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

Hope all is well on the homefront!  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!!