Of Boa Constrictors, Jungles, and Stars

Alli's adventures, mishaps and smiles in Benin

Things I am giving thanks for

Hello everyone,

Here’s my (late) Thanksgiving post and the things I am grateful for (in no particular order).

My post:

I am incredibly lucky with where I’ve been posted. Despite what being in Benin has done to my French, I love it here. I love the region of the country I’m in (by far the prettiest), I love the people, I love my work (most days) and I am incredibly happy here. I could not have asked for a better place to be living right now. Also, I have a really nice house.

The Beninese who have adopted me:

So many wonderful people have adopted me as their own. My host mom is my best resource in this country and I will be eternally grateful for all of her help. My closest friends, who own one of the local bar/restaurants, have truly become a family to me. They feed me, entertain me and accept me as one of their own. My market mama and her family have always been incredibly welcoming not only to me, but to all other volunteers. My school administration is so friendly and supportive. I am incredibly lucky.

My latrine:

I love my latrine. Love love love. I know many of you will find this comment strange but having a latrine like mine is a blessing in this country. Firstly, the latrine is right outside of my house in my closed off private courtyard making it easily accessible at all hours of the day and judgment free in times of (very) internal crisis. It was built for me so it does not smell and is far from filled. As I do not have running water, a latrine does not require I dump loads of water into it daily to flush it and therefore smells less. It’s also super useful as a trashcan.

My close-mates:

Nekima and Sotima. Where would I be without the two of you? (In the madhouse for sure.) These two volunteers, 14km north and south of me respectively, have been my sanity in so many ways. They listen to me freak out, they enter into debates with me, they bring out the nerd in me, and they share my hopes and fears. Though Nekima is sadly no longer 14km north of me, she still allows me to call her for two hours to keep up to date with her life (poor Sotima still deals with me on a weekly basis). Seeing either of you two is always the highlight of my week, even when it involves a chicken’s head. As with most things in life, in PC it’s luck of the draw whom you’re posted near (if anyone) and I won the lottery with you two. Thank you both so much.

My cat (duh):

Oh Chester, my Chester. My crazy, wild, feline love. You sleep on my neck and drool in my hair and yet I love you like crazy. Though you may randomly jump on my back when it’s turned to you (thankfully I’m too big for you to eat), you are in so many ways my sanity. Despite coming home to a lunatic, it’s nice to know that I am not returning home to an empty house. Your company truly keeps me sane. Plus, you’re really funny on catnip.

My health:

I am incredibly grateful for my good health. At my mid-service health check up I was given a clean bill of health, meaning no parasites, giardia or amoebas were found (yet). While I have had food poisoning five times (one of those times was my fault), I am in incredibly good shape overall and I hope it continues.

My PCV friends:

I have the best PCV friends a girl can ask for. I would like to give a shout out to my two travel buddies in the South who know way too much about me (don’t deadbeat me, please!). I seriously owe my sanity to these two. Moving north, the Atacora/Donga region of Benin is home to some of the most incredible people I have ever met (we only get the best in this region). These are the people who I see most often, when I am at the regional workstation, and are the people I communicate regularly with. While those Atacora/Donga volunteers who have left are greatly missed, the newbies are fitting in wonderfully.

My American friends:

Oh, Mpo, Little Miss Greek, Boy Alex, Burby-bear, Bahrain buddy, Scootles and Poodef. Thank you all for keeping in contact with me. Thank you for updating me on your lives in the US, for listening to my fears and worries and at least considering visiting me (especially Scootles who did visit). I miss you all and I appreciate your friendship from the bottom of my heart. If you do not see your name on this list, please add yourself by sending me a fb message! I cannot guarantee a prompt response, but I assure you, your news will make me a happy girl.

My students (particularly my 7th graders):

Students. Some days you love them and some days they are the bane of your existence. Overall teaching is far easier this year than it was last year. One of the three classes I teach this year is made up of my students from last year and it is to them that I am most grateful. There are so many bright, promising future kids in this class and they give me hope for the future of Benin. This class also understands my teaching style and knows how to push my buttons but I know I will miss the kids from this class most of all in a few short months. 

My electricity:

My electricity is a fickle thing. It does not like to stay working. I cannot tell you how many different electricians I have gone through trying to solve an apparently unsolvable problem. Due to this, I am incredibly grateful when it is working. It allows my one light bulb to glow (the others don’t work and I haven’t found a competent electrician), but most importantly it allows me to charge my cellphone (read: my lifeline), my laptop, ipod, kindle and use my fan (which serves as not only a cooling device but as a noise canceling device).

My overall lot in life:

This may sound trite, but I am incredibly grateful for my lot in life. I have more opportunities for health and success in life than many people do. I have a wonderful support network and I have been fortunate enough to study at wonderful schools and travel the world.

And lastly…

The things I took for granted:

Oh, Yovotome. You hold such incredibly things, such as noise ordinances, paved roads, supermarkets and fast food. I hope to never again take for granted the convenience life within your borders provides. But mostly, I appreciate cheese. I miss you, feta, so very, very much.

3 Comments »

Update!

Well, it’s been a long while since I last updated my blog so please do forgive me!

Everything in Benin is still going great! Since last writing, I’ve reached the one-year mark, meaning I am slowly but surely on my way out of Benin. My mind has increasingly turned to my life post-Peace Corps even though I still have a year left here in Benin.

 

Since I last wrote many things have happened and here are some of the highlights in chronological order:

 

1)   The school year ended! I made it through my first year of teaching. I had a total of 180 students in 3 classes with ages ranging from 11 years old to 20 years old. With the end of the school year came a four month long vacation during which I…

2)   Attended a Spelling Bee! Each year volunteers set up a national English spelling bee for 6th, 7th and 8th grade students. Not only is this a fun way to get students to learn their vocabulary, it allows students a chance to meet Beninese students from around the country, which is an incredible experience when there are many students who have never left their villages. It happened in Natitingou, which is also great because it’s a great chance for southerners to see the north as most would never get here normally (whereas there’s always the chance a northerner will have to go to Cotonou at some point in his/her lifespan). I myself brought two students who, though they did not win, had an amazing time! After the spelling bee…

