Summer Vacation

Greetings! It doesn’t seem like it’s been so long since I wrote, but I guess it has. First of all, a huge thank you to everyone who donated money for Camp GLOW…it’s now fully funded and it’s set to start in 2 weeks from today! So excited, and so thankful for all of your support. I’ll make sure to update you on how it goes and post pictures from the camp.

Also, thank you for the kind responses to the last blog. As an update, Fidelia is doing well. People have been helping out little by little with what they can, and the family is doing as well as could be expected for the moment. She’s almost three months old now and in the care of my work partner’s older sister. Here’s a photo of her on her grandmother’s back (if the internet cooperates to post it):


As for me, life has been fairly busy lately. My latrine project has been taking up virtually all of my time. We successfully built 20 latrines and the project is coming to a close. We actually got six more latrines out of the project than we had planned because of some kind of shifty business that had happened during the drafting of the budget. Apparently people working on the project with me had thought that they were going to be able to use the grant money/materials for other things (such as building their own houses, eating, buying televisions, etc) without me noticing… They were incorrect. So, we ended up with a lot of extra money. I was kind of put out about the whole situation at first, because it is admittedly annoying (and an insult to my intelligence) that they thought they could trick me like that, and also it just kind of stings that when you’re trying to do something nice for someone, they’ll still try to pull a stunt like that, but finally my friends here have helped me to not take it too personally because it’s unfortunately so widespread that it happens essentially universally in the country.

I’ve now gotten to the point where I see it more as a game–can I catch the mason before he steals my cement? Can I trick him into accidentally admitting that he took more materials than he needed? I still ended up losing a small portion of the materials that I bought to problems like that, but the vast majority were used for the intended purpose, and I was able to build 20 latrines, which is a significant number, so I’m fairly happy with the outcome. And I’ve learned so incredibly much in the past few months from this project–not only about how one actually builds a latrine: the materials you need, the prices, the number of bricks that one package of cement will make, etc, but also about how people work: how to manage them, to read behind what someone says to understand what they mean, to resolve conflicts and work-related crises, and especially how to do all these things at the crack of dawn (this project has really impeded my running routine, and more than once I had my work partners or the masons knocking on my door before I had gotten out of bed in the morning–that was always a lovely start to my day). I’ll definitely be happy when it’s over and I’ve turned in the final reports, but I’m glad I did it. And I’d consider doing another similar project, because there was a ton of interest for it in the community and I know it will go much smoother the second time.

We’re pretty solidly in the middle of summer vacation. Though the school year only officially ended last week, no one has gone to school since early June, when the three big end-of-the-year exams happened. In the Beninese school system (which is modeled on the French school system), you have to take a big test at the end of primary school, then at the end of “junior high” and finally at the end of “high school,” and if you don’t pass, you don’t move on and you don’t get your diploma. It’s kind of like the IB program in the US, except that I’m pretty sure IB students still get a normal high school diploma even if they fail their IB exam (correct me if I’m wrong–admittedly I don’t know much about IB, having been an AP student during high school…). The results of all the exams were just released in the past couple weeks, with fairly typical results, I suppose. The vast majority of the candidates passed their post-elementary school exam, slightly more than half passed the post-junior high exam, and less than half passed the final exam that gives the equivalent to a high school diploma, called the BAC. I know various people who both failed and passed all three exams. They read all the names of those who passed on the radio, so the day of the release of the results, everyone gathers around whatever radio is nearest and listens intently. It’s fun when you hear the name of someone you know, and is probably really great for them because everywhere they go, people will be congratulating them. But also everyone knows if your name didn’t get read, and that’s tough. The oldest girl in my concession family just tried the post-junior high exam for the second time and failed again, which is really discouraging.

It’s odd, because apparently this sort of school system works in France, but here it just does not seem terribly successful. I mean, less than half of the students who complete high school actually get their diplomas each year–that isn’t a sign of success. It must be really difficult to have to repeat the same grade and the same exam over and over again, but there aren’t a lot of options here for people who don’t get their diplomas, and often people are already in their mid 20s before they finally get their BAC. I think probably a lot of the problem with the schools is the lack of proficiency in French from an early age. In the US, most of the students start school already speaking and understanding English, and if they don’t, there are supplementary classes offered to them, but here (especially in a rural place such as where I live), the children often start the first year of school not knowing a word of French, having only spoken Fon at home. Then there are also structural and personnel problems in the school system that keep them from accelerating as much as they might in their studies, and I think a lot small things just add up day to day, week to week, and at the end of the year, they’re still not proficient. For example, there are only six hours in the Beninese elementary school day, and Wednesdays are half days. Attendance for teachers is pretty flexible, and they are often late or don’t show up, and sometimes even when the teacher is present, the class will be left to just hang out if he is tired or wants to grade papers or write the next exam. Nearly all the work that American teachers do at home or in their free time is done during the school day here. But admittedly they aren’t paid very well, and some of the money that they should be earning typically disappears at some point through the chain of payment, so that by the time it gets to them it’s even less than it was. And when people aren’t paid well, it is difficult to motivate them to do the best job they can.

