Wednesday, January 13, 2010

C'est Fini

It’s ironic: A month ago already I was on my way to Cotonou for a PC conference when I saw 4 dead bodies on the side of the road during the 3 hour trip from Dogbo; 3 were in a car accident, and the 4th in a moto accident. I was really shaken up and was going to write a post about all the traffic accidents I’d been seeing lately and the reality of traveling around Benin. Ultimately I decided against that because I knew that my parents would be coming to visit in a month and I was nervous enough for them that I did not want to make them more nervous than they already were in traveling to Benin.

Have you ever seen a dead body? After accidents like that, they lay unnaturally on the ground, bent and broken. I remember talking to random volunteers in Tanzania, and reading testimonials about service in Africa that all said after some time spent here, one comes to see and really understand that death is everywhere and just a part of existence. But after a year and a half of serving here, I don’t really see that at all. The way I see death here is unnatural; unexpected, and so often unnecessary.

In Kandi in early November, I saw a small child’s body covered with a pagne, just his small feet sticking out from underneath. His broken bike was a few feet ahead of him and a crowd had already formed. Nearly every time I traveled in the past 3 months I saw a large camion or car completely overturned on the side of the road. Roads here only fit 2 cars across, and wind circuitously so that if the brush is high, one can’t see around the bend in advance. Drivers cut into the opposing lane to pass slow cars and camions and sometimes it is the last thing that they will ever do. People here seem to think that what happens while driving is a less in their own power than it is willed by the grace of god, thereby relieving themselves of much of the responsibility of safety and of power over their own lives.

I was coming back to Dogbo with Michelle in late November and saw an awful accident on the side of the road; a man’s skull bashed open upon the road, blood pooling out beside him. I never knew before that blood could be so vividly bright and red, even when against blacktop pavement: It almost looked fake to me. His skin was scraped away on his leg to reveal raw pink flesh—I remember thinking that it was such a striking contrast to the brown of his skin. My eyes lingered on it. His moto was fallen over on the side of the road and people had begun to gather palm reeds to cover his body. I cried when I got home, but again, I didn’t tell my parents about it that night when they called.

There was a quote by Ernest Hemingway that I read during college: “To live in Africa, you must know what it is to die in Africa.” I remember thinking then that there was something so exotic, maybe even romantically so, about that idea. But I can not say that I truly understood it until now. I will never forget the first body that I saw cast off on the side of the road after an accident in Porto Novo when I was still a trainee two summers ago. It caught my breath and I squeezed myself over the person sitting next to me, pushing off of my toes in the trou trou bus trying to see out the window. I think it was the first dead body I had ever seen outside of wakes and funerals. And I understand what Hemingway means now. I know what it is to live here in Benin: And in order to do that for the past year and a half, I’d tucked away that dead body and all the others to the back corners of my mind and didn’t think of them anymore.

In July, for the first time in a long while, I was put face to face again with Hemingway’s idea when a car drove into my from behind while I was riding on a moto. Knowing what it meant to be here and the reality of traveling around, I had to decide whether or not I wanted to continue doing it. I struggled for weeks to push it to the back of my mind, to get on a moto again and feel comfortable being here. But in the end I did it and I have no regrets about it. The time I’ve spent in Benin from July until now has held some of my hardest struggles and personal challenges, and it has also held some of my happiest and most rewarding moments during all of my Peace Corps service. I am amazed to see how far I have come in the past 6 months and what I have accomplished here.

Unfortunately, the day after I came down to Cotonou last month, again I was in an accident where this time, a moto drove directly into me from behind as I was getting onto another moto. I was knocked off of my feet and my helmet, shoe, and glasses flew into the road. I braced myself against whatever might be behind me (I was on a main street), but fortunately no other cars or motos came since I’d fallen at the side of the road. After a few seconds of shock that this actually could have happened again, I got up and hopped over to the sidewalk to call Peace Corps to come and get me. I was very bruised and cut up, and needed stitches, but I am okay. For the third time in the last 10 months, I was extremely lucky to walk away with so few injuries compared to what could have happened. I’m not going to play ‘what if’ with the thousands of minute ways that instant could have played out differently. The fact is that I am lucky. I know that.

