Sunday, December 30, 2007

December 2007

With so much going on, and a distinct lack of post-Thanksgiving over-commercialized holiday advertising, December crept up on me. My focus at school was on writing and giving the first set of final exams which, though stressful to write up and nerve-racking to give, turned out pretty well.

Only a few days in, my postmate Heidi left for her long vacation in the states (her first time back since leaving the summer of 2006). Although I missed her, I took it as a good time for me to have a quiet few weeks to get myself together. As the nights and mornings cooled and the Harmatan winds picked up… so did my spirits and my energy. I started talking with colleagues about potential projects in the Spring. I organized the house and ventured further out into the village. I hung up my hammock, ordered a rocking chair, and handled my first dead mouse (it was an accident!). It was a welcomed, boring few weeks. As the holiday approached, news from home was my only reminder of nostalgia. Luckily, the week before Christmas my friend Megan and I fell upon the idea of making everyone who would be together in Natitingou stockings from colorful African tissue. Little did we know what we got ourselves into! Sewing each stocking by hand… names across the top and everything… we must have put in 50 hours each but it was so worth it to drop that little bit of Christmas spirit around… we even made two with jewish stars for our non-christian buddies!

Packing up and leaving Badjoude this time was much more organized than the haphazard departure to Parakou. I arrived in Natitingou and had an incredible visit. We made a side-trip to Boukoumbe, a mountain village where we hiked 3 hours into the hills to spend the night in a Tata Samba (mud hut castle). We also swam in waterfalls, made potato pancakes with real applesauce Christmas morning, visited an orphanage Christmas day, ate pizza and REAL CHEESE (baked brie is a luxury no matter where you are… but pure heaven in Africa), planned for next year’s national spelling bee, and watched Grey’s Anatomy. The only down-side was several people’s illnesses, including my own: first Christmas in Africa followed closely by my first cold... how appropriate!

Now I am heading back to Badjoude to celebrate the New Year au village. Since this is the biggest holiday in Benin I am looking forward to lots of eating and festivities… I cannot believe it is already 2008!

November 2007

November, unlike March, came in like a lion…. and went right out roaring as well. It began with the sudden, unexpected departure of a dear friend of mine. Erin was an amazing girl I was lucky enough to call post-mate for one month. The closest TEFL volunteer, her post was Djougou and a perfect resting spot for any travels. She had been struggling with pain in her legs for weeks (months, really) and finally went down to Cotonou to see if the doctors could discover the cause and help treat it. When the source of the pain couldn’t be discovered after two weeks of testing, they had no choice but to send her home. I think in the end she was at peace with the decision, but we were all very sad to see her go. So far, our little TEFL family had yet to lose anyone and this loss hit hard. To make matters worse, admin decided last minute to only give her a day at post so the only way for many of us to see her before she left was to travel down south to see her off. It was a sad but really touching weekend. Even with the repercussions that would follow, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

The middle of the month brought a nice respite. I got into the teaching routine, enjoyed my kids, gave quizzes at my house… my terrace packed with eager students always hoping for one more piece of candy when they were done. I added some extra touches to make it feel like home. Hung out with my closest postmate Heidi as she battled a knee injury and needed my house as a recuperating spot (I was happy to oblige!).

As Thanksgiving came closer, I began to see a slight change in the weather. The infamous harmatan wind began gently puffing dust around. All around, fields were set on fire… leaving behind black ash and awkward stalks after their dramatic glow. I was amazed how much closer everything looked without the tall fields blocking the view. Pigs were a new addition to the landscape as well…. dozens of them roaming around freely now that the dry season was here and they could no longer damage crops. It took a couple days for me to get used to the chorus of oinking that would accompany a gang of pigs running through my yard!

As the end of the month approached, I got more and more excited. All the talk of my cousin Emilie and her fiancé Rowan coming to visit was finally going to become a reality. Unfortunately, they did not make it in time for Thanksgiving day… doubly sad since this year it happened to fall on Emilie’s very special 30th birthday! I was lucky enough, however, to have some good friends over to salvage the day for me with a turkey hand cut-outs, spaghetti, and lots of sangria! We even went around and said what we were thankful for… the recurring answer being: friends the feel like family.
True to her promise, Emilie fought hell AND high water to make it to my doorstep. Three cancelled/delayed flights and a 9 hour night taxi ride later, she and Rowan rolled up to my little house in Badjoude. I cannot express how it felt to see real family… THIS family… one of my “sisters.” All the stress of the last few weeks, the uncertainty of the last few months, the joys and travails of living here came crashing together and tumbling down. We hugged and I just felt BETTER. Not to mention the pre-cooked turkey and honey ham that by some miracle (and Rowan’s genius) made it intact to my kitchen. We started cooking right after they arrived at 10 pm and stayed up until 3 am eating and talking.

Since they arrived so much later than was planned, we only had the next afternoon to visit Badjoude before heading off to Parakou for my training which started bright and early the next morning. Though it was a whirlwind, I couldn’t have asked for a better visit. They saw everyone in village who was important to me, got to taste several local dishes and drinks, and Em documented everything on their digital camera. So fun! At 4 pm we piled into a bush taxi and started our 4 hour trip to Parakou… where we arrived happy but exhausted, and covered head to toe by red dirt kicked up by the taxi on the 40 k road before you hit paved highway. The orange tint it gave my skin, matched with my short stature, made me look disturbingly like an oompa-loompa.

