Club-mania

“Now, after you’ve boiled the empty bottles for ten minutes and let them cool slowly, you can add in the tomatoes,” I explain. Today in environment club we are canning. Most of the students are paying attention, but Colette, I’ve noticed, seems suddenly distracted by something behind me. I turn around just in time to see Thierry skitter away from a pile of burning twigs and leaves. I sigh, “Thierry, c’est quoi, ça?” What’s that? I demand, pointing to his quickly growing brush fire. He giggles.
“Wasn’t me!”
“Go get water and put that out right now!” He prances around the leaping flames, ignoring my order, so I throw a clod of dirt in his direction and hit him squarely on the head. The other students erupt in cheers, and finally someone grabs the basin of water and douses the flames.

“Let’s not start a forest fire during environment club, ok?” I scold, “Especially not on school grounds – Club Rule #2: No lighting random things on fire!” It’s only the second week of environment club, but at this rate, we’ll have a new rule each week. Last week during a lesson in mud stove building, I sent two students to gather dry grass to mix with the clay. They came back with a big fat snake, proceeded to behead it, and then failed to see the irony in needlessly killing wildlife during environment club. Hence, Club Rule #1: No killing things.

* * * *

I guess with a debriefing like that, one could conclude this club is not going well, but I’m actually quite pleased with our progress. We’ve built a fuel-efficient mud stove and successfully used it in a tomato canning experiment. We’ve started nature journals. And we have at least ten committed club members who are all enthusiastic… if not always well-behaved. So, we get a little out of control from time to time, but hey, that keeps things exciting and the club growing!

Last year, getting kids to participate in my clubs was like pulling teeth, but this year it seems there’s a kid around every corner eager to join a club. It’s not unusual for me to get visits from students wondering how they may s’inscrire (enroll) in one of my clubs. This is one of those Beninese formalities that makes me chuckle, and I’m always a little tempted to throw my hands up and say, “No inscription necessary! Just show up, kid!” But there’s no need for irreverence, so I grab the most official looking piece of paper I can find and ask them to write their name and age, sign, say an oath I make up on the spot… (well no, I don’t usually take it that far).

Girls’ club is definitely the most popular club by number of participants. We’ve met twice, chez moi (probably half the reason the girls want to come), and it was a blast both times. At our first meeting, seventeen girls showed up. Second time around I forgot to remind the girls we’d have a club meeting, so I kinda figured only a few would come, but I was wrong. All seventeen from week one came, along with seven newbies! I didn’t even know I could fit twenty-five people in my house! I think the boys get a little envious that we’re having so much fun, but they get their time in running club. Running club is supposed to be co-ed, but it might as well be bro club since the usual turnout is me and a band of about twenty barefoot boys. Oh, and the dog. Sami loves running club. She gets right in there with the pack of boys, slowing down only now and then to wait for me to catch up.

* * * *

Sami is popular around the village, even though she hardly lets anyone touch her but me. English club is just starting, and I ask the students what they want to study. “Get the Sami book!” says Raphael. The ‘Sami book’ is a grammar book that Sami chewed up. Fortunately she didn’t chew off anything important, and the grammar exercises are still intact. We’re on a new chapter, so the students must fill in new vocab before continuing. I stand by and watch as they practice using their French-English dictionaries. They divvy up the page of words and begin loquaciously scrambling to find all the French translations.

“Pupkin!” announces Enock, “What’s pupkin?”
“It’s pumpkin.” I correct, “There’s an m there.”
“Peakin!!” he exclaims.
“No – puMPkin.”
“Ok pu-uh-mmkin.”

“Fought,” says Raphael.
“Thought,” I say, “Fought and thought are different.”
“Fought,” he says again.
“Look at me,” I say, then stick out my tongue, “Thhh-ought.”
He sticks out his tongue and tries again, “Thhh-ought.”
“Very good.”

“Please, teacher – what is driveway? I don’t find it in my dictionary,” says Loukemane.
“It’s a place you park your car.”
“Then it is parkway?”
“That’s a place you drive your car. It’s not important. Go to the next word.”

