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!


loehrke said...

Kate: I hope you know that we devour all of your posts as if you were already a great friend or family member (and in a way you ARE; we just haven't met yet!!!). Please know that we are thinking about you all the time and hope you are well.
My wife and I cried over the death of Zanzan......always know that you gave that kitty more love in a short time than he EVER would have had otherwise.
No act of kindness is a waste.
Listening to your struggles is hard but it helps us to realize that Carly isn't the only one with hardships.Try your best to get through these first few difficlut months and answers WILL come and things WILL get better.
Much love and many BIG hugs are sent your way!!!
From Carly's Dad

dinda said...


Your entries are so much fun to read. I am so happy that you are writing this blog. I can't believe that Zanzan died!! I am so sorry. It is so painful to have an animal helplessly die in your company, especially when you are standing in front of a vet who says there is nothing that can be done.

You were so sweet to Zanzan in the little time you two spent together.

love and miss you,
dinda doo

Lei, John, Marjorie and Hayden said...


We are so enjoying your blog. I read it to the kids weekly and while they search for your location on the globe. They have now created a game out of it. It's called who can find Kate the fastest :)

I'm sorry about your kitten. We lost Colby last month too. He didn't die, he bit the neighbor. So we had to give him away. The kids are coping the best they can. Take care.

Peace be with you


Annie said...

Oh, Kate, I'm so sorry about your cat. Ahhh.

Also: yay for giardia! Isn't it just the best weight loss secret EVER?
(note: a colleague of mine actually said something to this effect after I complained about getting it for the second time...)

Nell said...

Oh baby, I'm sorry about you losing Zan-zan. Please know that we're all thinking about you. Keep doing good work!


mom said...

Hi my sweet Kate, this is the first time I've read about those first four weeks on your blog. What a fantastic writer you make your reader feel right there with you. It breaks my heart to hear about your sweet kitten all over again. I love you and can't wait to get some PICTURES so I can visualize you there. Hope you and EMs are having a great time together. I love you so. Mom

mom said...

HI Kate!
Your Mom and I just read your blog and we are amazed at how well you express yourself! I feel as if you have transported us to Benin! Some days are good and some not so much! But every day you are making a difference! I am so very proud of you! I can't wait to hear what you are doing now! I love you dearly!

myk said...

Kate: I'm so sorry about little ZanZan. I miss you greatly. Lunch by myself isn't as much fun... plus I eat too much when there isn't anyone to talk to at the Indian Buffet. Things are going well. I too had giardia (long ago) and want to welcome you to the club. Not fun sweetie, not fun! It sounds like a bad Buckhead night club; CLUB GIARDIA. Did your time at IRC help out or is it just too differnent? Now that I know where your blog is I will check in now and then.
Hope all is well.