When winter sleeps the garden

I sat up abruptly. In the dark, I reached around for my phone to check the time – 4:30 AM. Go back to sleep, I thought. But when I laid down and closed my eyes, I had a different thought. Go check on the sheep. Why not? It’s more or less lambing season here, and you never know when the babies will be born. Sheep mamas, I’m told, are really good at giving birth. They almost never need assistance. Not a bad idea to be standing by, though. I witnessed my first sheep birth earlier in the week when I happened to walk into the barn while an ewe was in labor. The nose and front feet of her lamb were beginning to come out. Ten minutes and a few pushes later, the lamb was on the ground, bleating for mama. Today, I wondered whether or not we’d see more lambs before the end of the week. Technically, we should not have been seeing any lambs until April, but that’s a long story… Tiptoe-ing through the house, I found my coat and flashlight, then quietly slipped outside.

Winter is the sleepy time of year, but on a farm, it’s also a planning time – planning that gets increasingly frenzied and exciting as the winter goes on. With much of January spent drooling over pictures of colorful, ripe vegetables in seed catalogues, and much of this past month spent splitting wood and shoveling, I’ve literally been dreaming of green pastures. The fields are still buried in snow, but I know the soil is alive under it all…

Out of the house and into the raw night air, I zipped my coat all the way up to my chin and shuffled toward the barn. A sharp wind whipped around me, rattling the sliding barn door as I approached. Inside, a few ewes looked up to see who had arrived, then went back to sleep. All seemed well. Climbing into their pen, I walked to the other side and out a doorway to the paddock the sheep have 24-hour access to. On the far side of the paddock, there’s a covered resting area by a hay feeder, and that’s where I spotted a mother ewe standing over twin newborn lambs. If I was at all sleepy when I walked outside, I was fully awake now. The lambs must have dropped minutes before I got there – they were still slimy! One was struggling to hold up his head as his mother licked his face, but the other just lay motionless. Oh no. I knelt down and gently poked it’s nose. It let out a feeble cry, and I sighed with relief.

Stepping back, I watched the ewe as she carefully cleaned her babies all over. What a good mama! She was doing exactly as she was supposed to, but one lamb continued to lie unresponsive. I didn’t want to interrupt these first, critical bonding moments between the ewe and her babies, but something wasn’t right with that lamb, and now I could see it was shivering, too. I hesitated a moment, then scooped those slimy little bundles into my arms and headed for the barn, the mama sheep following anxiously at my heels. Inside, other ewes had become curious and wanted to know what the fuss was about, but I quickly walked by and closed the lambs with their mother into a “lambing jug” (a mini stall in the sheep pen set up specifically to house ewes with newborn lambs separately from the rest of the flock).

Now again, I stepped back and watched. The mother continued to tend diligently to her babies. The stronger one began trying to stand, and with grunts of encouragement from his mother, he quickly found a teat and started to nurse. But the other lamb had yet to even raise its head. If a lamb does not begin nursing within an hour of birth, its chances of survival are greatly reduced. I lifted the weaker lamb into a standing position and pushed her nose right up to her mother’s udder. At first she didn’t respond, but after a few more attempts, she finally got it and began to nurse. She was going to be just fine.

There was no point in going back to bed. It was already beginning to get light out – regular morning chores would start in less than an hour. I can’t say I minded the extra early morning, though. Watching those two wobbly lambs in their first moments was a treat and reminded me that winter is a season of life, too – in its own way. Recently, a distinct hole had been left in the flock after the loss of a beloved barnyard character in January. Mookie died – “for real this time” – as it was phrased in the email announcing his passing. Mookie was an ancient wether (castrated ram) of the sheep flock, and I think he’d been walking the line of the living for quite some time. In his extremely old age, he looked more like a bad taxidermy job of a stray dog than a wooly sheep. But what he lacked in vitality, he made up for in personality. Mookie lives on in the spirit of the flock – especially its charming new lambs.

Winter can drag on monotonously at times, but it is somewhat misleading to call it a dormant season. Dormancy implies inactivity, and there’s truly no such thing on the farm – or anywhere. Life continues to evolve and changes happen in the winter just like in any other season. Though we may have spent a good deal of this particular winter shoveling through mountains of snow, thoughts of new spring growth and summer harvests were never far from our minds. In the words of a Farm School teacher, “When winter sleeps the garden, the summer is its dreaming.”

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Season’s Greetings

“I’ll be home for Christmas.” This phrase has been stuck in my head for the past few weeks, because this is the first Christmas – the first big holiday, actually – since Peace Corps that I’m spending with my family, in my hometown. I know now how hard it can be to NOT be home for Christmas. For those of you experiencing that this year, take heart in remembering that the historical events we celebrate on Christmas are all about a family who was very far from home.

