Monday, June 29, 2009

Back to Africa...Troisième Fois

Despite the difficulty in saying goodbye to people (especially knowing I'll miss my new cousin and Jen being the most gorgeous bride ever) leaving home was surprisingly easier the second time around. Because of that, I have to admit I am surprised at what a hard time I am having now being back in Benin and adjusting to life here again.

Things that I miss from home:
1. The ability to just go out at night, whether with my friends or just for a walk around the block with my dog and have streetlights and not feel unsafe. The fact that there IS a nightlife in the States
2. The ability to just run out to a store to buy a quick but delicious cup of coffee for a pick me up.
3. Hot showers and feeling remarkably clean ALL of the time
4. temperate climate
5. Not being a minority or hearing the yovo song, not being sexually harassed and touched, and not being asked for things every five minutes
6. The feeling of cool crisp sheets and my really comfortable bed with so many pillows that i can just recline into
7. Lighting that is not flourescent
8. Not breathing in massive amounts of smog constantly and the remarkable ease of transportation and close proximity of stores and things.

Those are just the highlights of an extremely long list in my journal here and does not include the obvious like my family and friends. I think I just have to give myself some time to get used to Benin again and start repressing the things I love from home like I must have done last year but in the meantime it is very hard being back for me. Really, it instant I am fine and the next I'll have this sick feeling in my stomach willing every part of me to put in the call to COtonou that says I've decided to call it in and ET.

I went straight from COtonou to Porto Novo to work at Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World, ou bien, LEs filles guident notre monde) for the week. It was a good experience but was hard for me because camp started on sunday and i got there on tuesday and was on guard duty all day so I never really got to know a lot of the girls there (it is volunteers who picked girls who show promise and potential in 6ième or 5ième--young teens). The week is geared to share information with the girls on women's empowerment and rights, health information, studying tips, career panel with beninese women, etc. IT is also just a time for the girls to hang out with other girls their age and be kids and do fun activities like necklace making, art stuff, etc. Seeing the girls progress over the week and make friends with each other was really nice, even though I know thye'll never be able to maintain the real affordable communication for them so it isn't possible. I don't think they've ever had the opportunity to just cut loose and have fun playing with sports balls, and each other, etc....just being girls. Certainly, their brothers do...but they'll naturally be occupied with housework at home. In fact it took some effort to get them to stop trying to do the dishes after meals and let volunteers do them (the man who was working on the grounds of where we were staying was shocked to see white people doing dishes 'Why don't you just hvae the girls do it?' he asked us and we had to tell him that we were perfectly capable and that the girls could go play 'And yesterday,' he continued 'I saw a man doing dishes,' referring to another volunteer, Christopher. Well now, astute observation, OUR tend to make themselves more useful with stuff like that.

I saw my host family while in POrto Novo and that was fun...Especially giving them souvenirs from the states! They are getting ready to host a new stagiere (trainee) for PEace Corps who will be coming at the end of July, and it made me realize how much work they put into getting the house ready for me. They popped a bottle of really sweet and not so great tasting champagne and made a toast to my return which was a very sweet gesture.

I thought I would be really happy to get back to Dogbo and just get settled but it has been an up and down affair actually. I was in a bad mood on the trip back because I had 2 difficult moments along the way.
1. During campl glow we had explained to the girls why it is important to not throw garbage on the ground like they are accustomed to doing and so for the week they threw stuff in garbage cans we provided. If a girl was found picking up trash she earned points for her team. Saturday afternoon after all the other groups left and it was just Kristin and I with our girls we looked out and saw the ground was COVERED in garbage. As soon as the camp ended it was like everything they learned didn't matter anymore because you took away their incentive. That sounds so small but I was SO SO very frustrated and discouraged and just plain angry as i went around picking up their trash. 'What's the point; why do we bother, who cares, what difference are we making, why am i here?' was the littany of questions running through my head. Kristin reminded me that we can't expect to change the world but if even one girl doesn't throw her trash like that anymore than we have succeeded. I used to think like that too but now I guess I have to work to get that perspective back.