Half an hour later, Roberta triumphantly claims, “Finish!” when she sees that all the blanks have been filled in. We proceed through the grammar exercise and conclude the evening with a mini spelling test. I’m exhausted, but these students hardly seem tired. Then again, I’ve had over six hours of club time today, so I take a turn sitting while they pack up their things.
“See you tomato!” says Raphael.
Tomorrow, Raphael. It’s tomorrow. I’m not a tomato.”
“Yes! See you tomorrow!” he corrects, “Samiiii – good night!” he says to the dog, who’s never really sure what to do when someone else uses her name. She growls but wags her tail a bit too. Raphael laughs, “Good dog.” Indeed – and a good day.

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 5 Comments

Growing in Faith: 4 Lessons From Year 1

Lesson 1: People are essentially the same, everywhere.

Sure, we’re different. But we all have the same basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. It’s a simple truth but one that’s worth reflecting on often I think.

Lesson 2: It’s not about you so don’t be so self-conscious.

I don’t like the spotlight – acting, performing, anything where I’m the center of attention tends to make me feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve always struggled with. Then I came to Benin. I am a young, white, single female. To say I attract attention here would be a gross understatement. And for so long, it drove me crazy.

But sometime over the course of the last year, I realized how often my self-consciousness has nothing to do with anything admirable like humility or even just respectable like distress or shame – it’s just self-absorption. I dwell too often on what other people are thinking of me or how they might be judging me. I make myself the center of attention, when it’s not about me at all! So I find I have to remind myself to let it go – to let the focus shift away from the me, myself, and I. And what a relief it is when I can do that!

Lesson 3: Worship first, then serve.

Remember the story of the sisters Mary and Martha in the Bible? (Luke 10:38-42) Two godly women and dear friends of Jesus welcome him into their home, but while Martha busies herself with serving him, Mary just sits at his feet to listen to him talk. Martha feels Mary should instead be helping her, but Jesus corrects Martha. It is in fact Mary who properly chose her priorities. We are first and foremost called to love and worship our God because at the end of the day it’s not about what we do, it’s about what’s already been done for us.

Service should be the natural outpouring of our faith. Doing “good works” for their own sake might still yield positive results, but if it’s the desire to achieve certain results that dictates what you do, you’re hollowing out your actions. Your heart needs to be in the right place first. If you do something for someone because you love them, that’s service (and honorable). But if you do something for someone because you just want to be doing something good, that’s as much self-serving as it is service.

Lesson 4: You don’t have to settle.

I mean this in more than one sense of the word. You don’t have to “settle” for the way things are, if the way things are is not okay. This is not to say you can give up on something rather than live with it as is; au contraire, you must be willing to bind yourself to something – to throw all your chips in the pile and fully invest. Then you can push wholeheartedly for change and betterment.

In another sense of the word, you don’t have to “settle” physically in one place, time, career, etc. The American dream tells us that life is a ladder and happiness is something you settle on when you climb to the top. It tells us happiness is something we accrue in conjunction with increasing wealth and stability. If you get stuck somewhere along the way, you’re out – game over. But that’s a lie. Life is not a series of steps; it’s a mind map in which we shift around, building paths from one thing to another. There is no backwards or forwards – only a meandering trail of onwards.

In Philippians 4:12-13, Paul writes, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” True happiness comes from outside our circumstances. So don’t ever let yourself believe you have to get somewhere or accomplish something to find happiness. You can’t always be happy in the emotional sense of the word, but you can always invite God’s grace to satisfy your heart and give you peace, regardless of the circumstances.

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 4 Comments

Girl Power

First of all, a big thank you to anyone who read my blog post a few months back about Camp GLOW (“Girls Leading Our World”) and donated to the project. The camp took place earlier this month, and it was a big success. I was able to bring two girls from my village to participate in the weeklong workshop, and they loved it.

In total, about 50 middle school-aged girls from around central Benin got to come. And for an entire week, they got to just hang out and have fun. They didn’t have to work in the fields or cook for their families. They didn’t have to collect water and firewood. They got to run around in shorts, play games, and learn some useful life skills. We had educational sessions each day. I co-led a session on nutrition – some of the other sessions included leadership, women’s health, computer skills, and discussions on marriage and women in the workplace.

