Friday, April 6, 2012

How I celebrated New Years Day(s)

Last year, I spent Christmas in the far north of Benin on the border on Niger and then went into Niger with some friends to do some sightseeing and see the last wild herd of giraffes in West Africa. This year I spent Christmas in a town on the other side of the north called Natitingou and then went on safari with 3 friends. I should probably write a whole blog about the safari but it would actually be kind of a boring recount of animals we saw (baboons, crocodiles, other monkeys, various deer/antelope/water buffalo looking things,ELEPHANTS!,giant velocoraptor bird creatures,warthogs (surprisingly sleek and majestic creatures for their hideous face),lots of exotic birds,hippos, and the barren Burkina Faso border lands). I did get to see an elephant really close up and that was amazing. We also spent one afternoon riding around on the top of the SUV drinking wine from boxes. Probably the classiest safari you’ve ever heard of. Since we are poor volunteers and all, we couldn’t afford to eat at the restaurant at the hotel so we brought in baguettes and a cheese substitute and peanuts and ate that for all meals except the last evening when we splurged on a meal and one beer each. After the safari we stopped at some beautiful waterfalls, which was also amazing. It was a really good experience and I’m glad I got to do it with some really good friends as well.

What I really want to talk about is my New Years Adventure in village. Since I spent several months’ salary on safari, I went back to village to eat rice and beans with my villagers for New Years instead of traveling more to be with volunteers. It was actually a great time and I’m glad I did it. My new closemate, Wes, came to my village for New Years Eve and we hung out in my market at the two story bar (one of the few actual two story buildings in village) and drank and danced with some villagers. Wes went back to his village the next day and I went to the next village over to spend the day with my work partner, Hyppolite, or as I like to affectionately shout at him, “HYPPO!!!”. I took a moto on to get there and on the way, we ran into a group of drunk adolescents. These are not exceedingly common here but it was a holiday even in Benin. A drunk kid stepped in front of my moto and the driver told him to get out of the way. Instead of moving, the kid rapid fire punched the light on the front of the moto for no apparent reason and broke it. This led to an instant drunk fighting mob and me jumping off the moto and running with my helmet still on to a safe distance to call my work partner to come get me and help me pay my driver who was in the process of wrestling the kid to the ground. Hyppo came and got me and all was settled but it was kind of scary for a few minutes. Hyppo’s wife made some delicious food and we spent some time at his house with his two daughters, Modukpe (not sure about spelling) and…wait for it….Ursula! They are adorable little girls and are slowly becoming less terrified by my spooky skin and more enamored with my ipod. After dinner, Hyppo and I went to a local bar and got a beer. I explained to him the concept of a New Year’s Resolution and asked him what his would be. He said that he was going to stop teasing his daughter so much. Then, without even allowing me to answer, he says, “Wait, what is yours? To sleep less?”.Somehow even my work partner who lives in another village knows of my excessive love of sleep. The problem is that, yes, sometimes I do sleep kind of late when I have nothing to do, but even if I get up at 8 or 9 o’clock everyone here thinks there is something wrong with me. The only reason you get up that late is if you are sick. Most people here are up by sunrise doing morning tasks like sweeping. Also, many of them have real lives with children and such, so it is much more difficult for them to sleep in. Whereas I have nothing to do in the morning if I am not working that can’t be done in the afternoon or put off to another day, and since I love sleep, I do that thing.

