What It’s All About

Honestly, from a training perspective, I did a lot of things wrong. Race day found me with an empty stomach, less than 2 hours of sleep, and for once in this country, cold, stiff muscles! But that’s a funny story.

Check-in for the marathon was 4 AM at the edge of Parakou (only in Benin…). We got our numbers and t-shirts and were loaded into the back of military vehicles to be trucked thirteen miles in the dark to some middle-of-nowhere village where the race would start. The event was designed so that the marathoners would arrive back in Parakou just as the half-marathoners were starting there, and we’d all finish at the same place. It’s not often cold in Benin, but speeding down the highway in the back of an open-air vehicle in the wee hours of the morning, I learned that sometimes, it is down right freezing here! And it’s not like I thought to bring a blanket.

So we arrived at the starting point with goose bumps and chattering teeth, and at 6 AM, the race began. Even though it was still pitch black, we already had enthusiastic cheering squads. Every time we passed a little village or cluster of huts, people were lining the road, ready to sing, dance, and even play drums for us as we ran by!

I made it to Parakou around 8:30, still feeling kind of fresh, but the second half of the course was very hilly. Fortunately, with race organizers handing out bananas and bissap (a tasty purple juice) and throwing cold water at us, I was able to keep going. The event was so well organized I almost forgot I was in Benin! Then I passed a Fulani herdsman trotting about thirty sheep and goats down the highway — yep, still in Africa.

Finally, after a lengthy four hours and forty-nine minutes, I crossed that finish line, where someone grabbed my number, threw a medal around my neck, and gave me a hearty shove in the direction of water. I was among the last, but it didn’t matter. I joined other Peace Corps Volunteers in the recovery area, where we congratulated one another with sweaty hugs and talk of how much guilt-free indulgent eating we could do the rest of the day.

Almost forty Peace Corps Volunteers participated in one of the races that day – a sizeable representation for a country with (I think) fewer than two hundred volunteers total. Peace Corps service doesn’t necessarily make someone athletic, but it does teach you how to tackle tough things with a spirit of camaraderie and adventure. After the race, one of my friends cheerfully admitted that her training regiment, “probably should have involved some running!” Well, yes, that would have been a good idea. But she participated (and finished) anyways. Because honestly, it wasn’t about the running. I mean, part of it was. But the part of it that was about running was different for all of us – to get in good shape, to relieve stress, to cross “run a marathon” off the bucket list… The other part of it, the part we all shared, was about setting a non work-related goal and empowering one another to get there.

With a crowd of a thirty plus volunteers all staying the weekend at the Parakou workstation (with beds for only nine or so), most of us ended up sleeping on the floor that night. It’s not how one would generally choose to sleep the day after running a marathon, but when I woke in the middle of the night (because a book fell on my head when I rolled over and bumped the book shelf) and saw every square inch of floor and couch space filled with a soundly sleeping PCV, it didn’t feel like it should be any other way. We come from all over the U.S. and a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, but at the end of the day we’re all coming from the same place really – from our shared humanity. There’s some quote, and I don’t know who said it (but I’ll look it up and update this post when I have more than three minutes of internet time left…) that essentially states that peace is the mutual understanding that what we have in common is far greater than what separates us. And that of course is what this is all about.

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 18 Comments

Something I Needed

A weekend in Cotonou. A weekend with air-conditioning, electricity, WARM running water, burgers and ice cream, walking on the beach, internet, animal planet. I needed this time in Cotonou… to remind me I didn’t come here for this. To remind me that while I’m lounging on a soft fluffy couch in a clean, cool room watching hi-def TV one of my work partners is cleaning up garbage in her village – in OUR village. I have a temporary home in Benin, and it’s not here.

Sometimes I hate Benin. I hate it’s hot climate, it’s ugly music, and it’s stinking lack of a waste disposal system. I hate how slow it is at everything, and how it can’t seem to get it’s act together anywhere. But sometimes I love it, and gradually the days when I love it are out-numbering the days when I hate it. I love it’s crazy local languages, it’s goat population, it’s market madness. I love the children who shout “Madame Monsieur!” at me when I go walking down the street, and they aren’t sure if I’m a woman or a man because I’m wearing pants. And if I don’t love being constantly stared and laughed at, I certainly appreciate the humility it engenders in me.

