How does one get a cat around here, anyway?

So, this is the possibly expected/somewhat obligatory culture shock post. Last week, I woke up around 2AM to a distinct and very loud crunching sound. Still kind of groggy and disoriented, I didn’t think much of it, figuring it was probably the goats who spend the night outside my house. But then it sounded awfully loud, and I thought, “hmm, the goats don’t usually eat at night like that…let’s just make completely sure that it’s outside.” And so I groped for my headlamp and shined it around the room, which resulted in furious scurrying in my ceiling (which is composed of woven straw mats suspended by wires running from one wall to another), and then a small, furry creature with a tail ran right across the top of my mosquito net and out the door. That was my first encounter with the mice. Since then, I’ve woken up every night to them either eating my ceiling or running around my house. We have also surprised each other occasionally during the day when I have switched rooms or entered the house quickly. I feel like a total wimp, but I have to admit that they are really getting to me. I feel particularly vulnerable at night since my bed is on the floor. Even though I tuck my mosquito net under the mattress very tightly and I know they can’t get in, I still get very startled every time I wake up to something padding across the floor next to my head or shaking the mosquito net as it traverses the top or side of it. As much as in some ways I already feel at home here, I’m not sure if I’m going to ever be able to feel totally at home in my house if I’m sharing such close quarters with a family of mice.

Then, just after the discovery of the mice, I had a run-in with another thing that can make one feel pretty homesick: illness. I think it’s par for the course when one is living in a developing country to get sick from time to time, and it wasn’t even anything serious–just a 48-hour flu-like virus that I self-treated with the help of my PC med kit and medical care manual. But still, as I was lying on my mattress sweating and shivering, listening to the mice running around above me, wishing I could just hop in my car for 2 minutes and pick up some juice from the grocery store, in between dragging myself out of bed in my pajamas to open the door when concerned work partners and neighbors stopped by to see how I was doing, I found myself wondering, “Why did I want to do this, again?”
Right…I thought I could make a positive change in the world.
Yeah, but it’s so difficult!
Of course it’s difficult, silly. You knew it wasn’t going to be easy or fun all the time. And it’s probably precisely because it’s hard that it is important.

So those were some particularly bad days, which have now passed. But I’ve realized that even ordinary days can be pretty tough right now, and some days when I get home, I am so exhausted that I can’t even believe that I haven’t actually done any real work during the day. But just living life is a lot of work right now; there are so many new things to figure out.

There are simple, daily life things, like how to get water from the pump (First, where is the pump? Then, as it turns out that it is not actually a pump but a faucet that needs to be turned on by someone with the key…who is that person? Where are they at different times of the day? If I go through the trouble to bring my empty water jugs to the faucet, will I be able to find them? Then, how to I carry the water back? People here carry the huge jugs on their heads…am I strong enough to do that? If I’m not, think of how much of a fool I will look like. Children of 6 and 7 years of age can carry those jugs…you get the point), how to cook for one person with unfamiliar ingredients (because of the lack of refrigeration, I can’t keep any leftovers. The other night, I accidentally cooked about 4 times as much boiled yam as I could possibly eat. Luckily I was able to give the extra to my neighbors so it didn’t go to waste, but I felt rather silly), and where one can buy eggs or phone credit or kerosene for a lantern (just today, I took my empty kerosene bottle to get it refilled only to discover that they don’t sell kerosene at that particular stand–it’s only gasoline. How one tells the difference between the oily liquids in the bottles is still a mystery to me).

Then there are the socio-cultural things which are a bit harder to figure out and are probably more important. These include things like determining which people one should actually stop to talk to on the way to work and for which people a greeting called out while walking suffices, figuring out how to tell when an invitation of various sorts is serious and when it is a joke or you are expected to say no, learning which clothes are acceptable and proper to wear to work and other places, and figuring out when one should stop the children when they’re singing the yovo song because they’re trying to be obnoxious and when one should just let it go because they mean no harm by it.

And then of course there is the language thing. While everyone around me is very excited about teaching me Fon, and I’ve mastered a few greetings and responses, I’m still at a total loss in most situations. I can’t understand conversations between other people and when I’m talking to someone, if the conversation deviates at all from a specific script that I know, I have no idea how to continue. It also just takes a lot of energy, patience, and humility to learn a new language, and some days I just want to interact in a language I know. But then sometimes even when people are speaking French to me, I still don’t understand, because after all, my French is not great. It’s good enough to get by in most situations here, but I need people to speak slowly and clearly and to speak a kind of elementary version of the language rather than academic French. So sometimes they speak to me in Fon and I don’t understand so they switch to French and I still don’t understand, and it’s a frustrating encounter on all sides. And I’ve found that especially in situations where I am a little upset or angry or frustrated, my ability to speak French decreases significantly and the only words that come to mind are in English, which of course only makes the situation more upsetting or frustrating for me.

