching the television from a distance. It was quite the celebration, really, and I for one enjoyed myself immensely.
As for 2013, it holds some interesting things. First and foremost, I’m receiving visitors from “la-bas” today! My mom and stepfather, Max, are coming to Benin for two weeks and I couldn’t be more excited. As some of you know, Max is a priest and his church has been involved with many of my projects here, most specifically launching in a pen-pal project between youth here and there. So this trip is partially a follow-up on these things and partially a much-appreciated visit to me. When they first arrive, we’ll go see the village and stay there for about five days–enough time for them to see the place, meet people, eat yam pilé, dance in church, etc–but hopefully not enough time for them to get too bored. Then we’ll go on a quick safari in the north (hey, if they’re coming all the way to Africa, they should at least see some wildlife, right?), and head back down south for a few days at the beach. I’m psyched. Particularly to show them off in village; all of my friends are super excited about their impending arrival and I think it’s going to be quite interesting to see how they’re received. I suspect it’s going to be a bit overwhelming for them, but I hope it’s overwhelming in a good way. I’ve asked them to be guest bloggers here during or after the trip, so stay tuned to hear their accounts of how everything goes down.
After that, it’s time to really turn up the intensity of work to make sure that I actually get something accomplished before I leave in September. For the past few months, I have been seriously considering extending my service for a third year at my post, mostly because I feel like I haven’t had enough time to do the things I want to do. With an extra year, I could really expand the work I’m doing and I think I’d be a lot more effective because now I know how to get things done (I mean, to some extent), which took an awfully long time to learn. However, I’m leaning away from it right now. As much as I love living here, I also recognize that it’s wearing me out, and I’m not sure that another year would be the best choice for me or for the village. A new volunteer would come in with new energy, and maybe it is time for me to get started on “real life,” whatever that is. Personally, I don’t know what I’m going to do in the world of America, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll find my way back to the developing world sooner or later, but I accept that maybe I need to take a break. Also, I have a fantastic opportunity to do some backpacking-type traveling with my little brother if I finish this year. He’s taking the fall semester off from college before graduating in the spring of 2014 and has agreed to meet me in Benin and wander around West/other Africa and/or Europe with me. Which really, if we don’t do that now, when else will we have such an opportunity? Grad school, work, life, family (eventually), will get in the way, right? So that’s my dilemma at the moment.
So any resolutions for the new year? My year has been simple and I’m keeping the goals for the next year simple too:
1.) Smile more and be joyful
2.) Live in the moment
3.) Say yes when opportunities arise
4.) Figure out my post-Peace Corps plans
5.) Maintain my energy in terms of work and finish the projects I’ve started
6.) Savor my relationships
And now, T-2 hours until the parental units’ flight lands…time to go to the airport! Catch you on the flip side:)