The rest of the week was spent going to sessions all day and squeezing in time with Em and Rowan during lunch and dinner. It was tiring but definitely worth it. It was a sad day for me when I watched them jump on motos and ride off to their bus-stop in the early morning. The sadness I felt from that and worrying about my dad was lifted a little when I received the good news that his cancer surgery had gone well. When I finally made it back to Badjoude I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and looking forward to a few good weeks of nothing to get myself organized and well-rested.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

October 2007

Whipping Fête ~ October 26 – 28

Lucky me that one of the most interesting festivals in Benin (and I’m not biased at allll) happens in my little village at the end of every October. It is called ‘la fête de chicotte’ – the Whipping Fête.

I know much more about it since having interviewed two village wisemen about it several days ago for an article I’m writing for PC. I will try to figure out how to make link to that article but don’t hold your breath!

Though I’ve learned a lot since, back in the last week of October I had little more than a vague collection of facts surrounding the event: largest Lokpa celebration, during which young men whip each other, a sort of ‘rite of passage’ in order to attain manhood in the eyes of the community. Oh yah and there would be lots of drinking.

Happily, my house became “Whipping Fête central” where I welcomed nearly 20 volunteers over the two days, including the first volunteer in Badjoudé – a village hero, and rightly so – Annie! She came at just the right time in my service, when I felt comfortable and familiar enough with Badjoudé to want to learn more. She introduced me to different important people, gave me tips about the house and general living, and gave me a lot more insight into Lokpa culture in general, and the Fête in particular.

With her help we hosted quite the event: ordered drinks from the bar and two large barrels of the local brew Chouc-chouc (a cross between beer and cider, in my opinion, and made from millet) to offer visitors and dancers throughout the two nights of festivities. We also made appropriate visits to the village King (yep, had no idea Badjoudé had one of those!) and mayor. She even spoke with local police and border patrol, and organized a bus and 5 guides for us to go see the festivities in a nearby village just across the Togo border the day after Badjoudé’s celebration. It was a crazy and amazing two days.

The fête itself is so hard to describe to someone who was not there. I know I will fail miserably in trying to do so but I hope to get a few pictures up to give a better idea. The morning of Badjoudé’s, always the first of the season with the surrounding village’s festivities happening throughout the following week, we awoke just before sunrise. Luckily, my house is just a stone-throw’s away from the action so we lazily made our way up to the main road and waited. Just as the sun came up over the trees we started to hear the drums and whistles in the distance. More spectators came to join our crowd and within a few minutes we could make out two mobs of people dancing, blowing whistles, and singing their way towards each other from opposite directions on the long dirt road. They were two of Badjoudé’s quartiers (neighborhoods), rivals, and there was going to be a rumble!

When the two groups finally met in front of us, there was much battle crying and boasting. Then, all at once, everyone turned and stampeded into a nearby field. What had just moments before been a calm clearing of waist-high grasses rustling in the wind, was instantly transformed into a battle field. The best way I can think of to describe the mood is “cheerful chaos.”

At first, looking into the field you would have no idea what was going on: there are so many people, whips flying, the deafening din of hundreds of whistles and raised voices, white powder being thrown around… I got doused by an enthusiastic spectator and was pleasantly surprised to discover it was baby powder. Saved me a shower and I smelled baby fresh the rest of the day!

Eventually, your eyes adjust to the commotion and you begin to see that there are dozens of matches going on at the same time. For each match there are two competitors armed with a whip in one hand and a long club for blocking in the other. In between them stands a “referee” who blows a whistle to let them know when it is their turn to make a hit or to defend. Each fighter gets two consecutive chances to try and hit their opponent. All of the competitors are shirtless, so when someone makes a solid hit, even with the surrounding ruckus, there is no mistaking the sound of whip on flesh. WWWWHAP! And you wince because you know that’s going to leave a mark! Talk too long with any Lokpa man, especially when he’s had his daily share of chouc-chouc, and he’ll soon be lifting his shirt or sleeve to give you a tour of his “battle scars.” They are so proud!

What surprised me about this event, and still surprises me reading back through my description, is how NOT barbaric it actually is. I first thought my mind would reject the battling as foreign but in the end my expectations were reversed. It turned out I was not as shocked by the whipping and more surprised by the free-for-all atmosphere of the spectators. People are screaming, dancing, singing, dressed in every which way. The men who have already undergone the ceremony are the craziest: decked out in anything imaginable… the only staple being some item of women’s clothing. A general outfit might be a cut-off jean skirt, flashy red bra, elmo stuffed animal tied to the waist, plastic bags around the ankles, and a small animal scull attached to a headdress on top of a tinsel wig.