My trip to Mali planned for a week later--Christmas and New Years--was cancelled since it was a trek in Dogon country and my injuries were prohibitive in terms of hiking. But like I wrote before, I was given the opportunity to realize how excellent and supportive my friends here are of me by their coming to keep me company in the med unit here (and hold down the fort with air conditioning, our own fridge, and a pretty shnazzy tv in sick room 1) for the holidays.

I waited for about a month to make my decision to leave. I wanted to heal and spend the holiday season here with my friends. I didn’t want my pain or the prospect of spending Christmas in NY to impact my decision, and besides, Christmas at home probably wouldn’t have felt happy at all given everything that happened anyway. But after a lot of reflection and consideration, I have made the very difficult decision to end my Peace Corps service in Benin. It is hard to think that I have so much little time left here anyway, but I can’t stay just to prove the point that I can either. I think had I left in July I would have regretted it. But now I know that I can stay here. I know that I can get back on a moto and readjust to my life here and all that that entails, and I know that I can succeed. I’ve done it already. I know that I can be happy here. Having realized all that, I choose not to do it again. I’ve had a marvelous experience in Benin but for me it just feels like my time here is over.

Packing up the life that I built for myself here was very difficult. Saying goodbye to Scout, to my volunteer friends, and to the friends and colleagues I have made in Dogbo is painful. And I think that saying goodbye to my host-family, who have supported me and really been my family throughout my time here, and not knowing if or when I will see them again, will be agonizing. Coming home to a place where I don’t have a job and to a place that hasn’t really been my home in 18 months is terrifying, but it does not diminish that I think I am making the decision that is best for me at this time.

I might update in the weeks that I get home with photos, etc. but this will be my last blog entry written in Benin. I want to thank everyone that has supported me so much throughout my service in Benin. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share my experiences in this remarkable country with you, and I know that I have been blessed to have your support. Certainly it would have been difficult if not impossible, for me to make it here without your phone calls, letters, packages, and blog comments. I hope that I was able to keep you entertained from time to time. So a thousand times, thank you!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Still Looking for that Last Minute Christmas Gift?

Look no further.

Click on the following link to donate to Peace Corps Benin's 2010 Camp GLOW. GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World (Les filles guident notre monde) and is held annually in Porto Novo by Southern volunteers. About 50 girls from across Southern Benin are invited to participate in a week-long escape from their daily lives at home. Camp GLOW emphasizes the importance of staying in school for young girls and gives them an opportunity to learn about their bodies, finances, be introduced to computers for the first time etc.

I went straight to camp Glow after coming back to Benin last June and it was a pretty amazing week spent with these girls. Probably the most awesome thing to me was seeing these girls finally just get an opportunity to act their age and goof off with each other. Their brothers might get a opportunity to go out and play soccer with an old messed up ball. But at home, girls are cleaning, cooking, carrying their little siblings around on their backs all day, and often don't even have the time to study for school, never mind play. At first it was clear that they weren't even really sure how to and they were shy with each other. But by the end of the week they had all become friends and free time was no longer filled with awkward standing.

Last years camp was funded by PLAN, an international ONG. This year PLAN is unnable to fund the Camp and so we're asking for donations from home to help make this incredible event possible through the PCPP--peace corps partnership program. Please consider donating to this amazing cause. Really, even $5 helps, and if all of our families donate a little, it will go a long way to making this project a success. I'm including a link and instructions in case the link doesn't work. If you were going to send me anything, please consider doing this instead...i really don't need anything anyway. I appreciate your generosity especially given that it is the holiday season and we aren't in the best of financial times. Merry Christmas everyone.


Directions in case links don't work
1. go to and click on "Donations"
2. at this point, you can search by my last name, "Hurst", OR click on "view all volunteer projects" on the right side of the page
3. you can then search under "Benin" or "Michigan" (my home state)
4. click on the Camp GLOW PCPP. They can then read a short description of the project, see how much of the total has been raised, and make a donation.