I made the trek to Cotonou from my village – a 190-mile trip which took a motorcycle and two taxi vans a whopping 9 hours to accomplish on roads that look more like dried-up river beds then anything we’d call drive-able in the United States – to bring my dog to a vet who could get her spayed. And it’s been nice being here, but for the first time since coming to Benin, instead of feeling reluctant to head back to post after a weekend away, I’m itching to get out of here. I’m ready to stop being so often lazy and cynical at post and to start making things happen. Of course, it’s easy to say that as I sit here on a plush, spinny chair in the computer lounge at the Peace Corps bureau… but really. I’m ready this time. So pray for me. Pray that God gives me an unrelenting love for the people he’s putting in my life so I can be an effective agent for positive change during the rest of my Peace Corps service. Sometimes 27 months feels like forever, but it’s not. I have a limited window of opportunity here before it will be time to come home. And when all is said and done, I don’t want to just have interesting stories to tell, I want to leave with the knowledge that I truly let God’s love show through my actions and interactions with people here in Benin.

Allons-y!  Let’s go!

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 8 Comments

Positive Affirmations

“I am strong!”
“I will run because I love it!”
“I can set a new personal record!”
Sitting on the field in a circle, each of us took turns making bold, positive statements. It was the ritual my high school cross-country team performed before every race. “Positive Affirmations” it’s called, and it helped us get fired up to run our best.

Christmas came and went here in the village with little fanfare, and I found myself at a low point, feeling as homesick as ever. I had set up a Christmas arrangement of sorts with care package items beneath an adorable little tree and cardboard manger scene sent from home, but it wasn’t the same. I wanted nothing more than to be home, and I began to dwell on all I was doing without this holiday season. I realized I had to do something to turn things around. Perhaps writing New Year’s Resolutions would help?

I started to do just that but felt even more discouraged as I looked over a list of things yet unaccomplished. The next day on my morning run I began thinking about the race I was training for in February – a marathon. Prior to coming to Benin, the longest run I’d ever done was about 8 or 9 miles. Am I capable of running a marathon? I wondered. Yes. I can do it. I love running, and I will persevere! I told myself. It felt good, and pretty soon I was chanting a whole slew of positive affirmations in my head.

Then a funny thing dawned on me: a marathon is 26.2 miles – Peace Corps service is 27 months. Maybe I should think of Peace Corps as a “marathon” of sorts – it’s much longer than anything like it I’ve ever done before, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it. I’m training for a marathon because I love to run and want to push myself. I’m in Peace Corps because I love to volunteer and want to push myself in that regard, too.

When I got back from my run, I had an idea. I scrapped the New Year’s Resolutions list and started writing positive affirmations instead – one to read for every day in the new year. At first they came quickly and easily, but 365 is a lot of positive phrases, and I started to run out of steam when I’d only written about 50.

Fortunately just then, the neighbor kids came by to see what I was up to. I tried to explain what I was doing. “Oh, I’ll help!” said Toussaint. “Me too!” said Florence. But I don’t think they really got it. Florence began writing all sorts of words and phrases on slips of paper and depositing them in the container I’d labeled for the purpose, and Toussaint just flipped open a magazine I had sitting out and started copying random titles from articles and advertisements. So one of these days I’m going to pull a slip of paper out that reads, “The Great Pie Crisis” and another that reads, “Do you have credit card debt?” But at least it will make me laugh!

As marathon day approaches, I’m slowly increasing my weekly long run. Recently, I made the run from my village to another about 12 miles away. When I got there I stopped at a house to see if I could get some water. “Where did you come from?” asked a woman sitting on the porch, clearly confused at seeing a random white person come running through the village.
“From —– !” I exclaimed, “I ran here!”
“No you didn’t,” she replied plainly.
“Yes, I did!”
“You mean you biked?”
“No, I ran.”
“With your bike.”
“No, with my feet!”
“Oh!” she said, finally getting it, “You must be thirsty!” So I sat down with her family for coffee and bread. After a little while, she asked again, “Did you really run all that way?”
“Yes,” I replied, laughing.
“Well,” she said, offering me another cup of coffee, “You are strong.”
Affirmative.

