My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Village!

Hello everyone! So, a few big things have happened since my last post: we visited Ouidah, one of he largest slave ports in West Africa, and I FOUND OUT THE VILLAGE WHERE I WILL BE LIVING AND TEACHING! I will start with that since that is the news we have all been waiting for :)
Most of you whom I spoke with knew that I wanted to be posted in the northern part of the country because of the lack of humidity and relative calm of life there. Well... my post is a small village called Lobogo, in the southwestern part of Benin. I was a bit disappointed when I first heard my location, but have since totally changed my mind. Here are some of the reasons why I'm excited:
-My region is the fruit capital of Benin. There is always fresh fruit in season: mangoes, guavas, papayas, bananas, pineapples, and oranges!!! (Speaking of oranges, I will never be able to eat an orange any way other than the Beninese way for the rest of my life- cut a small hole in the top and mush it and suck on it until you get every drop of juice and pulp out. So delicious! The oranges here are green, by the way)
-My region is almost an hour-long zemidjan ride off any main road, meaning no merchants/truck drivers will pass through the town (which = only the chilled-out people that live in the village will BE in the village)
-My region is essentially a lagoon. We are right by a large lake, and the area is extremely lush- hence all of the fruits and rice fields!
-I am about 2 hours away from Cotonou, which means I can easily go there to get ANYTHING that I need, including just about any kind of American food or toiletries. Also, if I get sick, I am only 2 hours away from the Medical Unit/Peace Corps Benin Headquarters, which has internet! I am, however, far enough away from the city that I won't experience any of its problems like pollution and overcrowding. There is also a major airport there (and one equally as close just over the border in Togo which can be cheaper to fly in and out of), meaning that I can easily pick up any of you lovely people when you come and visit me :)
-I have a fairly large house in a concession, meaning there are 4 or 5 houses within a walled-in area that share a well and “yard space”. This means that when I go out of town, someone will always be there keeping an eye on my house. I have electricity, but no running water. I also have my own private latrine which is nice. The volunteer who I am replacing left me a few pieces of furniture in the house, so I won't have to worry about buying things like dressers and cabinets when I get there.
-There is a Small Enterprise Development volunteer there who is almost finished with his 2 years of service. The way he talks about Lobogo, you would think that it is paradise! He absolutely LOVES it there, and is thinking about building a house there once his service is over. He is going to hook me up with his tailor, carpenter, market ladies, etc. and show me all the cool quirks of the town! He is also going to give me some of his furniture/kitchen supplies since he is finishing his service.
-There are lots of volunteers in my area, so I will have lots of people to easily visit if I want! There are even a few volunteers withing a long bike ride of my village!
-I am very close to some natural hot springs, a river that has hippos living in it, and the town of Grand Popo, a tropical resort/beach town right on the ocean!
-The current volunteer said that I can feel 100% safe there, even if I go out at night (don't worry mom, I'll still be very careful :)
-I don't have to dress as conservatively as I would have to in the north, meaning not full-length skirts and I can wear pants instead of only skirts and dresses! I can also wear tank tops.
-My village is located in “voodoo alley”, the part of the country where voodoo is heavily practiced and indeed originated. There are lot of awesome festivals and drumming parties to go to all year round!
Needless to say, the place sounds pretty neat. I actually will get to go visit it this week! Our school directors are coming to Porto Novo on Monday for a seminar that we have with them on Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday we will travel back to the village with them! I will then stay in the village, either with my director or with a host family, until Sunday when I will come back to Porto Novo. While there I will get to see the school where I will be teaching, my house, and Ryan (the volunteer who is almost done with his service there) is going to show me all around the town and introduce me to people. We have to travel back to Porto Novo by ourselves on Sunday, which is a bit scary! The “bush taxis” here are ridiculous: 5-seater cars with 9 people in them, and usually some livestock (many volunteers have been peed on be a goat while riding in bush taxis).
I am both excited and nervous to meet my school director! The TEFL volunteer who I am replacing was apparently very quiet and never spent much time in the village, so the school requested someone outgoing and fun. I am glad that the Peace Corps thought that I would fit the bill! I think that a big part of the reason that they put me in the south was because of my scoliosis; they didn't want me riding in a taxi for 10 hours if I were in the north and had to go to Cotonou.
