Saying Goodbye

So I’ve been home for awhile now, and I’m finally settling into my new/old life enough to wrap my head around and write about the process of leaving Benin.  I started writing a post before my departure but my head was so full of raw emotions and things to do before I left that I couldn’t get anything onto paper.  Then I tried many times since I’ve been back, even wrote most of a post and then in a feat of technological prowess, somehow didn’t save it.  So here we are, more than a month after my arrival in the states, finally tackling the issues of saying goodbye and hello in a post that perhaps few will read but is still worth posting just for the closure of writing it.

The process of leaving my host community was quite painful, to be truthful.  I realized that it was time to go, but necessity does not equate with ease.  The hardest part was telling the people close to me.  Because they all knew I planned to stay another year, each time I broke the news, I felt that I was stabbing a knife into our friendship and saw in their eyes the feeling of betrayal.  I suppose it was always going to be like that; we always knew that it was temporary, but the unexpectedness of the separation made it difficult.

There are a lot of stories floating around the Peace Corps community about the different ways volunteers say goodbye when it’s time to leave.  Some make a big deal of it; others don’t tell anybody and just up and leave one day; still others leave quietly, telling those who are important, and later peripheral acquaintances are left asking “whatever happened to that volunteer?”  For me, it was easy to figure out that I wanted throw a big going away party.  I chose this so that I could say goodbye to everyone in general and no one would feel left out, and because I wanted to erase any bad feelings and memories that had accumulated for me and/or the community in the last months and to leave on a good note.

The party was held two days before I was scheduled to move out and was in most regards a success.  A lot of people turned out for the celebration, and even more bought the fabric I had chosen for the occasion (pictured below), which is also a show of support.  I like the idea that now that I’ve gone, people will still be wearing their outfits made from this fabric and they will be reminded of me, as I am reminded of them by so many things.
As may not be surprising to those who have thrown large parties before, there was a significant amount of stress associated with the party, and in the end I personally didn’t enjoy a lot of it, but I’ve heard that the guests faired better.  The politics of getting food made, coordinating performances by the church group and also vodun dancers (two groups who don’t really see eye-to-eye or really have much contact), serving/controlling the food, and seating the guests is hardly worth going into, but suffice it to say that these were no small tasks and created a lot of stress for an already-stressed me.  Then there were the smaller but equally difficult logistical issues such as moving upwards of fifty heavy wooden benches/tables across the schoolyard before the party and back again after the party (so thankful that a team of my female students showed up to help me with this task and refused to leave until it was finished), dealing with beverages that were stored in plastic bottles that exploded everywhere due to the bumpy ride they had endured to get to the village, finding water to wash hands, etc that presented themselves somewhat unexpectedly au cours de route.  But in the end, I guess I accomplished the goal of saying goodbye to the community that had become so important to me, and at least I know that everyone knew I was leaving.

(Here’s a picture of the dancing part of the party)
After the party, the actual departure was pretty anticlimactic.  I spent the next day packing up all my things, separating out the Peace Corps-issued items that needed to be returned, the few things I wanted to pack up for America, and giving many others away because it didn’t seem worth it to bring them back.  The process of packing and cleaning was a big one, and I was a little despondent about doing it when a young albino friend of mine stopped by to say goodbye.  I gave her the sunscreen I had leftover and wished her luck, etc, and when I ran out of things to say, I told her it had been lovely to see her but I needed to get back to packing.  She nodded and seemed about to leave, and then said, “Well, can I help?”  And so she helped me do a few tasks, such as washing dishes and sweeping, and though I tried to send her home after a little bit, she stayed and helped until everything was packed and the house was clean (about 10PM).  It was quite touching.  And her presence influenced some of my other young friends to come help me as well, so the task became a lot more manageable.  It was really quite remarkable how much stuff I accumulated in such a small house in such a short time…

The next morning, I said goodbye to my concession family and my homologue/supervisor, the latter of whom showed up mostly for appearances, I think, and loaded all of the things that were coming with me or going back to PC into my friend’s truck, which I had rented for the occasion.  Then I climbed in the back (something I’ve always wanted to do), the truck started up, and I waved goodbye as we rolled away down the road that was so familiar.

