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!!


Aunt Loretta said...

Whoo hooo ....... I'm first!!! I know I've said it before, but I'm going to say it again ... you are truly amazing Catherine and I couldn't be prouder of you if you were my own daughter! I just scanned through your update quickly since I am at work, but I will re-read it this evening so I am able to absorb every morsel and will send you more comments soon. I am shipping a box to you today, so be on the lookout. Love you to the moon and back! Aunt Loretta

Maman et Papa said...

Well dear daughter of ours, we cannot wait for you to get home and COOK FOR US!!! From what you wrote, it all sounded delicious and can’t wait to taste these culinary treats! When you wrote about the eggs and butter left standing, it reminded me of a little closet my grandparents had in Belgium – in it they kept cheeses, butter and eggs too. Wonder what mom would do if we left the eggs out two weeks?

Anyway darling, it was good to read your blog (although I wonder about the blue font) and the fun you seem to be having with your friends. Hope your homologue grows up and realizes what an asset he has with you and how much more effective he would be with you at his side to assist him.

Nuf said about that – we miss you like crazy and can’t wait to see you in a few months!


Uncle BigMike said...

Hey kid we can fix your homologue,send him here and we will beat the snot out of him or You could just tell him that you have some very BIG uncles...Well you take care and be safe.Love ya

Cathryn said...

Lasagna?! That sounds delicious! What did you use for cheese? I believe there is some sort of a way to make riccotta but I think that it prob wonºt be as good as the real stuff. Sounds like making it in a dutch oven though sucks huh?
I canºt believe all these vegetables you are getting. We had avocados for like a month and now nada. Are the ones you get very different than the ones in the states, kind of bland and watery almost? People here like to eat them with sugar on them which I find revoluting. I hope that we get them back soon though. I think you are definatly lucking out on the veggie situation and meat situation too. I rarely cook meat here because you can only find it frozen which I think is gross (and it is usually only chicken, there are few cows here). I had some fresh pork and goat meat during pst but when you think of the crap that thye eat it kind of doesnºtreally make you want to eat it.
Anyway. Hope everything else is going well! Miss yua and talk to you soon

Aunt Nancy said...

Hi Darlin' Sounds like your menu is more interesting than the one I have here. With the boys at school, Emily always busy, Uncle John coming home late or traveling and Daniel working(you heard me, the only one of four with a job!!) I have been so lazy with my meals. This summer when you're home I think you'll need to give us a little taste of your culinary skills! I'll supply the house and food and drink... and you supply the lessons! Margaritas for all - we'll be dancing!!
I'm always so happy to read your blog. It seems to me that I would be so lonely and frightened and out of place where you are, but you actually sound like you are enjoying yourself and that is a relief to all of here at home. Let's hope you've seen the last of the Black Widows, and while it may be sad when Scout eats lizards, it's a small price to pay for all the other things he eats without your knowing! I'll get a phone card soon so I can call again. My phone bill came the other day and let me say it is not smart to call Benin without a phone plan during a recession. It was worth it though! I sent a package. Be happy and stay safe.
Love, Aunt Nancy xx

John Maszka said...

Hello Cat,

I'm conducting feminist research on how American foreign policy affects popular support for terrorism. I’m particularly interested in incorporating the views of women, non-whites, and people living outside of America and Western Europe, but all responses are invited and welcome. The survey can be accessed at

I would really value your opinion and the opinion of your readers and friends in Benin.

Thank you,

John Maszka