My sociology major mind did not miss the irony of hundreds of flashy, cross-dressing men in a country which officially denies the existence of homosexuality. (I’ve had several curious people ask me about the “phenomenon” and then shake their heads disbelievingly, concluding it is must be an “American” or “European” thing). I had guessed this tradition of dressing in women’s clothes must be a modern add-on but my wise men informants told me that it has been a part of the customs since the beginning. It is a way for men to demonstrate the strength and security of their masculinity. Uh-huh.

After a sufficient amount of battling has taken place the two groups merge with spectators into a big dancing circle and then eventually dance their way up the main road to the center of town to merge and battle with other neighborhoods. After a morning of following different groups, everyone crashes for the afternoon repos (nap time!) and then reemerges lazily for celebrating that lasts well into the night. Our group happily took the rest time, then got up around 2 to go greet the king and thank him for permitting us to attend the festival. As is customary during any holiday, we were welcomed with chouc and food (little fried bean cakes) and then sat around making small talk with each other and the king’s family under the shade of two ancient baobabs.

The whole day seemed like a dream, a bright sunny morning illuminating an incredible cultural experience… made personal by the fact it was MY village: MY students running around (and some of them proudly whipping), dancing next to MY neighbors, MY Papa holding court over the first battle, etc etc I’m sure the dreamlike effect was not at all dampened by the continuous supply of chouc which I was obligated to drink in order to be polite to our hosts!

The next day we got up early again and piled into a bus to head over to Kemerida, which Annie promised was worth the trip. We were not disappointed. This village’s Whipping Fête turned out to be an interesting contrast to Badjoudé’s. Theirs was organized, each little neighborhood having a personal ceremony and tiny courtyard battles. In fact we divided ourselves into small groups of three or four so as not to overwhelm these more intimate events. Here we could actually see what was going on; the protocol, each step of the ceremony which the day before seemed incomprehensible. They had official sites for each “tournament round” bringing together more and more groups until the final “play-offs” neatly held inside a huge stadium-like circle. There were even Red Cross officials on-hand to handle injuries… it felt very much like a soccer tournament, screaming “soccer moms” on the side-lines and all!

When all my visitors eventually packed up and headed on their way I was exhausted, the house was a wreck, and there were lesson plans to write, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. That weekend, more than anything that had happened yet, made me feel like I had ARRIVED.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

My First Month in Badjoudé

I have been four weeks at post. Hard to believe since it feels like so much has happened. Not that much has actually happened (it's a small, quiet village) but just my personal mini-events: first house of my own, first day out in village, first solo bush-taxi, first African pet... but I'll get to all that. Suffice to say life here is a rollercoaster -- a high speed one where you can have several highpoints and falls within the span of an hour, much less a day. In short, Peace Corps is life on crack.... catchy, though admittedly less inspiring than their current slogan: Life is calling. How far will you go?

After the whirlwind that was swearing-in and final shopping/preparations/goodbyes I finally bid Lokossa farewell in a taxi with me, my driver Mounuri, and all my stuff - one mattress, one gas stove, two gas tanks, one mountain bike, one metal canteen/lock box, two suitcases, and four cement bags.
Mounuri turned out to be decent company. We didn't speak much but I feel we made a real connection over Celine Dion. See, he had this tape of hers which must have been a favorite since we heart it - in its entirety - no less than 11 times. He sang along to most of them (nothing like a grown African man belting "There is no other love like a mother's love for her child!") I was excited when I could chime in on the one song I had heard before ("New Day" for all you Celine fans). He seemed equally excited and sang even louder and so we drove up-country: me, Mounuri, and Celine.
In addition to his fun music taste he was also the first driver I've had here that didn't have me longing for one of those roof handlebars. He used a TURN SIGNAL which, until that point I did not believe existed in this country. Lastly, he gave me my first glimpse of the traditional scarrification found mostly in the North. He had hundreds of beautiful lines running down his face in intricate patterns.
All in all, a good companion for the 7 hour trip. When we finally pulled up to my house in the mid-afternoon he had everything unpacked in a matter of minutes, waving goodbye to me soon after. Alone for the first time in my new home, I took quick inventory of everything and then promptly plopped down on a pagne chair, completely unsure of where to begin.

Over the next few days, armed with a broom, tiny sponge, and some bathroom disinfectant, I work my way through the house, room by room. I make it a point to go out at least once a day (usually in the late afternoon when it's cooler) to "saluer"people - basically walking around town, smiling and waving. I am getting used to no electricity. I live in a house of shadows but it doesn't seem as gloomy to me as it first did. I'm feeling very colonial with my kerosene lantern and make-shift candlebra (old guinness bottle).
I am proud that I venture out to the big market on the Togo border my second day. I buy basins to do laundry, some salt and garlic, and a funnel and I feel victorious.
At this point, I keep forgetting I'm here to teach... basic survival feels like a full-time job and keep me busy, literally from sunrise to sunset. I'm usually in bed by 8:30 pm!!

