Saturday, November 3, 2012

Petit a Petit

Well this is my third go at trying to write this blog post. It has been over a month since I arrived here and I am still trying to vocalize what this month has been like. Before we left, Peace Corps gave us a graphic of the emotional rollercoaster that is the Peace Corps with various time periods that marked the highs and lows of service. I remember looking at it and saying to myself “that isn’t a graphic for the whole service that is a graphic for every day of my life here”. That more or less remains true. It happens often that I have a moment in the day where I have to stop and ask myself “where the hell am I and what was I thinking?!” but those moments pass and are quickly replaced by moments where I can’t help but think how lucky I am to be here doing this and how unique my life has really become.

Celebrating my 25th birthday a few weeks ago gave me cause to reflect on where I am in my life and what I have done. I thought about what I imagined my life would be like as a kid, I had to laugh at how far I was from what I imagined. How could I have ever imagined that I would celebrate this milestone birthday in a small West African country, or that in reflecting I would have so many adventures and so many friends from all corners of the world to think about, it has been quite the ride. So, while things can be frustrating and exhausting living here sometimes, all it takes is a moment of reflection to remember how unique my life has become, and how being here is part of that, and it would be criminal to take this for granted.
Because life can be both slow and chaotic here, I have taken to going for runs as a chance to release pent up energy and to cleanse the mind. It has become something of an addiction for me here, there is something about running under the vast blue African sky, on the red roads, through great fields that is enchanting to me. Even with the sun beating down on me like I have never experienced before, there is something about being out on the road just me, and the African terrain that makes me fall in love with this country all over again every time I get on the road. That’s not to say, it makes it easy to run in this weather, by the time I get back to my house I am usually trying to get in the house as fast as possible all the while peeling off the heavy culturally appropriate running clothing as fast as possible to either dive into the coolness of my shower, or if the water is out, to simply curl into the fetal position on the tile floors and sweat out half my body weight.

I didn’t think it was humanly possible to sweat so much but I have been learning in this country, sweating is just a part of life here, whether I am just sitting in my living room or cooking dinner, I am sweating all the time, my only escape has been when the electricity is working, I will duck under the refuge of my fan to try to cool off, or just dump a bucket of water over me in hope of some relief from the heat. A brief break from the heat should be coming though, the end of the rainy season has arrived and thus the cold season where the cool winds that come off the Sahara should pass through making things “cool” here, I have already begun to notices it at night, but days here are still brutally hot.
The last month here at post has been a lot of just adjusting to life on my own in Banikoara, getting to know the people in my community, how to cook with the food here and getting used to my new house. I have spent hours sitting in Mamas’ shops sometimes without talking much, but just to hang out and get to know the women. I try to go to the market every day to say hello to the women who work there and to pick up my daily food needs, and I generally get lunch from a street vendor so that I can sit and eat with the locals to get to know others in the community. When I am not visiting with neighbors and others in town or running, I am usually trying to do some research on some project s I would like to get started, or I am working on learning more French or the local language of Barriba. Then there are the days where I spend the day sleeping on the couch and running back and forth from the bathroom plagued with whatever my stomach disagreed with. It’s funny , I think about how in the states we always try to identify what made us sick, here I get sick and there is no real point in trying to figure out what it was, it could be the tap water I drink, or the vegetables I buy from the market which might still have night soil on it, could have been that the woman I bought my lunch from didn’t clean the plates well enough, that one of the kids who grabbed my hand didn’t wash theirs well enough after using it to wipe themselves, unclean meat or a bad egg, or just because I am in Africa. In other words it is impossible to ever know what the culprit was, so the game of saying what or why doesn’t happen here, there are just days where you know you should probably stay near a bathroom and have some of your oral rehydration packets issued in our Med kit on stand by. The important thing is always to just take your temperature and confirm it is not malaria, otherwise there is no way I am reporting a medical problem that will require me to pile into a push taxi with several other sweating bodies and make the long ride to a doctor.

While it is hard to believe over a month has already gone by since I have been at post, time does go by very slowly here.  Days can take forever to pass with little work to do. My initial job was supposed to be with a water and sanitation NGO, but as I have mentioned in past entries when I spoke with my counterpart she informed me work would not start until later. After having a meeting at the Mayor’s office they confirmed this. Sure enough, the Mayor’s office has yet to actually renew the contract with the NGO and real work with them won’t start until the dry season when people need to start buying water, so work with them will not start until February. While we are not supposed to be starting any significant amount of work until after our first 3 months here, so that we make sure we are well integrated into the community before we start, I am a bit envious of volunteers who have an office to report to everyday because that at least means they have an office that they can socialize with. For me, my office is my home, and when I want to talk to people I need to go out and find a reason to.
I am trying to conduct food security surveys and identify groups that would be willing to participate in a pilot seed banking project as well as identify the Shea groups here in Banikoara, the challenge is most of these groups only speak the local language of Barriba of which I can only greet in, someone from the Mayor’s office offered to take me around because they had specific groups in mind but they are busy there, so I have heard nothing on it yet. My plan for next week is to pay a motorcycle taxi here who speaks French well to take me around to the garden groups and help translate the surveys for me. We will see how successful I am at this. I have also started doing some work with an NGO that is contracted through the Mayor’s office to do trash clean up in Banikoara. There are two environmental volunteers in the greater Banikoara area that are also working with the group, my role as the economics volunteer is still largely undefined but it seems as though my role may be to help them figure out how to make their operation both financially sustainable and efficient as in the past this has been the reason they have been unable to keep their work going. Part of my role as a Community Economic Development volunteer is to work with the schools to create business clubs, so next week I am going to start sitting in on some classes to get a better feel of what is being taught in the classrooms and to start forming relationships with some of the teachers.