Anyways, after being teased by my work partner, I went home. The next day I spent with another English teacher. He took me to the village he was born in that is outside of Lobogo and super tiny. The soil there is dark black, which is in contrast to most of Benin where the soil is reddish brown. There are no mud huts because that type of soil doesn’t lend itself to mud hut making and the village isn’t accessible during rainy season because it is prone to floods. It is made up of 2 large families and their extended families. It is a very poor village but people looked healthy for the most part. I found the fattest Beninese baby I have yet to see there! I met the chief of the village in his little hut. In the center of all the huts there is a thatched hut with no walls that is encircled by giant logs on their side and one really big log in the center. This is where everyone meets and discusses and the chief sits in the middle. I also was able to see where they make the villages sodabe, or moonshine. It is made out of wine made from palm trees. They take the palm wine and boil it in a big metal container. There is a tube that siphons the real good liquor off the top and then takes it through two puddles that cool it down while it is still in the tubes. Then the liquor comes out of the tube and flows into a giant glass container and it is magically sodabe! Palm wine itself is actually very good, but for some reason it has always been served to me with various species of flies and ants floating in it. I think it is because they flock to the sugariness of the wine and it is just too difficult to constantly get them out, so they embrace the extra protein. I saw a dead man as well. The story in the village was that he had died of a broken heart after losing his wife and daughters in a tragic accident. He was laid out on a mat in one of the straw huts with a group of men sitting outside mourning and periodically taking shots of sodabe. My friend told me that they do a few things to preserve the body and sometimes it stays in the hut for viewing for several weeks or months. They have to put gauze over the eyes and mouth and stay vigilant because mice have a penchant for corpse eyes and tongue. And since the dead are laid out in a straw hut full of hidey holes and entrances for mice, someone (maybe the group of sodabe men?) is always on guard to shew away pests. I also met the village voodoo man, who was pretty cool, and saw a small childrens fete where they were all dancing like crazy. The joyful abandon with which people dance here is incredible and is one of my Benin happy thoughts. I have two good videos of people dancing that I need to post to fb when I get good service. So that was my holiday season that wasn’t quite one since the weather is either hot or real hot year round. I hope everyone else had a good one and I can’t wait to be in ‘Merica for the next one .

Babies! Inspired by Babies!

Funny things people in village have said to me regarding babies and my lack thereof:

-You look good with that black baby. You should have one before you leave! (women)
-You look good with that black baby. You should let me give you one! (men)
-Madame, you like too much the black babies. You should take one home with you.

So as I’ve stated many times in the past, I LOVE the babies in my village. They are just so cute and diverting (when they aren’t peeing on me for lack of diapers). Also, I would say a good 50% of the women I know in village are pregnant or just had a baby. This was actually perfect timing because I am on a mission to get someone to name their baby after me before I leave. My main tactic for accomplishing this mission is to (semi)jokingly point to the bellies of my pregnant friends and ask how “Petite Dione” is doing. We all giggle and move on to another subject, but I figure if I do this enough the name has to stick with at least one of them, right?!? I had a moment about a month ago when I thought Project Petite Dione was a-go. One of my friends had her baby and her daughter saw me on the way to the market and told me all about it. She literally said, “Petite Dione had arrived!” I asked her several times if that was the real name of the baby and she said yes. It is traditional in my village to gift a new mother with soap because she will have to be washing a lot of things now that her baby has arrived. Wanting to surprise and impress everyone with my integration skills and thoughtfulness, I jumped on this tradition with rabid dedication. So I bought some soap and went to visit the new mother of “Petite Dione” and see my namesake. I walked in and they dumped the tiny infant in my arms. She was everything I could ever want in an African baby namesake; cute, tiny, adorable, and sufficiently plump. I turned to the mother and asked what the baby’s name was. She said, “Dione!”. Just to make sure they weren’t humoring the yovo, I asked again, “But…what is her real name?”. She said, “Oh, its Geraldine”. Wa wa.

Working Hard/Hardly Working

If you’ve seen any of my recent Facebook updates, you probably know that the teachers in Benin were on strike since January. At first, this caused little to no problems as the teachers were mostly still teaching and were more of on a metaphorical strike if you will. Then in the middle of February the teachers realized that their methods weren’t working (surprise!) so they decided to actually strike and stop teaching. I would like to preface these stories with the clause that it may not be entirely factual/the whole truth. Anything I know about the strike has come from various professors who don’t always tell me the truth or the whole truth so it has been very difficult to figure out what is actually going on. These are my observations from my village. A lot of the northern villages seem to not be affected much by the strike and many small schools have likewise not been affected either because they hire primarily teachers who are not on a government contract and have therefore not been striking. Anyways, the school system in Benin is much better organized than I would have thought it would be but it still has a lot of problems. The teachers are not paid very well and some of the newer teachers didn’t have a signed contract with the government but more of an ‘understanding’ which involved them teaching full time and getting paid whatever/whenever the government decided it felt like it. This led to anger on the part of the teachers and they decided to strike in the middle of a school year. Also, somewhere in the strike process it became known that the President of Benin, Yayi Boni, decided to give all government workers a 25% raise (no you did not read that wrong, 25%) and after the fact decided that teachers were not included in this raise even though they are government workers. I think this is when the strike got even more serious.