I'm in love. He came to me early one morning when I was out in the garden singing to myself Cat Stevens' "Morning Has Broken." He has blue eyes and brown/gray hair. He fits in the palm of my hand.
Three little girls -- sisterns Charlotte, Chiselle, and Chantal -- came bounding toward me with triumphant smiles and a small black sack. Inside was a tiny kitten. My first instinct tells me he is too young to leave his mother. I tell them and their faces fall so I agree to keep him for the day to "see if he'll eat chez moi," all the while knowing I'll return him that night.
When the girls don't arrive I walk to their house, only to have their mother tell me they don't have cats. Long story short, it seems the girls either stole him or found him, so are unable to return the kitten to its mother. Nervously, I decide to take him on.
By the second day he is eating well. Locals told me to put him on a strict diet of akassa (fermented starch pudding) and milk. By day three he has outgrown the infant stage and is a full-blown terrible two: curious, demanding, and into everything!
I tell myself not to get too attached but of course I do. Just to myself, I name him Zan-Zan - it means "morning" in Fon, the local language of the South. It was one of my favorite Fon words and seemed appropriate considering how he came to me.
Not to mention the wonderful Cat Stevens pun.

Week 3
I have a great weekend when Heidi and Lindsey, my two closest postmates, come to visit. They are both health volunteers who have been here a year so they are full of great stories and advice.
School "officially" started the Thursday before but I soon find out that this is when people start THINKING about school: the censeur STARTS writing class schedules, kids and professors START thinking about coming, and the few kids that do show up START getting the building and grounds ready (boys arriving with hoes to clear the school yard and the girls with brooms to sweep the classrooms). No cleaning staff here, everything is done by the students. No wonder no one shows up for the first two weeks!
On the homefront I am completely content. Zanzan is getting bigger and stronger and proves to be smart too when he immediately takes to my home-made litter box. I have friends in village now and feel comfortable and happy. Then Wednesday comes.
I wake up already knowing I am sick, undoubtedly brought on by my "marché madness" of the day before where I went to both markets in my area with Heidi, happily chatting and snacking my way through both.
I lay low as best I can but I am still having to go to school twice a day just in case kids show up, which of course they don't. Doesn't help that the censeur has changed my class schedule THREE TIMES... I barely know when classes are!
My health manual becomes my new best friend, as I read it several times trying to figure out the best way to go about feeling better. My favorite pastime becomes reading through symptoms trying to guess if I'm suffering from mere food poisoning or something more exciting like giardia or ameobas.
I get my period and don' thing I can feel much worse.
But then there was Thursday.
I will not share details about my sickness but suffice to say I felt pretty CRAPPY. The only highlight was a sweet moment spent with my kitten when I took him outside for him to airdry in the sun after giving him a bath. He falls asleep purring in my lap and I have no idea that this is to be our last happy time together -- within the hour he is dead.
I wish I could say it was a peaceful death, but it wasn't. He lost control of his bowels and was struck with paralysis all in the matter of minutes. I frantically run him up to the town to try and find help. Not knowing why I am rushing, villagers laugh as I pass with only a quick hello and kids mock my pace since no one walks fast here. The niece of a friend leads the way, through backyards and across fields, before we finally arrive chew the veterinarian, only to have him take one look and tell me there's no hope. When I start crying he looks frantic (it's culturally taboo to cry in public so they get reallll nervous when white people do it!) and promises to find me a new healthy kitten. The worst part is that Zanzan isn't dead yet, every few minutes he lets out a painful meow. Walking back to town I try to pull myself together but I've got two days of not eating, hormones, fatigue, and heartache working against me. After a few half-hearted attempts to explain myself to people I passed I finally make it home and see that he is gone.
I had him for 12 days.
That first night by myself again was the first time I felt truly lonely since coming to Africa.

After a much-needed fun weekend away with friend from stage, I am feeling much better emotionally and physically. Good thing, too, since - a mere 10 days after the official first day of school - I finally teach my first class in Badjoudé.

It feels good to be working again and being with the kids. They are a sweet bunch but considerably less dynamic than the students in Lokossa. It's to be expected, though, since most kids here will never leave Badjoudé and school for many of them is just a way of getting out of work in the fields or at home. I have my work cut out for me, but I feel up to the challenge... most days, anyways :) My schedule is pretty light so I'm already thinking ahead to different projects around the house and community for when I get settled into the new routine.

Until next time, blabba tassa!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lokossa - And all the rest... - August/September 2007

As is evident in my catch-up entries, I've been as busy as the internet has been sporadic. After nearly nine weeks I am now a mere two days away from being officially sworn-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

It has been quite the ride.

Just two days after returning from post visit, we started "model school." This was where we'd finally get to put into practice all the educational theories/strategies/nonsense we'd been learning about the last four weeks. Basically, they brought in several hundred real-life Beninese children, bribing them with presents at the end, for free summer English classes. This meant there were approximately 60 in each class and I had just one day (coming off of a week of no sleep) to plan to teach such a class the wonders of English salutations.

I got through it, and the next four weeks, with highlight days where I felt like the best darn teacher ever and a few really, really bad days where I was ready to throw in the towel. So basically, a very realistic look at how my actual teaching experience will be.

By the end, despite the good practice, both us teachers and most especially the students were ready for it to be over. We finished up last Friday and have been functioning like normal, well-slept individuals ever since.

I can't believe training is over and in less than a week I'll be alone in my little village, but I can tell you one thing (okay, really two): I'm ready and I'm excited.

