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.