My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Friday, April 24, 2009

The end is near...

I can't believe that it was already ten months ago that I was rushing around getting ready to move halfway across the world and saying my goodbyes. It is almost May! (Amanda comes two weeks from Sunday!!!) This has been seeming really crazy to me lately, since the end of the school year is literally here. This coming week is my last week teaching for the year, and then we have two weeks of exams followed by grading and end-of-the-year meetings. While I am proud of getting through my first year teaching here and am looking forward to the summer break, I am disappointed by how not-far the English department got in the curriculum. I am even behind some of the other teachers, but I know that is because if a tough grammar point is not understood by the end of a lesson, I spend another lesson on it. Nonetheless, it is going to cause some headaches as we prepare for finals, since every student has to take the same exam, regardless of their teacher/spot in the curriculum.
I still have one of my four classes' midterms to grade, which I will do this weekend. I am still amazed at how long grading takes (and how it can make me grumpy when students don't do as well as I know they could). Many teachers poked fun at me for taking so long grading, but when I watch them grade they barely scan the paper and mark off for the slightest error. I also write in the correct answers on my students' papers so that they can learn from their mistakes when they are studying later.
Enough about school! Last weekend was great. Monica, Michelle and I made and awesome homemade minestrone soup and cornbread for dinner, and watched most of season four of Grey's Anatomy. A very cozy/homey night :) Then on Saturday Katie and John Mark came to Lobogo! They were amazed at just how different it is down here, and declared that I live in a “jungle paradise” and that my post was the favorite one they have visited! We walked around the village, went for some beers, and made an awesome salad for dinner. On Sunday we went to Possotome for a few hours of beach time (I got my first real sunburn since I have been here) and then came back to check out Lobogo's market on market day. Once again, they were blown away with everything you can find in my market and they each spent lots of money. We came home, made some fried rice, and watched Munich on Katie's laptop. The next morning we made some pancakes (second day in a row!) and they left for Cotonou. It was great having so many friends come to visit me over break! Like taking a vacation without having to travel anywhere :)
Speaking of burns, I got a really bad one by accidentally touching the exhaust pipe of a moto as I was getting on it. It is easy to do and quite frankly I am surprised that I hadn't done it before. It really hurt and left a nasty char mark, and it will definitely leave a substantial scar :(
It was fine going back to school, although one day my administration got testy with me when they asked if I believed in sorcery and I said no. They then proceeded to tell me that a sorcerer in Porto Novo had recently found a cure for AIDS and got upset when I bluntly said that that was not true. Conversations like these remind me how deep-seated beliefs such as these are in their culture. Honestly, I believe that if you believe in sorcery, then it exists for you, but if you don't, then it doesn't. I tried telling the administration this, and they just laughed at me.
This week, I got even more excited to come home this summer when I found out that David Hines Jr., a good friend of mine from the euphonium section of the marching band, was elected drum major for the 2009 season! I am so proud of him and am so happy that I will get to see his first game on September 5! I went to the tailor to check on progress on the U of M dress that I will be wearing to the game- it is great! He had made it a bit too big and is fixing it now, but I can tell it will be fabulous. He is also making me a purse and headband to go with it! The other dress that my tailor made me is adorable, but unfortunately too short to wear anywhere except maybe Cotonou. I keep telling myself that I will wear things made out of African fabric when I go home, but everyone keeps telling me that you realize when you get there that that is impossible. Too bad :( I also don't think I will ever again wear anything that shows above my knees- it is so scandalous here! There will definitely be some major culture shock when I get home.
I am in Cotonou today for our final meetings about Camp GLOW and the expatriate fund raising dinner and auction next weekend. Tonight Michelle and I are buying some beef from the butcher and making beef and broccoli (broccoli you can only find in Cotonou- I haven't had it since home!) at her place in Lokossa. If anyone at home wants to call, today or tomorrow is a good time to do it since I will be in cities- the cell phone network in my village had been down for a week now. Hopefully it will get fixed soon.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I hate flying ants.