And then there are outside factors, such as the fact that many of the kids don’t eat well before coming to school or during the school day. And that they really have no time to rest–any time they’re not in school, they’ll be working around the house, or in the fields. On the weekends, almost all the kids will be helping their parents in the fields, and summer vacation is like one long session of field work, because it coincides with the rainy season, which is when there is a lot of work to be done in the fields. So while American (and I suspect this is similar for French) children use their summers to recharge or learn new things or otherwise improve themselves through various types of lessons or camps, their Beninese counterparts are doing manual labor so their families will have enough money to pay their school fees the next year. Which makes me even more frustrated about the state of the school system, because people sacrifice so much to pay for school which is of such low quality. But as is kind of a theme here, it’s the best that’s available, so they have to make do with it.

Reflecting on this problem has led me to an idea for a project that I’m in the process of planning–a kind of academic summer camp for kids just entering junior high. I’ve been really excited about this since the end of the year, and had tentatively programmed it for mid August, to run until mid or late September (the school year starts again in October), but have been running into funding difficulties because I haven’t gotten the official stamp of confirmation on my extension yet. Since I’m not “officially” approved, I’m not eligible to receive grants, so I’m looking into trying to find other funding sources because it’s not a terribly expensive project, and it looks like it still might happen. But basically, the idea is to select a group of kids that will be in 6th grade this year–either because they failed last year or those who have just passed out of elementary school–who aren’t the strongest students but are motivated and to provide them with 4-6 weeks of intensive reinforcement in French language and possibly also math skills. I’ll recruit a few local teachers who are good, reliable, trustworthy and interested in helping the community to lead the academic sessions, and then I’m going to intersperse some more camp-like activities that I’ll lead, possibly with the help of other volunteer friends, like games and art and talking about health and nutrition and study habits, etc.

I’m in the process of trying to balance what I think would be the most beneficial with what might be the limit of the reality for these kids; I’d like to take up a good portion of the week with activities and then supervise a study hall kind of a time afterwards or in the evenings, but I know that their parents need them to help in the fields and at home. It’s a little difficult to figure out what is within the realm of possibility, but we’ll get there. Then, if I can work it out logistically, we might try to continue the extra support into the school year and see if we can succeed in making a positive difference in some of these kids’ academic careers. We’ll see.

Honestly, I’m finding myself in a bit of unfamiliar territory here because my area of expertise is health, not education, but I’ve taken enough classes on education and I’ve also been a student enough that I think I can manage this. As my work with the health center has been steadily dropping off as time goes along, I guess I’m sort of throwing myself into more youth activities and working with the schools as a replacement for that–as something to fill the hours of the days between big projects such as the latrine project. But also, as I’m getting more jaded with reality, I’m clinging more and more to the idea that things can change through youth, and that the next generation has opportunities that the previous one does not. So wish me luck!

In other news, my cat is doing great. He’s getting quite big now and has recently been vaccinated against rabies, which I’d been wanting to do for awhile. I’m not sure if I told you that he had learned how to get into my ceiling (which is a layer of straw mats that are suspended between the walls with iron wire), but he has. And at first, when he went up there, he didn’t know how to get down, and I had to go through an annoying process of rescuing him from the ceiling each time, but recently he’s learned how to descend as well, so his habit of getting into the ceiling is much less annoying than it was. And I think he finds some sneaky mice up there, too, so that’s good. I’m going to try to post a picture of him in his ceiling hammock here–we’ll see if it works. Until next time! CMK


A (belated) Mother’s Day Requiem

The night that she died, a full moon rose over the village.  As the daylight faded out and that irreverent globe of too-bright white light ascended, a crowd gathered around and women began to wail.  They thrust their hands up at the sky and cried out the name of the woman who lay motionless and pale in the van that had tried in vain to get her to the hospital.  I caught a glimpse of one of my students–the woman’s 12-year-old daughter–in the middle of the throng, grief contorting her young face into something beyond her years and tears streaking her cheeks as she wept.  At some point, people who know what to do in these situations shuffled the wailers into a room to calm them and the rest of us sat in silence on benches outside their house, heads in our hands.  The silence was occasionally broken by people sighing or making noises of disappointment and disapproval, words of welcome and condolence being exchanged quietly each time someone new arrived, or some woman being again overcome by grief and screaming out into the night.  Near dawn, they buried her inside her house, as is the tradition, under the floor in the room where just the night before she had slept, while a 9-month old fetus prepared to enter the world.  Her husband, my work partner, was stoic and accepting beyond belief, telling everyone that it was the will of God to take his only wife and what was left for him was to take care of his four children.