I am quickly learning that everything in Africa just takes longer than it does in the United States. We have to cook from scratch every day, we have to hand wash our cloths, scrub and bleach any bathroom floors and sweep all our floors every few days to keep insects out, going “grocery shopping” is a daily activity at the market, roads are bad so it takes a while to transport yourself or anything you need,  and it is just too hot to really move fast. So, with all of this other stuff that we need to do, to work like we do in the United States wouldn’t be possible; here a 20 hour work week is more or less a full time job, with exceptions of course. I am adjusting to this and learning that results just take a while here. When I feel myself starting to get anxious to get to the real work, to start to see results and feel confident here, I remind myself that part of my service is just being here and exchanging with people.  When that doesn’t work I remind myself that this is the only time in my life when a 20 hour work week will be full time, and that this is my chance to enjoy an extended vacation from the normal rapid pace of my life in the States.

I am still getting the hang of things here petit a petit, work and daily life are slowly coming more naturally to me just as the language is. Parts of my days here are grand and other parts test my staying power but with every week that passes I find myself surprised at how much I have adapted and changed and it gets a little easier to live here. I thought at this point in my service would be rough on me, it marks the longest time I have lived outside the United States, and I feared I would begin to feel the need to see home, and start to crave the things of America. Make no mistake, I do miss America, and have dreams of American food and comfort, but it hasn’t been what I thought I would be. I find I don’t really make plans for post Peace Corps (with the exception of studying for the GREs and delving into the world of grad school applications) instead the things I look forward to and the plans I make are for things here in Benin, projects I want to get involved in, people I want to visit, even things as simple as making plans for the next time I have to do banking (which involves a 5 hour drive to a big(ger) city in Benin that has good food and great friends). The point is, it seems I have mentally accepted that my life is in Benin for now (in two years’ time, the transition back to America could be a rough one).

That’s all I have for now, but this month has lots to come, Election Party at Chez Moi (yes even here I am still a political junkie) and my first Thanksgiving in Africa- we are going to try to cook a turkey so I know I can already promise some interesting stories.
On a final note, I know I promised many I would provide a mailing address, which I have yet to do. So here it is:

PCV Katrina Shankle
s/c Corps de la Paix
01 BP 971 Recette Principale
Cotonou, Benin (Afrique de l’Ouest)

Please keep in mind when shipping to me that it will take several weeks for whatever you send to get to Benin, and then it has to make it up north to me, so be careful sending anything perishable or anything that may melt. Also, do not be insulted if you don’t get a thank you from me for a while as it takes time for me to actually get the mail. Also PLEASE only mail through the US Postal Service, if you ship with DHL and FedEx they will charge me HUGE amounts of money once it gets here. Finally, if you are sending a package, you will need to claim what you are sending on the package, the higher the declared value, the more likely someone will steal from the package.

 As always thanks for all the love and support!

Monday, September 24, 2012

I am a Volunteer…Now What Do I Do?

I, Katrina Shankle, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of American against all enemies, domestic or foreign, that I take this obligation freely, and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps (so help me God).

It is official, as of Friday September 14, 2012, I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer; after three months of training where I successfully met the language, technical and cultural components I was permitted to swear in with 65 of the other Stagiers in my class. We didn’t have Hillary Clinton, or any other big name swear us in, but it was the US Ambassador to Benin’s first act as Ambassador, as he had only been sworn in himself 24 hours prior- which is kinda cool.

I thought having spent so much time and effort trying to get into the Peace Corps and then with the ups and downs of training, the whole thing would have been a more emotional experience. However, the week ahead of swear in was a blur of last minute administrative tasks, goodbyes to the people I have spent the last 3 months getting to know and surviving stage with, and packing,  all of which ended with me waking up early to catch a motorcycle taxi (Zem) to the buses that would take us to swear in. On any normal day, the second I stepped out on the street I would be accosted by Zems looking to take a fare, but of course on the day of swear in, I could find none. After turning down several non-official Zem drivers in an effort to avoid breaking too many Peace Corps policies on the day of swear in, I had made it all the way from my house to the main road, and still no Zems. Finally a man in a blue shirt (the color Zem drivers in Porto Novo wear) drove up, at this point, already late I barely negotiated, and just hopped on. Only after we were already on our way did I notice he did not have a license number on the back of his shirt, he was in fact just a guy in a blue shirt giving me a ride. Luckily Peace Corps didn’t seem to notice or care and I made it to the bus on time.

As we waited at the US Embassy for the ceremony to begin, rumors began flying by those who snuck a peak in the kitchen, that there would be burgers, pigs in a blanket, quiche, crab cakes and of course beer- all the glorious things we had been salivating over thinking about for the last three months (except for the beer, which we all enjoyed abundantly after training each day). Thus, by the time the ceremony began- on Beninoise time, alors en retard- most of us were hungry and ready to move on to our shopping and other post swear in tasks.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in a taxi at 5 am, driving through Porto Novo the next day, still dark, that I realized that my 3 months of Stage were over, that I would likely never live in Porto Novo again and that I had taken my oath and I was finally a volunteer. After what felt like summer camp or study abroad all over again, I finally felt like I was in the Peace Corps. Then I fell asleep.

