Saturday, March 28, 2009

It's Millet Time

So after Kate's official memorial Wednesday, I headed off to my friend's village about an hour or so north of Cotonou to spend few days painting an HIV/AIDS (VIH/SIDA, in French) mural. Her post was really nice, and the people there were awesome. We started working late on Wednesday, going to the health center where she works to put on a prime coat of paint on the wall for the mural. The next day we went back and painted all day Thursday and Friday. I'm pretty sure I either had sun poisoning or just got really dehydrated on Friday because Friday night through Saturday morning I felt absolutely terrible. My whole body ached, my head was pounding, and i was in severe gastrointestinal distress (that might have been unrelated to dehydratin though...I'll get to that later). I woke up Saturday morning with a fever (only 100.1...not too bad, I guess) but drank some very disgusting ORS and water (Oral rehydration salt...possibly the most disgusting thing ever invented but really gets the job done when you are dehydrated) and felt better a few hours later. It's pretty annoying because I Actually put SPF 70 sunscreen on that morning but i sweat and wiped it off i guess, within about 5 minutes of applying it. You can't win.

Pictures: Painting the mural, the little boy who we think might have skipped school to help us paint a little (he was so cute and was so excited to help us...he didn't speak french, and was on crutches because his legs were so severely burned. Actually, one of his legs was resting in a fake mold of a leg because I guess it was so badly damaged though I ahve no idea how)

Saturday morning we did finishing touches on the mural (kids kept smudging the paint after we would leave each night) and went to the school where we were hostig a HUGE sensibilisation on HIV/AIDS, including a discussion on the myths and realities and condom demonstrations. A guest speaker from PSI (Population Services International) came and did a whole talk in local language (Fon) which was amazing and there was a DJ, a little marching band to parade around town and announce the event, etc. Afterwards we marched over all together to the health center to unveil the mural and offer free depistage (HIV/AIDS testing). I just found out today that 108 people got tested yesterday, which is pretty awesome. So it was a successful event.

Pictures: Kaili showing the men who think they are "too large" for condoms that the condom can stretch down her hand and arm, the children who were watching the sensibilisation (if you look closely to the little girl sitting on the right hand side, you can see her hair is blondish, which means she is pretty damn malnourised with Kwashiokor--severe lack of protein in her diet), the marching band who announced the event throughout the village, all of us doing condom demonstrations, march to the health center to see the mural, and the audience at the health center.

My friend lives in a concession with a family that is practically her family. She never cooks for herself...just buys food and gives it to the family so that they prepare it and she eats with them every night. Sometimes to say thank you she cooks one big meal for them and we decided since they had been cooking for us since we got there that Friday night we would cook for them. Apparently word traveled that i make good lentils (i do, actually) so she asked me if we could make them since it is pretty easy. I have never bough lentils in a marche here...I have only ever gotten them in a supermarche in Cotonou. So i was surprised when she said she had them in her marche. So we went out Friday to the marche to get ingredients and passed her usual bean lady. Nothing there looked remotely lentil-like so we moved on to anotehr bean lady. There was this big bin of stuff that i thought didn't look exactly like lentils because they were round. But they were the same size and color as the regular lentils that I buy. THe difference is that the ones from the supermarche are split. Anyway, everyone was a little iffy on whether or not these were really lentils, myself included, but none of us said anything, and admittedly, i was the one in the end who said "let's get them, they're lentils."

Pictures: Nat and me in the Marche, Zul being adorable, Zul Cami and Me

So we take them back to her house and her maman asks her "did you mean to buy these?" and we said yes thinking that preparing lentils would be such a treat for them if they weren't used to it. So we crushed up piment, sauteed garlic and onions, added the lentils, covered it with water and bouillion and let it simmer...normally when i make them they are done in about 20 minutes. 2 hours of boiling at high heat later, the lentils were still hard and chewy, the rice was long done, and the family was hungry. The maman came in to see our progress and asked us "Do you usually prepare that like that? Really?" THe entire time they were cooking we told ourselves "give it another 20 minutes...they're getting softer." As good as the sauce they were in tasted, they weren't really getting any softer. Eventually we asked the maman to come back in and taste them to see if they would eat it like that (Beninese are SUCH picky eaters when it comes to us trying to make them our style food). She took one bite, looked at us and said "jut give me rice," which was actually less offensive than we thought it would be...her expression of disgust was just to priceless. Long story short, we found out that we bought not lentils, but millet. Millet can not be digested easily and is usually just ground into flour and used for making porridge in the morning here. The whole family thought we were some crazy yovos. We all admitted to kind of having our doubts about whether or not they were actually lentils when we bought them, and as it turns out, you can't get lentils in the marche here. So THAT (not over-sun exposure) might have been what contributed to my 2:41am latrine run, during which time, there were approximately 14 mutant cockroaches running around the walls and floor making me want to cry.

