New photos

Hello out there. I’m at the Peace Corps workstation and am working on a post but it’s not quite finished. However I couldn’t resist using the free internet and electricity to upload some new photos, from Thanksgiving and just general life. So you should check out the photos page, and I will promise to post something of substance here soon. Hope all is well! ~CMK

The little things

Hello friends. It has been awhile. I apologize. I kept trying to write an entry the past few weeks but nothing flowed. Each time I started, I would get a few sentences in and then get stuck. It’s not that there is nothing to write about. I think it’s more that there is too much to write about; it’s overwhelming. It also occurs to me that I’m getting used to living here. Things that at first seemed new or exotic or shocking are now seeming average to me and blending into the routine of every day life.

I find that I think a lot less frequently about life in the states these days. When I first arrived, I was constantly comparing the things I did and saw with the life I used to live. Now sometimes I forget that there is another way of life out there. It doesn’t seem strange anymore not to have electricity. When it gets dark, I just light my lantern and continue about my activities. While I still often have to give myself a pep talk before starting my cold bucket shower, I rarely think of hot showers that come out of a faucet. I’m starting to sleep through the first crowings of the roosters, which I’m actually a little disappointed about; but I still never set an alarm because the sounds of life outside my windows still wake me up plenty early. I’m so used to motorcycles now that when I see or hear a car on our road, I automatically look to see who it might be. And I’m so used to seeing black skin everywhere that sometimes when I meet up with my Peace Corps friends, it takes me a minute to get used to how weird they look.

Dirt roads, small crumbling houses, faces with deliberate scars cut into them (some ethnic groups here do this, I think as part of a coming of age thing, and sometimes it is also done as part of traditional healing practices), children clad in khaki carrying their books on their heads, bright and wild fabric clothing men and women from head to toe…these things no longer warrant a second glance from me. The initially harsh-sounding tones of Fon being spoken have turned into a song-like cadence of greetings and responses that I recognize, the sound of babies crying is not as foreign as it used to be (generally more babies per person, combined with closer living quarters, means I hear babies much more here than I ever did in the states), and the beat of traditional music with its cowbell-like accents has become just another part of the soundtrack to life here.

I’ve been in Benin for 4½ months now, which is the longest I have ever been out of the states. It feels like longer, not in a bad way but just in that my previous life seems so far away that it feels like I must have been here forever. I’m really settling in. I know this because as I was thinking about what interesting news I had to write about, these are the things I came up with:

  1. We recently got four new speed bumps on our road–two at one end of the village and two at the other. They are made of cement and each one is flanked by two smooth concrete posts painted white with red tips, which are so pretty that I can’t help but touch them every time I walk past.
  2. The pope came to Benin yesterday. It was such a big deal that most kids didn’t have school and many people didn’t go to work. I heard a bit of the coverage of the event on the radio, which is the only connection most Beninese people had with the event as well.
  3. I’ve realized that my village is not in fact a village but actually a small town. More on that in a later post.
  4. I carried my water back to my house on my head for the first time last week (previously I was strapping it to the back of my bike). As expected, it is difficult, but I was pleased to find that I could do it. Though let me tell you, the short distance between the pump and my house feels a lot longer with 25 liters of water balanced on your head.
  5. Rafiki (my cat) is now more the size of a paperback book than a passport, and I haven’t seen or heard from the mice in quite some time.

So basically, life goes on. The days are long but the weeks are flying by. Time almost feels as if it is standing still, perhaps because all of my days are so similar. But the funny thing is, I’m not at all bored. I think I am getting better at just being here, being alive, and being present in the moment. And I’m happy.

In other news, it has come to my attention that it’s almost Thanksgiving. Though the date on my cell phone continues to advance towards November 24th, none of the other cues that usually tell me that the holidays are coming are present in my life now, and I guess I don’t quite believe it. There are no changing leaves, no snow, no Thanksgiving break to look forward to, no final papers that I haven’t started which are weighing on my mind, no family members calling to talk about Thanksgiving plans. There is only the simplicity of everyday life–the walk along the familiar stretch of road between my house and the village center and the greetings in Fon called out to the same people, the decisions about what to prepare for each meal, and the time spent looking at the stars and the moon each night–all of which assures me that each passing day is the same as the last, and as the next. It’s just those numbers after (or before, in French) “November” that are telling me that something special is coming up. It’s quite odd, I expected to feel homesick around the holidays, but instead I just kind of feel like that date on the calendar doesn’t have any meaning in this world, without the contextual factors that make it significant in the U.S.. It’s only when I think of past Thanksgivings and what I would be doing if I were in the states that I feel the twang of homesickness.

