Septembre

So, it’s September and for the first time in memory, this does not mean the beginning of a new school year for me.  Even though this marks a change from what I’ve known my whole life, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable and I don’t long for the familiarity of the school routine.  I continue to be very glad that I am done with school.  I recently was looking through past entries in my journal–those from the end of my senior year–and it reminded me of how little I enjoyed school by the end.  Those were the days of staying up way too late, sleeping far too little, trying to do much more than was feasible, and barely staying afloat in what was supposed to be my primary activity: being a student.  So though I miss the fall weather a bit–the crisp breeze and the changing leaves of the east coast–while I am living in what I expect to be a perpetual summer, I’m nonetheless immensely pleased that my life is different now.  Even though I still feel like a student in many ways, these days bring a lot less dread and anxiety than days in the recent past.  I feel a lot healthier, too.  I sleep more, exercise more, eat better, and rely less on caffeine to function.  And when I look at myself in the mirror as I’m brushing my teeth each morning, it’s nice to see a face that looks more human than zombie, with eyes that aren’t bloodshot or surrounded by dark circles, and skin that is pleasantly tanned and freckled instead of oddly pale.  So glad I decided to do Peace Corps instead of grad school!

September also means that training is almost over (thank goodness–i thought the end would never come).  In a little over a week, I’ll be swearing in as an official volunteer and moving to my village.  Though we’re not really supposed to start any projects in our first three months at post, I think I will still feel a lot more useful once I get there, as I’ll be able to start talking to people, assessing assets and needs, and doing small things to help around the health center.  I also look forward to being viewed as a professional who has expertise and is working instead of a “staigaire” [trainee] who is just learning.  I am excited to set my own agenda each day instead of being a slave to our training syllabus, and to do the things that I see as important and useful without being bound by what other people have decided I need to do.  In some ways, this training period has been more structured and controlling than anything I have experienced in recent memory.  We have classes every day from 8-4:30 (with recommended activities after classes many days, and a half day of training on Saturday) and undergo periodic assessments and evaluations by various people involved in the training process.  I suppose this is probably useful for a big organization like Peace Corps; they want to make sure that all of their volunteers have certain core capacities and knowledge of key subject areas–essentially they want to ensure that we are truly capable of carrying out the duties requested of us.

But I guess I am struggling with two main issues rooted in the training process.  The first is still that I feel like before I was even invited to serve in PC, I had to prove that I was competent in most of the things required for the work I’m going to do; yet once I got here I received comprehensive training as if I was starting from zero.  I acknowledge that well-trained personnel are important for any organization, and I know that some of the trainees came to Benin with far less experience in the health field than I have, so it’s good in that respect that the training has been so thorough.  But it’s frustrating, and ultimately not a good use of human and financial resources, for people who already have those skills and knowledge to have to sit through it again.  It seems to me that it would be more efficient to group the training classes by level of experience–people who need more training would be together, and people who need less or more refined training would be in a separate group.  The second thing is that to a certain degree, I am sure that some of these things simply will come with practice, and that it feels to me like it would be more productive for me to be learning through experience in my village instead of hanging out here and practicing for the sake of practicing.  Part of the reason that I feel so strongly about this second issue is because when one is going to be working with people, the only way to practice realistically is to practice with people.  And I am just not comfortable with using humans as test subjects for the purposes of my own learning, even if ostensibly I’m learning so that I can help others later.  For instance, one of the activities we will be undertaking as health volunteers is running “sensitizations” with different groups of people in and around our villages on different health topics (which is basically a fancy way of saying we’ll be giving mini health classes on relevant topics).  I’m looking forward to doing these in my village, once I figure out what people know and do not know, and what information is relevant and appropriate to present to each group.  However, as part of training, we have to give a practice sensitization tomorrow to a group of random people whom we have never met from a village that we have never been to.  These are real people who have lives and jobs and children and obligations, and we’re going to be taking their time to talk to them about things that we’re not even sure will be relevant to them, and then we will never see them again.  To me, this feels a lot like we are using them.  Though at least with this activity, unlike some of the similar things we have done in the past, the discussion that we’re going to be leading has the potential to benefit them if they don’t know a lot about our topic.  It just feels presumptuous to me to take a random group of grown adults and to assume that they don’t know about HIV or how to put on a condom.  I was trying to think of when a similar situation might exist in the U.S., and I really couldn’t think of anything where someone could get away with doing what we are going to do here.  I am going to do the activity, because it is a mandatory part of our training and it will probably be good practice, but I’m very glad that it is the last of activities like this, because the whole situation makes me very uncomfortable.

Anyway, life goes on pretty much as it has for the past two months.  As far as Fon goes, I have to really get down to business with studying more intensely, I think.  I’ve barely mastered the greetings (OK, actually I still haven’t mastered them, but at least I can usually remember them), but I recently found out that I will be giving part of a speech in this language during our swearing-in ceremony, which will be in front of 400 people and also televised.  Additionally, I have nowhere near a functional understanding of even the basics of the language.  It is so drastically different from English, French, or Spanish–simpler in some ways, but it’s hard to grasp onto because there are so few similarities between it and the way I think about language, if that makes sense.  I am thinking a lot about what I need to buy for my house to make it livable in the first few days, and my host mom said she is going to help me make some of those purchases.  It’s going to be a lot of work to furnish an entire house (even if it is small), but I”m pretty excited about it.  This will be the first time in my life that I will have had my own house and I think it’s going to be kind of fun to set it up and start living independently.