12 hours after saying goodbye to my house in Porto Novo, I was sitting in my house in Banikoara with all my bags and a dinner I grabbed on the road. This was the start of my service.  However, it was also the first opportunity I had to use my new internet key and reconnect to the outside world, so naturally the first thing I did was check my email, Facebook, the news, and ESPN. After being sufficiently overwhelmed by the happenings of the outside world, and disappointed in my sports teams, I began cleaning the house and unpacking. 24 hours later I was still cleaning and unpacking. In that time I began to get a feel for what home would be like for the next two years. Living in a desert, I am learning, means that no matter how many times you sweep, the dirt and the dust will prevail, I discovered that my toilet leaks when the water is left on- unequipped to fix this, and too lazy to figure it out, I have decided to just turn the water source on and off, half the lights in the house don’t work, rain on a tin roof is really loud and really wet when you have leaks, the fasteners we were supposed to get with our propane tanks, stove and hose were not actually in my supplies (against my better judgment I checked for gas leaks by lighting a match near potential sources of leaks, with no explosions I decided my stove was safe enough- in retrospect it was not the smartest move on my part), I have pet crickets and there is a chicken that sometimes hangs out by my bedroom window.

After successfully unpacking my house in the first 24 hours, I was ready to start meeting the community. Peace Corps warned that people would just show up at our house, invite us for dinner and offer us help moving in. My community was more or less uninterested in me. Not to say that they don’t like me but there has been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Banikoara for the last 6-8 years and there are other development agencies here with other foreigners allegedly residing in the community, thus the excitement of having a white person living in the neighborhood is diminished. After walking around and saying hi to my new neighbors without much excitement on Sunday, I returned home looking forward to my first day where I would at least get to see my coworkers. Monday came and went, then Tuesday, Wednesday I bumped into my counterpart who informed me the mayor’s office was busy, my supervisor was in Parakou and she was leaving for Togo, then she said something about not working until November or December and left. Moments I wish I spoke better French.

In the absence of work or much social connection, I have spent my days studying French, Barriba (the local language), talking to my security guards (both very nice people and my main source of social interaction), visiting the market, trying to cook with items available and recognizable to me, giving up on cooking and exploring the cafeteria world of Banikoara and contemplating whether the water I drank at the cafeteria was a bad idea midway through an attempt to go running which in reality was more of a half run mixed with trying not to fall in the mud, get hit my a Zem, all while people continue to greet me with things like bon sport, bon perspiration, bon travail and the uncreative bon soir.

So many times I have been warned that this is the reality when you get to post but still I can’t help but wonder if I am already failing at being a volunteer or when this initial complete lack of structure will come to an end. I have moments where this is a low for me, where I worry about my ability to integrate and work within my community. I continue to remind myself of how long it took to get to know my coworkers in a structured office setting in India to accomplish work and that brings some comfort but for those who know me well, four days of having nothing to do is four days too many. Thus, in typical Type A Katie fashion I woke up this past morning and made myself a daily schedule rationing when I would exercise and when I would do language study, when I would study for the GRE and when I would wander the community and try to integrate, we will see how long this schedule lasts.

A harder point of being a female volunteer here is that I can’t just go to a bar and hang out and make friends because it would be considered inappropriate, further challenging me is the warning Peace Corps gave women of hanging out and making friends with men- by doing so it is generally assumed that you are agreeing to date them on some level. This is restricting. But today I cracked, a Nigerian man invited me to get a beer with him after he finishes work, starved for human interaction and friendship, I agreed, stressing that I am married of course, but that only sometimes helps. Here’s hoping that I have made myself a friend and that I won’t spend the next hour explaining why if I am married I am here and uninterested in getting married again. Lucky for me I have found the key to ending marriage proposals, after informing a different suitor I did not want children, he informed me that no one ever would want to marry me then and that was that. Oh cultural exchanges.

Hopefully, for my sake, I will have more to report on in the weeks to come.

A la prochain.

Becoming Un-Lost in Translation (9.6.12)

Days in Africa as a Peace Corps Stagier seem to drag on forever, weeks however seem to disappear in a blink of an eye. As I try to remember where I left off here and what has happened since, it feels as though I have not written in months and I want to tell you about how so much has changed in the same moment I want to say nothing ever happens here.

I have now finished my core/language training, gone to post and am now in the middle of my technical training. While my French is far from perfect it is weird to think that it was only a little over a month ago that I couldn’t say much more than hello, and now I am preparing to teach a class on feasibility studies in French to a group of students.

I realize that during my first post I actually said very little about the training I was going through with the Peace Corps other than that it was a whole lot of language with some medical and safety and security sprinkled into the mix. So to recap…

The first part of training was intense for me; it was a lot of language with the same three people almost every day in each other’s homes with lots of studying after class and time spent with my family. It was also during this time that we learned more or less everything we were supposed to know about service before we got to post. During the medical sessions I learned about the various parasites and bacterias that will like infiltrate my body at some point during service and make my life hell. We learned about all kinds of worms and skin infections we could get while here, including a worm that will present itself in your eye, I won’t go into any more detail, but the laundry list of things I could get is pretty gross. I learned all about malaria, nothing about dengue and a little about the other random diseases I might end up with while I am here. We had one session dedicated entirely to snake bites and skin problems, during which we spent a long time looking at pictures of the different snakes in Benin and being informed about which ones are poisonous and how long it will take for the venom to kill you only to be told that the medical office also let the anti-venom expire so if we get bit we are kind of SOL- then we skimmed over skin diseases and called it a day. Upon returning from post visit one of the rural community health Stagiers reported seeing a man come into her clinic to be treated for a snake bite, he was vomiting blood. If I wasn’t already afraid of snakes, I most certainly am now. Luckily I am a CED volunteer so I don’t have to spend too much time in places where snakes could be lurking.

