Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Baby it's HOT Outside

With extra training in Porto Novo for 2 weeks and then spending time in Bohicon afterwards for Christmas, December has absolutely flown by. I can't believe that tomorroRemove Formatting from selectionw is NEw Years Eve. I have absolutely no plans whatsoever. Life has been so crazy that since I finally just got back to post I don't particularly feel like hopping in a brush taxi to go to any fetes in porto novo or further south of here with another volunteer. It feels way easier to say I'm coming home in 2010 when it is 2009 already too, so I am looking forward to that!

So anyway, it's back to the latrine and cold bucket shower for me, but air conditioning and running water was fabulous while it lasted. And to be honest, cold bucket showers are pretty much the only thing that ever cools me off any way so I don't mind, especially with chaleur--the hot season-- which is starting now and should continue until the rainy season picks up again in april or so. From where I am standing that seems a long way off. Now that its been several weeks without rain the dust here is becoming worse and worse. A layer of dust covers everything all the time. It just hangs in the air and it is pretty impossible to keep things 100 percent clean: I've stopped trying, really. ANts don't really seem to be a problem in my house most of the time but some second year volunteers told me that it might get bad with the dry season now, and that ants go looking for water. I'll admit when i got back from Bohicon i was disgusted to see that my water jug of clean boiled water was swimming with dead ants (i have NO idea how they got in) but i think it might have been a fluke because it hasn't happened again since. THey don't go for my food though and I never really see them around which is nice, considering that at the volunteers house I was staying in in BOhicon, if you left food out for more than 10 minutes it was swarming with ants and everything has to be really well sealed, double bagged, etc. IT just gets annoying after awhile. I'll stick with my scorpions.

So anyway...Bohicon. Spending Christmas here was definitely harder than Thanksgiving or my birthday and I missed home a lot, but we mostly had fun up in BOhicon fete-ing with the kids around there anyway. One of the volunteers organized this project with her NGO to give out presents to the orphans and less well off kids around her area so over a thousand presents (toys and clothes) were sent from her family in the US to give out. It was a pretty amazing gesture but I had some personal problems with the project and it wasn't really what I was anticipating when I signed up to help out. No one was even wearing a Christmas santa suit and with nothing to connect it to CHristmas in any way I couldn't get over it feeling like we were just a bunch of yovos giving out stuff to kids here for nothing, completely opposite of what we're going for here as peace corps volunteers trying to build self sustainability. Actually it also hadn't slipped by our joking notice when we saw a big santa clause statue in a porto novo supermarché that Santa doesn't really do much to help the yovo image either--white guy, giving stuff out for free. Some of the kids were really grateful, and then some just frustrated me. No sooner had we stepped off the motos than the kids would come up to us starting with their "donne-moi." It drove me crazy. We had every intention of giving these kids something but the minute they asked I just wanted to say no, turn around, and drive away. One of the other volunteers with us was getting frustrated that the kids weren't saying thank you. The kids came up all quiet and shy looking and would take their present and walk away. I'll have to admit, it's nothing like what i imagined of children here before I came. I thought they would be bubbling with personality and happy but they just seemed almost like zombies. The mothers were disheartening as they tried to push their kids up to get the biggest thing even though they didn't know what it would be, and sometimes tried to get second presents. It was bizarrely cut-throat. Eventually we had to keep the mothers outside altogether at one of the fetes. As for the kids and moms not saying thank you...it's going to be hard for me to effectively put my finger on what about that didn't bother me. I mean it did on some level, but on another it felt like a pride issue for them where i might understand where they wouldn't want to say thank you to the white person who came into their village to give their children presents. It's complicated I guess and i danced a fine line at feeling indignant at the lack of appreciation for us being there, and guilt for feeling so indignant at times because I'm not so convinced that what we were doing was so very wonderful to begin with. The volunteer who organized it got really angry when some of the mothers would ask to switch what their kid got because we were just giving out plastic bags with clothes and stuff in it and sometimes a baby would get toddler clothers, or a girl a boys outfit, etc. While I could kind of see where she was coming from since she had put in a lot of effort to organize the events, as had her family in buying and sending presents, I also really saw where the moms were coming from too. SHould they be so incredibly grateful for something we would probably not accept for our own families if the situation were reversed? I don't know...like i said...it was difficult, and i've had a hard time processing it. I'm putting some pictures of it up.

Pictures: Christmas fetes around Bohicon. I'm in the pink and blue boomba on the right.

The pictures with the scary santa clause that makes me think of The Nightmare before Christmas is actually from a party at an orphanage in Porto Novo. That fete was a lot of fun because the kids were animated an happy to see and talk to us. Maybe it was just the orphanage setting that was different because at the orphanage in Bohicon we had fun as well, actually getting to play with the toys with the children. THey were all really happy and fun to be around, and playing jump rope was a big hit for the boys and the girls.

Speaking of the NIghtmare before Christmas...another interesting Beninese tradition... Kids go 'trick-or-treating' for lack of a better word in ordernounce the coming of CHristmas and New Years. One kid gets dressed up in a costume witha creepy mask and goes around witha bunch of other kids singing ind dancing and collecting money from people, and I don't truly understand the significance of it, I just know it is supposed to announce the coming fete. It was pretty interesting. National Voodoo Day is coming up on January 10th so hopefully something fun will happen for that too.
Picture: Christmas 'trick-or-treater'

After leaving Bohicon two other PCVs came down to Dogbo to spend 2 nights chez moi, which was a lot of fun and helped ease the transition to being back here alone after practically a month of constant yovo presence. We actually went one day to visit another volunteer nearby who is right on the Togo border, so we took a little pirogue over the river and walked around Togo for an hour or so. You may not be able to tell from the picture...which looks remarkably like Benin...or from my passport that does not have a TOgo visa...but I was there, and it was fun.

Pictures: On the way to Togo and the Jungle on the other side 'o the border.

THat was the least amt of baggage I've ever taken with me during international travel!!! Well...until next time, and peut etre...next year! Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beaucoup des Bonnes Choses

So the amount of good things that have occured within the last two weeks has frankly been almost overwhelming. I have been back in Porto Novo since December 7th for 2 weeks of additional and more focused training. December 6th I hopped on down to Cotonou to break up the trip a little and meet up with some friends for the night there. Normally you have to check into a hotel in Cotonou for the night which is annoyingly expensive (there is no place in headquarters for volunteers to stay until they finish the new office where they'll have 12 beds for overnights) but since there were so many volunteers from all over the country the country director gave us permission to flood the med unit for the night since no one sick was staying there. That may not sound too exciting, but it meant i got my first HOT shower in about 5 months almost to the day, as well as running water in general, and AIR CONDITIONING. It was the first time in Benin I got to sleep under a sheet and still feel cold, and it was wonderful. That night I even went out with a group of volunteers and found a nice Chinese food restaurant. Cotonou is really like a little bit of heaven and it is truly amazing to me how much more I appreciate stuff like that here now. The morning of my birthday the country director invited all of the volunteers in Cotonou over to her palace of a home for delicious brunch and it was a great time. Plus I got to talk to see all of my friends that i pretty much haven't seen since September. Talking to people and texts from home was equally amazing, especially the fact that my parents had my HS friends over for brunch and passed the phone around so i got to talk to all of them (though you could have spared me the details of the delicious mimosas and belgian waffles you were in the process of eating...i mean really, talk about tact.:)) You'll have no idea ever how happy that made me!

Lots of bonnes choses, n'est pas? Well as if that wasn't enough, Peace Corps has put us up in the Songhai Center in Porto Novo which translates to me having air conditioning, a shower, and toilet bowl, as well as pretty amazing breakfasts and lunches that actually include MEAT for 14 incredible days (which, sadly, are steadily drawing to a close). I've been rooming with one of my friensd who is actually getting her post moved to Porto Novo since her last one wasn't workign out so its pretty exciting that now she'll be relatively closer for visiting purposes. And it has given me the chance to visit my host family. **UPDATE: for anyone interested (I certainly was) there are currently FOURTEEN rabbits (please see post titled, 'the visit, ou bien, the invasion'). Lends credence to the phrase 'breeding like bunnies.' Anywhoo, fêting the b-day with the host fam didn't work out so much do to scheduling which is so wonderfully beninese that I don't mind but I am heading over there for dinner tonight.