So starting in February most of the teacher’s at my school were not coming to their classes. Since I am not paid, I continued to go to work as did the few non-contracted professors at my school and the administration. This led to problems because the students began to stay at home since none of their professors were coming. I know I wouldn’t walk for an hour to get to school on the mere hope that a professor might show up if I didn’t have to. Even though I told my students I was still coming, many of them did not want to come to school for just my class or took the opportunity to slack off cuz, you know, they’re kids. So even though I was still trying to teach a good portion of my students were not there which makes things difficult if you are trying to make any progress. Also, as anyone who works with kids knows, the lack of any organization or structure led to the kids I did have acting like total fools and making my life hell. Beginning in March, the government still had not responded to the strike, so the teachers got even more desperate. The non contracted professors get paid by the hour, so they were continuing to come to school to make money while the contracted teachers were striking and continuing to get paid their salary. The striking professors began to convince administrations to completely close schools and when, in the case of my school, that didn’t happen, they created even more chaos. On March 5, I went to school and taught a class from 8-10 with about half of my students. The striking professors decided to come to school and have a ‘sit-in’ of sorts. They all came to school but sat in front of the administration building and did nothing. This angered and confused all of their students, some of whom are preparing at the end of this year to take a very difficult exam that will determine if they can continue on to the final years of secondary school or university. The students could do nothing about it though and the professors seemed to think it was all a big joke and incited the students’ anger and turned it against the few professors who were in classrooms teaching (i.e. me and that one other guy). I finished my very unsuccessful attempt at an English class at 10 and went to the teacher building to get a snack. The students started yelling and ripping branches off of trees and parading around the school yard as the professors egged them on and the administration did nothing. My school director told me to wait to start my 10 o’clock class, which I was angry about at the moment but in retrospect very grateful for. In a “if we can’t learn, no one can!” moment, the students mobbed the few remaining teacher’s in their classrooms and ran them out of the rooms and then proceeded to block the entrances to the doors with old desks and tree branches. It was probably one of the saddest moments of my school experience here. The professors had convinced the students to cheer at the demise of their own education and were laughing while doing it. It was awful. Everyone appeared to me to think that this was all just so entertaining. I got up and left the school an walked home and needless to say did not come back the next day. My students told me that any teacher who tried to teach was met with the same reaction all week long. And it was the students who were keeping their classmates from learning. It was extremely frustrating.

The other frustrating thing was the lack of any clear communication from anyone on what I should be doing during this time. I was told by various Peace Corps and school administrators to go to school, stay away from school, try to teach, or go each day and see what happens. No one could give me a clear answer on when the strike would end or what was going on. I was also told by people that the school year would be extended or most likely cancelled. I waited a week for things to calm down and then went back to teach to even less students with less of an attention span. This lasted for 2 weeks until the teachers’ representatives met with the government and the government basically told them to get back to work or they would no longer be paid and probably get fired. So now the teacher’s are back at school and many of them are just beginning to calculate the grades for first semester (which ended in January) and we have no date set for any of our exams for second semester, which should be about ¾ of the way finished. I had expected to be done with school by the end of May, now I have no idea when things will finish. As you can probably tell from my tone in this note, my general attitude towards work has greatly diminished in the last few months, as has my respect for many people at my school. There are about a million things one had to have patience with while living and working in another culture but there is an end to one’s rope and I’ve found it. This is just on top of a lot of other general nonsense at school that I have managed to accept over time, but now just can’t handle.