Happy New Year :)
– H

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 18 Comments

Variations on a Theme: Cookin’ in Benin

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! As always, I have much to be thankful for this year. I am particularly aware now of what a blessing it is to have knowledge about and access to nutritious food, being that many people where I live do not have this. I even got to eat turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving, courtesy of a local restaurant that was willing to prepare and serve an American Thanksgiving meal for a bunch of us volunteers. But in general, meals are a lot different here, so I thought you might enjoy a post about cookin’ in Benin!

* * * *

It’s 7 AM, which means Sami and I have just returned from our morning run. Sami, still full of energy, is pacing at the front door, waiting to be let back outside (so she can terrorize the hapless neighbor children on their way to school) while I am sprawled out on the cool cement floor trying to decide whether I should make a celebrity appearance at the 8 AM English class or just go back to bed. But I can’t go back to bed because I am also hungry. Food. I get up and open the giant metal food cantine and ponder our breakfast options. Sami, easily distracted, forgets about the children and comes bounding over to rummage through the cantine with me. She selects a bag of beef jerky. Noooo, Sami. We can’t eat that for breakfast. (Actually, the day after getting the beef jerky in a package, I did in fact have some for breakfast, but I threw it in a frying pan and called it bacon.) I take out the canister of oatmeal and start the water boiling.

Oatmeal is one of my staples here. I discovered it after finally figuring out the code (if you want oatmeal, you must ask for “porridge of quaker”) and getting a tip from a fellow volunteer who had heard one can buy such things at the pharmacy. It’s oatmeal or pancakes for breakfast most days. Occasionally too, I fry up some plantains and drizzle them with honey: delicious. It’s easy to come up with a tasty breakfast. Lunch and dinner are more of a challenge. Beans are the standard fall back, which I usually eat with rice or “gari” (manioc flour). On market days, I buy tomatoes and onions to make a simple spaghetti sauce (see recipe below!).

Though different than at home, my options here are actually more varied than I once thought. Almost every week I make some new food discovery. Like when I found out you can get fried tofu at the market (just look for an old lady cooking rice and ask for cheese – makes perfect sense, right?). And there are even these people who come walking through the village now and then selling real cheese. I call them the cheese gypsies. You can spot them a ways off because they wear beautiful, bright fabrics. They always arrive from the Tobè Forest path, so I have no idea where they are really coming from. I guess there must be a village out there somewhere… and cows. Or is it goat cheese? It’s “wagasi” – whatever that means.

I’ve tried most of the local specialties too, and a lot of it is growing on me. I now eat akassa (fermented corn flour) all the time, though I hated it at first. The one thing I absolutely refuse to eat is “crain-crain,” or as we Peace Corps volunteers like to call it, “the snot sauce.” I draw the line at the snot sauce. It’s made with okra and who knows what else but the point is that it is the color and consistency of snot. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

 

Heidi’s Ginger Tomato Sauce

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 of a small red onion, diced
1 cup fresh, sliced cherry tomatoes
1 – 2 tsp. chopped ginger (must be fresh!)
A couple cloves of garlic
Juice of one small lemon
1/4 tsp. chili pepper
Salt to taste

Heat olive oil in a pan. Add onion when the oil is hot and fry for a minute or two until the onion begins to brown. Add the other ingredients and cook for about ten minutes. Serve over pasta. Makes enough for two (or one with a hearty appetite!).

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 6 Comments

Surprise!

It’s a good thing I like surprises, because Benin (and Peace Corps) is full of surprises. Like when you go to a “pizzeria” and discover they do not actually serve pizza or anything else on the menu. Surprise! Or when you schedule a meeting for 9 AM and people are knocking on your door at 7 AM. Surprise! “This is so logical and predictable,” is one phrase you will never hear a Peace Corps Benin volunteer say (along with, “For dinner, I could really go for some sticky white edible paste,” and “My, what clean feet I have!”).

