Sunday, July 26, 2009

By the Way...

I am putting up a picture of the girls with their diplomas. I meant to write this in the other post and then just got distracted with my marriage proposal story. Thank you to everyone for being so supportive of me--from prayers, to thoughts and well-wishes-- after my accident...from family to friends, colleagues, and the cherries...I really appreciate it.

From Mildew to "I do"

So I am officially out of the medical unit., which is good considering that it was driving me crazy. I am used to being alone most of the time here and I spent over 2 weeks constantly surrounded by a flurry of volunteers passing through Cotonou on their way to vacations or ending their service. I love seeing other volunteers but that was just too much. I couldn’t really walk for the majority of my stay there because my feet were so cut up and I wasn’t ready to get back on a zem so my movement for those two weeks was confined to hobbling around (because I swear, being a yovo in Benin doesn't draw enough attention to me...i need to add bandages and a limp) in about a 2 block radius away from headquarters. The only thing to do during the day was read, watch movies, or sit on the computer…all a novelty when you visit Cotonou maybe once a month but not after day 4 nevermind 14.

After a few days the intensity of what happened seemed to diminish. I stopped replaying it every few minutes in my head. But then every time that I thought I was doing just fine something would remind me about the accident. The following Sunday, for example, I put on the dress I wore that day for the first time since the accident and realized the whole skirt section of it was entirely shredded from dragging along the road. I had a cut on my thumb also that wasn’t healing and was surprisingly irritating considering its small size. A few days after that (about a week and a half after my accident) I finally was able to pull out a small shard of glass that had been jammed in there. I’m still shaken up enough that I haven’t zemmed yet still. It is inevitable if I am going to stay here so I should probably just bite the bullet and try it out in Dogbo before I’ll have to in Cotonou or Porto Novo. But anyways...

I’m fairly certain that the nail on my left big toe is destined to fall off. I think it was just too damaged after the impact. It keeps oozing blood and well….ooze… from underneath and is an opaque white color. Every time there is pressure on it, it hurts and yet it feels oddly detached. So I am sure it is only a matter of time before my feet look like my grandpa’s, which for those of you who haven't seen them...well...just be grateful. :)

At any rate, coming back to Dogbo for some reason seems to have snapped me out of the funk I was in when I got back to Benin. All of a sudden I was really happy to be in my house in my town. It was great to see everyone, especially my neighbor, Rosine. I was surprised at how many people in my neighborhood had heard that I was in an accident. They were all pretty glad to hear that I was okay and that I was back. Most of my marche mamans just thought that I had been traveling though and when I told them what happened they all dropped their jaws and made this little sound of exclamation and tongue clucking that only exists in Benin…well, maybe in West Africa.

Rainy season is in full swing here (a fact that I was lamenting since I spent most of rainy season in the states and the medical unit and it happens to be the coolest time of year in Southern seems like a missed opportunity) and I am starting to realize that the grass really IS always greener on the other side. Of course trite punning aside, it’s actually amazingly green here right now. Southern Benin never gets too brown because it is a tropical climate and perpetually humid as opposed to up north, which is far more arid. But by the end of dry season all greenery flanking roadsides was covered in a thick layer of reddish brown dust and plants were much smaller. As soon as the first rains fell here everything started growing back in full force. But anyways, when I was in the height of dry season here I really was hating the heat and the constant layers of dust that covered everything in my house. All I wanted was one cool rainy day. I’m not sick of the rain. I think it could rain almost every day and I would never get tired of it. But with constant extreme humidity and persistent rainfall come several annoying issues.

1. Mud…oh, the mud is partout.

2. My laundry takes about 3 days to dry and at that point smells kind of funky.

3. Mildew. The mildew is aussi partout. My whole bedroom reeks of mildew. I stripped my bed and washed my sheets only to realize that it is actually my mattress that still smells. My wall hanging in my room gets wet when it rains since there is a leak in my roof above that wall, so it too is starting to smell fairly awful. But the worst is my clothes. All the clothes in my drawers are starting to smell and it isn’t as if washing clothes here is a piece of cake. And they smell all mildewy by the time they dry now anyway.

But apart from the mildew's acerbic attack on my nose every day, I’ve been having a pretty good time since being back in Dogbo. I took a lot of pictures of people in Dogbo before I left for vacation. While I was home, I had them printed and brought them back to give to people, a job hadn't finished before my little sejour in Cotonou. So i went out the other day to give the girls that I worked with at the cyber their pictures. They started shrieking with excitement when they saw them and were SO happy to have copies (there was a group shot for each of them and then each of them struck a pose as well in an individual shot). They invited me to a ceremony Saturday to celebrate their finishing up their "apprenticeship" with computers at the cyber, which had me really excited--not the ceremony...honestly after a year here I can officially say that beninese ceremonies tend to be boring and extremely awkward, especially as the lone yovo...but to be invited to participate with them and included in their celebration made me really happy.

