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!!!


Aunt Loretta said...

Hi Cat ~ loved your newest post. I was especially touched by the story of the girl in school who pulled you up to dance and gave you her contact information. I'm sure she chose you because you are a beautiful person, inside and out and I'm sure see saw that in you. I hope that you do keep in touch with her. Scout is adorable and it is amazing that no matter what you're doing, they do seem to get right in to the mix of things and just lay there. It's a game in my home. Every time I try to make the bed, I have to fight the both of them for it and as soon as I get the sheet on, the two of them on laying dead smack center. As for your scorpion .... got to tell you, that freaks me out. Is there nothing you can do? Does the Peace Corp have any suggestions for it? I've meant to tell you that your host family is lovely. What a beautiful family and the little one, Matthew, is adorable!!! Uncle Mike is working overtime tonight, so I have to get some din din ready so he can take a cat nap (no pun intended) before he heads off to work. Love you millions and millions and will talk to you soon. Be well, God bless ... Aunt Loretta

Maman et Papa said...

Wow! I had to reread your blog a couple of times. So much information and experiences! You are really getting into the groove!

A couple of thoughts: Although this may seem slighted, I believe in some families here in the States, this male thing of not doing anything is also prevalent. With some families, they just lounge around and watch TV expecting to be served hand and foot. The second thought is why women automatically perform things. Maybe if they insist men help out there would not be so much disparity.

As for your voodoo mass – I find it essential to accustom yourself to different ideas which hopefully will reinforce the beliefs and ideals you have set for yourself. So go out and learn some more and share these experiences with us!

As always – we love (to Mars and back) and miss you like crazy. We wish you were here but are happy that you are experiencing so many different things. Be well and God bless!

PS – many thoughts which I would normally write are conveyed when we speak but I do want to mention one thought: Have no fear my dear that you are touching many people out there - even with just a smile! Remember - It's a Wonderful Life!

Sitna said...

Hi, we don't know eachother. I just found your blog while browsing on the net, since I was looking for information on Benin. I have been to Benin once and will come back on December. I will be doing anthropological fieldwork research in Pobe for 18 months. I have enjoyed reading your views and experiences about the people and the country. I think you have been doing very well.
However, I just thought about leaving here a little comment on your ideas about "change". Can you imagine a Beninese coming to NY and trying to change people's mindset? You yourself said something about it with the example of the airport. How do you think people would react? How would you feel about having somebody in NY telling you how wrong is to have women not cooking for their husbands? I bet you everybody would think he/she is crazy! Well, maybe that is the way Beninese people are feeling about foreigners who come all the time to tell them what is "right" to do and what is "wrong". If any change will happen in Benin, it will come from people's own realisation that something is not working in their society and from their deep desire to do things differently. That is the way things have changed in the "West", and that is the way change happens everywhere! However, don't forget that people's notions of what is "right" or what is better for them be might be completely different to yours. Remember: Don't push the river, it flows by itself.

Anonymous said...

Hello you,
How are you? Love the picture of Scout, very cute. As for laundry, well, guess you miss your Snuggles and washer and dryer. It cracked me up in your blog, "there are a lot of Catherines in NY", hehe, ain't that the truth! He might get lost in RVC and wind up at my house, hehe. Unfortunately, we are one Catherine short, miss you buddy! But I think it's wonderful, the things you are doing. Even if you think its small or ineffectual, it makes a difference. Everything has an effect. The bit about the girl's education was VERY interesting. After all of my classes in feminist theory, it is always astounding how gender politics still remains the same. It just rests that women have much of the ways of their culture dictated to them and they ACCEPT it, this of course happens EVERYWHERE! It is great, despite the frustration and difficulty, that you are trying to change this. It's not easy. Hey, if you can make a Little America in Dogbo, bless you. However, America has its flaws, so guess it will be your version of America, rational and lovely. Hehe. Sorry a baby peed on you, kids are always tricky with you, hehe. Also stomach pains, oooh hope you're doing ok buddy?!?!? Well I have to go start on some hw, again, grr. So...From one Catherine in NY to another in Africa, miss ya, luv, ya, and take care of you! Cath

P.S Speaking of packages, ok this is obviously not a surprise, but something should be coming your way. I mailed in around Nov. 6th so guessing 3 weeks. It cost a small fortune to send, honestly, but you're worth it. Oh fyi, this will be one of those packages chock full of American goodness, so you may need a moment. Oh, but not telling you what's inside, silly. It is a bit on the heavy side, weighs about 18 lbs, hence the small fortune to send, just so you know. Wow, this is a long p.s. well miss ya and take care!

Aunt Nancy said...

Hi Catherine,
I need to read your blog again to absorb all the info . Till then... I just opened up this mornings paper and their is a whole section on holiday gift giving. The FIRST item featured is soap made in Benin by the women in Benin, 3% of the profit will go to help improve children's education in Benin! How cool is that?! A year ago I had never even heard of Benin. Do you know anything about this project? They write where I can get the soap so I will pick some up. I send you one so you can tell the women of Benin they, (like you) are making a difference! I'll get back to you after Thanksgiving. I have much to do. All these loud,annoying freeloaders are coming to my house for the day and I have to get ready. We'll all be thinking of you. Happy Thanksgiving in Africa. Be well and be safe.
Love, Aunt Nancy xx