My adventures serving in the Peace Corps
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 keepcalling.com 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?