3)   I attended an Amour et Vie training! Amour et Vie is a great community health program that was started by a former PCV here in Benin. For Amour et Vie I chose two peer educators, a boy and a girl from my school, and a Community liaison, a wonderful and Beninese woman around my age. After picking my team, we all went to a training to learn about health issues including: malnutrition and illnesses with diarrhea, how to purify water, safe sexual practices to prevent HIV/AIDS and other STIs, and malaria prevention. With all of this information, my students will give health sessions to young people who either never went or dropped out of school and the sessions are done in local language twice a month and they will continue once I am gone! I truly believe that Amour et Vie is one of the best projects a PCV can engage in. After that training…

4)   I got a visitor! My best friend from ASU came to visit me here in Benin since he was already on the African continent! It was a great reason for me to go see some touristy sites, such as the Natitingou Museum, and he really enjoyed coming to my post and seeing where and how I live here in Benin and I deeply enjoyed having the chance to show him my life and my friends here. He was very well received by the people of my post, for example, my host mom gave him whiskey and fried yams at 9am and the family with whom I am super close gave him free cokes and food at their restaurant. After having a tourist of my own…

5)   I went to Togo and Ghana to play tourist in West Africa! First was Togo, where my friends and I spent two days walking around Lomé, which is far cleaner and nicer than Cotonou. At one point in Lomé, when looking for the artisans market, my friends and I got lost so we asked around for directions. One papa (an old man) took pity on the random lost white girls and without hesitating for a minute walked us 15 minutes to the artisans market himself. His kindness was truly one of the highlights of my trip! After Lomé we traveled north, to the Western Central part of Togo, to a beautiful town called Kpalimé. In Kpalimé we went to a delicious Belgian restaurant and bought beautiful local fabric. From Kpalimé we crossed in Ghana, where we spent the day going on a waterfalls hike and visiting a monkey sanctuary. From there we went to Accra, which was a big change. Accra, besides being Anglophone, is located in a country that seems to actually function, which cannot always be said of Benin. It also has a lot of good food for flavor starved PCVs in West Africa. I, for example, went to the supermarket and bought goat cheese and feta and a baguette with poppy seeds and made myself the most amazing cheese sandwich ever. EVER. From Accra we headed to Cape Coast, a touristy beach town that is the worst smelling place I’ve encountered in West Africa. That aside, there was amazing food in Cape Coast, such as a vegetarian restaurant, and I was able to buy myself Ghanaian brown rice as a souvenir (cause we sure don’t have that in Benin!). That more or less sums up my vacation! After that …

6)   I hosted a fellow PCV and her friend visiting from the US. It was incredibly fun to have them. We went on a nice hike to a village 9km away from me and we went to the waterfalls in Tanguiéta (and we rode there in style: in a car that transports slaughtered animals to the butchers shop!). We also spent a day in Natitingou, where we ate antelope and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. And since then…

7)   I have been stung by a scorpion. Seriously. Thus far I’ve found seven of them in my house. The evening I got stung, I found two in my house: one, which I removed, and the one that stung me. The one that got me was tiny (as in a quarter of an inch maybe) and fit perfectly between my big and second toe (where he stung me). I was walking in my hallway when I suddenly felt as though I had stepped on glass, which I knew I had not. As I had already removed one scorpion from my house I assumed I knew what kind of culprit I was looking for and lo and behold, I found the itty-bitty culprit after a minute of intense searching since he was so small. Thankfully it wasn’t a bad sting at all. That night I had some pain, swelling, numbness and tingling at the injection site but the next morning it was as though nothing had happened! And with that I learned my lesson: always wear flip-flops in the house. Lastly…

8)   I have restarted school! I have just finished my first week of my second school year. I am once again teaching 6th and 7th grade, including the 7th graders who I taught last year in 6th grade! So far so good. I know already that this year will be better than last thanks to having a full year’s experience under my belt!

 

And that’s my life’s story since I last wrote! I hope all is going well for everyone! I’ll be sure to write again soon.

1 Comment »

A New Set of Standards

“He’s so big!”

 

This is the response to Chester by nearly everyone, especially volunteers, who sees my cat. Chester, at 9 months, weighs a bit less than 7lbs. By American standards, Chester is not a “big” cat at all. A general rule of thumb for kittens is that you can expect them to weigh their age, meaning a 9 month old kitten should be somewhere around 9lbs, putting Chester in the smaller range.

 

In Benin, however, Chester is a giant. Since Chester has been raised by me in the typical American fashion (i.e. I have food out for him, he does not have to hunt for himself) he is roughly twice the size of most adult Beninese cats and still growing. Due to how infrequently we (even the Americans) see a cat not displaying signs of stunted growth or malnutrition, we now believe my cat, a healthy, soft-furred properly fed kitten, to be some sort of freak of nature, when really, he is just being allowed to reach his full potential.

 

Stunted growth and poor nutrition are rife in Benin. I never noticed how sickly the animals in my town looked until I went to visit a friend who lives to the northwest of me. In her town, all the animals looked so healthy! The chickens were glossy feathered, the goats had a nice sheen to them, the dogs seemed to eat enough and a presumably once nice looking cat was being served for lunch at the local restaurant (no joke). The animals of my town are sadly not abnormal. I would say that her town, filled with nice looking animals, is the oddball and that is sad. Goats, dogs and puppies, guinea fowl, chickens, ducks, pigs and cows are all common daily sights. The cows I see are usually incredibly thin, often with their ribs showing, as there is not enough for them to eat. A dog with fabric around its neck, a sign that it’s been claimed, will usually only be slightly better off than its stray counterpart as it will be fed a bit of food scraps from its family’s meals.

 

The most shocking and horrifying example of how we Americans have adapted to our new lives is the fact that we now see a properly fed child and are shocked. I rarely see a child that is being properly fed. The majority of the Beninese have stunted growth from malnutrition when growing up. Rickets, caused by a lack of vitamin D and/or calcium, is common, and swollen bellies from a lack of protein and/or worms/parasites are all over the place. To see a child with seemingly doll like features (large eyes, big head, small body and swollen belly) no longer comes as a shock, this has actually become my new normal.

 

My close-mate to the north is a health volunteer and she faces malnutrition and the lack of knowledge that goes with it all the time. Let me tell you flat out that it’s not that parents don’t want to feed their children properly, it’s that ignorance and cultural norms prevail. She graciously gave my gardening club a little speech on basic nutrition, which is broken down into three food groups for simplicity: energy foods (carbohydrates), construction foods (protein), and protection foods (vitamin rich foods like fruits and veggies). Her speech was probably the first time my students had heard anything about nutrition. Even the Beninese teacher helping me with the gardening club learned that leafy greens should not be placed in the protein category. This simple mistake of thinking that leafy greens count as a protein, which he is far from alone in thinking, is part of the lack of knowledge that causes a protein deficiency among children (and adults). It is not, as I’ve mentioned, that the parents don’t care, it’s that they don’t know.