I’m in Minnesota on holiday break after a few months in Massachusetts, where I’m currently a student in the “Learn to Farm” program at a place aptly named The Farm School. The past few weeks were quite busy there as we prepared for the farmers’ zombie apocalypse (a.k.a. winter). After taking in the final harvest in November, we began in earnest to button up the farm for the cold season. We chopped, baked, sorted, packed and otherwise processed what was leftover from the harvest for long-term storage in the freezers and root cellar. We cleaned out barns and moved animals in. We’ve barely begun to stock up on firewood…. I told myself I’d start blogging about my farm school experience long before winter came, but as I’m learning on the farm, saying you’ll do something “before winter” can be a lot like saying you’ll start a diet “tomorrow.”

Now, as we roll into the winter season, there will still be daily upkeep and classes, but the workdays are shorter and mellower. Looking back on the fall quarter, I can hardly believe how much was fit into the last couple months! We spent many days in the forests around the farm with a progression of classes beginning in tree species identification and culminating in our current group project to build a timber frame shed. In between we learned about sustainable woodlot management and took a three-day course in chainsaw safety and operation. I felled a tree for the first time in my life! We visited a farm in Vermont to learn about draft horse driving then came back and began skidding logs with the horses on this farm. And an introduction to the tools and methods used to roll logs were followed by many hours at the sawmill, moving and cutting lumber for the timber frame.

Another highlight of the fall quarter was milking, beginning with the Farm School tradition of hand-milking Goldie, the sweet (and sometimes cantankerous) mini jersey cow. After a week or two on Goldie chore, we had the opportunity to learn how to milk using machine milkers at the farm down the road. It’s the earliest chore in the morning, but a warm barn with warm cows isn’t such a bad place to be at 5 AM. The milk there does not get pasteurized, so producing a safe product requires very careful attention to cleanliness at all stages of the milking process. A simple test is used to check for Coliform bacteria, looking for a “count” of less than 10, which constitutes a product safe for human consumption. When it was my week to milk, we tested a sample to see how I was doing. And the results? Coliform count: 0. Bam!

I can’t wait to see what lessons and adventures await on the farm and elsewhere in 2015, but before ushering in the New Year, I want to raise a glass to those who’ve made my 2014. To many people, but in particular, to the Beninese community that hosted me and to all my friends and family who supported me tirelessly through my Peace Corps service and the transition back to America. To my parents for making it possible for me to attend farm school and for graciously welcoming into their home for the year, my spunky African pup (Breed: Basenji. Literal translation: “small wild thing from the bush”). And to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers – for being some of the most genuine, rugged, and downright fun group of people I’ve ever known. As you scatter yourselves around the country and the world, I hope it will often be my good fortune to cross paths with you during travels of my own.

Merry Christmas, everyone. And Happy New Year!

– H

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793 Days

They tell us from the beginning that the hardest part of Peace Corps service is leaving, and I can now confirm that this is indeed true. Both ways. Leaving America to spend two years far away from everything I knew and loved back in June of 2012 was absolutely terrifying, but leaving Benin last month after having allowed myself to sink roots and grow attached was even harder.

I’m happy to be back – make no mistake. This is still the original home base, and I’ve missed my friends and family tremendously, but that doesn’t make it any easier to close the Peace Corps chapter. I recall once, before accepting my invitation to go to Benin, reflecting on the “sacrifices” I felt I’d have to make to be a volunteer – sacrifices being what I would walk away from in America: better-paying job opportunities, the comforts and conveniences of first world living, the closeness of family, etc. What I’ve come to realize is that the sacrifices I actually made had less to do with what I left in America and more to do with what I invested in Benin. Because I got to have America back. But now there’s a piece of my heart in Benin that I’ll never be able to take back.

I’m anxious to readjust and to move on with the next stage of my life. At the same time, I don’t want to stow away the past two years like a book I’ve finished reading and can put back on the shelf. I don’t want to distill this experience down to a pithy collection of fond memories and interesting stories because the place is still real, and the people are still there. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but it’s the only way I know how to put it right now. When I think about Benin, I want to remember the nuances of daily life as much as the special events and happenings. I want to remember the typical interactions I had with the people I saw everyday as much as the uncommon encounters I had from time to time.