But wait! The title of this post says I’ve been working hard! Lies! Well, not exactly but outside of school (and the Go! Go! Lobogo English Club which floundered and died as a result of the strike), I’ve been doing a radio project with my work partner that is pretty awesome. We record a message every week on various health and life skills topics and then broadcast them from a popular local radio station. They are sent out in English, French, and Saxwe to maximize comprehension. We use some free air time from my work partners English radio show he does every Sunday and have so far covered Malaria prevention, the importance of hand-washing in reducing disease, women’s awareness/rights, and family planning. It’s a really cool secondary project and I’ve really enjoyed doing it and spreading helpful information around my area. I’ve also submitted a grant proposal to paint a world map mural on one of the classrooms at my school which I am super excited about. So there’s an update on the work stuff going on in my life. For an update on nonsense, see the next post!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Go! Go! English Club

Towards the end of last school year I finally decided on a secondary project to do in my village. Many TEFL (English teacher) volunteers do other projects outside of our daily teaching job such as clubs, building a new school building, etc. I could never think of a project that I really wanted to do. Everything I could think of revolved working with my students on some level and since I did not enjoy teaching much last year, the thought of working with my kids outside of regular school hours seemed like something I did not want to do. My school is currently working on building several new classrooms, so it appeared to me that I wasn’t needed there either. Also, every time I brought an idea up my colleagues, they would instantly agree that it was exactly what the village needed, but didn’t give much input aside from that. No one asked me to help them with any projects or came to me with an idea. I know as a Peace Corps Volunteer I am supposed to find out my communities needs and try to address them on some level, but this idea has always been difficult for me. I never wanted to swoop in and give my village a new set of magic latrines and then leave. I wanted to work with people to help them help themselves. And since no one ever seemed to have any ideas besides asking me for money, I did my job and not much else. I tried to integrate into my community and tutored kids. I helped other professors come up with lesson plans and improve their teaching and I participated in a girls empowerment camp last summer. Mostly I just spent my first year in Benin trying to survive.

Even with all that, I felt like I should be doing something else, especially my second year. I tried to think of things that I’m passionate about and what kinds of interactions make me happy. I wanted to do a project that was interesting to me as well as beneficial to my community. One thing I am passionate about it reading and discussing themes and issues found in books with others. So I decided to start a reading/discussion group. I can count on one hand the amount of Beninese people (outside of a few of the other professors at my school) I’ve seen reading a book for fun. I often read a book at school if I’m not in class or waiting for a meeting to start and I always get comments on it. People want to know what I am reading and usually comment on how I am “improving myself”. If the worth of reading is recognized by people in Benin, then why don’t they read more? For one thing, books are expensive and difficult to find just anywhere. There are book stores in major cities but not in smaller towns and villages. There are not many public libraries and the ones that exist are not exact equivalents of what we consider a library in the States. I decided that I wanted to instill in at least one person the love of reading and the magic that can be found in books.

I thought of doing a reading group in French, which would improve my French and be easier for anyone who wanted to join since they speak French here. But then I remembered that I am a native English speaker and there are many people who want to improve their English, so I decided to make a group for the upper level students at my school that would be in English. I teach the first few years of English (the American equivalent of 6th,7th, and 8th grade-ish) and that’s not much fun for me outside of the very beginner level students. My school goes all the way up to the American equivalent of 12th grade so I figured I would work primarily with the upper level students who have been taking English for at least 4 years. That way we could actually read and speak in English and have good conversations. So fast forward several months, and we had our first meeting last week (November 16). My work partner and I decided to create an English Club at the school in which he would work with the younger kids and I would work with the older kids and then at the end of the meeting we could all come together. We made signs for the club and asked the other English teachers to tell their classes about it. Our meeting time is on Wednesdays at 3 o’clock. We don’t have school on Wednesday afternoons so I figured many kids who weren’t serious about being involved wouldn’t make the trek back to school for the club. I was wrong. Perhaps it was the lure of the white woman. Perhaps it was the lure of doing anything other than going to the market or sitting around their concession on a Wednesday. Perhaps it was the Vodun gods plotting against me. But for our first meeting there had to be like 60 to 70 kids who showed up. And kept showing up. It seemed like every ten minutes a new group of kids would wonder in and start making noise. For the first meeting we decided to have all the kids together to explain the group and get them excited. I had planned to get the kids excited about the club by playing an American song on my ipod with speakers and giving them most of the lyrics with some of them omitted. Then they would have to listen to the lyrics and write in the missing words. Simple, right? Uh, no. I had ONLY made 40 copies of the lyrics so about half of the kids just had to sit there with nothing in front of them. I wrote the lyrics on the board but that didn’t seem to help matters much. There wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit so it was essentially just a big crowd of kids who couldn’t concentrate but were excited about something new. We finally got them calmed down, did the activity, and explained how the weekly meetings would work when a new group of kids walked in, one of them with a guitar strapped to his back. I will call them the Teenie Boppers.

