Thursday, October 29, 2009

Whip it....Whip it good

Tuesday was the Whipping fete or...fete de chicotte in Badjoude. Turns out it isn't a coming of age ceremony for Muslim boys but it is just a tradition of the Lokpa people who live in this area of Benin. Gong up to the Donga was probably one of the crazier or more impulsive things I've done since coming to Benin since it was a really long trip for 2 nights and quite a bit of traveling...but it was completely worth it. How many times in ones' life do they get to see grown men whipping each other?

Monday morning i got up early and took a taxi to azove, then an hour long zem ride up to bohicon where I caught the bus at 10 to go to Djougou. Once i got to Djougou I got on another zem for over an hour out to Heidi's village, Komde. I get annoyed with the dust here in the Kouffo during dry season, but my lord...I hadn't known dust until then. The rains are still falling a bit up north and even so I was literally covered in red earth when i got off the zem in Komde. It is a totally different world up north--far more arid and not at all tropical. And much more Muslim as well. Hearing the call to prayer was really beautiful...and Heidi's village is teeny tiny. I loved it. I got there around 3ish and then all the other volunteers (i was the only one that came up from the south) arrived after nightfall. The stars up in northern Benin are absolutely gorgeous. I think they are beautiful where i am, but there is even less light pollution up north--Heidi's village really doesn't have electricity--so you can just see everything. I love being able to walk around outside at night with just the light of the moon--I know I'll miss that. And now that the rains are finishing up it is once again beautiful to take a bucket shower under the stars. But anyways...

So there were 13 of us, and on Tuesday morning we woke up at 4:45 to get into Badjoude for Chicotte, which starts at daybreak. We were sitting in their marche when the first group of men came up dancing and stomping their feet to create a rattling noise (they had these reeds tied up with beans or somehting around their ankles to make a baby-rattle effect that created music) As the sun rose the fete got underway and many of the men and boys of the village came out marching toward the marche.

A lot of the men were dressed up as women with bras and skirts, etc., though I have no idea why. Women were marching with them, but when it comes down to the whipping, it is men only. They reached a small clearing and had at it. All the women, PCVs, kids, and some men were circled around the field and they just kept blowing their whistles and whipping it out. You kind of march around, get an opponent and brace yourself as they try to whip you before you whip them back. The whips are made of trees and reed-like things so they broke sometimes when someone met their touch with a raised stick in defense. There were men circling around carrying extra whips with them for just such an instance. You can't cry if you get whipped because the ceremony is supposed to show your manhood and that you are ready to fight. By the end, there were plenty of bloodied backs and arms but that is just a badge of honor. I myself, got smeared with blood by a passerby, and hit by a rogue whip--i guess it just means i am bien integre! Every few minutes there was a little “dance break” for lack of a better term. All whipping stopped and the women hopped in with the men, circling around making music and blowing whistles. After a few moments, everyone but the whippers ran back out of the circle nearly crushing the people on the periphery as the whipping would recommence. And on this cycle went for a good long while. Watching the younger boys whip each other or go up against an older man was really interesting, and I do not really understand how “opponents” chose one another. At one point, all the PCVs got into the circle in a dance break and moved around with everyone, and we got baby powder thrown on us just like the whippers. I don’t really understand that tradition either (I got doused at the voodoo day fete as well) but I think we were told it was just to keep people dry when they were perspiring.

ANyway, the fete was awesome to see and really interesting and I hope you enjoy the pictures I am putting up. I have a lot more and videos too but I think I put up a good sampling. We had a lunch planned with the second to the Maire of Ouke and before that, the King of Badjoude invited us to his house for Tchouk--a local alcohol that I really do not enjoy. But when we got to the Kings house he said he couldn't have us and not feed us so they whipped up igame pile with a delicious sauce and mouton for us, followed by a plate of rice. It was sooo much food and it was only lunch number one for the day. Really, it was a fantastic gesture for them to feed that many of us, and to give us meat besides. In general the people of Badjoude were thrilled that we were there—this is Kate’s village and given the past year, they did not think that we were going to come. I think that having such a large PCV presence was really great for their community morale and for Peace Corps as well. I had been apprehensive about going—I wasn’t sure if it would be sad or difficult being there, but it felt good getting to see where Kate lived and the friendly community members. Everyone there was just so welcoming, and the King took one of us aside to tell him how thrilled he was that volunteers came and how sorry he was about everything that happened with Kate. For awhile after it all happened in March, it was very difficult for me to not put a wall up against Benin and the people here, and so it was nice, I guess in a way, to come to understand first hand that her community grieves with us—that we aren’t the only ones here who are horrified and hurt by her death.