We had another swarm last night, and this time they made their way IN to my house, my mosquito net/bed, into my water, etc. It was horrifying, but my cats had a hayday.
Anyway, Monica has been at my post the past few days, and we have had lots of fun exploring the area. Yesterday we went to Possotome to chill by the lake and make an awesome veggie lasagna, and today we are in Lokossa to cook, bake, and watch movies with Michelle. Last night we also drank wine and went star gazing! I will never get over how beautiful the stars are here.
Katie and John Mark come tomorrow, and I start school again on Tuesday. Lots of work to do grading exams this week! I will be back on the computers in one week when I will be in Cotonou for a Camp GLOW meeting.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Happy belated Easter! I hope you all had a wonderful one and spent it with family. I had a nice Easter with my quasi-family. On Good Friday there was a reenactment of the stations of the cross, but it took place in the afternoon in the hot sun and they walk over 4 miles, so I decided not to do it.
My Easter started at 1am when the Easter vigil service got out. I did not go to the service, but I was awoken by the absurdly loud drumming and singing that followed it. I sat up and did crossword puzzles until the party ended almost two hours later.
I took the young girls to church in the morning. The service was three hours long and all in the local language so it was pretty hard to sit through, but I entertained myself by looking at all the fancy and outrageous outfits people had made for Easter. One really cool thing is that every year the village picks out a fabric that anyone who can afford it gets to make their Easter outfit out of, so many people were wearing the same orange and blue fabric. Another entertaining thing was watching the ten or so men with big sticks who roamed the church during the service, smacking those who were sleeping, talking or babies who were crying. It sure seemed to me that they enjoyed and almost abused this position. I wanted to scream that if the services weren't so darn long, people wouldn't be falling asleep! A few older women received their first communion, and they each gave the church a gift: one woman gave 20 eggs, one gave a live chicken, one gave a basket of onions, etc. After the service these women paraded around the town singing.
After church I took the little girls to get some food, and then we came home and they helped me bake a devil's food cake. While it was dancing, we had a dance party in my kitchen! It was a blast despite being I think the hottest day since coming to Benin. Then, I was invited out with the family for the evening. We stopped at several different family members' houses and had a drink at each one, and then ended up at the main family house to have a meal of delicious BBQ chicken, beer, and my cake! (I can't imagine how many chickens were killed yesterday- our family alone killed 5! Poor guys) It was nice to feel like part of the family. In fact, the zipper on my top broke, and they acted like it was no big deal and the women covered me and got me a pagne to cover-up- it was so nice! I also got several calls from family at home, which was great. I guess my dad put together a DVD of the photos and videos that Sandy took when she was here, which my whole family got to watch on Easter. They got to see me teaching!
My spring break is now in full swing! We had a short two-day school week, the highlight of which was my department meeting in which- no joke- we took two hours to discuss the steps for doing a reading comprehension lesson. My first day of break I took to overhaul my house, and while I cleaned a boy from my concession scrubbed the floors, walls, and windows. It was kind of fun- we turned the music up and drank some beers as we sweat profusely and did our work. I am finding that I am already getting a bit bored, which isn't a good sign for the summer break! I have lots of camps and little trips planned, though, so hopefully it will be ok.
Today I am in Cotonou to get my packages and run some errands, and tonight a friend and I are going to a nice dinner. Tomorrow she is coming back to my village with me, and then on Saturday my friends Katie and John Mark are coming to Lobogo. We will probably visit Possotome one day, and maybe even hit the beach at Grand Popo. I still have about 150 exams to grade before the end of break :(
But how crazy is this: I found out that our final exams start on May 11! And one of the weeks before then is practice testing, so there are no regular classes. So basically, the year is over! Part of me is happy, but I am also disappointed in how not far I got in the curriculum. Since exams are the week Amanda comes, I will now have that whole week free to be with her and not worry about school, which is great. She now comes in less than four weeks! She is going to bring my new camera which I'm really happy about.