Sometimes it’s maddening to feel like nothing ever goes as planned, but I’m learning to love it, too. Peace Corps is all about going with the flow and seizing the day. As an environment volunteer, my job is entirely unstructured. It’s taken a while for me to figure out how to get things done, and perhaps more importantly, how to find the discipline and initiative to try on a regular basis. But little by little, things are coming together. I’ve cleared an area behind my house for a garden, I’ve planted some trees, and I’ve started auditing classes at the village middle school/high school and attending their environmental club meetings. Last week the topic was hygiene. For now I’m mostly observing, but I comment here and there. At the end of the lecture the instructor asked the students if they had any questions for me. “English!” exclaimed one student, “Sing a song in English – about hygiene!” All eyes turned expectantly to me. I do not know any songs about hygiene, so I am now composing one which I will present next week, lol.

I get random questions and requests like this all the time. Greetings are very important in Benin, and the first two questions are pretty standard – how are you and how is your family (or house, or work, etc.). But because I’m a white foreigner, third question is a wild card. It might be – and how do you charge your cell phone? Or – why don’t you give me your dog, now? Often, people ask where my husband is. I usually tell the truth, but on days when I am too lazy to explain why I don’t have a husband I just say, oh he’s “là-bas” (over there) while giving a vague hand flourish over the shoulder. Surprisingly, this usually satisfies the interrogator. The Beninese are all about ambiguity!

The adjustment continues, and in fact, it will probably be a part of my entire service just because the culture really is so different here. I can’t say enough how thankful I am for your support and encouragement – your prayers, letters, packages, and comments carry me through! I have to reiterate as well that I’m sorry I can’t respond to email reliably – the only internet café near my village abruptly shut it’s doors last week and the internet at the Nati workstation is not working (I’m currently borrowing another volunteer’s “internet key” – a device that allows one to access the internet through the cell phone network. I’d get one for myself but my village does not have electricity or reliable cell phone reception so it wouldn’t make much sense for me). Anyways, thanks for the love and for embracing the different sort communication world here with me!

Peace :)
Heidi

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 6 Comments

Integration

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 ☺

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 8 Comments

Post Visit Adventures

We arrived at the bus station at 7 AM to catch the bus departing promptly at 7:15, so naturally we did not leave until 9:30. This is Africa. Five or six hours later I arrived in my village for my two-week post visit. My site information packet describes it as a village of 3,264 inhabitants (exactly). My local work partner, Pierre, says there are 6,000 (approximately). Well what the heck I might as well throw in a number – I’ll guess 2,000! It’s difficult to say because —— sort of blossoms off the city of —— and dissolves into the jungle on all other sides, but I’m wondering if anyone really has a clue how many people live there.

There are chiefs, and there is a king. And there is a mayor. I spent the first couple days running around introducing myself to them all. The mayor made a note in his calendar, the chiefs made regular follow-up visits, and the king gave me money. (I would not have accepted, but Pierre insisted this was how the king welcomed foreigners and that I should use the money to buy cookies.)

I like the king, and he seems important. Kings are always important. Not like queens. The queen only counts in England, chess, and beekeeping :) Speaking of which… I must tell you about —-, the protected forest near my village. It is the home of the miellerie (the honey house) for the beekeeping association I’ll be working with. I visited Tobè with Pierre and Cosmo (another work partner) in the middle of my first week. It’s a twenty-minute motorcycle ride from my house on a dirt road that runs through countryside where people are cultivating maize, rice, and soybeans. It must have been harvest time for something because we passed many people biking with heavy loads or walking with baskets of various things on their heads and one woman who was biking and carrying a basket on her head at the same time!

The miellerie kind of springs up out of nowhere, and it’s a pleasant surprise. Inside it’s nice and cool (the cement walls are more than a foot thick to keep it so) which is important for storing the honey, and it’s completely ant free. All that honey in the middle of the jungle and no ants! They do clean it meticulously, though – scrubbing the metal tanks and floors with bleach water after finishing any activities that involve moving the honey around.