During safety and security I learned to be alert and some other stuff, but nothing nearly as memorable as our medical sessions, except for the session when Stagiers began asking what kind of weapons we were allowed to carry and if we were going to take a self-defense course and what kind of repercussions where there for resorting to violence. As this is the PEACE Corps, the questions seemed to throw our Safety and Security trainer who reminded us that our main focus should be staying out of situations where we would need a weapon. Fair.

I passed my language exam so during the few language classes we have during technical training I will now be taking Barriba, they don’t waste any time here (well that’s a lie, but in regards to language learning…). Technical training consists of about two to three hours of learning important information about what we will be doing at post and about 4 hours of the volunteers wasting time and planning what we are all going to do after the day’s class. A perk of being a CED volunteer is that we take a lot of field trips and we have gotten to see what creative entrepreneurship in Benin looks like, which is good to see since the needs in Benin are very different than in the United States. It has also been interesting for me during these sessions to learn where funding has come from and to get a feel for the organizational management of the projects. All of which I am trying to make mental notes of for when I get to post and start my own projects, but in reality there seems to be great variety in various projects’ organization and financial independence. From these field trips and conversations with other volunteers and CED trainers it seems clear that one of the major problems here is that there are an abundance of NGOs and development oriented entrepreneurship projects all of which depend on foreign aid to operate. Beyond just the dependence of foreign aid it seems that many of them use most of that aid to employ members of the organization and then only have a little left to accomplish the original goal of development. While it is good that these projects are creating jobs for the Beninoise and providing good salaries, the reality is by using aid money in this way there is little actual development and forward motion toward self-sustainability. As this is a mammoth problem and I have no illusions about my real capacity to inspire progress here, I don’t image in two years I will be able to do much or anything to help ameliorate this, but it is something to think about as I consider how I want to use my time here.

I have enjoyed this phase of training because I am with all the CED and TEFL volunteers every day and it has been nice to get to know the other volunteers as the majority of my language training was spent with the same three people, who I enjoyed but there are 61 other volunteers to get to know in our group. Having the bulk of language behind me has relaxed me a lot, as the first half of training I felt like I was working all the time, and now I feel like I am at summer camp.

My family is still crazy but they seem to have become much less interested in me since my return. This has been both good and bad, no one seems to mind when I get in late after hanging out with the volunteers but now they forget to feed me sometimes and when they do remember it’s pretty basic. My host dad did make sure to buy a large case of beer for me, so I always have to open bottles waiting for me when I return to the house, so I at least have that.

Another volunteer had a bunch of us over for burgers and fries, which was an amazing recess from Beninoise food. After which we decided while we were all in Porto Novo with access to more American-like food we should make this more of a tradition, so I agreed to host the next dinner of chili. When I informed my host family I would be making another dinner for them and that this time I was going to also have other Americans over they got really excited and called the family photographer who showed up promptly the day of the dinner to have a mini photo shoot with my family and the other volunteers. So the day before the dinner I went to the market with two other volunteers to buy the beans to soak overnight- of course after a pit stop to the bouvette. It was starting to get a little late once we got there so we were moving fast to find beans that were close enough to what we would use in the states. There seemed to be only one woman selling what we decided looked like the best beans, the price was a little high but we ended up taking them. The next day after class myself and another volunteer starting cooking the beans while my sisters hung out with us and waited for the other volunteers to arrive. My sisters during the whole process kept asking if I wanted them to grind the beans and I couldn’t understand why, so I just kept saying no, in the United States we don’t grind the beans for chili. Finally after some time of boiling the beans with little progress one of my sisters explained to the other volunteer that we had not bought beans but peanuts and they thought we were trying to make a peanut sauce. This was going to be a problem for the chili we had promised to several hungry volunteers. So the peanuts were taken out of the hot water and became a snack while we waited for the dried beans that I then sent my sister to go out and buy. In the end the chili came out well, and we just had a lot of peanuts to snack on in the house for the next week, which was good for me when my family was being forgetful about feeding me. In any case volunteers hung out at the house and enjoyed the chili and beer and my sisters were delighted to have the company of so many other Americans much more new and shiny than I was at this point. It was decided that night that the volunteers had to come over another time to celebrate with my family one more time before we all left for post.

It feels now as though the countdown is on for swear in, and I am both anxiously awaiting it and nervously anticipating it. Knowing that both my time with beaucoup de American connection and to figure things out with the training wheels still on is almost up has left me trying to cram as much in as possible and yet after close to 3 months with constant connection and little alone time there is also the part of me that feels ready to have a home where I can close the door and decompress. It is funny being at this point in my service as I remember preparing to leave for the Peace Corps thinking this would be the hardest part as I am coming up to the date marking this endeavor being the longest amount of time I have spent abroad. I thought it would be at this point I would feel ready to turn around and go home, but instead I feel like I am only just getting to the start of my time here; that I am not reaching an ending point but a starting point. Perhaps in another 3 months I will feel differently but for now, this crazy life decision I have made still makes since to me…

Yup. TIA. THIS IS AFRICA. (8.31.12)

About 3 weeks ago now, early on a Saturday morning, I left to visit my post in Banikoara, and so the story begins. After triple checking to see if I had everything I could possibly need, and forgoing the majority of the things the Peace Corps recommended (malaria smear kit, medical handbook, safety and security handbook, trainee handbook, 4 full bottles of water and our kit to test for parasites- not fun), my host father and I were off for the bus stop before the sun was up or I was really awake- this changed quickly. The first lesson of the many I would learn on the trip; riding on the back of a motorcycle with a full pack on changes your weight distribution vastly. After almost falling off the back on the first jerk of the bike leaving the house, I was awake. We arrived at the bus station where a bunch of other sleepy volunteers also heading to the north greeted me and instructed me to have a seat- the Peace Corps, in an attempt to make sure we all made it on the bus, told us to get there 45 minutes before the bus would even arrive, overlooking the fact that the bus was likely running on Beninoise time, and we were still on American time.

