My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Hello! Just a quick update from Cotonou. I was able to stay in the med unit last night because I have another sinus infection. These sicknesses are getting ridiculous. The doctor doesn't want to give me antibiotics since I have already taken them twice since being in Benin, so she is just giving me some decongestants. I hope it works! As usual, air conditioning was a blessing (It has gotten even hotter lately) and I even had a real latte for breakfast! Last night was another Thanksgiving dinner. It was good (we even had pumpkin pie with real whipped cream!) but not as awesome as our TEFL Thanksgiving in Parakou.
Here's some really exciting news- I just booked a three-day after-Christmas safari!!! I will be up north with friends on Christmas day, and a day or two after we will leave for the safari. It willl cost me about $100 for two nights in a air-conditioned hotel, three days of animal tracking, and transportation. What a deal! I really can't wait. It's only four weeks away!
I am pretty bummed I am missing the holiday season back home, though. Especially getting our Christmas tree with my family, Leah and I's annual Christmas cocktail party, and the lights on main street! You all will just have to call and send me some holiday cheer :)
I am going back to my village this afternoon as long as I get the go-ahead from my doctor. I have been gone for nine days. It was a nice break, but I am excited to go home. Especially to see my kitties! I have lots of papers to grade, laundry to do, etc. I'm glad I don't teach on Mondays so that I have tomorrow to get lots of work done. Anyways, I hope everyone had a nice long weekend and that you are getting geared up for the holiday season! I can't believe tomorrow is December!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Wonderful Thanksgiving

So just a quick post about how amazing my Thanksgiving was. We set up a long table and all sat together, complete with candle light and turkey decorations. We all said grace and sang a Thanksgiving song, and then went around saying what we were thankful for now that we have lived in Africa. Here was some of the communal list:
-easy access to water
-an education
-gender equality
-washers and dryers, etc.
It truly is amazing how your perspective changes here. We also played a game where we pulled questions out of a cornucopia and went around the table answering them, such as “What is your biggest regret?”, “What are you most proud of?”, “Who is the craziest person in your family?” etc. It was really great to get to know more about everyone's past and believe me, many tears were shed throughout the night. It really was one of my best Thanksgivings ever. We also finished up the night watching an episode of The Office :)
For those of you who feel bad that I missed the holiday, just take a look at the pictures from last night :) I am also having a second Thanksgiving in Cotonou tomorrow! I will be back in my village on Sunday.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! Thanksgiving is always one of my favorite weekends of the year: going to the bar with old high school friends, eating monkey bread with my parents while we watch the Muppet Christmas Carol to kick off the holiday season, going shopping on Friday! Not many people, though, can say they've spent their Thanksgiving in West Africa. I am currently up in the north of Benin in a city called Parakou (Benin's third largest city) with my fellow TEFL volunteers, and tonight we are grilling eight kilos of turkey, making mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes (I am in charge of those), stuffing, gravy, corn bread, and fruit salad! A few of us bought some wine and candles for the dinner, and I even bought myself some goat cheese :) It should be really nice! This week so far has been really nice. I left Lobogo on Friday afternoon (my neighbors are watching my cats- I miss them so much!) and headed to Dogbo, where I spent the night with my friend Catherine. We made lentil burgers and french fries which were SO good! I unfortunately was really sick all night, and got virtually no sleep that night. The next morning I got up early and headed to Azove, where I caught another taxi to Bohicon, where I caught a bus up to Tchatchou. I was a bit worried about all the traveling since my stomach was so upset, but I made it ok. The bus I took up to Tchatchou was a huge mess: I was supposed to get on one but it got a flat tire, I then had to get on a non-air conditioned bus, and our tire blew about twenty minutes before Tchatchou, so we spent two full hours on the side of the road in the hot afternoon sun while they fixed it. It was miserable, and by the time I got to Tchatchou I was exhausted and dehydrated and hungry, so we just did a quick tour of the village, made some sweet potato cheese soup for dinner, and turned in early. The next morning we made breakfast burritos and checked out Tchatchou's market. Let me take this opportunity to point out how different the north is from the south. The landscape is filled with rolling hills and lots of tall and brown trees and grasses, but no palm trees to be found. It is really hot, but it is a dry heat so it feels pretty wonderful. The people dress more conservatively (lots of long dress-like boubous for the men and almost all covered heads), probably because they are mostly Muslim. There is also an ethnic group up here called the Fulani or Peul who are nomadic herders across West Africa. They wear beautiful colors and silver jewelry and both of the men and women wear white and black makeup on their faces. It is not uncommon here to see a group of Fulani men leading a huge herd of hundreds of cattle walking down a major thoroughfare in the town. They therefore have milk and cheese and