It was so much fun to get to watch these girls grow and learn throughout the week, and very different than camp experiences I’ve had in the U.S! Back home, a lot of kids have what I call “summer camp fatigue” and you have to work to get their full participation. Not here. These girls were so enthusiastic and motivated to be at camp. And when we had a dull moment in the schedule, they’d just start singing and dancing on their own! They especially liked listening to American music.

My birthday fell during the middle of camp, and I really can’t think of a better way to have spent it than by encouraging young girls to recognize their potential and strive to be strong, confident, healthy women. And they were so happy for me on my birthday! They drew pictures for me and wished me health, prosperity, and a good husband, lol. During break that day one of the girls asked if she could braid my hair; I said sure and immediately had about ten girls descend on my head and all start braiding my hair at the same time!

When the school year resumes in October, I am hoping to start a girls club at the local secondary school and have the two girls from my village who went to the camp be the leaders of the club. In the meantime, I’ve got a handful of other projects and activities in the works. I’m finally ready to begin the chicken-raising project I’ve been planning for since last March – we just need to raise the funds. So here’s another chance for you… if you are interested, please go the Peace Corps Partnership website and donate to my project! I will be forever grateful!

Website: http://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate
Search for my project, ID number 13-680-027

Sending love!

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 5 Comments

A Tree Story

“What are you gonna do with all those trees?” asked a little boy named Adé, peaking over the fence at me in the garden. “BonJe ne sais pas,” I said. I don’t know. Tossing the empty watering can aside, I looked at the rows of baby trees sitting in plastic bags – about three hundred in total – moringa, cassia, cailcédrat, and orange. The tree nursery had been a project I started with my environment club. We picked a variety of species for a variety of purposes and intended to plant the trees at the students’ houses and around the school before classes let out, but the rains didn’t come in time. Now we finally had rain and soft ground, but the school year was over, and the students had dispersed.

So the trees still sat waiting in my garden, their roots poking through the plastic bags they’d long since outgrown. They needed to get in the ground soon, but I couldn’t just plant three hundred trees in my backyard! “What are you gonna do with all those trees?” Adé asked, again. He looked at me expectantly, “Donne-moi un.” Give me one. I hear this all the time – people asking me for things. Give me money! Give me your dog! Give me one of those mangos! By now, I’ve lost my patience with random demands and tend to automatically see red when someone starts a sentence with “Give me…” But this time, I had a different thought.
“Just one?” I asked, “How about two?”
His eyes went wide, “Medji?” Two?
“Yes, but only if you help me distribute the rest of the trees. Then I’ll give you two trees and un cadeau!” Well that did it – two trees and a gift? This kid was ready to do anything I asked.

First, we went over to the mason’s house to see about borrowing his wheelbarrow. It was not in good shape – all rusted out in the middle – but it could still fit a couple dozen trees. So we filled up our first load and pushed off. Never one to be left out of an expedition, my plucky pup Sami eagerly charged ahead, clearing all livestock out of our path as we set out.

As one might guess, a wheelbarrow full of trees gets very heavy very fast, and I knew I’d have quite a sore back and arms by the end of the day if I had to push this thing all morning. But as it turns out, word spreads fast in a small village, so soon enough people were coming to us before we had to go find them. The wonderful thing about doing an activity such as this in an agricultural community is that you don’t have to worry that people won’t know how to properly care for a tree. Of course, there’s no guarantee they will, and I’ll probably never know how many of my baby trees survive. (This is why I’d wanted a more organized tree-planting approach to begin with – I wanted to know who had trees and where they planted them so I could follow-up from time to time.) But you can’t always be in control. Sometimes you just have to let go and hope for the best.

And I have high hopes. No one who took a tree that day looked anything less than fully attentive and enthusiastic – not the little girl who carefully selected the moringa with the most leaves, nor the old man who gently secured two cailcédrat trees to the back of his bicycle so he could take them out to his fields and plant them that day, nor anyone else. It took only a few hours to hand out all those trees, so we were back at my house by lunchtime. As promised, Adé received his two trees and a gift (a new bouncy ball), but in the fun and flurry of giving out the trees, I forgot to set aside one for myself. So all my little babies were gone. Bummer.