There are lots of people who aren't sure how they feel about the location of their posts, but I think everyone will end up loving it. There are volunteers who are WAY up in the north and quite isolated. (Most of my closest friends are way up north :( I will definitely go up and visit, though, because it is supposed to be beautiful up there! We are planning a safari in Pendjari National Park in the northwest for Christmas! We are allowed to stay at any of Peace Corps' 3 workstations in the north for free, and use their kitchen/supplies/internet/library! When volunteers get together its like a giant slumber party at one of the workstations. For instance, last year they all got together at the workstation in Nattitingou on Thanksgiving and made a full out turkey dinner!
Ok, moving on to our excursion to Ouidah today. Ouidah is basically the world center of Voodoo, and was one of the largest slave deportation ports in West Africa. We first went to the Sacred Forest, which is an awesome old forest that is sacred because the first king of the area supposedly went into the forest an turned into a tree instead of dying. If you go to the tree and make a wish, as long as it is a positive wish, it supposedly will come true! The forest is filled with statues of various voodoo gods and crazy stories of sacred trees who stood back up when they were cut down. These were the biggest trees I have ever seen, along with the biggest ants and centipedes I have ever seen!
Then we went to the Python Temple. Pythons are sacred in Voodoo, and in Ouidah they have a small temple that has hundreds of pythons in it! People come to pray here and priests sacrifice goats here. We all got pictures with pythons wrapped around our necks!
We then went to the old Portuguese slave fort that has since been turned into a museum. It was nice as far as museums in Africa go, but still not much in the way of artifacts and preservation. Then they took us on the "slave route", the path that the slaves walked from the town to she beach/ships to be sent to the Americas. There is a tree that they had to walk around 9 times that was supposed to make them "forget" their life in Africa. The slaves who no one bought were buried alive in a mass grave, which we were also shown. At the beach in Ouidah, there is a really cool monument called "La Porte de Nonretour" ("The Door of No Return"). It was all pretty powerful and sad. We got to put our feet in the ocean there, which was warm and full of huge waves.
Other than that, life here has been pretty steady. Still have hoardes of kids screaming yovo at me wherever I go (although now I usually turn and tell them to call me madame or beninoise). I did get 2 awesome outfits made for me by a tailor! They are called "modeles" which are basically a long fitted skirt and tight fitted top to match. It cost me $45 total to get the material and get the 2 outfits made!
School is still plugging away; I get to start learning local language tomorrow. We start "model school" next week, where we teach a group of students English for 4 weeks, complete with a final at the end. I am nervous but excited! I also went to church again this morning- 4 hours long! That was really hard to sit through, but people were really happy to see me there.They did the offertory 3 times again, so I felt bad that I could only put money in once. Especially because no one here understands that we are volunteers and don't have much money! I have kids ask me for money on the streets multiple times a day.
The weather has been alright; hot and humid but usually a good breeze to counteract it. Anyways, I think that is enough for now! I miss everyone, and please give me a call!

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Really Long Post

Bonsoir! (They say that all the time here so long as it is not early in the morning- it means good evening) I am typing this blog in my host family's living room, and then I'm going to try putting it on a flash drive and loading it on to a computer at an internet cafe tomorrow after school. (Yes, I am in school right now, 40 hours a week :( BUT, we do get a 2.5 hour lunch/siesta time in the middle of the day which is nice!)
Since I last updated, we have moved to another city: Porto Novo, the capital of Benin. It is MUCH nicer than Cotonou- cleaner, more tranquil, more trees/public parks, less pollution, etc. Because this was the colonial capital of the area, there are lots of multi-story buildings (a rarity in West Africa), and lots of gorgeous houses, relatively speaking. My host family lives in such a house: 3 stories with a lovely pavilion on top. The houses are old, however, and have not had much upkeep, so they are quite run down. They still look like gold compared to many of the houses here, though! The odd part about the house I live in, though, is that they only live on the first floor, and I think they keep their two dogs on the other floors? I only saw the animals the first night I was here. Pets here are not like in the USA, and dogs are often seen as dirty/disease-ridden animals.
