Thursday, February 19, 2009

Valentine's Day

So while I never really hated valentines day--I mean, who would complain about getting boxes of chocolate, even if they are from your dad and grandpa?-- I can't say anything too spectacular has ever made me just LOVEEEEE the holiday either, until I decided to be proactive about it and treat myself to an amazing Valentine's here in Benin.

SO Saturday I headed down to Grand Popo, our beautiful beach conveniently located only about an hour and a half away from Dogbo, with some friends, and it was an amazing time. We stayed overnight in this little Rasta themed hostel type place called Lion Bar, where the rooms were clean, simple, and only the equivalant of five bucks per person, US$. I was in the 'Peter Tosh' room. Unfortunately my camera battery is dead so I'll have to come back to upload pictures. There's one communal shower and toilet there for all the rooms and its funny to think that that would have probably horrified me this time last year, while now i was just excited that there was actual running water. THe Lion Bar is right on the beach, just walk down a bit to sit under their little palm paillot things for shade. It was an absolutely magnificent day and definitely the first time I'd been to a beach in February in my life. SOme other volunteers came down for the day and some stayed over and so we had a really great time just hanging out. A group of fun German tourists were staying there on their way to Ghana the next day and actually, we ran into an RPCV who served in Cameroon about 10 years ago and hung out with us so that was pretty fun. Plus she treated us to breakfast the next day, which was equally amazing and much appreciated.

One volunteer was down with a family friend visiting from the U.S. too so we walked along the beach to the Auberge where they were staying to visit for a bit. Plus, the woman brought chocolates from the US, which the other PCV was nice enough to offer us so i did get a piece of v-day russell stover after all, even in benin. It was so much fun seeing a tourist here and it made me realize just how badly I want someone to come visit me, and not just to get spoiled. I really want to see Benin again through the eyes of someone who's never been here before and who doesn't just take women walking around with baskets on their heads and babies strapped to their backs with a pagne as normal. THis lady, bless her, wanted to take a picture of every goat she saw. While I admittedly have a strange affinity for the the goats here and think that they are rather adorable, if I took a pic of every one that I saw, my camera would be dead in 5 minutes.

Lion Bar was hopping at night with Reggae music and extremely cheap cocktails served in coconuts. Power cutting out? no problem. Snag a bottle of smuggled nigerian gas and power up that generator for some more good times. Fortunately because of my larium induced insomnia the night before I was able to actually sleep through the music sans probleme.

WHile we are in the dry season still, we are hitting that strange interim btw the weather patterns and it rains very occasionally and very briefly. Saturday night, a BEAUTIFUL lightning storm rolled in over the ocean and it was amazing to see (I'll post pics next time). Plus the rain was so refreshing and it actually felt 'cool' for the evening. We slept without a fan and didn't even break a sweat.

Sunday the PCV i was sharing a room with left early but I hung around Gpopo for the day to enjoy the beach. I was walking down the road and saw this little artisan shack to the side and stopped over to see what they were working on. The workshop belongs to these two guys from Burkina Faso, actually, David and Frederick. THey did a lot of calabash carving--like a huge gourd type thing used in a million different artistic ways here. I actually ended up getting a hand carved calabash lamp (I bargained the price down to a PCV friendly fare pretty well, if i do say so myself. Though I'm worried i'm going to go home, walk into a retail store and try to start bargaining, declaring that something is obscenely overpriced and walk away with a huff waiting for the vendor to lower the price for me. I'm pretty sure I'll be sorely disappointed when that doesn't happen at home and people will instead just think that i am crazy.) These guys kept the calabash natural (as opposed to the more touristy place down the street that charged way more and painted the calabash with different pictures and use machines for the work) and I watched the two of them carving meticulously with a leatherman. I honestly almost felt bad for paying so little for the lamp since to do that all by hand must take forever. And while I was waiting for them to finish polishing it off the other who had me in conversation, asked me off-handedly my name. In retrospect I'm glad I told the truth because he carved it into a calabash without my noticing while we were talking and cadeaued me with it before i left. It was pretty awesome. Plus they said that Fespaco is a great time and so I am even more excited to go.

