My adventures serving in the Peace Corps
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Long time no update! After my wonderful holiday safari, I came back to my village and stayed there for almost a month until I had to leave to come here to Cotonou. I am here as the English teacher representative for a review of training objectives and methods so that they can train the next group of Benin PCVs even better than they trained us. It is weird to have the focus on my year go from the newbies to the experienced ones, helping lead the way for the next group of volunteers. They arrive to Benin on July 24, about three weeks later than we did last year. (I am lucky to be in Cotonou when I am- this afternoon I will find somewhere to go to watch Obama's inauguration, which includes tons of former PCVs along with the military! I can't believe this day is finally here... it's been a long eight years!)
The new PCVs are lucky in that they will be introduced right into the new bureau, which will be opening up next week. We got used to the old bureau and grew to love it, especially the location: close to lots of good and cheap food and bars, mid-range super markets, the beach, and several banks. The hitch (and one of the main reasons the bureau is moving): it is currently located in one of the seediest areas of Cotonou, also the red-light district. Indeed, the few times I have been in the neighborhood after dark, I have encountered tons of barely-dressed women of all shapes and sizes soliciting their “wares.” Us PCVs are a bit bummed by the move, because the new bureau will be in the ritzy ex-pat neighborhood where all of the embassies are. All of the nearby restaurants are fancy and for the most part out of a PCV's price-range, as well as the supermarkets. Read: we will end up spending a lot more money taking zemidjans to cheaper parts of the city to shop and eat. Oh well. The upside is we will now have a place to stay for free when we go to Cotonou, and that place will have a kitchen, beds, a lounge with a TV, a library, and, best of all, wireless internet throughout! Before I go further, here is a list of what you are seeing in the pictures, from top: the cake I made for New Years dinner (most people thought it was too sweet since they don't really do sugar here), me dressed up to go out an celebrate, my adorable cats, one of the streets in my market, empty stalls on a non-market day, where I eat lunch almost every day, market, my carpenter's workshop, path that I pass off to the right on my way to the market, my well and orange tree, the road from my concession to the market, the facade of my concession, my front door, the mango tree/chair I sit on to work/read/write blogs, looking out of the front door of my concession, looking right on the road in front of my house, the front door of my concession, looking left on the road in front of my house, what I see immediately when I enter my concession, the long building in my concession, looking out of my front door, looking into my house from my front door. Hope this helps you figure out the more mundane aspects of my life better! (And at the end is the video I promised of my students singing jingle bells!)
So, I arrived back in Lobogo just in time to celebrate New Years here, and was told it was going to be a ton of fun and a big party. Well, to make a long story short, my neighbors assumed I was sleeping when they left at 11pm on New Year's Eve (even though my front door was open and ALL my lights were on and I was sitting just inside the front door reading...) and so I went to bed at about midnight, whoopee. I guess it was another example of cultural miscommunication, but it bothered me that they wouldn't even come look in my door when they knew that I had every intention of (and had indeed returned to Lobogo specifically for) going out to celebrate with them. I will say that the celebration lasted for several days and I was fed well and served lots of delicious cold beers.
By “ate well,” I mean there was a week long slaughter-fest when lots of goats, chickens, and pigs met their fates. In fact, as a thank-you gift to my neighbors for watching my cats over Christmas, I went to the market and bought them a (live) big, fat rooster and carried it home by it's feet. (We ate it a few days later, it was delicious) I felt bad, though, because I couldn't partake in much of the meat-eating, because they eat EVERY part of the animal. Some of the cuts that turned up on my plate included jaws and teeth, kidneys, intestines, and tongues, which I know they were being generous in giving me. I must say, I do respect the way they use the animal for all it's worth, unlike what we do in the States.
Going back to school went fine, although it seemed pretty boring after all the excitement of the safari. The weeks following my return seemed exceedingly slow and boring, and I heard that almost all volunteers went through a post-holiday slump. One bit of school-related excitement was the visit of my boss. She came to Lobogo to observe me teaching and check out my house and how I'm doing overall here.
I was a bit nervous for her visit, but it went just fine. She observed one of my worst-behaved classes, but of course they acted like perfect angels that day. I taught classroom objects (pen, chalk, book, ruler, etc.) so it wasn't too difficult of a lesson for the kids. At the end of my lesson, Maria (my boss) stood in front of the class and explained to them what exactly I'm doing here. She stressed that I left everything in the states, including friends, family, even my car. The kids just about died when they found out that I don't make one cent from teaching them. She then told the kids that the only thing I want in return is their respect and attention, which was nice. She also stressed the mammoth importance of learning English in the world today. We then had a feedback session with the other two English teachers and my school director, during which she tried to smooth out some of the problems I had mentioned to her, such as our weekly staff meetings starting an hour late and being completely useless. She really stressed that I want to be used for things such as reviewing other teachers' English tests, and that having a native English speaker on staff was quite an advantage for the school. We'll see if things change a bit!
