Sunday, August 23, 2009

How Many Men does it take to cut a Pineapple?

So I made it traveling through Cotonou for the first time again alive (though not entirely uneventful) and worked stage (training) in Porto Novo for 2 weeks. Peace Corps puts volunteer trainers up in a pretty swanky house (ie-electricity and running water) and gives us lovely per diem so it was a not-too –shabby stint

Last Sunday I was out looking for pineapple for breakfast with Heidi (because constant fried food and palm oil and street-food that I eat since I can’t cook in Porto Novo was wreaking havoc on my digestive system) but we were unable to find any. We saw two girls selling bread on the side of the road and asked them where we could find some. When they told us that the women only came out to sell that at night we just replied jokingly that we wanted some right now and the girl got up and decided to walk us to the woman’s house who sells them. So we walked off the main road into an area of mud-brick houses and came across 2 men milling about who looked quite surprised to see two yovos in their midst.

The girl told them of our pineapple needs and they brought some out and proceeded to hand them to me after discuter-ing the price. Seeing as how we don’t have any knives in our house we asked them to cut them for us (normally when you buy a pineapple they cut it up and put it in a little black plastic sachet manufactured en masse in Nigeria to go for you without even asking) and this was the response that we got.

The man looked at us and replied “There aren’t any women here right now.” That was followed by a brief pause in which I believe Heidi and I were contemplating how to proceed while focusing on not dropping our jaws in utter disbelief. The men handed us the pineapple again, indicating that WE were women and should just take it. We explained to them that we didn’t have any knives at our house and that really threw them for a loop and they started talking in local language about what to do. Heidi jokingly but also seriously asked “Quoi, tu n’est pas capable?” (What, you aren’t capable?) to which they repeated the fairly obvious observation that they were in fact men, not women. Finally the seemingly more competent of the 2 walked away, in what I assumed, would be an effort to go find a knife. Then we stood around in fairly typical awkward Beninese silence waiting for him to return and what had he found? Not a knife….nope, he went and found a woman to cut up our pineapples for us.

The woman had the less competent of the 2 hold a plate with a black sachet wrapped around it so that she could cut the pineapple onto it and pick up the sachet to hand us after she had finished. But it was really amusing to watch her scold the man for putting the sachet on it the wrong way and she finally just took it from him to do it herself completely. Oh, Benin.

I actually had a really interesting conversation with one of the facilitators (Host country national contract workers hired to train trainees during stage) who was my first language teacher last summer. I was running a session for the trainees about how to make soy cheese in village and we were waiting for the water to boil when I recounted to him the pineapple story and he laughed. He admitted that he, himself could not cut pineapples because he always cut his hand and his wife had to do it for him (she is a midwife). But then we got into a more serious discussion about the role of women here and it was really powerful to hear him concede that the women of this country walk around with “Benin’s economy held in a basket on their heads.”

Working stage was a really good experience for me, I think. Seeing all of the new arrivals made me realize how far I have come here in my French, my coping with daily trials, interrelations with other people both Beninese and American, and in just knowing Benin in general. I had started to take for granted how much I already knew here and how comfortable I was in my daily life and I think it was good to be reminded of when I first arrived here and hadn’t a clue what was going on. I am kind of hoping this group will breathe new life into PC Benin because we could use it, I think. They officially swear in as volunteers on September 25th.

It was really nice also seeing my host family while I was down in Porto Novo. They are hosting another stagiere this year and had a little shrine to America up in their house when I came in. Maman and I spent the afternoon cooking together and it was really nice just talking with her and hanging out with the kids.

So far only one of the new group has decided to ET (early terminate) and leave Benin, which is pretty impressive compared to my group at the same time. Unfortunately, another health volunteer that came in with me has decided to leave country and so it’s sad to see her go, and hard to lose another one of our own.

It is however, incredible to realize that I have been here now for almost 14 months and pretty soon am officially more than halfway done, no matter how I slice it with departure dates. Talking to the new trainees made me see that too. They are talking about how 2 years is so long and it is…I remember freaking out about that prospect when I got here last year. And it is crazy to think that after I have been home for almost a year they will still be in Benin. It is so exciting to think of how far we’ve come—that I only have one more chaleur and harmattan left in Benin (thank god), one more Christmas and Voodoo Day, that within 8-9 months I will be attending my COS conference (Close of Service Conference) together with the rest of my training group—the first time we will all be together since having sworn in as volunteers nearly a year ago.

Only 12 more months or so until I can meet my new cousin, Ella--I am so excited. Congratulations Aunt Annie and Uncle Tom!!! I’m glad we took the picture with all the girl cousins and A. Annie!

Until next time!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Vive L'Independence! Vive Le Benin!

August 1st 2009 means it is officially my second Independence Day in Benin. It is strange to realize that I am hitting “round 2” of my life here. Strange to think that I already blogged about Independence Day in Benin one time before: granted I was knocked out with a 102 degree fever last Independence Day so it wasn’t overly memorable, but it did happen. I’m coming up on my second and last Holiday season in Benin, Voodoo Day, long dry season…etc. It is exciting and still a little sad at the same time.

Still slightly bitter about my experience last year, I decided to fete it up this time around for Le Premier Aout to make up for it. Benin gained its Independence in 1960, making this its 49th anniversary. Every year the government puts on one big national celebration or fete and the location changes on a yearly basis. This year they chose to have it in Lokossa, the regional capitol conveniently located approximately 30 minutes away from Dogbo via bush taxi.