It turns out to be one of the heartbreaking things of the world: a newborn baby with no mother.  What should be a joyous day of welcoming a new member into the family becomes filled with shock and sorrow and confusion.  Maternal mortality, or the death of a mother in the process of or directly after giving birth, is something we see fairly rarely in the states nowadays, but in the developing world, giving birth is one of the more dangerous things a woman will do in her life.  The newborn baby girl cried incessantly all night, as if to remind anybody who might have forgotten that something was seriously wrong.  And the next morning, before anyone had recovered from the fatigue of the previous night’s mourning, it became clear that the problem of the baby had to be dealt with.  What does one do with a newborn without a mother in the middle of rural Africa?

The woman in this story was a friend of mine–as my work partner’s wife, she had taken care of me through that first confusing visit to post and our relationship evolved from there–and while language barriers kept us from exchanging too many words of depth while she lived, the way in which she died hurt me because I keep wondering “Could I have done more to prevent this?”

She had done everything right during her pregnancy–gone to pre-natal consultations, taken her vitamins, even gotten an ultrasound to ensure that the baby was doing well and would be born in good health, and of course she had planned to give birth in a health center, not at home.  But there is a lack of qualified health personnel in Benin, especially in the rural areas, as in much of the developing world.  So though she gave birth in a medical facility (the private clinic in town, not the health center where I am based), she wasn’t fortunate enough to be assisted by a well-trained aide.  In the majority of rural medical facilities in Benin, and I’d venture a guess that this is true in much of the developing world, much of the day to day work is done by informally trained nurse’s aides because people who are well-educated/well-trained prefer to work in more urban areas, leaving a serious personnel shortage in places like the one where I live.  Thus, you have nurse’s aides, and then the informal aides to the nurse’s aides who have their hands in most of the daily work.  There are qualified personnel supervising the aides, in theory, but in practice one or two people cannot be present twenty four hours out of the day, seven days a week.  This is how it came to be that my friend’s wife was assisted in her birthing by a young apprentice who missed the signs that this birth should have been performed in a larger hospital.  The interesting thing about practicing medicine in remote areas that lack trained personnel is that it turns out to be fairly possible to avoid and treat many problems based on observing only the signs; i.e., you see a lack of color in a child’s palm/inner eyelid or you note that a pregnant woman’s blood pressure is outside of a certain range and you know that both of those cases need to be referred to a higher level medical facility, though you don’t know what causes the signs or what the underlying problem is.  The training of even low-level medical personnel (largely funded by international aid) on recognizing these types of signs seems to have been fairly successful in the Beninese healthcare system, and is probably the reason that we don’t see more maternal or child deaths in my health center.

So one might well say that it must have been the will of God to have this woman die in childbirth.  It was quite simply bad luck for her to encounter complications while supervised by someone lacking training.  We have young apprentices like this at our health center as well, and they also perform births by themselves at times and usually it goes fine.  What presents itself here is the sharp reality of living in a resource-poor country: you do your best with the human and material resources available, and that has to be good enough.  Perhaps at the time that my friend began hemorrhaging post-birth, the clinic’s trained nurse was taking care of a seizing child with a raging fever, or perhaps she was out of town, buying new drugs for the pharmacy, sleeping, or any variety of things; I don’t know because I wasn’t there.  But by the time the apprentice realized that she was in over her head, the woman had already lost so much blood that they had barely gotten her into the vehicle to take her on the 30-minute ride over a dirt road to the larger hospital in Glazoué when she died.

The baby girl, Fidelia, is one of my biggest worries these days.  I just see so many ways that her story could end badly and quickly, and not many realistic paths to avoid such chances.  I’ll do what I can personally to help, but when it comes down to it, the reality of the situation is this: If she’s a fighter, then she’ll make it.  If not, well, she could easily join the ranks of the 6% of babies under one year of age who die every year in Benin.

The first big problem is how to feed her, because in the developing world, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is an important foundation for good health and nutrition throughout the child’s life.  Clearly, with no living mother, this becomes difficult.  I had hoped that they would be able to find a surrogate mother to nurse her until she was old enough to start eating other things, but there is a strong cultural belief here that if another mother begins nursing someone else’s child like this, her own child will die.  Thus, even though my work partner has a younger sister with a four month old baby, he felt he couldn’t ask her to nurse Fidelia because it would mean the death of her baby.  I deployed all of my persuasive abilities for the case of the surrogate, but at some point you just have to accept culture because it’s deeply embedded and difficult to change.  However, the newborn’s digestive system can’t handle food that one might feed to older children, meaning that if breastmilk isn’t an option, she has to be fed using baby formula, which is expensive, difficult, and often dangerous in rural Africa.

Formula feeding may be widespread in the U.S. but for Fidelia, I don’t see it as a viable solution.  Anyone who has been a parent or an older sibling or even a babysitter for a young baby will remember the hassle of having to wake up multiple times during the night to mix up a bottle for that screaming bundle of joy.  That was the fun part of having a kid, right?  Now imagine doing that while you’re camping, and you’re coming close to seeing what it would be like to use baby formula in rural Benin.