Remember, all donations are tax deductible! Thank you everyone, and happy holidays!

Infanticide...Merry Christmas

Look at Scout...isn't she cute. I took these pictures to emphasize her pudgy belly pleine pleine with kittens. 2 Weekends ago I was in Lokossa working on my world map with Michelle. I had to go to Cotonou on Sunday...I'd just like to say that i didn't want to come to cotonou. Not at all, actually. Peace Corps asked me to come down for training review and to begin planning next year. I didn't feel comfortable traveling in Benin with all of the fetes coming which implicitly means lots of alcohol added into the mix of already terrible drivers. I even said that to michelle before leaving her house.

I went back to Dogbo (entirely opposite direction) first to check on Scout who was so so pregnant I thought she'd pop any day. SHe was still pregnant on Sunday and I left, planning to be back on Tuesday. For reasons that I'm not going to get into now, I didn't make it back Tuesday, but i found out from Kristin that Scout gave birth to 3 mouse-like cute little kittens under my bed. I had confirmation that they were all doing well on Thursday when someone checked in on them. I left cotonou Saturday for the sole purpose of making sure they were all okay and giving them to Basil to look after. But when I walked into my house, it swiftly became apparent that something was wrong. Scout ran right up to me, while Kristin told me she didn't leave her kittens at first when she walked in. Scout was clamoring for attention and pretty obviously distressed. As it turns out, there wasn't a single kitten in my house. Scout was so stressed out being in the house that she ate them all. There wasn't a trace of them...and there is no way in or out of my house for them. So feline infanticide. Have a holly jolly christmas. I am at least grateful that scout herself is okay because I would have been terribly upset if something had happened to her. She didn't let me out of a 6 inch range from her the entire 3 days that I was home. I guess in a way, it is also good that I never got to see the probably would have been more upsetting had I seen them before she ate them. Anyways, who knew cats do that? you learn something new every day.

It's Beginning to Feel a Lot like Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone! It is hard for me to believe that it is already December 24th...the date has certainly snuck up on me. Experiencing Christmas this second time around has been a very different experience than last year. I remember last year being asked by a fellow volunteer what I was doing to remember the Christmas season and I had told her nothing because I wanted to forget it was the Holidays altogether. Being away from home last year for the first time ever was fairly difficult for me and I found any reminders of what I was missing to be miserable. I didn't really enjoy Christmas day meme at all. THis year though I found myself getting really excited for Christmas. I started playing music about a month ago and took out all the decorations and cards i received last year to decorate my house. Plus i had a holiday crafts session--benin edition, to see how i could use the things in my marches to "spruce" up (haha) my holiday season in hot hot benin. Pictures included for your viewing pleasure.

painted winter scene on a calabash half

Calabash snowman! Hammered nails into the 3 halves to make holes and tied them together with string. Made the hat out of tissu scraps and a cotton ball, and the scarf was a tissu piece

My christmas wreath made out of tissu scraps tied around a manipulated coat hanger (idea courtesy of Mrs. Walsh's 4th grade activities). Topped off with ribbon and an ornament that Aunt Nancy wrapped my present with last year

cards that i got last year

advent wreath constructed entirely of computer paper that i colored laboriously. Every sunday i taped on a new paper flame.

lamp decorated with some of the ornaments that Aunt Annie sent me last year

I forgot to take pictures of the nativity that aunt Mary sent last year and the mini tree that my neighbor sent me, but oh well...there are some of the highlights.
I have to say I am really grateful to be spending the holiday season here with some of my closest friends. Being in Benin really has altered my understanding of family and what it means to be there for people. I might be an ocean away from home of birth, but I still get to spend Christmas with the family that I've found here and for that I am extremely lucky.

Just last evening my mom and dad’s 2 christmas boxes came in and so did my 2 thanksgiving packages so it is looking like we are going to have a pretty spectacular meal by Beninese standards. I have to say that I will miss that. Opening a box of gingerbread cookie mix probably would never phase me at home to any degree but I opened it here and everyone in the bureau with me now is RIDICULOUSLY excited to make gingerbread cookies tomorrow. Plus I received lots of ziplock bags that you can snip the ends off to make icing bags to decorate.

