Thursday, June 2, 2011
I leave here in 3 months, and since I won’t be writing blogs post-COS (Close of Service, that means the day I stop being a Peace Corps Volunteer and return to the land of stars and stripes), I thought I’d write about the things I know I’ll miss (if anyone is still reading this!). I expect that nostalgia will set in immediately, on the plane ride home, for some things. Others I won’t start to miss for months, maybe years. And then of course, some things I will never miss and will rejoice at not having to see/experience again. Nature of the beast I suppose.
First off, in the last two months, since my last blog post, I’ve been working on Take Our Daughters to Work Weekend, the program that takes village girls to the city to live with a professional woman and shadow her at work. The program will take place June 2-5. We’ve chosen the girls through essay selection; 17 girls representing 8 villages in southern Benin. I’ve also been working on a cement globe for the high school, helped a nearby volunteer with a mural of health-related themes at her local women’s clinic, and held a Hygiene Day function on April 15 for local women’s groups who clean public areas. The last weekend in April I went north for the most exciting weekend of a PCV’s year. We hold a weekend each year in with a date auction one night and a silent auction the next to raise money for our Gender and Development Small Project Fund, which allows PCVs to get up to $100 for small projects in their communities. Volunteers auction off dates like cleaning your house, cooking all meals for a weekend, inviting you to a volunteer post that has hiking or tourism. And the silent auction is a mix of unique Beninese jewelry and souvenirs, and baskets with a collection of goodies volunteers have donated from packages sent from home: M&Ms, packaged sausage, seasonings, macaroni and cheese boxes, even deodorant sticks, fragrant soaps, and industrial sized hand sanitizer.
Things I’ll miss about the country that I’ve called home for the past two years:
the color contrast between the reddish brown dirt, the deep green verdure, and the blue sky, either a blinding pale blue or an ominous near black
riding on the back of a moto, especially the 30 minute ride from Zè to the paved road; it’s beauty never fails to astound me
hearing kids yell variations of my name while I pedal by on my bicycle, Akim, Kemi, yovo, dada (means big sister in my local language)
greeting every single person I pass, all of whom never seem to lose fascination at me being able to greet them in Fon
the cool erratic breeze that precedes a downpour
laying in my hammock, watching the setting sun turn the entire landscape into shades of pink
having a whole pineapple for breakfast, and knowing whose field it came from
old women with impossibly wrinkled skin and gap-toothed smiles walking home with a bundle of cooking wood on their heads
old men pedaling through town at a pace that barely registers
the unspeakable excitement and relief that comes from the first rain after months of dryness
babies wearing nothing but the colorful beads around their waists that serve as an amulet against sickness
the vibrant colors of an African clothesline or a group of women on their way to market or church
the ease with which women go about life with a baby strapped to their back and a heavy load atop their heads
the train of women and children carrying their goods to the market on market day
getting together with volunteers after weeks of village seclusion
falling asleep to far off drumming and lizards playing tag on my tin roof
passing by tiny voodoo houses and statues that are thought to keep spirits
the immense relief that a cold beer brings (sure, I’ll have beer in the US, but never again will it be so incredibly refreshing)
walking around wrapped in a single large piece of fabric
seeing all manner and combination of things on the back of a moto: a coffin, 6 people, 4 goats, all of the above
the crumbing mud bricks of houses that you’re never sure are half built or in ruins
the little sayings: “Have you done a little work today? And your health? And your kids?”
On that note, things I’ll never miss:
being unable to take an afternoon nap due to suffocating heat
waking up in a pool of my own sweat
the same 3 food choices every day
hearing scurrying or other noises in the night
marriage proposals, men harassing men, the endless question “madame ou mademoiselle?”