You have no microwave, no safe water, and no dishwasher or even sink in which to clean the bottle.  You wake up to crying in the middle of the night and know that you have to get up, find firewood, start a fire, boil water, wash the bottle with some of the boiled water, and wait for the rest of the water to cool before you can mix it with the formula and give Fidelia her bottle.  And you’re going to do that several times each night?  Not easy, my friends.  It won’t be long before you start cutting corners–maybe washing the bottle with regular water at first, not bringing the water to a full boil, eventually using regular water or preparing the formula in advance and letting it sit all night–because after all, you are cumulatively exhausted and she’s screaming and everyone around you is waking up every night because the houses are so close together and they’re sympathetic that the child has no mother, but they still want to sleep.  And each of those tiny corners puts the baby in a little more danger of diarrheal disease, one of the biggest killers of children under five in Africa.  Then there’s the issue of the cost: formula is expensive, especially for a family that supports itself by farming.  Each can of formula costs around 3500 francs, which is about $7, and will need to be bought every 2-3 weeks at first, and probably every week by the time she nears six months.  For perspective, know that lunch money for most kids here is 50 francs, meaning that you could feed another child for over 3 months with the money that you’ll use for two weeks of formula.  The prohibitive cost will lead to you trying to economize by reducing the amount of formula added per unit of water water, which will quickly lead to malnutrition, which in turn makes the child more susceptible to other illnesses.  And to make the situation even easier for you, if the formula runs out, you don’t just zip out to the grocery store and buy more: you have to journey over that dirt road for at least 30 minutes and might not even find it in stock at the one pharmacy that sells it in town.

There was a glimmer of hope for Fidelia about a week after her birth: the social service center put my work partner in touch with a group of nuns that take care of orphan children.  They said they could keep Fidelia with them in Glazoué for as long as the family wanted and it would cost them nothing, as long as they came and visited her whenever they could.  So my work partner had accepted and sent her there–a tough decision but one that he made for the wellbeing of his child–and then less than a week later, the nuns called back to tell him that they could no longer keep her in Glazoué, but would have to send her to the larger orphanage about 3 hours away.  He didn’t want her to be so far away, so he brought her back to village and now she lives with his older sister.

What would you do in this situation?  It’s a pretty tough one.  Like I said, I don’t see a lot of ways for it to have a happy ending.  Which I suppose it’s so important to try to prevent things like this from happening.  One way to do this is by boosting funding for healthcare and training for healthcare personnel; organizations like the World Health Organization and UNICEF and even our own USAID are doing good work in those areas, and as I mentioned above, it is having an impact.  Another is to increase general education amongst the population about health issues, the danger signs in pregnancy and birthing, the benefits of having fewer children and spacing them well, etc, which is something that I’m working on with PC and many health-related NGOs also focus on.  And a third preventive measure comes back to educating and empowering women and girls.  Because a well-educated woman will take control over her own life, get married later, have fewer children (which reduces the risk of maternal mortality), have more resources available to her, and overall have a higher chance of a healthy, long life.

So I’m going to make another plug for our annual girls’ camp, Camp GLOW, which will take place in early August this year.  We have the chance to make a real impact in these girls’ lives, an impact which can continue for years and impact the lives of the next generation as well, but we’re still missing our goal by over $1,700.  I know that times are tough and money is tight, but please if you can spare a little bit to help us out, you will truly be making a difference.  I also know that I’ve been letting down my end of this blogging deal and have been pretty bad about posting lately.  I promise I’ll do better, and in exchange, I hope you’ll pass along my plea for help or the link to the blog to at least one person who might be interested or have missed the more recent posts.  Here’s the link to donate:

As always, thank you for all of your support through this journey.  Stay well and enjoy the beginning of summer.  Peace and love.  CMK

Need Your Help

Hello everybody!

See? I promised I’d write again soon. This post will be kept short because its main objective is to tell you that we’re finalizing plans for this year’s Camp GLOW–the girls’ camp that I helped with last year–and we’re again in need of donations from people at home to make it happen.

Last year’s camp was one of the best experiences of my Peace Corps service thus far and I truly believe that it made a difference in the lives of those girls.  The opportunity to leave the village, spend time on a college campus, meet other motivated young women, learn about important issues that might normally be taboo and unspoken, and even just have a little fun is incredibly valuable and since we don’t charge the girls anything to participate, we have to fundraise it all between the Beninese government and our network at home.

So please, if you can help us with a donation of any amount, know that it will be making a difference (and even $20 or $50 goes a long way in Benin!). Even if you can’t, if you could spread the word to others who might be interested, we would all be grateful. The link to donate is here:

Thank you in advance and thanks for reading!

Here and Now

I’ve written and re-written this post so many times, which is why it’s been such a long time in coming. I was searching for the perfect way to present this bit of news, so that you all would read it and say “Oh yes, this makes sense.” My quest for the perfect words was unsuccessful, so I’m just going to go with the straightforward route: I’ve decided to stay on here for an extra year. I know the prevailing attitude of folks at home was to finish the two years and come home, so I suspect this may be difficult to understand. I’ll explain the best I can, and I hope that you’ll try to understand and support me.