I arrived Saturday morning at 9am like the invitation said, though only God knows why. I mean, really...i've lived here long enough that I should have known that the ceremony wouldn't start until well after 11AM. I got there and the girls were all in meme tissu outfits, looking very shnazzy. They were going to a buvette to get chairs to set up and I went with them to help, lifting some chairs against their protests that "madame" shouldn't be doing that. It's like doing all my own handy work around my house...i think it sends a positive message. But anyways, i was sitting in the cyber lamenting the fact that after over a year of living here i was foolish enough to leave my house for a Beninese function without a book when my bored fiddling with my phone was interrupted by one of the men who works at the cyber. I know him and said hi and then I noticed that he was standing with another man, considerably older than him who I did not know. The older man didn't speak at all except to say bonjour. I guess I don't always...or ever...exude any sort of friendliness that would encourage conversation when a man comes up to me in this country though. The guy that I did know held out an envelope and said that the second man had wanted to talk to me when I had some time. I looked at the envelope and he was pointing at the man's name which was written on it. I was a little confused and thought maybe he was just showing me that so I'd know his name. I thought maybe he didn't speak French and wanted this guy to translate for us...and I figured that it had something to do with money because in usually does. I looked around the room that still had no guests in it and told him I had time then to talk if he wanted and the second man looked a little flustered. The first man said no, I should take the letter, and I looked at the older guy and told him if he wanted i could take it, read it later, and get back to him, and he nodded. The girls were sitting next to me and he didn't seem to want to talk in front of them. Again, I thought, prooooooooobably money. So i took the envelope and went back to playing a game on my phone.

Curiosity ever being a weakness of mine that was at the time encouraged by being bored waiting for the ceremony, I opened up the envelope a few minutes later just to see what it was about. My eyes stopped over the "objet" section which is the french equivalent of "Re:" What was his object you ask?

Proposition de Marriage.

Andddd the envelope got re-shut. As most of my friends and mom know...any sort of unwanted male attention tends to send me into hyperactive irrational panic mode. I felt my heartbeat skip a beat and this sick feeling settled into my stomach. When I first came to Benin, I did not do very well with the sexual harassement. Every time a man made a lewd comment, or I got "ma cheried" I would kind of squirm up inside and feel really uncomfortable and vulnerable. Over time I got over it. I learned how to come up with quick quips to shut men up and put them in their place, and stand up for myself here. I also learned when it wasn't worth it to even bother and to instead just ignore them. For the most part now, if a man starts hitting on me I walk away and maybe tell them to shut up and respect themselves. I don't however feel physically ill when it happens.

This situation however, brought that feeling back because while I've gotten marriage proposals before from men and their mothers I've never gotten such an official one. I mean, this man wrote out his qualifications to be my husband and was telling me how much he loved me....a girl whose name he doesn't even know. For me, coming from my culture in the States, it was beyond absurd. I felt a lot better when I left the cyber and felt in control again. I reminded myself that it doesn't mean anything because it takes two to tango, and if i have my way I will never see him again, nor will I respond to his request--I will merely tuck it into my journal for safekeeping in case I end up a spinster so that i can remind myself that at one time someone did want to marry me...even if he was at least twice my age and didn't know me at all.

Anyways, other than that, the ceremony was very nice and I was still happy to celebrate with the girls! A la prochaine!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


...and everything can change. In an instant; The blink of an eye; the second it takes to make a decision--the decision to sleep outside for a night, to go to a beach with your host family, to go out in Cotonou alone, to get on a zem, whether or not to put on your helmet; to take your eyes off a road. That's all it takes. If one single thing has really hit me in the past few months it has been the realization of how very true this fact is.

I feel as though when that reality hits you, when you begin to understand how serendipitous life really is--a mingling of singular instances, choices, and decisions--nothing becomes easier than playing the game of "what if"? It's just so tempting. How could I rewrite the past few months with only a few crucial moments of change. It's like those books I read as a kid with the "pick you own ending" theme. EVery few pages you arrived at a choice and whatever choice you made would change the ending of the story. I was never really good at reading those books because when I didn't like if they were turning out badly I would get annoyed, go back, and pick again. I just wouldn't accept the ending. I am a little bit anal retentive like that. I need to be in control. And how I wish I could have that same kind of power in life...but life just doesn't work like that, I've learned. So maybe I should stop playing what if for this past weekend.