Getting all my luggage to the PC headquarters from the nearby town of Glazoue was somewhat more difficult; I argued with many taxi drivers about pricing for the extra luggage (which included a mattress and a bike) and when I finally found a taxi with a reasonable price, the other passengers and I sat in or around the taxi for hours on end with the driver promising that we were “about to leave.”  I’m used to that kind of stuff, of course, but emotions and tension were running high for me at this point (especially because in a tragic twist of fate, my cat disappeared the night of my going away party.  I had grown really attached to him and wanted to bring him home eventually–the plan was for him to live with a friend for awhile and then come to the states later, so it really upset me when he just never came back before I left.  I even asked my concession family to keep an eye out for him in case he came back after I left, telling them to send him to my friend’s place, but when I called several times afterwards, they said they never saw him again. So sad.), and I came very, very close to completely losing my cool–I just couldn’t deal with the not-leaving taxi.  Sometimes life is just like that, especially in Benin, I feel–you put up with so many little things that annoy you, or dig into your patience, or offend you, and you manage to turn the other cheek or laugh about it, but then eventually you get to this point where you are just at the end of your rope and something that would otherwise be totally run of the mill will send you over the edge.  (This is why you should take vacations before you get to this point. Lesson learned.)  As the taxi finally rolled out of the city I had become so fond of, tears were welling up in my eyes behind my sunglasses.

And so closed a huge chapter of my life.

The actual close-of-service (COS) formalities at Peace Corps were pretty straightforward, especially since at the time that I left, all the other volunteers from my training class were already gone, so there was only one of me instead of a group of 10 volunteers trying to get signatures on everything.  Basically it was a lot of documentation of one’s service, evaluation of one’s health and awarding of applicable vouchers for healthcare in the States and medications to cleanse the system of several of the parasites it may have picked up during service, then interviews with several administrative officials about ‘how it was’ and suggestions one would give for improvement.  Then the confirmation that ⅓ of one’s readjustment allowance had already been deposited into one’s American bank account, and the assurance that the remaining ⅔ would be there soon, formalities relating to either the flight that PC booked or the arrangements that one made in place of that.  Then I was wished good luck, told to keep in touch, and given a pin to commemorate my service.  I pinned it on my bag I walked out of “the bureau” for the last time.

And now I am back.  Perhaps much of why this post has been so long in coming is that I don’t know how to talk about this very relevant topic of transitioning back here.  It is a thing of layers, it seems.  There is, of course, the first layer of ecstasy at seeing long-missed family and friends (this is the best part), amazement at the wonders of the developed world, indulgence in the most-missed material things (for me this is hot showers, smoothies, and Chinese food/anything from Noodles), and kind of a feeling of relief of the everyday life being just so much easier–the beds softer, the water cleaner, etc.  It’s certainly much more convenient to have the bathroom inside, just steps from my room, and to flip a switch to illuminate an entire room instead of stumbling around to find my flashlight, and it’s mind-blowing to be able to buy literally anything I want in the huge stores minutes from my parents’ place.

Then there is a second layer of missing what was.  I miss the people that used to be in my life, the places I loved to go, the food I enjoyed eating.  I think about the toddler that lived next door to me and realize that he has already forgotten me.  I was there when he was born, I held him throughout his infancy, I watched him start to crawl and then walk and talk, and now I will be no more than someone who he hears his family talk about and sees in pictures.  That child was one of the highlights of my life and now he’s gone.  Poof.  Image

I miss the simplicity of the life I lived in Benin.  Having so few options for food, entertainment, and shopping got old sometimes, but it was also nice.  In many ways, I feel (and to some degree, have always felt) somewhat overwhelmed by the excess of things available here.  It becomes oppressive for me–so many things to choose from in the supermarket, so many entertainment options screaming at you that you are missing out if you don’t partake, so much technology that is shinier and louder and more expensive all the time.  So many things we don’t need but we become convinced that we do.  A simpler life really suited me.  Perhaps most of all, though, I miss the sense of purpose that I felt in Benin.  Though I encountered my share of frustrations and roadblocks, the feeling that my presence and work made a difference, if only in the smallest of ways, is a hard one to get used to losing.