having to have someone get my water for me, then having to boil and filter it before I can drink it
red dirt-caked feet
people asking if I can take them or their children back to the US with me
lizard poop on every surface of my house
burning my forearms on a Dutch oven
8 hour bus rides up the country
people standing outside my window or screen door, staring in shamelessly
arguing to the price of everything I buy and every transport I take
the roads that seem to be more pot hole than pavement
power outages at the most inconvenient time of the day
being greeted by kids while they poop in a public space
pulling my own bathing water
the occasional snake sighting
the layer of dirt and ash that descends upon my house every day
I leave here Sept. 1, so that’s 25 consecutive months I’ve spent on the African continent. I hope to make good on my promises to return here one day, but if not, it’ll be a part of me/haunt me forever.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
International Women’s Day
March 8 was the 100th annual International Women’s Day. As I wrote about in a previous blog, I coordinated a career panel at the high school. The five women who came represented some impressive yet attainable careers for women in Benin: a computer technician, an elementary school director, head of decentralization within the mayor’s office, a community hygiene agent, and the training coordinator for Peace Corps, a woman who has worked in 10 African countries during her Peace Corps career. The women first shared about themselves, their backgrounds, and careers. All women grew up in circumstances similar to that of the 47 high school girls (all female students in the last two years of high school), in rural communities where the education of women was often thought an unnecessary expense. Two women in particular had moving stories. The mayor’s employee was the youngest woman on the panel, at 25, and she started her career at 21. From Zè herself, she spoke of always being the hardest working individual in her high school class, of having an intelligence and work ethic that, if she were to have been born under more favorable circumstances, would have allowed her to pursue a job in the city or even France. After two years of college, which is more education than most girls from Zè even dream of, her parents were no longer able to pay her tuition. She came back to Zè and beat out an all-male applicant pool for a good job at the mayor’s office, where she encountered disdain from male employees for her status on a regular basis. She spoke of the hope that she could save enough money working at the mayor’s office to allow her to return to college, to pay her tuition, room, and board herself. She also spoke of her promise to herself to not marry young; she realized that if she were to marry it would probably be followed by children not long after, and that she would lose the chance to return to college. She was the most accessible woman to the girls, just a few years old than them and with a demeanor that was energetic and inviting.
The Peace Corps training coordinator also had a moving story. I know this woman well, have worked with her for several trainings and Peace Corps activities, and yet never knew the diversity she faced to get where she is. She grew up in a village much smaller than mine and was the first girl to graduate high school from there. Her father faced nearly constant pressure from the community to stop sending her to school and some male teachers at her school tried to fail her. Her family was unable to afford to send her to college, so she paid for it all on her own and lived minimally. She said that in those years she suffered a lot. The girls were so moved by her story that they applauded for her several times, and during the Q&A that followed directed many questions at her. The girls asked a ton of questions, so many that we almost just forgot about the rest of the program to hear the questions. The dialogue developed into how to handle harassment from male teachers, balancing the demands of family with school and work, searching for support when family will no longer pay for school, and so on. After that the girls got into small groups and talked about their individual career ambitions and what they can do to achieve them. The girls all got certificates of participation and took photos with the women, which I think they really appreciated. So, success!
Some things I have failed to mention in the past but that are noteworthy:
Greetings. I’ve touched on this before, the extent of greetings in this country. A normal conversation might be: How’d you sleep/wake up? Did your kids wake up? And your husband? How’s your health? I thought I’d share with you a few other greetings used here:
Things you can say to someone you pass on the road: Are you returning? Are you going where you’re going? Are you coming from where you came from? Did you do a little work? Welcome! (even if you are clearly still going somewhere, not arriving)
To someone sitting: Are you there? Did you do a little work? Good sitting! Did you sell a little today? (assuming that they are sitting in front of a pile of tomatoes/smoked fish/fried dough balls/etc. for sale)
To someone leaving: Will you leave and come back?
It is also appropriate to greet neighbors in the morning with “Thanks for yesterday” assuming that if they didn’t do anything specific like let you borrow their well bag, they surely sent good thoughts your way. And to say goodnight to them you’d say “May god wake you up in the morning.” But if you can learn only one greeting, “How’d you wake up?” will be the most useful. We say that here till well into the afternoon.
Poop finger. Many Beninese grow the pinky nail on their left hand very long and use it to “wipe” (not the most apt verb but anything else would be too descriptive). Toilet paper doesn’t exist everywhere, and, besides, this is how it was done before the white man came in trumpeting his two-ply butt wipe.