Given all this, I’m not sure what I’m going to do for the holiday. I will celebrate with some other volunteers on the weekend (we have plans to make mashed potatoes, apple pie, and cinnamon rolls, provided we can find apples and potatoes in the market this week, and we will improvise the rest…limited availability of necessary ingredients and cooking facilities will limit our ability to imitate an American meal, but it will be fun to be together and to try anyway) but since the actual day is a Thursday, I will go to work. I have toyed with the idea of taking the afternoon off and cooking American food for my friends in village, but I’m intimidated by the task, especially given the “kitchen” that I have to work with. Still, it would be fun and I think I’d like to celebrate in some way, so I might go for it. We’ll see. In reality, a lot depends on the ingredients I am able to find in the market this week.

I know I have rambled on enough already, but Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on and appreciate the good things in your life, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many things I have to be thankful for. So I thought I’d share my list here, because I feel like sometimes my writing may focus more on the negative things than the positive ones, but there are so many good and joyous things in my life right now. So at risk of sounding really cheesy, here it is…

In no particular order, I am thankful for…

  • The opportunity to be here and have this experience that is so wildly different from what would otherwise be my life
  • My family and friends at home who have already been so incredibly supportive through the beginning of this journey
  • Every single piece of mail that I have received since arriving here. It means a lot to hear from you guys and to know that in your busy, high-speed world, you took the time to write and send an actual letter
  • Every person who is reading what I write here. Some of you I know and some of you I don’t, but regardless, I really appreciate you finding it worth your time to check in with me
  • Good health–it truly is a blessing
  • Anti-malaria prophylaxis…such a luxury that I wish everyone here could share
  • Cell phone and internet access, and the fact that I am able to use my computer
  • The warm and welcoming feel of the community into which I have been placed
  • All of the friends I have made in village so far
  • Having so many other PCVs nearby and being able to see them fairly often
  • M&Ms and other goodies sent in care packages by the people who are too good to me
  • Books and music
  • A rain-proof roof over my head
  • My own little house, which is really perfect for me right now, even though I know you guys don’t believe me
  • My mouse-chaser and companion, Rafiki…the only one with whom I can talk in English, French, and Fon
  • The way that Beninese French does not require the type of accent that real French does
  • All the people who continue trying to talk to me in Fon and help me learn, even though most times the only response I can give is “I don’t understand”
  • The zemijan drivers with whom I have made friends and who I can count on to drive safely and to not overcharge me
  • Every bowl of yam pilé that my neighbors share with me
  • $1 beers shared with friends
  • Peanut butter and soy cheese–these are the saving graces of my diet here
  • Tennis shoes. I think I have one of the only pairs in this town, and I am grateful for them every morning.
  • The opportunity to have attended so much school when so many people do not have that chance, but also the fact that for now, I am done with that
  • All of the privileges granted to me by the chance of birth and the possibility to use those to help those who had less chance

Happy Thanksgiving! Peace and love from Africa.

Come walk with me

Today I want you to join me on a tour of my village.  I realize that it’s probably hard to picture where the life I’m writing about is taking place, so I’m going to try to take you along with me for a morning today.  [However, since pictures with words can only go so far, you should also check out the photos that I’m in the process of posting on the blog.  If you go up to the top, you should find a tab that says “photos,” where you’ll find a few that I’ve taken since I’ve been here.]

We’ll begin at my house.  We’ll walk over the pink and black plastic woven mat that lies on the floor of my living room/kitchen and I’ll turn the shiny metal key to retract the deadbolt in the brand-new lock that I installed myself when I moved in.  I turn the handle and the wooden door swings toward us.  The room is suddenly much brighter as the sunlight floods in.  We say goodbye to my kitten, who is doing a good job thus far of scaring away the mice, and we step out onto my front stoop and greet whichever neighbors are in the yard, sitting or working.
“Afongangia?” [Did you wake up well?]
“Eeh, nfongangi” [Yes I woke up well]
“Adokpedea?” [Did you sleep a little?]
“Eeh, ndokpede” [Yes I did]
“Nko” [Something along the lines of “thanks” or “OK”]
We’ll see the chickens strutting along under the mango tree, which doesn’t have any mangoes right now because it’s not the season, pecking at the ground for little morsels of food and the goats plodding around and munching leaves or stealing a few bites out of a pot of food that has been left unattended.  We’ll likely see some of the kids who live next door sweeping the dirt yard into order with small, traditional brooms that are made out of bundles of straw and are held in one hand as the sweeper bends over, forming a right angle with legs and torso.  They will sweep up all stray leaves, bits of trash, animal droppings, and the like that have landed inside the compound gates during the night and dispose of them.  We’ll wish them “good work” [mikudazo] as we walk around them and head for the gate.  They’ll leave for school after their chores are done.