So, my family is pretty cool, but a bit untraditional in the American sense. My papa is probably in his late sixties, and his wife and all of his children live in France (he stayed here so he could continue running the church choir...). My “mama” is probably in her mid thirties, and has a husband, but is here from about 5am until midnight every day! I am guessing that papa pays here to cook and clean and act like a mama. There are two or three girls who live here (meaning sleep here), but there are a few other girls who are ALWAYS here during the day and are related to the family. The concept of “family” here is very different from what I am used to. Family is anyone you might know or even run into. Because this is a very collectivist society and people do each other huge favors on a daily basis, people will just send their children wherever, whenever. People of all ages come in and out of the house regularly and I never know their relation to the family! But they all seem very happy to have me here. [on a sad note, we learned today about the major child trafficking problem here because everyone wants to send their children somewhere else to have a better life, and the children often become “domestiques” or glorified slaves to the family in return for food and shelter. Luckily I am nearly positive that this is not the case with my family!]
The youngest of my host sisters is absolutely adorable. They say she is eight, but I am not sure she is that old. She gets the BIGGEST smile on her face whenever she sees me, and always has to be holding my hand or playing with my hair. She can barely speak French and is fairly shy, but we get along wonderfully :) The other sisters are very cool too, and are probably between the ages of 13 and 17.
The sisters do EVERYTHING for me, which has been very difficult to get used to. When they picked me up to bring me home, they wouldn't let me touch any of my luggage, including my purse and water bottle. They sweep my room 2 or 3 times a day. They do my laundry for me. They won't let me take my dirty dishes into the kitchen. It's crazy! I started off protesting, but have found that a) it doesn't do any good, and b) I am offending them. I always thank them a thousand times. To tell you the truth, it is kind of nice to have so much done for me after living on my own for 4 years! I am trying not to get used to it, though, since I will be moving to my post in less than two months and will have to do everything for myself there!
In this culture, the women do everything. When papa wants his pillow fluffed, he calls them over to do it. It is very hard for an independent woman to get used to, but you just have to accept that it is part of the culture here. The women cook, clean, and sell their wares, while the men uphold the family status by socializing with the right people. It is also sad to note the ratio of boys to girls in school here: many girls don't even enter what we would consider high school and virtually none finish school. This is because they get married and/or pregnant, or are needed for work and chores. The worst part is, the reason that many of them get pregnant is their school teachers force them to sleep with them in order to remain in school :(
I have my own room here which is pretty nice. I have gotten used to and fallen in love with sleeping with a mosquito net. It is like having a blanket/protection, because it is too hot to sleep with a blanket or sheets! (Speaking of mosquitoes, I am getting eaten alive here, and I have heard that many people still get malaria even when on the meds. I am just trying to accept that fact and keep my fingers crossed!) My host family gave me a small fan for my room, which is nice. Bonus: there aren't many bugs here! (Although, when I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom last night, I ran into what I swear has to be the biggest cockroach on God's green earth)
We have been taking language classes, as well as TEFL (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language) specific classes and cross-cultural classes. This week we start health and safety classes too. Unfortunately, we have a half day of classes on Saturdays :( Language has been a bit boring. I got placed in the highest-level French class, but I still feel fairly far ahead of people and am eager to get to learn the local language of my post. We are split up by sector, and I therefore haven't seen my friends who are health or environment workers in almost a week! We will see each other every Tuesday when we all have class together, and hopefully as we get to know the town better we can see each other more often. It is also a bummer because it is not really safe to go out after dark here unless we are accompanied by an African, and it gets dark here by about 7:45. I wouldn't want to go out after dark here anyway, just thinking of how much attention/people following me on the streets here when it is light out! Today was the first day that it started to get to me, probably because one guy a bit younger than me has taken to trying to walk me home every day and he is definitely sketchy. I not to fret though, I told my family and I know they will protect me! That is something I love about the culture here: once people get to know and respect you, they will do anyyything for you and go out of their way to protect you.
Today I went to church with my family. When I met my family 4 days ago, one of the first things my papa asked me was if I was religious, and he was eeeecstatic when he found out I was protestant because he is too. Church was 2.5 hours, which was especially long because it was all in Goun, the local language here. The music was gorgeous and so joyful, though, so that got me through. My papa runs the church choir which rehearses at our house every Saturday night, and the family gets up at 4am to sing and praise god every morning! I have a hunch that it is because they want to beat the Muslims and be the first people to greet God every morning ;) I am woken at about 5:15 every morning by the Muslim call to prayer which is broadcast over a loudspeaker over the whole town!