To our excitement after 45 minutes the bus promptly showed up, and we eagerly slung our packs on and made our way to the bus noting that none of the Beninoise around us had moved- including our homologues who were taking us to our post after our 2 day training together. They gestured to us to sit back down, which we obediently did after the bus driver just waged his finger at us when we attempted to board. Giving in to the fact that we had no idea or control over the situation we sat down and waited for further instruction. Soon after, a miniature bus, or slightly-larger-than-normal van, depending on your nationality arrived- for that people moved as though a building was on fire, I sadly did not make this van, but my homologue told me to be ready, another would come. Sure enough another van rolled up and this time I ran to get to the front, threw my pack on the roof and elbowed my way into the even smaller van, securing my seat. After further battling to win their seats other volunteers, homologues, and random Beninoise whom I had the fortune of sharing this morning with slowly made their way to their seats- babies and baggage on laps. And then we waited. And then we waited some more- the smell, heat and general lack of personal space were slowly wearing on me- this was going to be a long trip and it hadn’t even started yet. Finally, the chauffer came back to try to argue with myself and the other volunteers that there was space for at least one more person- our adamant rejection of this being a remote or scientific possibility seemed to amuse the host country nationals in the car. We were not so amused. Meanwhile a fight had broken out in the other van and in the midst of the shouting match everyone unloaded out of that van and got into the still empty bus, filling the large bus with the same number of people, at which point we were instructed to unload our van and move to the now empty vehicle.

3 hours later we were all in vehicles, and on our way to Parakou, my first stop on the way to Banikoara. After the initial drama the rest of the ride went pretty smoothly, we were still packed in; I still had small children hanging over me, making sure to spill whatever they were eating throughout the various points of the trip on my once blue shirt. After about a 6 hour drive we had arrived in Parakou where we stayed for the night at a missionary couple’s house and enjoyed the blessing that is Marie Antoinette’s, a real Italian restaurant. The voyage the following day was fairly uneventful, we piled into a 15 person van and were off- of course making many stops on the way to buy various goods- which was annoying to the stagiers who didn’t know any better yet. The van only sort- of-broke down once due to overheating,  but it was conveniently by a restaurant around lunch time, it was also at this point that I realized that the very hot engine under me that was starting to burn the bottom of feet had begun to melt my motorcycle helmet resting on the ground- opps.

At our posts, we were all required to stay with a new host family to continue our “cross- cultural” learning. I was staying with the equivalent of the vice principle of the equivalent of a high school, Denis and his family, which was pretty fortunate. Other than his wife being sick, which made me feel slightly guilty for taking up his and the other family members’ time, my living situation with this host family was nice- the house was slightly smaller than my house in Porto Novo, and didn’t have running water or an indoor bathroom, but it still had electricity, I still had my own room with a DOUBLE bed, and the wife happens to be an excellent cook and Denis is a great friend and tour guide.

Getting out of the big city brought on a whole host of new adjustments and experiences for me and my body, which resulted in a lot of moments of saying TIA, This Is Africa, to myself and making a mental note to add to my blog, 3 weeks and lots of TIA moments later we will see how I do.

Within the first day, something made my stomach unhappy- something that seems inevitable here but also so much more inconvenient in Africa. Unfortunately for me, my stomach decided to make its discontent known to me around 3am. In households without toilets, there is usually either a family latrine (locked and only used by the family) or public latrines. My family had a family latrine which was good in the sense that they are far more sanitary, but not so good in the sense that not only was I going to have to try to quietly walk through the living room in the pitch black where everyone else was sleeping to get out, but also climb over one of the mattresses and people to get to the key. The latrine was about 200 yards from the house on a dirt path and around some tall grass- also problematic for me. As it had been raining all night and I had learned earlier that day that in a mud v. flip flop scenario, mud would win here, and my general fear that the spot light of my headlamp was not big enough to identify potential snakes in the grass (yes this is what I think of) this all was going to be very challenging. Deciding against making this a production I opted for the Imodium for the angry stomach and some Benadryl- to knock me out and hoped for the best in the morning. A week of Imodium roulette and getting to know the cockroaches of the latrine quite well- to the point where they didn’t really move when I got in there but instead seemed to stand by almost sympathetically waiting for me to leave, I finally adjusted to the bacterias of Banikoara and carefully stored my remaining two Imodium pills. Yes Africa does weird things to the mind- like finding solace in the apparent sympathy of your resident latrine cockroaches. Like most things here, some of the most amazing experiences seem to come hand in hand with the worst and departing the latrine late one night I happened to look up before making my way back to the house and there I stood memorized seeing more stars more brilliant than I have ever seen, and the greatest gift of all- aurora borealis. It was incredible, I stayed transfixed on the stars until the smell of the latrine behind me and the rustling in the grass reminded me it was late and time to go back inside.