 

Culture, as I mentioned, frequently gets in the way as well. It is commonly believed throughout Benin that children should not be fed eggs, as a child that eats eggs will become a thief. This simple cultural folktale prohibits children from consuming a cheap, healthy form of protein that many families often have readily available from the family chicken and/or guinea fowl. Another hindrance to a child receiving adequate amounts of protein is that the adults in the family, naturally starting with the males, are offered the best cuts of meat when it is available, and by time the youngest members of the family are served the protein, there is little left. Another cultural habit is that vegetables and meats are cooked to death. Literally. Most meats and vegetables are over-cooked to the point where much of the nutritional content is lost, and vegetables are rarely eaten raw, if ever. Fruits are therefore, in many ways, the best bet to get children nutrients such as fiber and other vitamins, though only when the fruit grows abundantly in the area is the child is guaranteed to eat them. An example of this is oranges versus mangoes. In my town I rarely see children eating oranges (which actually have a green peel), as they must be purchased from the market since they do not grow here, whereas mangoes are so plentiful in my town that they rot on the ground before people can eat them, so children are constantly eating mangoes when they’re in season.

 

There is, however, hope. Soy cheese, kind of like a younger, less fermented tofu, is becoming popular and is a cheap source of protein (so cheap, in fact, that people comment on the fact that a teacher is eating it when I order it). Exclusive breast-feeding is strongly encouraged for the first 6 months and many health centers, though not all, speak to mothers about nutrition, particularly if their baby is underweight. Moringa, an easily grown local tree that produces green leaves that are rich in many vitamins and minerals, is also being introduced as a supplement to sauces in a powdered form by NGOs and many Peace Corps Volunteers. Goiters are now only seen on older people, as iodized salt and Maggi cubes have taken care of the problem. Also, slowly but surely the wealthy and educated, are raising their children with a nutritionally balanced diet.

 

Besides Chester, it is actually the children of my northern close-mate’s school director that prompted this blog. My close-mate was explaining how she was shocked by how big and healthy his children are. His three year-old daughter, for example is so tall compared to a normal Beninese three year old, though she would not be considered abnormal in the US, rather she would be completely normal. These children, however, are being raised like my cat, with a healthy diet and informed parents, allowing the children to reach their full potential and highlighting for us volunteers just how much our perception of “normal” has changed.

 

 

1 Comment »

On PC.

The following blog post, as with all of my blog posts, is 100% my opinion and not the opinion of the United State Government and the Peace Corps.

This blog post stems from two things:

1)   I was recently asked what the goal of Peace Corps in Benin is.

2)   My friend recently went on a rant about Teach for America (read it here: http://backslashscott.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/against-teach-for-america/ ) and someone asked him his feeling on Peace Corps. Here is my ode as to why the two aren’t even comparable. The three goals of Peace Corps are nothing like any goal TFA might have because of the completely different realities in which they function.

So here, for everyone to see, are my feelings on Peace Corps almost 10 months into my stay.

Peace Corps International has three world-wide objectives and I will address them in reverse order:

3)   Share the culture of the host country with Americans.

Dear blog readers, thank you for helping me achieve my 3rd goal. By writing to you about Beninese culture, by posting facebook status updates, by corresponding with an American teacher and her classes, I am achieving Peace Corps’ third goal of sharing Benin’s culture with America. I may also achieve this goal by playing tour guide to you on your next visit to Benin (you know you wanna!).

2) Share American culture with Host Country Nationals

This does not mean shove American culture down peoples’ throats. This is as simple as me teaching my class to say “bless you” after someone sneezes (which they now do) or by wearing pants as a female teacher (shout out to you, Tori!). This can also be as simple as discussing the American diet (or cooking something for a host family) or by spoiling you pet as an American would (sometimes leading to conversations about why wealthy Americans leave their pets money in their wills). It is not the Americans who shove American culture down peoples’ throats who will have the most impact, but I hope that little things I do, such as not cooking for myself despite being a woman, will be remembered and cause people to think about other possibilities.

To be honest, to me this whole goal in many ways boils down to social deviance. I toe the line in so many ways (I tell people I am married, I wear mainly skirts and I am always properly covered, I do not go bars in town) and this toeing of the line along with the fact that I am obviously not Beninese allows me to get away with doing and saying things that are not considered normal. I do not enjoy cooking for myself despite having ovaries, I sometimes wear the traditional male attire (I like pants), and I tell people I do not want kids (which would make a Beninese woman a “sorciere”).  To not deviate and do everything the way the Beninese do it would rob them of the idea exchange that I am receiving. To confirm that everything that happens in Benin is the same as everywhere else would not be doing them justice. I say that because people here don’t know any better because many have never met a foreigner before, let alone an American. Most kids are shocked to find out that we don’t speak French in the US and that I’m the only one in the family who does. Or that pate, akassa and yams are not eaten in the US. Or that girls are as smart as boys and that more girls get college degrees than boys in the US. To not deviate at least a bit would be unfair to everyone.

And now, the most important goal:

1)   To help countries meet their need for skilled workers.

Okay, here’s the thing. I’m not exactly “skilled” at anything. Many of us aren’t (though there most certainly are many volunteers who are). None of us are doing something a Beninese person couldn’t do. And that’s exactly the point. Peace Corps’ ultimate goal, in my opinion, is to become obsolete. I am not here to replace a Beninese person, I am here to better their human capital.

Here in Benin, I teach English, or, more precisely, I attempt to teach English. My smallest class has 53 students and I am a first year teacher with very little training and, quite frankly, I suck. I feel bad for my students. Except my students are no worse off in my class than they would be in any other teachers’ class. Here’s why:

-I always show up to class. Outside of days I was out of the office for Peace Corps trainings, I have only missed one day of class. One. Since one of my 6eme classes was given to another teacher, that class has missed countless days of class time because their teacher doesn’t come to class when he doesn’t want to.

– I am always on time, I do not talk about myself all the time and I do not take phone calls in class. All of this adds up to significantly more classroom time for my students.