Also, I have sitting in my closet here at SOnghai, 11 large packages from home. How I will ever get them with my incredibly overstuffed suitcase onto a moto and into a bush taxi all the way up to Dogbo is utterly beyond me, but it is still pretty exciting--as are the number of fun letters i jsut got handed to me from home ranging from July up through November. So I will write back but it might take a few weeks for me to catch up. Il faut avoir un peu de patience, s'il vous plait, merci! I promise I will write. So Satruday is our last day in Porto Novo, and I am sticking around for a party Saturday morning at an NGO here with children suffering from AIDS ou bien, SIDA en francais.

After I'm heading back up to Dogbo, but only for a night, and then skipping off to Bohicon for Christmas week. With a bunch of other volunteers I'll be going off to visit different orphanages in the Bohicon area to hang out with the kids and organize Christmas fetes for them, handing out presents, etc. and I am really looking forward to it. There are a bunch of people heading up north for Safari as well. Christmas day the NGO that is organizing the fetes with us is throwing the volunteers a party as well so it should be a lot of fun--here's hoping, at least. So I guess that's all for now because this is like being back in summer training where every minute of my life is scheduled and i have to head off to the next session but when i am back in Dogbo, I'll get more regular with posting again!

If I don't post again before...Joyeux Noël, tout le monde!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Just some pictures!!

First you have 2 pictures of the women's group in Kpodaha pounding Moringa into powder and cooking it...then you have the girls at the School in Hoedogli

Progression of thanksgiving dinner...backwards

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An American Holiday in Benin

It feels like so long since I've blogged probably because it has been so long. I was away last week a little for THanksgiving and the week was crazy before I left. Thanksgiving in Benin was better than I could have ever imagined. When I think about it, it might have been one of the best Thanksgivings I ever had simply because it got down to what the holiday was about--the people you spend it with and what being grateful for what you have.

I visited a friend up in a little village called Medengbé first for a day which was definitely interesting. She doesn't have electricity or water, but unlike in Dogbo, she doesn't really have people who can regularly bring her water so we spent a half hour together pulling up water from a well like contraption that holds rainwater so we had enough to cook drink and shower. That was really hard work, and i give her a lot of credit for doing it all the time since everyone in Dogbo laughs at me when i attempt carrying water on my head. Medengbe is about a third of the way up in Benin and in the Collines region (ca veut dire, the hills, en francais). My area in the Kouffo is an endless stretch of flat jungle green foliage as far as tthe eye can see so it was really nice to get to see a little more north where there is actual landscape (and it was a little cooler because of harmattan...mind you when i say cooler that is quite relative, and I was still sweating). Thursday we went to another volunteers house in Camaté to spend the day. Everybody was in charge of bringing something, and I had managed to find some vegetables and apples on my way up in BOhicon, a considerably large regional city (which means we had apple pie!). We were 10 PCVs all together and with a little help sent from home in the form of pumpkin pie spice, stuffing, and cider mix, we all helped in throwing together a Thanksgiving feast I would have never thought possible in Benin. I even defeathered a chicken, which was an interesting experience to say the least. Deborah, the volunteer in Camaté had arranged to put on a thanksgiving pageant for some BEninese friends...she even built a gigantic paper Mayflower and we saved some plucked feathers for Squanto's headdress, because we thought it would be great cross cultural exchange...but we never actually got around to it. We brought our feast over to her NGO there though, and decorated the area with paper turkeys, and shared the meal with some of her Beninese friends ( we did make everyone say what they were thankful for at least). And speaking of which, my thanks to everyone at home who is supporting me here in Benin because it would be impossible without you. It's funny to me because right before I left home, i had several melt-downs and thought there was no way I could leave my friends and family for 2 years. But it has been exactly those people I thought I couldn't leave that have been encouraging me here in thoughts, prayers, letters, packages, etc. WIthout that encouragement, I don't think I would be able to live an ocean away from home, and for that I am eternally grateful. ANyway, afterward we danced the night away until bed. We also split up and played soccer with a team here...they were way better...and the field was right at the foot of one of the collines...it was absolutely beautiful. When i have the patience of a saint, I will come back and post pictures, i promise. ANd to top off my already amazing thanksgiving day, i found out that my dear friend ms. jenn flynn is engaged, so I was on cloud nine! COngrats Jen! I still tear up! What an amazing thing to come home to!!

As great as being with friends for Thanksgiving was, I was more surprised at how amazing coming back to Dogbo was (with the exception of me getting massively sick on the way back down in Bohicon, and let me tell you...being sick on a moto like that is not fun...Especially when u consider that there really aren't public bathrooms here...thank god there was a bank with a bathroom in bohicon). I headed out to the marché to find eggs and was stopped by so many people on the street to say hi and that they hadn't seen me for a few days, how was i doing, etc. It actually really felt like coming home. And walking into my house was great. And then on Saturday I was going to come here to the cyber to blog but for the first time wasn't even in the mood. I ended up staying in my house to help Basil with his ENglish homework and then headed off to a soccer match at one of the schools here with Filomene.

The Monday before THanksgiving I had gone out to this village called Kpodaha to work with a women's group there, teaching them how to incorporate Moringa into their diet. I think it was the perfect village too because they already had moringa growing all around they just didn't use it. I did a lesson on the african food groups with them (its quite different than ours) and asked them where they thought Moringa fit in and they all said within 'restorative foods' but the answer was in all 3 groups. SO when I asked how they used moringa in the community they told me they would use it to cure malaria, ou bien, palludisme, but never incorporated it into their cooking. So Kantos, one of my work partners, and I taught them how to add it to sauce, and how to dry it properly and crush it into powder to be added to bouille (porridge like thing people eat here). It is so incredible for nutritional recuperation, and i know i say that a lot but it is just amazing how well it works. I went back to Kpodaha yesterday to do a soja (soy) cheese formation with the women and they showed me more of the powder they had made after I left. It was really satisfying to see, to say the least. ANd working with them is great because NONE of them call me Yovo. They all say catherine and its gotten to the point that i show up and they are all smiling and happy to see me and work together, and im just as happy as them so it's a lot of fun. What is good about things like moringa and soy cheese is that it incorporates things that the women here are already doing and just adds a healthier more nutritious twist to it so it is easy for them to start doing it. The women were SO excited about the soy cheese that they exclaimed they were all going to be making it for the grand fete (New Years and Christmas).

Monday was also World AIDS Day and I worked with a group of students in one of the CEGs here (secondary school) to go class to class and do short little presentations on HIV/AIDS (VIH/SIDA en français). It started out really great with the younger kids but quickly devolved into absolute chaos with the older niveaus. There is absolutely NO classroom management and when the kids were moud, rude and obnoxious, the teachers did NOTHING to help out). I give a lot of credit to english teacher PCVs because that was my original assignment and I don't think I could have ever done it. I do not have the patience to deal with kids like that all day long. It was really disheartening too because I actually get asked questions like 'If a man has AIDS and his wife doesn't but he sleeps with another girl, can the girl get AIDS?' I can't make people see the seriousness of AIDS, i can just provide some info and advice, and perhaps, condoms when I can find them, so I wished that the kids would take it seriously. I guess i have a lot of tile to work on it. ANyway, time is up for today so I've got to run. HEading down to Porto Novo this weekend for a few weeks so that should be really exciting. I'll be back next week. Enjoy the cold weather and CHristmas preparations!!!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

And Now Back to our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Pictures: First is laundry, beninese style. Can you spot Scout? Clearly she is very helpful to the process. It is good to know that some things don't change across the atlantic ocean...one of them being a cat's seemingly innate ability to find what you are using or working on without fail, and lie down on top of it. The next picture I really posted just for Sally and Charlie...She LOVES the bag you gave me and is all over it ALL the time.