And here’s why. Of all the things I’ve come to see more clearly in the past two years, one of the most important has got to be this: ordinary details matter. Peace Corps is a development organization, and development is a pretty broad term, but I guarantee that at least 99% of the time, it doesn’t happen in broad, sweeping actions. Development is in the details. You don’t suddenly bring food security to an entire village by giving a public presentation on the different food groups. You don’t save the environment by inviting everyone in your neighborhood to plant trees with you. You find local leaders – a charismatic chief, an exemplary student, a forward-thinking mother – and you build relationships with them. You ask what their obstacles are (because they know better than you do). You ask them what the best approaches might be to overcoming these obstacles (because again, they know better than you do). And then you give what you’re able to give – your time, your energy, your access to funding, your moral support. This is how Peace Corps works. We have these grand objectives, but at the end of the day, an effective volunteer is someone without their own agenda. It’s someone who’s willing to get to know the little details of where they are living and who they are living with, so they can actually work in the community from a position of understanding.

I’m excited to begin sharing in person about my time in Benin, but I hope I don’t make the mistake of leading you (or myself) to believe that what I did was to swoop down on some impoverished place and save the day with extraordinary acts of kindness. Because this is what I really did: I showed up. I studied French and gardening and a few other things. Then I moved to a village named Koko. I lived in a dark house. I spent way more time in that dark house than most people around me would have thought healthy. I cooked strange meals my neighbors didn’t recognize. I read a lot of books and wrote a lot of letters. Sometimes I walked around in the middle of the day when all the sane people were hiding in the shade, and I got really sunburned. I earned a “stipend” that was more than what most people in the area were earning for a “salary” – if they had one at all. I did some things I’m proud of and some things I’m not proud of. Sometimes I worked hard and sometimes I didn’t. I made really good friends in my community. I perplexed them, amused them, and probably annoyed them… but I tried to love them, too. And if the amount of love they showed me in return could be any indication of my success, then I think I did ok.

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Yours vraiment, American expats on the fourth

Dear America,
This one’s for you.

* * * *

“Happy Independence Day!” I announce, throwing open my front door. The random kids who’ve been playing noisily on my porch all morning stare at me blankly then ask for sugar for their porridge. Fine. I’ve woken up in a giddy mood so hey, maybe even I’ll start the day with a mound of sugar in my porridge!

The electricity is out. Nothing odd about that, but I ask my neighbor anyways if he knows why. He says it’s broken. No kidding. And no one will pay to fix it. Typical. And a little disappointing ’cause I’m having company in this evening. Looks like candlelight will have to do. Suddenly I remember my scented candle. I should light that monster. Once upon a time I received this giant green candle as a hand-me-down from a previous volunteer. In the moment it had seemed like a lovely acquisition, but now it just overwhelms me with its powerfully perfume-y breathe. Still, I’m committed to burning this thing down before I leave, and today my friends are coming over, so why not ritz up the house with aroma of gummy worms before they arrive?

My village is a little out of the way so I don’t get many visitors, but today I’ve managed to convince my friends Dave, Emily, and Jayne to come out and celebrate the fourth with me. I text Dave, who can always be counted on for sports equipment, to bring bats and balls so we can teach America’s favorite pastime to some village kids. He texts back: “All my bats have gone the way of all the African teams in the world cup, but I can bring some baseballs. And we can use yam pilé sticks as bats.” Yam pilé sticks. Those are the elongated club-like things used to mash yams into oblivion so they may be eaten as doughy yellow blobs. Well that could work! And it would be so trad, I think to myself. (This is my new favorite expression. Trad: like rad, but traditional. Perfect for Benin!)

Jayne is the first to arrive, and we’re soon whipping up something to snack on: a red, white, and blue funfetti cake from a mix she got on a recent trip home. Jayne is from Texas. She is gorgeous and entertaining, pretty much all the time. Today will be no exception as she’s come equipped with her unaffected humor, her country music, and some delightfully tacky American flag hats. As we sit on a mat waiting for the cake to bake, she tells me about the patriotic outfit she has for later, and I’m immediately wishing I had a little more red, white, and blue in my wardrobe, too.

But wait! I do have some permanent markers, I remember. One of them is red. One of them is blue. And the dog is white… “Sami, come!” I coo. She spies mischief in my eyes and tries to flee, but I nab her and quickly scribble a neat little American flag on the canvas of her haunches. Now at least one of us is red, white, and blue! She takes a half second to sniff suspiciously at her new tattoo then forgets what just happened and rockets out the door to assault-greet Dave and Emily as they pull up on their bikes.

It’s a long journey by bike for them, so I give them time to rest and shower off, but pretty soon a small crowd of urchins have gathered outside my house, eager to see these new Americans. They had heard I would be having friends over today, and I may have mentioned something about a ball and a game… Dave gets out a softball and starts tossing it around. He lobs it casually in the direction of the kids, but he aims a little too high. It bounces off the roof of the chicken house into a patch of weeds and disappears forever. Well, so much for that. We start dinner preparations instead.