In addition to touring the miellerie, I got to meet with members of the apiculture association to talk about what my role will be, and that was probably the highlight of my week. A growing problem in Benin is deforestation, and it’s a major concern for the beekeepers. They are asking me to help them teach about and promote forest conservation, not just to sustain beekeeping, but also for food security in Benin over the long term. Large scale deforestation alters patterns of rainfall and can have a very negative impact on agricultural production.

The following week, Pierre and Cosmo took me to the nearby city of Savalou for a national festival: la fête des ignams (the yam party – in celebration of yams, obviously). I didn’t pick up on any yam theme myself, but I did find a lot of traditional medicine booths. At this one booth a vendor tried to convince me to buy his “lucky soap.” If you wash with it three times, he said, it will bring you good fortune. A tempting offer, but I declined – politely at first, then vehemently (he really thought I should have it). So I did not buy the lucky soap, but what I did find in Savalou was peanut butter. It’s so good – especially mixed with the dark, rich honey from the forest. Plus, it provides a valuable source of protein. Once I’m cooking for myself I’ll be able to prepare meals with more substance, but for now I’m doing some experiential learning on how to eat Beninese style (which is to say, lots of carbs with lots of carbs).

In Benin, poor nutrition is pretty much the norm. Approximately 85% of children under the age of two do not have an adequate diet. In recent years, Peace Corps has partnered with USAID to enhance the role of Peace Corps volunteers in promoting food security in West African countries where volunteers are serving, so it’s a big part of our technical training. This week we got lessons in gardening – specifically, how to grow vegetables. We started beds of tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, igboman (a local leafy green) and lettuce which we’ll be maintaining over the next couple weeks. Once at post, we’ll be working to find the “positive deviants” in our villages – the people who already garden and provide themselves and their families with vegetables throughout the year – and draw attention to their activities within the community.

You see, the Peace Corps approach to development is to help people develop the capacity to use their own resources and skills to resolve their needs and improve their own lives. In other words, we aren’t here to step in and just tell people what to do. Our job is more along the lines of catalyzing and facilitating positive change from within the communities themselves. So for me, being in the environmental sector, I’m learning basic gardening, forestry, and environmental education skills which I’ll put to use in cooperation with local work partners. Additionally, I am free to explore other areas of interest if I see a need in my community (most environment volunteers also have secondary projects in other areas of agricultural production).

So I definitely did some interesting things during my post visit, but to be quite honest, as I promised I would with this blog, I must confess that I spent the better part of those two weeks withering of boredom. Because my “job” for the visit was to simply meet people and talk about things, I had few structured activities and was permitted to do little more than repose (under supervision) during my free time in my homestay. When I return to my village, I’ll have my own house to live in, and that is something to look forward to! I got to see the house I’ll move into, and it’s quite nice. I’ll have a covered front porch, a living room, a bedroom, and an outdoor enclosed kitchen area. The best part, though, is that they painted the house yellow and blue, as if they knew I had Swedish roots! Now if only it had an oven…

Tomorrow, some fellow trainees and I are going to experiment with local ingredients and cooking supplies to try to make a no-bake cookie num num of sorts. Our only goal is to make it taste like something which could easily be mistaken for a chocolatey American dessert. Thank you, by the way, for the letters and packages from home! Mail time is pretty much the best time of day for Peace Corps Trainees. I love reading your letters. I can respond to emails occasionally, though I prefer letters since my time on the internet is, let’s see, small and slow. For my blog I usually type something up in Word beforehand and then post it all in one go, which still takes forever. I will have a new address at post, so check the “snail mail” link to see that. (If you send something to the Cotonou address I will still get it, but it would be better from now on to send things to my address at post.)

God bless,
H

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 15 Comments

Post Announcements and One Month In!

