My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Saturday, May 30, 2009

School's out for summer









Here it is, almost June. School is finally 100% over (save for an end-of-the-year staff meeting which I am told might not happen until sometime in July...?) and I am officially on summer break. Only this break doesn't feel as magnificent a summer breaks used to feel: the new free time is only being added to an already substantial amount of it, and there are still plenty of projects and responsibilities I have to tend to over the summer. However, I am definitely glad to be done with grading, lesson planning, and rowdy students for a few months.
I had my last classes with my students on Tuesday and Wednesday, where I gave out final grades and gave prizes to the best students. It was a bittersweet occasion, some classes more sweet than bitter! I was happy to report that many students' grades had gone up from the first semester. Every one of my classes gave me a round of applause and asked if I could be their English teacher again next year. (Classes stay the same from year to year, although many changes are inevitable at is is common for students to be held back a year or transfer schools. I don't plan on following any of my classes to next year, though, as I want to start fresh with a group of kids so that I can use different teaching and discipline methods. I wish I could hand-pick a certain few students to keep, though!) I put together prizes from the various school supplies M. Vess' classes had sent me, and I even had enough to give every student a little something. In my two older classes the top three male and female students got notebooks and stickers while everyone else got a pen, and in my younger classes the top six got notebooks and crayons while each student got a pencil. I thought that these prizes would just be a nice gesture, thanking them for hard work in English throughout the year, and for the most part that's what they were. Most of my kids were extremely happy and grateful. A few students, however, got very angry that they “only got pens” and some even refused to take them. This was really frustrating because I know for a fact that nice, American pens are a really nice gift and that some families can barely even afford the crappy Nigerian brands they sell here, not to mention I was probably the only teacher giving out prizes to my classes at the end of the year. Other students who had done well but were not in the top three were upset that they didn't receive notebooks or stickers. I even had a few students come up to me saying that they were too poor to afford notebooks and I therefore needed to give them one. When I asked them how they got their notebooks for this year they simply giggled and said “please?” Afraid that I had made some cultural faux pas I went and asked my homologue if the prize-giving wasn't a good idea, and he just laughed and told me that the kids were being greedy and that the prizes were fine. Indeed, at the end of the year party the school gave lots of prizes to the top students in every class.
The end of the year party, called Cultural Day, was yesterday at the school. Students met very early in the morning in the market place and paraded throughout the village on their way to the school. They didn't have to wear their uniforms and were dressed to the nines, may sporting new hair weaves, hats, or gaudy jewelry. They had set up a few tents for everyone to crowd under, and the ceremony consisted of drawn-out speeches (shocker there), bizarre sing-along and dancing performances (another shock), comedy sketches where students imitated various teachers (both to my disappointment and to my relief they did not imitate me!), a long and not too informative talk on contraceptive methods, and finally prize-giving. I was pleased that some of the top students were girls and that the top boy and girl cinquième students were in my classes. I was even called up to give the awards for the top girls in every grade! This was somewhat awkward since all of the other award-givers had long speeches, so I, unprepared, clumsily mentioned something about how I love to see hard-working girls. The prizes were followed by beer and sandwiches for all the teachers, and I was amazed by how much these people could put away when it was free. I saw many teachers rapidly drink four beers and eat three sandwiches. I was even ridiculed for only taking one of each! The teachers then mostly headed home, and the students remained for an evening of games and dancing. (I am told that the end of the year party results in a huge number of unplanned pregnancies since everyone is dressed up, happy, dancing, and often intoxicated.)
I also FINALLY picked up all the donated books sent from home this week! My homologue and I went all the way to Bopa on Monday like the woman at the post office told us to... only to find her not there. Apparently she was at a meeting, all day. So, we came all the way back the next day and picked up three huge bags of books! When we got to the school and opened them, people were elated. The books are a great mix of levels and subjects, and people have already picked out their summer reading. Especially the other English teachers were excited. My director wanted to me to express his sincere thanks to everyone. Apparently Amanda's visit prompted her mom to get some books together to send, too! Funny anecdote: the first book lifted out of the bag was called "The Slave Ship". It looked like it was from the 1950s and had loin cloth-clad Africans on the front. Ha.
Other then finishing the school year, this week hasn't been so great. As soon as I got home from the cooking session last weekend (which was fantastic), I felt really sick and on Sunday I couldn't even leave my house due to a high fever and stomach pains. I have only felt so-so since then and have a sneaking suspicion that the anti-parasite meds didn't work for all three types that I had. It has also been freakishly hot, as in 93 degrees in my room by mid-morning. It didn't even usually get that hot during hot season! Nearly every day the sky turns black and the winds pick up and I get excited for the cooling rains, and then it briefly sprinkles and turns sunny again, barely cooling things down a degree or two. I even had a heat-scare with Belle this week when she somehow climbed her way up onto my tin roof at about 1pm and then started panicking because of how hot it was. She was running back and forth and hyperventilating, making a really weird noise. It took her a long time to calm down enough to figure that she could jump into my arms. Between the heat and the illness, I have slept terribly recently. I hope this mini hot season ends soon! I also finally switched cell phone networks so that I can get reception around the village and in my house, but I'm not too happy with the new company. First, the SIM card was supposed to come with a decent amount of credit on it and when I put it in my phone I found out that someone had already removed it. Everyone told me that the woman who sold it to me had sold me a bad card. When I went to ask her about it she just got really mad and then quiet and wouldn't look me in the eye, and offered no explanation or compensation. Then, I found out that phone credit expires much more quickly with this company, so I have to be careful about when I buy credit, and have to use it fairly quickly when I do. It is free to text and call other people on this network which is nice, but hardly anyone else is on it. It costs a fortune to call and text people on MTN, my old company. The final annoying thing: sometimes when someone from home calls, my phone rings and I see who is calling, only to answer it and get a busy signal. When I hang up it keeps ringing and giving me a busy signal, meaning the person calling thinks they are not getting through. I talked to other people who have this network and they say that unfortunately this just happens sometimes and it usually goes through by the second or third try. So if you are calling me and it doesn't go through the first time, wait a few minutes and try again! I had this problem a few times this week but was able to talk to Leah, Sarah, and Mitch! I also talked to my family on Memorial Day, extremely jealous of the very American BBQ they were having! It was so good talking to people after an almost 2-month hiatus! I now get full reception, even in my house :)
Today I am in Lokossa using the bank (thank goodness we finally got paid again, I was so poor!) and tonight Michelle and I are making homemade ravioli. Tomorrow, I am heading to my friend Jordan's post. Jordan is the one running Camp GLOW this year, and she is going to get all the documents to me and show me how things work so that I will be equipped to run it next year. I will be back in Lobogo on Monday, only to go to Cotonou sometime during the week next week to see the doctors (see if I got these pesky parasites taken care of) and turn in some forms. Oh, and get excited: I leave for my trip in ten weeks and one day :)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Amanda's Visit!
































