My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Monday, October 27, 2008

Two Things

1. I was only at the bank for 50 minutes this time!
2. Michelle and I made Pad Thai, banana bread, and watched Little Miss Sunshine last night.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Happy Halloween

It's almost November! In a lot of ways time is flying here, although it sure seems like I've been here more than four months. On the other hand, many of the things I did before I left the States don't seem like long ago at all. In any case, I feel pretty at home in this country. The buzz here surrounding the American election is getting pretty intense, and all of us Peace Corps volunteers are excited. Obama had promised to double the Peace Corps budget, which is great, especially since in 2009 Peace Corps is having to cut 500 volunteer positions- Benin is losing 13. It feels good to see a leader encouraging serving your country by joining the Peace Corps instead of joining the armed forces. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for people in the military, it's just that they get all the praise while Peace Corps volunteers are either pushed into the background or even labeled selfish for just “wanting a free trip abroad.” (Which is complete crap, anyone that has served in the Corps knows what a huge sacrifice it is.) Anyways, sorry to ramble, I'm just excited to see how things turn out on November 4!
So the last time I posted was in Cotonou, and that day was rather frustrating. First, I locked my keys in my lock box AGAIN because I'm an idiot, and when we broke into the box we messed it up and now it barely closes, then my zem was an hour late picking me up, then in Cotonou I had two zems that got completely lost and tried to charge me more because of their mistake (we got into screaming arguments on the street, which is always lots of fun), the bank was having computer problems AGAIN and so after being there an hour I still was unable to withdraw money, and grocery stores are closed from 1-4pm so I had to wait until 4:00 to leave Cotonou when I usually try to leave by 3pm to avoid traveling in the dark. Then, the most frustrating thing was my taxi on the way home. The taxi ride is ALWAYS 1200 CFA, and I have always been able to get it for that much. This taxi, however, wanted 1500. I laughed and gave him my usual spiel “I'm not stupid, I live here, I know the price, I do this every week, blah blah etc.” He finally backed down to 1400, but I still refused because I know the real price and it is 1200 CFA. When I refused again, he proceeded to take my things out of his car! At this point there was only an hour or so before nightfall and I needed to get in this taxi. So I had no choice but to overpay! It was really frustrating. People here without fail assume I have lots of money because I'm white. Sometimes I try to explain that I'm a volunteer, but this doesn't register to them. The only good part about the day was that at the supermarket I bought goat cheese and French sausage to have as my dinner that night :) I also got some really nice packages from the States- keep sending the beef jerky and granola bars please!!
Last weekend on Saturday I had several other volunteers from the region to my village to celebrate my birthday, and my new couch arrived that day- see picture! Angele made us BBQ fish and eggs and rice and peanut sauce, which were all delicious, and we ordered beers from the buvette nearby. We ate under the mango tree in my front yard! Then we walked around the village a bit, and got another cold drink at the breezy second-story buvette because it was sooo hot outside. Then everyone but two of my friends headed home. The friends that stayed and I just had a nice long talk and drank a bottle of wine that evening, and the next morning we made peanut butter banana oatmeal pancakes!!! Real breakfast food is a rare, rare delicacy here. (Actually, one of the things I miss most about the States is going out to breakfast!) The only semi-awkward part about the day was the involvement of Angele. I kept telling her that this day was for my American friends, and that her and I would celebrate together on my actual birthday. This didn't really register to her though, and she decided to come out with us. That in itself was not a big deal, but she kept complaining that we were only speaking English and weren't translating for her. BUT, she NEVER speaks French with her friends when I am there! That really annoyed me because it was hypocritical. She couldn't understand that we always speak French here and this was our one break to speak English. Also, everyone paid for their own beer, but she and Fifa ordered drinks, and didn't even offer to pay, even though they invited themselves. Once again, I know she was not trying to be rude, but it was frustrating.
