Thursday, January 8, 2009

Resolutions and Changes pour la Nouvelle Année

Resolution 1: Actually remember to put on sunscreen when leaving the house on a regular basis

Resolution 2: Do not catch amoebas or any other gastrointestinal distress-inducing parasites (*note—this may be too late. I guess we’ll see when my MIF kit comes back, but if I ingested them in 2008 I am not counting their unpleasant manifestation against this year)

Resolution 3: Be more patient in waiting for mango season to come

Resolution 4: Limit fanmilk consumption to 2 per week (if possible)

But seriously, I’ve been taking the start of the new year to try to redefine my role with my ONG (NGO in French). So for the first 3 months at post, we weren’t really supposed to be ‘working’ per se. We were supposed to be focusing on community integration which would theoretically facilitate our work here in the long term. No use jumping in blind in our new communities when we didn’t have the trust and respect of community members (not that I am entirely convinced that 3 months of twiddling around here accomplishes that either, or that at the end of the two years I will have even achieved that seeing as how I am still called yovo by a majority of the community that does not live on my street. I’m pretty sure that even if I lived here for years and years, I would always be seen as an outsider). So instead of turning in our quarterly report for the first 3 months, Peace Corps had us do an ‘etude de milieu’—community study—in which we went around our villages and towns and found out all different information on the social, religious, and political (local and traditional leaders, etc.) norms, as well as info on the schools in our communities, water and electricity situations, medical facilities, etc.

I wouldn’t exactly say that I did no work since coming to Dogbo, since I tend to be a chronic overachiever and have severe problems with not working (most volunteers are the same and also have started going out and doing activities, though not big projects within their neighbourhoods as well). But my work in the first 3 months was not really so much with my host country partner organization. I’m fortunate enough that one of the Peace Corps facilitators who worked in training health volunteers during summer training lives a half an hour away from me in Lokossa and I have been able to go out and do a lot of activities with him. It has been great because he actually understands volunteers and what our role in our communities is supposed to be (NOT a source of money, but rather a technical asset), and how hard it is operating under the conditions we are in. It is with him that I have gone out and done my sensibilizations on moringa and making soy cheese in Kpodaha and talked to the girls at the school in Hoedogli, or visiting the orphanage in Lokossa, etc. He translates for me between French and Aja with the women who can’t speak French and actually has convinced them to call me ‘Caterine’ (the “th” sound apparently does not exist here) instead of yovo. All in all, going out to villages with him is largely what kept me sane in my first 3 months. I think we might even start up French tutoring together, because while I can function perfectly fine in French here now, I definitely am not fluent and would like to take advantage of Peace Corps willingness to pay for a tutor for your first year of service.

But in the meantime, the time I spent with my ONG the first three months I found utterly stressful and kind of morale-killing. All volunteers in Benin (I think what has surprised me most about Peace Corps is how radically different it is run from country to country) are partnered with a ‘homologue’ or ‘work partner’ who is a host country national of your community (and normally, in the case of health volunteers, who works with your ONG or health center). Their role is supposed to be collaborative and supportive of your work in your community. Since they are already supposed to have contacts within the community they are supposed to be able to help you get going with your work, arrange meetings and activities, help with translation when necessary, etc. My homologue, for the first three months anyway (hopefully it will change now), has pretty much only made me want to tear my hair out (which is bad, since weekly Larium medication for malaria in addition to its penchant for inducing psychotic effects and dreams actually makes my hair fall out in considerable quantity already).

I found that he usually just toted me around with him to villages to see what he was already doing kind of as his token yovo. I don’t think he respects me fully as a volunteer or as a woman (just a vibe I get from little things he says like I should do this or that with the secretary for the ONG since she is a woman too). He never let me talk when we went out to village because I don’t really speak Aja beyond the greetings. Also, he calls me yovo to people all of the time even though I have told him countless times to refer to me as madame (mademoiselle, which he has also been known to refer to me as in a room full of men, is just an invitation to unwanted male attention and marriage proposals…Hence, the wedding band I wear here) and scold him publicly when he does call me yovo now. And as much as I thought ‘maybe it is just me’ for awhile, ALL of the other volunteers thought he was equally obnoxious and arrogant at our December IST in Porto Novo, and the Dutch woman in Dogbo who works with my ONG and also dislikes my homologue had me over for dinner one night and started off conversation with ‘How do you stand the way he treats you like a child?’. My job, pretty much, when I was with him was to tape up the posters he brought on the walls. He also just seems to think that he knows EVERYTHING under the sun and has NOTHING to learn from ANYbody, in which case I couldn’t help but wonder, what is the point of our partnering together if we are supposed to be learning from each other. But then again, I think that goes back to the me being much younger and female issue.