The Teenie Boppers used to be in an English club with my work partner at his old school. Without telling me about it, my he invited them to come and say hello to our English Club/uncontrollable mob. The Teenie Boppers said hello and then broke out the guitar and proceeded to have a concert for themselves in our already overcrowded classroom of 70 kids that should have only fit 40 at best. From what I could glean over the excited noises the kids were making in reaction to the heartthrob newcomers and their music, the song they played was a mix of random popular/not at all popular American/Reggae songs. They were a hit. My English club was in shambles. There were some shining moments of hope though when some of the upper level kids spoke to me and responded to the original song (Yesterday, by the Beatles. Please see the irony in this song being upstaged by a young group of boys singing to a rabid crowd of Beninese teenagers) with very thoughtful comments IN ENGLISH!!!! Which is quite a change from the 16 months it has taken my students to correctly ask to go to the bathroom in English. So I left the club with hope that the next week, when we split the group in two and I got my decent English speakers, would be better. And oh how it was!!!

This week I got to work for almost 2 hours with the upper level students and it was awesome. Well, it was awesome after we spent the first 45 minutes sitting in silence because of the torrential downpour that decided to commence right at our starting time. Teaching while rain is pouring on a tin roof is impossible. You can’t hear anything. So we just sat there and they copied the material I wanted to cover off the board while another professor took a nap on an empty desk. I gave them the poem, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost and they had to summarize it for me and when it stopped raining we discussed the theme of the poem. Its probably impossible for many of you to understand how much this event meant to me. I spend much of my time in village communicating in mediocre French or Sahoue about mundane things. Aside from my work partner, Hyppolite, and a few other teachers, I rarely have real conversations about anything meaningful. So in this meeting, I got to speak about interesting and meaningful ideas in English! AND I was helping kids improve their English! Win, win, win! I’m super excited to continue on and hopefully get to read at least one book with the group. I’m thinking of starting with The Alchemist by Paolo Coello and then the first Harry Potter! I have found a couple organizations that may send me books, but I need to look into it further. So if you have any info on groups that send books to Africa, let me know!

So the final and most entertaining thing about this English Club adventure so far happened at the end of the second meeting. We decided to let the kids suggest names for our group. We could just be the Lobogo English Club, but we were hoping for something more creative and oh my lucky stars did we get it. Here are some of my favorite suggestions for the name of the club: The Best English Club, American English Club, Gracias English Club, Young Boy English Club, Awesome English Club, Vive le club d’Anglais!, Blaise’s English Club (submitted by an enterprising 9th grader named, appropriately, Blaise), School English Club, Good Like English Club, Powerful English Club, Overcoming English Club, Eleven’s English Club, Go!Go! English Club, and my favorite……The Lion King English Club! Tune in next time to we see which one of these I convince everyone to choose!!!

“Maybe the curse came in the form of the disease you have?”

Recently one of my best friends in village, Dorcas, has become very sick. Dorcas is about 30 years old and has two small children. She is a neighbor of mine and lives in a mud hut with the parents of her husband (who died last fall). Many women in my village make money by selling things at the market, sewing, or doing hair. I’m not exactly sure what Dorcas does for money aside from the money I pay her every month to help me with my laundry and bring me water once a week. She has been a very good friend to me over my last year in village. When I have been sick she has brought me food from the market and is generally just really nice and thoughtful. She is very poor but has never asked me for anything except for a mosquito net for her 2 year old daughter who kept getting sick with malaria. She fed my cats when I was gone in America and refused to take money from me when I offered it to her afterwards. She is an honest and hardworking person and she sees me as a person as well, not just a rich white anomaly in her world. Also, she speaks some English, which has probably helped us get closer.

