My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Monday, March 23, 2009

Our darling Kate

I think I am at a point now where I can write a blog... first things first, I am ok, both safe and in an ok place emotionally. I am sure that most of you reading this have already heard this news, but here is what I will say about the situation:
On Thursday March 12 at about 1pm, I got a phone call from my boss informing me that one of my friends, a fellow English teacher from the training class ahead of me, had passed away. She said that more information would be shared with us as it became known. Judging from the way in which she shared all of this, I assumed that the death was either an accident or something medical, and sat in my yard crying for an hour or two. Later that night, a fellow volunteer called me saying that he had heard from two separate sources that the death was in fact a murder. I did not know what to think because I assumed that if the death had been of that nature that Peace Corps would have informed us and consolidated us, so I was not sure whether or not to believe that information. Nonetheless, I was invited to sleep at my neighbors' house that night, and took them up on the offer. After a miserably hot night with no fan and crowded sleeping space, I was awoken at 6:30am by a call from the local priest saying that she had definitely been murdered and that he would be over soon to tell me details. When he arrived, he told me that she had been brutally murdered with a machete and some other gruesome details that I will spare you. Obviously, I was shaken, shocked, and sick to my stomach, so I had to sit down and try to sort things out. When the tears started coming, the priest immediately told me that I wasn't allowed to be upset because “God wanted this”, and then began lecturing me on how it's not good that I don't come to church very often. This was about the last thing that I needed, so I decided to head to Lokossa to be with some other volunteers. Before I left, I heard on the radio that the manner of death wasn't quite as gruesome as the nasty rumors had been saying, thank goodness. I also received a phone call from my boss confirming that it had been a murder, and saying that we could do whatever we needed to be comforted, and that there would be a memorial service on Monday in Cotonou.
I spent the weekend relaxing in Lokossa. On Sunday Michelle and I headed to my village because I needed to pack up my things, and on early Monday morning we came to Cotonou. That morning we had an informational meeting between volunteers and staff. Here is what we have learned so far: Kate was sleeping outside on her front porch because it is hot season now and it is too hot to sleep indoors. At some point during the night, someone came into her porch and killed her. Her body was found on her mattress the next morning, and she was wearing ear plugs. Her dog was shut inside her house. There is an official investigation underway by American, French, and Beninese police (and I think the FBI), and so far there are several people in custody undergoing questioning. But, as of yet, they can't say anything official and therefore neither can I. Kate lived in a small village right on the border with Benin and Togo. I wanted to give you all of this information to squash any rumors that you may have heard, and hopefully to reduce the fear factor back at home.
The meeting was a bit tense, both because we were obviously all on edge and in shock and because many people were quite angry over how Peace Corps had handled this situation. Many volunteers, myself included, thought that Peace Corps would activate the “Emergency Action Plan” and consolidate us all, if only for information sharing. PC says that they had every reason to believe that this was an isolated incident so consolidating us wasn't necessary, but I tend to agree with other volunteers that in a case like this you need to consolidate, if only for emotional support. (We also found out later that volunteers near her village on the Togo side were consolidated...) Peace Corps always says that our safety is their number one priority, and lots of volunteers felt a bit betrayed. On the other hand, PC Benin did the best that they could considering this situation, and I am guessing that none of us have ever dealt with a situation like this before. One volunteer decided to leave Benin after this incident.
In the afternoon we had the memorial service. It was a really nice and obviously really emotional time. Several people read letters and gave testimonials, and some of her closest friends put together a really nice slide show. A few volunteers did some musical performances, and at the end we all sang Amazing Grace. Lots of tears were shed but we also had lots of joyful moments celebrating Kate's love, passion, and joyfulness. We also all wrote letters to Kate's family and friends in the States. Please keep Kate and her family in your thoughts and prayers.
For the next few nights, American expatriates opened up their homes to us. Myself and a few other volunteers stayed with a really young couple, the man of which was in the Peace Corps about a year ago in Vanuatu, in the south Pacific. His wife was a Japanese volunteer there, and now they are married, have a kid on the way, work for the American embassy, and live in a really nice house! It was really good for our mental health to stay in a real house with real beds, air conditioning, a dining room, movies, hot showers, etc. I finally got to see Dark Knight! Great movie.
On Thursday I headed up to John Mark's post. We made chicken and real gravy for dinner, watched The Other Boleyn Girl, and got a good night's sleep. In the mo0rning we were creative yet again and made french toast with homemade allspice syrup, got some delicious pounded yams for lunch, and then headed up to Parakou for the GAD fund raising weekend.
The weekend was a lot of fun and was a huge success. Friday night was the date auction, where lots of volunteers auctioned off dates doing fun things in their area. Then Saturday night was a nice dinner and silent auction for things like food items sent from home, Beninese jewelry and art, and gift certificates. I won two pairs of gorgeous Tuareg earrings! I paid more for them than I would have paid if I had gone to one of their boutiques, but it was for a good cause. All proceeds from the weekend go to the GAD small projects fund which gives small grants to volunteers doing gender and development projects in their community. Aside from raising the money, the night was really great since we all got really dressed up, had our tailors make fancy dresses, wore makeup, etc! It was so fun to see everyone looking so nice since we are all usually dirty Peace Corps volunteers haha. (The sad news is, my camera is not working right now so I didn't get any pictures of the night.) It is also the only time in the year that we all get together, and it was great seeing some of my good friends. After the steak dinner, we danced the night away and jumped in the pool. The weekend was a really good stress reliever for all of us and really good for all of our mental health.
I am now back down in Cotonou and I think I am heading back to my village later today. There is a memorial service for Kate on Wednesday at the ambassador's house, but it is mostly for the media and government officials so I don't think I am going to go. I am finally starting to get back to normal emotionally and don't need that to dredge it all back up again. It will be strange and certainly somewhat difficult to get back to life as normal in village, but I am looking forward to it all the same. This week is midterms at my school, so I am glad to have a respite from lesson planning for the moment. Also speaking of my school, my high school French teacher Mr. Vess and his classes, with whom I do a correspondence, sent me two HUGE boxes of school supplies which I will be distributing at my school soon! Really nice of them. Also got a great package from my Grandma and uncle Tom and finally got my U of M fabric from my parents! Also, I no longer need someone to send me a press pot, as a volunteer who was leaving gave me hers.
Anyway, I just wanted to let you all know what was going on over here and most of all let you know that I am safe and overall happy still. I bought my plane ticket home last week, so that is really cool! I will be in France August 9-15 and then the States August 15-September 7. Start marking your calendars and making plans :)

1 comment:

Shari said...

Thank you for your thoughtful post. As PC families, all of you have been in our thoughts and prayers since the beginning of this tragedy, and you continue to be so. We are very proud of the work that all of you are doing, and it is so very important! You have written so thoughtfully and touchingly of Kate, and I am sure that her family would be moved. Never believe that this is the will of God, or that this was somehow, Kate's fate. God mourns when horrible things happen, and the loss of Kate is a loss to our international community. Take care of yourself, and have courage!
Warmly,Shari Crist
Jessica's mom