Oh, and I have a new mailing address!  Mail will still reach me if it is sent to the PC address, but I think I’ll be able to check this new one more frequently once I move to village.

B.P. 337
Savalou, Benin
Afrique de l’Ouest
WEST AFRICA

Hope all is well on the homefront!  Until next time:)

C’est bon, no?

It’s funny, the past week was so full of interesting things, and yet I had so much trouble writing this post. (Which is the reason it is late, in addition to the fact that life has gotten a bit busier lately, so it’s harder to find time to go to the internet cafe….)

I returned on Sunday from a short trip to visit my future home in the Collines and now I am sitting in the living room of a very nice house in Porto Novo, writing this post as I watch all of the Harry Potter movies in French with my host family.  I guess my brain is a bit confused about what my life is really about right now.  The life I just glimpsed for a few days is so extremely different from what I’ve known for most of my twenty two years, and even from the way I’m living right now.  I’m having trouble processing the whole thing enough to distill it into something coherent that I can put here, but I’m going to try anyway…

Last Wednesday, I woke up way before the sun rose in order to get on an early bus heading “up country” with my future work partner (henceforth known as my homologue, because that’s the terminology that PC uses), a fatherly man whom I had met only two days before.  I think it took about seven hours for us to reach Glazoue, which is the closest large town to my village.  It’s not on the map that’s in the sidebar of the blog, but it’s about in the middle of Cotonou and Parakou, which are both shown there.  The road there was paved and not in great condition, but also not too terrible.  There were a few sections where there were an absurd amount of potholes, and the Beninese road builders seem to really enjoy putting small speed bumps in clusters in the road when it passes through a town, which is not my favorite thing (they’re small enough to slow the bus down a little, but mainly they just yield sort of a washboard effect), but generally I was pleasantly surprised with a smoother-than-expected and uneventful ride.

My future supervisor and a few other people were waiting for us when we disembarked from the bus, and they took me out to lunch at a restaurant down the road, which was a relief because I was a bit worried that my homologue would take me straight to his house, where his wife would have prepared some fancy meal featuring many different types of meat which I would be obligated to eat because not eating it would be terribly offensive.  So we were able to broach the subject of vegetarianism in a place where there was no danger of hurting anyone’s feelings, and that worked out well.  They were a bit disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to feed me bush meat, which my homologue informed me is quite good, but I think they’ll get over it.

Here commences one of the themes of the visit: eating a ridiculous amount of local food with my hands.  It’s an acquired skill to eat things of a consistency similar to mashed potatoes and gravy without the aid of silverware, but after this week I feel like I’m a lot better at it.  I finally got to try most of the Beninese foods that I hadn’t eaten yet (due to my host mom’s continued habit of making American-style food for me at most meals, and dutifully shielding me from the Beninese foods that Americans don’t tend to like) and I actually didn’t run into any dishes that I truly disliked.  I wouldn’t necessarily choose to eat some of these things on a daily basis, but all of them were fine in moderation.  Of course, I didn’t quite have the luxury of eating anything in moderation, because my hosts felt very strongly that I should eat A LOT.  This is a cultural thing that I suppose stems from the fact that malnutrition is still a problem here and food is not always available, so when it is there, it’s probably good for them to eat a lot.  Also, I gather that it is seen as prestigious to be able to afford to prepare certain foods/a large amount of food, so they were probably acting on cultural norms that are in place to honor guests.  And I know enough to realize that it’s important to people to know that you like the food that they’ve made for you, and the way to show this is to eat a good amount of it.  However, I am not in fact a malnourished Beninese child, nor am I accustomed to eating that amount of starch/carbohydrates at one time, so I felt very cumulatively full, and like I must have gained at least five pounds by the time I left.  As my friend put it after the visit was over, “It’s the surprise meals that get you….You eat a big dinner at 7:30, and then they come around with more food at maybe 9:30, and expect you to eat again.”   And they were always so surprised when I said “but I just ate; I’m not hungry,” as if they hadn’t been sitting there piling more and more food onto my plate two hours before.  It was pretty hilarious, if kind of frustrating at some moments.  I got very tired of hearing the phrases “il faut manger” [one must eat] and “tu manges petit; je ne suis pas content” [you eat little; I’m not happy], especially because, as I continually pointed out to them, I was in fact en train de [in the process of] eating a lot every time they said those things.

Anyway, I got a bit ahead of myself with that section on food.  After we had lunch in town, I got on the back of my supervisor’s motorcycle (a bit of a challenge in a skirt–I’m still working on doing that gracefully) and we rode for about 40 minutes through the countryside to get to our town/village (henceforth referred to as “my village,” though it may be large enough to be considered a town…it feels like a village to me, so I am going to use that terminology for now).  The landscape on the way was so beautiful, and not quite like anything I’ve really seen before.  The best word to describe it is “green.”  So many different shades of green–bright green, dark green, yellow-green–as far as the eye can see.  The name of the region, Collines, means “hills” in French, and that is indeed a fitting name, as it is the land of rolling hills.  (Definitely not mountains, to clarify from a few posts prior to this.  Small hills, that I’m sure will seem much bigger when I’m trying to ride my bike up them, and a few large rock monuments that are sort of similar to Castle Rock-type things in Colorado.)  We passed by field after field of crops of different sorts, as well as fields that looked natural, with short-ish, broadly branching trees interspersed throughout.  And at some points, one could see mountain-like ridges in the distance.  I don’t quite have the words to adequately describe what it looks like, but when I move in, I am going to take my camera out to the countryside and attempt to photograph it, so you’ll see it then.  The basic idea is that it’s ridiculously pretty.