Anyways, recently Dorcas disappeared from her house across the street and when I finally found her at her mother’s house near the market it was a sad shock. She was lying on the ground and could barely get up to greet me. The last time I had seen her she had complained about a pain in her side. When I found her, she showed me these horrible open sores on her side that looked like the skin was being eaten away. It went all down her right side and onto her stomach. She was also very tired and occasionally dizzy. She complained that her heart would suddenly start beating really quickly and she couldn’t breathe. Apparently she went to several doctors in the area and they gave her a bunch of medicine that cost a lot of money but could not explain what was wrong with her. After she explained all this she told me how she believed that someone in the village had cursed her and sent bad spirits to her and that was what was making her so sick. Benin has very strong Vodun traditions and many of the slaves that were taken from here went to the Caribbean and created the voodoo traditions there. Essentially there are many good and bad natural spirits. The bad ones can be sent to others in the form of gris gris or a curse and can make that person sick, die, or have bad luck. It may seem sort of crazy but it makes more sense when you live here and you see the kind of lives that many people live.

I tried to work within this structure when I talked with Dorcas and I asked her maybe if the curse had come in the form of the actual disease or sickness she had and she said yes. When I asked her what disease was, she said it was a bad spirit, so we were back to square one. It was so frustrating to me to not be able to understand the sickness that she had and do nothing to help her. She couldn’t even lift her two year old daughter. As I sat with her next to her mother’s mud hut and watched the other women prepare a meal on the fire, it made more sense to me why so many people here resort to blaming evil spirits for their misfortune. Who/what else can they blame? Many of them wash with and drink water filled with parasites. They eat untreated fruit and vegetables. They go to the bathroom in a field next to their house. They sleep without mosquito nets. They are not vaccinated against any diseases. The cause of Dorcas’ ailment could have been any combination of these factors and perhaps exacerbated by others. She has little money to pay doctors and the ones around can’t even properly diagnose her problem. When you have no explanation, no options, and no education an evil spirit makes as much sense as anything I could have told her about the transmission of parasites. It was just so frustrating and heartbreaking to sit there with her and know that there were not many options. I called the male nurse who works in my concession and he came over to look at her and decided to give her infusions of some liquid that he said would reduce the infection. When I asked what the infection was he couldn’t really explain it. Even if I had the money to pay more/different doctors for her, they would probably all say the same thing. There I was sitting with my best friend who could not get access to decent medical care and I could at any moment call the Peace Corps doctors and tell them of any ailment I had and it would be taken care of. The sad difference is that she is a real citizen of a third world country and I am an American citizen.
Currently, Dorcas is still sick but slightly better. The last time I saw her she was living in a local church and spending her days praying with other women for God to take away her sickness/curse because there is nothing else she can do. Regardless of the state of health care in America, none of us will ever have to experience the kind of powerlessness my friends here do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

There and back again…and 10 lbs heavier.