Lokossa - Site Visit - August 2007

Somewhere around the 4th week we had a conference where we met our school directors ie our future bosses. After two days of in-depth cross-cultural communication sessions (overkill, anyone?) we took off with our directors for the biggest adventure yet: our site visit.

The voyage up to Badjoudé consisted of a seven hour taxi ride, three American women with baby-bearing hips plus one Beninese man in the back seat and three large Beninese men in the front. I had the fortunate/unfortunate luck to be sat, nay SQUISHED, up next to my director which made it especially difficult to maintain the necessary professional relationship we kept hearing about. This grew exceedingly more difficult after he started falling asleep, unawares, on my right breast. Luckily, my travel pillow saved the day when I told him I was worried about his "back being uncomfortable" and swiftly inserted the cushy barrier between us.

The further North we got, the more excited we became. It was so interesting to watch the terrain unfold around us. Having only seen the marshland and jungle of the South it was breathtaking passing through the flatlands and then starting into des collines (literally "hills"), each view more beautiful than the next. Even the most avid window looker can gets tired after seven hours so I was not feeling very excited upon arriving at Djougou, the closest big city to Badjoudé and the last stop for me and my director. My attitude was quickly turned around, however, by the 40 minute moto ride to the village limits. On the back of my director's Zem, him wearing my girly sunglasses to ward of the glare from the late afternoon sun and me in my space age helmet, we were quite the zippy pair. Just minutes outside Djougou I started smiling and didn't stop the rest of the way. THIS was the Africa I had come looking for...

I wish you could have seen it. Up and down we went on a dirt road that stretched as far as the eye could see, on either side stretching gorgeous vistas of savanna grasslands... speckled with Fulani herdsman in pointy hats and clutters of thatched mud huts. All that was missing were the lions, giraffes, and gazelles I knew were found in the wildlife parks of the northern border of Benin.

My time in village was brief, just one full day of meeting everyone in the tri-village area, but it was enough to realize there was a good chance I was going to be very, very happy there. The people were friendly and welcoming, the street food cheap and delicious, the market mere feet from my front door, and my house so nice as to induce bouts of guilt. I have RUNNING WATER with a shower that has amazing water pressure. No electricity, but no latrine either. Instead, I have a separate locked little house with a lone toilet (complete with cushy seat... thanks previous volunteer!) that is "flushed" by pouring down water from a nearby faucet. Only true negatives? There is a rodent issue I'm going to have to face down and all the spaciousness will require LOTS of sweeping! On the other hand, I am planning on converting the "study" into a yoga/guest room so if you are able to visit you know where you can stay!

The trip back was not quite as ideallic, but hey nothing is perfect. My director had told me the only problem in my return trip would be if it rained, since the only road to Djougou was impassable after flooding. As luck would have it, I woke up in the middle of the night to a clap of thunder and torrential downpours and the rain continued until morning. At the appointed hour of 6 am I was ready just in case my director decided to come anyway. At 6:30 I heard his moto. He thought the rain had let up enough that it was worth a shot, so off we took into the drizzly early morning.

I was finding the ride back significanly less spectacular until we crested one of the many hills and I saw across the vista that the sun was rising. Unfortunately, I was unable to appreciate this opening-scene-of-LION-KING moment because I felt if I didn't focus all my attention on bracing for the next bump I'd fall off into the mud. All in all, it was becoming a rather painful experience. Apparently, my director's moto wasn't pleased either because it chose that next moment to make a horrible grinding noise and then screeeeeeech to a halt. Once we got off the zem it was immediately apparent the chain had come off. As Monsieur le Censeur (no idea his real name) began to fiddle with it, I looked at the vast stretch of vegetation and rolling hills around us, and the empty stretch of road spanning as far as the eye could see in any direction. I have no idea why but it was at that moment I had a brief fantasy of half-naked tribal men coming soundlessly out of the bushes, placing me onto a chair tied to two planks, and racing me on their fast African legs directly to the bus station. I am not proud of this fantasy, nor its lack of political correctness, so I will have to chalk it up to the crazy malaria meds which are known for inducing hallucinations. Back to the moto...

After several minutes of working and fiddling he succeeded in getting the chain back on and we triumphantly mounted the moto and took off once more. Our success was short-lived -- not two minutes later an all-too-familiar clank-clunk-screeeech came from beneath my very uncomfortable ass and we quickly dismounted yet again. This time he seemed a little more concerned, shaking his head and repeating over and over: "Ma chaine est trop longue." (My chain is too long). I was too distracted to giggle at the time but I would later find this phrase very amusing.

After another failed attempt, I was starting to get worried about making my bus but I figured as long as there was no french cursing we were fine. Then I heard it, soft but clear: "Merde."

Shit is right.

We ended up waving down a random passer-by (correction: the ONLY passer-by) and he graciously sped me to the station where I barely made it onto the misspelled CONFORT LINE bus.

As I sank down into my seat next to a woman eating plantains with her baby in lap, I sighed and thought how grateful I was to have a good site-visit story that didn't end with me having to hitch-hike down half of Benin!