Several friends of mine were heading down here yesterday for the celebration and I decided to meet up with them so I taxied over this morning. Being a Beninese occasion, the fete involved much standing around waiting for things to happen. But when they did, it was interesting to see. The government had been putting in a lot of work to get ready for the past year so it was really cool to see the final culmination of their efforts, especially since I pass through Lokossa each time I go to Cotonou. They really “beautified” a park in the city, constructing cement benches, walkways with lights, and even a fountain of tiles in the Beninese flag colors. There is this thing in the center of the “park” in Lokossa that I am pretty sure is supposed to be the base for an as of yet unfinished monument. Pretty drab since my being here, the government had it retiled in red, green, and yellow for the occasion.

Today tons of flags were flying all over Lokossa and there was an extreme military presence (unfortunately the uniform doesn’t deter some tenacious gents and I had to walk in front of a line of soldiers and listen to “tu es jolie, non?” to which I now flatly reply, “oui, je sais.” –“you are pretty, eh?/ yes, I know”). It was pretty amazing to me to see such a sense of national pride, actually. Everyone that I came across in Dogbo and Lokossa were really excited that the fete was here. My maman in Porto Novo called me to wish me a bonne fete (She is excited because next year for the country’s 50th anniversary the national fete will be in Porto Novo meme) and was telling me that this was the 49th anniversary. She asked me what year we had just celebrated in the states and I had to pause and admit that I didn’t even know off the top of my head. I’d be willing to wager that most Americans don’t. So I guess I was really pleasantly surprised. It was fun to feel the charged excitement of all the Beninese in the air.

Pictures: The car with President Boni Yayi (he's the one all the way to the right, waving; battalion of women

There was a parade that included all branches of the Beninese military (very impressive to see them all in their uniforms and I was surprised to see several large battalions of women as well). The highlight of the parade was definitely when a truck came by containing a standing President Dr. Boni Yayi waving to the clapping crowds (he looked a lot younger that I thought he would from pictures—granted—mostly pictures printed on Tissu here that people wear for political events). I guess coming from an experience where I have seen the measures used to protect our President it was surprising and interesting to see the Beninese President just sashay out in public like that. I mean, I suppose he was technically surrounded by the military, but still. The women across from me were holding wooden guns…doesn’t exactly inspire fear.

After he passed, our little yovo contingent turned back toward the park where there were 2 helicopters making a show of turning on and off. It seemed like most Beninese people were pretty enthralled with the display. Personally I was just happy to see that they existed because I had thought that I saw them a few days back and thought maybe I was losing it It’s not like you see planes and helicopters ever here unlike at home where my house is under a flight path. That was actually something to get used to again. When I got back to Benin I kept thinking a plane was flying overhead when I had to remind myself that it was thunder because no planes ever fly overhead here. This past week when I heard them, I was really thrown.

Picture: The helicopters

There was a lot of music and dancing, and a voodoo day like display of national themed zangbetto dancing. Once again a lifting of the zangbetto revealed nothing underneath and we are still speculating how they pull it off each time to do that. It is maddening! Afterwards we went out for delicious igame pilee with sauce d’arachide and “fromage”—that is pounded igame with peanut sauce and wagasi (igame is kind of like a potato—this bland root that is the staple of Northern cuisine in Benin. Igame pile is actually a northern thing, and thus northern volunteers tend to whine about how much it costs to eat it down south, along with the wagasi since cows are much more plentiful with the Fulani people in Northern Benin. Wagasi costs about 100CFA down by me for one piece and up north can cost about 25CFA). All in all, I’d say I had a pretty swanky Independence Day the second time around and am very happy about it. Tomorrow Michele and Angelina are coming over to spend the night so we can start planning out our Christmas trip to Mali—trekking in Dogon Country and mayyyyyyybe visiting Timbuktu if Al Qaeda stops kidnapping westerners in the general vicinity by that time.

Oh, I almost forgot. Today marks the first time since July 5th that I rode on a moto. I wouldn’t really call it a great first ride since the streets in lokossa were crazy during the fete but I live to tell the tale for today. I decided to ride the high (huh, pun not intended) and took a zem back from my marche as well just to see how it felt zemming around Dogbo again. I was sure to wear my helmet. It was interesting to see the meat in my marche for the fete. Normally I can find meat only on marche days (except for like Christmas and stuff, apparently like Independence Day) at one place—the meat section where whole cows are hung off large butcher hooks and they honk off pieces for you when you order. Today though there was chicken already killed and plucked sitting out partout with flies in the marche. I probably should have bought some but I wasn’t in the mood to cook it.

Wound status. Apparently wicked moto burns and post accidental cuts all over my feet are nothing. It is apparently a blister and a mosquito bite that are currently threatening to take me out. Frankly, I’m getting tired of having to walk like a putz. I had this bite on my lower leg that I scratched and it is now quite infected. I woke up this morning and it was throbbing, oozing pus, and flies kept landing on it at the fete—that can’t be good. Then I had these monster blisters…and when I say monster I mean HUGE…like take a ping pong ball, cut it in half, and stick each on the back of my ankles (it was from going out for a walk in my sneakers for the first time since being back here). Unfortunately, one of them popped and was looking red and oozing quite a bit. And then there is my toenail, a continued malodorous and oozing source of pain that also attracts flies like meat in my marche. Fortunately, my own wound care skills have really improved since coming to Benin and with a little conseil from my mom, I think it’s going to be juuuust fine. On va voir. A bientot!