!!!!! They’re here! Post assignments were just announced Friday, and I’m heading to… the Collines! That’s the hilly region in the center of Benin. My host organization will be a beekeeping association that has requested a volunteer to work with them on improving their operation and conducting outreach activities on reforestation in the area. This is so exciting! We will be making a two-week visit to our posts next week, and then the intensive technical training begins back in Porto-Novo.

I’m so happy to finally have this – to finally feel like I’m moving forward. The French immersion has been good, but I’ve been getting restless. Some days were so exhausting; in fact, I actually managed to fall asleep one day in a class with just three other students. It was “etudes personnels” time, so Aurélien (the instructor) had gone for a walk while we did some simple translation exercises. I guess I just drifted off because one moment I was working on the sentence, “The herdsman lost a bull and two goats in the storm,” and then the next thing you know I was in a kitchen where a pizza – an American pizza – was just coming out of the oven! Unfortunately, I woke up before I got to have a piece :(

We think and talk about food a lot here. Really, it’s just a matter of getting used to a new diet with far less variety. Some of the food is quite delicious and even nutritious, like the avocados, the pineapples, and the yams with frîtu (I think that’s how it’s spelled – a spicy tomato sauce). Still, initially my body resisted, and I had a very small appetite for the first two weeks. Then as I started to adjust my appetite swung the other way. I felt hungry all the time and started to eat that whole bowl of rice or pâte (maize meal) when it was served to me. Now the pendulum is coming back to the center as things even out. I’ve lost about 8 pounds since arrival – probably mostly muscle since I haven’t been exercising much – but once I’m at post where I can cook for myself and work out more, I think things will come back to normal.

We had our first in-training LPI (Language Proficiency Interview) last weekend, and evidently the semi-reckless pace at which my little French class has been plowing through the language has paid off because in three weeks time I went from “novice high” to “advanced mid” – that’s five levels, totally bypassing the intermediate stages! Yeehaw! I still have a lot to learn, but at least I’m pretty comfortable with the French I need to use on a daily basis now.

I was particularly pleased the other day when I successfully managed to discuter with a taxi driver to get a reasonable price for myself and another stagiaire heading home after class. I figured out ahead of time that a good price would be 250 cfa and decided I wouldn’t settle for anything higher. Here’s a translation of the conversation:

Me: “Hello sir, we are going to the Danto neighborhood near motel plaisir, on the road by the cemetery. Do you know it?”
Driver: “Yes.”
Me: “How much?”
Driver: “450.”
Me: “You’re joking! 200.”
Driver: “350.”
Me: “Lower your price, please.”
Driver: “300.”
Me: “250.”
Driver: “No, 300. That’s the price.”
Me: “We can wait for another taxi.”
He paused, and for a second it looked like he was going to drive off, so I picked up my things like I was about to walk off.
Driver: “Okay, come on.”
Me: “250?”
Driver: “Yes, 250. Let’s go,” he said, rolling his eyes.

Score one for moi!

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 29 Comments

Finding My Footing

Greetings! And thank you for your comments on my last post – it means a lot to me to hear from people back home!

I’m in the city of Porto-Novo right now where pre-service training has begun. First up is language and culture immersion, so we are staying with host families and taking French classes 7 hours a day, five and half days a week. I have to say, I’m finding I love it and hate it for the same reasons. The rapid integration and language competency that result from a good immersion experience cannot be achieved any other way, and yet sometimes I just want it to go away! I want a break from having to think so hard about everything.

The first time we went walking around to try to practice conversing in French with local people, I got really flustered and couldn’t understand a thing being said to me. It made me feel so discouraged, because after 4 years of French in high school and a year in college, you’d think I could have a simple conversation! But Beninese street French is a lot different than French French, and it wasn’t easy. My instructor, Aurélien, must have noticed my mood and reminded me that, “Petit a petit l’oiseaux fait son nid.” Little by little, the bird makes its nest. Taking things one day at a time, I will make steady progress.

If I pass the French proficiency test before August (I can do it!), then I will likely begin learning a local language, as assigned by my program manager. After language training, each stagière (trainee) will make a two-week visit to their future work site, and finally, we’ll all return to Porto-Novo for the technical training. But though that is still a ways off, I’ve already learned all sorts of handy dandy little tricks, like how to ride a bicycle in dress without letting your knees show (which would be a little scandalous).