Fespaco is this French and African film festical in BUrkina Faso they have every 2 years and I got my vacation request approved to go, so I'm heading up there next week and spending a week of the festival with a group of volunteers. I'm so excited for that and to just see Northern Benin in general. Don't know if I'll post again before the trip but I'll take lots of pictures!

Kind of random: People often ask me if there is any way they can support my service here by donating or what have you. Unfortunately the answer for right now is no since any monetary donations from home have to be done through a PCPP-Peace COrps Partnership Program--where I submit a project proposal to headquarters in DC, get it approved, and have a site put up with my project so that I can begin fundraising for it. Since that is mostly second year volunteers, I don't have a PCPP going yet. However, the school that I did some work and started an on-campus organization for during my time at holy cross, The Beverly School of Kenya ( , is in need of funding right now to continue with construction work. It is a boarding school that will be largely consistent of orphan children, and is located an hour or so outside of Nairobi. The school will be free for the children, provide them with homes and healthcare, and be largely self sustaining with a farm, etc. Especially after the post-election violence that rocked Kenya in January 2008, the need for such opportunities for Kenya's youth is evident, and I very much believe in the potential for this project. The school is aiming to open in July, but is struggling with donations and budget in light of the global financial crisis. Right now there are opportunities for buying windows for $140, doors for $100, sinks for $110 ea, toilets $110 ea (which I am slightly bitter about since even I don't have a toilet...haha...just kidding), a bag of cement $20 ea. and padlock $25ea. But actually, any amount is appreciated and if you are interested, checks can be made out to the Beverly School

Beverly school of Kenya
206 Boston Road
Sutton Ma. 01590

It is 501 c 3 non-profit organization so donations are tax deductable. If you're interested at all and you want more information about the school, to see pictures of construction and students, or to talk to its founder, Abdi Lidonde, who is currently working at Holy Cross for more details, etc. Please don' hesitate to email me and I can get you more info or a contact for Abdi.

I'll be back soon!!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Just some pictures

Pictures: First we have a hippo...if you zoom in like 8 times you can actually see it but it missed when its mouth was open for pictures; next is us getting ready to go out to see the hippos; Italian night--feteing with Kristin's neighbors and fostering cross cultural exchange by making him a birthday cake...well...a birthday cornbread since the Beninese don't really seem to enjoy cakes and sweets; preparing the italian feast; my friend the black widow

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Italian "Ciao" In Benin

Oh, what clever culinary punning. So all of the volunteers from my PSL group (Pre Service Learning/training, aka--all first year volunteers) in the Mono Couffo regions and a few from Atlantique/Littoral and Oueme/Plateau (also in the South) came up to Dogbo on Friday for an "Italian Night." Friday was our marché day so people started getting here around noon and hit up the marché for ingredients, most important being MEAT!! I love cooking sessions because it means we eat meat which is rare (not the meat, the amount of times you eat meat here) and I personally, to be entirely honest, don't have to do too much for it. Dennis, our resident chef, always takes care of the meat. Tender meat does not exist in benin so you either have to boil it for 3 hours (that gets hot in Benin), or pound it with a hammer to tenderize it (that also gets hot). In this case, Dennis brought up his little meat grinder and ground up all the beef to put in homemade lasagna. I was actually stuck chez moi for the morning because I was on fresh bread making duty, and there are only 2 burners on our stoves so it would have been too much to do at my post mate's house, which is where we were having our little soirée. So i made a loaf of fresh onion bread and another with fresh roasted whole garlic cloves...they were delicious and evvvvvvvveryone loved it. Meanwhile, Chez Kristen, everyone else was busy working on making homemade lasagna noodles and rolling out the dough with nalgene bottles, making tomato sauce, and bruschetta, and salad. Vache Qui Rit is all we have here in terms of cheese so we put some of that on the first one but decided to leave it off the other pans of lasagna because it wasn't looking too good. We made about 5 trays of lasagna (one was vegetarian. THey are all small because you have to stick it in a dutch oven to bake, which is just a large pot with tomato paste cans inside) and gave one to Kristin's neighbors since it was his birthday and we were fête-ing with them to celebrate. The buvette was fuuuully stocked with COLD drinks and all in all, we had an amazing time just cooking together and hanging out.