yogurt! Also, they make something delicious here called yam pilé, which is basically mashed yams and it is really good. The pictures are of them mashing the yams, and the video is of the same so that you can get the full effect. Our training in Parakou has been really nice. The training sessions themselves have been good: we discuss the problems we have been having both teaching and in the villlage, as well as things that are going really well. We have had sessions on how to get funding for small projects, incorporating gender sensitivity into our classrooms, etc. We have also had a lot of fun eating real food at the restaurants in the town (I have had fried chicken, french fries, pizza, and salad!), and we even had a Mexican food night and an 80s party (see pictures!) in honor of one volunteer's birthday. The real showers and internet have been wonderful, but here is the best things by far: I have been sleeping in the outdoor screened in area, and by the mornings it has been flat-out cold! It has been wonderful. The other pictures in this blog: an enhanced picture of the crazy spiders in my tree, the most bizarre spider I have ever seen, and the sweet webs of the huge spider in the palm tree. (You can't tell in the picture, but the web is about 3 feet by 3 feet.) Also more pictures of market day in Lobogo, including the huge snails people sell to eat. Finally, pictures of a voodoo parade that came through the market area, during which you had to bow to the high priest of give him money. There were men drumming and women singing; it was pretty awesome. Not a whole lot has gone on since my last post. Teaching wasn't too great last week. On Tuesday, one of my classes simply didn't show up because they were told their English teacher had changed for some reason, and they were supposed to turn in a take-home quiz that day. Wednesday the kids were really badly misbehaved, especially during a quiz I gave in one of my classes. I caught one kid cheating outright, and other kids were speaking in local language toward the end of the quiz so that I couldn't understand them. When I told students to leave the classroom after the quiz, they all but flat-out ignored me. Some teaching days are great, and some are terrible. I just have to remind myself that these are squirrelly adolescents that I'm dealing with, 40-70 of them in the same room. Also the age range in each class is 10-20 or so, so there are different levels of maturity and attention spans. Another example of ridiculous school policy: we had a staff meeting at 9am on Thursday morning. This means that all of the 8am classes had to be cut in half, and because staff meetings start late and take forever here, the 10am classes were canceled at the last minute. Why we couldn't have had the meeting on Wednesday afternoon when school is closed or one day during the three hour lunch break is beyond me. The meeting, of course, lasted for 4.5 hours (I promise you I am not exaggerating), and at times the teachers were so chatty and undisciplined that they seemed worse than my students. An example of why meetings last so long: we had a heated, 20-minute long debate over whether we should elect various banal committee members by a show of hands or by written ballot. Twenty minutes. I'm not kidding. And many teachers just didn't bother to show up; it is similar with the weekly English department meetings. I have also noticed that many teachers start their classes up to 45 minutes late, simply because they were chatting with another teacher or having a snack. Sometimes I get the impression that people don't take their jobs very seriously here. (This is definitely a generalization, though: there are many wonderful teachers and administrators.) The most exciting thing that happened this week: another American showed up in Lobogo! Turns out she is here for an internship with the UN, but she is only in Lobogo for one week. She studied late medieval art at Yale, and lived much of her life in France and Italy, what a bizarre coincidence! Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about. For the first time since I've been here, I felt like the veteran, because I had to show her how to use the latrine, and get her over her fear of spiders, street food, well water, and bucket showers. On Wednesday night we made tune noodle casserole, banana bread, and opened a bottle of wine, and on Thursday night my landlord killed a chicken for us. I wish she were staying longer! (But I don't think she does haha) I had my most depressing conversation yet with Angele. She has been really upset with the way Quirin has been treating her lately, and I guess the other night he pushed her to the ground in front of all of the neighbors which really upset her (obviously). She is tired of being treated so much worse than the second wife, both in big and small ways. For instance, Quirin lets the younger wife wear pants but not Angele. He will also hit Angele if she says anything remotely bad about Victoire, but if Victoire says anything bad to Angele he turns a blind eye. I guess recently he hit her hard enough that she peed blood :( She just kept saying to me things like “I have nothing in store in my life” and “If I died right now I would be happy because I know heaven is a wonderful place.” She also talked about wanting to run away and find a new husband, but if she tried that Quirin would hunt her down. It was so tragic to listen to, and I know there is absolutely nothing I can do for her. It was really, really sad. It is now Harmattan here in West Africa. I am extremely jealous of my friends in the north of the country, where they get these cold morning on a daily basis! While we get some of the dustiness in the south, it has been getting hotter. The heat is getting miserable, and now that it won't rain again until March, we don't