It was already quite hot out, and we were both tired and thirsty, so I mixed up some crystal lite lemonade and shared a glass with Adé.
Bon travail, Adé!” I told him. Good work! “That was a lot of trees.”
He nodded, silently studying his feet. Then he looked back up at me with those bright, inquisitive eyes. “What are you gonna do with that last one?” Did I forgot one?
“Where?” I asked.
“I’ll show you.” We walked around the house back to the garden where he pointed to something growing out of the compost pile. I had assumed that was just a weed, but Adé knew better. “That’s a mango tree!” he exclaimed.
Ah bon?” Really? What a pleasant surprise! I touched it’s tiny new leaves and smiled, “Guess I get to keep one, after all.”

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 9 Comments

Balanced

Shortly before coming back to the U.S. for a mid-service vacation, I read the book Cesar’s Way by Cesar Millan, the famous dog trainer from the show “The Dog Whisperer.” I don’t agree with all parts of Cesar’s philosophy. I think he associates dogs too much with wolves (they are, after all, distinct species, even though dogs did descend from wolves of centuries passed). And I think he’s a little too, I don’t know, primal about the whole thing. Like when he talks about getting up at 4 in the morning to run with a pack of dozens of dogs through the mountains. Who does that?? Nevertheless, he clearly has a way with animals and a natural intuition about behavior that most of us are completely out of touch with.

One of Cesar’s key points is about balance. Every dog, he asserts, requires exercise, discipline, and affection – in that order – to be healthy mentally. If you give them too much of one and not enough of the others, you’ll put them out of balance and cause stress. He attributes most dogs’ behavioral problems in U.S. households to owners giving too much affection and not enough discipline or exercise. People too, need some measure of all three, and I would also add other things like work and relaxation to the mix. Work clearly overlaps with discipline and possibly exercise, but relaxation merits its very own time slot in our lives.

Being in Minnesota was nice. Friends, family, food – all in abundance. It took a nightmarish time in and between airports (involving all manner of airline and customer service malfunction), but I did eventually make it home last month to spend a few weeks on vacation. I spent the first week at a family reunion in the Brainerd Lakes Area – something my dad’s side of the family has done almost every summer for the past 25 years or so. We catch small fish, grill in the rain (though it was sunny this year – a miracle!), and play passive aggressive Scandinavian Taboo (in which we debate every point then say “oh, but we’re not keeping score.”)

After the reunion, back at home, I spent much of my time eating (and gained 7 pounds by the end of the vacation). I also became addicted to Downton Abbey. My mother is to blame for that. “It’s like Pride and Prejudice – for hours!” she exclaimed when we sat down together to watch the first episode. My younger brother was slightly less enthused. “Oh goodie,” he said, “All our favorite English actors in a whole TV series with a mildly depressing theme.”

There was not much balance during my short vacation at home. It was quite heavy on the fun and leisure side of things. All that socializing and relaxing as a short-term event served its purpose well, but had I continued on that trajectory much longer, I would have actually become quite stressed. In fact, by the end of it, I’m afraid I may have already begun getting crabby with people. But vacation is vacation. Next time I return to the U.S., it won’t be vacation, it will be moving back home, so things will be different. This was my intermission during Peace Corps service.

I didn’t have the time or energy to do as much or visit with as many people as I had hoped, but I unexpectedly learned a lot. There were certain things I had been puzzling through in Benin – things that didn’t make sense to me for so long until I saw again the contrast with American culture. I think I understand now, for instance, why children are treated the way they are in Benin. It used to seem to me that parents in Benin didn’t really love their children. Kids are yelled at, beaten, and made to work, and as babies, they are routinely force-fed in what must be a horrifically frightening experience. I have lived in Benin for a year, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a parent playing with their kid. And while this is still disturbing to me, I realize now that this may just be an example of parenting that’s out of balance – all discipline, very little affection. It doesn’t mean the parents don’t love their children, but in Beninese culture, sensitive or nurturing behavior is generally seen as weak. Discipline is strength; affection is weakness.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the U.S. we are more likely to nurture too much – to tell every child they are oh so special and perfect. To kiss their every boo-boo and softly caress their egos when they’ve had their feelings hurt. But it’s hard to see one’s own lack of balance when everyone around is out of balance in the same way. It would be great then, wouldn’t it, if we’d look outside our own culture more often to see things from a different point of view? Wouldn’t it be great if more parents in Benin could see how affection does in fact promote strong, healthy development, and if more parents in the U.S. could see how stricter discipline can build life skills and character? (I am not, by the way, advocating for the type of physical punishment I see often in Benin, but I do think most kids in the U.S. could benefit from stricter, non-abusive discipline.) But all this is only possible when you realize that on the whole, parents in Benin and parents in the U.S. do both love their children very much.