-I have a Bachelors degree. Technically, in Benin, all you need to teach in a high school is a B.A. in any subject, no prior teaching required. That is how it’s supposed to work, but this is a 3rd world country, so many teachers, including many at my school (though not any of the English teachers as far as I’m aware), only have their high school diploma, because they know important people who were able to get them jobs teaching despite their lack of qualifications.

That being said, teaching is probably not the important things I do (despite it taking up the bulk of my time). In many ways my most important work is done with Beninese adults and not children. I have an English conversation club for the English teachers to improve their English as none of them are likely to be able to study in an Anglophone country, so I am their only resource in terms of practicing with a native speaker. This helps not only the professors but their students, present and future. If I notice a group of students isn’t doing well in class, we meet Saturday mornings to help them with what they’re not understanding. This accomplishes two main things; 1) it makes sure they don’t fall behind in a subject that is completely cumulative 2) it shows professors that they should take an interest in their students and help those who need help, for free. My other job, at the school level, is to share ideas, such as songs and games to help students learn, and also ideas we take for granted, such as the fact that teachers shouldn’t sleep with their students.

Most importantly though, I act as the Beninese’s cheerleader. I am there to make them realize all the things they can accomplish. As I said, I am not doing something the Beninese couldn’t do if they had more help or training. Which is why I, and other volunteers are here. Volunteers alone are not trained, our Host Country National counterparts go to the same trainings, on the US gov’s tab. If we build something, it has to be sustainable otherwise it serves no point. If the community or a community member is not spearheading the project it’s probably not going to work (excluding passive projects like murals). But if the community wants to do something, we are a great resource. A volunteer is there to help smooth and facilitate the process, not only in terms of funding but also in terms of helping procure training. We are there to train our replacements.

People talk about how we do not send skilled people abroad in Peace Corps. This would be correct if Peace Corps were going to places like France or Japan, but, while it’s not politically correct, remember that most of these countries are no where near as developed as we are. My skill is my native language (and the 90 hours teaching requirement I had to meet before being offered a nomination). My friend teaches IT classes and the skill that his organization needs from him are knowing how to type and complete basic computer functions. Many of my health volunteer friends are basically trying to make their health centers function more efficiently, so that after they are gone their legacy continues.

These are the “skills” desperately wanted and needed. But our main “skills” that we bring to Peace Corps are curiosity, empathy, drive and a desire to step way outside of our comfort zones.

Sure, you may think that Peace Corps is like TFA, a two year stepping stone to go onto bigger and brighter things, but in order to make it those two years you have to have more than desire to do something later. That won’t be enough to keep you sane during your two years in Peace Corps. Outside of leaving Peace Corps, you cannot escape your decision to join even on weekends. Peace Corps is 24/7 for two years.

No, unlike TFA, where most people pick up and leave not only their schools but education as a whole, many Peace Corps volunteers leave behind something to show for their stay, even if it was just an exchange of cultures. And in turn, Peace Corps produces people who go on to work in NGO’s, politics, international development, social work and more, with experience that directly impacts what they will be doing.

As such, Peace Corps, when it works properly, is the improvement and realization of human capital both at home and abroad.

1 Comment »

A typical week

Here is a glimpse into what my life more or less looks like on a daily basis based on last week:

Monday March 4th:

7am: Wake up to Chester attacking my feet.

8am until 9:50: watch goats, lesson plan, grade stuff, eat breakfast

10am-12: Hang out with Marché Maman at school and buy food for lunch and dinner. Go to offer condolences to a 20 year old with three kids who just lost her husband.

12-3pm: Afternoon heat break: time to stay inside and nap, grade, read, etc.

3pm-5pm: Junior girls English Study Group: Go over HIV/AIDS in Benin

5pm-7pm: Attempt to teach 75 very hyper 6th graders

7pm-bed: Relax, go online, read

Tuesday March 5th:

7am: Wake up to Chester attacking my feet and start getting ready to go to class

8am-10am: Attempt to teach 50 7th grade students in a classroom where there’s no wall separating it completely from the other classroom

10am-12pm: Attempt to teach 50 more students in the sweltering heat

12-12:40: Stay after class with two students to help them with today’s lesson

12:50-3pm: Afternoon heat break: time to stay inside and nap, grade, read etc.

3pm-5:30pm: Senior girls English Study group: Go over increase in Stay-at-home Dads in the US

5:30pm- bed: Decide going out to search for food is unnecessary; eats oatmeal for dinner, relax, go online, read

Wednesday March 6th:

7am: Wake up to Chester attacking my feet

7:30- 8:50: Get ready for school day; eat breakfast, review lessons

9-9:30am: have meeting with a PC official to discuss a potential site-mate for me

9:30-10am: Talk to admin member and a geography professor about various topics

10am-12pm: give quiz to energetic group of 6th graders and attempt to teach them the simple present tense

12pm-1pm: Afternoon heat break! Start grading 75 quizzes.

1pm-3pm: It’s Market day! Go to the marche with the volunteer near me, buy items such as oranges, try to speak some Waama and eat lunch

3pm-5pm: English department meeting turns into a professors of all subject meeting for first half where corporal punishment and sleeping with female students is discussed. Second half, with only the English teachers, we discuss what we can do with limited resources to improve teachers’ and students’ English.

5pm-5:40pm: Lesson plan with my counterpart to team-teach the next morning

5:40-6:20pm: Walk across town, buy fried yams for dinner and buy Chester his daily piece of meat.

6:20-until bed: Read, relax, grade quizzes, etc.

Thursday March 7th:

7am: Wake up to Chester attacking my feet (seriously, every morning)

8am-9:50am: Get ready for classes, review lessons, watch goats outside, take bucket shower

10am-12pm: Give quiz to 50 unhappy students and attempt co-teaching for the first time with counterpart

12pm-3pm: Afternoon heat break! Grade quizzes, nap, etc.

3pm-5pm: Give quiz to about 50 unhappy students and go over the answers.

5:05pm-5:20: Wait to speak to a member of the school’s administration and get an older male student in trouble when he decides to call me “sweetie” rather than Madame

5:20-6:40pm: Go out into town, stop by the tailor to pick up my dress for International Women’s Day, go buy fried yams for dinner and get gifted bracelets by my yam momma, stop and chat with a friend, go visit and sit with host family (and get fed, of course), get Chester his street meat and walk home

6:40pm- bed: Relax, go online, grade quizzes, read, etc.

