Trainee no more – I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! I moved to my village September 15th and have since been adjusting to life here and getting to know the village more. This has actually been a pretty difficult time for me. There are good days and bad days, but what’s wearying and at times downright unbearable is the absurd amount of attention I get. It’s amazing how stressful just having an audience at all times can be – like when I just want to do my laundry in peace and everyone walking by feels a need to stop and gawk for a few minutes. I have actually broken down crying a few times, but I’m counting on my ability to adjust and on my novelty wearing off.
In some ways, I’m living the stereotypical Peace Corps experience: in a small rural village in Africa with no electricity or running water and very sketchy cell phone reception. I guess it’s kind of like camping (and don’t get me wrong, I love camping!), but camping is a game and this is for real, and for two years. Wearing a headlamp gets old fast, and drawing water by hand is a pain right from the start. I go through roughly ten liters a day, which includes water I use to drink, cook, bathe, brush my teeth, and wash dishes. On days when I do laundry, it’s a lot more.
For now I can get water right from the cistern outside my concession (which collects rain water from the roof), but the dry season is on its way. It rained for almost a week straight when I first arrived, and then the rain stopped and the temperature soared. At it’s hottest, my thermometer read 104.9° F, and this is not dry heat right now. This is sticky jungle heat. I have an outdoor kitchen (with no refrigerator of course), so food storage and preparation has been an adventure. I’ve learned that tomatoes purchased at noon on Tuesday will be spoiled by dinner on Wednesday, beans left to soak overnight will be fuzzy the next morning, and insects are merciless – leave your dishes out for one hour and the place is crawling. The other day my kitchen was besieged by evil biting ants, and I had to sort of dance around as I was cooking. Eventually they left and have not yet made a return – perhaps this was some sort of initiation.
I try to spend a lot of time out and about in the community to establish my presence and to speed up the language learning. In the last few weeks of training we did have some local language time, but in my case that was just a comedy of errors. The funniest part was that my instructor did not seem to believe that I knew absolutely no Itcha. He’d say things like, “And do you know the word for dancing?” to which I would obviously reply no and then I guess he didn’t want me to feel bad so he would say, “It’s okay. That’s normal.” Yes, I know. I don’t speak Itcha.
For fun, I got a puppy. I named her Sami, after the reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. She’s delightful, but I must admit that adopting a 9-week old puppy (note: not house broken) two days before moving was not entirely wise. Keeping a puppy out of trouble can be a challenge anywhere, but when you don’t have any shelves or counter space to keep things out of reach, it’s almost impossible. I ended up buying some rope and stringing things up around the house as I wait for the carpenter to finish my furniture. If a random Minnesotan walked into my house they might guess I had a bear problem. Nope, no bears – just a puppy.
The neighbor kids mimic everything I say, and as I was in the process of house training Sami, they learned their first English phrase – go potty – which they took to chanting every time they saw me walk outside the house with my puppy. Their English vocabulary is expanding rapidly though; they’ve now added to their repertoire the oh so useful phrases of “Sami, leave it,” “Sami, sit,” and “Sami, come.” Peace Corps would be so proud.
I’m happy to have found at least one protestant church in my village. The first time I went I figured the service would all be in Itcha, so I kind of zoned out. But as I was watching a lizard chase a cockroach across the ceiling I realized all of a sudden that I was understanding what the pastor was saying. He was translating the sermon into French for me! It’s so important to me that I find Christian community during my time here, and I think I’ve found a good starting place.
Additionally, I met a missionary couple living just down the road from the Natitingou workstation. That’s where I am currently – at the workstation in Natitingou. There are four Peace Corps workstations located in Cotonou, Parakou, Kandi, and Natitingou. Volunteers can spend a few nights a month at the workstations to catch up with other volunteers, internet time, and showers ☺ I don’t know if I’ll come here every month because it’s pretty far, and the taxi ride is not exactly enjoyable. Basically, you’re packed like sardines in a rickety old van with no air conditioning that must drive in a slow zig-zag the entire way due to all the potholes. And the taxi stopped in almost every village along the way.
There was a point when I was thinking, okay, we cannot possibly fit any more people in here now. And then we picked up six more people. SIX MORE PEOPLE. We had to stagger the placement of elbows, knees, and hips like playing human Tetris. I also had the dog with me, and as I scrunched her into a smaller ball on my lap she gave me this look that said you’ve got to be kidding me. But this is Benin, and this is how travel happens. When we finally arrived in Natitingou, it took a while to shake the kinks out, but from there it was just a short motorcycle taxi ride to the workstation. I didn’t know where the workstation was so I couldn’t explain how to get there, but I just told the driver to take me to the Americans, and he knew exactly where to go ☺