My adventures serving in the Peace Corps
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 “keepcalling.com” 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 keepcalling.com 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!