I know it's been awhile since I posted. Pretty much because every time I touched a computer or had plans to go to the cyber, the power went out, there was no internet, or I was doubled over with stomach pain, tightly clutching my bottle of pepto bismol. Je suis desolée. At any rate, this promises to be a lengthy post as a result.

Anywhoo, so much has happened in the past 2 weeks I have to think for a minute where to begin. Randomly, I've discovered that one should never underestimate the power of even only 20 minutes of equatorial sun to render one's skin a lovely shade of red. But anyway, everyone here is pretty excited that Barak Obama won, though it is extremely difficult to explain effectively that he is in fact American and not African. From what I can gleam from BBC, the parties in Kenya are crazy and someone even wrote a play about Obama.

I decided the other week that my life here is decidedly plain...which is just to say that despite how exotic it might sound in my blog, and despite the scorpions, and voodoo, I still have to wake up every morning, go to work, figure out what I am going to eat for the day, and deal with all the normal everyday stuff like laundry (admittedly a more difficult process here) and cleaning. Maybe it's just because I am used to the livestock roaming around and the kids on the street in their underwear, but I couldn't help but think that life here isn't so very different from home. And then I was sitting with my work partner who was so excited that Obama won, that he told me he was going to come to the US, to New York to visit me when I left. He told me he'd get off the plane and ask for Catherine and that would be that. I looked at him trying to gauge whether or not he was being entirely serious and sad laughingly that he'd have to be more specific because there were a lot of Catherine's in NY. He then said, alright, he'd ask for catherine, daughter of --insert my parent's names-- (actually that's a lie...he meant daughter of my father--sorry mom-because its still patriarchal enough here to ask that way), who had lived in Benin. I looked at him blankly for a minute again thinking, yeahhhhhhhh...still going to need to be more specific, and told him as much. "Ah!! Bonne?" he asked with delighted surprise. And then I realized that I had been wrong. Life here in so many ways could not be any more different from home. I was going to say something to him and then I thought...how could I even BEGIN to describe a place like New York City? Our airport shops likely have more commodities available than the capital city of Benin. How could I possibly explain the vastness and, for the large part, absolute frivolousness of our supermarkets? How could I say that people will pay 5 dollars for a cup of coffee at starbucks when that translates to over 2,500CFA and an entire pineapple costs 75CFA? At that moment life here couldn't have felt any more different.

Pictures: First you have Filomene and Basil, the kids who help me around my house with different things and bring me water. In photos the Beninese do not smile. And a lot of the time they don't look at the camera either so they aren't unhappy or anything...that's just the way it is. Next you have me pouring the water I've been carrying on my head into my container in my house. I know the picture isn't great but having a Beninese person take your picture is like asking my mom to...you never know what you're going to get (Love you, mom!).

Despite that, in my opinion after living here for over 4 months now, the availability of things is pretty good too. In a lot of cases, when I've asked my parents for something from home, usually within a week or 2 I have found the item in a marché or in my trips to Cotonou. OK--no, you aren't garaunteed anything like walking into a supermarket at home, and things circulate each marché day so you'll never know what you'll find, but honestly, at this point that is half the fun of marché day. And while when I first arrived Cotonou didn't phase me, and I would have been horrified at the small amount of things available in Dogbo in comparison to home, now going to Cotonou is an indescribably exciting trip that keeps me happy for days, and I don't see a lack of things in DOgbo so much as I look for potential in what there is already. Plus ordinary things fro home make me ridiculously happy here. I can't even open more than one care package a day because I get overwhelmed by the stuff insided. Maybe you think I'm being dramatic, but ask my post mate--I am dead serious. Packages usually come in groups with the way Peace Corps does mail and it drives people crazy here that I don't just dive in (though fortunately, LYNN, there aren't people who strip the packing tape from my packages and send me threatening notes with them to open it). My supervisor came up from Cotonou to visit my post and NGO and see how things are going and brought me three packages on thursday. I still have one to open tonight after I finish making dinner because I spill the contents onto the floor, survey the loot, and usually have this overwhelmed grin on my face as I look through stuff over and over again. And then I can't possibly imagine being able to process more American goodness, and so I put the stuff away and open another one when i need a little dose of happy. Tuna probably wouldn't phase me at home but it's pretty incredible the difference it makes here.

Pictures: First is of our little Halloween fete in Azové. We have a butterfly, Lance Armstrong, emo kid, marathon runner, beninese school child, dorothy, and Venus to name a few here. And then, self explanatory...is the largest scorpion in my house to date (about 3 inches)
Yesterday was really great. 4 of us went out with a man who does a lot of work with Peace Corps to a village near Azové, called Hoedogli, to talk to a group of girls and boys about the importance of girls education. It was pretty amazing to see the number of people who came, and the talk actually went really well with a lot of input from the boys and the girls. Sexual harassement and abuse is a very big problem here. It happens in every school, for countless girls. Professors look for more wives among their students (lots of polygamy here), they bribe them with grades, failing girls if they refuse them some times. SO the situation is really hard for girls here, and it was good to get the kids to talk openly about it, as well as to see the different discourse and ideas between the girls and the boys in the room. The boys would raise their hands and accuse the girls of going to the professors houses, or dressing in a way that would provoke the professors into that behavior. ANd yes, that DOES happen, but they fail to realize that a lot of the time the girls here see no other choice because they want good grades, or know that the professor might pay for their education if their parents can't, or buy them things, or take care of them, etc. And as the adult and the instructor, it should be the professors who send the girls away or offer to help them at school if they say that what they want is tutoring. At any rate, there are also plenty of times when it is the teacher who is the aggressor and it is interesting to note that the boys in the classroom didn't seem to think that was nearly as important as those girls behaving negatively. Other things as a barrier to female education that we talked about is the uneven division of household labor. And I am going to restrain myself here as I have some pretty negative things to say about the male contribution--or, essentially, lack thereof--to life in the developing world as it is the women who shoulder so much of the burden for family life. Unless there are no girls in the family, for the most part, it is only girls who will carry water on their heads for the family, or draw water from wells when there aren't even proper pumps. It is the girls who will cook, and carry babies on their backs with a pagne all day long (And the women will bring their babies out to the field in a pagne the same way, swinging them around to their side so they can breast feed while still hacking away at the fields the whole time.), and who will do all the sweeping, and selling things in the marché. You'll never see a girl out playing soccer like you do the young boys, or the men who are seemingly always available for meetings smack in the middle of the work day, or sitting in groups at the local 'video club' or playing a game kind of like mancala that I still haven't figured out yet. ANyway, before getting too into it, since it just makes my blood boil a little, the kids were astounded to find out that 2 of the volunteers that were with us who are a young married couple share household responsibility and that HE cooks more than her. All the boys said that they believed in the necessity to help out more--to practice this not only in their own household when they are older but to inform their parents as well. Meanwhile the girls accused the boys of saying that in the room with us there, but that it would never happen, and so it was really interesting when it was all over to see that lunch (the village provided us with rice and oranges) was being doled out by only the girls. So we challenged them and shouted out asking why the boys who had just said they agree it is unfair that girls do all the work, weren't helping. Well, boy, did they jump up to grab plates. It is just frustrating because it is that exactly that makes me realize how difficult it is to change the way people think--letting the girls do the work is just so innate for them, that I don't even think they always realize it.
And I struggle with that a lot here, and even at home before I came here, deciding whether or not I even should. Some days I wake up, gun-ho, let's do this. ANd some days I am overwhelmed by the task at hand. What will it take to change things. I'm not talking about converting Benin to a little America. THere are starkly different cultural values between us and I have a lot of respect for Benin's culture. I am talking more about just the idea of justice for women in this society, for the educational system here, and the economic situation. SOme days the problems just seem so deeply rooted, and so impossible to rectify or even improve slightly. And then I have the moments that keep me here, those times when I realize that if everyone felt that way nothing would change. Maybe changing the mindsets of people will take decades, generations, and maybe I won't ever even see it in my lifetime for a village like Hoedogli...but does that make not trying, not even planting the seed for change, a justifiable alternative? I can not in good conscience think so. I have to believe that no matter how small a difference I make here, if I make any difference at all, even for one person, it is something. I have to think that it is a step and that one day things will change. Because that thinking that it is impossible is an overwhelmingly sinking feeling that bears down on me sometimes, and is just self-defeating and a counterproductive mindset. ANd as frustrated as i can get here on some days, and as much as I can let that mentality seep in when I am feeling overwhelmed by the culture, or homesick, I really do believe that what I am doing here is worthwhile. At the end of the talk with the girls, they got up to sing and dance for us and one of the girls pulled me in to dance (i have a video I will try to get up next time of it). Before I left she handed me a slip of paper with her name and contact info on it. I don't know why she pulled me up to dance or gave me her contact, because she didn't for any one else. I can't explain it really eloquently or anything, but that was my moment yesterday--it meant a lot to me. As frustrated as I got in the discussion at some of the things said and what they indicated of the mindsets of Hoedogli, the fact that she did that was the positive I took away from the afternoon, and helped reassurre me that yes, I need to be here now.