When we rolled up to my village, I immediately thought “OK, wow, I can see myself living here.”  It is small and I like the feel of it.  Some of the other villages we passed through did not feel as open and welcoming to me (as much as you can make that kind of a judgement in a few minutes), but my village made a good impression from the beginning.  I am pretty sure that it is more rural/less developed than anything I have ever experienced before.  Most of the houses are very simple cement or mud brick rectangles with one to two-ish rooms and sheet metal roofs.  This threw me off at first, because in rural Uganda we learned that only the people who had slightly more money could usually afford to build that style of house; the sheet metal roof was a sign of prestige there, because everyone else had huts made out of mud and grass.  But after spending some time in the village, I think the building materials that exist here may just be different from what is readily available in Uganda, because I have seen very few huts here and I really don’t think that most of the people in my village have a lot of spare money.  It is a farming community, and I think most of the cumulative income of the village is generated by selling their crops at the local markets.  As was previously mentioned, there is no electricity in the village (the health center keeps its vaccines in a refrigerator powered by a kerosene-burning generator), nor is there running water in the sense that we think of it.  There is water that can be accessed from a few public faucets, due to a development project that was completed last year by the Japanese and Beninese governments.  The village now features a huge water tower that collects water and disperses it to different faucets throughout the area, so people no longer have to walk so far to get water and they also don’t have to manually pump it out of the ground; they just have to pay 30 francs (about 60 cents) to fill up a sizable water jug.  One rather shocking thing that I found out was that there are almost no latrines in the village.  There are a few that are only for the private use of certain people (such as the one located in my backyard) but most of the community uses the bush as their toilet, which is obviously a major public health issue.  So that’s something I may try to work on in my time there.  Though latrine-building wasn’t really on my radar as a possible activity, mostly because it isn’t really in my repertoire of things I know how to do and it can be kind of tricky sometimes, from what I understand, I’m sure I can learn if that turns out to be something that the community sees as a priority.

At any rate, for the post visit, I stayed in my homologue’s house, but I also saw the house where I’ll be living for the next two years.  I’ll post pictures soon (maybe today, depending on the internet situation), but I’ll describe it quickly anyway.  I will be living inside of a concession (a group of houses) with a tall cement wall around it and a gate that can be locked from the inside and the outside.  There are two one-story cement buildings in the concession; both are duplex-type structures and I have half of one of the duplexes as my house.  It’s a simple house (exactly what I was hoping for), with a sizable bedroom, a small living room/kitchen area, and a room for bathing.  It has cement floors and walls, a sheet metal roof, and a “ceiling” of woven mats that is supposed to keep the house from getting quite as hot when the sun shines.  Currently, the walls are painted a teal/sky blue/green sort of color which I’m not crazy about, but the landlord assured me that I can paint it whatever color I want, so I’m thinking that will be one of my first projects when I move in.  But my favorite part of my house isn’t even inside: it’s the huge mango tree in my front yard.  It’s not mango season right now, but come February or so I will be able to eat mangoes every day for free (YES).  The tree itself is also very nice and I am looking forward to sitting under it and reading, writing letters, etc.  And as a surprise perk, the house actually is wired for electricity, because apparently my landlord has a generator that he turns on from time to time, so this is excellent news.  I will get the experience of living without electricity most of the time and won’t have to deal with the hassle of an electric bill, but will be able to charge things and benefit from the convenience of electric lighting at night every so often.

For the remainder of the visit (when I was not eating mass quantities of food or inspecting my house), I did a lot of walking around/meeting people with my homologue and supervisor and worked on perfecting a look of friendly, contented blankness while they talked about me in Fon, which is the local language of the village.  They were pretty good about explaining things to me in French so I would know what was going on, but they would customarily end an explanation with “c’est bon, no?” [it’s good, right?], which started to make me a bit crazy by the end, because I had probably said “Oui, c’est bon!” [yeah, it’s great!] about two hundred times and that was obviously the only answer I could give; but I think it was just very important to them to know that I was liking what I was seeing and that I was having a good time [and would be coming back to stay].  As I mentioned before, I will be the first volunteer in this village, and it’s clear to me already that my arrival is a big deal there.  I met all of the local authorities–the chef du village [village leader/chief in the political sense], chef du terre [the more traditional/cultural leader], chef du arrondisement [the person in charge of the larger area, similar to a county in the US I think], the police chief, and the military chief in the area.  They all were very gracious and seemed pleased that I would be there and told me to contact them if there were any problems.  The police/military here don’t make me nervous the way the ones in Uganda did, and it’s nice to know that I have the police chief’s cell number in my phone in case of emergency.

When I got back to Porto Novo, I found out that in our most recent language test, I finally hit the level of French needed to be able to swear in as an official volunteer on the 15th.  This is fantastic news because a)it takes off a bit of the stress that I was experiencing related to language and b)it means I get to start learning Fon, which is highly important because I realized during my post visit that very few people in my village speak French.  (And obviously, English is virtually unknown.  So basically, as another trainee put it, French is going to become my English now.  Ha.)  I started Fon classes on Monday, and HOLY COW it’s tough!  It’s a tonal language, like Chinese, so you can say what sounds like the same phrase to us English-speakers with the wrong intonation and it will mean something totally different than what you intended.  Additionally, there are a lot of sounds in Fon that don’t exist in English and are really hard for me to make.  It’s a bit discouraging but I know it will get easier, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to start learning before going to post, because having some Fon skills is going to be very necessary for successful integration into my village.