It was a low-key but nice birthday. Two of my neighbors gave me a bottle of wine, and a woman that I barely know gave me ten oranges, five huge onions, about twenty tomatoes, ten eggs, and about fifteen bananas! It was really nice of her, and not cheap either! I shared with my neighbors since there is no way I would be able to eat all of that by myself while it was still fresh. I baked myself a birthday cake by making a Dutch oven on my gas stove. It was pretty good! It was just a simple yellow cake, but I used coconut flavoring because I didn't have vanilla, so it was a bit coconut-y which was good! The frosting was another story. Since I didn't have powdered sugar, the Peace Corps recipe book (which is so awesome and helpful! It gives substitutions for American-Beninese ingredients, how to say certain foods in local languages, metric equivalents, tons of recipes, etc!) told me to grind regular sugar. I did this, but it didn't get as fine as powdered sugar. I went ahead with the frosting anyways, but it was just a liquid-y sugar-y mess. Most people ended up scraping it off the cake, as did I haha. Here is another example of cultural differences: I brought the cake over to Angele's house and said we would eat it after the dinner she was making for me. When she saw it she immediately stuck her hand in the top of the cake and pulled out a big chunk to taste! How crazy! Not the end of the world, but then it looked ugly for everyone else and I couldn't take a picture! She made me legumes (basically delicious collard greens) and pate for dinner, and I ate a ton. They also bought me a couple of beers to have with dinner. I got quite a few calls from the States which was nice :)
My other birthday present was my first day/week of teaching! I have four classes that each meet twice a week for two hours. So far the kids have been pretty good, although my younger classes have been a bit chatty. Since it is their first year learning English, we are doing the easy stuff right now so they aren't taking it too seriously. I know that I need to work on being more strict in the classroom. My two older classes are pretty good, although I have several overzealous girls who I have had to discipline for shouting out answers all the time. I was surprised with how much trouble the younger kids were having reading things aloud that I had written on the board. When they heard me say it they could easily repeat it, but saying things on the board was very difficult for them. The older kids knew a decent amount of English, and we reviewed the simple past tense of verbs.
Teaching is exhausting!I am glad I teach in the mornings when it is not so hot. The sun can be a big problem though, when it shines on me, the students, or the chalkboard. Two of my classes have permanent classrooms, although one of the is just a thatched roof with no walls. The other two classes and I have to search for open classrooms before class every time. We have also already run out of chalk. The resources/location here can definitely be frustrating.
After class every day I go to the same woman for lunch, and she has started to have cheese every day! She is also buying me cheese that I can cook myself for dinner whenever I ask for it, which is awesome! I then usually buy a cold beer, come home to lesson plan, and then maybe nap.
Yesterday I went to Comé, a town south of Lobogo to meet with a local teacher and several other volunteers about a regional English competition. Michelle (another TEFL volunteer) and I met up and had a cold beer first (let me reiterate- it's really hot here) and then we went to the teacher's house where his wife had made us a delicious meal of chicken, cheese, ablo (this sweet rice bread), rice, snails, and plantains, and more cold beers were waiting for us! Basically we are going to be the judges in a government-sponsored regional English competition this spring. The ride to and from Comé was gorgeous as usual, but two 45-minute zem rides in one day doesn't feel too good on the butt!
The kitties are doing fine. They are definitely getting bigger and are as attention-hungry as ever! The other night a huge praying mantis flew into my house and Belle jumped about four feet into the air are effortlessly intercepted it in her mouth. She then let out a primal growl telling Baby to stay away and proceeded to devour the mantis, which took her a while and made all sorts of fun crunching noises since the thing was about half as big as she was! More news from the insect world: I saw another scorpion in my house this week :( It was tinier than the first, but let us not forget the wisdom of Indiana Jones: the smaller the scorpion, the more deadly. (I have also included a picture of one of those huge and flat spiders that run like the devil. There are SO many of those nasty things here!)
That's about all the news from here. Today I'm going to Lokossa (how I posted this blog- at the cyber cafe there) to cook pad Thai with Michelle and take a real shower at her house since she has running water, and then tomorrow morning I'm going to the bank and post office there. Friday I'm going to another volunteer's house for a Halloween Party, and next Monday I may be going to Cotonou to have the doctor look at my toe again. (It's mostly better, but the skin now is really really dry.) I hope everyone back at home has a great Halloween and if I don't update again before them, a great election day! I miss everyone a lot, especially being my birthday week. The other day a Christmas song came on my ipod and although I was in a good mood, it made me cry :( Continue the letters/packages/phone calls! And I thought of one more thing someone could send- a laser pointer for my cats! They love chasing those things.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

As I am typing this blog on my spiffy little Asus eee laptop, I am listening to my ipod (“Let it Snow” just came on, how ironic) and drinking an ice cold beer. It is probably about 90 degrees with full humidity, and I am sitting under the shade of the avocado tree in my front yard while chickens and goats run around my feet and my neighbor is weaving a head scarf on her front porch. I just thought these incongruous circumstances might amuse you as much they do me. Much of my Peace Corps Benin experience has been about comical extremes and contradictions. Anyways, bear with me: since I haven't updated in a while, this will be a fairly substantial post.