Oh my gosh, where to begin! Amanda and I had an absolutely fabulous time together. Here is a synopsis of our week!
She got here last Sunday night, and by some minor miracle her flight was not only not-late, but it was even a bit early! But of course, in true Beninese fashion, customs and baggage claim took forever. We ended up taking a free shuttle back to our hotel and having a really nice steak dinner right on the water. The hotel was much nicer than I was expecting it to be, and it was glorious to sleep in air conditioning/with a comforter. The pool was huge and you could see the beach from the deck.
The next day, I showed her around the Peace Corps Bureau and introduced her to Beninese food: we ate pounded yams and Fulani cheese with our hands! We then spent the afternoon checking out the artisan's center, where we were promptly devoured by mosquitoes and fought over by different artisans in their booths. Amanda ended up getting a ton of cool jewelry and I finally got a new silver ring to replace the one I lost a few months ago! It is really beautiful hand-stamped Tuareg silver. After going back to our hotel and reading/watching the fishermen out on the water, we met up with my post mate Christopher and his friend from Chicago for a nice Italian dinner: wine, carpaccio, pasta, and cheese! We then headed back to our hotel for draught beer and late-night hookah- very relaxing!
The next day the real adventure began as Amanda and I took a taxi and zemidjans to my village. The taxi was quite crowded and the moto ride was very long and the drivers went too fast, but Amanda did really well! Back in my village that night we just took it easy and played with my cats (Amanda fell in love with them immediately). For dinner we had wine and cheese, and RIGHT after we had stuffed ourselves and were preparing to go back inside, my neighbor brought out a huge plate of rice and eggs for us, which we had to eat some of or be perceived as unspeakably rude. So, Amanda got an immediate taste of bizarre Beninese hospitality!
We spent the next day relaxing and walking around Lobogo, meeting some of my friends there. I took her to my favorite breezy bar to have a drink and we got rice and beans for lunch! For dinner that night, we made homemade pizza with real mozzarella we had bought in Cotonou. While we were making it, my proprietor came to the door and asked if he and his friends could take us out for drinks later in the night, to which I had to say yes. When we went out, he promptly ordered Amanda and I tons of chicken and akassa (fermented corn paste), even though he knew we had just eaten an enormous dinner. Once again, we were obliged to eat some of the food. They then took us to see one of their friends, who explained that he wanted to marry me even though he already had a wife, because he wants to see the United States. The situation was really uncomfortable because I couldn't use my usual tactic of just being very forceful (and borderline mean if I have to be) to tell them that I am not interested because he was our host and my proprietors friend. Needless to say, Amanda got to witness some of the more bizarre and annoying aspects of Beninese culture that night.
The next day was market day in Lobogo, so we spent a long time taking that in and buying lots of pretty fabric for Amanda to take home. We also got the obligatory matching fabric and got matching dresses made out of it! It is always fun to have a guest and see them in awe of things like the market. Sometimes I forget how crazy and unique it truly is! Our gourmet eating for the week continued: for breakfast we made oatmeal chocolate chip pancakes (which were so awesome that we made them three more times during her stay!) and for dinner we did fried rice. (You folks at home probably laugh at how much I write about food, but this is stuff that you can either never get here or never would make just for yourself! When you live pretty consistently off of rice and beans, things like fried rice and pancakes are definitely gourmet :)
On Friday we took off for Grand Popo. On this taxi ride Amanda got a taste or drivers waiting around for an hour for absolutely no reason, and also music blasting so loud that we literally had to shout into each others' ears. Whatever craziness we encountered on the way there, our time on the beach totally made up for it! We spent several hours on the beach drinking cocktails, went back to the room and took glorious real showers, and then had a really nice dinner under the stars on the beach. The next day, we did it all again, only we had longer on the beach! It was so, so relaxing. Playing in the waves was super fun, but the next day I was sore because the undertow was so strong and we had to fight it the whole time! The only downside to our second day there came when we were trying to sleep that night. Whoever was in the room next to us had LOUD sex at least three times during the night, loud enough to wake us both out of a deep sleep and make us grumpy. The first time it was really funny and we couldn't stop laughing, but the other two times when we were awoken in the middle of the night were really obnoxious.