I'd have felt a lot worse about my millet faux pas if this hadn't happened the following morning: We made's really hard to screw up pancakes, and gave it to her family, and their faces were so disgusted when they tasted it. They actually spit it out or didn't finish the piece and gave it all to the one kid that would eat it. So there...tough crowd to please. When my post mate made her host family a cake, they were grossed out by that too because they thought it was too sweet. They really liked unsweetened cornbread though...corn flour is such a staple of their diet anyway so i imagine that is partly why. 'Tis all for now...i am in Cotonou and have to be getting back to Dogbo. Not looking forward to a hot taxi ride. 'Till next time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Probably most of you reading this by now know that one of our volunteers in Benin, Kate Puzey, was murdered last week. Even after the short amount of time that I spent with her, I can say with complete confidence that Kate was one of the friendliest people I have ever met. I will never forget her smile. This world is a sadder place for having lost her. It's been really hard for all of the volunteers here, and especially those in her training group who have been with her in-country all along.

I very much understand and even appreciate everyone's concern at home. But as far as we know, this was a tragic but isolated incident. I do not feel any more unsafe now than I ever have since coming to Benin. I knew when I left home that Peace Corps could not launch me into my post with a protective bubble around me for 2 years. I signed onto living in a West African country as a single white woman alone. I know the risks that that brings, and so do my parents. And I understand better than most from home what that actually entails. That is why I always do what I can do to be safe. As much as I understand peoples' concerns for my safety, I just wanted to say that suggesting I come home, or emphasizing the danger of being here isn't what I necessarily need to hear right now. I am staying in Benin. If I left now, I would only ever look back at it with regret. That is a decision that might not be right for everyone right now, but it is what is right for me. This has been really hard for everyone here. What I need right now is support, like I've always been fortunate enough to receive, from my friends and family at home. If or when I ever feel as though enough is enough here in terms of incidents against volunteers, I will know. And I will make the decision to go for myself.

Please keep Kate, her family and friends, and the Peace Corps Benin community in your prayers.

GAD Dinner and Auction

So GAD-- "Gender and Development"-- is this fund that is here in PC Benin to offer $$ for volunteer projects. GAD Small projects are the easiest grant to apply for because it is all internally done within Benin and doesn't involve processing from DC or any of that bureaucratic stuff. The most you can get for a GAD project is 50.000CFA, and applications for GAD grants are reviewed every month so there is a quick turn-around on getting money to work on a project. Every project using GAD funds has to in some way impact the gender development and equality, etc.

Pic: Weihow, Carie, and Christopher at GAD Dinner

Normally every year there is an All Volunteer Conference in Cotonou, where the Peace Corps picks up the tab to spoil PCVs in one of the nicer hotels here and host a bunch of different activities, etc. This year, unfortunately for us, with our stellar economy at home, All-Vol was cancelled. The real snaffoo about that though is that All-Vol was the event where funds were replenished every year for GAD small Projects Fund, because we always hosted a dinner for volunteers and expats who would pay for a ticket and take part in a silent auction to benefit GAD. Since that wasn't happening, we hosted our own Volunteer weekend up in Parakou with a more low key dinner, silent auction, and the tab picked up by...ourselves.

I got to Parakou Friday and checked into my room with Carie and Kaili and hung out until the talent show and date auction that night. The whole night was a ton of fun, and the dates were outrageously funny to watch being pitched and bid on. I was really impressed how people ponied up for GAD and the price that some dates went for. I won a date with 3 other people with our friend Tim, so he better show us a good time. When this blessed date will occur, I haven't the foggiest because we are scattered all across Benin.

Pictures: Friday Night at the date auction and dinner. First there is me and Heidi, then a pic with Jeremey, and my 'meillieur ami' in-country...Weihow. We were trying to make a BFF sign with our fingers but it was backwards and entirely unsuccessful. Since we had a bidding war at the auction saturday night (which he won) maybe this was just a foreshadowing...haha.