So like I said, December has been crazy. For my birthday Angelina and Michelle came over on the friday before to make dinner with me and just hang out. We had mexican and listened to Christmas music and watched the Muppet Christmas Carol and the Nightmare before Christmas. The next day we got up early and went to Hoedogli to do Kantos's annual talk about girls staying in school and gender issues in Benin as compared to the US. The taxi ride to Azove was chock full of harassement and then we were SWARMED when we got to Azove by the zems wanting to take us to Hoedogli. That might have been the scariest zem ride of all of my time in BEnin--barring the zem ride that landed me on the hood of a car in JUly. My driver took off first down the narrow dirt (but for all intents and purposes sand) road to Hoedogli. It was covered with people walking to and from Azove's marche and the sand kept making the zem wobble, which always makes me nervous. I thought my zem was going exceptionally fast so i told him to slow down again and again and he didn't listen. Then all of a sudden angelina and Michelle both passed me on their motos and my driver became indignant saying "tu vois?" (you see?) and sped up to beat them. THen it became a contest of idiots to see who could pass the other and Michelle Angelina and I were all screaming at our zems to slow down because they were being dangerous and we were nervous. When we finally got to Houedogli we were all shaken up and it kind of tainted our mood for the talk and the rest of the day.

Girls talk in Houedogli

Then on my birthday meme, Kristin came over, bearing mozzarella that she had brought up from Cotonou the day before and kept in my "cool bag" to keep it slightly cooler than normal temps in Benin. We made delicious calzones and watched Pearl Harbor in the spirit of the day.


With the World Map a week later, and being in Cotonou since then, December is practically over and soon we'll be ringing in 2010! Unbelievable. Well, Anyways, i hope that everyone has a very merry christmas tomorrow with their families--I know I will. Hope you all get what you want. Me? I have eggnog in a can sent from the USA...what more could one ask for?

World Map 2

The weekend after my birthday I went back to Lokossa to follow up on the world map with Michelle. Once again it went amazingly and was so much fun to hang out with the kids. It went much quicker than we thought it would with the painting and was much more rewarding this time to see it get filled in little by little. We thought the black background would really make it pop. IT still isn't finished--we have to outline countries and write all of their names and oceans and stuff in French, etc. That will probably take awhile, plus we're on the search for teeny tiny sharpies to do it. But I'm posting up additional pictures for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

Charlie doing his compass

Almost done!

Me painting

Dieu donnait painting


Willie, emion, georgie, and 2 other kids

Michelle and all of the little camera monsters


Kids goofing off

Janvier 2 and Marcellin painting

Frederick being silly

Janvier, marcellin, and michelle

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Mali Update

Michelle, Angelina, Heidi, Sarah, Claire, and I are slated to leave the day after Christmas for Ougadougou in Burkina Faso for a night, before heading onward to Mali. We're planning on going to Djenne to see the mud mosque there before heading to Mopti to begin a trek of Dogon Country through new years. Due to recent kidnappings and growing threat to tourists in Northern Mali, especially the timbuktu area, Peace Corps is urging caution for travel there. Timbuktu is now off limits and Mopti was discouraged as well, though now that has been changed. So far we are still planning on going on our trip as are 2 other groups of Benin PCVs--the guide we have has worked with Benin PCVs in the past--took Kate and a group of TEFL volunteers through Dogon Country last year and got really good reviews. There is Peace COrps in Mali and they are not on standfast or consolidated or anything like that, so I'm hoping it remains okay. I'm attaching articles regarding the issues for anyone who is interested and will keep you updated.

French Kidnapping of November 2009

Large Group Kidnapping Jan 2009

Update re: January Kidnapping--Murder of British National

US Arming Mali to Fight North Africa Al-Qaeda Branch

Monday, November 30, 2009

My thoughts and prayers go out to the So-Youn family and to the Peace Corps Morocco community as they mourn the death of one of their volunteers.