And the third layer is probably the deepest and hardest to get past.  For me, this is the feeling of being lost.  The place I’ve left is gone, but the place I’ve come back to (called “home”) is not the same.  The people are not the same, my place in the world is also not the same.  When I left, I was a recent graduate, still viewed as practically a kid, and now suddenly my 25th birthday approaches and people call me “ma’am” and it seems that what I do next will define my entrance to the ‘real world.’  After living on my own for so long, it’s hard to be back in my parents’ houses, and it seems that I don’t belong there anymore, even though they have been wonderful about it so far.  Obviously, because I was not planning on being here this soon, I don’t have the plans that other volunteers did for their re-integration, such as grad school admittances or a job lined up or even a geographical target in mind for setting up the next chapter of life, which certainly aggravates this feeling of being lost.  I expected to have another year to figure all of these things out.  But I generally do find that things happen for a reason, so I am trying to figure out what the reason is behind this change of plans.  I suspect that said reason is deeper than the universe wanting to give me unlimited hot showers.  At least I sure hope so.

At any rate, I leave you with a few of my happiest memories from Benin, in no particular order:
1) Vaccination trips into the rural villages.  There is a photo floating around somewhere in rural Benin of me and my vaccinating partner on his motorcycle.  I have the vaccine cooler slung over my shoulder and my helmet perched on my knee, and he is in the middle of making a joke to the person who is taking the photo, a friend we had bumped into on the road who happened to have his camera with him.  We’re surrounded by tall reeds which had been slapping against my calves as we cruised down the small dirt road towards the village, and the sky is clear with only a few clouds above.  The way I remember that photo embodies happiness for me.

2) Sitting around with the zemidjans on the back of someone’s parked motorcycle and eating corn porridge while chatting in halting Fon, watching the activity of the night market, and checking out the stars and/or moon.

3) Traipsing around the market and Glazoue in general with my nearby volunteer friends, buying the essentials for the week, experimental belly beads, or a treat like cookies to be shared while drinking beer or whiskey cola at one of our favorite hang-out spots.

4) Simply walking down the road from my house into the village, wearing bright, flowy fabric and being warmed by the African sun.
ImageAu revoir!

Some overdue photos

Somehow I painted my house in the theme of an American flag. Hopefully the next person who lives there likes it...
Somehow I painted my house in the theme of an American flag. Hopefully the next person who lives there likes it…
Me with Fidelia--she's almost 6 months old now and doing well!
Me with Fidelia–she’s almost 6 months old now and doing well!
Me pounding a yam to make yam pile one Saturday afternoon.
Me pounding a yam to make yam pile one Saturday afternoon.
Guys working on the cell phone tower right outside my gate. The whole thing was built without machines of any sort.
Guys working on the cell phone tower right outside my gate. The whole thing was built without machines of any sort.
Just a super cute kid
Just a super cute kid
Fluffy new baby goats!
Fluffy new baby goats!
My friend Drew leading the Glow girls through a music session. They loved playing rhythms on the desks.
My friend Drew leading the Glow girls through a music session. They loved playing rhythms on the desks.
Teaching the girls the dance to a popular song
Teaching the girls the dance to a popular song
This kid was born a few months after I arrived at post and now he's climbing ladders!
This kid was born a few months after I arrived at post and now he’s climbing ladders!
The liberation ceremony for the apprentice who works at the health center. She's on the left on her knees, about to receive her diploma.
The liberation ceremony for the apprentice who works at the health center. She’s on the left on her knees, about to receive her diploma.
Doing arts and crafts at Camp GLOW. If you donated, your donation helped to buy the paint sets you see here, which they took home with them.
Doing arts and crafts at Camp GLOW. If you donated, your donation helped to buy the paint sets you see here, which they took home with them.
Beginning the world map mural with some students.
Beginning the world map mural with some students. This was a fun project!

The Winds of Change

Life has been interesting around here lately. After nearly two years of mostly static, unchanging days, the last few months have brought some new developments in my host community and in my life.

First of all, the electricity that everyone has claimed is “coming” since my arrival here seems to actually be on its way, however slowly. A few months ago, I noticed huge poles being placed along the road leaving the larger market town, Glazoue, and was informed that they were to bring electricity out of the city and into the small villages. Now, in the last month, these poles have arrived in our neck of the woods and men dressed in conspicuously new clothes and shiny shoes and toting little notebooks have come through and started asking questions about how much money people make as way of finding out if the population can afford electricity or if the power lines will just pass by without stopping. Still no sign of the actual lines that would carry said electricity, but it’s a start.