Dad, you'll be happy to know that I went to mass on Sunday. Perhaps you'll be less thrilled to learn that I opted for going to a Voodoo mass with my friend Filo, rather than the Catholic mass. But don't worry, I am not converting. It was actually really interesting to see. THe mass is usually in Aja though they translated some of it into french specially for me and my post mate which was made pretty clear as they stared at us yovos in our boombas during the french parts. Basically they told a story of an evil sorceror, and that voodoo protects you. One woman fell into a stupor that I could only liken to what you would think of at big chruch revivals... It was like she was possessed--so they took her away. The role of the Kola nut was also intriguing. You go up to receive some smooshed Kola paste on your forehead, and then you get another white substance (don't know what it is) drawn on your cheek. THey are meant to purify your skin. They also hand out Kola nuts to everyone (kind of like communion). You take it with your left hand and hold onto it until they tell you, then you kneel down (dirt floors, an you have to remove your shoes as a sign of respect too), and whisper your hopes and wishes to the kola nut. It was a really interesting moment and hearing this very low murmer from everyones' prayers during the mass was strangely symphonic. There is an altar for the Kola nuts, and they collect everyone's Kola nuts after the prayer and bring it to the altar.
I also went to a Soja cheese formation on Wednesday in Lokossa at an orphanage there. One of the second year volunteers was showing 2 of us first years, and the women who run the orphanage, the process for turning soy beans into protein filled cheese for the kids there. I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn't woken up with severe stomach pain, but it was still really interesting to learn. And the orphanage was really in a beautiful spot. Everyone sleeps on mats on the floors in 4 large rooms--2 for boys and 2 for girls. When I say it is beautiful, it's a difficult disconnect, because if you saw it you might be horrified compared to an orphanage in the US. One volunteer's mother went to visit a few years back and was so concerned that there weren't even latrines (they were using the field) that she came back to the states and found funding so that they now have several nice latrines. But really, what one NEEDS is there, and it is quite nice. The kids weren't there in the morning since there was school, except or a little baby who peed on me, and one girl who had class in the afternoon. But they came around lunch time and were really sweet and very polite. The woman who opened the orphanage was herself an orphan and raised by a priest. She wanted to help kids who had the same lot as her and so she had bought the land, and went on ahead ...there are about 50 kids there now, and more who are at sleep away schools, coming back on the weekends only. I guess what I found sad was the kids who were abandoned. One child's mother died shortly after birth and the father abandoned the baby. He had several other wivesq and none of them claimed responsibility for her. One girl there, who I thought was maybe 7 or 8 was actually 12, and just incredibly stunted from malnutrition when she was younger. SHe has sickle cell anemia, and when she lacked the nurtrients she needed she used to start to eat dirt, which led to her having worms chronically. Now in the orphanage though, she is on a special diet, and being well taken care of by the directrice and her staff. You could tell that it really was like a family there, and that the people running it were fully vested in what was going to happen with these children (a striking contrast to many of the teachers in Benin, who are in it only for money--kids do not at all come first in the Beninese school system). But it is also interesting to see the contrast in the orphanage at Lokossa, opened and run by a Beninese woman, versus the Dogbo orphanage, run and sponsored by a German ONG. For example, the orphanage here is constructing a bakery right now to teach kids who don't show promise in school a usable trade. There is just a lot more mney available to them.
Okay...Well while I could go on and tell you about the women's group in Kpodaha I visited last friday, my hands are getting tired, and since I am visiting them tomorrow to do Moringa Oliferi sensibilizations, I will update you on that next time. Hope all is well stateside with Thanksgiving preparations!!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Soooo...I changed the setting on the blog so that I could moderate comments because technically if people say something negative about peace corps, or benin, or just things like that I could be in trouble. As it is however, not only did that apparently cause quite the confusion...but it was annoying for me to individually approve each comment so I changed it back to the way it was before the confusion. Sorry about that!

Also...my post mate called me from Cotonou today to tell my that I had 6 wonderful packages waiting for me. How I will ever get them to Dogbo since she can't carry all 6 I am still working out but I am so excited, so thank you!!! Catch you next week!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Good God It's Hot

Picture is of my host family: The first is Maman and Matthieu with me and the other is --Top from left to right Maman, Papa, Matthias, Lawrence, Germaine, and then Marianne and Matthieu in front.

"I took a deep breath and told myself that a woman anywhere on earth can understand another woman on a market day...yet however I might pretend I was their neighbor, they knew better. I was pale and wide-eyed as a fish. A fish in the dust of a market place, trying to swim, while all the other women calmly breathed in that atmosphere of overripe fruit, dried meat, sweat, spices, infusing their lives with powers I feared."

-Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

I came across this passage while reading the other day and thought it pretty adequately described the exasperation I'd been feeling the past few weeks of yovoing, cultural divide, etc. Actually, the poisonwood bible is pretty great--wonderfully written and with so many things I am relating to or feeling so if you have the time I highly recommend reading it. And in case you want to better understand a little how yovo-ing can get really old really fast, i am attaching a link to a youtube video of it that my most wonderful aunt loretta found in August and I kept forgetting to post it earlier.

To the left we have some random pet monkeys in Lobogo and then Me with Matthieu and below is a shot from Grand Popo.
It is hot here. It's so hot that my earrings are sticking to the sweat on my face whenever I move my head too quickly,which is every few seconds, pretty much. The short rainy season is coming to an end with the end of October and the petite chaleur is starting, much to my discomfort and dismay. November is supposed to be obnoxiously hot before Harmattan begins around december. Harmattan is the desert dust winds coming down from the north so we only catch a bit of it in Dogbo, though it is supposed to be the coolest time of year here before the long hot season starts in February...supposedly. But it has been in the 90s here and humid and while I tell myself maybe if I don't move it won't be so bad, i still sweat when I am absolutely still. It is so uncomfortable, especially when I have to boil water for an hour, which is pretty much every other day or cook every night since the stove heats up my kitchen.

Scorpions: So I am up to 16 now and have posted a picture of one of the first live ones I found for your viewing pleasure. What disturbed me about the one today--other than there being a scorpion in my house to begin with--is that I found it for the first time on my floor which totally caught me off guard because they are practically the same color and that can just get dangerous I think. Good thing I always wear shoes. My post mate is going to Cotonou for a few days so I will be dog sitting for her (stay tuned...that should make for an interesting post since he came over today to test the waters and Scout was not at all pleased) so I hope that no scorpions get him...or me. I found the biggest one in my house so far (three inches) the other day and some of the smallest this week. They say the smaller a scorpion is the more dangerous so I can't tell if I'd rather the plethora of small scorpions be a nest of hatchlings or just the more dangerous kind...kind of a coin toss i guess...i seem to lose either way.