My first week at post was very busy, I drove around getting to know the town, the markets, local officials, more or less tribal leaders (including the Chief or King of Banikoara), the mayor- who I will technically be working for, the work I will be doing, my counterparts, and the volunteer I will be replacing. I was lucky enough to not only have a volunteer in my post before me who furnished the house and was leaving behind lots of books and wisdom for me but also who is going on to do a third year with the Peace Corps in Cotonou. Although the Peace Corps recommended we not spend too much time with the Volunteers who we were replacing, spending time with her gave me the opportunity to gain valuable insight into the quirks and personalities within the community. It seems I have some very big shoes to fill, which is both exciting for me and makes apprehensive to find out what kind of volunteer I will end up being.

Banikoara is the commune head of the commune of Banikoara, as such it is more like the city to the small villages around it, but is in reality a big town. There is one paved road that runs through it and continues all the way to the neighboring commune of Kandi – which is where my Peace Corps Workstation is located- this makes travel pretty easy for me (comparatively).  Everything else is dirt road and it is small enough to walk most of it. There is a cyber café, lots of bouvettes, a church, several mosques, a stadium- which is a good place to run when I want to get away from traffic, but also makes it easy for my workout to become a spectator sport for the locals, a few small restaurants and a hotel with a swimming pool currently being constructed. There is a big market in the town every four days and a small everyday market as well as a grocery store with canned goods, that being said the variety of fruits and vegetables is limited as the climate in Banikoara is very desert like and after seeing the market I understand why we stopped so many times on the way up to buy produce.

People who work in the formal sector (very few) or who have gone to school speak French but a majority of farmers, venders and other workers really only speak Barriba which means I will need to learn at least how to greet people and negotiate in Barriba. There is also a group of people in Banikoara known as the Phole, who speak Fulani, but they are more or less removed from the society as a whole. The work in Banikoara is more than 80% agriculturally based and it is the largest producer of cotton (the country’s largest export) in Benin. I will be working for the office of the Mayor but will be working closely with an “NGO” that works on sanitation and clean drinking water projects with funding from the Mayor’s Office, to help them with financial management. Additionally, after a meeting at the Mayor’s Office I was informed of some of the secondary projects they would like to see me work on which include working with a women’s group with the production of Shea and moringa, other small garden groups with product diversification, financial management and access to markets, teaching financial literacy classes to about 300-500 community members, hosting a radio show on financial literacy in Barriba (ha!), working with the students to help encourage entrepreneurship through English and business clubs, sensibilizations on the use of clean water and private latrines as well as sanitation practices in bouvettes and more, in other words I have plenty of work if I want it.

I also got to see the house where I will be living in for the next two years, and was able to confirm that I am a lucky participant of the posh corps. I live in a compound with the electricity company- which makes paying my electrical bill pretty simple- but since my neighbor is an important company, I also inherit 2 security guards who protect the property 24 hours a day. They technically are not responsible for my house, but as my house is literally connected to the office of the electrical company, it would probably take more work to actively not guard my house as well, so as long as I remain a good neighbor I think I am set. The house itself is HUGE I have a master bedroom, a guest room, a giant living room space, and a giant kitchen, indoor toilet and…shower!!! So I really have nothing to complain about, except for one detail. In my training I learned I am actually prohibited from getting a goat as a pet as a volunteer, so I was planning on have a “neighbor” with a pet goat instead, but sharing a compound with an electrical company makes this unlikely. As a pet goat was the number 1 thing I talked about before leaving for Benin, this is an unfortunate development but at the moment I am willing to trade the goat for electricity and running water.

My two weeks at post were the first time I wasn’t with Peace Corps staff, thus it was my first opportunity to experience time as it is understood by the Beninoise. I like it. When the people here talk about Americans they always say “time is money” and then usually laugh. I didn’t get why this stuck with them as much as it did until I understood how much time is not money to the Beninoise. My days would usually consist of getting to the office around 9, if it wasn’t raining- if it’s raining you stay home until it stops, whenever that may be- I would work with my host organization in some capacity until around noon, then my work day was over and I would go home to eat lunch, nap and hang out with the family. To the Beninoise, personal relationships are more important and defining than the work you do- as an American, I am going to need to try to bury my type A personality deep inside me if I want to be successful in the community.

At the end of the two weeks, it was time to make the journey back to Porto Novo with a pit stop in Kandi to meet up with the other stagiers in the region to travel back together and to meet the current volunteers serving in the area. After two weeks of almost no English it was nice to see familiar faces and share battle stories over some beers and chili. The next morning we woke up early to take a taxi we prearranged to take us back to Porto Novo, but when the taxi arrived he had another person with him, after 45 minutes and much arguing over the lack of space in the car and the fact that we had paid extra to make sure this didn’t happen he agreed the other man wouldn’t come with us, we felt victorious. That was until we saw the other man giving our driver directions to Porto Novo, not good. There are two ways to get back down south from the north, there is a road that goes through Porto Novo and another that goes through Cotonou, during the rainy season most traffic goes through Porto Novo because the road to Cotonou is in bad shape, our driver didn’t know the road to Porto Novo nor was he interested in looking at the map with us, so we took the bad road. After a long and bumpy ride with one near miss of a traffic accident it was getting dark and we were not near home so we decided to call Peace Corps for further direction as we are not supposed to travel at night. It was decided that we were to stop in Cotonou to be safe, we were excited, this meant we were going to get fancy American food in the big capital city. And that is exactly what we did, a calzone and a bottle of wine later, I was enjoying the company of current volunteers who were in town and happily decompressing after a long day on the road. The next day, after three days of traveling, I finally was back in Porto Novo.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Submerged…err I Mean Immersed