Yesterday, we had an insane downpour in Lobogo which almost flooded my kitchen and revealed several small leaks/seepages in my house. I didn't even care, though- my house got down to 77 degrees!!! It was HEAVENLY! And then- drumroll, please- when I woke up I was COLD and it was 75 in my room!!I don't think I have felt a temperature that cool since leaving the States! Let's hope that this means the start of the rainy season! (One bad side effect, though: flying ants decided to breed in my shower. There were so many that I couldn't see the walls, it was horrible. There was a mouse trying to eat the ants and then in turn my cat ate the mouse. Ah, circle of life...)
That's all for now! Have a good week :)

Monday, April 6, 2009


I am writing this blog just about ten minutes after watching one of the concession goats give birth in my bike shed. It was quite the site- and came with quite the sounds- but we now have a new goat in our concession that could literally fit into the palm of your hand. I know I have said this before, but I think that baby goats are just about the cutest things on earth.
I would take a picture of the little guy, but unfortunately my camera recently broke :( I think I mentioned that in my last blog. I emailed technical support at Kodak and they said I have to send my camera in for repairs. My parents are going to try and send a me a new camera by way of my friend who is visiting next month, since the one I have now is quite old. I don't want to go another four months without taking pictures!!!
Life since my last post has been a series of ups and downs. The first few days back in Lobogo after the week of being away and with friends were really tough. That is when the tragedy really hit me, and I just felt really sad an lonely. I didn't feel scared, but nonetheless had some trouble sleeping those first few nights, for obvious reasons. I think the reason I had a tough time was a combination of the support being with other volunteers was taken away, and I had no one in my village to commiserate with, as the way they deal with grief here is either very private or just saying “God wanted this.” I noticed that volunteers who live in towns with other volunteers or other westerners did not have this problem, so I realized that it was my isolation making it harder for me.
However, life has been getting better everyday, and I no longer have trouble sleeping nor do I get so sad and lonely in the evenings. Many people from home have called to support me though this, and I really appreciate that. I have definitely missed home more since this incident. It has helped getting back into the swing of things at school, and spending lots of time with my kitties! (They really care about me- the other night they caught a big fat mouse and dropped it at my feet triumphantly as a gift.)
School was the usual this week, with lots of frustrations because of discipline and building problems, and lots of fun in the classroom like when I taught the kids the “Days of the Week” song to the tune of the Addams Family theme song: There's Sunday and there's Monday, there's Tuesday and there's Wednesday, there's Thursday and there's Friday, and then there's Saturday! Days of the week (snap snap), days of the week (snap snap), days of the week, days of the week, days of the week! (snap snap) They went NUTS over that song! I have also been grading a lot of quizzes and tests this week, which I must confess is probably my least favorite part about teaching, both because it is very time consuming and because it is depressing when kids don't do as well as you would expect and hope.
Last weekend, I went to Lokossa to help grade the written portion of a regional English competition. That in itself wasn't too exciting, and was certainly frustrating at times. We were working with Beninese teachers, so everything inevitably took about five times as long as it needed to, and I also had to convince my fellow graders that even if the answer that the student wrote wasn't word for word what was on the answer key (such as for the short answer section), it could still be right. For instance, the answer key had “Would you watch my child on Tuesday?” listed as one of the answers, and I had to go through hell to convince them that “Would you mind watching my child on Tuesday?” meant the same thing and was also correct, since it wasn't listed on the answer key.
I was happy to go to Lokossa as it gave me some time away from the isolation of my village and with other volunteers, and after the competition we all went and got pounded yams, cheese, and beer for lunch. I met another American volunteer who is in Lokossa for two months, she is there for a college class. That evening, that girl, Michelle, and I went to the local missionary family's house and watched 27 Dresses, which was really nice. On the way home from Lokossa, I discovered a farm on the side of the road that sells fresh cheese! I bought some for myself and my neighbors.
