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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3 Responses to Two steps forward, one and a half back

  1. Jake Siegel says:

    Very thought provoking! Thanks!

  2. Marty Siegel says:

    You never cease to amaze me…your perspective in the face of such challenges is a gift that will “keep on giving” for the rest of your life.

  3. You have such inspiring things to say! Thanks for writing.

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