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!


  1. Katie, very refreshing to live an African life through your writings. At least, you have the internet! Is it possible to post pictures of your environment? Snippets of your daily life?

    May be you can indulge yourself in new interests taking advantage of where you are? Astronomy? New types of card or board games? Writing down observations of a simpler way of life? Injustices. Perceived injustices? How are they solved. I could go on. But I wanted to learn how different community expectations, frustrations, and how are they addressed? Do write in... - Anirban

  2. Hey Katie!
    Just found out you were in Benin!! Exciting!!
    Your blog is awesome, loved reading about your experiences :)
    Another friend of mine in Panama for PC and has started around the same time as you, so it's interesting to see the differences/similarities for you two...

    I'm learning French too, but that's because I want to be a diplomat here in Brazil and the admission exam requires French ;) maybe i'll be sent to Benin someday lol

    Good luck and wish you all the best out there!