And finally, just getting used to the speed and realities of daily life at the health center is also a challenge. Work there seems to involve a good amount of sitting around, which I’m trying to accept while also trying to figure out ways to make good use of that time. Essentially I am looking for a balance between the American attitude in me that says I should be doing something productive all the time and the more foreign (to me) idea that it’s OK to just “rest” sometimes. And then I’m also working on finding another kind of emotional balance and learning how to work in a place like this where one sees so many heart-wrenching things. Even in the two weeks I’ve been here, I have already seen a lot of things that make me cringe and things that make me sad. And obviously I have faith in my ability to improve things here in some way, but I know that I won’t be able to change everything. In the middle of rural Africa, there are just so many things working against the survival of children and mothers, especially. I know that even if I pull off the most awesome of projects, children are still not going to get enough to eat, mothers are still going to die during pregnancy and birth, etc. And those are the realities that I need to get used to. It’s a delicate balance that I think involves thickening the skin a bit so that one can exist without being debilitated by how upsetting it can bee, but not so much that one stops caring. Because not caring can be a defense mechanism–it can help you feel less pain because you can tell yourself that the pain of others is not your burden to bear–but I think you need to feel a certain amount of pain and have a certain amount of anger and indignation to be motivated to try to tackle massive problems like these.

So, those are some of the challenges. I don’t mean to sound like I am complaining. I am still overwhelmingly happy to be here; it’s just that just like at home, there are good days and bad days, and bad days are I think a bit amplified by a smaller support system and a lack of knowledge about how to ameliorate problems when they arise. And as I’ve said all along, I want to write honestly for you, to take you as realistically on this journey with me as is possible through words and photos transmitted over thousands of miles. And as such, I feel that I shouldn’t remove negative feelings or experiences from the narrative, even though I am tempted to do so sometimes, mostly because I don’t want to worry people at home. All by way of saying, in this post I have laid out some of the difficulties of life here (for me–the difficulties of others are still being discerned and explored and will be discussed at length later), but even in the days that it has taken me to write and edit this draft, the feelings of shock and “what the heck am I doing here?” have subsided and my confidence is returning. So don’t worry. Life isn’t easy, but I kind of like the challenge; it keeps things interesting. So, until next time, eyizande!

Now the question is whether the internet is good enough to post this or not…

Greetings world!

It has been awhile. Things have been in motion and it has seemed very busy. It’s also [unsurprisingly] much more difficult to access internet from my new place than it was in Porto Novo. All the same, this post comes to you from my new house in rural Benin. I arrived here last Saturday and have been in the process of settling in since then.

The biggest news since last post: I am now an official Peace Corps Volunteer! (Sometimes I think about how much work I’ve gone through to get to this point, and then I remember that it’s all for a volunteer position and it does seem a little funny.) At any rate, our swearing-in ceremony was two weeks ago and went fairly well. It was a lot like graduation, in that all the work was done by the time the day rolled around and the actual ceremony involved a lot of speeches by middle-aged men with about two minutes of action for us: the act of raising our right hands and pledging to work towards the goals of the Constitution and things like that. It was a bit of a different oath than I was expecting, and we said it in English then in French. We took a cultural cue from the Beninese and coordinated our outfits for the day. I’ll try to get photos up soon, but for now, imagine this. For a lot of ceremonies here (especially in the cities where people can afford to do things like this), the people organizing the event choose a certain fabric (or tissu, as it’s called here) and everyone who will attend buys that tissu and gets their outfit made out of it. Then on the day of the ceremony, one sees a mass of people who are all dressed alike (people in meme tissu). So we did that–all the new health volunteers had meme tissu as did each of the other sectors–I’ll try to get photos up soon, but we’ll see how that goes with this internet that can barely even load this site. Anyway, the speech in Fon went fine; it wasn’t great, but people definitely did get a kick out of hearing us speaking the local languages (however badly).

And now here I am. I’m settling into the new environment as easily as I think could be expected. Of course there has been some culture shock and some adjustment that is definitely still occurring (living without electricity and without furniture presents some challenges; it’s a bit overwhelming to be suddenly immersed in an environment where everyone is speaking a language you don’t understand; plus it always takes a bit of time to orient oneself after a move) but overall I am quite pleased to be here. I think I will probably feel a bit more at home once I set up my house a little bit more, because right now it is just two rooms (three if you count the 3×4 foot room that is just the shower) with cement floors and all of my stuff sitting on the floor. My mosquito net is tied to the bars on the two windows in my bedroom and my mattress is on the floor tucked inside the net, so it’s not such a bad sleeping situation. I will get furniture eventually, it’s just that I opted to use my “settling in allowance” to buy things that are only available in big cities, namely a guitar and some fancy food items like oatmeal and peanut butter, in addition to the basic things that are necessary for everyday life (pots, pans, silverware, etc) so I’m waiting until we get our October living allowance to order furniture.