Lokossa - Goats and Sisters - August 2007

I have many of both now. I still have a lot of fun with my sisters. I realize how lucky I am to be in a family dominated by strong women. Not to say that when Papa is home he doesn't have all the say - he certainly does, to ridiculous levels - BUT he's not here very often so I feel like I'm in matriarchal home.

I feel I can go no further in sharing my experiences without touching on the goat situation. Basically, they are EVERYWHERE (them and mopeds). Hundreds of goats roam the streets like stray cats. My college roommate said after her trip to Kenya that zebras are the squirrels of Africa... so many as to lose their charm. Well let me tell you, I can't speak for the rest of the continent, but goats are definitely the squirrels of Benin. However, I have to say, despite getting acclimated to their omnipresence I still find them pretty cute. They are little billy goats mostly, each one with its own dopey expression and funny hair-do. The "stud" goat at my house has one of the best mullets I've ever seen. Seriously, you have to see this! I will try to post a picture when I get the chance.

They sound like small children when they "bahhh". (Yes, I'm still on goats.) Before figuring out that the goats were kept in a chamber two doors down I thought there must be a cackle of whiny 3 year-olds living next door! My sisters got a big kick out of this when I told them.

You'd think with all these goats there'd be a lot of eating of goat meat, but as far as I've seen this is not the case. I asked Aubine about it and she said they are kept mainly as house pets - they eat all the trash, which is great in a country lacking any semblance of organized waste management. They are also sometimes used for sacrifices on special holidays............. bahhhhhhhd break, kids!

Lokossa - Bonne Arrivée! July 25, 2007

As we pulled up to la mairie (city hall) it began to rain - another bout of good luck? - and I was nervous but excited to meet my new family. Within moments my three sisters had found me. There was Elodie (20) and the twins Aubine and Aubinette (14). Apparently Maman was at a party but she'd be home a little later.

I immediately felt at ease with them. They are fun and easy-going, especially the twins who like to be silly. Elodie plays the part of the mature older sister gracefully. She is beautiful and strong... watching that girl do laundry is a work of art! The twins are hilarious: Aubinette loves to sing and dance all the time while Aubine is very cuddly and attentive, always taking time to explain things to me slowly. Of course at 14 they both love to giggle about boys so I've definitely had some flashbacks to middle school but it is fun :).

I quickly discovered I had more family then I originally thought. There is Papa who works in Cotonou. Apparently he is the national director of Youth Recreation which requires lots of traveling. He visits on weekends when he can. There is also an older brother and sister who live with their families in Cotonou. Then there's Memé, the grandmother (maman's maman) who lives with us and only speaks the local language Fon. I am excited by the last bit of information because it will be great practice for me as I start learning more and more phrases. To finish out the family I'll be in contact with, there are two little cousins that live with us, Abraham/"Hamo" (10) and Faresse/"Fafa" (8), as well as an older cousin Mimi (13) who was staying for the holidays. As for the two little ones, I'm not sure I have ever met sweeter or more hard-working kids in my life. In Beninese culture children are expected to do all the household chores and the sisters keep them busy!

So, as you can see, in a matter of moments I had acquired my very own African family and I couldn't be more delighted.

To get to our house, we left the city on a dirt road through many cornfields (corn and its products are big here). After many twists and turns we pulled up to a little concession. Once through the red gate, you are in a courtyard busy with chickens, ducks, and sometimes goats. The house is set up around this courtyard with each room opening up to the outside. I essentially had my own part of the house. Two rooms, one in front of the other, and a private cement area in the back for cooking and taking bucket showers. Quite the nice set-up! Although seeing the communal latrines would bring me back to earth a little, all in all I couldn't be more happy with my new home.

Cotonou July 21-25 Part II

The next day we headed back to le bureau for a long day of sessions. I started with a walking tour down past le marché and local bank, where I got my first glimpse of the ocean here -- the Bight of Benin.

Next came lunch on the roof where we had a good view of downtown Cotonou. It actually reminded me a lot of urban Okinawa - a certain controlled chaos where the lack of urban planning is made up in character and general funkiness. After the rooftop break came the REAL fun... zemidjan training!

Zemidjans are the mopeds here (vespas for you euro-trippers) and they are literally EVERYWHERE. They are the primary method of transportation in Benin and so widespread that PC Benin has the special honor of being the only site world-wide authorized to use them! Don't worry Dad, the catch is that you must always wear your helmet and they are serious about this: any volunteer seen riding a moto without a helmet is instantly sent home, no questions asked.

Although helmet use is not popular here and you end up feeling pretty silly being the only one, it only takes one ride to be glad... those peeps are CRAZY: zip zip over potholes, narrowly missing trucks and pedestrians and all the while your only sense of security comes from a deathgrip hold on a tiny bar across the back. Most people that are accustomed to riding hold on at all! I've decided this must be due to having acquired thighs of steel.

The practice ride was enough for me for the moment. They paid some zemi drivers to come by so we could practice hailing them over, bargaining the price (very important here), mounting the moped properly (always left side if you don't want to get burned on the exhaust pipe) and finally going for a little ride. I think they got a big kick out of all us silly yovos (word for foreigner in local language, literally translates to "whitey") in our space-age helmets - think power rangers but more ridiculous.