Afterwards we headed out for lunch number 2…more igame pile but with a different kind of sauce. Fortunately for me, igame pile is still a novelty because you really can’t get it down south, but most of the northern volunteers are pretty jaded by the pile deliciousness so I don’t think they were at all excited to be eating it in such quantity. By the time our bellies were stuffed to bursting, it was already almost 3 and we had been up since before 5am and walking around in the sun all day (note to self…buy a wide brimmed straw hat before trekking around Mali at Christmas time…the sun up in that arid climate kills) so we were exhausted. We hopped in our rented van and drove back to Komde where everyone took off toward Natitingou. I stayed in Komde 4 the night and got the grand tour of Heidi’s village before leaving her house at 6am to catch the bus in Djougou heading back down to Bohicon. I can’t believe whipping fete is already over—I remember talking about going to it with Heidi and Rut since last December, and now it has come and gone. There is no way I will be here for it next year. Im about to celebrate my second Halloween here, and it is almost November. I say it in nearly every blog entry now because it hits me nearly every day, but the time here is flying by so fast! I’m going up north to Kandi next week to do post visits for the Peer Support Network, in Benin (like a peer counseling thing—I go to visit new volunteers and see how they are doing while bringing them delicious baked goods since they technically aren’t allowed to leave their posts 4 the first 3 months) and with Halloween on Saturday, more pictures are definitely forthcoming. Happy Halloween! Enjoy your cold weather.

Man dressed to the nines in the march to the marche in Badjoude

A view from Badjoude

Making Igame Pile (usually it is women making it, so i really like this shot) favorite meal in Benin. Get psyched, mom and dad...we'll be entering igame pile land when you come! The 3 people work themselves in a rhythm, pounding the cooked igame with water until it is a delicious blob.

Little girl walking by a baobob tree...I just like how small she looked here. Baobobs are HUGE. There aren't too many in this area compared to up north.

lunch #1 with king of Badjoude

obama-rama at its finest in Benin. When you make it onto a sweetened condensed milk can in a random little village in West Africa...that's how you know you've hit the big time

This and the next few pics are just of some of the men dressed up for the whipping

Sacred tam-tam (drum) of Badjoude used to announce warfare, etc.

Action shot of the whipping

boy bracing himself for the whip

Me, Heidi, and Christopher

more whipping

chaos...absolute chaos. This was what it looked like...hundreds and hundreds of people crammed in a tiny field, where all the men and boys were whipping each other all willy nilly.

group shot!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Kittens are Imminent...and other things

Picture: Scout shenanigans...making herself at home in my window slats at night.

So Scout has officially gone rogue. Within the past week she has run out of my house like a bat out of hell when I take my bucket shower at night EVERY night. She climbs my cement wall because, apparently, she is a spider-monkey now; jumps, and stays out all night until she saunters back in a walk of shame like the scandalous little harlot that she is at around 6AM, at which time she jumps onto the window screen of my bedroom and howls at me mercilessly until I get up and let her in. Honestly, it is kind of lonely at night without her in my house. She used to always cuddle up on my lap and I felt better sleeping, knowing that I had my own little cockroach destroyer in the house with me. I can kill scorpions like nobody’s business but cockroaches still seem to paralyze me with disgust. Then during the day she just creeps under my bed and sleeps until it’s time for her dinner. I feel so used and abused. In fact, last night when I was making her dinner, her little “friend” had the gall to sashay up to my front door for a cat call, if you don’t mind the pun, and she flat out left me to go see him. So, as I’ve indicated, kittens seem pretty imminent.