We then went to the market to pick up some lunch and came back to my house to eat it and chat about how everything is going. She had just visited two volunteers in cities, so I think she was a bit taken with the “village-ness” of my village. She did comment on how much Lobogo has grown since she saw it last year. I will say that even since I moved here in September, tons of new buildings have been constructed.
January 10 was the annual voodoo holiday. The birthplace of voodoo and indeed voodoo capital of the world is Benin, and a city about an hour away from me (Ouidah)is the epicenter of the celebration. I thought about going there for the day, but I think I will save that for next year. I instead stayed in my village, where I saw a couple of neat song performances and listened to round-the-clock drumming in the jungle beyond my house for several days. I also found out that the head voodoo priest of Benin (and therefore of the world) is from the village right next to mine! He's like the voodoo pope :)
Last weekend I had Kristin, another English teacher volunteer who lives in a city not far from here come to visit. She wanted to see a village that is not on the highway (there are lots of villages, obviously, in this country, but most of them are still on a main highway, making them still feel a bit urban). We had a lot of fun! We made creamy okra-lentil soup (something I invented and am now addicted to) and a chocolate cake with real Hershey's cocoa I was sent from home (the frosting, on the other hand, failed miserably, but the cake was good enough to eat on its own). We drank lots of rum and coke and stayed up late chatting with the neighbors. We then got up early in the morning and took a REALLY long walk down a road I had not been down before, passing the most stereotypical African villages you can imagine and causing quite a stir being probably the first white people many of these villagers had ever seen. We finished her time here making delicious lentil burgers. We had a good laugh at the end because I remarked with excitement how messy my house was because it would give me a few hours of something to do- cleaning!
Speaking of good food, my parents bought a vacuum sealer thing to put food into to keep fresh for a long time, and I got a loaf of my mom's famous cinnamon bread in a package last week! It was SO good and kept just fine throughout shipping, so I encourage everyone to give baked goods to my parents to vacuum seal and send to me!!
Life in Lobogo has been good since my return. I finally visited the maternity ward at the health center (basically a small room filled with cots, nothing more) and got to see lots of newborn babies, and try and explain to the mothers how on earth I am in my early twenties and have not yet started having children. It also prompted an interesting conversation with Angele in which she told me that, of course, she was planning having more children- she doesn't have a boy yet! She says she will continue to have more children until she has a boy! I also visited the mayor's house, which is connected to the health center. I have been spending a lot of time playing with the kids in my concession who I seem to love more every day. The cats are also doing fine (they finally ate their first lizard the other day!), although Baby has a small growth on her side that the vet seems to think is nothing to worry about. The only frustrating thing that has been going on is that recently I have been border-line harassed by a mentally-ill neighbor who is constantly asking me for money, my phone, my hat, a cat, whatever he can think of. He always wants to be standing near me and just watch me, which finally made me uncomfortable enough to complain to Angele about it, and she has told him to stop bothering me. I feel sad because he is very skinny and quite obviously mentally disturbed, but nonetheless I can't have him making me uncomfortable in my own concession all the time.
Well, the next few weeks are going to be extremely busy. I will return to my village this weekend, proctor final exams next week, and then head to Dogbo on the 30th for a regional Italian dinner complete with lasagna, pasta fazole, bruschetta, salad, tiramisu, and WINE! Then I will be busy calculating semester grades, and then I go back to Cotonou the next weekend for several meetings and to check out the new bureau and volunteer space. I will go to Cotonou yet again the weekend after that to pick up Sandy, my first visitor from the states! She is a family and church friend who is beginning her long trip throughout Africa with a week in Benin with me. We will see Cotonou, stay for two days on the ocean at Grand Popo, and then stay in my village together for several days. As soon as she leaves, I go to Porto Novo for a week of training there. So as you can see, I've got a lot on my plate right now, but that's always a good thing here.
I hear back at home you are getting pounded with snow and freezing temperatures, while it is the hottest and driest time of the year here (still always 100% humidity, but no rain). I really can't wait until two months from now when the rains come back and fruit and vegetables become more available and much less expensive! Keep the calls and packages coming; I'm sure I will be posting again soon. Happy 2009! (I am now exactly halfway between the time I left the States to when I coming home for a visit- crazy!)