It turned out that our sleepless night was only the precursor to a not so good day. First, we get to breakfast, and were informed that they only had lunch, so we had to order heavy food first thing in the morning. Then, it turned out to be REALLY hot when we were walking around the town and looking at different artisans' shops, and Amanda was worried that she might faint from the heat. When we finally tried to get out of Grand Popo, we stood for an hour in the baking sun, not able to find a taxi, and finally decided to take motos out of the town. We found out the next day that right around the same time, two Caucasians on motos had been hit by a bus and killed, so that was pretty upsetting. Then, on our moto ride back to Lobogo, my zemidjan was going way too fast on these little jungle paths, and at one point we rounded a curve and ran straight into a muddy ditch, only to flip up and crash into the bushes nearby. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt, and I came away from the accident only with a very minor burn and some sore muscles. The way people drive here makes me furious! So, to make ourselves feel better we made our delicious pancakes, played lots of rummy, and went to bed!
Monday morning we walked to my school and I showed her around there, and then spent the afternoon at the breezy buvette. She read a book for work and I graded papers! Unfortunately, Amanda wasn't feeling so hot, so we just relaxed and played with my kitties for the rest of the night. On Tuesday we went to Possotome and checked out the two cool hotels there. While we were sitting waiting for our lunch at one of the hotels, a strong breeze came and the sky turned black, and Amanda excitedly waited to see her first African rain. Well, not only did she get a rain, but more or less a hurricane came over Possotome and the floating restaurant we were on, so we had to immediately rush to the one part of the restaurant where we would not get soaked. While we were sitting there (shivering!) waiting out the storm, a caravan of black armored SUVs pulls up and out step several men in suits and lots of security guards who also run to the small rain-proof corner Turns out that it was the Minister of Sports doing a tour or our commune, and he and his entourage ate lots of hors d'oeurves and drank a lot before promptly leaving the restaurant again! They gave us some of their food which was nice, since our orders got pushed aside when the important people showed up :) We also chatted for a while with the minister and the mayor of my commune. As a fitting ending to yet another bizarre day, my cats refused to come in at night and so I left them out all night for the first time, only to awaken at 6am to them running up and down my tin roof, crying to be let in. The power was also out all night, so Amanda and I baked cookies by candle and head lamp light!
Yesterday, after saying goodbye to everyone in my concession (Amanda really loved Fifa, who in turn adored her. Amanda is helping to pay for Fifas glasses this summer which is really great of her!) we headed back down to Cotonou, where we did some last minute shopping at the artisan's center and then had a nice dinner for one last hurrah before she took off! Unfortunately, our trip to the airport was kind of scary. First, the zems sent us mixed messages about pricing, who would take us, etc. Then, we stopped to get gas before the airport and my zem demanded money for gas, which is not unheard of but not common either. So, we hesitantly gave it to him and he said he would give us our change at the airport, even though I heavily protested this. As we continued to the airport, he started telling me that I was mean, and that since I was mean I should give him my helmet as a gift. Then, he told me that I was going to marry him. When I told him I was already married, he just kept screaming “Je m'en fou de ton mari!” (Translation: I don't give a f**k about your husband!) and said he would drop me off right then and there if I did not agree. When we finally got to the airport they dropped us off in a remote corner and speedily drove away before we could get our change. It was a really bad experience, although it could have been much worse had they tried to take Amanda's bags or something. I want to assure you that these occurrences are rare and I normally feel safe riding on zems, but last night definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. After that we said our goodbyes (she promised that she will come visit me in Ann Arbor when I am home this summer!) and I shared a zem back with Christopher since I was still shaken up from our bad zem ride. Having Amanda here was so awesome, and it has made me itch to have more visitors!! If you are interested please let me know!!
I am now hanging out in Cotonou until tomorrow, when I will head back to my region for a cooking session. The theme this time is breakfast! In the evening we are making breakfast burritos, yogurt parfaits with granola, and mimosas, and in the morning we are doing peanut butter banana french toast and chocolate chip pancakes! It should be a lot of fun. It will be back to the real world for me next week, when I have to finish grading finals and calculating year-end grades, and I have to sort the books that arrived from the US for our library! June will continue to be busy as I prepare for Camp GLOW (and prepare to take over the leadership of it for next year) and have a friend coming down from the north later in the month. I can't believe how fast time is flying; I leave for my big trip in two an a half months!
Last but not least, my stupid phone! The reception in my village is still out, so this weekend I will be getting a new phone number. I will get that number to you when I have it, although I don't think I will post it on my blog this time since some creepy people saw my old number and have called it wanting to meet me. You can always get it from my parents, too. It was been so frustrating not being able to hear from home for over five weeks!
Hope all is well at home and summer is starting out beautifully :) video video video video video video video video