Next on the schedule was an interview with Maria Soumounni, the director of the TEFL program. She was intimidating at first but I quickly felt a connection with her and respected her straight-forwardness. She is from Benin but I found out she has a son going to GA Tech and living in Buckhead just outside Atlanta... what a small world!

Back at the compound, we had some time before dinner so I napped a little to the sound of one of the other stageaires playing outside on his saxophone. When I got up nearly an hour later he was still playing but he was now joined by two more, one on flute and the other on guitar. As I came out onto the second floor balcony the sun was setting and I could see other stageaires scattered around the courtyard, hanging out and playing frisbee as the chill music played on. All in all, an awesome vibe and I was truly content in the moment. To top it all off, that night we played possibly the funnest game of Scrabble ever (okay, okay maybe not EVER ever but surely the funnest ever played in West Africa).

The next day we finished up by getting a few more vaccinations, interviewing with the doctors, picking up our malaria meds, and having free time to call home, email, exchange money, etc. I chose to attempt international phone calls again (first time failed) since I hadn't called home yet and, what's more, it was my best bud Lera's 23rd birthday! I also thought this could be my last chance to call for a while since international calling wasn't guaranteed at our training site. Unbelievably, this time the phones worked without a hitch. I was able to talk to my parents and the birthday girl, the only drawback being that since we were leaving at noon I called around 11 am my time which made it 6 am their time... yikes! Luckily, they were good sports :)

In the afternoon, we got pictures of our host family. Mine showed a picture of a maman and three daughters. There would be many more in the family but I would not find that out until our arrival the next day...

Since this was to be our last night together as a big group (each sector has its own training site) we hung out as long as possible before heading back to our rooms to pack up and sleep a little before our early departure.

The next morning all 59 of the stageaires and our many, many bags loaded up into five vans (2 for TEFL since at 19 we're the biggest group) and headed out for a scenic two hour drive to Lokossa, a small town northeast of Cotonou, and our home for the next nine weeks.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Cotonou July 21 - July 25 Part I

After the previous day's excitement I slept hard and was a little confused when I awoke at 5 am. Apparently, one of the roosters on the premises forgot he was supposed to wait for the sun. His call, along with the clamour of another downpour, had woken me. As I peered through the shadows of my mosquito net and listened to the rain (and another earnest "cockle-doodle-doo!") I thought to myself: I'm really here. I'm in Africa!

They started the morning session by telling us that in Benin, having it rain upon your arrival is a sign of good luck. This only confirmed what I was feeling... lucky!

What followed was a series of sessions about the program in general, about security, and finally about health for which we received our personal, fully equipped health kit and manual. And I do mean FULLY equipped... with the amount of medicine and information they provide I feel like I could easily treat a small village for all sorts of ailments. There are two full-time doctors at our disposal here. They are both really amazing and personable. Current volunteers bragged about how this is probably the best healthcare we'll ever have since even the smallest problems are given full attention. Having just seen "Sicko" before I came, I think they might be right.

Dr. Rufin who was giving the presentation made sure to include an in-depth discussion of the most "popular" Peace Corps disease - "Diarrhea 101" he called it. He made sure we clearly understood what it entailed, strategies for avoiding it, and the best ways to treat it. He also made it clear that it is not a matter of IF you get sick, but when. "Everyone has to go through it several times as part of the body's adjustment to a new environment." Awesome. I feel better already.

After lunch and a short break, we piled into vans to drive to le bureau ie. PC headquarters in downtown Cotonou. The ride afforded us our first look at Benin in the daylight. Upon arrival, we were systematically ushered through several station: one to pick out a bike and helmet, one to get our first of many vaccinations, one to get our initial allowance (25,000 CFA about 50 dollars), and finally a language interview. Although I would find out later that I placed in the highest group, I felt at the time that I let my enthusiasm overtake my vocabulary. Example: I was all gung-ho on telling him about working with refugees but when he came back with a question about what I would do if I were in charge of ending world poverty (yes, he really did ask this question!) I was at a total loss. Zut!

The first day ended with dinner and then some semi-awkward mingling. The social interaction was aided greatly by the arrival of the evening's beverage of choice: Le Beninois (aka Benin's Budlight) Santé!

The next day we explored some outside the compound before heading to our country director's house for the official welcome ceremony and some brunch. After winding past the shacks of several poor neighborhoods I was surprised when we pulled up to what looked like a PALACE in comparison. Despite being warned beforehand, I was still pretty shocked. It was a beautiful 2 or 3 story, white-washed house with tiled floors and a large marble staircase. There was a small yard within the gated exterior and even a pool that had been filled in to make a sandbox for the children. Incroyable.

Since Benin's ambassador was out of town we had some diplomat or another from Togo spoke before passing it off to the security advisor for the American embassy. We determined this guy's sole purpose was to scare/intimidate us into not doing anything stupid. A worthy objective I suppose but I found the jet-black sunglasses (à la Will Smith in "Men in Black") was a little overkill.