We’ve got canned chili and some sweet bread to toast, plus desserts from Emily. Emily and I share mid-western roots, artistic minds, and recipes. We both enjoy baking, though between the two of us, Emily is definitely the master. And she’s proved it today by bringing a homemade apple pie. Only Emily would seek out all the right ingredients to make one, bake it in a makeshift Dutch oven, then transport it in a soggy cardboard box, strapped to the back of her bicycle for twenty plus miles under the hot African sun, and still arrive with a finished product that looks and tastes divine. There are four of us, so later when it’s time for pie, we stake it out with mini American flags (furnished by Jayne, of course) then quarter it and circle up to eat.

It’s getting dark outside now, which I guess would be the time we’d start lighting fireworks or sparklers if we were in America, but we have nothing of the sort here. Instead we play with waterproof matches on my front porch and contemplate the circumstances under which one would need matches such as these that can be lit, dunked in water, and re-emerged, still burning. I set a few aside and make a mental note to remember to show my neighbors in the morning just what it was we were doing so they don’t make dubious assumptions.

We won’t stay up late. We are well adapted to the village rhythm of rising and retiring early each day, so as it quiets down, so do we. The pie is reduced to a pile of crumbs, eyelids droop, and the conversation wanes. We move inside where mats are rolled out, candles are gently snuffed, and the iPhone that’s been dutifully singing our music all evening is finally silenced. But even then, as I crawl into bed and fall off to sleep, soothing tunes from The National still hum steadily along through my dreams.

* * * *

Some holidays are hard to celebrate away from home. Others are even better. I never went crazy over the fourth of July at home, but here, it wouldn’t have felt right to let my country’s independence day pass without fuss. It’s because of American leaders and ideals that the Peace Corps exists. America is not the paradise or promised-land people in Benin seem to want to envision it as, and I’ll be the first to confess I don’t really believe in chasing the classic “American dream.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other dreams worth pursuing, and I’m not sure if there’s any other country out there with a body of citizens more dedicated to supporting its dreamers than America. I feel pretty fortunate that I had the opportunity to grow up in a place like that. Thanks, America.

Yours truly,

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Attends,” Angelle says. Wait. Her French is limited, but she knows this word. And she uses it a lot. She drags a plastic chair out of the house and plunks it down in the middle of the concession for me. I’m not sure what I’m waiting for, if anything at all. I’ve come by to drop off my laundry, which Angelle happily does for me every week.

I met Angelle almost immediately after moving to my village, and she quickly became like my village grandmother, though I’m not actually sure of her age. I could ask, but it doesn’t seem important. Her skin is worn and leathery, so she must be old. But her smile is bright and youthful, so I guess she’s young at heart. C’est ça. That’s what it is.

Angelle is always telling me to wait for one thing or another. Today she probably has a language lesson in store.I never request these lessons – I just kind of get swept into them. But I can’t mind because Angelle has such a pleasant way of teaching – persistent yet unhurried. She clapped her hands and hugged me the first time I counted to ten without looking at my notes. Then as I turned the page and prepared to write more, she just smiled and held up a hand. “Attends. Après,” she said. Next time. She expects progress, but her style is one step at a time.

Even before I got to know Angelle well, I could tell she was the real deal as far as activists go – the kind of person who has the guts and courage to demand change but also the patience and humility to wait for it. In my first few months, she tried to start a village clean-up initiative. Unfortunately, the project was a flop. There are just certain circumstances and attitudes in the village that stand in the way right now. But Angelle is not discouraged. She’ll let the idea rest, and when the time is right, she’ll be ready to give it another go.

Sometimes I wonder what this is like for Angelle. I wonder what it’s like to be the visionary in your community when few others can see your dream.To believe that better is possible – and be scoffed at for it. To want nothing more than to serve your community and to have the energy to do it, but to be told you’re just expecting too much. Maybe it’s like going through life asking other people to wait and give you a chance, when all the while you’re the one waiting on them.

There have been days when this whole peace corps experience has felt like one big exercise in waiting – waiting for the small things like a taxi to arrive or a web page to load, and waiting for the big things like development and cross-cultural understanding. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been all fired up to work on something that desperately needed it, only to be met with indifference. And that’s when I just want to shake people and say, “Aren’t you tired of waiting?!? You’ve been dealing with this your whole life! Let’s do something already!” But maybe I’m just looking at it the wrong way.