* * * *

If the time I’ve already spent as a Peace Corps volunteer were on one side of a scale and the time I anticipate continuing to spend as a Peace Corps volunteer on the other, the scale would be level. Balanced. It came at a good time then – my vacation home. It gave me the chance to recharge for year two and reaffirm the value of two of Peace Corps’ three main goals: cross-cultural exchange. As volunteers, we tend to focus on the technical aspect of our jobs, but it is equally worthwhile to be encouraging empathy through a better understanding of cultural differences in societies around the world.

So here’s to hoping for more balance and harmony in our world. One year down, one to go.

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 3 Comments

In Sickness and In Health

(Okay, I admit this blog post is very long and rambling, but just read it.)

Once upon a time, an old man fell down a well. For days he cried for help. Many people heard, but no one did anything. They all had excuses – “I don’t know how!” “I don’t have the strength to pull you out!” “I don’t have the money for the tools to save you!” Finally, a Peace Corps volunteer came along. He heard the man, and immediately leapt to action without hesitation. “I’m coming!” he said, and jumped down into the well. “Well, what did you do that for?” asked the old man, “Now we are both stuck here!” “Oh I know,” said the PCV, “I came here to live with you!” Sometimes we get a little confused about our role as volunteers. Helping someone out doesn’t mean throwing yourself down the well with them, but time and time again, this plays out in various forms.

The attitudes volunteers take toward their health in this country can be quite disturbing. Malaria is endemic in Benin. We are all freely given malaria prophylaxis, but many volunteers don’t regularly take theirs. In fact, it becomes a matter of bragging rights – who’s gone the longest without taking their malaria meds? It’s one thing if you are experiencing negative side effects, but if you aren’t, and you don’t take the drugs because you just don’t feel like it – that doesn’t sit well with me. To say, “Nah, I’ll opt out” is like a slap in the face to the Beninese people – many of whom would give anything to be able to protect themselves or their children with preventative medications during the high season for malaria but can’t afford to. Some volunteers argue they don’t want to take the medication because they want to be able to truly empathize with the people around them. There’s logic to that, but all the same – you’re not helping people who suffer from malaria by sitting in a hospital with malaria yourself.

Furthermore, many Beninese look to us for direction on matters of health. If I’m seen drinking something other than water, applying some sort of lotion, taking a vitamin, etc. people want to know – What is that? What does it do? Where can I get some? Whether or not we really know what we’re doing is inconsequential because as they see it, we come from the land of western medicine where everyone is healthy and wealthy. So people want to know our secrets – even if we don’t have any. I’m not a doctor, but if people around me watch my every move, believing no matter what I tell them that I am an expert on health and medicine, maybe I should try to set the right example by taking good care of myself. This year’s new group of Peace Corps trainees will be arriving in about a month, and they’ve been asking lots of questions on the Peace Corps Benin Facebook page. One of the soon-to-be health volunteers wondered whether or not she would be working with “certified doctors” in her community. All I could think was, Honey, you’re gonna BE the certified doctor!

Staying healthy in Benin takes a lot more work than it does in the U.S., and in spite of my best efforts, I still get sick from time to time. I have such a great appreciation now for things like the clean water, waste management, and health education we have easy access to in the United States, but even at home we have major emerging environment and public health issues that we could be doing more to prevent. For most of my life, I thought I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. I love animals and science, so it just made sense. That’s not my dream anymore. I am still fascinated by health and disease – just in a different way.