Friday was Halloween and I thought it was as good as a lost cause in terms of celebrating here in Benin, but all the volunteers in the Mono Couffo got together in Azove for a regional meeting and then we actually stayed over with the PVCs there to have a part-ay. One volunteer who's dad sends her a package pretty much every week had accumulated so much candy it was ridiculous...there was even candy corn. My body can't handle the processed sugar anymore it feels like though..a few bites and I was ready to keel over as were most of the PCVs. Dennis, resident chef, made us all chili with cornbread and one girl came down from North Benin with a pumpkin which she carved into a Jack-o-lantern. Topped off with a bonfire and an hour-long conversation with patty...the night was quite amazing. (You are awesome for calling to, cath...all I needed was a cup of tea and it was like being at the brew :) )

So last night was a culinary masterpiece...eggplant burgers. Grated eggplant with onions and pepper all mixed and sauteed. Add an egg and throw in some gari (manioc flour) and make into patties to brown in a skillet...i even used my last 2 very chère potatoes to make french fries. I can't believe how delicious it turned out. And its amazingness was magnified by giving me an opportunity to use the itty bitty bottle of heinz ketchup i managed to stumble upon in Cotonou.

Here are some pictures of chez moi. The lavendar color room is my 'salon.' It is about 18ft long by 14 ft wide...pretty big for a volunteer house considering the ones I've seen around here. I appear to be lucky to have 3 rooms because most I've seen around here only have 2; The 2 back rooms are my 'kitchen' and bedroom and each are half the size of the salon. Before I painted it was cement walls the same color as the floor making it quite difficult to find scorpions.

Yesterday when I got back from Azove I met up with a woman who works in the Mairie (Mayor's office) here. THe training for last year's health volunteers was held in Dogbo and she hosted a PCT for the summer so she is familiar with Peace COrps and so nice to me. She is the president of a women's group in Majdre (and arrondissement of Dogbo) and took me out to see the group and what kind of work they've been doing. I'm hoping to start going to their meetings and working with them. They do a lot of things with manioc and corn and I think perhaps it might be a good place to start moringa cultivation though I will have to wait and spend more time with them first before I can actually tell. Her village is really beautiful too, and the people went crazy when I practiced the little bits of Aja I've picked up so far. It's actually kind of motivating me to practice more but I just find aja so difficult.

On a random note, I think I will open a boite postale in Dogbo for 2009 since I think it might be more efficient than waiting for Peace Corps to handle my packages and mail. I talked to the French couple who live here and they say they've never had a problem getting packages out of the PTT here, and it costs less to get them than what peace corps charges us, so. There is no point paying the 10.000CFA to do it for the last 2 months of this year but I think it will be worthwhile for next year to split it with my post mate. Well that is all for now. I have to head over to pick up the puppy for what is sure to be an interesting 2 days. Bonne chance à moi. à la prochaine!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Can't believe i forgot about ms. scout!

That's all i have time for...took a half hour to load this picture so I will post more next week. (there is another longer post right below)

It's Not Easy Being La Blanche

Picture: Top : Sorry A. Annie / right: Doing PACA (participatory analysis for community action) au village during stage (training)...it's like 'where's waldo'. / below: why yes...that IS a giant falice in the sacred forest! / Me and Jeremy at Swear-In in a bad self taken picture.

On our way back from Cotonou last Monday in an overcrowded crappy brush taxi with an angry driver at night and lightning in the distance (in the direction in which we were heading) rendering our trip contrary to nearly every peace corps recommendation for volunteer in-country travel...

"Michelle: If this stretch of road right here is really messed up we're probably just outside of Lokossa (about a half hour away from Dogbo).

Me: OR...we could be in any number of places seeing as how you just described about 90 percent of the roadways in Benin.
Michelle: true"

So I went to Cotonou last Monday to vote, which is why I did not blog, and it was fabulous. It's funny because Cotonou didn't really phase me when we first arrived here. I thought it was dirty, scary, and overwhelming. But Cotonou on Monday was like a magical place in which we did not have nearly enough time to putter around since it took forever to get there in our taxi and we had to leave by 5 if we wanted even a hope of getting back before dark. I met up with my papa because lord knows to top that debacle of a weekend off, i discovered that they took my phone charger with them by mistake since they have the same phone as me so I had to borrow my neighbor's. At least he works in Cotonou otherwise I don't know whe I would have gotten it back. We went to the Festival des glaces for lunch where I had a cheeseburger (with unidentified cheese...but it was SOOO good) and actual icecream which has been missing since June. Michelle and I hit up several of the supermarchés in which I was able to find a number of things i haven't seen since june, the highlight of which was definitely soy sauce and raisons. I also found apples!!! 200CFA each and worth every CFA. That is only like 50 cents US but it is pretty chère here considering a whole pineapple is about 75CFA. I bought a bag of 6 and have been enjoying them quite a bit. I even made a itty bitty apple crisp with one of them the other night. Which reminds me. I've finally consumed enough tomato paste to be able to construct a dutch oven so I have been a baking fiend. I use it to cope with bad days and it is marvelous. (below is dutch oven and me at the python temple of ouidah)

And speaking of bad days. I have been in a kind of funk for the past 2 weeks or so, and I am getting frustrated by it. I have no patience for being called yovo or hearing that god-forsaken song. ANd it has been happening a lot lately...or maybe it is not more than usual but just that my tolerance is finished. I live here. I am not a tourist...and so it really is hard to realize that no matter how long you are here or how bien integre you are you will ALWAYS and FOREVER be an outsider. It's like moving to a place like swan's island, maine...if you're not born there you will always be 'from away.' And a lot of kids have been walking up to me saying 'donnes d'argent' (give money). I actually freaked out last week and screamed down the street at them at the top of my lungs so that everyone thought i was probably a crazy Yovo "Je ne suis pas une banque!!" (I am not a bank!). And then I hopped into the taxi yesterday to go to Lokossa for high speed internet to try to upload pictures (the cyber didn't open till 5 on sunday and didn't work when it did) and a kid in the back of the taxi asks me if I live near Klaus...who is apparently a German volunteer that runs the orphanage in Dogbo. I just turned to the kid and said in french..."actually...i don't know all of the white people in Benin." And I don't know Klaus...i just know of him. Race isn't really taboo to talk about here like it is in the U.S. I mean...as soon as i reject a Beninese man's offer for coffee or marraige i have to hear 'are you racist?' So it isn't difficult to just talk about black and white. With the U.S. elections coming up I've also been really frustrated. Everyone keeps asking who I am voting for which I will not say, and everyone here is really into the elections even though they have no idea what they are talking about for the most part. My host family didn't even know the name of the republican candidate, and most people I talk to don't seem to have anything insightful to add to a discussion beyond 'John McCain is old, and Obama is young and black.' So whenever I tell people that I don't want to say who I voted for they look at me and say something along the lines of "oh you would never vote for a black person. You're white...you will vote for le blanc." In the taxi home from cotonou when one guy started saying how McCain is old i told him that didn't mean he was a bad candidate and that age and experience bring a lot of good things to a campaign and he automatically assumed that I voted for him. I can't help but think I'm in Africa with all of YOU black people so why do you assume that I would never vote for Obama. It has just been a lot of black versus white forced on me in recent weeks and it is wearing quite thin. THere has also been a LARGE group of Dutch people in and out of Dogbo for the last 2 weeks checking up on their NGO projects here. The group of students with them organized a whole sporting even on Saturday so I went over to the school to watch some of the soccer matches and even my friend here, Chanceline, saw all of the Dutch people and turned to me and said 'Look...it's your people. You should go talk to them." I don't know all of the dutch people...and they are not MY people. They are from an entirely different country. And i find it as annoying as when people talk about Africa like it is a monolithic lump...or the Middle East. Every country here is markedly different despite large similarities. It is sooooo annoying. So yeah...i've had more and more days where I've felt like shutting myself away and pretending I am not here. Which is probably why I made regular bread, teriyaki stir fry (with my newly found soy sauce), and papya bread last thursday. IT might also just be that I've never gone so long without seeing family and friends though, and that fall is my favorite season at home and i am acutely aware as I sit in my house constantly sweating, that I am missing it. And for Owen...no there is nothing like Halloween here with the exception of the presence of Voodoo. But I do have a halloween part/ VAC regional meeting for volunteers in Azové on Friday and need to think of a costume. ANy ideas? What are you going as?
This is a picture of all of us in the buses one day during training...not much unlike a bush taxi. Actually...bush taxis are usually more crowded.