Less than a week ago, I turned a light on in my house for the first time. It’s been years in coming, but my village finally has electricity. I still can’t really believe it. I don’t have to hold a flashlight to read in the evening anymore. I no longer need to bike five miles on a hilly dirt road to charge my computer. For me, it’s as though I’ve been waiting for this since the day I got here. But the people of this village? I don’t know. For the past two years, if you asked anyone when we’d be getting electricity they’d tell you, “it’s coming.” They weren’t waiting for it so much as simply expecting it. In the meantime, they went on with their lives.

One of Angelle’s favorite topics of conversation with me is America. She’ll ask about “over there,” and we’ll talk about all les bonnes choses (the good things) in America – the abundance of nutritious food, the smooth paved roads, the clean water… She’ll nod her head and smile the whole time, like a child who knows a story by heart but still delights in hearing it read again and again. Angelle believes that one day her country will be able to offer better living conditions for its citizens, too, even if not in her own lifetime.

So she waits. And though she wants les bonnes choses as much as anyone else, she doesn’t view the wait as a waste of time. Angelle is the sort of person who can find richness in any moment by simply allowing the slowness of the present to create its own meaning. And maybe now I’m starting to see this, too. I think of all those times in the past two years when I’ve been sitting around at someone else’s house, for example, just waiting and wondering how long I had to stay before I could “demander la route” (“ask for the road”) and take my leave. It seemed so pointless at the time to sit around when I could be doing other things. But now I imagine leaving for the last time. I imagine leaving Benin and becoming what they call a “returned” peace corps volunteer. I imagine saying good-bye to my village and to my life here, and to inspirational people like Angelle.

And all I can really think is wait.

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 6 Comments

Project Updates

This post is just to let you all know where I am at with various projects. Here we go…

The Chickens: Remember when I started this project? The chicks are almost six months old now! They’ve been doing pretty well. The vet has been diligent about vaccinations and we expect them to start laying eggs soon! I love watching the chickens – they seem so healthy and I think they are content because whenever I go over to the coop to see them they are running about and talking happily.

Spelling Bee: Fully funded! So I’ll be bringing two kids from my village to the spelling bee in June and hope they have fun!

Camp GLOW: You all jumped at my request for help raising money to buy the journals for the girls, so thank you! My mom has purchased and shipped the journals; now we just gotta cross our fingers to hope the boxes all arrive. In the meantime, the camp itself is still over $2000 short of the budget, so please please think about donating online at donate.peacecorps.gov (and search for the project under last name “Baug”). All the volunteers involved in this project are working together to raise the money from home, but the camp is supposed to take place in just one month!

Relay run across Benin: I talk about running a lot, and in my last blog post I briefly described the relay run I’ll be participating in next month to raise money for gender equality and women’s empowerment projects. The site where you can donate is here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/le-tour-du-benin Check it out! There’s a description of the project and a short (and really good) video about girls’ empowerment in Benin.

Library project: My friend’s library is going forward! Thank you to anyone who reached out to her on my recommendation and donated to her project. Yay!

With much love and thanks!!

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Four opportunities to make a difference!

This is it! My 27 months of Peace Corps service in Benin, West Africa will be coming to a close in August or September of this year. It’s been quite a ride, and I can’t thank my friends and family enough for all the support and encouragement graciously shown to me throughout. Please help me raise money to make these last few projects happen. Thank you!

Girls Leading Our World
Summer camp for girls

“Is it okay for a girl of 13 years old to be married to a boy who is 18?” “How can a girl avoid being harassed by her male teachers?” “Why do some people mistreat other people?” These are some of the questions, in their own words, that members of my girls club have posed to me. After more than two years living here, I can tell you first hand that Benin is often not a great place to be a woman. And there is an alarming lack of strong female role models for young girls to look up to.

In 1995, Peace Corps Romania started a project called Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), a week-long summer camp/workshop encouraging young girls to become those missing positive female leaders in their communities. The movement spread around the world, arriving at Peace Corps Benin in 2004. Last year I brought several girls from my village to Camp GLOW in the city of Parakou, and I still consider it to be one of the best projects I’ve been a part of here. You helped make the camp a success last year, and I’m asking you to contribute again this year! Donate to the camp and help Beninese girls learn to see and believe in their value and in their right to dream big and live bold.

Visit donate.peacecorps.gov and search for the project under the last name “Baug” (the volunteer coordinator of the camp this year) or the project number 14-680-015 to make a tax-deductible donation to: Camp GLOW 2014.