Her disreputable behavior would bother me more though if it didn’t seem to be a scourge of lasciviousness on felines across Benin. Simultaneously so many volunteers’ cats have been doing the same exact thing. It’s like some coordinated feline mating ritual. And speaking of rituals…

I’m heading up north to Badjoude on Monday to see the annual “Whipping fete” that acts as a rite of passage for Muslim boys. It is going to be kind of crazy (not to mention expensive)…going all the way up to Badjoude and back in 2 days (we only get 2 days away from post at a time without taking vacation), but how many times does one get to see a whipping fete, really? Plus there are whipping fetes all over the north but Badjoude’s is supposed to be especially large and interesting. So fun stories and pictures to come.

Picture: Marianne with a famous Beninese TV star that came to swear-in...yes, the head gear is normal formal attire in Benin.

Picture: Michelle and Angelina at my house for our initial Mali planification!!!

Life is getting pretty hectic here now, and my work is really picking up. I got my first issue of Bisou Bisou out to the schools this week, and announced the girls club I’m starting with a woman at my NGO. We are picking up their application essays at the schools tomorrow and then will choose 8 to work with us over the year. We’re going to discuss sexual health stuff, female empowerment, strategies for academic success, etc., as well as train them on computers so that hopefully they can continue with the newsletter themselves next year. Yesterday I went back out to Koutime to weigh babies with Kantos and the new health volunteer that just moved nearby—a LOT more women came than the last time. We weighed 79 babies, and talked to each mom about her child’s eating habits, reinforcing exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months, and weaning strategies, etc. so we were there for about 6 hours. And there was a fete going on so a lot of women couldn’t come, which means next time will probably be longer. But I really enjoy it—it is satisfying work.

Several women prepared us food as a thank you since we had been there all morning and well through the afternoon—pate with moringa sauce. It’s tends to be a little uncomfortable to me when I’m in that kind of situation because inevitably, all eyes are on my while I’m eating. The women just sat around the periphery of the room while Charlie, Kantos, and I dug in…literally…because traditionally in Benin, one eats with his or her hands. I myself still struggle to cross some kind of mental barrier I seem to have put up against eating with my hands so that in situations were it wouldn’t seem overly rude—like a restaurant—I ask for a fork. This however, would have been pretty rude in this situation so I ate with my hands. It’s just that everyone in Benin always makes fun of me because I eat with my thumb, index, and middle fingers as opposed to eating with all 5 fingers. They think it is dainty and ridiculous, and, because I can’t shovel the sauce in at warp speed, it takes me awhile to finish. I don’t know why I don’t like to use my last 2 fingers. After all, my hand is getting gross anyway and I’ll still have to wash it. But I think if I tried to eat with all 5 fingers I would just end up dribbling sauce down my face and if I get laughed at that much for eating daintily, I can’t imagine the teasing—even if it is friendly teasing—that would accompany thoooose shenanigans. But anyways…

I often talk about how much I can’t stand men in this country. It’s true…I find constant sexual harassment and cat calls, leering looks, marriage proposals, and lewd comments utterly exhausting and degrading and it has given me really negative feelings toward the general male population here. But now I’m trying to work with that, or at least take a first step. I was reading Helen Epstein’s book, The Invisible Cure, about HIV/AIDS in Africa and stumbled across something that stuck out as a very important point to me. She writes “Empowering individual women without addressing the attitudes of men and society in general risks creating empowered women who antagonize men.” I’ve noticed this before in my work since I tend to so much focus on women, but generally never felt moved enough to start to engage men here more than I already did. Men will hover around the periphery of my womens’ groups meetings to hear what we talk about. And when we announced the girls club at the schools the boys took umbrage that I wasn’t having a club for boys too. And I have noticed that including men in my work with womens’ groups usually goes over really well, and they enjoy learning the information too. You can tell they feel important because they sort of puff up a little and seem really happy to be there. Actually, the secretary of the Koutime group is a guy (since he can read and write) and he is AMAZING at baby-weighings. He helps translate into Aja or Fon and is really involved in organizing the moms and the babies for actual weighing.

