Let Girls Learn in Benin

Hi everyone,

Long time, no blog!

In November, I celebrated my two year anniversary of my return from Benin. It doesn’t feel like two years have passed – it still feels like I “just” got back in some ways. In other ways, it feels light-years away. I now have a “real job” at a small nonprofit working with people who are homeless. It’s very rewarding and honestly Peace Corps did prepare me well for a work environment where you never quite know what will happen from day to day. But that’s not what this blog is about.

Some of you know that I was fortunate to be able to take a trip back to Benin in August of 2014. It was great to go back and see everyone again. Not much had changed in the 10 months I was gone, and it felt like going home in some ways.

On that trip, I was able to meet the Peace Corps Volunteer who is now posted at my former site. His name is Stacer; we have stayed in touch since then and he has kept me updated on the community and what he is doing.

He has taken on an ambitious project that is driven by the community: helping them build two more classrooms and two female latrines at the secondary school so that more grades can be accommodated and more girls can stay in school.

(I admit that I considered a classroom-building project during my service but I was intimidated by the enormity of the fundraising that would need to be done and elected not to do it. It is definitely a need, though.)

Classroom Full View
This is the type of classroom that students are currently using since there is a shortage of permanent classrooms.

The community is contributing 25% of the funds, mostly in the form of donated labor and resources, and Stacer is trying to raise the other 75%.

He has already raised over $6,000 but he still needs a little over $3,000 to complete the project and time is running out as he will complete his service in August and it will take about 5 months to build.


The total left to raise is now $3,327.


They cannot start building until the funding is complete.


So, this is my Hail Mary for Stacer and the community that still means so much to me, even two years later. Please, if you can afford to make a donation of any size, please consider it. It would truly make a huge difference in the lives of students in rural Benin, who are trying SO hard to succeed. 


Here is the link to donate: https://donate.peacecorps.gov/donate/project/classrooms-for-equality/

Please share this far and wide!


Also: if you know any business owners who might be interested in contributing, I would be most grateful if you could share this with them or connect us and I would be happy to talk with them! We need to raise this $3,300 quickly.

All donations are 100% tax-deductible and will go directly to construction costs at the school.


Below are Stacer’s own words, describing the project in detail.


This year, the community and I have been working together to address the need of a greater access to education in Assanté. Our one and only secondary school can only offer grades 6-9 due to a lack of classrooms—this year there are roughly 530 students and only ten classrooms and three latrines.

This need only scratches the surface, however, of a much greater issue. After completing the 9th grade, students must go to the neighboring towns and cities to complete high school, which is often a very serious financial burden for their families. In addition to the costs of raising a family in Assanté, parents must also pay for tuition, school materials, uniforms, lodging, and food for their child who must live elsewhere.

Unfortunately, families rarely have the means to meet these needs and must often choose between their children when deciding whom to send to finish high school—and more often than not, it is the daughters of Assanté who must delay, and even abandon their education, sacrificing their academic success for their brothers.

Our solution to this need is a project called Classrooms for Equality, which has been partially funded by Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative.

Our construction project will include two classrooms, and two female latrines to facilitate the addition of the final years of high school, all while highlighting gender-equality on campus and in the community.

As the construction takes place the school will host community-led workshops on children’s rights, gender-based violence, feminine hygiene, hand washing, and proper sanitation practices, as well as a community-construction day where students will bring their families to contribute alongside one another.

By localizing grades 10-12, more brothers and sisters, who may otherwise have been held short of their opportunity to success, can complete high school together in their community.

Being so far away from my first home, it’s easy to remember that which I miss and am grateful for. And it is with ease that I say that I am thankful to know each and every one of you. May your holidays be filled with love and peace.

Enfants du Bénin debout.


Thank you so much for reading and sharing this! I know that we will be able to raise the rest of the funds and make the students’ dream of having enough classrooms for everyone a reality. Here is the link one more time: https://donate.peacecorps.gov/donate/project/classrooms-for-equality/


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


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:)

Unrelated to Benin

I’m working on a real post but it’s not ready yet.  So for now, just a couple quick things.

1.) Tomorrow is 11-11-11.  Personally, I have been waiting for this since 10-10-10 last year, knowing that this year would be a much cooler date.  Another day like this won’t come around for 100 years; 11 is the only number that works.  So I say, do something exciting, different, or fun tomorrow.  Or treat it like any other day if you’re not as excited about numbers as I am.

2.) On a more serious note, the founders of the non-profit organization with which I worked for my last two years of college [The Right Question Institute] just published a book.  The book, which is aimed at teachers but will be relevant to anyone who is interested in education or working with low-income communities, is entitled Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.

In a more concise and accurate blurb than I would be able to write:
“This book begins with the seemingly simple request to get students to ask their own questions, but at heart it’s a book about creating a classroom alive with dialogue, inquiry, and respect for students’ minds.” – Mike Rose, author of Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of US

The RQI does amazing work and the book was one of the big projects I worked on while I was there, so I’m pretty psyched to see it in print.  I encourage everyone to check it out.  You can buy it from the publishers, the Harvard Education Press (you get a 20% discount when you use the claim code: MJAP11) or on Amazon or you can order it at your local bookstore (or request that your local library get it).

3.) Still alive and doing well.  Will get a more thorough update posted soon.

Hope all is well on your side of the pond.  Until next time!