Instead, I think maybe I’d like to have an educational farm. I believe we have the ability – and responsibility – to live in ways that preserve clean air and water and healthy natural ecosystems while still producing food for nutritious diets. And that’s what I want to strive for. I’ve realized over the years that I feel closest to God when I’m working on a farm, so I think that’s a sign. I’m never happier than when I’m digging in the dirt, or running my fingers through the snarly mane of a pastured pony, or even getting up at dawn to go outside in the pastel light and chilly air of early morning. It’ll take a long time to build up to the farm I envision, but I think I’ll get there – petit à petit

The reality of third world living conditions can be at times really discouraging – it can be so easy to just say “why bother?” when everything around you seems hopeless. You know, like why should I boil my water? I’ll probably get sick eventually anyways. It can also make people do really dumb things out of desperation – like the story of the PCV jumping down the well. It’s a kind of if you can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em mindset but instead it’s if you can’t help ‘em, might as well join ‘em! But there are other options. You can choose to take the situation for what it is without having unrealistic expectations but still be inspired. Do what you can do, don’t stress about what you can’t, then walk away asking yourself what you’ve learned. If you look for it, inspiration and ingenuity can come from the unlikeliest of places – from not only the good, but also the bad.

So today my little mantra is this: Be inspired, in sickness and in health!

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 3 Comments

Where the Wild Things Are

Wilderness as a concept has always intrigued me. What is it? Different people will characterize it differently, but one thing is certain: wilderness is a point of view – what to one is wild and unknown to another could be home. Every time I go somewhere new, I get this feeling of stepping into the wild, and I love it. Leaving behind what’s familiar to explore uncharted territory is like doing a puzzle with no picture for reference. You’ve got all these different pieces and you don’t know what’s what, but you play around and pretty soon you see the bigger picture emerging.

One of my favorite books of all time is Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. He tells the story of a young boy Max who is sent to his room without supper for dressing as a wolf and acting like a “wild thing.” Indignant, Max embarks on an adventure of the imagination in which he sails off to a distant land full of wild things. He lives in this world as king until a longing for home brings him back to his room where he finds his supper “still hot” and his temper finally cooled. In just ten sentences and eighteen illustrations, Sendak eloquently lays out how the search for the wild things ultimately brings us right back to where we started.

When we journey to the wild side it’s not the place that’s wild but our own emotional response. We create wilderness by projecting our own thoughts of fear, bewilderment, etc. onto an environment we don’t yet understand. Linger long enough in any of your wild places and you’ll soon discover how very ordinary it can seem and even, perhaps, boring at times! That’s when you know you’re adjusting – when you realize that maybe the wilderness comes from within, after all.

Knowing this has helped me cross over from being a traveler to a resident in Benin. It’s what helps me find a place in such a radically different culture and relate to people who often seem to have so little in common with me. Ironically, it also gives me a stronger sense of home. (Sometimes the best way to define one thing is to define first what it isn’t.)

I’ve been working on this blog for about a year now, so it seemed fitting that I finally justify my title: A Different Point of View. No, I didn’t just slap it up there. I actually thought long and hard about it! But rather than spell it out (‘cause where’s the fun in that?), let me offer this little thought: When you go somewhere or try something new, you may experience a rhythm or a way of life that seems a bit wild. But once you feel the beat, go ahead and dance! Who knows – you may just find, as Max did, that in the land of where the wild things are, you are the most wild thing of all!

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 5 Comments

GLOW

I have exciting news. This August, I will be taking part in a Peace Corps led summer camp for girls in Benin called Camp GLOW, and I’d like to ask you to consider making a donation to help make this possible. (I am also in the planning stage of a village chicken-raising project and will hopefully have information up about donating toward that within the next few months, but this is my first request!) My role in Camp GLOW will be leading some of the educational sessions and bringing girls from my village to participate. Roughly a dozen other volunteers are doing the same. Lisa Hembre, a second-year volunteer who is in charge of the camp this year, wrote the following description of the camp with information at the end on how you can contribute. Thank you in advance for any support you can give!

What is it?

Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a week long camp for exceptional girls, selected by Peace Corps Volunteers, to come together and learn how to be leaders among their peers and receive education about important health and social issues affecting their communities.  Camp GLOW is a Peace Corps initiative that started in Romania in 1995 with the purpose of promoting female empowerment.  The program came to Benin in 2004 and has been widely successful; current volunteers are encouraging and educating promising young females all across the country.

What do we do?

Throughout the week, girls will live on a university campus and attend sessions that target vital public health concerns, emphasize the value of education, focus on developing life skills, and encourage creativity and critical thinking.  Topics include: finding safe drinking water, sexual health, study skills, career planning, leadership, entrepreneurship, creative writing, and domestic violence.  At the end of the week, girls will collaborate with their volunteer to discuss the ways they can bring what they have learned at camp back to their villages.