Kristin, my postmate, had her mother with her in Benin this past week and she told me her Mom had brought a 4th of July "surprise" so I should maybe hang around Dogbo to celebrate. What's not to celebrate. It was my one year anniversary in Benin! I made it...I was jumping up and down congratulating myself and my friends on what we had accomplished. I wanted to be with my friends so I decided to come down to Cotonou instead for a soiree at the US Ambassador's house--a potluck where we were all bringing something (For the record...i blew everyone away with my supreme culinary prowess in managing to whip up pigs in blankets with a honey mustard dipping sauce--used vienna sausage from a can and made the dough from scratch. They didn't even last on the table 5 was awesome). So Saturday was fun. Sunday I could have just packed up and gone home. But i didn't. I hung out with my friends for the morning and went to the new supermarche that just opened with them to check out all of the bonnes choses that we can never in a million years afford. Then I decided to extend my afternoon in Cotonou and stay for lunch. Some people decided to spend the night in Cotonou since it was 4 and I almost made the call to get permission to stay a third night away from post as well, when i decided to forget it and just get back to Dogbo. ANd that's what did it...but no point in thinking about it I guess. So i got my bags, and my full gas tank, and I went out to catch a zem. I hadn't been away from the bureau for more than 2 minutes when I felt it. This huge slam out of nowhere.

I have come so close to getting creamed when I have been on motos so many times here that I have lost count. I have seen a lot of accidents, several bodies on the side of the road as well, during my time here. But every time it almost happend I thought that it could never ACTUALLY happen to me. I mean really...what are the odds, right? But it did...and as opposed to THINKING that this could never happen, here is what I know now.

I know that it can happen. I know that when a car hits you at full speed straight on from behind and makes contact with your body, it hurts. I fell back onto the hood of the car and felt my head slam down as it rolled over to my right side and i realized that I was riding the hood of the car. Then I knew that i was in the air...perfectly aware of it happening as fast as it was. I could feel my skirt flutter up and was vaguely mortified. But that went away because then i hit face first, palms down, legs splayed on the ground and could feel my skin tearing at my feet and my palms and my arms and my legs as i slid forward across the road. It burned. I waited for it to be over. When i finally slowed to a stop I had to will myself to look over my left shoulder; to see if the car had stopped. Because if it didn't, i knew that was it...i had landed several feet in front of it, right in its trajectory. But it did stop. When the car hit, in that very first instant, i remember this split second of confusion as to what it was, and then anger at how anyone could be so stupid as to ram into me directly from behind when we were going straight, not cutting people off, and being completely cautious. But that passed. When I realized I was on the hood of the car and we were still moving, all i wanted was to stay on the hood of the car because I was alive, and i was safer up there. If i fell to the ground, I thought, all bets were off. As i hit the ground and was sliding, every second i just kept thinking this hurts so much, but I am alive in this second, for now. I am alive, I am alive, I am alive, please let the car stop. I was actually disconcerted to see how much clarity someone can have in such a distressing situation. It made me think of Kate.

I pulled my helmet off and pulled my skirt down over my legs and then i got up but my whole body was shaking. I saw the zem driver splayed out face down and felt relieved when i saw him lift his head. And then I was surrounded by people taking my things, taking me, to the divide in the road, telling me to sit, yelling about as they do here. I lost sight of the zem and couldn't recognize him. I took my bag to find my phone, shocked, but singularly obsessed with doing the one thing I remember Peace Corps telling us to in this situation. Call the medical duty officer. My hands were shaking and it was hard to find the phone and press the buttons. And then my thumb was sticky on the number pad with blood as I scrolled through to find his number. I remember calling people ridiculously. I couldn't breathe well...I shouldn't have called. I wasn't in a mind to talk. I needed to make sure someone would feed scout. I knew I wouldn't go back to dogbo tonight and was annoyed. THen I remembered the gas tank because someone put it down next to me. So it didn't explode. That's lucky. I had lost sight of that while the accident happened. Then my bookbag. How did that even come off of my back? And computer is inside. Then my bag that Carie gave me for my birthday. The strap was ripped. How can someone ever remember French in a situation like this. I look down at my feet and they are covered with blood and dirt, and stinging. Where are my shoes? What/Quoi? Mes chaussures. Ou sont mes chaussures? They ran back to look for them...they were several feet behind the car. Flip flops don't stay on well and they were hell to slide back on over the cuts. I looked at the car. THere was a dent on the hood where I landed and no one was inside. Who was the driver? I didn't want to be surrounded by people so I took the ambulance back to Peace Corps headquarters and was met by my AO and Security officer and we waited for the doctor to come. Shock started to wear off a little and pain started to settle in more.