have the daily afternoon downpour to cool the air. The sunsets up here are absolutely beautiful because of all the dust in the air. I have to apply chapstick every five minutes because the air is so dry! I continue to cook and bake a lot; this past weekend I made oatmeal M&M cookies and my neighbors were so impressed that they asked me if I were a sorcerer! I also learned to carry things on my head, and was paraded around my concession with a cooler on my head and everyone cheering and clapping :) Finally, I spoke with the woman who is coming here in February, Sandy. We made plans to spend a weekend at the resort in Grand Popo! I also spoke with my host family in France and they said we are welcome to stay in their house in July, even if they are not there. How nice of them! Really that's about it for this time... For those of you who have tried calling me lately, I understand that it has been hard for you to get a hold of me. (Which I'm hoping explains the low volume of phone calls to me lately!) The key is to be persistent: stay on the line even if it says the call can not be completed (it will often connect after a while anyways), and try six of seven times in a row. I am pretty sure that the problem lies with keepcalling and not my cell phone. I wish it were easier to get a hold of me! I hope you all have a happy Thanksgiving and enjoy the time with friends and family! You don't realize what a blessing it is until you have to go without it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Wow, I can't believe how fast time is moving. It's hard to believe that my last post was almost three weeks ago. I guess a lot has happened since then, both in my world and the world in general. Before I start, a few explanations about the pictures: I saw a kid in my village with a Michigan jersey on and just had to take a picture. I think he thought I was crazy. Also, my neighbors sometimes cook on fire and stones. How cool is that? Finally: be grateful you have a dishwasher. Doing dishes is backbreaking stuff here. (This is how they do laundry too.)
I will start with the most historical and earth-shaking thing, which was obviously the American election. Pre-election day, there was quite a buzz going even in my village, which makes me only wonder what it must have been like elsewhere in the world, seeing as how I live in the West African bush where most people don't have a television or give two hoots about any country other than Benin. Many people here asked me who I supported, and most were happy when I said Obama. Bush was quite a popular president here because he did a lot of work with development and malaria prevention in West Africa, but the Obama-Africa connection trumped political parties this time around. All of us volunteers were really excited, and a few who were lucky enough to be in Cotonou on election night got to watch coverage on CNN. I went to bed the night of the election feeling nervous but confident, and I got a text message at 5am saying only “yay.” Cam then called me about an hour later, opening with the line “I have never been so proud to be an American” and I let out a scream of joy and relief. My aunt sent me an Obama pin for my birthday, and I wore it on my chest that day. It was great getting to be the one to tell everyone I saw at school and in the village that day. Most of them said “felicitations” to me, which basically amounts to congratulations. It was really nice seeing everyone so positive. I bought myself an ice cold bottle of lemonade and sat down at my neighbor's house to watch a French TV station's coverage of the post election buzz. I didn't get to hear much of Obama or McCain's speeches, but I heard they were both really great. Seeing the images from Grant park and from celebrations all over the world was pretty moving. So much so, that- and I really surprised myself here- when I returned to the privacy of my house I just sat down and cried hard for about 30 minutes. It was not, obviously, because I was upset; it was mostly relief, I think, and pride, and realization of the implications it has for the Peace Corps, America, and the world. It was a wonderful feeling. I realized that, for the first time in about ten years, I felt fiercely proud to be an American. We lived through a huge piece of history, folks. I think that's really amazing. (Oh my gosh, I'm not even kidding: We Didn't Start the Fire just came on my ipod, how fitting.)
That night I listened to the BBC for about an hour on my shortwave radio (how Peace Corps, right?) and they had people from all over the world call in to voice their opinions about the election. What was most interesting to me was all the callers from Africa. More than being happy about Obama winning because of his African heritage (Kenya had a national holiday!), they actually seemed more interested in talking about McCain. They were really impressed with his gracious acceptance of defeat and his congratulating of Obama. They said that this should be an example for all of the democratic elections in Africa, that usually tend to go somewhat smoothly until someone wins and the loser decides to stage a coup or start a civil war because he is bitter. It was just another reminder of the progress Africa is making. Benin is one of the most Democratic countries in Africa, has a very stable and popular government, and an infrastructure that is improving every day. (I mean that literally: since I have been here, they have paved 20km of a road to my village, and have built five new classrooms at my school. People are out there working hard every day, even though it is too hot to do so.) Another refreshing thing is that Africans don't care so much that Obama is black, since most of the presidents on this continent are black haha. They are more impressed with his politics and his youth.