2. WHen stopped at a light in Cotonou a man selling phone credit took my hand in his as it rested on the window. I pushed him off and took my hand inside the car and he reached in and touched me again so I yelled at him and Kristin hit him. he did it again and then I had to hit him and he still wouldn't leave me alone so finally the light turned green and we left. I was at least glad our camp glow girls from dogbo were with us so that they could see they can stand up for themselves and not have to deal with that kind of behavior here.

When I got home, outside of my house was a mess because the rain had knocked over a tree and I was really stressed about that on top of everything else. THen within minutes, Basil came over to say hi and welcome me back. He saw the tree and ran off to grab a machete, came back, and cleaned up everything for me before getting me water. THat really made a difference in my mood and I was really grateful to him. It was really nice getting Scout back too. My return has been pretty awesome in terms of people welcoming me back and noting i had been gone for so long.

BUt in general, being here is just hard right now. Our country director has been forced to resign and we are currently with only an interim acting country director. Our training staff is severely impacted by resignations amongst other things. One of my closer friends ETed (early terminated) her service while I Was home so she is not here anymore as did another volunteer. MOst of the training group ahead of us is leaving and some are suggesting that the new training group not be brought in at the end of july. WHile I understand where they are coming from I believe that to not bring them would be extremely demoralizing to us and that that will never happen.

I guess I never stopped and thought about how Kate's murder was affecting my work here, but it is. I don't do anything no without stopping to think, 'Well what does this mean for me...could doing this somehow put me in danger or make my community angry?' I've especially had to think of this regarding some articles i wanted to write for Bisou BIsou that i now think might be too controversial, and it proved extremely salient my last night of camp glow when a girl came to me and 2 other volunteers to solicit our help in dealing with her lousy home situation with her dad. Her dad never wanted her because he was divorcing her mother and wanted her to have an abortion so he hates this girl and doesn't support her like the 13 other kids he has with 7 different women. When we suggested living with her mother (or about 7 other suggestions that she found not workable) she told us she couldn't because her belief in Voodoo. HEr father sold her soul to one of the 3 voudons of the water. THe fetishers will use gris gris to kill her if she should go live with her mother, she believes and there is no convincing her otherwise. IT would be extremely inappropriate to suggest that those beliefs are not true to her. As much as i was moved to REALLY REALLY want to help her I can't possibly because I don't want to get involved with something like that and maybe put myself at risk with her family. The other PCVs feel the same way. We decided to contact the PC facilitator I often work with in Lokossa to have him help and speak to the girl since he is more culturally aware, but I do not want anything to happen to him either, and he IS connected to PC so that comes back to us anyway since we are the volunteers who live nearby.

I worry about all of the facilitators we have training new volunteers not because I think they are out to hurt us but because I think that they are friends with each other and giving events of the last several months, I think it casts a shadow on this coming stage. All in all, it just feels very constricted in terms of work here so I have to see how that progresses and if it gets better.

So at this point it is really one day at a time while I readjust here. Going to Cotonou on Friday for the weekend because there is a dinner at the ambassadors home that I will be going to, so I am looking forward to that. Will write again soon! Miss everyone from home!

There's No Place Like Home...

Home was amazing...Really no words to adequately describe just how amazing actually. I loved packing up my house here for the trip, and going down to Cotonou was one of the more comfortable taxi rides I"ve ever had in Benin. Naturally all of the zems at etoile rouge were being fairly evil and refused to give me the right price, or first addressed me as 'ma cherie.' So I was really happy to be getting the heck out of Benin when one zem finally drove up next to me and agreed to take me to the bureau for 150 CFA, as it should have been...NOT 200CFA. Naturally the other zems that i rejected were all following me to tell whatever zem i DID find not to take me for less than 200 but this guy was nice. WHen he dropped me off he told me all the others were angry at him for taking me for 150CFA. I told him I knew but that that was the right price and so they were being unfair and dishonest just because i was white, and he agreed saying that he knew we came to this country to help them and that we shouldn't be treated like that by people. 'Oh,' I thought, 'a bright shining light in Benin that makes me think it will be okay coming back here afterwards.'

