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.