Benin is also, i have decided, not overly animal friendly. On my way out to a small village for a sensibilization a few weeks ago, I saw a little dog that had been killed and was hanging from a bar suspended over the little dirt road. It was for a voodoo ceremony, my homologue told me, to avoid bad luck. I cringed. Then I was in the marché last week one evening buying ginger for my teriyaki sauce when all of a sudden this group of kids screamed and came running with sticks. I had no idea what was going on and then i saw this huge rat run by me and jump onto one of the legs of a table. I felt really bad because he was clearly a gonner and he actually looked like he knew it was coming because it dug its claws in and had no where to go. THe kids starting beating it with sticks until it died. Everyone in the marché thought i was ridiculous because I had stopped to stare dumbfounded, having never have seen that before and the woman had been holding out my change for several seconds before I even noticed. They all laughed at me.
Pictures are taking forever here so I hope that you appreciate them :). I really want to get up some of my house, the scorpions, and my host fam so I hope I have time because I have an aja lesson at 18 heures aka...6pm which is in a half an hour. Anywhoo. That is all for the writing part for now. Be back soon. A la prochaine!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I'll come back tomorrow to post for real and attempt the pictures again. don't even ask...it is just internet in benin.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Visit...ou bien, The Invasion

So I am going to start by mentioning--and A. Annie may want to skip on down to the next paragraph-- that in the upper right hand corner of the cyber right now there is a daddy longlegs who is wrapping up a fly he caught to eat. Normally that might gross me out but now I think it is actually kind of interesting.

Ok, so anyway, my host family came to visit this weekend from Saturday into Sunday. Seeing as how this is Benin, I didn't really have a say in the matter...they just told me they were coming and that was that. So it was probably good that my friend couldn't end up coming over on Friday night like we planned. Friday was our marché day so some people came up to Dogbo for the day and we had a Chinese food night. It was delicious. We made a Korean BBC type pulled meat that we wrapped up in itty bitty lettuce leaves we found with shredded carrot and pepper, and onion (One of the people comes from Lokossa where there is a lot more stuff available all the time so she brought the veggies with her). Then we made fried rice (AMAZING) and egg drop soup. For dessert we found these peanuty balls of goodness in the marché. But my one friend who I haven't seen since swear in and who lives kind of far was going to come spend the night and we had tentative plans but never confirmed them and then I never heard from her. Turns out her reseau (cell phone reception) was cut in her village for days so she couldn't get in touch with me. We have the same reseau, GloBenin, but c'est le vie in Benin I suppose. And like I said, since then I had to get ready for my host fam, it ended up working out okay.

Anyone who knows me and my lack of patience for little kids and anal retentive penchant for cleaning and neatness would be surprised to see me still sane after the 27 hours (yes i counted) that I was reunited with my host family in Dogbo. Now...my house is tiny. I mean, it is perfectly fine for me and Scout (who, by the way, Aunt Loretta is quite insulted by you undermining her femininity by calling her scott, though she sends a meow back to pork and beans) but it was not big enough for my host fam. 8 people and a cat (and all sorts of innumerable creepy crawlies) in a itty bitty house with no running water or bathroom, or furniture, and no tv (please note...i don't care that I don't have a tv but my host family was HORRIFIED...and bored, since they missed their poorly french-dubbed Spanish soap operas). I am actually going to backtrack and preface this tale with the disclaimer that I LOVE my host family. THey are amazing people who treated me very well for the 9 weeks I stayed with them, and I cried when I left for Dogbo. That being said, pray let me continue.

They all poured into the house sending Scout scampering and began unloading their things as my blood pressure began to rise slightly. All of a sudden my maman let out a PIERCING scream and ran across the room "SCORPION...SCORPION...LE CHAT!" Scout found a scorpion and was trying to kill it, so I had to run over and squash it and maman did not stop freaking out until she saw it was dead. (ps--scorpion count is up to 9 and much to my dismay, i've learned that they CAN indeed move quite quickly when they want to and will start stabbing with their tail when they feel threatened). That being done, EVERY time Marianne or Matthieu touched the wall maman would scream at them to not touch the wall because they might get stung. And she never calmed down, searching endlessly for the entire time on all my walls and doorways for scorpions. Then she had to go to the bathroom so I grabbed my keys and took her around to the latrine. She took one look at it, shook her head, and wouldn't use it...nor did she want the rest of the family to...I won't go into details as to the alternative. Then we found a lizard in my house and maman screamed again until Germaine swatted it into shock with my little broom and balayed it out of the house (balayer is ther french verb to sweep). I guess I was surprised, and surprisingly indignant as to how my host family looked down on Dogbo and the people there, their fellow countrymen. I consider myself really lucky to be posted here because Dogbo actually has relatively a lot to offer compared to some people out in the teeny villages (ie--i am using internet right now) but they couldn't get over how so many of the houses were made from mud, and the latrines, and the lack of reputable restaurants, or that I didn't have a tv. I was actually getting kind of annoyed because they just kept putting down everything here, which was difficult to hear since I lived here. Plus I couldn't help but think that I myself come from the US and have way more than my host family and if i can live in Dogbo, they should be able to spend one night without complaining. I guess it made me think a lot because I have people here that I am friends with now and just because they don't have as much money doesn't mean that they are any less good people. Maman got really angry that Papa said one girl who visited me during their stay was in the same grade as her son because she was so much older. She told him not to dare compare her children to that girl. On an aside a lot of the kids here are really behind in school because there just isn't money to go every year even though it is like the equiv. of forty bucks in the USA...and this girl in particular, who befriended the volunteer before me and went to the Peace Corps girls empowermentcamp, CampGlo, started late and is repeating 6ieme (equivelant to first grade) because she refused sexual harassement by her male professor, which is an ever present problem in the schools here for girls, and so he failed her. SO i was really annoyed by my maman's criticizing her without even knowing her. Maman was also horrified because she was vodun, a practicer of voodoo (her dad has 10 wives and a little over 40 children) and the fam was surprised how much voodoo there is in Dogbo; and the fetisher outside of my house. I want to learn all about voodoo and their rituals, beliefs, etc. because it is such an integral part of Beninese culture, and I guess I was kind of disheartened to see how much my host family turned their noses up at it. It kind of reinforced for me the chasm there is between the capital Porto Novo, and the towns, and villages outside of the cities. And I never even considered Dogbo to be in the brush or uncivilized by any means.

So then I had to start taking things and hiding them from from the constant touching, bending and other interdit activities inflicted by my little host brother. And Maman was grossed out by the moss I have growing in my back area. I tried to clean it up but there is really no point until a little into the dry season because it just keeps growing with a vengeance. SO she had Germaine go out and find a brick for her to stand on for her bucket shower...Even though she was wearing flip flops. But maman made me a beautiful dress and Boomba (a traditional beninese outfit, which is wicked comfortable) with really pretty tissue (fabric) which is so nice of her. And she brought absolutely amazing food. Pork and yummy rice for lunch and the most delicious chicken I've had in country. My house actually smelled like at home when my mom is cooking.

So we went to bed because there was really nothing left to do as my host family pointed out (I for one, turned on my flashlight and read Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan for a bit), and I could hear them moving around every few hours because Matthieu had a fever. They commandeered this huge ugly thing from the menusier to sleep on even though they came here knowing i didn't have beds and they had originally said they would be sleeping on mats. They didn't want to sleep on the floor because of scorpions but I couldn't help think that scorpions LIKE wood and could climb up the legs of that ridiculous wooden monstrosity in the middle of the night if they wanted to to sting you. I finally convinced papa to take it back with him to Porto Novo because i did NOT want it in my house and had no use for it...i already commandeered stuff from the menusier. My maman started yelling at him for cluttering up my salon. They kind of remind me of Sally FIeld and Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire with the dad acting like a little kid so that the mom always has to clean up the mess and gets really angry a lot.