Friday March 8th:

7am: You can guess how I woke up. Get ready for a meeting by attempting to make house look decent.

8am-9:40am: Meet with student and a health volunteer close to me about doing sensitizations about the risks of tobacco usage at the high school and elementary school next school year.

10am-12pm: Wait with the health volunteer to find a taxi to Natitingou. It usually doesn’t take this long. Stop searching for about 20 minutes to join the women parading in the street for International Women’s day.

12pm-1:30pm: Join women for official International women’s day conference, where a speeches are given in Waama and French over domestic violence. Few men are in attendance.

1:30pm-4:30pm: Go to host Momma’s house where she is hosting EVERYONE for the International Women’s Day party. I try to stay outside with the “normal” women but am forced inside by the “important” people. As I am trying to beg my Momma to let me stay outside, she tells me that the Mayor has requested I sit next to him, so on Women’s International Day, I eat with all the important men of the town (the Mayor, the Director of my school, etc.) and I am the only woman in that group. When I finally escape, I sit with the women, attempt to speak some Waama (as they don’t speak French since they never went to school), show some kids how to read a manual clock, get harassed by some random man (no, I do not want to be your third wife), and end up speaking with the students from the high school. It was a great time!

4:30-pm: Go out into town, have a group of women attempt to get me to dance (better luck next time!), buy yams for dinner, greet a woman I hadn’t seen in a long time, and buy street meat for Chester.

5pm-bed: Finally get home, continue grading the near 200 quizzes I have collected over the week, read, etc.

Saturday March 9th:

7am: My wake up call is starting to get old.

8am-9am: Get ready to go to school, take bucket shower, eat breakfast, etc.

9am-10am: Tutor four of my female 6th graders who are not doing well in class. Go over subject and personal pronouns.

10am-1030am: Wait for a student who asked me for help to show up, but he never came so I went back home. Other students of the same class found out and have asked me to help them at this time every week.

10:30-1pm: Finish grading and recording quiz grades.

1pm-2:30pm: Nap

2:30-3pm: Get ready and walk over to the Nun’s cloister to start technology (i.e. computer) classes with a few female students

3pm-4:40pm: Help girls type up a simple paragraph about themselves and realize that, even among the better educated students, such as these girls, I am better at writing in French than they are. That really can’t be good.

5pm-7pm: Gardening/environmental club at the school. A group of 12-ish students, along with me and one other English teacher, are attempting to start a garden to grow familiar foods that are not easily found in town, such as watermelons. Today we dig a hole for the compost pile and started making rows for the plant beds. Also, the other teacher and I once again debate the need (or lack thereof, in my opinion) of corporal punishments in schools

7pm- bed: Come back home, read, relax, go online, write blog, etc.

Sunday March 10th:

7am: Usual wake-up call

7:30-1pm: Lazy morning. Sunday mornings a fair portion of my town is in church, and those of us that don’t go, including my neighbors, just have a wonderful lazy morning doing the chores that have piled up over the week followed by lots of relaxing

1:20-2pm: Go to the market, buy oranges, fish for Chester, get greeted by many of my students, grab lunch of rice and beans and the local cheese, and grab fried yams for dinner

2pm-3pm: Torture myself by watching Man v. Food. I miss eating in the US. France was a nice break but nothing compares to variety of food in the US.

3pm-5pm: Begin my Spelling Bee club with about 8 students and another teacher.

5pm-bed: Torture myself with Man v. Food, fill out the application to be a trainer for the new volunteers, and lesson plan

And there you have it! A fairly normal week in my life! The only thing that really varies is the market, which occurs every four days.

Leave a comment »

More random musings

-The only time I eat meat here in Benin is when I go to Natitingou and I order the antelope at a popular volunteer spot. I will be sure to try all the local meats before I leave, including dog if someone offers, but I just don’t care to eat meat frequently.

-Chester cannot go outside because there is a real risk someone will eat him. Have I mentioned that I’ve only seen 4 other cats in all of Toucountouna?

-Volunteers frequently hear how beautiful their pets, cats or dogs, are. I think most of us are tempted to say something along the lines of “well that’s what happens when you feed it properly.” But, to be honest, most people here can’t properly feed everyone in their families, so it makes sense that the animals aren’t.

-Because of the lack of education and how common it is, people think the swollen belly of a child who doesn’t eat enough protein is a sign of them being well fed.

-Protein is hard to come by in the Beninese diet. Most male volunteers drop weight (as in around 20lbs) due to the lack of protein. I try to make sure I eat rice and beans and soy cheese or Wagashi everyday to make sure I get some protein.

-Maggi cubes and sweetened condensed milk are the two secret ingredients in everything here in Benin.

-I spend around $1 everyday. My breakfast I do not pay for daily, my lunch runs me about 30 cents, my dinner runs me about 20 cents, I buy Chester meat for about 20 cents and I buy some popcorn or Bissap (a hibiscus drink) for 20 cents.

-My iron levels and B-12 levels were already very low in the US because I rarely ate animal products, so I can only imagine how they are here when Wagashi is my main source of animal protein and I can only get that as often as it’s available, which is between 2 and 5 times a week.

-When I go to Natitingou I spoil myself by making salads, eating yogurt, eating hardboiled eggs and chowing down on apples if I can find them.

-I think about food back in the US daily. Constantly. All the time.

-My host mom thinks it’s bizarre that I walk everywhere. Toucountouna is at most 1 mile long, so I can walk across it and back in less than an hour (assuming I even need to traverse the whole town). She always laughs about me not using my bike, but I don’t see how getting around this town requires me using anything but my own 2 feet. 

-People start to say “Bonsoir” (good evening) here starting at 12:30 or 1pm. If you’re white, people will say it to you no matter what time of the day it is.

-Despite always using “good evening” in French, many students and people who know greetings in English usually only use “Good morning” no matter what time of the day it is.

-You wish a “good ____” everything here. For example, if someone is sitting you should say “good sitting.” If someone is working you should tell him or her “good working.” It took me a couple of weeks but I finally told my host mom in Porto-Novo “good prayers/ good praying” when she would go pray and she was delighted.

-I once got the non-white person price on pineapples because I helped the woman get them down from her head (they’re carried on a large platter on their heads). The Beninese women were so impressed that a foreigner had done that so I automatically made a friend and got the proper price.