So I didn’t mention in my summer post that I got to go HOME!!!! For the month of August and a little bit of September I was in Cleveland, Ohio spending time with family and friends. This was all thanks to the donations of a lot of people who gave money to my ticket home and I am eternally grateful and humbled by how many giving people there are. I really needed this trip back and I couldn’t have done it myself, so thank you to all of you! It was really weird to get a on plane home. I must have looked a little special in the plane before it took off in Cotonou. It looked so shiny and new and fancy. I just couldn’t believe I was going home. I had also been stressed for days by the idea that somehow this was all a cruel joke and my ticket wasn’t real and that I would get to the airport and they would just laugh at me and tell me to go back to whatever village I crawled out of. Well, surprise, that didn’t happen and I got on the plane. Did you know they feed you awesome food on planes? They were feeding me like every four hours and it was delicious and a little bit too much. So many tiny little morsels of goodness. By the morning I couldn’t handle it any more but didn’t want to waste my food so I started wrapping it up and putting it in my bag. Benin has made me like an old person who lived through the Depression. Napkins, jelly packets, salt and pepper packets, plastic silverware, and wet wipes all made it into my bag. I just kept thinking, “I could use this in my village!!”. Except I was going to America and looked like a fool lol. I finally realized I had a problem at the airport in Paris. I had wrapped up a baguette with some butter and a plastic knife while still on the plane from Cotonou and placed it in my bag so that it wouldn’t get waster. I mean, butter?!?! I never eat butter in village! So sure enough at the Paris airport I got hungry and decided to pull out my baguette and eat it. The problem was that now I was in fancy society and I also looked sort of like a bum. I had old, baggy, faded linen pants on and a sweat shirt. My hair was slightly disheveled and I was real tired. As I sat huddled over my piece of bread I realized the Americans sitting next to me were addressing me. “So where are you coming from?” they asked, confusion and pity in their eyes. I told them I was coming from West Africa and saw nods of comprehension. “What were you doing there?!?” I told them I am a Peace Corps volunteer and they said, “oohhhhh” and turned away and started chatting in hushes undertones. Looking down I realized that I had crumbs all over my sweatshirt and a few on my face. My first day back in civilization and I looked like a homeless person.

Aside from the first episode I think I did pretty well in the first world. I had a minor break down in Target when I realized that the five pairs of underwear I picked out would be the only new ones I would have for another year so I better choose wisely. At times I felt a little disconnected from people but I think that’s probably normal. I’ve spent the last year of my life trying to fit in here and that means a lot to me but I know it’s hard for someone who hasn’t experienced it to understand or appreciate that. It was so nice to see my family and friends and make new memories with them to tide me over for another year. It was also nice to eat American food. I managed to gain close to 10 pounds while I was home, which I feel is no mean feat. I would say almost every woman friend I have in village has commented on how fat and beautiful I got in America, so there’s that. They also do this arm movement and “boom, boom” sound when they say this that makes me picture a jolly fat person and makes me a little uncomfortable. Beninese people don’t see calling someone fat an insult. They just see it as the truth. In their eyes it’s similar to calling a doctor, “Doctor” or a tall person “tall”. Also I’ve taken it in stride since I’m quite certain my rice and bean diet and close proximity to all the parasites and amoebas the world has to offer should slim me down again once more.

Summa Summa Summa Time!