Anyway, The next morning I made them crepes which they really enjoyed, and all seemed to be okay. And then the other shoe dropped. My papa went out for awhile with the kids without telling me and came back suddenly hurrying me out back to show me how to use the intense insecticide he bought for me for the scorpions (i sprayed it this afternoon, which is why I've left my house for a few hours). While he was explaining it to me Marianne repeatedly called my named until I would pay attention. "Caterine...viens ici...regarde. Les Lapins." What? i thought as I went into the house and saw a huge rabbit hopping around my living room. Oh my god--I blurted that out in English. "Papa a acheté un lapin?" (Papa bought a rabbit?) I asked from my kitchen area. "NO" she cried enthusiastically and papa walked up behind me and said, "huit." I think my blood pressure topped off at that moment and i walked into my living room to see 3 huge rabbits and 5 little baby bunnies hopping around all over peeing and pooping on my floor (which i washed with bleach water as soon as they left). My maman was LIVID and started yelling at him and then he went out and left the rabbits there with all of us. I had to lock scout in my room and frankly wished I could have locked myself in there too because all my patience was spent. I was about ready for them to leave...actually I had been counting the hours since I woke up. But they finally left...at 4:45 (even though they said they were leaving at 11...that is a cliché benin moment and why i NEVER leave my house without a book anymore because you spend so much time just waiting for meetings to start, etc.). The taxi pulled away with all the rabbits, the extra furniture, and all my family and I couldn't help but think Dieu Merci, as I walked to the marché with my post mate to vent and buy some pineapple and fanmilk to make me feel better.
So I really do love my host family...i just hope that the next time i see them it is in Porto Novo.

Well, it is Columbus Day and you're all enjoying your days off and I should be at Caumsett state Park with my mom for our annual walk, so it is a little sad today, which is why i am treating myself to an ungodly amt of internet time. I really miss apples here too...and my mom's apple sauce, and spiced cider. I haven't ever seen apples in Dogbo and the one time I saw them in Lokosso they were over 100CFA for one little one.

I have however, greatly enjoyed getting cheap and delicious pineapple, and am now an expert at cutting it quickly and effectively. By the time I leave I want to be really good at cutting coconut because my coconut girl in the marché always laughs at me that I ask her to do it for me. A random beninese thing that I never mentioned is that sphagetti sandwhiches are ever present here...yes...carbs wrapped in carbs. It is a really interesting concept.

Another random Beninese thing..homosexuality is illegal here. You could be jailed for a rumor of being gay...but at the same time it is totally normal for guys to walk down the street holding hands or hugging each other because it means they are BEST friends. Way less normal, is to see a heterosexual couple holding hands because it is culturally inappropriate. So I officially think this makes up for the short post last time. Hope everyone and everything at home is well. Happy Columbus Day!!!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

You Know You've Been in Africa for Awhile When...

1. You can remember with perfect clarity and slight nostalgia the last time you used an actual toilet. (Consequently...it was one full month ago tomorrow--September 8th before I left my host family house. And I remember because I unfortunately had considerable gastrointestinal distress that day and spent a lot time there.)

2. You actually make a pro/con list between scorpions, spiders, and cockroaches that comes down on the side of spiders. (I know A. Annie knows what I'm talking about here)

So anyway, I got to go out 'au village' in Dogbo today to see the ongoing agricultural irrigation project that my NGO, GRADID, has been working on. They have been paired with a Belgian NGO (I think that the name was Propos), and I met the man (Peter) who has been living here for the past 4 years who was working for them. The village was really beautiful and definitely what I pictured when I thought of Africa...small mud houses in the middle of the brush. It was really fun to hang out with the people there for the day and see their village and fields. They served us rice with chicken and the most delicious pate rouge I've had in country since coming here when we were done. Okay? I'm going to try to explain...Benin is split into 12 departments and I live in the Couffo Department. Each Department is split into Communes, and Dogbo is the commune where I live...then Communes are split even further into Arrondissements, and then villages. So the village I went to today while part of Dogbo, could not have been more different from the Dogbo where I live--Dogbo proper, if that makes sense. OK...Sorry this was so short? I will write more next time...promise.

PS--scorpion tally is up to 6. Bring on the lavender

Monday, September 29, 2008

Where to Begin?

A lot has happened since the last time I blogged but then I sit down and can't remember all the things I wanted to say. I guess a fun starter is that I saw this pig being slaughtered the other day which was really disturbing. It was at the end of the road by my house and the thing was tied up on a table. A man pulled him to the edge of the table so its head hung off over a bucket and just stabbed him in the throat but it was squealing so loud it was a little too intense for me.

I've also had a bad week with bugs. Cockroaches are officially ruining my favorite time of the day--night time bucket shower under starlight before bed--with their constant presence just outside of my house. Better out then in though I guess...not that that even applies because I still get them in my house. On the bright side, Scout caught, killed, and ate her first roach the other day, reassuring me that she is indeed a savvy investment. I never really imagined getting to a point where I would prefer having spiders in my house...or hey, even roaches sound good after I found 2 scorpions on my wall the other day. I killed them toute suite, and had to bat scout away from them. I also painted so hopefully that will help me be able to see them more easily because they really blended with the cement walls before and I was lucky I noticed. I took a picture, and I found high speed internet in Lokossa when I went to the bank so I will bring my camera next time I go and upload my pictures.

Last monday I went to Lokossa for the bank which was the first time I went out and got a bush taxi for myself--I was pretty happy. The chauffer told me it would cost me 3,000CFA and I told him that was ridiculous and knew the real price, and that I wouldn't pay more than 400CFA for the half hour trip, and he conceded. This is one yovo that trick won't work with. Lokossa is a really nice town and it has a lot of things available there. I even found an eggplant which I used for an eggplant parm-type dish, minus the cheese naturally. It was really amazing. I've also mastered the art of making garlic bread in my little skillet so it was quite the Italian feast. I need to find a baking pan so that I can complete the makings of my little dutch oven.

So my house is finally coming along. I painted all the rooms--I should mention that everyone in Dogbo thinks I am crazy because I am a woman and I painted ALL by myself. I had my homologue and menusier come by just to see me in the middle of painting and congratulate me on my painting, my neighbors and people in the marché laugh at me, received looks of shock and awe elsewhere, and even my zem driver who dropped me off with the big bucket of paint at my house asked me 'You're going to paint? Toi meme? (you yourself?)' So, yay for cross cultural exchange and showing that at home this is entirely normal. I also made curtains for my 'living room' and my menusier is steadily working on the furniture so hopefully soon I can officially stop living out of my suitcases as I have been since July 1--THAT will be glorious. And I also moved my bed so now when it rains I won't wake up in the middle of the night to water dripping on my leg. I had my menusier make this table with a hole cut in it so that I can place a bowl in it so I was able to create a sort of pseudo-bathroom counter/sink area which makes me really happy. I fill it with water from my garbage can-o-water in the morning and use it for the day to wash my hands and face. THe next day I'll usually use the water for rinsing out other things, starting laundry, etc. You get really good at being resourceful with water here. It will be strange, I think, to come home and be able to turn on a tap and have as much water as I want whenever I want it--for showers too, or to not have to use filtered and boiled water to even brush my teeth, and I wonder if I'll ever really be comfortable with it again. I love showers, and dishwashers, and washing machines. But me, my dishes, and my clothes are clean here after I wash them, and now I know how little water it takes to do that. I think I have disappointed my petite, Basil (the kid who goes and gets me water every week for 25CFA a basine--it takes four basines to fill up my big garbage can) and this other girl who always comes to visit named Filomene because I like to do my laundry myself. The volunteer before me used to pay them to do her laundry and they always ask to do mine but the truth is that I like doing laundry. And even if I didn't I don't like other people touching my dirty clothes so I would probably do it anyway. Here's the thing...there's something really satisfying to having dirty clothes, putting some effort and soap into it, and getting clean, good smelling clothes when you are done. I think it's ironic because we build things to make our lives 'easier' at home but in a way they complicate things too. For example, laundry takes me a wicked long time...but when I'm done I'm spent and my arms are really tired. At home it would take a lot less time to toss a load in the machine, but then I'd have to use that time at the gym doing arm exercises instead to achieve the same result--what's the point. This is like the ultimate multitasking. And slightly random, I got a fan: Amazing.