Speaking of loud noises during the night, they never stop! Sleep is not sacred here like it is in the USA, and people play load music at all hours of the night. For instance, there is a voodoo group called “Guardians of the Night” who go around in the middle of the night banging drums and singing to protect the town. (No one is supposed to see them, though, especially women, and especially white women. Legend has it that is someone looks at them, they die within three days! I will do my best to avoid them :) Also, people don't sleep a whole lot. My host family eats dinner at about 11pm and gets up at 4am.
I am still getting followed on the streets by hoards of children yelling “yovo!” at me, which once again is not an insult, but rather an expression of their surprise and excitement that you are here. There is a song they sing that goes: “Yovo yovo bonsoir, ca va bien, merci” that is as ubiquitous here as Twinkle Twinkle is in the USA. When children start singing it to me, I usually finish the song which delights them. I also usually wave! Greeting people on the streets is very very important in order to gain repsect here. The problem is, however, that each greeting takes about 5 minutes because you have to ask about their family, house, health, etc. It is also difficult because sometimes if you greet the wrong people (i.e. 18-30 year old men), they take it the wrong way and often start walking with you and expect you to “accomany”them for awhile. Gross.
I have been having a hard time getting used to the food here. They serve whole fish that have clearly been sitting around for a few days, and eat parts of animals they we would never think to eat in the USA. They also use tons of oil and mayonnaise, which is pretty heavy and gross. I got really sick to my stomach AND had an awful fever yesterday, but I am better now.
Today (I am now writing this on Thursday night), I met a king! The 2 highest level French classes got to go meet the king of Porto Novo, and it was pretty trippy. He sat on his throne and we all knelt on the floor in front of him, and had to prostrate ourselves several times during the visit and offer him gifts.
Ok, that is probably enough for now. One last note: I DO have a cell phone here, and it is free for me to receive calls and texts from the USA! My number is: (229)98681518. The 229 is the country code, and don't forget to dial 011 before those numbers to dial out of the States. I am having a problem receiving calls from the USA unless you use something called “” where you connect your credit card to an account and then the site gives you a number to use when calling me. It is 12 cents a minute! I know for certain that this service works. I may try and figure something out so that Skype will work with my network too, but for now is a sure thing and it is cheaper than Skype, not to mention you don't need to be on a computer/have a headset to call. Please call me!!! It's very affordable for you, and free and very necessary for me to stay perked up! In the meanwhile, I am able to receive and I believe send texts, so please text me! I love and miss you all! A toute a l'heure!

Monday, July 7, 2008


Hello again! I figured that I would write another blog, since I have free time and free internet access at the Peace Corps Headquarters!
Yesterday, we had lunch at the country director's gorgeous mansion in Cotonou. The ambassador cam and spoke with us, which was nice. We then had our first language class. I was put in the highest level language group, so that is good! Hopefully I can start learning a local language soon. After that, we played with the local children for hours while there parents were at church. They are so precious! They loved getting their picture taken and then looking at it right afterwards.
Unfortunately, last night one of the volunteers in my group broke his ankle and has to get flown to either Senegal or South Africa for treatment. He is determined to come back and finish training though!
We just had our zemidjan taxi training (mopeds), and rode around the town a bit. People started because not only are we white, but we were the only people wearing helmets :)
The water has been out for a while now, so we have all been taking bucket showers! I am used to all the lizards now, and bugs, but last night there was a spider that was almost as big as a tarantula in the wall by my bed! I made a current volunteer come kill it- it was like killing a small animal!
Anyways, that is what we have been up to. We move in with our host families on Wednesday, and training will then be in full force! We are moving to Porto Novo for training, which is supposedly a nicer city. I'll hopefully write again soon!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bienvenue en Afrique!

Salut tout le monde! I am currently typing this blog in the Peace Corps headquarters in Cotonou, the biggest city in Benin. If I look out of the window in front of me, I see a road with plenty of zemis (moped taxis) and some street vendors. Also lots of people carrying their belongings on their heads- a skill which I have decided that I must acquire while here :)
Our day of travel yesterday was very long: we got to Philly's airport 5 hours before our flight, then had a slight delay to Paris, a 5 hour delay in Paris (not quite long enough to go into town, boo), and then our flight was delayed almost 2 hours (while we were sitting on the plane!), followed by a 6 hour flight to Cotonou. It was so beautiful to fly over the Mediterranean and the Sahara!