Second, a few weeks ago, people started clearing the land across the road from my house and digging holes into the ground. I thought someone wanted to build a house there and that I would have new neighbors, but as it turns out, one of the cell phone networks just bought the land to build the community’s first antennae there! This is huge news, because as anyone who has tried to call me here knows, we do not have good cell phone reception. Calls often drop after a few minutes and even if you have the good luck to carry on a conversation for a good length of time, the quality of the call isn’t good and it’s hard to hear the other person. So, it’s quite the exciting prospect to have an antennae so nearby. Reception is going to be fantastic, which also means I should be able to get online from village, because it’s through that cell phone network that I connect to the internet. Promising new developments!

Third, and I suppose the biggest news…my plans have changed in the last couple of weeks. The extra year that I was hoping for isn’t going to work out, so I will be coming home in November. The whole situation that led to this change is a long story that’s not really worth recounting, but it boils down to a few points. First, I’ve been having some issues with my work partners, specifically my supervisor, in that we don’t see eye to eye about certain things, specifically about how much my projects should benefit him personally versus the community as a whole. Second, the situation at the health center has been deteriorating even further (who knew it was possible?!) and I’ve found myself unable to do anything productive there in the last few months–even the work in vaccination that I had been doing before is no longer working due to management issues. But these were issues I was willing to work through, because I had big plans for the next year outside of the health center and not involving my supervisor too much.

And then I had an unfortunate incident with my summer school project that turned out to be the last straw for me. Basically, there was some misunderstanding between the folks helping me plan my summer school and those who had planned another, earlier session of summer school (an association of students/intellectuals that I didn’t know existed/rumor has it isn’t normally recognized as a functional group), and it all came out in the open the first day of summer school (which boasted a great turnout of kids) when a small flock of young men stormed into the school and started yelling about how we had to send all the kids home. It was a confusing and rather stressful situation, and was followed by several days of extremely high stress as I attended meeting after meeting where people were yelling at each other and at me and where we argued about whether I was going to accept their demand that I change two thirds of the teachers that I had chosen to work with me on the project. Apparently this association was so offended by some insults that one of the young men who was supposed to work with me had directed at them at one of their meetings that they decided that he needed to be fired (which I did on the spot) and in addition to that, they needed to become part of the direction of the project and their members should be employed as teachers instead of the others my team had chosen. Which would have been a fair proposal had any one of their numerous members approached me during the planning phase of the project to say that they would like to help, but to storm in with force after the thing is already planned and has started functioning and then to think that we are going to play together nicely is a bit hard for me to accept. We attempted to mediate the problem at the village chief’s house in a meeting that was conducted entirely in Fon and ended with me in tears. Finally, I had accepted a huge compromise just for the sake of the kids who were enrolled in the project, and then the association changed their demands again and I was (I think reasonably) unwilling to yield again, and the village chief decided that enough was enough and called off the whole project. I was pretty discouraged about the whole thing, not only because it was a solid project and I was really sorry to not be able to see it through to the end, but also because this is the first major problem I’ve had in the community and I felt that the support I received from my supervisor, homologue, and the village chief was really lacking, even though they were all part of the planning process. Also, the incident brought out some hostility towards me, not in a way that I feared for my safety, but just in a way that made me realize that if I stayed, it would be a year of one problem after another. While that may be par for the course to some degree for the first two years, it doesn’t make much sense to willingly enlist for another year of such problems that seem to be growing even more prevalent.

And after all, the whole idea of Peace Corps is that we work with communities that want to work with us; it’s not to force ourselves upon communities that wish we’d leave them well enough alone. So although I do think the majority of the community was on my side and will be sorry to see me go, I can’t ignore the small, vocal part of the community that seemed to be telling me to just mind my own business.

So, I’ve notified Peace Corps and my community and am in the process of wrapping things up and planning a goodbye party. I’m trying to not let these few unfortunate things that happened at the end spoil the memory of the amazing two years that I spent here, because they were great and the community was beautiful and welcoming and I don’t want to forget that.

Thus, I’ll be home in November, around the same time I had previously planned (just before Thanksgiving), but instead of it being a vacation, I’ll be moving back. Since I hadn’t planned this move, I’m not really sure what I’ll be doing when I get there. Probably some hanging out and decompressing for the first bit, enjoying the holidays, then studying for and taking the GRE and probably looking for a job as I figure out the grad school situation and start applications.