Now that that is coming along I feel like I can explore Dogbo more and get out to meet more people. The people around my area are all starting to saluer me more and call me by my name, etc. which is really nice. But I haven't spent much time off of the Goudron or pavé (the two main roads in Dogbo that are paved) and need to start seeing more of the town on the terre rouge (red earth--non paved roads, which comprise most of dogbo).

So on my way to the marché yesterday I got a phone call from the French doctor who lives in Dogbo and works at Hopital St. Camille at the end of my street. She has been here for a year and will be leaving in June. Her husband is a professor at the CEG (school) here and they have two little adorable boys. Anyway she invited me and my postmate over for lunch with her fam and the French laboratory technician, who has already been here 3 years and leaving in 2 months. They are with the French NGO Fidesco. It was a lot of fun and we had lasagna (with a cream type sauce--no cheese) with salad (really just lettuce with a light vinagrette) which was absolutely amazing. It tasted so delicious and familiar. On a random note related to that, I found green peppers with my veggie mama at the last marche day and bought 2 even though they are pretty darn expensive and was able to make egg salad which tasted fabulous. So I felt so happy to be able to hang out in the presence of other yovos yesterday afternoon that I actually started to feel guilty about it. I realized that there is a definite yovo solidarity kind of thing that happens here. When you see another yovo on the street in a town like Dogbo(I mean to say not in the capital or Cotonou, or tourist spots like grand popo and park pendjari) you stop and talk to them and it is entirely clear that what brought you to stopping is that you are both white and 'what the heck are you doing here' is going through both your heads. But I couldn't help but think when I got home last night that why should that--spending time with other yovos--make my day? Isn't it counter to what I am trying to achieve here? But the more I thought about it the more I came to realize it wasn't just that they were yovos that mattered, it was that we share a pretty common culture. You can say Europe is a different culture from the U.S. all you want but we share some pretty basic western values and behaviors that are markedly different from Beninese culture. I can talk to a French man who is already married and it is completely normal--there's no chance that it will turn into a sketchy marriage proposal or anything like that. I can saluer him in the street and shake his hand and not worry about a leering look or that he won't let go of my hand for an innappropriately long period of time. And I can play with their kids who are bubbling with personality and not worry about them asking me for everything on my person--which is also a problem with women here too (il faut donner -you must give-...insert chosen item here) I get asked for anything from my earrings, ponytail holder, pants, bandana, etc. ANd maybe you'd think....well geez it's a ponytail holder, just give it to them it's no big deal. But the problem is in the precedent you set in doing that and the image of the yovo that you put in peoples' heads. So i never actually give them anything because I'd never see the end of it. So I realized that it is that kind of stuff that I miss and clung too when I was with the French family. We could just hang out for a few hours in the afternoon in a social situation with norms that were completely normal and familiar to me and it felt refreshing. I also met a Dutch couple who is working with an ONG here in Dogbo for 3 years already with another 2 ahead who are really nice and I hope to get to spend some time with as well. The woman works with my homologue a lot on different projects so hopefully we will be able to collaborate sometimes.

On another note...i don't know if there are more Albinos here or if they just stand out more here because, well...clearly...but I see a lot of Albinos walking around Benin--more than I ever noticed in the US. I would think Africa would not be the place to be if you lack pigment in your skin. ANd it is interesting because I heard on BBC in July that witch doctors in Tanzania were encouraging the murder of Albinos to use their parts for prosperity, luck et les choses comme ça. Good thing that hasn't happened here. I still have to check out the voodoo areas in my marche. They have some pretty funky stuff. ALright, this post is quite long now and I am going to end it for now. à la prochaine. Love, and miss you all!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

So I can't believe I've already been in Dogbo for 2 weeks...and I can't believe it's only been 2 weeks at the same time. Time is funny like that here. My house still is really rudimentary because I haven't really had the money to paint or anything but Peace COrps finally paid us so tomorrow I am taking the taxi to Lakossa to meet up with 2 volunteers there and go to the bank. Finally I will be able to get a fan which I think will significantly boost my quality of life here...or at least just my overall happiness.

On a completely random note entirely unrelated to anything 'My Heart Will Go On' is playing right now in this Cyber on a loop and I think it is funny because the last time I experienced that was on my last night in Shanghai at the all vegetarian tofu restaurant I was in and I had the exact same reaction then as now, which is the first time it plays I think 'Oh nice, I haven't heard this in a long time' and by the second or twentieth I want to break the speakers. I do NOT understand the fascination of Celine Dion here but I guess now and then it is nice to hear familiar music.

So things are going pretty well here. I am starting to find my niche and still finding new stuff evey day which I am sure will be the case for the next 2 years, actually. I have started carrying a notebook around with me so I can write down peoples names and Adja words as I come across them and it is really great because kids especially respond really well when you take the time to learn their names because no one really does. So i stop and talk with them now and they have started to call me Catherine as I walk by instead of Yovo, which is really nice...and sometimes they cadeau me with oranges (a cadeau is the french for present and is kind of used as a verb here). Some days it is a struggle to get myself to venture out of my house. I can hide away for the morning and pretend I'm not an ocean away from my friends and family in Benin where hardly anyone speaks English (though I did find a Nigerian clock vendor in the marché who spêaks English and it was SO weird to talk to someone from here not in French) but it is nice when I finally get out for the day and talk to people. It is just sometimes overwhelming because you can never just walk down the street...you have to stop and saluer (greet) everyone otherwise you are seen as rude and it just takes forever and we come from this culture of 'get to where you need to be and do what you need to do ASAP' so sometimes I have to stop and calm myself and tell myself that stopping to talk to this person is not going to totally throw off my day. It is afterall part of what I was looking for in doing this--that person to person connection. I do however mostly brush off men entirely because I have ZERO tolerance for the forceful in your face 'madame ou madamoiselle?' and telling me you love me or asking for my phone number after talking for 2 seconds. And often when you tell them off they pull out the 'What...are you racist?' card and all I can really think is...'yeah because the number one destination for racist yovos is Africa'...that makes sense.

So in addition to getting harassed like that yesterday afternoon in particular, I also had a machete swung at my by a village fou. There are three Fous (crazies) in Dogbo and I have so far come across 2 of them. One crawls around on his hands and legs but belly up all day and the other is just a little old man who harasses me at least a few times a week, yesterday being the worst with the machete. To make up for it I guess in some cosmic sense, I got cadeaued with limes when I went out to find them for mexican night. 2 other volunteers came up to Dogbo for our marché day and stayed for dinner so we bought some miscellaneous meat (though judging from the carcass I am pretty sure it was a cow), and had like a mexican meat with pico de gallo (cabbage with tomatoes and limes, piment, etc) and our own refried bean (sorta) invention. It was delicious and so nice to eat actual meat since my protein intake here is usually eggs or beans. It is just hard to go out and get and cook chicken and meat for one person because marche day is only every 5 days and there really isn't storage. I think my post mate and I might meet up a few times a month to split chicken or something. We didn't make tortillas because we didn't have flour and we did't find avocados in the marché yesterday so no guacamole either but it was still just an amazing night. It's hard to describe stuff like that because the littlest things here start to make you so happy that wouldn't even phase you at home so I feel like some of the things I describe here are sounding really boring but they are like the highlight of my life here for the week. LIke finding avocados in the marché last week had me flying on cloud nine for days but at home it's just whatever...go to the 24 hour grocery store and buy some avocados if you want, big whoop. ANd I was unpacking some care package food that also probably wouldn't even phase me at home like tuna and chicken and it is like gold here. I actually stared at it for quite a bit and feel like I am hording it because one day I will break down and need to eat Western food. I'm trying to get over it and actually opened one of them the other day...Delish. This morning I actually made crepes just pour moi and they were AMAZING and reminded me of being home because my little house smelled like when my dad makes them. ANd i feel I am actually cooking now because my menusier finished my amazing kitchen table and shelves so I actually have room to move around and cook and put my stuff. The computers here are so old that there are no USB ports to even attempt uploading pics so I have to figure something out. Well I am actually out of time and i have no more money to buy credit here until I go to the bank so I will write more some time this week...when it is open here since it closes for reposé and les choses comme ca. à la prochaine!