Going to the Cotonou airport to check in felt so surreal...seeing where it all started. The airport, while small, was bigger than I remembered...and there was an actual western advertising poster with Hilary Swank on it, which was so bizarre to see. I have to say that after a year in Benin plane food was pretty fantastic and I was thrilled that I could speak with the flight attendents in French! Paris left me just enough time to be completely overwhelmed by the smells and the stores of the airport and the intense security, and of course, le plus importante, to find myself a deliciously warm and flaky pain au chocolat the likes of which have never existed in Benin. SInce the croissant itself cost me more than I spend on food over the course of several days here, i decided to abandon the original plan of buying an accompanying coffee. In flight entertainment...FANNNNNNtastic. I LOVED watching music videos and some movies i missed while here the past year. I was so excited and wired for the trip that I didn't sleep for more than 2 hours, and I started to tear up as we descended over New York. Stepping off the plane and touching American soil felt great, but not nearly as good as when i saw my dad and then my Aunts and brother right after customs. Then my mom...walked into her office and she screamed a little and came running over to hug me while we both started to cry. She even wore her sunflower scrubs for me!

Seeing everyone from, friends, neighbors, colleagues, was all so great and exciting and I ate amazing food (and bien grossied as everyone here has informed me...thanks a bundle, Bénin...American women just love being told how fat they got) and drank WONDERFUL margaritas. I forgot how much I love being home and in my house. Walking in for the first time was incredible...Everything looked SO beautiful and smelled fantastic. By the end of my stay home walking into the house felt just normal and regular so I am grateful to have the opportunity to see my home this way again. My room was redone by my dad and was a spectacular surprise and welcome. My dog was a putz who didn't recognize me at first but wasted no time making himself comfortable in our new digs once he realized who I was. And the giz aussi was taken by surprise and had to warm up to me before relaxing.

Going to a supermarket didn't overwhelm me like I thought it would. Some volunteers said they cried first time they were back in a supermarket but I was just excited to pick out bonnes choses to bring for myself and other volunteers. WHat really got me was walking into Lord and Taylors in NYC: THe shoe department first, and then seeing the clothes. THat was when i felt overwhelmed. Certainly not to the point of tears, mind you...but definitely stressed out and just overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of really obnoxiously expensive things available for purchase there. I have clothes made here and see little shoe stands in the marche and that is it, so I was taken by surprise by that feeling.

A lot of people told me I appearred to have readjusted super quick and well to being back in the US but I don't really know how to respond to that. I mean...what was I supposed to do...dig a hole in my backyard for the bathroom? I fell back into my life there because that is my life and that is what i do in the U.S. It is not possible or practical to live how i do in Benin at home. BUt I don't think I looked at ANYthing the same way as I had before, ESPECIALLY the ease with which I could turn on a faucet and have hot and cold water that didn't have to be treated...I could just brush my teeth with it or drink it without boiling and filtering it first. Ice on hand and ready to go...a HUGE refrigerator...Scratch that...2 HUGE refrigerators and 3 freezers stocked with food to eat and no worry that the power is going to cut out every 10 minutes and maybe spoil your food. OH, and the glory of the washing machine. I like doing my clothes here most of the time but they just feel so much cleaner when they come out of a wash and dry cycle. I have to admit I was not equally enamored with the dishwasher. I couldn't help but not really see the point aside from when we all ate together and had a lot of dishes. But when it was just me putting in my breakfast dishes I couldn't help but think "this is so stupid...letting this barely dirty dish sit in here for afew days before washing it when I could just do it now." and so i did wash those by hand most of the time. THe feel of a good quality sponge in my hand that i knew was so easily replaceable by going to a store down the block (as opposed to a 3 hour trip to Cotonou to find a worser version) and washing a dish with soap and hot running water was a great feeling though i felt often at home that i was really wasting water. ALso using dishwear that was not plastic was pretty cool as well. verdict??? ça va un peu. Loved using my toilet at home...When it came to using a public restroom at the restaurant near the mall or in the Penn station, well, to be entirely honest...I'd take me latrine any day as opposed to dealing with nastyness and urine on the seats, etc. But in short, home was incredible, and I have to thank my friends, family, and especiall my parents for making my 3 weeks there so memorable and enjoyable. I love and miss you!