ADDITIONALLY, I am hoping to raise another $300 by MAY 4 to purchase and send fifty-five sketchbooks and pens for a creative writing and nature journaling session at the camp. My artist/writer mother will be collecting money specifically for this purpose (so seek her out!!), as she will be the one to purchase and mail the items. If we don’t raise enough, the money we DO raise will be put into the general camp fund (above), but I know we can do this and it would mean so much to the girls to have their very own journals!

It’s in a book!
Building a library

During my time here, I’ve received multiple packages of books from home – French/English dictionaries and English picture books for my English club students. I never imagined how much love and use these books would see! But here in Benin, books aren’t something most kids have access to. Even kids who don’t know any English yet will come by asking if they can borrow a book for a week just to have something to flip through and talk about. Having seen how much books mean to them, I’m asking for your help now in helping a friend of mine and fellow volunteer build a library in her community. I wouldn’t normally solicit funds on behalf of another volunteer, but she is among the hardest working volunteers I know and now has limited time to raise the money for this library. She is hoping to raise at least enough to purchase the books if not to build the building (if she raises more than is necessary for the books but still not enough for the building, the extra money will be put into the Peace Corps Country Fund to go toward other volunteers’ projects).

Visit donate.peacecorps.gov and search for the project under the last name “Prainito” or the project number 14-680-003 to make a tax-deductible donation to: “It’s In A Book!” School Library Project.

Language Learning
Bringing students together from around the country to compete in an English spelling bee

Benin has over fifty local languages. Most children grow up speaking at least one of these languages at home. In primary school, they begin learning French. And in secondary school, they start learning English – so it’s usually their third or fourth language. But many of them know that English can open a world of opportunities for them, so it was one of the first requests I got from students when I arrived in my village – help us improve our English! The twice weekly English club that resulted has been one of my favorite activities, so I was really excited when I got a slot for two kids from my village to go to the Peace Corps organized national English spelling bee in June. This event (and the preparation that has been preceding it) will encourage participating students to keep working hard in school and stay motivated in their language studies.

Visit donate.peacecorps.gov and search for the project under the last name “Martinez” (the volunteer coordinator of the camp this year) or the project number 14-680-012 to make a tax-deductible donation to: 6th National Spelling Bee.

Where There Is No Gatorade
Relay running the country for gender equality and women’s empowerment

Some of you may remember hearing or reading about my experience training for and running my first ever marathon over a year ago, early on in my service. I did it without ever being able to measure mileage on training runs, without ever being able to ice sore muscles or relax in an air-conditioned room post-workout, and without a single drop of gatorade :) That was a thing I did for myself and my fellow volunteers, but now we’re preparing for another run with a much bigger goal. Collectively, Peace Corps Benin will travel à pied (by foot) the length of the country. In a relay-style race that will take us twenty-one days, we’ll pass off the Peace Corps baton from volunteer to volunteer, village to village – from Benin’s northern border with Burkina Faso to its southern border with the ocean – all in the name of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

In a 2013 global report (including 136 countries), the World Economic Forum ranked Benin as having the 11th highest (worst) combined gender-based disparities in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment. Money raised from the relay event will go into a Peace Corps Benin fund for volunteer projects related to shrinking that disparity. So please sponsor me as I take my turn running for a better Benin!

The web page where you can donate isn’t quite ready, but it should be up and running at indiegogo.com on May 3. Stay tuned for more details.

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 3 Comments

Two steps forward, one and a half back

The mayor has shut down the health center in my village. Electricity has been getting cut for weeks at a time in my region. And teachers all over Benin have been on strike so frequently that the government may decide to make all students repeat the school year. It’s troubling. Recent work frustrations in my village have found me leaving more often than normal – biking to the nearby city just to get away and hang out with my postmate.

It’s on one such afternoon, while sharing conversation over lukewarm beers at a local buvette, that my postmate turns and says to me, “Sometimes I wonder if we’ll leave this country worse off than we found it.” I look the other way. He’s just voiced a concern I’ve harbored myself for the past few months but haven’t wanted to acknowledge. I’m fortunate to carry a naturally positive demeanor and optimistic outlook on life, but sometimes I deceive myself. Sometimes I ignore signs that things are going downhill until they are literally hurtling toward disaster. This is what happened with my environment club.

It had started out so well, but even from the beginning there were power struggles and communication issues. They grew and grew until everything came to a head one day in a showdown of me versus the dean of students. I have screamed at people three times in this country. The first time I screamed was when I caught a young boy throwing rocks at my dog while she was just minding her own business playing around in my garden. The second time I screamed was while conducting surveys at the local secondary school when a group of students came over and started interfering with the process, completely disregarding my requests to leave. The third time I screamed was when the dean of students sided with the snarky older boys of the environment club and humiliated me in front of everyone. And that’s when I walked out and quit the club.