Anyway, this has become WAY too long now so I’m signing off before I babble on any more.  Hope all is well on your side of the pond.  In peace, CMK.

Qu’est-ce que c’est le Benin?

Or roughly translated: “What is Benin?” or “Talk to me about Benin.”

I learned the qu’est que c’est que sentence structure in preparation for one of our language tests, because there is always a section at the end where the testers ask you if you have any questions for them.  I like this structure because it asks a very open-ended question and gives the person on the other side of it the freedom to tell you whatever they find to be the most important things about the topic.

As I’ve been getting to know Porto Novo and Benin these past couple of months, this question has really been on my mind: What IS Benin?  I’ve been living here for awhile, and yet I still don’t quite understand this place.  And as I think about what I want to write about it here, I have trouble putting different aspects of life into the “boxes” that we all use to make sense of the world.  For instance, I read before I came that Benin is one of the least developed countries in the world and I learned some troubling statistics about malnutrition, illness and education here.  However, when I look around, I see people who seem to have enough to eat, who don’t seem to be crippled by illness, I see boys and girls who attend school even in the summer to advance their studies.  When we did our baby weighing activity in a nearby village, only one out of maybe fifty or so babies was at all underweight.  However, then I also think about the fact that as soon as one leaves the handful of main roads in Porto Novo, the terrain turns to dirt roads in such poor condition that they are sometimes challenging to drive on, and about the goats and chickens that I see eating trash around the city, and the children that I see out begging on the street; I ask myself if I would ever see these things in Washington, D.C., and of course the answer is no.  (Though, to be fair, there are things happening in DC that are just as severe as the things I have seen so far here; it’s just that they are different types of things and perhaps they are better hidden from the casual observer.)

So at any rate, I decided that the best thing to do for this week’s post would be to put together a list of brief statements about what Benin (at this point, mostly Porto Novo) is to me, based on what I have observed and experienced so far.  These are by and large still first impressions and will probably change, but it’s kind of fun to put together anyway.  Also, if there are things that I write here that you would like to hear more about, please let me know and I will expand upon them in subsequent posts.  It’s hard to gauge what would be interesting for you all, so I would love feedback if you have it.  So here it goes.

Benin is….

+A country in Africa
+Not remotely similar to the United States in most visible ways
+Similar in some ways to other African countries that I have visited

In Benin, one sees…
+Women sweeping the dirt off the street every morning even though it will settle right back on in a matter of minutes
+Laundry hanging off of balconies or on lines outside of homes
+Men holding hands with other men, and women holding hands with other women, but it doesn’t signify anything romantic, just that they are friends or they are going somewhere together
+Gas stations that are completely empty while zemi drivers fill their tanks at gaz-oil stands down the street
+Exhaust spewing out from the tailpipes of many motorcycles, cars, and trucks driving down the highway
+Taxis filled far past their intended capacity with people, luggage, and livestock
+People wearing clothing that would be considered outrageously quirky in the United States (lots of bright colors and really wacky patterns–like spaceships, chickens laying eggs, computers, dollar bills, and more–usually both in the same fabric) without people thinking anything of it.
+Far more traditional clothing than western-style clothing
+Televisions turned on for most hours of the day in households that can afford them
+Men urinating on the side of the road into piles of trash or bushes
+Women who change their hairdo completely every few weeks or month, because they keep their real hair quite short and get “weave” braided in by the hairdresser (I didn’t realize how much I identified people by their hair until I was having so much trouble recognizing people when they changed their hair style)
+Most places of residence hidden behind some sort of wall or gate, but people rarely spending their free time inside their house
+Women walking around and riding zemis with babies tied to their backs
+Food and other items being sold off of huge platters carried on the heads of walking women (who are sometimes also carrying said babies on their backs)
+People who can dance really well
+People balancing all sorts of improbable things on the backs of motorcycles–sometimes up to four people, couches, refrigerators, mattresses, etc

In Benin, one hears…
+Many different languages that are not English
+People joking and laughing a lot
+The sound of horns honking nearly constantly as drivers signal to others that they are nearby and trying to pass
+The occasional American song that people listen to without having the slightest idea what the songs mean (my favorite example is my host mom’s nephew who loves to listen to and sing along with the Aqua song, “Barbie Girl.”)
+People greeting you as you pass and vendors calling out or making smooching noises to invite you over to see their wares (I am still trying to figure out if the smooching thing is impolite, but I think it is not considered so here)
+If you are a foreigner, you hear the yovo song and people yelling “yovo!”
+Music blasting from storefronts where music or sometimes cell phones are sold
+The Call to Prayer ringing out from the mosques five times a day
+Rain pounding on tin roofs that makes even a mild rain storm sound like a tropical storm
+The squeaking of the FanMilk horn (the type of horn that one might put on a child’s bike in the states), which signals that the FanMilk guy is walking down your street, pushing a cart that is insulated well enough to keep hundreds of small packets of ice cream cold even under the hot African sun.  This is the Beninese version of the ice cream truck, except that it’s socially acceptable for grown people to buy ice cream from this guy.

