My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Thursday, May 29, 2008

New York and the One-Month Countdown

This past weekend Mitch and I went to New York City! It was really fun; we saw Passing Strange (a new musical that has a good chance of winning the Tony this year), Gypsy (a WONDERFUL revival cast starring Pattie Lupone and Laura Benanti), and Les Liaisons Dangereuses starring Laura Linney. All of the shows were totally different and really well done. Passing Strange in particular struck a chord with me because it was about a young person who leaves home to "find himself" by experiencing different cultures in the world.
We also spent time with my cousin Dave and my big Italian family. It was sad saying goodbye to them! Dave has been one of my closest cousins for a long time. It is hard saying goodbye to older people in particular because- I hate to sound morbid, but it's a fact of life- you never know how many more chances you will get to see them. We also stayed with Cam for a night and had a nice dinner in the city with him and drank wine in his hot tob under the stars- so relaxing. We also had just about perfect weather the whole weekend- mid-70s and sunny :) Mitch and I had a ton of fun together; it's so unfortunate that we only met this past autumn because he is now one of my best friends- I'm going to miss him like crazy!
One month from today is my big Goodbye party in West Park in Ann Arbor. I can't believe I only have one more month in Ann Arbor before I move to Benin! I am really looking forward to it. I recently finished a book called Nine Hills to Nambonkaha about a Peace Corps volunteer in Cote d'Ivoire (also French West Africa) about 10 years ago. Her first-hand account of her experiences in West Africa gave me a really good idea about what to expect over there, both good and bad. For instance, a major frustration for her was that it's not that they don't have the resources to correct health problems, but rather many of their traditions and cultural values help to perpetuate some of these problems. Throughout her assigment, she learned how to work with these traditions in order to improve community health. Overall, the book only made me more excited to go!!
One week from tomorrow is my last day of work. I can't WAIT to have a few weeks to myself before leaving, although I have a feeling I might start to panic about packing, shopping, seeing everyone, etc. once I don't have work to distract me! (Speaking of, please make an effort to see me before I go! I will do my best to see people, but I will be very busy and may not get around to calling everyone. I want to see you!)
One month until service starts... let the countdown begin!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Shopping and Whatnot

Well, I have finally started the shopping process. I went to REI and got some dressy linen shirts (that keep you as cool as possible and look professional enough to teach in), some comfy capris, a really nice light rain jacket, a multi-tool, and a knife sharpener (I felt pretty badass buying the last 2 things:).
It was good to start shopping, but it made me realize a)just how much more I still have to research and buy, and b) how expensive it's all going to be! We spent almost $400 just on the stuff mentioned above! The main things I still need to get include a backpack, a small sleeping mat, a good quality knife, nice flashlight/headlamp, frying pan, garlic press, a small/light/cheap laptop, small speakers, some Chaco or Keen sandals, and some heat and culture appropriate skirts/pants/dresses. Not to mention all of the smaller things I have to get! It's a good thing I have three weeks off of work before I go. I'm headed to Chicago the weekend of June 13 to see some friends there and hopefully get a bunch more of my stuff- my friend Morgan works at an outdoor store there and will hopefully be able to get me a discount :)
I feel a bit behind some other volunteers in terms of shopping/packing, but I know it will work out somehow! Lots of the people in our group have connected through facebook and AIM, and I can't wait to meet everyone! All of them seem really nice, and we all share similar interests. As an RPCV told me, half of the Peace Corps experience is meeting these other Americans and learning how to work together in this new environment. I'm really looking forward to meeting in person these people who will undoubtebly become some of my best friends!
Monday, I met with a girl I had a class with a few years ago who did PC in Benin and is now getting her PhD in African Art/Culture (focus on Benin) from UofM. She was a teacher in the northern, muslim part of the country. She had a fabulous experience, and gave me lots of great pointers. In fact, she has gotten me interested in possibly trying to teach in the northern part of Benin. She gave me tons of great CDs of various Beninese and African artists to listen to! African music is so beautiful. She also told me that the PC Medical Unit in Benin is one of the best on the continent and has a great staff who bends over backwards for you- good to know! PC Benin is also supposed to have a great library- I'm looking forward to getting a lot of reading done while there!
In other news, I'm headed to NYC this weekend with my friend Mitch to say goodbye to some family I have there, visit Cam, and for Mitch to do a bit of apartment hunting there. I'm really looking forward to the trip! (But unfortunately it comes with some goodbyes that I am not looking forward to...)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Benin Bronzes

This is the sad story of the Benin Bronzes, a hotly contested group of objects that are still on view today at the British Museum in London. (Forgive me if this story is not 100% accurate, but this is how I remember it):
In 1897, the British sent a few men into the Kingdom of Benin (located in modern day Nigeria I think. Modern day Benin was known until 1975 as Dahomey, as it was the ancient kingdom of the Dahomey people. Thanks to Eric, a Beninese from France for this information!) to do some exploring. When they went to the royal city, they were not let in because it was a feast day in the kingdom, and were asked to come back in a few days. The British men didn't like this and went ahead into the Kingdom anyways, and were consequently killed.
As a retaliation for the loss of these few mens' lives, the British launched a "Punitive Expedition" of roughly 1,200 men to the palace in Benin, where they sacked the entire property and burned down the palace. (They were also instructed to essentially destroy whatever they could of the Kingdom of Benin) As booty from the expedition, they took all of the valuable Benin bronze plaques, sculptures, and ancestral figures back to Europe with them (many of which date back to the thirteenth century).
Many of these objects are still on display at the British Museum. Benin/Nigeria have been in a dispute with the British over the ownership of these objects (since they were stolen from them), but Britain has refused to give them back.
...and that's the sad story of the Benin Bronzes and the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 :(