Initially, it felt like a huge setback to lose my environment club, but while some projects and activities fall apart, others come together. After feeling discouraged about it for a few days, I moved on and found other ways to use that valuable ten to noon Wednesday time slot (the one time during the week when most students are free). It has now become my “office hours” for English club. My students know they are welcome at my house anytime I’m home (and not napping), but formal office hours bring more of them by on a regular basis. Last Wednesday, a student named Joseph stopped in to have me quiz him on the vocab words I’d assigned for the week. It was a proud moment for me to hear him correctly pronounce, spell, and translate all fifty-six words with ease – words he hadn’t known the week before.

One of Peace Corps Benin’s initiatives that I joined only this year is the scholarship girls program – a program that awards academic scholarships to girls in cities or villages where volunteers work. According to the program, volunteers are not only there to dispense the monetary reward but also to serve as mentors for their scholarship girls. Chimène, the girl selected from my village, is a quietly studious and driven student in her final year of secondary school. I’ve never had any doubts of her being a worthy recipient of the scholarship, but I almost gave up on the mentoring aspect of the program when after months of trying to get to know her, it still felt as though we were strangers.

Then one day an idea popped into my head. “Chimène!” I said, “Do you know how to type?” Chimène had never used a computer in her life. Thus began Thursday afternoon typing lessons. At first I had her copy lines I typed, but once I saw that she was comfortable with where all the letters were located, I had her start coming up with her own sentences. Tell me about yourself, I asked. And the words came tumbling out through her fingertips to the page on the screen.

It’s hard to know what will work and what won’t when you start off. Harder still is seeing something you’ve put a great deal of effort into – something that maybe seemed so promising at the outset – fall through in the end. I try not to picture “progress” and positive change as linear processes, but I still think we can say these are the sorts of things that come in sets of two steps forward, one and a half back. And you know what? The backward steps are as much a part of getting “there” as the forward ones.

A few months ago, two friends and I decided it would be fun to plan a March/April trip to Ghana to get out of our villages during the hot season. Maybe this isn’t the best time to be taking a vacation. We’ve all got projects in the works and need to start wrapping things up. Less than six months left in our service! But we’re also just tired and mentally would already be checking out if we didn’t give ourselves this break. So on Sunday morning, after a roadside breakfast of antelope and rice, I hopped on a bus to Cotonou to chercher (seek) a visa for Ghana.

It’s a long bus ride. Longer now that the main road has been closed, re-directing all traffic on the more circuitous route through the city of Ketou. After a short lunch stop in Bohicon, I’m curious to know what time it is, to know just how much longer this route will take, but my phone is dead and the digital clock at the front of the bus is blinking numbers that don’t exist. Rain pours in through the open (broken?) windows, and the radio blares, in spurts, a hiccup-y attempt at modern music. Meanwhile, a traditional medicine salesman (where’d he come from?) trips over bags as he moves up and down the aisle of the bus, enthusiastically pitching a hodgepodge of miracle cures supposedly stowed away in his briefcase. Like I said: it’s a long ride. But sometimes that’s just the way things are, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. So I take a deep breathe, lean back, and close my eyes. We’ll get there.

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It’s In A Book!

Over the past 20 months, I’ve been sent several boxes of books from home – French English dictionaries and English picture books for my English club students. I never imagined how much love and use these books would see! But here in Benin, books aren’t something most kids have access to. Even kids who don’t know any English yet will come by asking if they can borrow a book for a week just to have something to flip through and talk about. So I’m putting a post on my blog to ask for your help now in helping a friend of mine and fellow volunteer build a library in her community. She’s raising money through the same “Peace Corps Partnership Program” process that I used to raise money for my chicken project. I wouldn’t normally post about other volunteers’ projects on my blog to ask for money for them – because every volunteer is raising money for something! But Amber, the volunteer doing this project, is one of the hardest working volunteers I know and has put everything into her and now has limited time to raise the funds for this library! So, if this type of project interests you, help her out! Thank you!

This is the link to her project, and any donation is tax-deductible.


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You Simply Must Come: Bringing My Family To Benin

I never wanted to come to Benin. Of all the countries in which peace corps operates in francophone sub-Saharan Africa, Benin would have been my last choice. But it wasn’t my choice to make – only to accept or decline. And I accepted.

Still, when my parents began talking about a family vacation in Africa, I reverted to my pre-peace corps state of mind: not Benin. If we’re going to have a vacation, let’s have a vacation! They started making plans to go all out for a luxury stay in a more tourist-friendly African country, and I was thrilled. But the more I reflected, the more I could see this wasn’t the right choice, until one day I called home and begged my parents to throw those travel plans out the window and come to Benin.