Still, I do think it is important to work with girls in an all girls environment sometimes for their development because they do have hard lives and not as many opportunities as the boys in Benin. When they are together without boys, they talk more openly. But I can’t expect that what these girls will learn will help them at all if the men in their lives aren’t equally informed and receptive to new ideas. New-found independence and any efforts women take to assert themselves WILL antagonize the men in their lives. We always have Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) in Porto Novo for the girls in Southern Benin and there are smaller versions across the country. This year 2 of my friends up north are organizing a Camp BLOW in addition to the girls camp, which seems like a pretty awesome idea, when I think about it. I’m not starting a boys club at the CEG but I am starting to work at one of the orphanages in Dogbo where there are only teenage boys living, and I am really looking forward to hanging out with them. My first “official” time to work with them is the morning of Halloween (if you have any costume ideas for me since we’re having a party that night with mono-kouffo PCVs, let me know). We’re going to do a bunch of different “Lifeskills activities” about their development, where they see themselves in a few years, academic planning, HIV/AIDS info, etc. It should be good!

I can’t believe it is almost the end of October and that Halloween is coming! It is so strange that I am experiencing things in Benin for the second time, and knowing that it is also the last time. The time here is really going by SO quickly and keeping busy is making it fly even faster. I have something every weekend planned through December, and then I’ll be going to Mali (can’t WAIT!!!) for Christmas and New Years. I am starting to hash out fun plans for when my parents visit in January and THAT will be here before I know it. I don’t know what it is but the time in Benin since I have come back from the States has absolutely just gone with the snap of a finger. I realize there is so much I want do here and I have only about 9 and a half months left!!! How did that happen? It is pretty amazing to think about because I remember getting ready to move to Dogbo last year and freaking out about living there for 2 years. Even now looking at the people who have just arrived at their posts it feels like they have SO much time left. There is just such a difference in perspective between that first and second year as a volunteer for me. I feel like I am finally back in a good place being in Benin as well, emotionally speaking. Life was admittedly a little dark for me between March and August (which I especially realized after re-reading my blog and journal entries), with a succession of bad events happening one after another in what seemed like the universe having a twisted sense of humor about my life here. But I feel really great right now and have for the past few weeks. I’ve been having a lot more “wow, I’m actually living in Africa” moments like when I was weighing babies, or ran into the president of the kpodaha groupement who told everyone to call me Catherine instead of yovo last week, or even during my bucket shower when I looked up and saw how beautiful the stars are (during rainy season you couldn’t see them…it was always cloudy…and I forgot how lovely they are). Maybe it’s just because I feel like I am actually accomplishing things right now and feel good about my work, but I’m really happy and really happy to report it! Donc, pour le moment, a bientot!

Picture: Angelina, Charlie, Dennis, Michelle, and Weihow at the Lokossa B-day celebration last week. Get excited, mom and dad, we are going to eat at that maquis for lunch one day...delicious igame pilee and sauce d'arachide with wagasi!!!

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Pictures!: (I know it has been awhile since i posted any) The first 2 are of the brand new CEG that they built near my house, and the third is Maman, their trainee from this summer, me and all the kids at this years swearing in ceremony for new volunteers.

So the 2009-2010 academic year is FINALLY really getting underway here in Benin. Every year the Beninese government sets a date for school to start and then inevitably continues pushing it back so that school actually started on October 5th. But classes don’t actually start right away. First the kids have to come to school and work for a day or two to cut down the brush and tall grass that has grown up over the course of the summer on the school grounds. Then they clean out the classrooms. The 2 main CEGs (College d’Enseignants Générale—General teaching school of the middle school and high school levels) in Dogbo are still not entirely organized for the year. There is a lack of many teachers so that kids just don’t go to class because no one is there to teach it. Also, the classrooms where classes are to be taking place still aren’t set for many classes so that it is always moving around. Sometimes, teachers just won’t go to class and the kids will just sit around. And a lot of the kids haven’t started yet just because they lack the money for supplies.