Why do we do it?

Most of the girls who attend Camp GLOW will have never before stepped foot on a university campus.  They will have their first experiences with touching a keyboard, picking up a paintbrush, and being told that it’s not OK for a husband to hit his wife.  The girls will be mentored by adult Beninese women who have been selected for the exceptional example they set as professional, progressive women as well as older girls (junior mentors) selected from last year’s camp as outstanding participants.  Most importantly, the girls will be surrounded by positive encouragement.  They will not be hit, they will not be constantly sent out for chores, and they will be reminded that they are special and valuable.

How can you help?

Camp GLOW is financed through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP).  The project is posted online where friends and family of participating volunteers can come together to collectively finance the demand. Please follow this link: www.peacecorps.gov/donate and search our project number: 13-680-015 or my last name: Hembre.  You can read project details and contribute with your credit card directly through the site.  If you have any additional questions concerning the budget or activities of the camp, please feel free to contact me (lisa.hembre@gmail.com).  If you are interested in sending supplies that we would like to use, but do not have access to in Benin, please contact me as well.

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 4 Comments

March Madness

O soumin (I’m tired). This pretty much sums up last month, but in a good way (mostly). In the first week of March I went to Parc Pendjari in northern Benin with a group of friends where we had some excellent adventures – swimming under a waterfall, walking around in Burkina Faso (no passport necessary), and getting charged by an angry elephant (don’t worry – we were in a car and drove away very fast).

Upon coming home from Pendjari, I had to scramble with last minute preparations for International Women’s Day. The next time you’re frustrated with logistics for organizing an event, imagine doing so with people who don’t speak the same language you do and who pay no heed to timelines. It was absolutely maddening, but in the end we pulled it together, and the party was a blast. There was traditional music and dancing, but the best part was when several women from the village stood up to give speeches about women’s rights and empowerment. I am so proud of them!

In other news, le chaleur (the heat) arrived. I thought it was hot when I first got to Benin, but they weren’t kidding when they said the real heat comes in March. Average mid-day temperature was at least 105°F, and even at night the temperature rarely got below 90. It’s cooling off a tad now, but I still have heat rash (a.k.a. “prickly heat”) all over my arms and legs. Let’s just say I’m glad the marathon was in February… I did not run in March.

But I did go hiking. I had the opportunity to visit an environmental NGO in the hills with a handful of students from the environment and apiculture clubs. We hired a guide to lead us to the top of one of the biggest hills, where we got a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. It was a wonderful time for the kids who almost never get a chance to travel outside Koko.

For the grand finale of my crazy month, my dog Sami fell deathly ill with African Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness – from the bite of a tsetse fly). Because I had been away so much during the month, I did not notice her deterioration until it was almost too late. Easter weekend she took a turn for the worse and probably would have died had it not been for the kindness of a vet who drove over an hour to my village on Easter Sunday to give Sami life-saving medication. Happily my little sunshine is now back to her spunky self.

It’s hard to believe it’s mid-April already, but I’m grateful to see the seasons changing again. The only thing sweeter than the smell of the first rainfall after months of no precipitation is the taste of the first juicy mango after weeks of bananas being the only fruit available. I’ve been patiently watching the mangos ripen on the tree behind my house for a while, and it is so wonderful to finally get to eat them. A ripening mango is the color of the African sun setting over the tree tops – rosy red on top fading to lush green below – and just as beautiful.

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 5 Comments

FYI

Hi everyone! I just wanted to post a quick note letting you know that in the next few months I will hopefully be applying for the “Peace Corps Partnership Program” whereby I can submit project proposals, which then get posted online, and request donations. The way this works is I come up with a budget for the project in which my community must be willing to give 25% (to ensure they are really invested in the idea and not just going to request as much money as possible), and then a description goes up online and you can donate! These are for small-scale projects (couple thousand U.S. dollars or less) and processing usually takes several weeks to several months. I am floating a number of ideas around with my work partners right now, and I just wanted to give you a heads up. SO… if you were thinking about sending me a package, that’s very kind, but INSTEAD, save the cash and get ready to donate in the next couple months (things happen more slowly here).

That’s all :)

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 4 Comments