-Sometimes people just want a white person’s phone number. For example, my close mate Danny, had to keep telling a guy that he would not give him his phone number simply because he was poor, which was the man’s reasoning behind why he should have his phone number.

-There is no such thing as being too noisy here. During the two weeks I spent in a host family here in Toucountouna, I was kept awake by a neighbor blasting his music from 9pm to 7am. I hear music being blasted at night at all hours when I randomly wake up.

-I believe the terms “collectivist” and “individualist” societies mean nothing. Benin is a collectivist society where you can blast music all night and keep everyone up without regards to their comfort, you can nonchalantly try to cut in-front of people who have been waiting for two hours at the bank because “you’ve been there a while, too,” you can have as many children as you want because you know your better-off family members will help you, keeping them ensnared in the cycle of poverty. But on the flip-side, you greet everyone you see, you know your family will always help you, and people who do not have enough to eat themselves will always make sure you are fed when you visit.

-The best pickup lines I have heard yet are:

            -“Is it Mademoiselle or Madame?” It’s Madame. “You know Madame means you’re married, right?” Yup, I know.

            -“Give me 100 cfa.” Okay, what will you give me? “What do you want?” 200 cfa. “Okay.” (The man starts walking over and pulls out a wad of cash.) Sorry, I actually don’t even have 100cfa at the moment. “What, you didn’t think I would have the money?” No, I just didn’t think you’d be crazy enough to trade 200 cfa for 100 cfa. “Well, I have to show a beautiful woman like you that I can take care of her.” And that’s my cue to leave.

            -“Good evening!” Good evening. “I’m looking for a wife!” Well good luck with that. “Look! I’m evening getting food to cook for dinner!” Well isn’t that nice? (In this man’s defense, it is actually impressive that he’s cooking for himself.)

            – “Mademoiselle! How are you?” Fine thanks, you? “So we will announce our marriage Sunday, yes?” Nope (as I am walking away I hear, “she already has a husband…”).

            – “Good evening.” Good evening. “You are so charming.” Nope, you don’t know me so you can’t find me charming. You find my skin color charming. Go away.

            -From older male students: “Madame, may I accompany you home?” Nope, don’t think so. Good try though. “What, you don’t keep friends Madame?” (“friends” having a sexual connotation here). Nope, I’m married.

-I hate that one of my only defenses from sexual harassment is saying I’m married.

Leave a comment »

To Hannah

Hannah,

It has been two years since you passed away. Two years now I have mourned. It is said that the good die young, and in your case, they most certainly are right.

I remember how in December just two months before you died, I was at your house, surrounded by all of your friends, saying goodbye as you prepared to move to California to begin your next journey. There, in California, you would attend graduate school, but before that, you were going to spend time enjoying the simple things, like reading on the beach, flying kites and spending time with your boyfriend. I remember promising to come visit you in a few months, to see you in your new home. To be honest though, the main thing I remember from that night is you gesturing with a true smile, no hint of sarcasm whatsoever, to a stain on the floor that cost you your security deposit, saying that it was the best $400 pot of coffee you had ever had. And that was the last night I would see you.

Hannah, I remember meeting you in the Human Event Freshman year. We became friends because you were so mature and trusting, even when I had come to give you news that most other girls would have ignored. Hannah, we spent many hours talking, you were always so patient, sage and caring. You always had the most positive outlook. You were incredibly articulate and wise beyond your years.

In February of 2011, the world lost one of its brightest stars. It is like a light went out in my life. I still miss you so much.

I now live in Africa where death is so prevalent. My host mom frequently goes to many funerals in a week. When someone is old and dies, they party and celebrate with joy for a life fulfilled, but for you and other youth, we mourn. Death here is everywhere, it is not a secret like in the US. People carry around key chains and shirts for older people who have died, and there is even a station on TV announcing deaths and anniversaries of people’s passing for families who can afford that for their loved ones. But these are not people like you, Hannah, these are older people. Even here, for young people like you, their deaths are all too frequent and hidden. Here death is no joke, for people know it all too well. They do not joke and say, “I’ll kill you,” for they know the pain of death, as it is a frequent visitor.

Hannah, to be honest, I am incredibly lucky that it wasn’t until college that I lost a friend. Never in high school did I lose someone and you are the first friend to leave me. For that I am incredibly lucky but it does not ease the pain. That first year was the hardest. I thought of you often. But this second year was easier. I still thought of you but not nearly as much. I will never forget you, that’s not even a possibility, but I am working on being consoled.

In the words of The Little Prince:

“And when you are consoled (everyone eventually is consoled) you’ll be glad you’ve known me. You’ll always be my friend.”

Hannah, I am grateful to have known you and proud to say that you were and always will be my friend.

And to those of you reading this, please, go and spend time with your loved ones, your family by blood and by choice. Go have a conversation with someone you care about. Life is all too precious and we, in the West, thankfully have the luxury of forgetting how quickly it can end.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

“Look at this landscape carefully to be sure of recognizing it, if you should travel to Africa someday, in the desert. And if you happen to pass by here, I beg you not to hurry past. Wait a little, just under the star! Then if a child comes to you, if he laughs, if he has golden hair, if he doesn’t answer your questions, you’ll know who he is. If this should happen, be kind! Don’t let me go on being so sad: Send word immediately that he’s come back…”

 

1 Comment »

Random Musings

-Yams are grown in mounds and whenever I see a yam mound, I think it’s a Dilmun mound. One has a yam inside while one has a tomb inside. These are not the same thing.

-I never feel bored anymore. I am a master at sitting and doing nothing and feeling perfectly content.

-I use about 3 kilowatts of energy a week. The average American uses 39.25 kW per day. I have only a laptop, which is charged every night or every other night, a cell phone that is charged every 3 to 4 nights and a Kindle, which is charged every 2 to 4 weeks, a fan that runs for 2 hours at night and my lights are only on for at most 3 hours every night. Plus, at least once a week I charge the electronics of nearby volunteers who do not have electricity.

– Chester is 6 months old, which means I am a quarter of the way done with my service. He will be 2 years old in August 2014, my COS date.

-I have now had food poisoning twice. And by food poisoning I mean puking and crapping the night away, sometimes with a fever, in my latrine. I am not sure how many times it will take me before I start cooking for myself.

-Baby goats are frequently the highlights of my day. Too cute.