Cleanliness is a big deal in Benin. It’s ironic because on the one hand you see garbage all over the streets, but on the other hand, people sweep the whole house everyday (loudly, usually between 5 and 6 in the morning) and are otherwise very keen on being neat and tidy. Sunday is laundry day. Now, I’ve hand-washed my clothes before, but based on experience I figured my host mom would want to show me how she does it, so I washed my clothes with the family last Sunday. My host mom kept saying “More soap!” and I tried to resist, but it was futile. I knew my clothes were dirty, but I’m telling you, there was way too much soap going around. Those buckets looked absolutely rabid, frothing all over the place. By the end of the afternoon I had some nice crispy clean clothes. Then just as I got them all hung up to dry, it began to pour. C’est la vie.

Also this past weekend, I went to the market. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was completely blown away. It’s spectacular! I hadn’t seen any stores in Porto-Novo yet, so I was kind of wondering where people, like, buy stuff, but then I discovered le grand marché. You can buy anything and everything at the market. I could have very easily gotten lost somewhere in those narrow passages, but I was with my host mom, who knew exactly where to find what she was looking for – fabric for a dress, spicy peppers, a new straw mat, eggs. The market has it all. Oh, and animals. Any kind of animal you might want – dead or alive. Or, select it alive, then come back ten minutes later and pick it up dead. Comme vous voulez. As you like it.

When I’m home in the evenings, I usually try to get a little exercise in. I’m not sure if people really go running around here, and at any rate I’d probably get lost, so for now I’m just using a laundry line to jump rope in the yard. Soccer of course is quite popular so I occasionally kick the ball around with my host brothers, too. Then I finish off the evening with dinner and studying. By the time I’m ready to call it a day, I’m so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open :)

Till next time,
Heidi

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 12 Comments

Arrival in Country

I’m walking around in the airport, trying to kill time before the flight, when I see a familiar face. I can’t remember her name – I’ve met so many people in the last 24 hours – but I know she’s in the Peace Corps group. I walk over to say hi, but then I notice she’s on her phone, and tears are starting to come down her face. For the 63 of us Peace Corps Benin Trainees, this is the last time we’ll be in the U.S. for quite a while, and many are taking the opportunity to call family to say good bye. It’s an emotional day.

Everyone was excited, but occasionally you’d see a cloud of worry or sadness pass over someone’s face as the reality of Peace Corps and the sacrifices it would entail sunk in. I was chatting with another member of our training group and he said, “Before my first flight to Philadelphia, as I was saying good bye to my parents, there was a part of me that thought you know, I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to get on that plane. I can just turn around and forget the whole thing.”

I had those thoughts too. In fact, I’m pretty sure everyone did. Peace Corps isn’t a little vacation or a semester study abroad. It’s a 27 month commitment to give up most of what you know, to live in a foreign country, to learn a new language (or a few), and to adjust to a completely new environment. But if what I’ve heard is true, Peace Corps can also be the sort of transformative experience that stays with you forever and gives you a set of skills that you won’t find elsewhere. If what I’ve heard is true, it’s worth it.

So in spite of our doubts, we all got on that plane, and now we’re here! After I don’t even know how many hours/days of travel, we finally arrived in Cotonou, Benin. We were greeted by a handful of the current volunteers who enthusiastically welcomed us into the Peace Corps Benin family. They are the Peace Corps Volunteer trainers and are staying with us throughout the course of our training to assist with everything from logistics to cultural immersion and language instruction.

Our days will be very structured and busy over the next couple months, so I probably won’t post much, but I’m enjoying myself and would love to hear from you. Beware that if you email it may take a very long time for me to get back to you, but I will eventually! Letters would also be much appreciated (hint, hint…)

– H

P. S. Mom and Dad, I don’t have a phone yet, but I should be able to get one by Monday and will call as soon as I can!!

Posted in Peace Corps Benin | 13 Comments