Teleporting abilities. Beninese claim that they can go to the market, the US, anywhere in the world, without being transported. Not all Beninese, only the “fetishers,” which more or less means to have that ability you must sell your soul to the devil. There are several methods of doing this, one being to climb into a hollow tree that acts as a portal to the destination of your choice, and another involving the use of dirt from the desired location. Just put a mound of it on the ground here, step on it, and voila!
Voodoo convents. This is an interesting concept I recently learned about. While trying to translate “role model” into French, I learned that the idea of model women (les femmes modèles) is used to describe women who have gone through these rigorous programs in which girls and young women enroll for a couple years, completely withdraw from their families and societies, and “learn how to live.” It’s unclear what they learn exactly, because it does not cover any traditional school subjects like math and science, and washing clothes and preparing food they can learn at home. I know they learn a voodoo language, and the secrets of their “fetisher” (voodoo spell man) teacher. Beninese claim women who graduate from these convents have the best manners and most respectful demeanor of all women in Benin, in addition to knowing all the voodoo secrets and thus having the power to do God knows what to anyone who crosses them. It is said that they have taken an oath of fidelity so powerful that they will die on the spot if they are unfaithful to their husbands. They wear all white gowns that are similar to a burka, no skin shown. I haven’t seen this first hand, these convents are carefully hidden and would not allow a “yovo” to visit them, unfortunately.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
As Peace Corps volunteers there is a whole slew of things we are not supposed to do during this time, including have political conversations with friends, work partners, or, and I quote, “people you meet in bush taxis.” We cannot support in any way any candidate. And, as an added measure of security, for the week preceding each election day we are on “standfast,” which means we can’t leave our village for any reason. Most people in my village think the incumbent, Yayi Boni, will be reelected (information they volunteered; I in no way asked ☺).
The first two weeks of February I took the last vacation of my service. Every year Mali, a center of culture and music in West Africa, holds two of the region’s largest music festivals. One we can’t attend because it is in Timbuktu (did any of you actually know where Timbuktu was before reading this?), an area off limits to PC volunteers because of recent violence and, if I understand correctly, fears that Al Qaeda has strongholds in that area. The other is called “Festival Sur le Niger” held in Segou, Mali, which I was lucky enough to attend! Sadly a full half of the vacation was spent on buses, in bush taxis, and otherwise on the road. I first took an 8 hour bus to the north of Benin, which broke down several times and had to be push started (I kid you not) at one point. I’m thinking of making Africa-inspired motivational posters like those you see all over in America: “Success.” “Determination.” This one would read “Teamwork.” Anyway, after the bus then two taxis to get to the city in which we could find taxis going to Ouagadougou. Thankfully volunteers live in each town along the way so we could break up our trip and visit the posts of volunteers I don’t often get to see.
The taxi to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso (no, I’m not making these places up) left Benin at 3am. We crossed the Benin border around 5am but oddly didn’t enter Burkina Faso until maybe 45 minutes later. All the borders we crossed were like that: you’d leave one country then wouldn’t enter another for many kilometers. Bizarre. In Ouagadougou we stayed at a PC transit house and got to spend the evening with Burkina volunteers who were fairly new and bursting with enthusiasm about their posts. In Burkina, very few volunteers end their service early, 30% of volunteers extend their service for a third year, and there are even a handful of fourth year volunteers. It was refreshing to see, especially since Benin loses at least one volunteer a month and disillusions many to development work. We continued on with day-long bus rides to Bobo, Burkina Faso, then to Segou, Mali, where we found that our tent reservation for the music festival had not been kept. Thankfully they offered us lodging on a boat that sounded pretty shady but ended up being amazing. The main festival stage was on the water, and the boat sat just behind it. They gave our group of 8 one dorm room to ourselves. We didn’t even have to leave the boat to enjoy the music, but since we were behind the stage we missed the colorful costumes and unique dances when we did that.
The food in Mali blew me away. They had French fries, salads, and kebabs available on the street! You would never see that in Benin. Sometimes we have meat on sticks but it always has bone chips in it and half is guaranteed to be intestines. But beer and alcohol was twice as expensive as it is in Benin, I guess on account of its being a hugely Muslin country. I’ll take my intestines-on-a-stick and $1 beer any day.