I’ve been reflecting on the idea of extending for a third year for quite some time. I went back and forth and back and forth about it for months. The pro-con list was fairly even, and there were some very strong points for stopping at two years. But in the end, it turns out that I’m just not ready to give up on the idea of making a difference here. As I’ve written about at length here, the obstacles to doing the work I came to do are numerous, and it took me a very long time to get to a point where I felt like I was actually doing something, which was extremely frustrating for me. After over a year, work things finally started moving, and I realized at that point that I didn’t have enough time left to do the things I wanted to do. Even if I left now, I would leave having done something, of course, but when I judge what I’ve done against what I could have done, it just feels insignificant. In one of many discussions on the topic of the third year, I told my mom that I felt my work was unfinished and she responded by saying, “But you know it will never be finished, right?” This is true and I do know it. I also have no intention of staying in Benin forever, for the record. I’m destined for bigger things than this. But I’m also someone who has almost a compulsion for doing the best job she can with whatever she undertakes, and what I’ve done here in the year and a half I’ve been here is not the best I can do. I know that there will always be work to be done, but I also feel that there will be a moment when I’ll have done enough that I can leave and feel good about it.

But there’s another component to this decision as well, which is that I’ve realized that at this moment in my life, I’m really happy. Happiness. It might seem an odd thing to come across in an African village, thousands of miles from my friends and family, but somehow it seems to found me here. It’s not that I don’t miss home or my loved ones or iced coffee or salad or air conditioning–goodness do I miss all of that; but somehow that can exist simultaneously with loving my life here. As I was pondering all of this, I was reading Oprah magazine (of all things to make its way across the Atlantic and into my house) and it hit me with a piece of wisdom about how true happiness comes quietly through the little, unexciting things that happen every day, not in an explosion of emotion as one finds in big events or bungee jumping or the like. And that made a lot of sense to me–the joy that I feel here is that sort, the slow, quiet type that comes from many small moments added together. And it occurred to me that people spend a lot of time searching for happiness, and it doesn’t present itself at all times in one’s life, so if I’ve managed to get it into my life for a moment, maybe I shouldn’t be running to change everything immediately. I’d like to enjoy another year of waking up with the sunrise and the roosters crowing, of small children running up to me and giving me high fives, of walking everywhere and seeing friends on the way to wherever I’m going, of singing with children in classrooms, of playing with babies, of wearing bright, beautiful fabrics, of seeing the real night sky, of listening to the rain pounding my sheet metal roof, and of feeling the simplicity of life that eludes us (or at least me) in the States.

For the record, I am aware that time actually does pass while I’m doing this, and that some may think I’m wasting my time. My younger brother informs me that by the time I get back, he will have closed the gap between us, which could be seen as true. The thing is that I don’t quite see life in such a linear way–we are going down two different paths, so it would be difficult to judge which of us was ahead of the other. At any rate, that idea doesn’t bother me. It feels to me that at this moment in time, I’m doing what I should be doing, and I’m happy with it, and it doesn’t quite feel finished. I still have plenty of time to do grad school or to start working when I get back, and if I’m a year older than I otherwise would have been, I know that it was a year well spent gaining experience and also just enjoying life. Is that such a bad thing to do?

And so I announce the decision to the world. I’m still waiting on the official confirmation, but it looks pretty likely that it’s going to be approved. If it is, I get flown home for a month of vacation, which I plan to take around the holidays. But all of that will be discussed in more detail later. For now, I’m going to post this before my computer battery runs out or I decide that it needs to be worked on more, and I’m going to get dressed to go vaccinate some babies before continuing on to work on a mural on the side of the high school with some students and then finishing the day by practicing English with a group of 8th graders. I’ll try to post again soon, I know it’s been an incredibly long time. Best wishes for a lovely day to anyone who’s reading! Until next time, CMK.

On Brevity

Not a lot of words to post today. Figured that would be a nice change from the last blog. Just a few short remarks on the happenings of my life. Check out my photos afterwards.

March is upon us.

HEAT is upon us.

Dust is also upon us. I am sweeping my house constantly to no avail.

Oranges have disappeared from the market. Sad times.

Mangoes are coming! The kids have already picked some off of our tree though they’re not quite ripe yet.

Don’t look now, but I might actually be learning how to cook.

My first big grant request just got approved and I should be launching my latrine building project within the next month. Finally!

Awi caught a giant mouse as it was falling out of my ceiling the other day. It was pretty interesting.

Realizing that barbeque sauce may be the single greatest condiment ever invented. Close tie with ketchup and parmesan cheese.

Recently spent a few nights in PC headquarters in Cotonou getting some errands done and re-discovered the joys of air conditioning, hot showers, and cold beverages. Now back to warm beverages, cold showers, and constant sweating.

Rain is coming little by little. But it brings with it extreme winds. The roof of the secondary school was blown entirely off two nights ago. Yikes.

10 fluffy, new baby goats just entered the world in my concession. They are the cutest things.

I put up some new photos on the photos page–check them out.