In Benin, one eats…
+A dish called “pate” [pronounced like ‘pot’], which is essentially corn flour that has been boiled into a mashed-potato like consistency.  This is the main dish in the southern region of Benin (compare to matooke in Uganda–same position as the favored dish, same composition of 100% carbs, same bland taste, same contribution to malnutrition in children because it fills their stomach so much while giving so few nutrients)
+Pate rouge (red pate), which is similar to above, but with more taste (and I think a significant amount of red palm oil)
+A sauce made of tomatoes and onions and oil that can be put on almost any dish
+An absurd amount of white bread baguettes, which are really cheap and sold everywhere
+Rice, beans (though usually not those two together, which is unfortunate in my opinion), a sauce made of chickpeas, a lot of fish, some chicken and goat, rarely beef or pork, and if one is vegetarian, a lot of wagassi (Beninese cheese) and hard boiled eggs
+Ground manioc flour, called gari (this is often eaten with beans)
+A lot of fried foods (fried dough of various sorts to make donut-like snacks, fried bananas, fried omelettes, french fries, etc)
+Something called yam pile (yam pee-lay) which is some type of pounded yam thing that is presented in a fat disk shape that looks the way the dough for a small loaf of bread looks when you are done kneading it.  This eaten with one’s hands and dipped in a spicy peanut sauce with either meat or wagassi.  Probably one of my favorite Beninese foods, and rumoured to be very popular in the Collines, where I will be posted.
+A porridge-type food called “bouille,” which can be made out of many different types of flour, but I think the millet flour type is best.  They often feed this to babies but adults can also eat it for breakfast.
+Lots of good fruits–fresh pineapples, avocados, bananas, oranges, coconuts (is that a fruit? Maybe not), and when the season comes, mangoes!

This is getting pretty lengthy now, so I’m going to stop, though I feel like I could probably go on quite a bit more.  This is going to be an exciting week for me, because tomorrow we each get to meet our work partner and supervisor, who are traveling to Porto Novo for a couple of days to attend this trainee/counterpart conference (I think the conference will basically answer the questions “What is a Peace Corps Volunteer?” “What do they do?” and “how should you treat them/what do they require?”).  Then after the workshop concludes, we will travel with them back to our posts and stay there for 3-4 days.  I’ll be staying with a host family for the post visit, but I’ll see my house, my places of work, and start to meet people around town.  I’m super excited, a bit nervous, and generally can’t wait!  Wish me luck, and I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Peace and love!

With dreams of lattes dancing through her head

You know how Wednesday is often one of the hardest days of the week?  Monday is hard in its own way, but at least you’re coming off of the weekend so you’re kind of recharged.  Wednesday, however, is sandwiched there in the middle of Tuesday and Thursday with the last weekend fading from your memory and the next weekend seemingly far in the distance.  It’s the “hump day”–Wednesday often feels very long, but once you get through it, the remainder of the week goes much more easily.  I feel like I’m on the Wednesday of training right now.  I’m at the point where being here isn’t as new and exciting as it was at first, but I also still have a month until I move to my posts, so I’m just stuck here trying to get through the middle of the metaphorical week.

This Wednesday feeling has brought a bit of minor homesickness.  Today is a cloudy, humid day and I woke up thinking that it would be the perfect day to go chill out at a cafe and drink some coffee and/or a smoothie (smoothies are definitely the thing I miss most at this point) while reading a good book.  Unfortunately, as you might guess, there are no cafes of that sort in Porto Novo.  Obviously I know this but I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of wanting to go to one.  Isn’t that strange?  What a random thing to miss so strongly.  Overall I am really enjoying living here, but it’s little things that I miss.

It’s also a bit tough because I know that Porto Novo isn’t going to be my long-term home.  On the one hand, I want to meet people who live near me and build relationships and train the children to call me by name instead of screaming “yovo” every time I pass, but on the other hand, it takes time and effort to do that, and that’s a lot of energy to expend when I know I’m just going to have to do the same thing again in my new village next month.  I am starting to get to know the city a bit better, though, and I’m finding that I kind of like it once I get off the main roads.  Walking around the neighborhoods where people actually live is like being able to feel the pulse of a city, and I like getting to know the area in an intimate way like that.  It also feels like people are a bit more calm as one moves away from the downtown area, which I think bodes well for what the smaller towns/villages will be like.

I’ve switched from my Tuesday blog day because I found a superior internet cafe pretty near my house.  But I’ve still been using the internet less lately than I did at the beginning of stage.  I just feel like every time I get online, I become so frustrated with the things I can’t accomplish that it isn’t really worth it.  So I’m shifting to a more complete reliance on snail mail (though I’m obviously still going to update the blog).  Mail delivery has not necessarily been the most reliable thing, but I have also gotten some letters ridiculously quickly (9 calendar days from postmark in the US to my hands–not bad at all!).  I’m not sure how fast mail is traveling from me to the states, but I’ve heard that it’s arriving eventually.

As far as cultural integration goes, I’m still working on parts of that.  I walked out of our house today to find my host mom in the process of cutting up two goats’ heads to use in a stew.  This reminded me of how glad I am that I don’t eat meat.  At times I consider abandoning the vegetarian thing when I move to my village for the sake of integrating better, but after that little experience today I’m not feeling so excited about that idea after all.  It’s cool and a good use of resources that they use all parts of the animal so fully (and my host mom says that people here consider the stuff that we don’t eat to be the best parts of the animal), but I’m just a bit grossed out by it.  Which I guess is probably partially due to the fact that it’s new for me to be seeing the meat-getting process so up close and personal.  This isn’t unique to me, since in the states even if one eats meat, there’s a good chance that one will never see the meat in the actual form of a dead animal because it will be purchased already packaged or possibly prepared.  I have a feeling I’m going to be getting a lot more familiar with this stuff as my time here goes on, though.