Pictures encore: First you have a group shot of all of the RCH (Rurual community Health) volunteers that came to GAD Weekend with Chadsey...honorary RCH volunteer, right up front (he really is an environment volunteer but clocked far more hours with us all through training and In service training, because RCH is clearly awesome, and really...who wouldn't want to come hang out with us?). Next you have, Nathaniel, Mani, Carie, et moi. be entirely honest, Saturday we did absolutely nothing but lounge in bed in our air conditioned room and attempt to watch a movie before giving up on the sound from the computer without speakers. It was a fantastically lazy day, but it was just nice being with other volunteers...especially my RCHers, some of whom I hadn't seen since IST in December.

Saturday night was the GAD Dinner and auction. It is kind of like Peace Corps prom, for lack of a better comparison. Volunteers go all out and get nice dresses made, or even have them sent from home. You almost feel like a human being and not a bucket of grunge for a few hours. The auction was really nice. There were a lot of things sent from home and donated (all my extra toiletries, etc. are going to GAD next year for their auction). Also, a lot of artisans and little restaurants donated thigns to the auction for volunteers and I ended up bidding on these wine bottles some artist doctors up with paint and paper machee. They look much nicer than I just described them. Anyway...comme j'ai dit deja, i was in a bidding war with Weihow and he beat me out, paying 11.000CFA for the ones i really wanted (I got my second choice for 4.000). I would have kept going but i know the artist lives in Bohicon across from the marche there and I just couldn't do it. The dinner was at a hotel run by a french couple in Parakou and so the food was decent and the ambience was nice. There was also a pool, and quite a number or people were jumping in in full fancy attire. It was really nice just being with everyone. I think it was good that the dinner went on and we were all there with our friends and for each other. We did a dance for Kate and took a moment in her memory the night before too. It would have been a lot more fun with her there in person but I'm pretty sure she was there in spirit and would have wanted us to party on.

Pictures: Carie and I being ridiculous, dennis and the severed arm touching mariana inappropriately, Rut and Heidi suiting up to head off to GAD on the moto (there really is NO way to have good hair in Benin, ever, when you add in the moto helmet), our table, meg and carie being ridiculous, Rut and Heidi; a shot of Rut, Kaili, Meg and Jeremy; Me and Carie.

This morning it was up and out at an obnoxious hour and now i am in cotonou until wednesday. After I am going to a friend's village to work on and HIV/AIDS mural painting and sensibilisation project until Saturday. Kate's more official open to the greater public memorial service is on Wednesday morning.

Burkina Faso

It is hard to believe that Burkina Faso was only 2 weeks ago because it feels like life has completely flipped upside down since then. But the trip was a ton of fun, quand-meme. I left Friday morning the 27th for Natitingou in Northern Benin because I was going to spend a few days with my friend Mariana doing some work stuff. It was nice to finally get to see the North a little. It is far drier up there and was strange to see. I guess i took for granted the lush jungle all around my post where I go walking every night because our climate is so much more tropical in the south. It was way more brown and dusty once you got away from the South. People wash their clothes much more in the rivers up there and lay them out to dry on the dirt, grass, and bushes whereas, i don't really see that too much by my post except for by the Mono river near Athieme. In Dogbo, meme, people just use pump water. There are also cows in LARGE quantity up North because, i Believe, the Fulani people raise them (and make yummy wagasi--cheese, but not like what you're thinking when you hear 'cheese'). Everyone in Benin has serious regional pride and so if you are in the collines you'll say the collines are the best if you are in the Couffo (comme moi) you'll say no place is better than the Couffo, etc, etc. So I was expecting this sort of paradise when i arrived in Nati because I had heard from SOOOO many Northern volunteers that it is the most amazing laid back place where you don't get hasseled, etc. I definitely did NOT expect to get called yovo there, or to have to discuter prices like i do in Dogbo. And actually, I was asked by my zemi driver if I had a husband because he wanted to marry me and I can honestly say i have NEVER gotten that from any zem in Dogbo (not that I zem a lot at post anyway). But Nati was definitely a nice place in general, and a fairly large regional hub. It is pretty much where you stay on your way to do safari, if you are coming here as a tourist...or to see the Tata Samba, or visit the waterfalls at Tanagou.