When we got into Benin, it took about 2 hours to get our luggage, in a room jam packed with people in about 90 degree weather. We were then greeted by some current PCVs in Benin, and I got my first marriage proposal from a nice Beninese gentleman hahaha. We then took about a half hour bus ride to our hotel which is on the outskirts of the city. There are NO traffic rules here, so the drive was scary! Tons of zemis; PC Benin is the only PC country where we can and must use zemis to get around. Scary at first I bet, we have training on Monday for them! It was odd driving through the city at night. There were street lights, but most of the vendors on the street were in rundown huts with only candles for light. There were TONS of people out. It looked like what you back home might think of as a slum, but I have already learned that that is not the case.
The hotel-ish place we are staying at is an old Catholic mission. When we arrived, tonsss of current Benin PCVs wee there to welcome us and help get our luggage to our rooms. My roomate and I were promptly greeted by swarms of mosquitoes and lots of lizards in our shower, not to mention oppressive heat and humidity. But we still managed to have a good time! We wrapped up the night with an ice cold soda and all singing the national anthem since it was the 4th of July. After the best shower of my life (ice cold water), I tried to get some sleep in my massive mosquito-netted bed, but between the heat and LOUD African drumming party outside of my room, it was difficult.
Today we had our language interviews to determine which language class we will be in, which I assume we find out tomorrow. I am hoping to be able to start learning a local language right away, since I think a French language class would bore me. I think it should work out! We also got issued our bikes and got some more vaccines... we have to get roughly 234908239048 innoculations here. Also, PC gave me the weekly malaria prophylactic, which I am not thrilled about because it gives most people that take it hallucinations/nightmares, not to mention it is illegal in Europe. I tried giving them a doctors note, no good so far, but I am going to try again in a few days when we come back to the medical unit.
Tomorrow we have brunch at the Country Director's house, and meet the US ambassador here. The next few weeks will be intense classes on everything from repairing a broken bike to riding a zemi to bleaching vegetables to local language. We meet our host families on Wednesday. Since this is the first time that training hadbeen in Porto-Novo (the capital city), none of these families have hosted Americans before, which I think is a marvelous opportunity. I will find out my sight in about three weeks, and go to visit it July 30-August 2! I can't WAIT... I am going to try to get placed in a community that has not had a PCV before, maybe a smaller community somewhere in the middle or north part of the country.
Sorry this post was so detailed, but I am just taking everything in right now and trying to give you guys a slice of what my life in Africa is like! I don't know when I will be able to update next, so a bientot! I miss and love you all!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Hi everyone! I am typing this blog from my hotel room in Philly- free internet/desktop computers in every room :)
Yesterday started off on a bad note- my flight was delayed almost an hour and a half, making it a rush when we got into Philly. Luckily there were 5 people from my Benin group on my flight so we were all late together!
Staging has been pretty fun, just lectures, activities, and getting to know one another. The people in my group are great, and come from all over the country (Alabama, Hawii, even a few from thr UK who have dual citizenship). There is a married couple who I would venture to say is in their late 50s, as well as a single woman that age. Three volunteers from MSU and one from OSU, but I am the only UofM grad! There is also a girl who finished Peace Corps service in Ukraine one month ago in our group, and one girl who had to be evacuated from Kenya after the political violence there- so brave on both of their parts! The only thing about other volunteers that I am surprised about is the lack of French language knowledge... I think I may be one of the most (if not THE most) fluent French-speakers here. Last night we went to Chilis for dinner and got good old American food, and tonight a small group of us went to a nice seafood restaurant for our last dinner in the US. Both of our cab drivers tonight were from Africa, so it was fun to speak to them!
Tomorrow we get some more vaccinations and then fly to Benin via Paris! (It is going to take everything in me not to bust out of Charles de Gaulle airport and stay in France :) I can't WAIT to get there. It is the first time that training has been in Porto Novo, meaning that we will be the first Americans our families will have hosted. Our swearing-in as volunteers on Spetember 5th will also be a part of the 40th anniversary of PC Benin, so the president will be there! Awesome!
I miss you all already, but my extreme excitement to move to Africa tomorrow is keeping me very happy. I will update as soon as I can once in Benin!