Anyway, not a ton else to report so I’m going to keep this post short.  This coming week we get to visit a health center and weigh babies as part of our training.  I’m pretty excited about that.  Baby weighings are a really simple way to catch malnutrition in the early stages and intervene to save lives, so we’ll actually be doing something useful as well as getting to hang out with a bunch of cute babies.  Excellent!  So, hope all is well.  Peace and love until next time:)

The next two years of my life

Well, the big day finally came! On Friday, all fifty four of us received our post assignments:) They were announced one by one and as our names were called, we each stepped forward and found the name of our town on a massive map of Benin that the staff had drawn in chalk on the cement floor of the classroom. It was quite suspenseful–sort of reminiscent of being assigned to cabins at summer camp or of being picked for gym teams (even though there was nothing wrong with being last this time, one still got a little nervous as the crowd of waiting trainees got smaller, thinking “what if they placed everyone else and just forgot about me?”). But heureusement (happily), we all had a spot on the map. I’m quite pleased with my post, given what I know of it. Without putting my exact location out there on the internet, here are the basics:
+I will be in the Collines region of Benin–sort of the middleish of the country, and widely rumoured to be one of the most beautiful parts with rolling hills that might or might not be mountains, depending on one’s definition of mountain.
+My town has about 3,500 people, which is on the smaller side but not tiny
+My house has three rooms and no electricity
+Several of my friends from stage are also going to be in the Collines region, so we can probably see each other fairly frequently (and one of them has electricity in her house, so I should be able to charge things there when I visit)
+My water source is located 20 meters from my house, but I don’t know what kind of a source it is. We will find out in a few weeks when I visit my post.
+I have a private latrine somewhere either in our outside of my house (this is one of the things that PC Benin requires in all its posts–everyone has a “toilet” of his or her own)
+I will be working with both the local health center (centre de sante) in my town, as well as with an NGO in a neighboring town
+My Beninese counterpart (the person with whom I’ve been assigned to work) has been doing community health work for almost as long as I have been alive
+The closest large town to my post has a weekly market that is apparently the largest in Benin and is well-known for vegetables (excellent news for a vegetarian, especially in a country where I have been told that many volunteers can only find tomatoes and onions at their markets)
+I will be the first PCV in this village, which means that my life is going to be more difficult in some ways (i.e., I will have to get my own furniture made because I will not inherit it from my predecessor, people will not be used to having someone around doing the kinds of things I’ll be doing) but I think it’s pretty exciting to be the first one
+It sounds like I will have a lot of freedom in terms of finding and selecting projects, but it looks pretty similar to what I expected–a lot of work with mothers and children, working on nutrition, malaria, HIV/AIDS, immunizations, sanitation, etc.

So that’s it in a nutshell. Like I said, I am pretty content with it. I think our supervisor worked really hard to try to give everyone the type of post that they wanted, and he did an amazing job for me. I wanted a small town, not in the southern part of the country (weather is better, meaning less humid, a bit farther from the coast. Though my info sheet about my post said that region has some of the most extreme temperatures–so I guess I need to prepare for some serious heat). I would have been fine with being placed farther north, but I kind of think my location is perfect because it is far enough from the coast not to be in the weather zone that I dislike, yet it is still close enough that if I was very sick I could get to the PC doctor in Cotonou fairly easily (from what I’ve heard, it’s probably about six hours from my town). Even though Benin is a fairly small country, some people in the north will have journeys of nearly 24 hours between their posts and Cotonou because the roads are largely unpaved and in disrepair.

I’m still adjusting a bit to the idea of not having electricity. Given what I saw on my de-mystification weekend and what other volunteers had said, I had been thinking it was somewhat likely that I would end up with electricity at post. So when I read the part on my info sheet that asked “Is the village electrified?” and the answer was “no,” I was a bit surprised. I’m sure I will adjust and on the plus side, life will be much simpler and much cheaper. But we may have to adjust this weekly blog post agreement. Bi-weekly or monthly seems a bit more likely. Though once I get settled into life in my village, I will probably have less to write about anyway. The good news is, this means that communicating by mail is actually going to make sense! I’m so excited. I was talking to a current PCV who lives in a nearby town, and she said she has found it more efficient to rent a post office box in her town than to have people continue to send things to the Peace Corps address, so my friend and I are looking into doing that. I’ll keep you posted (ha, posted!) but anything sent to the PC address should still make its way to me eventually. It will just be a bit slower once I get to post, and considering how slow it has been even during stage, this concerns me a bit. Which is why I’m considering the other option. But we will see.

That’s really the big news for the week. In other news: 1)Training continues to go on. I think we have passed the halfway point now, which is great news. 2)Independence day turned out to be less of a big deal than I thought it was going to be. Even though the preparations for the holiday were a big story on the news for weeks, it turns out that most Beninese people seem to celebrate the holiday by staying home and taking a nap. At least that’s the consensus that the other trainees and I came to while we were sitting at the buvette (pub/bar) where we had all congregated because our families weren’t doing anything that day. 3)I survived my first encounter with food poisoning this weekend, which of course wasn’t fun, but I’ve come out the other side still swinging, so that’s what matters. 4)Ramadan also continues, and along with it, much prayer. In addition to the customary calls to prayer that happen five times every day (though sometimes I am sure it’s more), there is a new call that occurs around 4am every day now, to wake people up so that they can eat before the sun rises. While I don’t love being awoken at 4am every day, I’m sure it’s much more difficult to go the entire day without eating, so I’m certainly not going to complain.