And that is where I am now. In Cotonou in the med unit. You can not imagine the bruise on my butt where the car hit me. It is perfectly violet...ther is no variation in color. Large and painful, and one of my right ribs hurts, but it isn't broken. The pain in my neck is diminishing and the sting of the cuts isn't as bad as it was the first day or two even though it still hurts. I don't cry every 5 minutes or so like i did for the first 2 days. But the reality of what happened is still there. I haven't left my American bubble of headquarters surrounded by volunteers who make me smile and feel a little better, except for getting xrays and ultrasound appts. When i have left it has been in a PC SUV, a little tank that makes me feel safe. But even pulling out of the bureau and driving in the streets of Cotonou, all i think is "Ugh."

I've gotten into car accidents before...ironically the day i got accepted into Peace Corps I remember a car ramming into my passenger side door at Holy Cross. I have fallen off a horse before as i was getting on, but i got back on that horse. And i got back into a car again. So what is the difference here is what I have been asking myself. Can I get on a zem again? A very large part of me thinks "no." But not "can't"...just "don't want to." And it is all about control. When i got back on that horse I had other people there to take the reigns and ensure he stayed put. When i get in a car at home I am driving and in control or I trust the driver I am getting into a car with because I know them. In Benin, getting on a zem is tantamount to surrendering any and all control I have over my life. THe only choice I have is whether or not to put on my helmet, and if I were to be entirely honest, I would have to admit that there have been times at post, when I have chosen to not be bothered with even that. But when I get on zem, that is ALL the control I have, because he is driving, and I can't control the people around me. Nor can I control the roads--whether it is mud in the rainy season, or sand patches in the dry season, or just gravel strewn across a paved road in Cotonou that a moto can catch an edge on and spill over. I can only pick the zem, and THAT will lead me to my ending...good or bad, who knows? All i know now is that I can no longer be cavalier about zemming here in Benin. Subconsciously I always knew on some level that every time i got on a zem or into a taxi that it would possibly be my last ride. It sounds melodramatic but it is true...but like i was so deep in the back of my mind...a kind of "what are the odds?" thought. I just don't know if that is something that I want to keep doing to myself every day here. I had already done the 'moto accident thing.' In february, before life in Benin seemingly went to seed, maybe ominously so, my moto spun out of control in mud with my homologue and i burned my leg and the moto came down on top of me. It freaked me out enough so that every time i got on a moto again i felt nervous especially on nonpaved roads. Now I don't know if i can imagine getting back on and i can't be a PCV in Benin without zemming. that is just a simple fact. I got in a car again, I got on the horse again, but I just have to wait and see how this will play out.

Like lack of control, I don't do regret well either. I think that everything that happens in life brings you to the next starting point and that there is no point regretting that. If I choose to finish my time here in Benin, I do not want to have regrets about it. So I am taking my life one day at a time and seeing where that takes me. I have lots of reasons to stay. I made lists; stay lists and go lists. I have a lot more sitting on the "Why to stay in Benin" side. The day before this happened I was talking to Duffy about plans maybe to meet up in Senegal. Life just gets so derailed sometimes. The fact that my stay list is longer might not matter at all if I can't feel comfortable getting back on a zem again. Because if there is something i know's that I CAN get creamed again. There is nothing to stop it from happening again, and who is to say it wouldn't be worse next time if it did happen?

I don't like quitting...i don't think I've ever gone back on a big committment. ANd there is a part of me that thought for a long time that calling it now would be cowardly--I don't want to leave here on a sour note, that would just confirm peoples' worst predispositions towards life in Africa, because at the end of the day I still like Benin. EVeryone from work has called to see how I am, and both the man who hit me and the zem have stopped by here several times and called to see me and how I am doing. EVeryone around headquarters is asking how I am, and Basil in an instant without question, came to take scout and while he has absolutely no money and always "Beeps" Kristin or me (call, let ring once, and hang up so that you don't use credit and we call him back) actually called and texted me to see if i was okay. But I guess there is merit to knowing when you've had enough, and setting a level of risk that you are willing to accept. I just haven't figured out what that is yet for me. So day at a time for now...and I guess I will see where I end up.