This week I also decided the girl that I want to bring to Camp GLOW with me in June. We asked her the neighborhood where she lived, and my homologue and I said that we would be there that evening. Well, it turns out that she lives almost five kilometers from the school and literally out in the middle of the jungle. We had to use a machete to get through some of the bush on Blaise's moto, and it took us over twenty minutes to get there on a moto! That poor girl has to walk that four times every day, and she told us that she leaves her house at 5:30am to get to school by 8! My heart was breaking for her, but it also made me very happy that I had chosen her to come to the camp with me. When we got there, the ENTIRE family clan of about thirty people gathered around us, and we sat in a circle and had a meeting under the moonlight. I very politely introduced myself and told them all about the camp, and that I had chosen Carine because of her grades, good attitude, and potential. Everything I said was translated by Blaise, and he in turn translated the questions they were asking me. They want so much for Carine to do well for their family and not become a farmer like they are. Finally the VERY old grandfather- the head of the family- pulled out a shot glass and some sodabe (the local moonshine) and took a drink, signifying that he agreed to let Carine go. To seal the deal, Blaise and I also were required to drink and then bow to the grandfather.
I have to say that this was probably one of my favorite moments since arriving in Benin. There was something so magical about driving through the jungle in the moonlight, sitting with that huge group of bare-breasted women and decorated men, having a traditional meeting with them, and drinking their local brew as a symbol of agreement. All the while, a voodoo drum circle nearby in the jungle added to the effect. The fact that this very traditional family scrapes together the money to send Carine to school and wants her to succeed was so uplifting, and their agreement to let me take her to the camp made my night complete. They have invited me back in the daytime sometime next week to dine with them- I am really looking forward to it!
The bricklayers have added two layers of bricks to my back wall, and today they finally added the broken glass bottles (sort of like barbed wire). They were very timely about the bricks and came to do that right away, and then every day subsequently they promised to return to add the bottles, and finally showed up a week later. I can't say I'm shocked- it's the Beninese way. Similarly, the electrician has been promising to some every day for the past three weeks to fix one of my outdoor lights and only came after I told my homologue how exasperated I was. (My homologue apparently told the electrician I was “furious” and he came with many apologies.) The same thing happened with the tailor who was making a pair of pants for me this week: every day I went and he promised they would be done the next day, and every day he said to come back the next day. When he was finally finished, he hadn't done a great job and the pants were too big, so I STILL don't have them. Patience is a huge virtue here in Benin, folks...
On Saturday, we had an American BBQ in Dogbo! We made cheeseburgers, corn on the cob, jello, potato salad, coleslaw, and a cake (with Betty Crocker frosting sent from home!) It was SO delicious, and so much fun to make all of that stuff from scratch. We bought two kilos of meat and had to cut off all the fat and bad parts and then put it through the meat grinder several times, but most of the other work was minimal. We also had lots of delicious cold beer! Then on Sunday I stayed in Dogbo the whole day to work on revising the TEFL manual for the incoming volunteers this summer. It is so weird to start to become the “old guys” in Benin and to have much of the focus shift to the newbies coming on July 24! After a day of revisions, we made fresh pico de gallo and guacamole for dinner :)
Now I am in Lokossa in the cyber cafe, and I needed to head to the bank before going back to my village today. Starting Wednesday at noon is my spring break, which is 1.5 weeks long. Two of my fellow volunteers were supposed to come down and spend Easter weekend with me, but they found out at the last minute that they have a meeting up in the north and can't come, so I am kind of bummed about that. I still ave a few people coming later in the second week, though, which I'm really looking forward to. I will probably just end up celebrating Easter with my neighbors, which hopefully will be fun. Other than that it will just be a good and relaxing break, and I am glad that I don't have to travel anywhere! (I will be doing plenty of traveling during my summer break: I have recently decided to help run an English camp waaay up on the border of Benin and Niger at the beginning of July, and afterwards I will travel around visiting my friends who are posted in the north.)
Final thought for this blog: one year ago today I took off to France with my parents- so many good memories! One year ago yesterday was Maddie's ritzy bat mitzvah, too. I can't believe how fast time flies.
That's all for now. Keep the calls coming! They are really helping me through the tough time right now. And they help me get excited for coming home- just over four months now!