In conclusion: SO EXCITED ABOUT MY POST. Life is good, friends. We get to visit in a few weeks to see our house, meet people, and get acquainted with our village. I cannot wait. Hope all is well with you! Peace and love!!

La-Bas

So there is this French phrase used frequently here that drives me crazy.  It is only two words: “la-bas,” [pronounced ‘lah bah’] which means roughly “over there,” and can be used to describe almost anything.  Its meaning differs in a variety of situations to mean across the room [is that your water bottle over there?], across town [oh sure, the post office is over there], across the world [what is food like over there in the US?], or any number of things in between.  It is maddening in its vagueness.  When someone describes something as “la-bas,” it doesn’t give you any helpful information about the thing in question.  It’s great to use if you want to be vague yourself (such as when a man you’ve met on the street is asking where you live–then “over there” is a great answer) but I’m usually on the receiving end of the phrase.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week because post announcements are on Friday, and “la-bas” is a very fitting way to describe where we will all be in a couple months.  Not here, but somewhere over there.

I am super excited to find out where my post will be.  It sounds like we will get quite a bit of information when the announcements are made.  I will find out where in the country I’ll be living, what my electricity and water situation is going to be, what type of organization I will be paired with, and what my primary work project will be.  I will also be seeing which other trainees/volunteers are going to be located nearby.  A lot of people are anxious about that aspect of it, since by default your neighbors will be some of the people you see the most.  (As one volunteer phrased it, “Peace Corps kind of chooses your friends for you.”)  I still feel like I like all the people in our stage, so I’m not terribly worried about this.  I’m actually not worried about post announcements in general–just excited.  I know there is good work to be done in all of these places, and I don’t really know enough about the different regions of Benin to have a geographical preference.  There are pros and cons to each one, as with most things in life.  I do think I will feel a bit more settled once I know where I can plan on going, though.  It will be nice to know whether I should prepare to have electricity or not, what the weather will be like so I can buy appropriate clothes, and how far I will be from the bigger cities, so I know how much I should stock up on things that one can only buy there.  So I am waiting.  But not for much longer!

In other news, we started technical training last week, which was a very welcome addition to language training.  We got an overview of the health system and health issues in Benin and visited a health center just outside of Porto Novo.  The health center was pretty similar to health centers that I saw in Uganda.  I was less shocked by it than I was by them, but I’m not sure if that’s because the conditions were less harsh or if I am just a little used to seeing things like that.  Certainly it was nothing like a doctor’s office or hospital in the US.  But also it did not seem overly crowded or terribly understaffed.  Though there is only one doctor working at that center, which serves a population of (I think) about 12,000 people.  Nurses and their aides apparently take on a lot of the work here.  At any rate, I’m psyched to be delving into the health stuff, and even the small amount of training has been helpful to get ideas flowing about possible projects that I might take on once I get to post.

Tomorrow (August 1st) is Benin’s Independence Day.  We get out of training early in order to be able to participate in the festivities.  I’m not sure what I’ll be doing yet, but I hear that people generally have parties and there might be a parade.  So sounds like a fun day.  And it’s exciting to get to be here to celebrate with people, because it’s really a big deal.  Benin only got its independence in 1960, so it is still young and every birthday is exciting.  Tomorrow is also the first day of the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, which is relevant for me because I realized several weeks ago that my host family is Muslim (which definitely explains why they did not try to take me to church on Sunday!).  I don’t know how observant they are, so I’m not sure if they’ll be fasting during the day as others will be, but I gather that they will be doing something.  And at the end of Ramadan (mid-September, I think the 13th?), there will be a big party.  I’m glad I was placed with a Muslim family, because I don’t know a whole lot about Islam and I think it’s a great opportunity to learn.  So I am looking forward to seeing the changes that take place in my family and across the community starting tomorrow.

Until next time, take care!

Benin: Week 3.5

Greetings, world. How is everything going? For me, this week has been an improvement over the previous one. I think I’m settling into life in Porto Novo a little bit, and while I’m still ridiculously impatient to get to my post and start actually working, I’m enjoying this phase a little more than I was before. Partially this change in mood is because I’m gaining some independence. I’m starting to figure out how things work, and I’ve been able to do some of the things I want to do by myself, without help from others. I made my first trip to the post office on Wednesday, which was highly exciting (keep the mail coming, by the way–I’m writing back, it just might take awhile to get to you!). I also successfully found the marche (market) over the weekend with some of my friends and bought my first Beninese fabric, which I’m having made into some clothes. My host mom says I got a fair price for the fabric, so I’m pretty proud of myself for that purchase. I also borrowed a guitar from another trainee to use for the rest of staging, until we’re back in Cotonou and I can buy my own guitar, so I’ve been playing some music, which is always a good thing in life.