Peace. CMK

Parental Units Take on Africa

So despite my best efforts, here we are already a good two weeks after the parental unit visit before the first blog post goes up.  I meant to be blogging as we went along, and then instead of this epic post, each of these chapters would have been a manageable small post, but alas I didn’t find the time/energy.  So now they’re already back in your world and I’m back in mine, with their visit starting to feel like a nice dream but it’s still relevant to tell you about the events of the visit.  And as promised, there will be posts from them to follow, but I thought I’d get us started with a basic description of what happened.

Chapter I: Hungry but Polite

For my part, I think the whole trip went fairly smoothly, all things considered.  After picking the parental units up at the Cotonou airport and spending the first night in a hotel, I inadvertently treated them to a glimpse of some of the difficulties of traveling in Benin.  The taxi driver with which I had negotiated the trip changed his mind when he saw the amount of baggage we had (he especially wasn’t happy about the bicycle that had been stuck at PC headquarters for months and I decided to ‘just throw in the taxi’ because it didn’t seem like it would be that hard, since I was in fact paying for the entire taxi…not the case apparently) and we got stuck in a pretty good two hours of re-negotiating/me yelling at the taxi driver/rearranging baggage before we actually got started on the trip.  Then, continuing my recent transportation trend, we got a flat tire about halfway there and had to unload everything from the car so the unlucky taxi driver (who was quite grumpy by this point) could change the tire.  Finally, he decided that [supposedly due to the flat tire] he didn’t actually want to take us all the way to Glazoué as negotiated, but was going to pass us off to another taxi driver to finish the trip, which meant unloading and reloading everything yet again.  We finally made it, though, and when we arrived in Glazoué, three of my zem friends were waiting to take us back to village.  I was fairly sure that we would need to call more zems since we had so much stuff, but those guys know their work, and they loaded all the baggage, my bike, and the three of us all onto the three motorcycles and we got to village easily and safely.

As we pulled up in front of my house in the fading afternoon light, we were greeted outside the gate by the children who live with me jumping up and down and squealing at the excitement of new foreign guests.  They each greeted “mama et papa” very politely and brought all the baggage inside before I even processed what was happening.  Here the parental units encountered what was to become the theme of their visit: people coming by to saluer (greet) the visitors.  Within minutes of their arrival, word spread through the village and my friends started showing up to welcome them.  Personally I found this to be heart-warming; so did they, especially in hindsight.  At the time, perhaps they would have liked a few minutes to clean up, get accustomed to the new, admittedly sparse digs where they’d be spending the next few days, have a snack, etc before being plunged into the my social life.  But no such luck.  That first night, they were also introduced to the other theme of their visit: eating Beninese food and trying to be gracious about it.  My concession family prepared a massive quantity of yam pilé for us all to share, and apparently it wasn’t as good as I had promised it would be, because they sure didn’t eat a lot of it.  Of course, they were still probably trying to recover from the extremely long trip from Denver to Benin, not to mention the trip from Cotonou to village, and we were eating with our hands, which I’m accustomed to now but definitely takes some practice to get used to, and we were to some degree still receiving visitors coming to saluer all through the meal.  So I can’t blame them too much for the lack of eating.  They did tell me the next day that they didn’t really like it, though, and I was surprised because they seemed to like it enough at the time.  Turns out they just didn’t want to offend anyone by showing their displeasure.  Like my mom said after another similar encounter, “After all, I am a polite person.  Hungry, but polite.”  Fair enough.

Side note: I realized through their surprise at what yam pilé actually was that I may not have done a good job describing it in the blog [aka I may not have described it at all, other than to say that it was good], so I seize this opportunity to do so, because an understanding of this dish will be key to your comprehension of the events of the visit.  Yams here are massive tubers, much like a very large, thick-skinned, potato…except with less taste than a potato.  It’s mostly just starch, to be honest.  To make yam pilé, you take one or more arm-length, thigh-thick yams and remove the skin, cut it into small pieces, and boil them until they are soft (as you would to make mashed potatoes).  This takes an hour to two, depending on the quantity of yams you’re preparing and the fuel you’re using to cook them.  When they reach the soft point, you take out your giant mortar and pestle and start putting pieces of yam into the basin of the mortar where they will be crushed with the pestle.  If you’re preparing a large quantity like this, you probably will have two pestles, or sticks/poles with rounded ends, and two people to wield them.  When the yam has been crushed into small pieces, the real pilé-ing process begins: these two people will take turns thrusting the poles into the mortar with great force and pounding the yam until it becomes a formed mass sort of the consistency of Play-Doh (there is or will be a picture of this on the photos page).  This is hard work, takes a lot of arm strength and a lot of time.  Personally, I am incapable of pilé-ing for more than five minutes, and it usually takes at least 15-20 to finish a batch (people are strong here).  After it’s finished, you get a huge circular disc of elastic, pounded yam that you put on a plate or in a bowl and you add the sauce–usually spicy peanut sauce or a tomato/oil-based sauce–and the meat or cheese or egg if applicable.  Then you rip off small pieces of the doughy yam thing and dip it in sauce and eat it.  As Max observed by the end of the trip “yam pilé really depends on the sauce.”  If the sauce is good, the whole thing is excellent, but if the sauce isn’t great, it’s a lot like eating bland paste dipped in oil.