When I first got to post I NEVER bought meat in the marche because, frankly, seeing a dead cow hanging from a hook in the Beninese heat for an entire day, uncovered, with flies all over it and a pile of its tail, skin, and skull sitting right next to it really grossed me out. Plus i was pretty sure it violated about 1,000 FDA regulations for food consumption that I was programmed into revering since forever. But it's interesting how I've kind of gotten over it. I actually have bought meat twice recently just because I wanted protein. And i have to say...sitting on my cement floor hammering it for 40 minutes in a plastic bag was totally worth it when it was all said and done. There are a lot of things in the U.S. that just seem laughable to me now after living here for awhile. Meat for one, traffic and seatbelt laws for another. I should SEE the clown cars i get shoved into with other people. Shattered windshields, non existent side and rearview mirrors...have to give it a push to get a rolling start. ANd seatbelts?? what's that? Who knew eggs, and mayonnaise don't REALLY need to be refrigerated at all...that's just a neurotic habit we've picked up at home. I just finished a jar of mayo i bought in september and it was fine until the end...i don't have a fridge in my house. Eggs i keep for 2 weeks and they're always fine. Had I not known that Bonnemaman never refrigerated butter that probably would have really disusted me when i got here. NOt that I find butter in dogbo...haha. that's only in COtonou. You can find little sachets of margarine in the marché that keep forever unrefrigerated. It works fine for baking (though I do look forward to butter, real butter, when I visit home...on a perfectly toasted english muffin...along with all other dairy goodness like cheese and yogurt.)

So there is ONE maman in the marche that sells vegetables. Well, everyone sells tomatoes...They are ubiquitous, along with onions, and piment (chili peppers). But they aren't like tomatoes from home: they are little with a different taste and texture so when i find 'real tomatoes' in Cotonou I always buy a few. But anyway, this maman sells other vegetables and she used to cadeau Kristin and me with veggies after we bought a lot from her. BUt whether by logic of supply and demand or by sheer getting used to the yovos, Maman DOra became really stubborn when it came to discutering the prices. We kept getting less and less for the same or more money and it was getting really annoying. THen...we found her supplier. A man from Lokossa who brings DOra her veggies every week to sell, and agreed that he would deliver our veggies to the door if we ordered a minimum of 2000CFA. So its worked out great...we split 1000 and 1000 (thats about US$2 each) and it buys us a TON more than with Dora. It's been great! However, I'm pretty sure Dora has found out because I went to her in the marché yesterday to get some veggies since we forgot to call the other guy and she was sickeningly sweet and suddenly much more agreeable with discutering, and she gave me 2 extra carrots when I was done buying. On va voir. Now that we're really getting into the dry season vegetables are getting huge and are so much more plentiful again. It is amazing. Carrots, peppers, avocadoes, cucumber, green beans!! there's even eggplant again!! Squash and radish just finished up but apparently will be back in a few months. I'm really excited because for about 2 months all you could get were some really expensive and puny carrots and wilted lettuce. So it is really nice to be able to cook with good fresh veggies again. ANd it was great to have the last of the squash for our vegetarians on friday for the veggie lasagna. The man from Lokossa has a much bigger variety than you can find in our marché, so hopefully it will continue to work out so well.