I am just in such a different world, though. Even though for me it feels like I’m living a bit of an ascetic life, I still feel like I have way more than the people around me. I have a gas stove while they cook on open fires; I have a suitcase full of clothes while many people seem to have only a few outfits; I have a mattress while others sleep on the floor or on a woven mat. And of course I have lots of shiny, special things that nobody here has, like this computer, my iPod, a bicycle that was built after the 80s, etc. Though some of those things stay hidden inside my house and nobody really knows I have them, I’m still pretty conscious of how different I am, in terms of status, I guess, from the people I’m going to be living with for the next two years. It really makes me wonder about the absurdity of it all–about the extremity of the disparities that exist in this world. But that is a subject for another post.

Even though I am face to face with a lot of difficult issues, in a selfish and simple way, I have to say that my life is pretty awesome right now. My days generally start early, when I wake up to the rooster crowing right outside my window. If it’s still dark out, I ask him to wait a bit (rooster snooze alarm–the next big thing) and when he wakes me up again and I can see the sun, I get up. Then I head out my gate onto the main road that runs through the village and beyond for my morning run (which, since we’re being honest here, involves varying ratios of running to walking depending on the day and how hot it already is, etc). It’s an amazing way to start the day, feeling the orange-brown dirt under my feet, breathing in the clean, clear morning air (such a contrast from Porto Novo where the air was always filled with fumes and exhaust), seeing the green of the trees and the fields of crops, the blue sky, the mountain-like hills in the distance, and the road snaking down the hills in front of me with few other people on it. Eventually I decide it’s time to turn around and I head home, where I find the children who live in my concession, sitting either inside or outside the gate. They greet me with smiles and a few simple greetings in Fon (and they still get such a kick out of it when I respond correctly in Fon–it’s great. Sometimes each of 4 or 5 children will ask me the same thing just to hear me respond in their language). I go inside and take a cold bucket shower (just the right amount of refreshing after a run) and either get ready for work or for whatever else I might be doing that day. I do those things, walk home (undoubtedly stopping to greet about 10 people along the way), and make dinner (crouching on my floor over my stove for the moment, sometimes by the light of my lantern). I eat while sitting on my front stoop, watching the women who live in my concession make soy cheese (which I think is basically tofu and is really good) and the children play and chase the goats away when they inevitably wander through the gate. And when it gets dark, boy can I see stars. It is pretty incredible.

Work days seem to be shaping up to be M,T,Th,F and possibly Saturday from 8/9-12 and then 3-6 in the afternoon. I wasn’t sure about this whole “repose” [rest/break/like siesta] thing in the middle of the day, but I think I could get used to it. It’s so hot in those middle of the day hours that no one wants to be out doing things anyway and it gives me some extra daylight hours to read or write, both of which are possible but more difficult after dark. I’m keeping Wednesday open to go to the big market in the neighboring town, and once I get the hang of transportation, I hope to also be able to go pick up mail from the new address on those days. Work itself is still very much a learning process right now. I feel pretty limited in my usefulness by my lack of ability to communicate in Fon at the moment. But I think that will come, at least a little. And right now, I think a lot of the work is just being here and getting people accustomed to me and also for me to see how things work here and what the issues are that I could feasibly tackle.

And in my free time, I’m reading quite a bit, writing letters, cooking and baking (my neighbors and others seem to enjoy tasting the American things I make, which have actually turned out fairly well so far despite being baked in a makeshift Dutch oven–aka my large pot with an empty can inside and a small aluminum cake pan perched on top of the can, with the lid on the pot), playing guitar, and just sitting and enjoying the crazy life that I’m living right now.

There is so incredibly much to tell, but I suppose we have two years to examine the intricacies of this life together, so for today I am going to keep it simple and leave it at that. Sorry for the long absence from the blogosphere, but I think I’ll be able to post more regularly again from here on out. I’ve got the internet situation figured out; electricity to charge my computer is the limiting element in this equation now. But I’m already starting to see that quite a few generators exist in this town, so I bet in time I’ll figure out how to utilize those resources to stay connected to the world. In the meantime, my address is in the previous post–if you write me I’ll write you back! Hope all is well, everybody. Peace and love from Africa…