Aside from that, life kind of goes along as it has been, so I don’t have much interesting news. As I was thinking about what I was going to write for this blog, I realized I that I hadn’t really described Benin at all yet, so I’m going to attempt to do that so you can get a better idea of the context in which I’m talking about things. I will take some photos eventually, but I’m holding off a bit because I don’t really have a good feel for where it’s ok to take photos and where it’s not. We were warned that some people here hold the belief that taking someone’s photo is akin to stealing their soul, and also that people may demand money from you if they think they were captured in your photo without their permission, so I’m treading lightly around photography involving or in the vicinity of people…which is basically everywhere. So for now, pictures with words (disclaimer: descriptive writing has never been my strong suit, so please forgive me if it’s bad…)

Let’s see, I guess I’ll start with the place where I live, and I’ll work my way elsewhere. For most intents and purposes, my host family lives in a single story, two bedroom, western-style house. However, from the outside, the building looks like it could be an unfinished apartment building or a duplex, with one apartment on each floor (except that the second floor is still being built and thus is vacant). This is kind of a trend in Benin–unfinished buildings of many sorts. It has been explained to me (though I forget by whom) that this is probably due (in a roundabout way) to the cultural norm in Benin that one rarely says “no” to a request, especially by one’s friends or family. So for example, if I am saving up my extra money to build a house and then your brother breaks his leg and you ask me for money to help cover the medical bills, I basically have to give it to you. So my strategy becomes then, instead of saving up and building my house all at once, as soon as I get any extra money, I will go buy some building materials and put them in my yard. Then I will gradually buy more, and eventually I’ll build my house. Then when I am asked for money, I won’t have any to give (though it also means that if my brother breaks his leg, I won’t have any money to cover it and will have to ask others for help. Basically, saving culture doesn’t exist here, which I believe is something that the business PC volunteers work on). So I suspect that this is the type of thing that is going on with my host family’s house, but at any rate that was a bit of a tangent. The house is surrounded by a 6-ish foot stone wall with a gate, through which we come and go, and which is locked from the inside at night. The floor throughout the house is tiled, and the walls are cement that has been painted what was once white or off-white but now is more yellow/brown from all the dust, I suppose. There are two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a front porch where I like to sit and read, write letters, or occasionally eat my meals.

I have my own room (which I feel a bit bad about because everyone else in my family sleeps in the other bedroom together, leading me to suspect that I probably took someone’s room) which is slightly smaller than my dorm room at Tufts last year. The room’s main features are: a door that can be locked from both sides, a bed, my mosquito net, the plastic table and one chair that PC provides us with, my water filter (also provided by PC) and my bike. It’s a nice room, and it has a big window, which allows for great air-flow when I have the door open and also lets me wake up to the sound of either the neighbor’s rooster crowing or the first call to prayer ringing out from a nearby mosque. It’s so cool–I rarely need my alarm clock anymore because I’m almost always awake before it goes off at 6:30. I have never been an early riser, and though I’m still not what one would call a morning person, it’s really nice to wake up gently to the sounds of life and not be hitting the snooze button over and over.

Outside the gates of my house, there are a few palm trees. One thing that you notice about palm trees after you get over the novelty of them is that they occasionally drop massive coconuts which hit the ground with alarming velocity and little warning. It’s kind of terrifying to walk near them. There is a small dirt road that branches off a larger dirt road and leads to our house; it loops around and passes the houses of some of my family’s friends before it hits the larger dirt road again. Both of these roads flood pretty significantly when it rains, and they resemble rivers more than roads during big storms. There is also trash on the ground in most places here because there isn’t really a waste management system. There are no public trash cans, so people generally throw their trash on the ground when they are out and about. And waste from the home is burned in small trash piles every so often, giving the air a frequent scent of fire and burning. Recycling has become a distant memory as plastic burns with the rest of the trash and releases toxins into the air every day. I guess trash management is something that PC’s environmental volunteers work on sometimes, but I get the feeling that it may be considered too large a problem to be tackled by a single volunteer.

The main road near my house, which takes me to school every day, is paved in a cobblestone sort of a way. It’s not the smoothest thing to ride a bike over, but it’s definitely more even than the dirt roads, which put my small amount of mountain biking experience to work. The roads are lined with small businesses, which generally don’t exist in what we think of as stores, but are more along the lines of street vendors that sell out of carts or set up their wares on a blanket on the side of the road. The most frequent type of vendor (and most interesting, in my opinion) is that of what is consistently labeled “gaz-oil.” These are men who sell contraband gasoline that has been smuggled across the Nigerian border. This gasoline is unregulated and unrefined and is probably responsible for a lot of the smog that clogs the air of the city during the busy hours of the weekdays, but it looks really cool in the huge glass gourds in which they store it. I don’t know if the glass is tinted or if the oil is a kind of yellowish/green, but the color is especially striking at night when the vendors set glow sticks or lights of some sort behind each gourd, making the oil glow with a neon green light. I’ve seen very few actual gas stations, which I guess are regulated by the government and are more expensive than the guys on the side of the road, and it seems like the gaz-oil business is big here. It’s also a way in which people re-use plastic and glass containers from other things, so even though recycling is unknown, the re-use part of the recycle triangle is done really well here.

So there are a few of the sights and smells around Porto Novo. I’ll close with one of the sounds that I’m becoming very familiar with: the yovo song. This is something that small children, older children, and even some adults find to be the best way to greet a foreigner who is passing by. It’s a song/chant that goes like this:
“Yovo! Yovo! Bon soir!
Ca va bien, mer-ci!
Et chez vous?”
Which translates roughly to “White person! White person! Good afternoon! (Though this lyric does not change if they happen to be singing it in the morning, and I think it contributes to the phenomenon that a large percentage of people tend to say “bon soir” to me even when it’s not the afternoon.) It goes well, thank you. And for you?” And it can be sung over and over and over a surprising amount of times in the amount of time it takes to ride one’s bike past a group of children. It’s a little more intense than the simple yelling of “mzungu! mzungu!” that I was used to in Uganda, and it’s in danger of becoming the soundtrack to my life here.

Anyhow, that is more than enough for now. All the best until next week!