Short (I mean relatively) post today. I’m still doing some processing of all that has happened, because it’s been a lot of change very quickly, but I wanted to get you all the update because it’s big news. I’ll try to write again soon.



The Girls Who Lead Our World

So we just finished Camp GLOW Parakou 2013 and I wanted to share with you some of what happened during the week.  It was a great experience, much like last year, and I again thank all of you for your various types of support for the project.  Between 17 Peace Corps Volunteers who are based in the region, we brought 52 girls between 6th and 9th grade to the University of Parakou, where they spent a week staying in the dorms, speaking French, meeting new people, pushing their limits, and learning about the possibilities that exist outside of the village life they know.

(I tried to post some pics but the internet refused, so that will come later)

The week went fairly well despite some bumps in the road (to be expected anywhere, but especially in Africa, where even the best laid plans often don’t equate to reality).  We borrowed the same university classroom that we used last year (though the dorms this year were much nicer!) and each volunteer chose several sessions to lead the girls through while the rest of us helped guide our assigned campers along.  I taught about hand-washing, malaria, clean water, and domestic violence, as well as escorting the campers on a field trip to an NGO that’s doing interesting work in agriculture and livestock raising at the end of the camp (the thirty minute drive to and from the field trip site felt much longer with a van full of girls singing camp songs at the top of their lungs the entire way…).  The most interesting session that I led was on domestic violence–I presented with my friend Rachel and we decided to emphasize the need to address this problem on a community level; the community is aware when a husband is beating his wife, and the neighbors and family are likely to be the ones capable of making a difference in the situation.  At the end of our session, we passed out different scenarios to each group of campers to see their thoughts on various domestic violence situations and to let them try their hand at resolving the various problems.  This was an intriguing activity that brought about an involved discussion about gender roles and what each person was expected to do in a relationship.  In the end, we arrived at the conclusion that a man never has the right to hit his wife, no matter the error she has made, but left many other gender questions unresolved.  

Much of the program was the same this year as last year, but there were some good changes to the schedule as well.  We added in a session on sexual harassment in schools, led by my friend Mariah (an English teacher posted near me who also plans to extend for a third year).  I see this as one of the most important sessions because it is such a huge issue in Benin, and it’s so widespread and typical that there are very few people telling the girls that it’s not actually acceptable behavior for a teacher.  The frustrating thing is that there are relatively few concrete actions that a girl can take if she has this problem (technically sexual harassment is against the law, but I’m not sure if any teacher has ever been convicted for it unless he has actually impregnated a student), but I think it’s equally as important for them to just be reminded that it’s not something they have to put up with and to do what they can to be strong and to avoid engaging in those situations.  Another change to the program was the addition of a relationship panel, featuring three married couples–one Beninese, one American, and one Beninese-American.  The couples were asked a series of questions relating to the roles of each person in the relationship and ideas on gender roles, having/raising children, etc, and they discussed the differences in answers.  The girls seemed to enjoy this session, and it was an interesting discussion.  The responses to the questions actually didn’t differ terribly much, probably because all of the couples were composed of young-ish, educated individuals with fairly progressive attitudes, but it seemed good and positive to have the girls see several varied examples of healthy relationships and the way that men and women can work together as equals.

For me, what stood out this year about camp is the way that it encouraged the girls to speak French and what a great thing that was.  Even during the school year, it’s rare to hear students speaking French outside of the classroom, and inside the classroom it’s mostly male voices who speak, because many girls are afraid to make mistakes in their speech for fear of being made fun of (and this is a valid fear–it’s an accepted practice in Beninese classrooms to harshly correct anyone who mis-conjugates a verb or can’t find the right vocab word, etc).  And especially in a rural environment like where I live, once school is out, students very rarely speak French.  I see the students that I live with forgetting their French week by week as the summer progresses, due to lack of practice.  And while I think it’s good for them to use their local language, because it’s part of their heritage and culture, it’s also important to have a mastery of the French language, because it opens up so many more possibilities for a young person, not only in Benin, but in the larger world.  When French can be competently spoken, youth can communicate with their counterparts from all over the country, and from other French-speaking countries, whereas the person who speaks only local language will always have to rely on a translator and thus will be less independent and less mobile, restricted to areas where their local language is spoken.  But during camp, because girls are interacting with people from many different regions and with volunteers who don’t understand local language, it’s necessary to speak French, and because there are no boys around to make fun of them, they feel more free to try, even if they’re still nervous about it.  

