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.)