There were many Mali volunteers in Segou for the festival, so again we got to hang out with a lot of Americans and compare experiences. I got a chance to talk to the Peace Corps director of Mali who was a volunteer in my site about 20 years ago. Small world! I guess there aren’t too many crazies who join Peace Corps. The 5-day festival had events all day long (with a siesta from noon to 3pm, obviously), ranging from puppets to dances to drumming and singing from all over West Africa. We spent most mornings shopping the artisan stalls, where painted calabash bowls, camel-skin and leather jewelry, hand-dyed fabrics, and a wide variety of jewelry, natural remedies, fabrics, and souvenirs were sold. The men in our group all bought turbans and by the end of the week had perfected the art of wrapping them. I like to think how many ignorant Americans would be horrified at the idea that US tax dollars went to teaching a PC volunteer to wrap a turban. Evenings were spent at the concerts, where some of the biggest names in West African music performed (not that I knew of any of them). I saw more of a variety of instruments than I’ve ever seen, like the kora (below) and the balophone, a xylohphone-like instrument that has hollowed out gourds under the keys.
During the course of the festival we made friends with a group of Toaureg men who, in addition to wanting to sell us their handmade silver jewelry, seemed interested to just spend a few hours talking to Americans. They have an interesting culture and seemed to me to be a dichotomous people. They were at once sophisticated and yet very traditional. The have arranged marriages but say it is to ensure future generations of full-blooded Touaregs to carry on their culture; they can divorce after having children and marry outside of the Touareg population if they so choose. They have an elaborate style of dress and silver jewelry of a quality and style unparalleled in this part of the world. The two mornings that we spend with them, we sat down on mats in the shade and carried on conversations while one of the younger men prepared tea. Their manner of serving tea is very distinct. Not only do they have just one or two cups, and so those people must finish their tea before the others can partake, but they serve three cups in succession, each tasting different than the other. The first, they say, is bitter like death; the second, tough like life; and the third, sweet like love. The entire time only one man prepares the tea in a tiny teapot over a tiny stove, continuously fanning the flames with a tiny fan, and pours the tea from at least a foot above the cup. He continuously pours the tea into the cup then back into the teapot in order to stir it up. It’s truly an art.
The Touareg are a nomadic people, though this particular group kept a base home outside of Timbuktu and only traveled in camel caravans a few months a year to the salt reserves. They then load up their camels with salt to sell in the city and return to their families with other food staples not available at home. We learned about their dowry system, in which a male’s family pays the bride’s worth in camels. A twelve-camel woman, for instance, is not only beautiful but comes from a good family. While we were there a Touareg took a fancy to one of the volunteers and offered her a meager one camel dowry. She refused.
From Segou we traveled to Mopti, where we met the guide who would take us for three days of hiking into the region known as Dogon Country. The guide was hilarious. He is a favorite guide of Peace Corps volunteers and started/ended every other sentence with “shit, man,” obviously a product of his many exchanges with young Americans. Dogon Country is an incredibly arid region known for its rocky escarpments and stunning views. Atop an escarpment, you can literally see the land transitioning and the Sahara Desert beginning right before your eyes. The hike wasn’t strenuous, a couple hours in the morning and a couple in the evening. It was humbling to see women with huge loads on their heads pass us sprinting up or bouncing down the mountainsides. Each afternoon and evening we stopped at a different village, all of which have guesthouses for travelers. The tourism there is probably a large source of revenue for each village, and it seemed like half the village was implicated in preparing the meals and facilities for us. They wouldn’t know we were coming until we were there, so they’d be scrambling to make lunch or dinner for us as soon as they saw our group approaching. The days were tolerable (it’s the “coldest” time of year there), and the nights were freezing (for people acclimated to unbearable heat 24 hours a day). We slept on rooftops, under the stars, and awoke early to the laughs of children and the screeches of donkeys. Sadly my camera broke as a result of sand getting in the lens, so I have no pictures to share with you!