Anyways, that was one major and wonderful thing that has happened since my last post. I also spent Halloween in Azové, a large town nearby, with the other volunteers in the region. We were there for the quarterly VAC meeting (Volunteer Advisory Counsel), and decided that we would have it on Halloween so we could have a party :) VAC meetings are basically just for volunteers to discuss issues that need to be addressed to administration. We volunteers in the south of the country are pretty bitter that we don't have a workstation, like all of the volunteers in the north do. A workstation is basically a place with beds, internet, movies, books, a kitchen, and resources for volunteers to use for free. Volunteers meet there just to hang out or get work done without having to be bothered by Peace Corps staff. Not only do the volunteers in the south not have a place to stay for free, but we are always questioned by staff when we are at the Peace Corps bureau as to why we are there as opposed to being at our post. It seems pretty unfair. We also don't have a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, which is a volunteer who serves as a liaison between other volunteers and administration, and visits volunteers in their area to provide emotional support. Anyways, there is a meeting about this in Cotonou tomorrow and that is partially why I am here and able to use the internet! (And yes, sleep in air conditioning, eat shwarma, and I even got ice cream this time!) I am also here for a doctor's appointment (my stupid toe still isn't 100% better) and a meeting about Camp GLOW (the girl's empowerment camp that I am involved in).
After the meeting we got to explore Azové a bit. It has some great shopping, but is pretty polluted and full of aggressive people (the Aja). We then went to a volunteer's house and put on our costumes (I was a hippie, other costumes included Lance Armstrong, Dorothy and Toto, a Beninese school boy, and a Beninese farmer) and ate the delicious meal that one of the volunteers had prepared for us: chili and corn bread and homemade tortilla chips! Then after dinner we had a bonfire and binged on the Halloween candy that was sent to us from home. We even had a jack'o'lantern! This was by no means a crazy party: us Peace Corps volunteers who are used to going to bed around 9:30 could barely keep our eyes open by 10pm. The next morning the same volunteer who had cooked up dinner made us chocolate chip banana pancakes! The best part about the weekend though was that another volunteer brought me some packages from home! I got some Halloween goodies, some really nice cards, and the best thing I have been sent since I've been here: autumn leaves. I am so sad I missed such a beautiful fall, which is my favorite season. It has been getting hotter here, which is not fun. I'm not too bummed about missing the coming Michigan winter, though.
Teaching is now in full gear. I will not pass judgment yet on whether I like or dislike it. It is exhausting, that is for sure. The discipline problems I have to deal with here are nothing like I ever saw in America, and the teaching style and lack of resources add extra challenges. Kids are much worse for me in class than they are for their Beninese teachers. What adds to the problem is that the kids who want to learn scream even louder than the talkers to “SHUT UP!”, adding to the commotion. And here is something that will kill you American teachers: it is widely accepted by Beninese teachers for the kids to stand, snap, hiss, and yell “here teacher! me!” very loudly when they want to be called on. I do not call on students who do this in my classes, but it is very hard for them to get used to. Not only is it annoying, but it disrupts the classroom next door.
Another teaching frustration is how one class will understand something right away, while it might take another class 3 lessons. I am sure all of you teachers back at home can relate to this. So far in my younger classes I have taught the verb “to be,” pronouns, and greetings; in my older classes I have taught “for” versus “ago,” transportation vocabulary, and talking about the past.
But, to tell you the truth, the most frustrating thing about school so far has been understanding the dynamics between my colleagues. Everyone is very nice, but so bogged-down in formalities and passionately complaining about minor details. Weekly staff meeting start an hour late and never accomplish much of anything. I'm not sure I can make you understand the formalities thing, but it's things like taking attendance at the meetings and signing a bazillion sheets of paper and having to go over an agenda of a meeting before the meeting starts that just kill me. It is also the way people speak. They take huge, dramatic pauses between almost every word, like it is the most important thing to have ever come out of their mouth, when they could be talking about something as mundane as chalk. (Another random annoyance about peoples' speech here: generally people shout when they speak. It is really abrasive. When they aren't shouting, however, they speak in a quiet whisper that is near impossible to hear. Ugh.) Just lots of little inefficiencies that the American in me hates. It's all part of the experience, though, and I'm sure if a Beninese came to America they would find aspects of our culture equally as annoying.