Since I last updated, I have NOT been back to the med unit! Amazing, right? (The reason I am able to use the internet right now is because I am in Cotonou to fill out my absentee ballot and take it to the American embassy here. Sounds like I am missing a lot of election craziness here what with the racism, SNL skits, etc. I am sad and happy at the same time that I'm missing all the hype. Sounds like Obama has something of a lead though, thank goodness. I want the mess the country is in solved before I come home!) Just after my last time in Cotonou I went to Lokossa for my friend Michelle's birthday- she is another TEFL volunteer. It was nice: almost all of the volunteers from our stage that are in the region came, and we ate yam in peanut sauce and drank beers all afternoon. Lokossa is a nice town, and it only takes me about 45 minutes to get there. It has a bank and a really nice internet cafe, so I will be there fairly often.
Speaking of peanut sauce, I have been cooking a lot with my neighbor Angele. She taught me how to make peanut sauce (not like the Thai kind that is really peanuty, but more like a spicy tomato sauce with a bit of peanut flavoring- it is delicious!), “riz gras” which is like dirty rice but better, and some other Beninese standards. It has become my habit to sit with her while she cooks almost every night, both out of curiosity and a lack of anything else to do. In turn she usually feeds me a bit of what she is making- a nice alternative to cooking myself! In turn, I often give her some of what I have cooked and help her do dishes. She really likes it when I make salad, and usually eats more of it than I do!
Angele and I are a funny pair. We get along really well and do a lot for each other, but there are still definitely some cultural misunderstandings. It is nothing major, but little things she does strike me as a bit rude or bizarre even though I know she doesn't mean for them to. (And I have no doubt she thinks the same of me!) For instance, if she needs some sort of food item, like onions or a loaf of bread, she will just come over and take it, more or less without asking! She sometimes pays me back the item and sometimes doesn't, but if not she'll do something nice like buy my bananas or dough balls or something. Also, when I offer her a “taste” of something American that I have made, she takes that as a cue to eat over half of the plate! She also takes it personally when I do not go to Mass with her (I seldom go: it is at 6:30 am on one of my only days to sleep in, lasts two hours, and is all in the local language!) and takes everything I say quite literally. As I said, none of these things are a big deal and any misunderstandings are paid back over and over again on other kindnesses such as taking me to the market, feeding me, etc.
The same thing goes for her children, Fifa (the nine year old albino) and Mariam (she's five). The kids have really taken a liking to me, especially Fifa. I taught them some basic American games, how to make silly faces, etc. and more than anything else, they are fascinated by my cats (yes, I finally got my kittens! I will talk about them later:) I am mostly happy that they are so fond of me, but since they are children, they don't understand certain things like you have to knock before coming into someone's house, people need some space, things like that. I have also had to show them very closely how to physically handle cats. They are genuinely happy to be with the kittens, but think they are showing love by hitting them or ruffling their fur. Fifa especially likes me, I think because we have the same skin color and can converse passably in French. I did her makeup the other day which was a riot.
The other thing that makes me a bit uncomfortable about being so close with the family is their intense fondness of me and proclaiming that “I am much nicer and better than Sarah (the volunteer I replaced)” to everyone in the village. Although this is a tiny bit flattering, I want them to realize that Sarah and I are very different people. I am very outgoing and Sarah was fairly shy and likes her space and alone time. I am saying this both for Sarah's sake and for my own in that they don't always compare me as a volunteer to her. I also don't want to set some standard for the volunteer who might replace me.