In an effort to encourage attendance at schools President Boni YAYI (Family names in Benin are always spelled in all Caps) made primary school entirely free nation-wide. A lot of parents still gripe about how it is expensive to send their children because they need to buy notebooks, pens, pencils, etc., and khaki fabric to make the outfits that serve as a national school uniform for the children (simple dress for girls and shorts and button shirt for boys). To put it in perspective for you, a cahier (notebook—they make them really simple here, about 100 pages with a paper cover and half the size of marble notebooks in the states) costs between 85-100CFA and the exchange rate right now is about 450CFA per dollar. So a notebook is less than 25 cents. But when you have a lot of kids, it adds up to be getting supplies for all of them to start school. Still, the president’s plan worked and attendance in recent years has jumped considerably. The problem with that was the lack of foresight as to how that would impact the secondary schools (the CEGs). Attending a CEG is not free. There is an enrollment fee for new sixieme students (The French system works backwards so that they start in ‘6th grade’ and move up through premiere and terminale) and then a yearly “contribution” in addition to having to buy supplies, khaki for uniform (but you don’t need new khaki every year…just as you outgrow it), and pay for photocopying the books necessary for your coursework since there is no program to distribute any sort of textbooks to kids here. But even though CEGs are not free, the number of students coming up from primary schools has gretly increased and there aren’t enough CEGs to handle it. There is a lack of teachers, supplies, classrooms…everything. Last year, my postmate had to teach one of her classes outside because there was no building for her to teach in.

There are 4 CEGs in Dogbo, 2 of which are in Dogbo-meme, which is to say in Dogbo proper as opposed to outlying villages. CEG-1 has been around the longest and is completed. There are a lot of buildings, all finished in cement, and an administrative building for the censor ( a main administrative officer who oversees all the teachers and classes, etc), director, and surveillant (disciplinarian—sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Discipline here sometimes includes beatings but generally for more mild offenses consists of hard physical labor dolled out in “hours.” You talk in class, your teacher might give you 2 hours so you’ll have to stay after school and cut down the brush or something to that effect.) But CEG 2 is much newer and far from completed. When my post mate first got there her administration kept telling her “we need buildings” because many classrooms were just wooden frames covered in reed walls with a tin roof (which makes it virtually impossible to hear if it rains, so fortunately school ends right around the start of rainy season) and dirt floors. AT least they had “chalkboards” though (pieces of wood or concrete walls, depending on the class, that are painted over in black paint). At any rate, they have some finished cement building classrooms and need more, and still don’t have enough classrooms for all of the kids that go there.

I recently found out though, that they were building a 5th CEG in Dogbo—on the route that I go walking on every night. They just constructed it a few weeks back and I had been wondering what would be there—I thought maybe a church. SO I walked by the other night to check it out. It is one building that is split into 2 classrooms. It is just a simple wooden frame with reed walls and dirt floors. There are no chalk boards, and the roof is tin. 20 months ago I might have thought “what a cruddy little building, I can’t believe this is a school where kids actually go” but now it is interesting to me to realize how differently I see this school. Currently there is no administrative building, and the classes could use some chalkboards, I think. But other than that the place is fine to me. I remember being in Tanzania and being taken to a newly built cement school that even had toilet seats for the teachers (no running water…you just pour water down the seat when you’re done). It was supposed to be a huge novelty but the woman showing us the school admitted that it was really so hot in the building that it was uncomfortable—they preferred teaching in a in a simply constructed classroom. I didn’t get it then, but after 15 months living in the little oven that is my cement house with a tin roof seemingly designed to trap in heat, I get it…and Benin is hot enough just being outside. During the chaleur (hot season around February through April) you can actually see the kids in class getting more lethargic because of the heat. When it’s hot for a Beninese person, I know I’m not just being whiney. So not only do these simply built wood and reed classrooms stay cooler because of the dirt floors and open breeze passing through, but they are also just more economically savvy in a place where there is a huge lack of classrooms.

One could build a ton of these classrooms for the price it would cost to make one cement building—and it would serve so many more students. Granted, I think it would be better if they at least put up chalk boards at CEG-5 but I am sure that they are going to shortly (they really only just built it and are getting underway. In all likelihood, they ordered boards a few weeks ago from a menusier who still hasn’t finished them).

So that is the situation in Dogbo in terms of school—not enough classrooms, not enough buildings, not enough teachers, and a ton of students. Supplies are a non-issue…there is no classroom decoration here and no supplies. The school issues a box of chalk per semester to their teachers and that is all. Anything that PCVs want to use in their classrooms to make their lessons more dynamic they have to provide themselves. But dynamic lessons don’t really get very far here because the education system is based on rote learning. Kids don’t know in ANY capacity how to think critically (they just memorize and spit back facts), and they have no toys or any other kinds of activity to intellectually stimulate them. My friend gave her neighbor kids a coloring book with crayons and realized a week later that they didn’t know what to do with them so she had to explain it. My postmate gave her kids markers to make nametags at the beginning of the school year (which is itself an anomaly because Beninese teachers don’t bother learning names—there are upwards of 70 kids in a class and they don’t care) and the kids didn’t even realize they had a choice in what marker color they could use. You do that in the U.S. and children will be arguing for the pink or blue marker. It’s surprising to me how much you get used to things like that, but sometimes, I still take a step back from the situation here in Benin and try to see the bigger picture, and it is really sad to me that this is the reality for the kids here. I don’t think they are ever taught to think that they can have a future and accomplish things if they want to. I know that this will take time to change…this is the first generation of kids going to school for many families, which is in and of itself a great feat. But still…sometimes it is sad.