The trip back was eventful. The road from Mopti to Ouagadougou was closed to PC volunteers due to security threats. We instead had to backtrack and make a 4-day trip out of getting back to Benin. The unfortunate part was that since we couldn’t take the direct road, which had buses, we had to settle for taxis from one town to another til we finally got past the Burkina border. We ended up in one town at night and, hoping to continue and not sleep in the taxi station, rented a taxi to take us to the border. Instead he took us about halfway, then, at 3am, stopped. He planned to start again at daybreak but we were uneasy and unhappy and being misled, and insisted on him continuing. He finally did, and we made it til about 25 km from the border, where we waited from 5am til noon to find a taxi that would take us. When one would, after much persisting because he thought foreigners would take too long in visa control and delay him, we sat with goats tied up at our feet. There was nowhere to put your foot that wasn’t on a goat’s body part. Getting back after that was a series of early morning or all night buses. We didn’t get a full night’s sleep for I don’t even know how many days. Long trip, but worth it ☺
The more I see of West Africa, the more I understand it to be at once so diverse and yet, have common threads throughout. I suppose that’s like the US—there are huge differences between the West Coast, South, Midwest, and East Coast, but somehow we all identify with many traits of being American. I could see the change in mud house structure and design as we continued north, but they were still mud houses. Mali and Burkina Faso were overflowing with donkeys and had less goats than Benin, but there was still livestock running through the streets. Burkinabes and Maliennes spoke less French than the Beninese (owing to widespread local languages in the former, whereas the local languages in Benin change every few villages), but they were as welcoming and amiable as we knew West Africans to be.
Life in Zè is exactly the same as I left it. My latrines are nearing completion though we have a few that are at a standstill. The diggers dug only 8 meters on several latrines then led my work partners to believe they had dug all 10, and collected the pay. So now we have no more money to pay more diggers but families who, understandably, want the 10 meter hole that their neighbors got. On top of that, many people don’t see the point of putting a fence or building of some kind around their latrine. It’s not a health problem, because the latrine pits have concrete covers to keep insects out and odors contained. It’s more just a problem of privacy, but that doesn’t seem to be compelling enough for them to thatch together some palm fronds and put them up. This is a time when I’m glad I’m not fluent in my local language, and someone else has to have the “Why do you want to poop in other people’s view?” conversation with these families.
My next big project is a career panel for International Women’s Day. It’s going swimmingly except for the fact that one of the women I invited, a primary school director, I later found out is accused by her community of killing her two former husbands with voodoo spells (gri gri). If I uninvited her, I might be the focus of such gri gri, so I’ll have to keep her on and hope the girls actually ask her questions and applaud her, as I’ve been led to believe they might not. I have 5professional women coming in total and the 50-60 high school girls with the highest grades will be invited. International Women’s Day in March 8. I’ll post a blog about it after the event.
Monday, January 17, 2011
Before I jump into a recap of my holiday adventures I want to update people who care on the status of my latrine project. It is unbelievably on track time-wise, even after losing some diggers to injuries, one incurred during work for this very project and one as a result of an excess of moonshine and the operation of a moto on New Years. All of the holes have been dug with the exception of four that are still in process. The masons are in the process of putting the cement platforms over the holes now; about 10 of the 21 holes that are completed have platforms already installed. At that point, families can start building the mud “houses” around their latrines. Only one family has already completed this, but they are a brown noser crew that the other families don’t much care for. We have been telling the families that they must finish the mud structures before mid-March, which will mark the end of the project. On January 25 a Peace Corps film crew is coming to film this project as part of a 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps commemoration. If I can get ahold of any of this footage or if it magically ends up on YouTube, I’ll let you all know.
Christmas! I stayed at this adorable “bungalow” right on the beach in a town called Grand Popo (and no, no one knows what or who Popo is) for five days with my boyfriend and about 30 other volunteers.
After Christmas Doug and I went to Ghana to take the GRE and meet my dad! In the two weeks that I was there I ate pizza, salads, sushi, Chinese, prawns, more French fries than I’m proud of, wheat bread almost every morning, and only twice was subject to Ghanaian food. Pretty sure I gained at least 5 pounds. Accra, the capital city of Ghana, is worlds away from Benin’s largest city, Cotonou. It is much more developed, has more variety of food, has a mall and a movie theater, and has actual taxis, not the moto taxis that we take in Benin. I didn’t have to lug my helmet around with me the whole time. The mall was actually sensory overload and I could go on about the food for days, but on the whole there aren’t many tourist attractions. Accra looks a lot like Cotonou. As my dad said, “same dump, different name.” Here are the highlights:
-There’s a town just outside Accra known for its amazing hand made coffins. Yep, these photos below are of coffins! They say you can put in an order for almost anything and they’ll try to make it happen, but that you should not go for something better than what you achieved in your life. The example they gave was that a taxi driver should never order an airplane coffin. Just not kosher.The video camera coffin, we were told, was ordered by a BBC reporter!