-Women here constantly want to give me cornrows but I will not do it because I don’t want to deal with the pain of getting it done.

-Some days I think to myself, “I still have 20 months left.” And other days I think “I only have 20 months left?” Though, to be honest, I frequently think these thoughts on the same day.

-Here is a small sampling of what I would love to eat: A subway tuna sandwich, a Jimmy Johns tuna sandwich, green chili beef from Los Dos Molinos, anything and everything from Royal Taj, a salad from Essence, a pizza from Slices or La Grande Orange, a frittata from Wildflower and much, much more.

-Here is a sampling of what I eat:

Breakfast- Oatmeal and coffee with dried or fresh fruit if accessible

Lunch- rice and beans with either Wagashi (local cheese) or soy cheese (kind of like tofu)

Dinner: fried yams.

Repeat 6 or 7 days a week with little to no variation.

– What’s available at my market changes every time there’s a market (every four days). Just a few weeks ago I saw cabbage there for the first time since I’ve lived here. Green beans were gone for a few months and came back for two markets and have since gone away again. Oranges and papayas were once commonplace and have all but disappeared.

-My latrine has flies.

-I barely use water. I have a huge bucket filled with water that takes me about 2 weeks to go through.

-Local clothing is supposed to be climate appropriate but tissue gives me heat rash. Also, the rules surrounding how the female tissue skirt is supposed to be tied has forced me to get male attire made for myself.

-It has been getting into the 100’s recently as Harmattan fades away. The other day it was 112 degrees, so please Arizonans, think twice before complaining about the heat there come summer. At least you have AC and a fridge. Be grateful. I, too, will keep this in mind as I am lucky to have electricity, and therefore a fan, while there are many volunteers and Beninese people who do not have this simple luxury.

-I feel like I have a personal minstrel. I walk down the main road almost every single day, as I have for the last 4 months, and yet I am still serenaded by children singing to me.

-It takes about 3.5 months for OPI nail polish on your toes to come off completely with regular nail cutting and no nail polish remover.

-Wagashi (the local cheese) squeaks like rubber when you bite into it. It always makes me laugh.

-Mangoes are starting to be found in other parts of the country but so far not here in the Atacora. I cannot wait for mango season!

-The application to become trainers for the new group of volunteers is almost due. This means that the volunteers ahead of me are leaving soon, I will soon be a second year volunteer, and soon there will be volunteers newer than me. Where has time gone?

-My quality of life has gone up significantly since I bought a big purse. I am a Mary Poppins purse kind of gal and for some reason I thought I could change that.

-I also thought I could change my cooking habits. Nope, I eat out for every meal. I still hate cooking for myself. Always will, probably.

-Not cooking for myself is something the Beninese don’t understand as I am female. It is believed that cooking is an innate female behavior, rather than one that’s learned and may therefore, not be something enjoyable for every woman. Sometimes men ask me what I do if I don’t cook for myself, and usually I just look up from my food, and say “The same thing you’re doing right now. Buying pre-made food.”

-I like to think that eating out everyday helps the economy and particularly benefits women, as it’s women who make what I purchase.

-The only time I eat meat here in Benin is when I go to Natitingou and I order the antelope at a popular volunteer spot. I will be sure to try all the local meats before I leave, including dog if someone offers, but I just don’t care to eat meat frequently.

Leave a comment »

Random

Here’s a random mish-mash of things to help you better visualize my life!

This is my latrine when it was still being built! You just life up the keyhole shaped thing by the handle, place your feet on the feet and you're good to go!

This is my latrine when it was still being built! You just lift up the keyhole shaped thing by the handle, place your feet on the feet and you’re good to go!

This is what I saw from my living room during rainy season when everything was still green.

This is what I saw from my living room during rainy season when everything was still green.

My neighbors burning the brush near our homes after the rainy season.

My neighbors burning the brush near our homes after the rainy season.

Chester having a stare down with one of the goats who hang out in front of my house.

Chester having a stare down with one of the goats who hang out in front of my house.

A lizard summing itself on the inside of the mosquito netting over my windows!

A lizard sunning itself on the inside of the mosquito netting over my windows!

Chester hiding in the bag he uses as a launch pad for sneak attacks when in kitten mode.

Chester hiding in the bag he uses as a launch pad for sneak attacks when in kitten mode.

Weird wild berry-ish things I eat on occasion!

Weird wild berry-ish things I eat on occasion!

Chester's nose is actually white, as is his paw, but the dirt here (terre rouge) gets on everything.

Chester’s nose is actually white, as is his paw, but the dirt here (terre rouge) gets on everything.

Chester sleeping on my bike seat.

Chester sleeping on my bike seat.

1 Comment »

A tale of two cries

One of the challenges of Peace Corps is making yourself face situations you have never been forced to face before. Some of these challenges Peace Corps helps you mentally prepare for before getting to country, such as the use of corporate punishment in schools. One situation that falls outside of Peace Corps realm, but well into the service of many volunteers, is raising an animal in a 3rd world country.

The first major question that comes with taking in an animal during your service is whether or not this animal will come back to the US with you after you’ve finished your service. This matters significantly because animals here usually eat whatever scraps they can find/hunt down. This means that a lack of foresight will mean your cat or dog will not eat hard food, the staple in American pets’ diets, and will only be familiar with eating Beninese dishes, such as watchi (rice and beans) and pate (flour dough). This is of course fine, and even ideal, if you want your animal to stay in your country of service when you leave, but should you wish to take the animal back home, that will be a very difficult transition.

I came to Benin knowing that I would get a cat and that he would come home with me. Not only are cats extremely useful here (my cat, for example, eats flies, rats, spiders, random bugs and more), but he makes my house less lonely. I enjoy coming home knowing my companion will be waiting for me. Chester, as he is named, set me back a whole $4 in the Natitingou marche, when he was 6 weeks old. Now, it’s risky buying a marche cat, but thankfully Chester was in good health minus having worms. Besides the stress of what to feed a 6 weeks old kitten (thank you 1st world on the internet, but for some odd reason, I really can’t just stop by my local Petsmart to buy kitten formula), Chester has bloomed into a beautiful, friendly kitten who seems to be having the best life I can possibly give him in Benin. He has hard food to eat (which I buy in bulk whenever I make the 10 hour bus ride down to the capital as it cannot be found in the north), dried fish all the time and he gets some street meat, fried fish or hard boiled eggs daily, because the only hard food I can buy is for adult cats, not kittens, meaning it doesn’t have the nutritional profile a growing kitten needs.