Excluding me (sometimes I feel a part of their family), that family has quite an interesting dynamic. Some nights Quirin (the landlord) and his wives argue mercilessly between each other, and other nights they seem like quite a cohesive family unit. Fifa hates doing work and whines about it endlessly (unless she is helping me, in which case she assists readily) while Mariam is mischievous, shy, a hard worker, and always shouts at the top of her lungs when she talks. It's a bit sad, it seems like Mariam is favored somewhat by everyone. I'm not sure if this has to do with Fifa being albino or her willingness to work as opposed to Fifa's. The two girls argue and cry and pout a lot, I'm assuming they'll grow out of it. For the school year, they have another girl living with them who I quite like. Her name is Andrea and she is a student in troisième (kind of like 9th grade) at the CEG. This is quite an accomplishment seeing as how many girls don't even continue on to CEG. She has never repeated a grade (also quite the feat in this country), is fourteen years old, and says she wants to get her Doctorate in Biology. I told her I would do everything I could to help her in school, speak English with her, etc. In turn she helps me with cooking and cleaning. There are also several “helpers” who are often around, and they are all very nice too. There is one who has a mental illness that makes him laugh constantly. His laugh is quite contagious- it is a good mental illness to have to be around a lot :)
So, the kittens! They finally came home with me :) I did indeed name them Belle (the gray one) and Baby (the white and spotted one). The names are very fitting: Belle has some of the prettiest coloring I have ever seen on a cat and Baby really is a baby. She is tiny, barely squeaks when she meows, and begs for attention coooonstantly. For the first few days I had them they were quite shy and scared, and hid in the wiring behind my refrigerator. Happily, they have done a complete 180 and are now the most attention-hungry animals I have ever encountered! They meow for attention about once every two seconds (no joke), jump onto me from as far as six or seven feet across the room, and crawl up my legs into my arms. Not to mention their purr, which I'm surprised has not yet caused an earthquake it is so intense. I set up a small sandbox for a litter box, and after the first day or two they were accustomed to using it. They seem to like their cat food (and always go after whatever I am eating as if they were starving to death), but for the first week or so Baby was confused and tried to nurse from Belle :) It is sad not having them be able to sleep with me because of my mosquito net, but there is no way I would sleep without my mosquito net for reasons to come later in this blog haha. They seem content and in relatively good health, although at least Belle has intestinal worms :( Intestinal worms are absolutely revolting, especially because when they come out in the cat's stool they are often still alive. The sickness has made Belle lose control of her bowels a few times. I called a vet and he came today with some antibiotics. He is also going to come in about a month and give them their rabies vaccine. That will be none too soon either, since the cats now have a burning interest in the outdoors. I have to run after them several times a day when they shoot out the door! I will begin letting them out once they have been vaccinated. I wanted them to get used to the house first and grow up a bit before letting them outside. All in all, I am very happy with them and they are good company!
So, I mentioned being happy about my mosquito net... we don't want any critters in the bed. Here is my horrifying tale: I am having stomach problems pretty much for the first time since I've been here (I know I am very lucky that I am only now experiencing my first bout), and I woke up at 3:45am the other night having to go to the bathroom badly. I only go in the middle of the night if I absolutely must because it is a pain untucking the mosquito net, undoing all four door locks, putting on a head lamp, fighting with the cockroaches for latrine time, etc. So, half asleep, I open my back door, and just about walk face-first into a scorpion. I almost died. I don't know why, but scorpions scare the bajeebus out of me, I think because I have never encountered one before, and, though their sting almost never kills adults, it can make you quite sick. The thing was tiny, but I was too scared to attempt squishing it or using my bug killer spray on it (I didn't want it tearing off and catching the interest of my cats who would probably die of a scorpion sting). So, I just left it where it was- perilously close to my bed- and in the morning it was gone. I'm not sure if it was comforting or not that it was gone, since I didn't know where it went. When I told my neighbors about it the next morning, they said “Ah yes, you'll die if you get stung by one. There are quite a few around here.” as if they were talking about the weather or yam growing techniques. Moral of the story: if I did not use a mosquito net, things like killer scorpions could easily end up in my bed. I regularly have crickets and lizards on the outside of the net which is bad enough. (Also, enjoy the picture of the snail- that thing was 8 inches long. I also put up a better picture of the spider!)