Chapter II: Churchly Things

The next day was Sunday, and Max was programmed to give the sermon at the Evangelical church into which I’ve been kind of adopted despite my original plan to frequent all the different religious establishments in the village [since the pastor lives next door to me and my entire concession family is very involved in this church, it just kind of happened].  Because Max’s church has been involved with a pen pal project with the youth group from this church, this was a special part of the visit plan–making the connection between the churches personal instead of only virtual.  Their visit happened to correspond with the church’s annual celebration of thanks, which is a special mass they have each year that is kind of like a party and lasts for hours and hours.  I was a little unsure about whether this was a good thing, because several hours of church is usually more than enough for me, and I figured that 5-6 hours might be too much for visitors, but I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to escape early.  Also, because it was a special mass, it was moved to 3PM instead of the usual 9AM time slot, which seemed to promise that we would all melt into nothingness due to the heat after a single hour, much less six.  It turned out OK, though.  We got a seat of honor in the front of the church with all the clergy-type people, right in front of one of two standing fans that were powered by the generator that also powered the sound system and a few ceiling fans.  This way, the temperature was actually more bearable inside the church than it would have been at my house, where the only fan is a handheld one woven from thick grasses.  I had attended this same celebration last year and go to church often enough to be vaguely familiar with the things that happen there, so none of the events were too new to me, but I think the parental units enjoyed seeing the mass and especially the dancing, which truly is impressive.  [I have the beginning of a blog about church services that I started last year, so if the parental units don’t elaborate too much on that subject, I’ll post that later.]  Max gave the sermon, in which he talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and about giving thanks for what we have in life, and for lack of a direct English to Fon translator, I translated into French and the local pastor translated into Fon.  It went well, and shortly after the sermon, we were given permission to leave (which we took, since it was already a good three hours into church…).  After we left, we heard the mass continuing for about two more hours.  What can I say?  People here love to pray.  And as my 16-year-old concession sister explained to me, “You know, there are a lot of people who are sick, who are in the hospital, or who died this year…we have so many reasons to give thanks to God.”  Who says young people can’t be wise?

Chapter III: Welcome to Village Life

Aside from church, we did a lot of saluer-ing as I walked them around village to show them where I live and work and greet important people like the village chief, the school directors, the health center staff, etc.  Everyone was very excited to meet my family, and going anywhere was a time-consuming process because we had to stop every 10 feet to talk to someone else.  I know from experience that this is an incredibly tiring activity, so I have to congratulate them on how tolerant they were and how well they did with talking to so many people in languages they didn’t know.  They did master a few phrases in Fon: “mifonganjia?” “nko” and eyizandé,” and people thought that was pretty much the best thing ever.  They also met with the youth group that has been writing letters to the kids from Max’s church, and the kids surprised us by presenting us with a gift which was wrapped and in an Operation Christmas box (the program through which churches in the US send Christmas presents to kids in Africa each year–Max commented on how after years of sending those boxes, he now was getting one back.  Life is funny like that.).  Apparently when they heard about the visit, all the kids in the group had decided to share a little bit of money (in all likelihood, their lunch money) to buy us each one of the t-shirts the national church was selling for their annual convention.  It was very sweet.  The parental units got a lot of other gifts of various magnitudes as well–several people stopped by with yams or corn and so many people bought us soft drinks that we couldn’t actually drink them all.

They did an admirable job of dealing with my living situation–my house is really much too small for three people to live in, even for such a short time, and it still lacks furniture to an extent.  There’s also the issue of having no plumbing or electricity, which makes life a lot like camping.  They came well-prepared with no less than four headlamps, so the electricity was less of a problem than the bucket showers and the latrine.  But as I said, they dealt with it quite well and complained very little, though my mom did say that she had gained a new appreciation for the little things–as long as she had a bed, a toilet, and a shower, life would be good.

Chapter IV: Feminine Football

Right before we left village, we carried out the biggest event of the trip, which was distributing 30+ pairs of tennis shoes to my girls’ soccer team.  This was made possible by the lovely folks of Max’s Saint Stephen’s, who came together to help after hearing about my work with the girls and how they played barefoot and often encountered foot injuries (one girl was even stung by a scorpion at practice last year).  Because of their generosity, the parental units arrived lugging two huge duffel bags full of brand-new, colorful shoes complete with notes of encouragement and a pair of knee socks for each pair of shoes.  I had asked the gym teachers who work with me on this project (really, they do the vast majority of the work, because I know nothing about how to train a soccer team) to help me organize a rendevous so we could give out the shoes, but not to tell the girls why we wanted to see them.  I had envisioned something small-scale in which we talked to the girls a bit, gave out the shoes, and continued with our lives, but in typical Beninese fashion, it turned out to be a big, involved ceremony for which we were under-dressed (luckily, we benefit from the yovo waiver on dress code) and unprepared.  All of the administration and teachers were invited and lined up in desks on one side of the designated classroom while the girls occupied the other half.  We were given seats at the front of the classroom facing the sixty-ish pairs of eyes.  There were speeches in French and speeches in English, which were read by the students and then re-read by the English teachers to assure our understanding, then we were asked to say a few words, and then finally we took out the shoes, arranged them at the front of the room, and each of the girls was called up to find a pair that fit her.