I haven’t written any entries in a while and a lot has happened in my life over the last few months so I figured I should probably give my readers what they want: an update on my life! This summer has been kind of crazy. I ended my first year of teaching in Benin, woot woot! Then proceeded to have some of the most boring days of my life in village since school was out and I didn’t have anything to do. I made it my goal to learn more Sahoue (my local language) this summer and started on that but didn’t actually get very far. I spent a lot of time sleeping and reading and sitting with mamas in the market trying to learn local language. I was realllllllyyyyy bored. A lot of my village left for the summer to work in Nigeria or visit relatives in another city, so my concession (the walled complex I live in) was all but empty and many of my friends were not around. By friends, I really mean all the little kids that I hang out with on a pretty regular visit. Sometimes it is easier for me to hang out with little kids in village because their French is not much better than mine and we just play games or sit around coloring and I feel much less awkward then with adults. Usually with adults I greet them in local language or French and then they all start speaking local language really quickly for a long time and I just sit there staring blankly. This is also why I have become obsessed with babies in Benin. Babies are everywhere here and they provide a perfect distraction for me while I am sitting around staring blankly. Well expect for when they pee on me or start crying because they are afraid of my spooky white skin. Most babies in Benin don’t wear any kind of diaper and half the time are sitting on my lap with only a string of beads around their waist so you could see how that would happen.
I also happened to make friends with a new family in my village which has been awesome. I went to meet this family to ask permission to take their daughter to a girl’s camp (which I will talk about in a bit) and they were super nice and welcoming. They live on the other side of my village and it is quite a hike to get to their house. Plus it is about on the edges of the jungle and down this tiny dirt path, so I would never have found them accidentally. The mama works in the market on market day selling medicines and the father must work outside of the village because I have only met him once. Anyway, the mama doesn’t speak much French but is always so happy to see me and so welcoming. I greet her on market day at her stall and she always makes me sit down and eat something (which she buys) and promise to come eat with her family the next day. They don’t ask me for things and generally seem to just really like my company. This development is especially nice because my mama in my concession has been disappearing a lot lately to another village and is generally unhappy and unpredictable and I’m not sure how to deal with her on a day to day basis. There is also this ridiculously adorable little boy who loves in the family complex with this new family and his name is Rodrigi and he is delightful. He always runs up to me and hugs me and then hangs all over me while I’m there. In America that would most likely annoy me but here it’s nice to hang out with Rodrigi while everyone speaks Sahoue around me..
In June I had a break from monotony when I took 5 girls from my village to a weeklong girl’s camp run by PCVs. They were the top girls from all my classes and the camp was to help them make connections with other hard working girls in the south of Benin and also successful Beninese women who had worked really hard to get where they are in the hopes of inspiring them to stay in school and make Benin a better place for themselves and their daughters. There were also hygiene, sex ed, study skills, and malaria prevention sessions, to name a few. It was really cool to be a part of such an awesome event. There are very few girls who graduate from secondary school in Benin and go on to university to become professional women. Most girls drop out to get married, have children, or work. It is also very difficult for girls to keep up in school while they have so much responsibility at home. The best part of the camp, I think, was the small group time the girls had to talk to various successful Beninese women. There was a mayor, a doctor, an entrepreneur, and several other professions. I can tell my girls a thousand times to stay in school and work to become something more but if I strong independent Beninese woman says it, there is such a big difference. This camp inspired me to attempt to do a girl’s camp in my region next year for all the top female students in the surrounding schools. I’m currently talking to my work partner and other people in my village to see if it is possible. If anything comes of this, I’ll let you know…probably by asking for money for it lol.
After the camp, I went directly to Cotonou to welcome the new volunteers who came to Benin this summer!!! It was really cool to be with them their first few days in country and explain life in Benin to them a little bit. It was also weird to have that many new Americans around. I’ve become so used to seeing them exact same people all the time that having new Americans here was surreal. Seven of them are coming to live and work in my region and 2 of them are going to be around an hour away from me!!! New friends! I am going to bombard them with intense energy. They swear in on Sept 15 and move to their villages a few days after that. I also had to say goodbye to the volunteers who were leaving this summer as well. We serve for two years and a new group comes every year so all my friends from the group who came the year before me were leaving to go back to America. That was very difficult, especially with the people from my region. Those were the volunteers I saw the most and they became my support network and my family. We had regular taco nights (not real tacos, but close) and hang outs and it is going to be a little difficult at first to not have them around. But with the new volunteers replacing them and coming to new posts in my region, I should be good. And to think, I have less than a year left here! Crazy! School starts in a couple weeks, along with my reading/discussion club, so bring on the machetes!!!!
Funny story/ridiculous story: When I was buying fried yams in my market a few weeks ago I was handed a coin straight from the red hot coals of the mama’s fire. How did this happen? Well I handed her a bigger coin and needed change. She exchanged the coin with a different woman and in the transfer, dropped one of the coins in to the fire that she was frying yams on. She proceeded to pick up the coin out of the fire with her bare hands and then hand me my coins. Not paying attention, I grabbed the coins and one of them burned a hole into my palm. As I drop the coin and swear, the woman says, “Doucement!”, which means “watch out!” two seconds too late. Beninese women have oddly thick skin on their hands from a lifetime of work. They can grab boiling pots from a fire without oven mitts and apparently pick change out of a pile of hot coals. As I was walking away from this woman and nursing my hand, another woman yells at me, “What are you looking for?!?” I distractedly said I was looking for oranges. She shouted at me, “Those do not exist!” and walked away. I have heard my village name, Lobogo, means “under the orange tree”….It was not my day in the market.