So, the school process has begun. I had my first real test of Beninese cultural patience when we had our pre-school staff meeting. There were signs everywhere telling teachers that the meeting would start promptly at 8am. I arrived at 8:15 because my driver was late, and was the very first person there. By about 9:30 or so most of the other teachers had shown up, but instead of starting the meeting, they just milled about chatting until 11:30 when they finally decided to get things started. Now, until this point, I have somewhat easily laughed off illogical parts of Beninese culture, but this time I was fuming. Why make such a big deal of starting on time if you start 3.5 hours late? Why do you want to waste so much of your own time? Aren't you starving? (The Beninese don't really eat breakfast.) Once the meeting finally started- I am not kidding- it lasted for FOUR HOURS. The reason for this is two-fold: 1) the Beninese are really big on formalities. In order to ask a question, you have to wait to be called on by the Director. Once he calls on you, you have to politely ask him, the Censeur, and the Surveillant if you may speak. “Pardon Monsieur le Directeur, Monsieur le Censeur, et Monsieur le Surveillant Général, est-ce que je peux prendre la parole?” to which the Surveillant and Censeur nod approval and he Director replies “Oui, Monsieur ____. Tu voudrais dire quelque chose?” The teacher then replies “Merci Monsieur le Directeur, Monsieur le Censeur, et Monsieur le Surveillant Général. Je voudrais dire...” It is completely ludicrous. I would estimate over half of the meeting is eaten-up by worthless formalities like this. (These same formalities can be very insulting if not used correctly. For instance, you can NEVER call any of the three administrators by their first name, even if you have grown up with them and are best friends. In the same vein, you can never just say “Bonjour” to them, it is always “Bonjour Monsieur le Directeur” etc. Not even just “Monsieur” will do. It is hard for me to get used to this, especially with my homologue who is an English teacher and also happens to be the Surveillant [discipliner]. I am very friendly with him outside of school, so I will at those times call him Blaise. But it would be crazy to do this in front of anyone else at school.) The “meat” of the meeting was almost as worthless. People got so impassioned about some of insignificant things and they spent most of the hours shifting blame and complaining about the school's lack of classrooms and money to build more (these are legitimate problems, but they are complained about more than dealt with sometimes it seems). Believe me, I know that many meetings in America are equally as worthless, but this was the worst I have ever sat through.
Then, Monday October 6 was the first day of classes. One would logically think that this would mean classes would start this day. One could not be more incorrect. For whatever reason, many students don't show up for the first week or two of classes. Along with that, many teacher schedules have not yet been organized, nor have all the students been organized into class groups. Part of this is because they don't like placing students until they have paid their school dues for the year, but a lot of this is just... the way it is. Also, the students who do show up the first week usually spend it cutting the grass with machetes and sweeping and dusting the classrooms, even though there were signs saying that this was mandatory to have been done the week before and students who didn't help would be severely punished. When I asked administration why the beginning of school is like this, they looked a bit puzzled and simply replied “That's just the way it is here.”
So, I showed up on Monday and got my schedule: Tuesday-Friday 8-noon and Tuesday 3-5. (Nice to have a three day weekend to be able to travel, get some work done in Cotonou, rest.) So I went home and diligently wrote out my lesson plans for the next day. That night just as I was about to go to sleep my homologue called and told me to not even bother showing up the next day since not enough teaching would go on. Tuesday night, I called him to see if I should come on Wednesday and he said yes. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday I showed up on time and ready to teach, anxious for my first real day in the classroom, and each day I sat around for a few hours in the office only to go home having done nothing. It seemed a lot of students and all the teachers had shown up, but everyone was just standing around in the school yard chatting. When I would ask if I was teaching, and if not could I go home, they would just say “Doesn't look like you'll be teaching today. But why do you want to go home? Do you have things to do?” Most of the other teachers just sat around talking amongst themselves, but no one made much of an effort to include me, and I was just being ignored by the administrators who were busy dealing with students and problems. But golly, why would I want to leave? And did I have something better to do at home than sit at CEG being ignored?