All of that aside, in the US, a responsible parent of a kitten will take their kitten to a vet for a health check up, shots and neutering or spaying. There, in the US, they will find a vet well versed in dog and cat health and they will have all of the necessary items to take care of their animal. This, needless to say, is not the case here in Benin. Here, vets mostly take care of cows, specifically the cows herded by the Fulani or Peulh people, they occasionally see dogs, mostly for a rabies vaccine (the only vaccine they give here) and deworming, and they rarely, if ever, see cats.

With this in mind, imagine you have an animal here in Benin that is, sadly, not of the cow variety. You already know that those vaccinations puppies and kittens are “supposed” to get have gone out the window, besides the rabies vaccination. Out the window is the idea that you can call your vet for help for something as simple as an eye infection (not a helpful idea to call your vet, 1st world internet people) and gone is the idea that an animal is a cherished member of the family and will therefore not be treated as such.

Now in this world, in this reality that I live in, what do you do about spaying your animal? Quite frankly, you don’t. That’s an incredibly invasive surgery that most vets will not be able to do here, let alone provide any sort of medication for the animal. One volunteer got her two dogs spayed in Cotonou by a vet who understands what westerners expect when treating their animals, and sadly, one of her two dogs died when the dog opened up her stitches 12 hours north of Cotonou, and then bled to death. Now, if this is the end result with a presumably competent vet (read: far more expensive than the vast majority of Beninese can afford), it goes without saying that the vast majority of female animals do not and should not end up spayed.

But what about neutering a male cat? Is that something you can do in Benin, in good conscience? Remember, if you want your cat to have pain medication, you’re going to have to fight for it. But, unlike spaying, it’s not an invasive surgery. Just a quick snip and it’s done. A piece of cake, right? Well, this question and all of its potential ramifications, dear reader, is where Peace Corps makes you face situations you never would have to in the US.

I got Chester knowing I wanted to get him neutered. Getting him neutered would mean I wouldn’t have to deal with spraying, aggression, yeowling and possibly creating kittens that would not be properly fed. However, I had to face a problem I would never come across in the US: would I be willing to get a cat neutered without any sort of pain medication or would I have to wait until he was about 2 years old and in the United States?

Well, to find out the answer, please read about my adventures with the vet here in Benin.

My first step was to approach the vet here in Toucountouna, who only works every four days, when Chester was about 2.5 months old, as a cat can get its rabies shot starting at 3 months. The vet says “Yes, no problem, in two weeks we will go to Nati and get him his shot and get him neutered.” Well, I said to the vet, I only want to get him neutered if he can have pain medication. “Ah, yes we can do that. It does hurt them, doesn’t it?” Uh yea, you think?

And so I go on my merry way. I step into his office about two weeks later to remind him and he says “No worries, on Friday we will go.” Okay, but there will be pain medication for my cat, right? There’s no point in me going if there’s not. “Yes, don’t worry, it’s the same medicine we give to humans.” So on Thursday, I call and confirm that we can still go the next day and he says, “Well, the vet in Nati says it’s best that we wait until he’s 5 or 6 months old so we can be sure his testicles have descended.”

Fast forward two months, I once again ask the vet to get my cat vaccinated and neutered. He says we have to wait another week because the vet in Nati is out of town. Skip ahead to Friday, January 18th and my cat is in a bag, on the back of the vet’s motorcycle going to Nati to be vaccinated and neutered.

Here is how Chester’s big day played out: I wake up nervous. Part of me is afraid that they will have pain meds for Chester and, because they’re not familiar with cats, they will either actually give him human medication, which will kill his liver, or they’ll overdose him and he’ll never wake-up. The alternative is that my cat has to have his testicles removed without any sort of pain medication, which is also not a good option.

Toucountouna Vet speaking to Nati Vet:

She wants to get her cat neutered.

Me:

And get his rabies vaccination.

Nati Vet:

Well, usually that’s something done before neutering. I’ll be giving the cat an anti-biotic so he can’t get his rabies vaccine at the same time.

Me (turning to face the Toucountouna vet):

I’ve been asking for three months….

Nati Vet:

Oh yes, there was a problem with the supply. So which one are we doing?

Toucountouna Vet:

Neutering, I can do the vaccination in Toucountouna. You have the anesthesia I asked about?

Nati Vet:

No, I don’t stock anesthesia because it costs more than the animals themselves. (Chuckles)

And there we have it. Either my cat cannot be neutered anytime soon, if at all during my two years, or it has to be done without any pain control. So, I take my terrified cat out of the bag and I help them place a sheet over his head to stop him from biting while two men hold both sets of paws. I leave the room and I hear two agonizing meows of pain, one for each testicle. I am called back into the office in less than 5 minutes.

I come in and my cat is panting, gazing emptily before him, bleeding from the mouth, with the razor blade they used still sitting next to him.

Me:

Shit, he bit his tongue while you were doing it. (Starts to wipe away blood from his mouth)

Nati Vet:

Yes, that happens frequently in animals with pointy teeth (this sort of comment is how you know they usually deal with cows). He’s fine.

Me:

Fine?! How would you like having that done to you without any pain medication?!

Nati Vet:

(Looks uncomfortable and so, to change the topic, points to a little tear drop shaped thing on the table) Look, here are his testicles, we left them so that you could see that we removed them. (As if the meows of pain hadn’t been enough proof)

Me:

Well, thank you but there only appears to be one.

Nati Vet:

Oh move the cat. Huh, it’s not there. Move the bag. Ah, there’s the second one.

At that moment I couldn’t help but stare at the testicles. There they were, the little things that will thankfully never have to be removed again in Chester’s life, but which have just caused him so much pain. After paying the veterinarian $3, Chester and I head back to Toucountouna. For the whole day my cat just sleeps on my bed. He doesn’t even eat the street meat I have bought him. But thankfully at some point in the night he started to feel better again because I woke up to the sound I usually fall asleep to: Chester purring in my ear as he kneads into my hair, beginning his not so slow take-over of my pillow.

So there you have it folks, at no point in my life did I ever think I would have to make the decision to neuter my cat without pain medications, to make the decision to inflict such pain onto another living being, but I suppose that’s part of what Peace Corps is about. Ou bien, quoi?

2 Comments »