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!!!