By far the best part of the whole event was having the chance to play with dogs and children, as well as tasting Beninese pineapple for the first time.... soooooooo good! Watching one of the assistant program directors interact with her husband from Niger and their two adorable sons made me think how cool it would be to have a multi-cultural family. They met when she was a PCV (peace corps volunteer) in Niger and he was her local language tutor. As she put it, they ended up speaking the international language of LOVE :). Hmmm.... wonder if that has a subjunctive tense......

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Touching Down July 20, 2007

I was lucky to get both a window seat and a great plane buddy so the trip went pretty fast. By the time we were ready to land in Cotonou I was both exhausted and thrilled. I wasn't the only one: since they had announced the final descent there had been a steady hum of excitement. It built as we pushed and leaned to catch our first glimpse of Africa and finally culminated in raucous applause when we touched down.

Nearly 2 hours later, after fighting our way through immigration, baggage claim, and customs we emerged, laden yet again with too many bags, to the welcoming cheers and smiles of Peace Corps Benin. Even though our plane had been delayed and it was now pretty late there were probably 20 or more staff and current volunteers there to greet us.

The drive from the airport can only be described as dream-like. I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of an African urban center: hundreds of mopeds zipping by with all combinations of passengers (2 men, a woman with a baby strapped on her back, a full family of 4), vendors on the side of the road illuminated by kerosene candles (like lanterns leading the way), women with huge baskets balanced effortlessly on their heads, etc, etc

After some time, we finally turned into our compound, a Catholic oasis if you will, called St. Jean Eudes. Pulling in, we were met by many more cheering volunteers banging on the windows and calling out names to show us to our rooms. Before we could sort through the chaos of bags and people, the skies opened and it began to pour;

my first African rain (but certainly not my last).

Staging July 17 - July 20

My Peace Corps experience started right away. Not 5 minutes after I boarded the plane in Atlanta to head to my staging in Philadelphia a girl walked by and greeted me with a "No way!" when she saw my PC folder. Turns out she was going to Mali so I only saw her once during the next few days. Regardless, it was interesting to feel that first surge of belonging to something.

Once at the Philly airport, I met a few more PC people (ALL GIRLS!) who were going to South Africa. We ended up in the same shuttle (but not the same hotel). Slowly, the numbers in the van dwindled until it was just me and another guy. Voilà, my first Benin counterpart! He said his name was Colin and he was from Iowa. I told him all I knew of Iowa was the Dar Williams song. He laughed and said that was a good start.

Once there, I saw that we were at the tail-end of the group and that registration was just finishing up. I filed through the line with all my paperwork and was relieved to see my personal passport after being separated for several months (sidenote: fed-exing off one's passport is a scary, scary thing). I was even more delighted by the next gift: a brand spankin' new Peace Corps passport (has a micro-chip and everything) with its shiny Beninese VISA!

As far as the actual staging goes, suffice to say I felt I came out okay in light of a fairly awkward, tedious, and very first-few-weeks-of-freshman-year-like experience. The three women running the orientation were nice but didn't seem to know much about Benin specifically, which was a little frustrating. The best I can say is that I met some nice people and got to make final phone calls sitting across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Oh yah and I ate well!

Philadelphia did well by me as far as offering good last-food-in-America options. I had falafel my first night from my favorite chain on both sides of the Atlantic (I first ate there in Barcelona), then spinach and goat cheese pasta with a bailey's créme brulée dessert the next, and finally good ol' fashioned NY style pizza and gelato for my last lunch. Awesome. Thanks, Peace Corps for such a generous food allowance!

However, by far the most excitement occurred when we got to the airport. Unknowingly, our bus driver dropped us off at the wrong terminal so we had to hike with all our stuff nearly a mile through the blazing heat and several construction detours. For some, this proved to be the ultimate PC test: did you really bring only as much as you could carry?

Thank goodness both of my bags had wheels (thanks, Dad) so I made out ok but let me tell you, some peeps were STRUGGLIN'. Worse, when we finally arrived in a sweaty mess they hadn't even processed the Mali group who had left 2 hours before us to avoid this exact problem. We ended up having to wait several hours in line to get checked in but we made the best of it, cracking jokes about how starting off a 23 hour trip dirty and gross didn't bode well for meeting PC's ridiculous request that we look professional upon arrival.

Eventually, we all made it through and with an hour before our flight ended up, where else?
The closest terminal bar, of course... cheers!

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Final Countdown...dahdahdahdahhhh

Can't believe it's finally here! By this time tomorrow I'll be getting into Philly and meeting some of the people I'll be spending the next two years with....

It's been quite a ride getting to this point. First and foremost there was packing. Eighty pounds really doesn't go very far when you're having to bring cooking supplies, teaching supplies, equipment, shoes, etc. Finally, I got it down to BARE ESSENTIALS and here's what it looked like:
A little nervous about getting all that stuff into two average bags, I was pleasantly surprised when it fit with little fuss. Just a few hours of maneuvering, re-packing, re-weighing, obsessing, and finally saying what-the-hell and the bags were ready to go!


Not bad for two years in sub-saharan Africa.

Now if I can only manage to download all my music, make a mini-album of favorite pictures, pack a carry-on that doesn't weigh 100 pounds, call all my friends, and see all my relatives in the next 10 hours I'll be good to go!