I’ve decided to pay for Filomene to go to school this year. Normally I hate doing anything like that that would come off as me just giving away money because then everyone clamors for the yovo to buy this or that for them. But she is a sweet kid who always helps me out by getting me water, etc. and I want her to go to school. Plus, people at home randomly gave me money to do something good with it here, and I think this meets that criteria. Her “contribution” plus all of her supplies and photocopies is going to cost me around forty US dollars, and she’s promised not to tell anyone that I am the one paying for her. What she will do to continue her education after I leave boggles my mind. Her father died recently and he paid for her to go to school in the past. Her father had 10 wives and over 50 kids so now it falls to Filo’s mother to find her money for school, and she won’t do it. Her mom just doesn’t think school is important since she herself didn’t go. Actually I was really angry with Filo because the volunteer before me gave her $80 to pay for her school and told her explicitly to safely hide it and tell no one about it, but Filo gave it to her mother, who spent it. I know that family loyalty and umbuntu (to borrow a South African term for lack of a better idea) is very important here but I just don’t understand the lack of looking out for oneself also. People won’t pay for education because they don’t see that it is important. It is one of the most frustrating things EVER to me. It is like people who won’t pay $3 for a mosquito net but will pay HUNDREDS of dollars for meme tissue and a huge funeral party for someone who dies from malaria. I’ve come to learn that people will find money for what is important to them, and education has clearly yet to become a priority in Benin for most people outside of Cotonou and Porto Novo. I guess since I am such a nerd and am myself clamoring to get back into the world of academia when Peace Corps is over, I can’t really understand it. But at the same time, I know there are kids in the US who could care less about school too.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that Filo is the brightest child I’ve ever met, and I don’t think she will do much after school but settle down and sell things in the marche like her mother does, but I still want her to go to school. Filo is starting the “5th grade” cinquieme but should probably already by in the 3rd because she is older. She started late as kids in village often do, and had to re-do 6th grade because she failed a subject. From what she told me, a teacher made a pass at her and she turned him down so he failed her. If you’re shocked, don’t be, because that happens ALL the time here.

Most teachers are male, and most of them are sleeping with their students—plural. It is a 2-way street: Many professors use their positions to get laid by giving out passing of failing grades, presents, etc. Also though, many girls will play the same game because they are lazy and still want to get good grades, and they are raised in a culture where it is ok. Sometimes parents even encourage them sleeping with their teachers because if they get pregnant they hope that the teacher will marry them, even if she would be a second wife. Unlike in the US, where teachers don’t really make a lot of money, being a teacher is one of the highest-earning jobs you can find in Benin. That means that a lot of teachers are in their profession for the wrong reasons—ie: money, prestige, and easy access to lots of young females. I can only hope that over time, this starts to change, and that more and more women become teachers as well. Only time will tell.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"We Have Got to Work on our Communication"

Granted, this is an obscure reference that maybe only my dad will get, but if you add to that phrase some lively hand gesticulating, you’ll have what is my favorite moment delivered by Will Smith in the movie ‘Independence Day.’

When I was growing up and my mom worked the night shift at the hospital, my dad and I would always have these movie nights when we would watch all the movies that my dad absolutely loves and my mom can’t stand—ie, lots and lots of repetitive viewings of ‘Independence Day’, ‘Waterworld’, and ‘Star Wars.’ I’m pretty sure that the moment after the marital vows were spoken, the rings exchanged, and the honeymoon over, when my dad found out that my mom didn’t actually enjoy the Star Wars series like she had fronted during their courtship was a pretty devastating blow to him, and so at least I enjoy watching them with him. But anyways, I digress…

I was walking on the outskirts of Dogbo by one of the schools here and stopped at a ‘cafeteria’ (where they sell things like Nescafe, omelets on spaghetti—you get really used to that delicious combination—or oatmeal, etc.) to buy a water sachet. They had a T.V. and, ironically enough, a French dubbed ‘Independence Day’ was playing on exactly this scene between Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. I found it doubly ironic that Smith’s line was stated in barely understandable French because I’ve been thinking lately how hard communication actually is here.