There are three workstations in Benin for volunteers to stay at in transit, etc--in Nati, kandi, and Parakou. So I stayed in the workstation for a few nights and it was so fun and cozy and there were a lot of volunteers there hanging out. Having a TV and DVDs was such a novelty while i was there. We watched so many episodes of friends and greys...eesh. It is also way hotter up North. I can't figure out which is humidity or the sheer harshness of Northern heat. It wasn't bad during the day under a fan but i sweat all through the night...gross. It is also much higher concentrations of Muslims up North as opposed to Voodoo by me. Over the wknd, more and more people started arriving and there were about 15 of us who rented a 'bus' to get to Burkina. The trip was a long hot hassle and our driver on the Benin side of the trip screwed us out of money, but border crossing went smoothly. We got in that night and got to our hotel quickly. It was a pain that we aren't allowed to take zems outside of Benin (Benin is one of the only PC countries.[..maybe the only?] where volunteers are allowed to ride motos because we have training for it during stage and are issued helmets. But other volunteers who visit Benin aren't allowed to zem here since they haven't been trained and we can not zem outside of Benin...not even in Togo). Instead you take taxis to get around Ouagadougou (Wa-ga-doo-goo, the capitol of Burkina Faso and an hour behind Benin...who knew?) It turned out to be more expensive this way especially since we weren't familiar with Ouaga and prices there, but whatever. Actually, not being able to zem really wasn't the end of the world because all in all Ouaga was a much more pedestrian friendly city than Cotonou.

We were in Burkina for the FESPACO film festival...a pan african affair held every other year there. I didn't see TOOOO many movies but I saw a fair number or Moroccan, Algerian, Egyptian, and South African films, both long and short. My favorite was this South African film called "When we Were Black" about the events leading up to the Soweto uprising there. I hope it caught someone's attention enough to eventually be distributed.

Everyone was ridiculously excited because Ouaga is relatively well known for having FABULOUS strawberries. Good Lord, did we gorge ourselves on fresh sweet strawberries. They were amazing. I miss them. They also had a vrai supermarche that felt like one from was amazing. Burkina was even more Muslim than Northern Benin (which is why i was surprised at what some Burkinan volunteers were wearing when we saw them). The Grand Mosque was really quite beautiful and it was interesting to see that there were stations all over the city on the streets with mats and water where Muslims could go to pray and do their ablutions beforehand at the specified times during the day. The marches had a lot more Qu'rans and prayer beads, etc. as well.

Picture: FESPACO sign, Me, Grand Mosque in Ouaga

We stopped in this great artisan's market where we were able to see the artists in the middle of their work, and I really appreciated getting to talk to them and see how they did their projects,etc. Also, we ate in this restaurant that according to the Lonely Planet guidebook has the "BEST" lasagna in all of Africa. I didn't get the lasagna though, i only tasted a bite of a friend's. It was good, but i'm still partial to our own dogbo-style italian night fare.

Pictures: Carie and Nathaniel outside of one of the movie theatres, artisan in the middle of making blankets (I bought the little one on the left side when he was done, and calabash art and paintings (I bought the finished elephant calabash for my house)
I have to say, if you're going to hop around West Africa for it as a peace corps volunteer because you are covered in every peace corps country should any problems arise. My friend got really sick in Ouaga and I had a very bad burn on my leg because my homologue knocked over our moto after it rained when we were in the mud on the Thursday before leaving. So we just hopped on over to the Burkina headquarters to let them know a group of Beninese volunteers were in Burkina for a few days and to see their doctor. It was far more convenient than visiting the doctor in cotonou--that would have been entirely out of the way. I thought the Burkina office was pretty sweet until I saw our own brand spanking new office newly constructed in the ritzy non-red light district of Cotonou. Pas Grave.

Pictures: My burn. It looks great now. brand new pink skin and no chance of infection. I'm thinking i won't even get a conversation starter of a scar.
What interested me about Burkina was that it seemed like there was practically nothing until you hit Ouagadougou. I mean, driving through Benin i pass through very obvious regional cities that are bigger and have more to offer than dogbo or smaller villages (Dogbo itself though, is considered Urban) Through the Burkina countryside though we only ever passed small groups of mud huts connected in circles by walls so that each unit consisted of about 5 huts. There would be several units together. But we never saw any big towns or anything. The countryside was so dry and there were several dried up river beds...I can't imagine how it must be during rainy season, but it hasn't rained in months.

Anyway, the trip home was uneventful...just very long. Since my mom has asked me for a picture of a bush taxi forever now, i finally snapped what I think is a good about average bush taxi below. Just imagine 10 or so people jammed in there. I don't think I'll ever complain about traveling or long car trips in the states EVER again...hell, i'll have a WHOLE seat to myself. What's to complain about?

Picture: Rut and Carie with the first municipal garbage can I have noticed during my time in West Africa. I have NO idea who comes and clears out the garbage periodically. Then you have the bush taxi. a la prochaine.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Pictures: the 'Lion Bar' Rasta bar hostel at Grand popo; the beach on Valentine's Day; Yovo b-day party with the French family and Dutch couple in Dogbo