At the gate, I’ll slide the metal latch to the right and push the door out.  Now we’re standing on the main road that runs through the village, looking at a small pile of trash on the other side of the road.  If we ate oranges for breakfast (and we probably did), we will throw the peels into this pile and the goats will eat them later in the day.  Since there isn’t formalized trash collection here except in big cities, a combination of goats, chickens, and fires constitute the waste management system, and piles like this exist until they are burned.  If we turned left, we would be following my running route, passing an Evangelical church which I attended with my work partner and neighbors a few weeks ago, and heading towards Glazoue, which is the nearest large town–the one with the market–and is about 20-40 minutes away by motorcycle, depending on the condition of the road when you’re traveling and how fast your driver is going.  But we are going to turn right and go into town.

You can see the town proper from here but it will take us a few minutes to walk to the center.  We tread along the road, which is formed of orange/brown dirt and gravel; it slides and crunches under our sandals.  On the side of the road, we will see some men doing manual labor that involves a lot of digging with these odd shovels that have bent handles that allow for a swinging motion that involves scooping towards the body/between the legs while bent over.  I think they are working on the drainage system that routes rain water into these homemade gutters, but I’m not totally sure.  We’ll greet them and wish them good work as well [mikudazo].

On the right, across a large field with the skeletons of two soccer goals, I will point out the primary school, a modest looking two small concrete structures facing each other with sheet metal roofs and walls covered in a checkerboard-type collection of square holes to let in light and help air circulate.  There are also two rectangular, gazebo-type structures with straw thatched roofs that house classes that do not fit inside the classrooms.  Since school will be starting shortly, we’ll see children walking in small groups across the field.  They are required to have their hair either shaved or cut very short, so you will have to look at the clothing or for the presence of earrings to tell if you’re looking at a girl or a boy.  Many of them will be excited when they see us and will either shout “yovo” and wave if they’re kind of far away, or if they are nearby or passing us, they will execute a kind of curtsy motion and say “bonjour,” “bon soir,” or “nko.”  Those who know me will yell “Christine!” and I’ll reward dthe use of my name with extra smiles.  Some of the little ones may approach for kind of a high five/handshake combo and will smile broadly when they procure it.

We’ll continue on, passing on the left some type of government office that never appears to be particularly open and the path that leads to the faucet where I get my water.  We’ll greet a group of men who are working with wood in an open, thatched-roof structure just past that, and then the tailors who sit in a similar structure next to them.  We’ll hurry a little at this point in hopes of passing a group of houses on the right before being noticed by the kids who live there, as they will undoubtedly start screaming “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” over and over again, which I find to be a bit much.  On the left, we’ll see a woman sitting on the ground on a piece of fabric in the shade of the side of a house and arranging her oranges in small pyramids for sale, or using a small razor blade to remove the thick green peel in a spiral or thin strips for easier consumption by her customers.  Behind her, through a gap in the houses, we’ll glimpse the interior of the village, where most people live, and where I don’t go very often (but I think I should–once I get a few more solid Fon phrases under my belt, I am going to walk around back there and saluer (say hello/greet people) because I suspect that there is a sizable group of people who don’t really leave that area so I never see them).  It looks like a maze of small concrete or mud buildings grouped close together, most with the walls crumbling to varying degrees, with small dirt paths running between them.  Women sit outside on low stools or rocks and bend over pots of food, dishes to be washed, or tubs of laundry.  Most are wearing a rectangular cloth wrapped around their waist that continues to their calves or ankles (called a pagne) and either a t-shirt that appears to have made its way over from the West or nothing on top.  It’s not uncommon to see women sitting around the home/yard shirtless, but if they are going out they will put nicer clothes on.  If the men haven’t yet left for the fields, we might see them standing around doing manly things like talking to each other, eating pate, or inspecting their motorcycles.  Small children are running around and playing in the dirt, wearing big tattered t-shirts or nothing at all.  It’s not that they don’t have nicer clothes; they do, for the most part, but those are saved for special occasions, while general life can easily be lived in t-shirts or naked.

Don’t get too caught up looking around or you will trip over the homemade speed bumps that are in the road at this point.  They are composed of small logs laying horizontally across the road with dirt packed into a mound around them.  Men on motorcycles (women don’t drive here, though in the cities you can occasionally see a woman driving a moto) will slow down and creep over the bumps.  You’ll notice that some of them are balancing huge sacks of yams, corn, or charcoal on the backs of their motos.  The sacks are generally dirty white and made of plastic or burlap and are probably about five feet long and roughly the shape of a very large, heavy body pillow that is stuffed as full as possible.  They stick off the sides behind the driver and visibly weigh the moto down.  You’ll be amazed that they don’t tip over, but these guys are good.  They are transporting the goods they have grown or manufactured either to their house for storage or to the market for sale and they are careful with their loads.