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


When I tell people I'm going to Benin, I get one of the following reactions: "Where??" or "Is that a country or a city?" or "Is that in Africa, or Asia, or what?" or-my personal favorite- "Oh yeah, Benin!" (when it painfully clear that they have never heard of it before).
I shouldn't expect people to know much about Benin. I only know a lot about it from taking African art history classes. However, it is sad how little people in this country know about world geography.
So kids, here's a brief lesson on Benin/the Peace Corps there!
-Benin is a tiny country on the west coast of Africa, wedged between Togo and Nigeria (it is also bordered by Burkina Faso and Niger)
-the French pronunciation is "bay-naeh", although I'm not sure how the Beninese pronounce it
-the GDP of Benin is 163rd out of 179 countries in the world
-education is the Peace Corps' largest project in Benin, followed by small enterprise development, health care, and environmental action
-it used to be a French colony (hence French being the official language there)
-Benin is slightly smaller than Pennsylvania
-population of about 8 million
-hot and HUMID in the south (along the coast), a bit drier in the north
-Benin is the birthplace of Voodoo (and has large Muslim and Christian populations as well)
-Benin is 6 hours ahead of EST
-about 37% of the population lives below the poverty line
-one of their main foods is "fufu", which is mashed up cassava and plantains. You eat it with your hand and dip it into a sauce
As for me being in Benin, I don't know yet where I'll be assigned. They say most teachers work in small villages, but not all. Apparently there is a better chance than I think of having electricity in my home! During training, I'll live with a family- YAY! I am so excited to live with a family in another culture after having done so in France, Japan, Germany, and Austria and loving it! Sounds like I'll be eating a lot of okra, peanuts, spaghetti (apparently?), and mangoes, to name a few. Volunteers who are serving in Benin right now say we absolutely need to bring a teflon frying pan, a knife sharpener, and a garlic press! Love it :) Apparently I can get good quality clothes made cheaply for me there, which I will definitely take advantage of. Girls can't wear shorts (even long ones), skirts above the knees, or tank tops. It is also recommended to wear dark colors, because lighter colors get dirty so quickly. Peace Corps will provide me with a mountain bike and helmet for riding moped taxis there!
Enough random babbling, it was just what I would think of off the top of my head. There are about a million other things I could tell you about Benin, but I'll save those for later. Go out an read about it- it's a very intriguing place!

Monday, May 5, 2008

The First Crazy Goodbye

So, last night I said my first reallllly hard goodbye before I head off on July 1. I said a few tough goodbyes about a month ago, but last night I had to say goodbye to Michael, who has been one of my best friends for 8 years. He is moving to Las Vegas on Tuesday, so I won't see him before I leave in a month and a half, and I know we will never again be able to see each other as easily as we have been able to in the past.
I have been really excited about Peace Corps lately, and have been thinking about how I can't wait for a total change in my life. I grew up in Ann Arbor and went to college here, so I have been itching to get out for a while, and that's certainly what I'll be doing! It's hard to think about things like saying goodbye to a best friend when I'm so excited for my upcoming adventure. I'm not letting it get me down too much; it's not like anyone is dying or anything :) In one sense, I'm glad I got this goodbye out if the way so that it doesn't add to the slew of hard goodbyes I will have to say at the end of June!
Speaking of wanting to get out of Ann Arbor (although I absolutely love it there and am very grateful that is where I grew up), I have been thinking a lot lately about moving to France after Peace Corps, and maybe going to graduate school there. My recent trip there made me realize that nothing thrills me more than speaking French with native speakers, and I absolutely love that country. I think having total fluency in another language is so powerful, and I know that between Peace Corps and then moving there I would attain that. Visiting Grenoble, the town where I did my study abroad, made me start researching grad schools there because it is just such a cool place.
My thoughts on this may very well change during my service, though! That is one thing that I'm very happy about right now- I am open to almost anything when I finish in Benin! I would like to go to school, but I'm not sure in what. Probably something involving French; maybe international relations or something like that.
Anyways, those are just some recent thoughts on goodbyes/where my life is going. Moral of the story: goodbyes really suck, but you live.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

My First Time Blogging...

Well, this is my first experience with the blogging world... I was reading other Peace Corps Volunteers' blogs today and realized I am just about the only person in the July 1st group without a blog started, so here it is!
I found out that I was going to Benin almost 4 weeks ago, but immediately took off to France for 3 weeks so I haven't had a whole lot of time to start thinking about my upcoming adventure.
For those of you who don't know, I will be serving as an English teacher in Benin, to students who are in roughly 7th-12th grades. I am not nervous about my French abilities, especially after my recent trip to France where I felt at a level of near fluency in the language. I AM worried, though, about how the heck to teach English from French. I don't have much teaching experience, and I have never tried to formally help a French-speaker with their English skills... should be interesting!
As my secondary project (Peace Corps engourages volunteers, especially TEFL volunteers, to take on a second project during the summer, etc), I am going to try and do some sort of museum/cultural preservation work. I took a really great class that dealt with museum work in Africa, and my professor has given me some really great ideas and contact information in Benin. Plus, those of you who know me know what a museum nerd I am :) Hopefully that will work out!
Service starts 2 months from today!! Can't wait...