Having previously gone to great lengths to enumerate the many reasons why Benin would not be the best place for a family vacation, I had to eat my words a bit and re-convince them otherwise. I couldn’t explain why I had changed my mind so completely and suddenly, so I just decided to sugarcoat the whole thing with mellifluous phrases. “Oh, you simply must come!” I imagined myself saying, “It is ever so lovely here!” – words that would have been more fitting for an elegant drama about 19th century English gentry than a scratchy phone call home about 21st century West Africa. No matter – they’d understand once they got here.

I spent Christmas day on the beach in the sleepy town of Grand Popo. My family spent Christmas day on a plane en route to see me. We were finally together on the 26th when I met them at the airport, and it was Christmas day all over again. They had only one week to explore Benin, so we never stayed more than two nights in one place. My mom came up with all different ways to describe what it was like to travel around the country like this: (in order of diminishing positivity) like a competitor on the Amazing Race, like a pioneer, like a refugee. First full day in Benin must have been one of the “refugee” days as we spent the whole darn thing crammed in a taxi for the grueling road trip to my village.

Spending time there enabled my family to finally put faces to all those names I’d talked of and the voices they had heard from time to time in the background of phone calls home. Not surprisingly, the whole Five Americans in the Village at Once reality show was also great fun for the village. Honestly, being there was perfect, but it was also exhausting – the saluer-ing (greeting) and being saluer-ed got a little out of control. Oh and translating, as it turns out, is not my cup of tea. My tendency is to just kinda sum up what people are saying. When my dad told me to explain to the local veterinarian that we were very appreciative of the diligent work he was doing related to the chicken-raising project I had started, I just looked at the vet and said, “Il dit bon travail.” He says good work. It was a relief for me when we packed up a few days later to head north for a short safari in the national park, Pendjari.

It was a good change of pace to be able to sit back, relax, and just look for animals for a few days. Mom was hoping for a leopard sighting, but our guide said they would be difficult to find because they are voodoo spirits. So no leopard. We did see lions, though, toward the end. My younger brother gets the credit for being the first to spot them. My older brother, meanwhile, had been satisfied that after seeing birds, elephants, and “deers” on the first day, we’d encountered all the likely wildlifes in the park and could just as well spend the rest of the time reading at the hotel. Perhaps a book on Russian verb tenses, for example. (He’s more of a language type, you see.) Nonetheless, he traipsed along with the family on all the game drives, entertaining himself by occasionally pretending to be a guide, pointing out random things on the side of the road and exclaiming how fortunate we were to get to see this or that rare creature. “Regardez!” he said as we drove past an empty parked car, “On a la chance aujourd’hui – une voiture… abandonée!” Look! We are lucky today – an abandoned car!

I can’t say how much my family got out of their trip here – you’ll have to ask them – but what I do know is that they took it all in stride. And for one precious week, they were able to know the piece of the world I’ve been trying to describe to them for the past year and a half. The world is vast; one can only hope to meet a very tiny percentage of it during a lifetime. Benin is not high on the “must-see” list for most Americans, nor is it well-known by us for, umm, anything. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want my family to come here at first – maybe that’s why I didn’t want to come here at first. But as I now realize, there is no country one should write off as not worth seeing, no group of people not worth meeting. We each will find that some places and people are harder for us to love than others, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth getting to know. And that is something best done in person.

* * * *

“How will I ever learn Itcha?” I despaired. Out loud, it was just a question about the local language, but inside, my train of thought was quickly snowballing into a panicked musing on all things presently stressful. Two months in Benin, I was just beginning to adjust to life in the city of Porto Novo, where our peace corps training was being held, and now it was almost time to move again – this time to a village 7 hours north. Pierre, who would be my main work partner there, was with me in Porto Novo. We’d be traveling together so I wouldn’t have to show up at my future home for the first time, all by myself. But this hardly lessened my worry or secret reluctance to leave the relative comfort of my life in Porto Novo. I would no longer have the company of my fellow peace corps trainees, or the tutelage of my bossy host mama. I’d no longer have the blessing of electricity or running water. I wouldn’t even have furniture! Oh! I furrowed my brow and slapped my hands on my face, pulling it into a big frown. You see, I’m distressed. It was all I could honestly hope to convey. Maybe Pierre understood me, maybe he didn’t. He straightened his back and took a deep breath. I braced myself for a lecture, but after a brief pause, he just chuckled and shook his head. “You simply must come,” he said. And he was right.

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