Well Anyway, so you can't travel at night in Benin because it isn't too safe and is technically not allowed or 'strongly discouraged' by Peace Corps, so all the volunteers stayed over at our houses on Friday. Saturday we met up for fresh pineapple and yummy fresh baked coffee cake and then most people were on their way. A bunch of us headed down to Lokossa though, with an ONG from Dogbo, AVPN, to see the 2 hippos that live in the lake right outside of the town. You get into a little pirogue (canoe-type boat), which, considering how dangerous hippos are, seems less than ideal in terms of safety and pushed (I'd say row but you use a long palm branch to push off the bottom of the gondalas in Venice) out into the middle of the lake. IT was beautiful out and cool on the water. When we first got into the boat we were wondering why there were so many plates inside, and shortly after leaving, realized it was to bail out water which continued to rise through our ride out. So we got to see the hippos from afar--don't want to anger them-- and they did the whole opening their mouth and swimming around thing. It was fun, and worth it to get to see it so nearby to where i live. I spent the night at another volunteers house since it was dark when we were done and it was amazing to actually watch some TV since she brought her computer and has tons of DVDs with her. We went out to a little buvette for igname pilée with sauce d'arachide...a beninese specialty actually more famous in the north. You pound ignames (like potatoes) until they are a fluffy chewy texture, and serve it with peanut sauce and wagasi...i don't know how to describe wagasi. It is cheese but not like cheese from home. It is hard, doesn't melt, has a very distinct taste, and you have to boil it for at least 20 minutes to kill off the bacteria and tuberculosis inside it.

What else has been going one??? it feels like forever since I posted last. OH! I was really nervous to have people stay over and sleep on my floor because as if scorpions weren't enough, I found a black widow spider in my house last week. It was only one, dieu merci, and i killed it toute suite, after a 20 second shot of bugspray didn't get the job done. BUt since I only have one bug net I was nervous about people on the floor. THankfully nothing happened and I was told Scout was making the rounds and did eat something by one of the girls' mats (probably just a cockroach) in the middle of the night. Speaking of Scout making the rounds...she's been catching a lot of lizards lately, and I actually feel bad. I personally think that lizards are kind of cute and she tortures them for a good 10 minutes at least before finally eating the poor things. It's kind of gross to watch.

I also started up work with another women's group nearby in Amahoue. THey are amazing, and they are THRILLED that i remembered all of their names. Actually, i saw one of the women from the group at Kpodaha in the marché on Friday and she was SOOOOO excited when she saw me and that i knew her name! It made me feel really great to run into her there. We went back and did Moringa with them last week and they LOVED these little food flashcard things i made up for them. they are great because you can do so many activities with the women with them. We had them divide all the cards up into the three african food groups (protectors, aka vitamins and minerals; growth, aka proteins; and 'la force' aka carbs and fats) and then had them construct complete meals with the foods they would use from the cards. It went really well.

As for my homologue. I sent him that txt telling him to call me when he wanted to work and yesterday made it officially 2 weeks with no word from him. It's fine because I've been doing my own thing with the PEace Corps facilitator from Lokossa, planning lifeskills classes for the orphanage in DOgbo, etc. BUt i felt bad bailing on my ONG since they pay for my housing so I went to go talk to my supervisor today about it. I told him everything, and that I no longer want to work with Innocent because he treats me like a child and does not respect me, etc. He was completely upset that it had been like that and is going to talk to him and the director. He was originally supposed to be my homologue and is very supportive of the PEace COrps, and he felt terrible when he found out that Innocent ahd been calling me yovo out in village, and wouldn't let me do anything. So we'll see what happens now. I hope it pans out ok because I really like the other people in my ONG. I just detest my homologue and his arrogant, dismissive attitude, and unless he does a 180 turn around, I don't think we can work together, since i'm pretty sure the dislike is entirely mutual.

But those are all of the highlights for now, especially since my credit is about to run out, and I have to add more time for next time. I tried to post pictures but they wouldn't go up so I'll try again next time!!