I brought five girls with me to camp this year and again relished seeing the transformation that occurred in even a single week.  I think I was a more competent chaperone this year after having done it once last year and I knew to walk them through the small things that I didn’t think of last year, like how to use a flush toilet (really rather different from a latrine or from other things that are practiced in village), and I regrouped them for a small, informal village reunion every night to check in and see their reaction to the day’s activities and to make sure there were no problems.  There was a bit of turmoil amongst the group, especially in the first few days, which I think largely comes from them being pushed so far outside of their comfort zones, combined with living in close quarters.  But generally, they seemed to really enjoy the camp and responded well to the experience.

Now that camp is over, I’m reflecting on ways to reinforce what the girls learned and to bring more girls into the group of leaders, so that it’s not just one week out of the year that inspires them and me.  I’ve decided to start a girls’ club this year with the high-schoolers, where we’ll meet once a week and talk about things, do fun activities, etc.  Other volunteers have these, and some work better than others–many have problems with attendance, which is why I’d avoided this idea before.  But I’ve decided to give it a try and to have confidence in it.  One thing I’ve learned from my two years spent here is that often, if you believe something will work, it will work.  If you’re not sure, other people pick up on your uncertainty, and it flops.  Additionally, I’m recruiting the ‘graduates’ of Camp GLOW to help me lead sessions during my academic camp on the subjects they learned about during camp.  That way, they’re given the chance to serve their community, to be a role model, and also to be a translator between the strange language of yovo and the way younger students understand things.  I’m pretty excited about this idea.  I’ll let you know how it works out.

Academic camp is set to start next Monday and will run for a month before school ‘starts’ in October.  I put that in quotations because the first month or so is usually taken up by the kids doing manual labor and the administration trying to put together a working schedule.  It drives me crazy.  But then again, how else are you going to essentially ‘mow the lawn’ of the school campus when there are no machines to do it and no money to pay someone else to do it?  It’s just accepted that the kids will work for their education.  The main unfortunate thing in my opinion is that it takes away from instruction time, which is already limited to begin with.  

When thinking about problems like these, there’s a quote that often floats into my mind, the origin/exact wording of which I’m unsure of, which I find to be quite fitting for the problems one faces in a Peace Corps experience:
God give me the strength to change the things I can,
The grace to accept those I cannot,
And the wisdom to know the difference.


In other news, I recently got two rabbits!  They live in a largish cage behind my house and run around my concession during the day.  Their names are Etin and Oto, two words that mean “ears” in local language.  Their American names are Betty and Otto.  They’re adorable, as you can see if the picture posts here.  They’re not really much work to take care of since they can run around with the other livestock and they eat the by-product of the soy cheese that my concession family makes most days, as well as leaves that one finds in the fields, and I can buy rabbit food at market for fairly cheap.  I’m really happy to have them around, and I love to sit and watch them–they’re hilarious, cute, fluffy creatures.  

The first night I got them, I didn’t have a cage yet and so they stayed in the house.  My cat wasn’t there when they arrived, and so I wondered how he would react to them.  I closed one of them in a spare room in my concession family’s house, and one in my living room and went to bed.  Around 5AM, Awi started meowing at the door and I thought “oh boy, show time!”  I got up and let him in, and in he pranced as usual, invigorated by his nightly prowl.  He got about halfway across the living room when he caught sight of the rabbit.  He froze.  He stared at the rabbit.  He didn’t hiss, he didn’t growl, he didn’t try to pounce, he didn’t try to run.  He just stood there and studied it.  The rabbit was actually fairly unconcerned by the cat.  She looked at him a little, and then carried about her business of investigating the house and eating anything in sight.  They played a funny game of slowly chasing each other around for about an hour (sometimes she would slowly hop after him and he would walk away, not wanting to seem like he was afraid, but also not wanting to get too near her, and then the tables would turn and he would follow her while she made her way away from him) before I became convinced that he wasn’t going to eat her and I went back to bed.  After a little bit, he made his way up to the ceiling, where he rested aloof until the rabbits were out of the house.  Now they co-exist peacefully and have virtually no interaction. 

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