As an aside: Normally, Peace Corps volunteers work on small-scale projects and avoid hand-out type activities, but I considered this an acceptable exception to the rule because these girls have been working with me for almost a year, expecting to get nothing out of it other than an improved ability to play soccer, and it really is a safety hazard to play without shoes.  I also think it was nice for them to get a little encouragement, because it’s not easy to be the first people to do something.  Girls’ sports are such an unknown concept here that these young ladies have been pretty brave and gutsy to have jumped into it in a village setting where gender roles are so rigidly fixed.  And if you could have seen their faces and felt the excitement in the air when we took out the shoes… For most of them it’s the first pair of shoes they’ve owned that aren’t flip-flops bought for less than a dollar in the market, and if it isn’t their first, it’s definitely the first new pair they’ve had–any other shoes available to them are second-hand (or as a Beninese friend wryly put it once, eighth-hand) things that have been sent over from Europe or the States.  So it was pretty special for them, and they truly appreciated it.

After we finished the ceremony, they all put on their shoes and we took some photos to share with the donors at home, then they organized themselves into two lines and the captain of the team led them in a sort of parade from the school into the village.  As they marched, they sang a song in Fon announcing their impending arrival, telling people to get ready because the girls were coming.  It was a sight to see–maybe Max will be able to post the short video he took of it, because I certainly don’t have the internet capacity for that–and I think that the way they announced the receipt of the shoes in such a public way was the right way to do it.  That way, it was all out in the open and everyone knew immediately, because in such a small village, everyone would know eventually anyway, so better to just cut to the chase.  I was a little worried about what the reaction of the community would be–if they would criticize me for giving shoes to the girls instead of the more-deserving (in their eyes) boys–but it has actually been overwhelmingly positive.  There have of course been people who have come up to me and said “and where are my shoes?” but in general it seems to have lent a little bit of credibility to the idea of the girls’ team.  The administration took us out for a drink after the ceremony and at one point I picked up part of a conversation at the other side of the table where some administrators who had previously scoffed at my idea for a girls’ team were saying that probably in the coming years, all the schools would start having female teams.  And other people in the village have mentioned that when the girls wear their shoes, they become real soccer players, just like the ones you see on TV.  So pleasant surprise!

Chapter V: Life After Village

When we left village, it was market day in the larger town of Glazoué so I took them along on a typical market Wednesday.  First, they met a lot of my Peace Corps friends at a secluded restaurant where we usually get lunch and beers before tackling the market.  Then we ventured into the actual market and they tagged along with me as I bought some supplies for our upcoming journey, and finally we stopped by a stand to taste the traditionally brewed millet/corn beer.  By that time, the massive market was getting a little overwhelming (I still get overwhelmed by it by the end of most market days) and it was getting late so we called it a day and went to the hotel (which had running water, electricity, and a bed–parental units were happy).  The rest of the visit involved several days of safari in which we had excellent luck and saw many animals quite up-close.  We sat on top of a Forerunner-type car and looked ridiculous while the guide drove us around to the places he knew the animals would likely be found.  It was kind of cool to ride on the roof (you know, it’s the kind of thing your parents would never let you do as a kid) but it was also super dusty because it’s the dry season and we were on dirt roads.  When we got back to the hotel each night, we often were visibly caked in layers of dust–kind of funny.  Then we traveled all the way back down south and spent a few days at a beach resort where we ate pizza and drank smoothies and had air conditioning in addition to having almost private access to a beautiful beach.  It was awesome.

When the time came to see them off, it was harder to say goodbye than I expected it to be.  But it was an amazing visit and I’m so glad they made the trip.  As people kept telling us when they were here, “They must love you an awful lot to have come all this way to see you!”  True.  Lots of warm and fuzzy feelings.  And way too many words for one day.  Until next time.  CMK

Parental Units in Village

All dressed up for church
All dressed up for church

Zems can transport anything--even massive amounts of shoes and a bike!
Zems can transport anything–even massive amounts of shoes and a bike!
My zem friends all came by to greet my visitors the first morning. Cute.
My zem friends all came by to greet my visitors the first morning. Cute.


Coming soon: a village baseball team?
Coming soon: a village baseball team?


My girls’ soccer team with their brand new shoes courtesy of the lovely people of St. Stephen’s!
My girls’ soccer team with their brand new shoes courtesy of the lovely people of St. Stephen’s!
Max gave the sermon at Sunday mass. I translated into French and the pastor translated into Fon.
Max gave the sermon at Sunday mass. I translated into French and the pastor translated into Fon.