I don't want to sound too negative about teaching, because sometimes I really like it. It is a great feeling when they finally get something, or take an initiative, or make you laugh really hard in class. Here's a great example: I have told the kids that they may use the restroom during class, but only if they ask my permission in English. One kid approached me and said “Please teacher the toilet is going to the bathroom fast. May she?” I couldn't help but to burst out laughing (so did the rest of the class) and practice with the class how to ask to go to the bathroom. I love moments like that. I am giving my first quiz this week- wish me luck!
I have only had one really bad day since my last post, and that was on my way home from Lokossa. I won't get into all of the details, but basically a really rude and reckless taxi driver wouldn't give me my change and was essentially stealing the money from me, and when I got upset everyone else around just laughed at me and asked me why I shouldn't give him extra money since I am white and obviously rich. That really, really upset me. And to top it off, when I complained to my neighbors, they said they understood why everyone had said that to me. I won't start my I'm-a-volunteer-and-don't have money rant once again. I also had really violent dreams that night (they come every once in a while from the anti-malarial drugs I am on) which didn't help. (Note about hailing a taxi here: it is, more or less, hitch-hiking. You stand on the side of the rode pointing the direction you are going and just hope that someone pulls over. There is no way of knowing if they are a legit taxi or nont. This is a scary thought in the United States, and here, that's just how it is.)
Sometimes I really wish I had a car or moto here. Paying for unreliable transportation is annoying, and having to always wait on other people is frustrating. The worst is waiting for other teachers to take me home after school. They stand around and talk or do not much of anything, even though they know I am waiting for them. A similarly “rude” (as I see it, not because they are trying to be rude) cultural thing is their ignorance of lines, waiting your turn to talk, and their readiness to interrupt you whenever. You could be having a very private conversation with someone and they would burst into the room just to say hi, and then make small talk even though you are just sitting there incredulously.
The cats are still fine. (They are both sitting on my lap right now!) I have started letting them out a bit, which they love and seem to be doing fine with. Soon I will get them their rabies vaccines. They are just two of the most attention-craving cats I have ever seen!
I have been cooking and baking up a storm. I have made scones (I made these when the Country Director came to visit me!), banana bread, cornbread, tuna noodle casserole, French toast, and grilled eggplant sandwiches, among other things. I even tried making Beninese pate (pronounced “pot”, just corn flour in water. It's what they eat every night here) which didn't turn out too well but my neighbors loved me for trying. One even bought me a wooden stirring stick that the Beninese use to make it! I love cooking here because I have the time. It is nice when I don't want to cook though: I can always go buy rice and cheese or lemongrass tapioca with peanuts (SO good). I have also been reading a lot, even some non-fiction! I finished a 250-page book in one day yesterday, which is a saying a lot for me because I am a slow reader. I am now reading Into the Wild.
I got some really nice birthday packages from home a few days ago, with wonderful things like peanut butter, Parmesan cheese, ranch dressing, teaching supplies, and cat toys in them. Lots of photos from home too, which I love. Keep them coming! I think I can now officially say that I don't need any more of the following: ziploc bags, bandaids, envelopes, and notebooks. Thanks for all of the supplies! A few more things I thought of that you could send: tuna fish, peanut butter, baking supplies.)I think none of my packages have been lost, but a few letters have. I haven't been getting as many phone calls lately, although I know that part of that is because people have been having a hard time getting through to me. Sometimes the network cuts out here, and sometimes I think has problems. In any case, keep trying! Sometimes you have to try several times in a row before you can get through. Frustrating, I know, but I sometimes just remind myself that I am lucky to be able to talk to anyone this easily.
One really exciting call I got from home was from my friend Amanda: she is coming here on May 9! I'm so excited!!! I also decided with Cam that I am going to meet him in France in July because that is much cheaper for both of us than meeting in Morocco or Benin.
Coming up in a week is our week-long training in Parakou. I am really excited to see my friends and be able to spend Thanksgiving with other Americans. Soon after that is Christmas (still no definite plans, but I know it will be spent doing something fun with other Americans. A teacher at my school invited me to spend it with his family, which was really nice!), and then my long string of visitors begins to arrive. I am pretty happy about what's coming up, and how quickly time is flying. I really miss everyone at home. In any case, I'm doing well! I will update again soon. Do you think there is any way someone could send me some Thanksgiving leftovers?