Sometimes I stop and wonder how different my Peace Corps experience would be had I been placed in an English speaking country. I don’t think it would be easier per se—at least I know there would be other types of difficulties to make up for the language barrier—but sometimes, communication issues so get in the way of accomplishing things here. I can have an hour-long discussion with someone and realize afterward that they weren’t taking in anything that I said. I can confirm a meeting time 10 times and still have people come 2 hours late. I can lay out expectations with a work partner when we are starting out on a project and have them completely disregard everything that we agreed to because they didn’t “really understand” no matter how explicitly I speak.

This very morning, I woke up at 5:20 to go to my health center and work on the national polio vaccination campaign with them. Cases of polio have cropped up across West Africa last year so the Southern Departments of Benin and several other West African countries were coordinating a 5 day door to door vaccination campaign. It was supposed to start October 1st and run through the 5th but when I went to the health center on Wednesday to confirm our going out yesterday morning I was informed that the campaign was being pushed back: We would start the today, the 2nd, instead because if we went out on the weekends it would be more likely people would not be out in the fields etc. Arriving at the health center at around 6AM as I was told, I found that I was utterly alone, which, this being Benin, wasn’t entirely surprising. So I sat around for a bit until a nurse from the maternity ward came out to tell me they changed it again and are going to start on the 7th. Fabulous…thanks for the call to let me know.

Then I went to my ONG to tell my homologue I was going to Cotonou. I had walked over in the midday sun (always a mistake in this country) and so was sweating massively when I arrived (as per usual). My homologue looks at me and warns me that I should not be walking around in the sun so much because I will catch the “pallu” aka, malaria. Back in April we had an IST—additional weeklong training period that volunteers attend WITH their homologue. The topic of our additional training was Malaria…cause, myths, treatment, symptoms, state sponsored efforts at combating it, etc. Anything and everything regarding malaria was discussed. The fact that my homologue, who had been at this week-long conference with me, still managed to come away thinking—like many Beninese people—that the sun causes malaria blows my mind. I mean, at least I know from that situation that it isn’t just me. I wasn’t running the workshop: An American who is fluent in French and 2 Beninese people were. So clearly not all the fault in the communication issues that exist in this culture lead back to my dismal French skills.

And also, at least sometimes miscommunication can be equally amusing so it offsets the frustrations. For example

When I came back from America, I brought the director of my ONG a reed diffuser for his house because, his words, he likes “pretty things.” When I gave it to him I explained—I thought pretty clearly—what it was and how to use it. Yet the other day he thanked me again for the gift that he is apparently using as a body perfume. When he said this I just kind of gaped for a moment before being able to compose my facial expression. I’m hoping he didn’t notice. We were at my ONG with a lot of other people and in my head I was trying to very quickly calculate whether or not it was worth it to explain to him that he was not using it correctly. After a fraction of a second I decided I did not want to say anything and have it end up being embarrassing so I just smiled and said I was glad that he liked it. But walking away from him I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where did I go wrong in my explanation?”

So as much as “we have got to work on our communication” seems ironically fitting for how I have been feeling lately, I am pretty certain that even if I lived here a decade, communication would still get the better of me in Benin.

On an unrelated note, I think that this time of year might just be scorpion season. I hadn’t seen any in my house in a long time but have recently started finding them again. And for the first time ever, I had a mouse in my house. My doors were closed so I have no idea where it even came from. I know my neighbors have mice sometimes but I always thought that Scout acted as a deterrent to them even dropping down from my ceiling or what not. But I guess not. I was reading last night and all of a sudden heard this horrible squealing sound. Scout trotted happily into the room with this poor little mouse squirming in her mouth and proceeded to play with it for about 10 minutes, batting its rigamortis-y body around my living room before eating it. Bon appetite!