After 5 long weeks here, I thought it was time to reach out to the world before you all thought I had died. In the future I do plan on posting more often but I thought for my first few weeks here it would be best for me to limit my contact with the US in order to focus on my language studies and my integration here. The downside of this is that now after 5 weeks of ups and downs it is hard to accurately chronical my life in Benin.
A common language learning tool used by our language facilitators is to have us describe our family and our home situation, being a master of this in French (with the exception of making up family titles because I actually have no idea how any one is related here) now I will give it a shot here in English. I live in Porto Novo, the capital of Benin, but you wouldn’t know that if you came here. With the exception of the roads being a little crazy to bike on- which is more a reflection of the quality of drivers than the number of people on the road-Porto Novo is a quiet city with a lot of charm. People here are very excited about the white people in their town and greet you often, in Beninese culture it is considered rude to not greet them back, thus a short walk can in reality take forever. The children here also have a song to great the white people- or as they call us here the Yovos- “Yovo Yovo bon soir, ça vabien merci” the song mocks the only greeting the white people who come here say to the locals, and it is more or less true, although I do say bon jour in the morning to change things up a bit.
I live with a family in a modest house that does have electricity and running water as well as an indoor shower room and toilet, so in those regards I am quite privileged. I have my own room, which is a solid critter free concrete space with a mattress on the floor that I cover with a mosquito net, a plastic table and chair, a trunk for my valuables and my trusty water filter- mr. pigglesworth and lamby (yes I did bring childhood stuffed animals but you try moving to a country in Africa no one has heard of for two years) make it home, and they are the only two things in the house I can speak English to, but I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I have to speak to inanimate objects to stay sane-ish, that will probably come once I get to post.
I have a Beninese mom and dad, Lucienne and Jean and a brother Ipoli (I have no idea how to spell his name so I am going by how it sounds, which in the French language means I have almost certainly spelled it wrong). I also live with three “sisters”, Lydia, Amena and Naomie, a fourth “sister” Elodie lives with my grandmother in a different house but the two come over often, as do an abundance of aunts, uncles and cousins- none of which I can keep straight anymore and all of whom quiz me on their names- but at the moment all my mental energy is going to French vocabulary and grammar so learning names has become a task I gave up on within the first few days. In reality, none of them are actually sisters and trying to map out how they are all related has turned out to be a fruitless task with a family tree constructed that looks more like a Tim Burton creation than the kind of tree you think of when diagraming a family from the US. This is due to two cultural differences here. In Beninoise culture many times the children go to live with their aunts, so none of the girls here are actually the children of Jean and Lucienne-I actually don’t know if they have children- the children don’t always stay in the same family home either, for example all of my “sisters” have several sibling all of whom are living with other aunts and uncles.  The other thing that makes this all terribly complicated whendeciphering cousins and aunts and uncles, is that in Beninese culture it is common for men to take more than one wife. Thus families are large and determining where one family begins and another ends, especially for a westerner unaccustomed to families by this design is challenging. So I just refer to every one as an aunt, an uncle, a cousin or sister or brother without any real consideration for their actual relation because there is no way I am figuring this out.
All that being said, I have a wonderful family, I am the first Peace Corps Trainee to live with them, so I am still an exciting thing to them, and I am kind of like the household doll/pet that everyone tries to look after to ensure the white person is carefully attended for. It is sweet, and I am very appreciative for how hard they have tried to make me feel at home. I do feel like I live in a fish bowl here which can get quite tiring. Someone is always coming in my room and inspecting whatever I am doing and all of my things, including my underwear which I hang in my room for privacy, which obviously is an effort in vein, oh well. Even if I am just studying someone will inevitably stand in the doorway and watch me, I never would have imagined watching me study would be an exciting past time but it seems that to the world here, watching a white person do anything is grounds for a spectator sport, so if you plan on visiting me, be forewarned if you pick your nose, a wedgy or do anything mildly embarrassing or something completely normal to you but bizarre for people here, like peeling an orange instead of just eating it like an apple with care to avoid the skin, someone will see you, and document it and it will probably end up on the internet or in a Beninese music video.
I eat well most of the time, living in a country where avocado and mangos are indigenous has been a wonderful for me, and has resulted in the over indulgence of both. Whatever the Peace Corps warned by family about American eating habits has lead them to believe that I should be on a soda, egg, potato, and bread diet which I am ok with minus the expansion of my waist size. When I first got here I was eating lots of fruit, fish and avocado everyday- which I thought was great- but my family and my language facilitator are constantly reminding me that I eat like a baby, and thus my diet has become more and more starchy, carby and err “American” as they try to find ways to coax me to eat more. Ironically, changing my diet in this way has encouraged me to eat even less as I know most if it is doing me no good. As of late, they have also decided to start “treating” me to pork, which is usually cooked to the point that you cannot chew it (like all the meat here, in an effort to kill parasites *I think*, which amazingly they seem unable to do even as they make the food more or less inedible, thus I conclude, short of nuking the food at some point you are probably going to get a parasite, and even then, you will probably get one from your fruits and veggies which peace corps has instructed us to bleach before consuming, yum). Because the pork is cooked well done to just done, it is impossible to cut it or break it apart with your teeth, so you are expected to just plop the whole chunk of meat with all the fat, cartilage skin and hairs that were not singed off in your mouth, make an effort to chew it like a piece of gum before throwing some water back in an effort to force the chunk of pig down your throat all the while hoping you won’t choke or vomit.