You might wonder why I am posting a blog on a Wednesday when I should be teaching. There is no school this week! The teachers have a week long training/staff meeting that I am not included in because it deals with two grades I am not teaching. Now why on earth would you schedule a week-long training for teachers and close the school during the second week of the year? Could it not have been done during the summer? I don't think it's fair to the kids. So, Tuesday October 21, my birthday, will (hopefully) be my first day of teaching. Crazy. Sorry to rant, but the American in me was/is very frustrated by all of this.
In terms of getting to and from school, I have worked it out so that I will ride with two of my neighbors whenever our schedules line up. However, that left four times/week that I needed a ride, so I contacted Brazil, the zemidjan driver that Sarah used and lavished praise upon. The problem with this was that she paid him almost twice as much of the actual price just to guarantee that he would show up, which I was very much not ok with. He seemed kind of bummed when I told him what I was willing to pay, and kept telling me “But Sarah paid me this much...” and I had to remain firm. He is saving for a new motorbike so I am paying him in lump sums at a time. I think things will work out now and he is a nice guy, although he sure does like his sodabe, the local liquor. I need to start stocking some in my house as it is customary to offer it to visitors.
Alright, next topic: brace yourselves folks, this one is going to be a show stopper. I, Angelina Hurst, got a hair weave. My neighbor kept telling me that I should, and I knew it would keep my head cool. I figured I should do it at least once while here. I thought I would just get my hair braided, but they weaved a ton of fake hair into mine. The whole process took 3.5 hours, cost me about $11, and hurt like hell. I do like it though, it keeps my head quite cool because so much of my scalp is exposed, and it is so nice not to have to wash it every other day and deal with putting it up every day. Enjoy the pictures! The braids are attached to my head with a side part on the top of my head and then secured into a high ponytail.
I have heard from lots of people at home lately- thank you! Although I am pretty sure that you all hold a conference and decide that you are all going to call me on the same day, because everyone decides to call the same night and then can't get through! Also frustrating has been the cell phone network here dropping out for hours or even days at a time. The power has also been going out more frequently, but at night the stars and moon are breathtakingly bright and beautiful when there is no artificial light around. I think it might be because of the rain, which has been pretty excessive lately as the second rainy season is coming to an end. It rains almost every day, even if only for a short time, and makes the roads here turn into a muddy nightmare. Without fail it pours every market day here, which is particularly frustrating because you have to go out to the market to shop but then have to negotiate through the giant mud pit they call the marketplace (see pictures). The market here is wonderful, and I have finally settled into a good routine with my vegetable mama :) She now brings me green beans, potatoes, carrots, and apples every week (lettuce turned out to be of not very good quality and too much work), and her sister is my tailor (who frustrates me a bit though because she refuses to take measurements and then gets frustrated when garments don't fit properly).
As most of you know, Tuesday is my birthday! This weekend I am having other volunteers in the region to Lobogo to celebrate, and Angele is making us BBQ fish and peanut sauce and riz gras. We might go to the bar on the lake in Bopa. My carpenter and cushion-maker promised to have the couch ready by then! (They also finished my table and chairs- that's the picture with my two pretty local wall-hangings are hanging above them.) Should be fun! Since I am teaching on my actual birthday, I think I will probably just have dinner with my neighbors and open a bottle of wine. It's dangerous to tell people to meet you at a bar to celebrate because on an occasion like your birthday, opposite from American culture, you are expected to pay for everyone. I have a feeling that a lot of people will try to call me on my birthday, so if the line is busy, try again later or even the next day. I will hopefully be getting some birthday packages later today!
I really miss the fall. I have heard it has been a beautiful one back at home. (Although that's not the case for UM football which is such an integral part of fall!) It is odd here because the temperature has more or less been the same since we arrived, so it just feels like endless summer. I even miss Halloween a little bit, although the volunteers in my region are having a Halloween party which should be fun. We are supposed to wear costumes, but where on earth am I going to find one? We'll see.
Anyways, I miss you all so much! Keep up the calls and the mail, and even the visits! A woman from my church is going to be in Africa in February and will be visiting me then, my roommate from France is hopefully coming in May, and Cam and Leah and Sarah are coming in July! Then in August/September I will be home for a few weeks :) If you can't make it here I would love to see you in Ann Arbor then. I am already making a list of things I want to do and meals I want to eat then! Much love, and à la prochaine!