Now we are passing what I believe to be the only restaurant in town.  On the right, women bend over huge blackened pots that remind me of cauldrons, stirring rice and beans or pate (eaten morning, noon, and night here) and a few customers stand around eating off of metal plates.  ON the left is a large gazebo with low tables and wooden benches and chairs where people can sit and eat or enjoy a cold beverage (I think they have a generator-powered fridge, but I’m not sure).  This is what distinguishes it as a restaurant; there are several women who prepare food for sale in the town, but they are mobile vendors who sell you lunch from large platters or basins that they carry on their heads, whereas here you can sit and be served.  Though no one is taking advantage of that luxury right now, people will filter through later in the day.

More likely than not, we are starting to sweat by now; though it’s morning, the sun is already beating down on us with its tropical rays.  But this is normal for life here so we will continue onward.  On our right, we see a small yellow booth with a short length of a power line connected to it.  This is the phone charging station.  A young man works here and will turn on a generator that feeds electricity to the power line and charge people’s cell phones for 100 francs (roughly 20 cents).  The same guy also mans the table in front of the booth that holds about 10 wine-sized bottles of gasoline.  When motorcycles stop in front of his table, he runs out with a funnel and one of the bottles.  The driver unscrews the gas cap, shakes the moto a little to see how much he needs to buy, and gasoline from the bottles glugs into the tank while the passengers wait on the back.

Now we are approaching the main [read: only] intersection in town.  This is where a lot of the action happens, and where we are most likely to run into any variety of people that I know.  On the left side of road, we’ll find the petite marche [small market], where vendors sit under the shelter of a sheet metal roof and sell their goods each day.  The things available here vary a bit from day to day, but one can usually count on finding smoked fish, pimont (a hot pepper used in nearly all Beninese cooking), cans of tomato paste, beauty products for skin and hair, some shortbread-type packaged cookies, and a bit of fruit (usually oranges right now, but occasionally pineapple or bananas appear).  The vendors are still setting up since it’s morning, but when we return I’ll stop to chat with them and buy fish for my cat or oranges for myself (100 francs and 50 francs respectively).

If we turned right down this road, we would be heading towards the health center which is about 200 feet down on the left side.  It is a large-ish compound with two small, pink concrete buildings, a communal water faucet, two large trees, and a medium sized garden in which I have no idea what grows.  We’ll explore the health center in more depth in future posts, so for right now we won’t turn here.  We’ll just stop by the “house” of the zemijans, which is on the corner of these two roads.  We’ll duck under the low straw roof and find anywhere between two and twenty zemi drivers and their friends hanging out, either on benches or reclining on the backs of their motorcycles (and if we pass by again during “repose,” we will undoubtedly see some of them taking naps on top of their motos, which I think must require excellent balance.  I will attempt to speak some Fon with them–they are some of my best teachers and always fun to talk to–and then we will take leave and continue.

After a few more steps, we are standing directly in front of one of the more notable monuments in the village.  It is a life-sized, ceramic, and very white Jesus Christ on the cross.  He is situated in front of the Catholic church that takes up a large plot of land on the right.  The actual church building is fairly simple and made of concrete, like most things here, and is set back a bit from the road, so Jesus really takes center stage as one passes by.  Just beyond the ceramic Christ, we see the town’s water tower rising above everything else.  It features the Beninese and Japanese flags to commemorate its funders, and as I think I already explained in a previous blog, it provides an improved water distribution system for the village, in terms of easier access to [relatively] clean water.

If we continue past the water tower, we will pass the small general store that sells eggs and phone credit (two important things in my life) and will come to the site of the market.  Unless it is market day (Sunday), the stalls will be empty, but on Sunday there will be about fifty women sitting out with their wares under the thatched roofs of the market structure.  They will try to sell us plastic flip flops, second-hand western clothing, different types of flour-like substances, tomatoes, onions, and goods for the house.  If we walk to the back of the market, we will find men congregating around the stall where a type of traditional Beninese alcohol is served in bowls fashioned out of hollowed-out something (perhaps a type of gourd, or a large coconut? Not sure…).  The drink is some type of fermented corn concoction and is extremely cheap.  Drinking it is decisively a man’s activity, though, as the only woman who is in this part of the market is the one who is selling the drinks.

Finally we leave the market and you may think that we have left the village, but if we continue down the road a few more minutes, we will find the secondary school, which I believe serves the purpose of both middle school and high school in the American equivalent.  We will see flocks of older children, mostly clad in khaki uniforms, heading towards the two long concrete buildings.  To me, the school has an unfinished look, as the classrooms are entirely open on the side and the students can step in and out of the room without being bothered with the door.  They are also in the process of building some new structures to add to the school, so on some days the kids come to school with hoes and machetes instead of pencils and paper and work on clearing the land to make room for the new building.

This marks the end of our tour; my town ends here.  If we continue down this road, we’ll eventually run into the next village, where there is another PC volunteer who is teaching English at the secondary school.  But for now, we will call it a day and turn around to head home.  Thanks for joining me, and I hope you got a feel for life here.  Until next time, peace and love from Benin. CMK.