Wednesday, January 13, 2010

C'est Fini

It’s ironic: A month ago already I was on my way to Cotonou for a PC conference when I saw 4 dead bodies on the side of the road during the 3 hour trip from Dogbo; 3 were in a car accident, and the 4th in a moto accident. I was really shaken up and was going to write a post about all the traffic accidents I’d been seeing lately and the reality of traveling around Benin. Ultimately I decided against that because I knew that my parents would be coming to visit in a month and I was nervous enough for them that I did not want to make them more nervous than they already were in traveling to Benin.

Have you ever seen a dead body? After accidents like that, they lay unnaturally on the ground, bent and broken. I remember talking to random volunteers in Tanzania, and reading testimonials about service in Africa that all said after some time spent here, one comes to see and really understand that death is everywhere and just a part of existence. But after a year and a half of serving here, I don’t really see that at all. The way I see death here is unnatural; unexpected, and so often unnecessary.

In Kandi in early November, I saw a small child’s body covered with a pagne, just his small feet sticking out from underneath. His broken bike was a few feet ahead of him and a crowd had already formed. Nearly every time I traveled in the past 3 months I saw a large camion or car completely overturned on the side of the road. Roads here only fit 2 cars across, and wind circuitously so that if the brush is high, one can’t see around the bend in advance. Drivers cut into the opposing lane to pass slow cars and camions and sometimes it is the last thing that they will ever do. People here seem to think that what happens while driving is a less in their own power than it is willed by the grace of god, thereby relieving themselves of much of the responsibility of safety and of power over their own lives.

I was coming back to Dogbo with Michelle in late November and saw an awful accident on the side of the road; a man’s skull bashed open upon the road, blood pooling out beside him. I never knew before that blood could be so vividly bright and red, even when against blacktop pavement: It almost looked fake to me. His skin was scraped away on his leg to reveal raw pink flesh—I remember thinking that it was such a striking contrast to the brown of his skin. My eyes lingered on it. His moto was fallen over on the side of the road and people had begun to gather palm reeds to cover his body. I cried when I got home, but again, I didn’t tell my parents about it that night when they called.

There was a quote by Ernest Hemingway that I read during college: “To live in Africa, you must know what it is to die in Africa.” I remember thinking then that there was something so exotic, maybe even romantically so, about that idea. But I can not say that I truly understood it until now. I will never forget the first body that I saw cast off on the side of the road after an accident in Porto Novo when I was still a trainee two summers ago. It caught my breath and I squeezed myself over the person sitting next to me, pushing off of my toes in the trou trou bus trying to see out the window. I think it was the first dead body I had ever seen outside of wakes and funerals. And I understand what Hemingway means now. I know what it is to live here in Benin: And in order to do that for the past year and a half, I’d tucked away that dead body and all the others to the back corners of my mind and didn’t think of them anymore.

In July, for the first time in a long while, I was put face to face again with Hemingway’s idea when a car drove into my from behind while I was riding on a moto. Knowing what it meant to be here and the reality of traveling around, I had to decide whether or not I wanted to continue doing it. I struggled for weeks to push it to the back of my mind, to get on a moto again and feel comfortable being here. But in the end I did it and I have no regrets about it. The time I’ve spent in Benin from July until now has held some of my hardest struggles and personal challenges, and it has also held some of my happiest and most rewarding moments during all of my Peace Corps service. I am amazed to see how far I have come in the past 6 months and what I have accomplished here.

Unfortunately, the day after I came down to Cotonou last month, again I was in an accident where this time, a moto drove directly into me from behind as I was getting onto another moto. I was knocked off of my feet and my helmet, shoe, and glasses flew into the road. I braced myself against whatever might be behind me (I was on a main street), but fortunately no other cars or motos came since I’d fallen at the side of the road. After a few seconds of shock that this actually could have happened again, I got up and hopped over to the sidewalk to call Peace Corps to come and get me. I was very bruised and cut up, and needed stitches, but I am okay. For the third time in the last 10 months, I was extremely lucky to walk away with so few injuries compared to what could have happened. I’m not going to play ‘what if’ with the thousands of minute ways that instant could have played out differently. The fact is that I am lucky. I know that.

My trip to Mali planned for a week later--Christmas and New Years--was cancelled since it was a trek in Dogon country and my injuries were prohibitive in terms of hiking. But like I wrote before, I was given the opportunity to realize how excellent and supportive my friends here are of me by their coming to keep me company in the med unit here (and hold down the fort with air conditioning, our own fridge, and a pretty shnazzy tv in sick room 1) for the holidays.

I waited for about a month to make my decision to leave. I wanted to heal and spend the holiday season here with my friends. I didn’t want my pain or the prospect of spending Christmas in NY to impact my decision, and besides, Christmas at home probably wouldn’t have felt happy at all given everything that happened anyway. But after a lot of reflection and consideration, I have made the very difficult decision to end my Peace Corps service in Benin. It is hard to think that I have so much little time left here anyway, but I can’t stay just to prove the point that I can either. I think had I left in July I would have regretted it. But now I know that I can stay here. I know that I can get back on a moto and readjust to my life here and all that that entails, and I know that I can succeed. I’ve done it already. I know that I can be happy here. Having realized all that, I choose not to do it again. I’ve had a marvelous experience in Benin but for me it just feels like my time here is over.

Packing up the life that I built for myself here was very difficult. Saying goodbye to Scout, to my volunteer friends, and to the friends and colleagues I have made in Dogbo is painful. And I think that saying goodbye to my host-family, who have supported me and really been my family throughout my time here, and not knowing if or when I will see them again, will be agonizing. Coming home to a place where I don’t have a job and to a place that hasn’t really been my home in 18 months is terrifying, but it does not diminish that I think I am making the decision that is best for me at this time.

I might update in the weeks that I get home with photos, etc. but this will be my last blog entry written in Benin. I want to thank everyone that has supported me so much throughout my service in Benin. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to share my experiences in this remarkable country with you, and I know that I have been blessed to have your support. Certainly it would have been difficult if not impossible, for me to make it here without your phone calls, letters, packages, and blog comments. I hope that I was able to keep you entertained from time to time. So a thousand times, thank you!