Other than the “pork” and the “escargot” here there are few things I actually can complain about food wise, I love all the fish, the food here is the spiciest I have may ever had (a huge plus in my book) and they often cook with delicious dark leafy vegetables, tomatoes, onions and garlic. Unlike back home, the cooking here is also a production; you don’t use frozen food or go to the grocery store and pick out a slab of meat. Instead, youpick out which chicken you want or take a whole fish, you do all the plucking and gutting yourself and sauce is a creation you make each night not something that comes out of a jar. Even the concept of adding spice to a meal requires far more labor; you grind the garlic, onion, or hot pepper you want to add on a stone table top to make your spices. So like everything in life, there are always trade-offs and while I have had to part with some of my preferred tastes of the US,  I have also had the privilege of eating food far fresher than I could afford or chose to labor over back home.
Something I have not acquired a taste for, and am unsure if I ever will is the moonshine here, which my family and in particular my host father has a great love for- I on the other hand do not like the taste of rubbing alcohol or the prospect of going blind. However, declining the moonshine which they claim is good for your health and not insulting my family can be tricky business but I have developed an alternative strategy for avoiding consuming the drink when saying no seems to be out of the question; I accept and “drink” it, but then pretend to take a sip out of my water bottle or can of soda which I then just spit the alcohol back into. I do have to be careful with how I dispose of the alcohol after the fact because they burn trash here and they would have quite the surprise if they tried to burn my soda cans, so I usually empty them outside the grounds of my house before disposing of them. Hopefully I am never found out.
As you can probably tell as I sludge through my likes and dislikes here, I definitely oscillate between enjoying my family and feeling overwhelmed by them. It is hard after living for so living on my own, to move into a very hands on household where I am the common interest. There have been times, especially when I started out and language class was frustrating me, that my family was my haven- but as time wears on and I am becoming more equipped to handle day to day life on my own, their involvement in my daily life and input or in reality their determination of what I will do that day is starting to wear thin. I have felt especially challenged when it comes to balancing the time I spend learning French and carrying out my personal chores with the time I spend bonding with the family.  It is especially hard to balance when they so obviously display their excitement over my participation in the smallest activities like watching the TV with them or keeping them company while they cook.
All but one of my sisters is Christian- and they love to go to church- my first trip to church was a weeknight service that went on for 4 hours, the second was a Sunday service that went on for 8. As a non-religious person and a non Fon or French speaker, these events which I begrudgingly participated in were tiresome and time lost for studying French words I will actually use. Needless to say, I have done everything I can to avoid these trips but not always successfully, as I write this I am clothed in a dress with sleeves modeled after a flying squirrel with giant churches all over it in preparation for a church celebration that will go on all day. As this is day two of the celebration and I already made an appearance yesterday I am hoping that by staying posted up in my room and appearing to be busy (which really isn’t pretending, I haven’t checked email in two weeks, have exams next week and need to do laundry in preparation for leaving for site) they will let me off the hook. When I say go to church, I also think it is worth noting that my family seems to go to a special “catholic” church, because when comparing notes with other volunteers I seem to be the only one who got the special experience. Prayer is not how we think of it in the US, at this special church, it is active and loud, you shout at your demons and shake them out of you, and others help you in the process by making sure you are well shook. Being the delicate white person in the church people took care to not shake me too hard but instead gave me a good rattle to rid me of my demons. To conclude the service, you take your communion, however, it is not how I remember communion the few times I participated in church prior to coming here, instead the priest puts honey on your forehead, of course I made the unfortunate mistake of forgetting the honey was there before putting my motorcycle helmet on to get home.
When I am not “experiencing culture” with my family I am in class. The last five weeks have been intensive language instruction, which has more or less entailed me participating in language class from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and from 8 to noon on Saturday- perhaps all this time in class best explains why I am so reluctant to give up the free time I am afforded. The French instruction, while exhausting, has been extremely effective for me and after 5 weeks I have gone from being able to say hello to having the ability to carry out basic conversations and tasks. The ongoing challenge here is that people here are not actually native French speakers, they all have a local language which is actually far more natural for them, French serves as the go between language for people who don’t speak the same local language. Thus, even when I am speaking French in a textbook fashion, there are frequent misunderstandings which make language learning an ongoing battle of learning the right kind of French.
After being here for about a month, that has felt more like a year there have been plenty of moments I have tried to remember for my blog but having been hooked up to the fire hose of culture and language my brain is a little like mush and I face the challenge of balancing painting an accurate picture of my life to boring you to death with the details. So I will conclude my life au Benin description here.
In two weeks I will be leaving for my post to do an initial assessment for two weeks. I have been posted in the far north by the border of Burkina Faso and Niger, in a city and state called Banikoara. I will have much more to report on once I visit the city but what I know so far is that it is a relatively major city that has a mix of religious backgrounds but is predominately Muslim, the local language there is Bariba and my house does have both electricity and running water as well as a security guard, so on first impressions I have little to complain about.
When I get to post I plan on getting an internet key and thus I will be able to more regularly update my blog which will allow me to keep entries short.The Peace Corps cautions us against posting blogs that come off more like war stories than of the reality of the situation. My goal here is not to glorify my experiences or to paint an only rosy picture but instead to share with you an honest assessment of my personal experience and perceptions. My “war stories” here are not intended to be a criticism of the people or culture but instead an honest description of my personal challenges in overcoming a life far different from what I am accustomed to. In truth, short of a confused stomach and exhaustion both which are expected, I am happy and healthy here. I miss you all greatly but the love and support from all of you back home have kept me going through those moments of self-doubt.