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.
Afrique de l’Ouest
Hope all is well on the homefront! Until next time:)