I’m truly ashamed to admit that sometimes when he really frustrated me in the first three months, I just wanted to shout at him “I don’t care if I am younger than you, or if I am a woman! I am so much smarter than you!!! You can shut me down all you want, but at the end of 2 years I am going home and will achieve something more than you can even begin to imagine, and you will still be here forever, doing this exact same damn thing!!” I never did. When it got that bad I would walk away from the moment and try to file the situation under the cultural adjustment folder. And please, don’t feel the need to point out how terrible that sounds because I am perfectly well aware of just how terrible it is. I actually went home that one night crying because I was so angry and frustrated, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I really thought that, then why am I here at all? What the hell am I doing? I had a similar problem the day that I did the HIV AIDS talks at the school here. The students were SO unbelievably disrespectful to me and their peers that I wanted to just leave. Fine, I thought; Get AIDS—If you don’t want to listen, I certainly can’t make you, and I am at my wits end. Please, again, don’t say anything. I know it sounds like I am a terrible person but I truly believe it is impossible to understand if you have not been in the situation to feel how overwhelmingly discouraged you can get. I never knew it was possible for me to feel so frustrated and useless at any given moment.

I actually stopped the talk to tell the students that we (I had worked with a group of kids from the school to do the presentations) came there for them and that this was all for them; that if they didn’t care about their own health we would leave. I told them that AIDS in Benin is the worst in the Mono –Couffo regions, and there is no cure—if they get it, they will die…it’s really just a matter of time. Contrary to popular belief, sleeping with a virgin won’t cure it. Maybe it wasn’t the wisest approach but I didn’t know what else to do. Brutal truth, I thought in a last ditch effort, might hit the point home. It didn’t. Finally the group of students I was working with and I did actually walk out of one of the classrooms and the saving grace for the day was the one boy who ran up to me afterwards asking if I could give him some information to read on HIV since he couldn’t hear anything in the classroom and he wanted to know more. Good, I thought. We got to one. And it might only be one, but on any given day in Benin, it is that one person that keeps me here because even one is worth it. That’s pretty hard to see and to realize and it takes my blood boiling over and me calming myself down considerably enough to objectively understand the situation from the cultural context in order to try to stay sane here. And I remember in those moments that that is why I am here. Because at the end of the day I do believe that we can work from the ground up to change, even though I am prepared to admit that I will likely never see the change that I want to see within my lifetime. That doesn’t mean I can’t do my part to help.

But anyway, back to my homologue. So I didn’t cross the Atlantic and settle down in Benin to become a little yovo assistant. I think part of the problem is that my ONG already works with some Dutch people, and the role of a PCV is so radically different from any other western development work. I get the vibe that even though they requested a volunteer, my ONG doesn’t really know what to do with me. The role of the yovos working with the ONG now is to find financing for their projects and then help in the management of projects. So they don’t ever really go out and DO stuff in the field with the animateurs of the ONG, like I am supposed to. And I am not here at all to locate funding for the ONG. I guess something I am struggling with myself is my point in being here. Benin is different from a lot of other peace corps countries (but certainly not all) in that there is so much local language. We are taught French because that is the national language and because it is impossible to learn over 50 local languages, but in the smaller villages where this is the first generation of kids going to school and learning French, and especially up north where there is very little French spoken, PCVs have to operate through the homologue as translator system, and my homologue does not seem interested in bothering with this at all. I’m pretty sure he sees what I sometimes can’t help but think—that I have no credibility or legitimacy for lack of a better word, going out to villages and working in French when people don’t understand. Another side note. Part of what is also difficult is that I am a Rural community health volunteer but am not posted in an itty bitty rural village, so it is a challenge to mold my type of work to my community and a lot of my work with my ONG is out in the smaller villages in the grander commune of Dogbo where I am not a direct community member. Yet as much as I see this as a barrier when I am with him that can’t be all true because when I work with the Peace Corps facilitator, it really isn’t a problem at all. I think we just have a misunderstanding of my function here and the support a homologue is supposed to give a volunteer.

