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 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 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 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 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! 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!