-Every store, no matter how small or large, has a name, usually something religious. Even rent-for-the-day wheelbarrels. “Covered in the Blood of Jesus Hair Salon” and the one below were some of my faves.
-We picked up dad from the airport at 2pm on New Years Eve and immediately commenced tasting the local, ahem, delicacies. I passed out at about 9pm, like last year, though last year I was alone in my village. So this year still won. My dad made it til 11:45pm (him out lasting me was the case throughout the trip) but sadly none among us were up for the ball drop (not that there is any ball dropping in Accra).
-Dad and I traveled to some towns along the Western coast of Ghana known for its castles/slave forts, where slaves captured inland were held in below ground dungeons until they were loaded onto ships for South America and the Caribbean. The coast also had colorful fleets of shipping and beautiful colonial-style homes painted vibrant colors.
-After the coast, Dad and I went to a town called Kumasi where we visited the largest market in West Africa. The guidebook described it as an alien mothership from an aerial view. Dad and I walked along the perimeter awhile before diving in. There aren’t really entrances per say, and its somehow several feet below the level of the street. Honestly. It was the kind of market where you really can’t control where you go; you just get sucked into the inertia of the crowd. We did succeed in making three purchases and I think I got a local price. Success!
In general Dad wanted to do lots of walking and experiencing Ghana, and I wanted to do lots of sitting, namely in the air-conditioned hotel rooms with satellite TV. We usually settled on having a beer and people watching. The conspicuous lack of photos of my dad and I together is because I was always scared someone I asked to take our picture would run away with my camera à la Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s. It’s easy to forget how much of people you miss when you don’t see them. I forgot how much I missed my dad’s (slightly inappropriate at times) sense of humor. And hugs.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
As part of my latrine construction project, I pass by each house to check on the progress of the work there. Last week, one family was celebrating the fête season and a profitable month in their household by killing a goat and giving part of the raw meat, along with 40 cents and a bag of kola nuts (horribly bitter nuts that people chew here for energy, I think that’s where Coca-Cola got its name) to the other families in the village. I showed up just as the heat was turning the meat from fresh to putrid, and if the fly population was any indication, the party was well underway. I was also given the meat, 40 cents, and kola nuts. I ate some of the meat but gave the rest, along with the nuts, to my neighbors. They came to me later asking who had given it to me, because they’re sure it had “gri-gri” in it (which means they think someone had put a spell on it). Unfortunately, by that time I had already eaten the meat. They said that side effects could include either sleepwalking back to that man’s house at night, or the desire to eat my own children. Jury’s still out on that.
So, the ceremony. At this same house, the father felt compelled to thank me for the latrine by putting on a ceremony on my behalf. He laid a cloth on the ground and explained some significance for it that now escapes me, then pulled out several dolls made of carved wood and goat hair, shells, animal bones, and hollowed out gourds. The dolls were all in pairs, because here twins are highly regarded, almost supernatural. There was a lot of chanting in Fon (the local language) and a lot of pointing things at the sky, and talking to the dolls. The entire ceremony, as I gather many of their ceremonies are, was for communicating with their ancestors, who I believe were buried under the ground that we stood on (that is common here, to bury family members on the property, sometimes even in the house). Finally, the man laid two dolls next to each other on the cloth and covered them with a calabash bowl. While I tapped the bowl continuously with my hands, he asked his ancestors to bring me fortune when I return to the US, and to ensure that I someday return here to bless them again. He explained that if his ancestors agreed, they would communicate that by raising the dolls to a standing position. When I lifted the calabash up, sure enough the dolls were standing! That’s not enough to convert me, but pretty cool. I still have no idea how he did it.
I didn’t want to offend him by snapping pictures, so I just managed to get this one while he wasn’t looking.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
A freshly cemented latrine top with the inscriptions for Peace Corps and the local health center.