That is why today, I arranged a meeting with him to sit down and talk about how we are going to proceed now for 2009. I thought being assertive might be a good approach to commanding some respect from him so I told him I didn’t leave all of my family and friends in the US to come here and do nothing when I go out to villages with him; that from now on he would not be toting me around with him to just sit there stupidly. We would schedule different activities and plan them together, and then execute them together. I am not coming to my ONG every day anymore (no volunteer is supposed to do that but he seemed to think I should be there 9-5 M-F) because I have other work partners (women’s groups, student groups, the other Peace Corps employee etc) that I have work with too so it is necessary to plan in advance what he wants to work on. He has his work, I have mine, and then we have some things we can do together. It would be foolish and naïve of me to think that I have nothing to learn from him, just as it is equally foolish for him to think he has nothing to learn from me since apparently he didn’t even know women should technically keep breast-feeding after 6 months or how to conduct a baby-weighing. This is his country, his community, and he is bien integré here already. He understands the cultural norms and nuances that can trip me up. That is why PCVs and homologues work together…ideally. Most situations, I have heard however, are less than ideal. Before totally brushing off my ONG and doing my own thing here in terms of work here though, I am determined to take action and do what I can to redefine my role here and try my hardest to make it work. He seemed receptive in our conversation today (we arranged a meeting this Monday with the head of the Dogbo health center to see if we can use a scale to go out and do baby weighings and we are going to meet up next week to make a schedule for what villages we are going to go out and see, etc, even though he still doesn’t want to let me do sensibilizations in places where there is no French because he doesn’t want to translate), but I don’t know if he was just placating me. So I will give it a chance to see how work seems to develop over the next few weeks and if it does not seem to improve at all, I will distance myself from my ONG and continue searching out more partners for work independently. In other PC countries, the role of the homologue is not emphasized NEARLY as much as it is in PC Benin rhetoric (maybe it is because in PC Benin, the host country agency pays for volunteer housing, but I don’t really know why), so I don’t think that is the end of the world.

Anyway, that has been a struggle for me here and hopefully it will change now with 2009! On va voir, as they say in French. Wish me luck. On a random note, yesterday in cotonou, it turned out that repose there actually goes until 4:00 which in my mind is truly obnoxious…we’re talking like a 5-6 hour work day, people—how much nappage do you need? Especially when it is in air conditioning. At least out in village, I understand not wanting to be out in the hottest part of the day, but come on. Something that made me really really happy was finding a bottle of balsamic vinegar AND the olive oil that my mom uses at home--Philip Berrio. Sounds stupid, maybe, but definitely is nice to have some things like that that are familiar, even if it was wicked expensive. They say you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry. Well PCVs probably shouldn’t be let into the supermarchés in Cotonou with more than 10.000CFA, because it is just dangerous to see so many tasty and familiar snacks that one cannot really afford (and does not REALLLLY need).

I ran into these two PCVs from Gambia at etoile rouge (throwback to Benin’s days of communism) in cotonou when I was getting a taxi home and they were on vacation on their way to Grand Popo, asking me for some info. It’s a small PCV West African World. They are heading to the voodoo fete in Ouidah on Saturday, so I might go meet up with them. Part of me doesn’t want to spend the money to leave post again and then part of me can’t help but think I am only in Benin for 2 voodoo days in my entire life (probably), I should just go and see what it is about, so I guess I shall see. Alright, this is ridiculously long now, so I shall leave for now but will post again soon!


class7-32 said...

Hello, my name is Nikki LaSala and I am a teacher at St. Joan of Arc School in Jackson Heights, NY. My principal, Mrs. Linda Kelly is a friend of your family's and introduced my seventh grade class to your blog. We check in on it once in a while and think what you are doing for other people is amazing despite all the scorpions!! we wanted to know if it is ok that we send you some things, and most importantly, where to send it? what does one need in Benin Africa? my students suggested Nintendo DS because you must be bored but I assured them that you were a very busy person and that the plug wouldn't be able to go in the wall!!
Whenever you get a chance to write back, we would appreciate it!
Until then, good luck from class 7-32

Maman et Papa said...

My Dear Catherine,
WOW! I just finished re-reading your blog and could feel the frustration.
I think I will be putting some more money on so that you can talk to us at home. I can’t help but think back at our conversation last Easter when you decided to join the PC. Maybe we can have another chat like that and you can vent off some of your frustration. Possibly we can come up with some ideas as to best handle this situation. Let’s talk and we will go from there.
Just know, from a U.S. prospective, you are making a difference! You have placed Benin on the map, so to speak, with many people who did not even know it was a country, let along where it is etc. From an outsiders’ viewpoint, I can assure you (since I do know you a little) that you are making a difference over there. Whether be with one or many people, you are making people aware, even if it’s only in your little entourage by your home; not to say what you may have done to your host family. 
Keep your head up high and don’t let your ONG discourage you. You are an incredibly talented person and you need to use your talents to overcome this hurdle, jump over it and get to the next one. Once you get your momentum going, you will see how quickly the hurdles will be jumped over and you will start to understand why you are there!
We love you dearly and miss you!