Monday, May 11, 2009

Amanda is in Africa, maintenant.

And it is glorious. We ate STEAK, drank red wine, and slept in air conditioning with comforters. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Amanda!!!

Amanda comes in a couple of hours!!!! I am so stoked. With any luck the Air France flight from Paris won't be over an hour late as usual, and we can check into our hotel and have a nice dinner before it gets too late. Tomorrow we are going to explore Cotonou a bit and then meet up with my post-mate and his visiting friend (who also happens to be from Chicago, and on the same flight as Amanda going back home!) to have a nice evening of dinner and drinks. We will head to Lobogo on Tuesday, and also hit Grand Popo and Possotome while she is here. She leaves on the 20th, which gives us ten days together!
The rest of my weekend in Cotonou last week was relaxing, if not a bit boring. It always sounds so exciting to spend time in Cotonou/ the Bureau, where there are movies, air conditioning, internet, hot showers, and good food, but having a whole free day there is, quite frankly, boring. Jeremy and I had a nice dinner outside on the 2nd floor patio at Hai King, a Chinese restaurant. That night, I talked to lots of people from home since the cell network in Lobogo is STILL down. (I went to the cell phone company in Cotonou on Monday to complain, and they assured me that there were people working on it as we spoke... and six days later, it is still not working. The frustrating thing is, it works in a few spots in Lobogo, but not in my house/concession. I will be traveling a lot with Amanda so will not change networks right now, but if once she is gone it is still down, I will change.) On Monday, I saw the doctor, who informed me that not only do I have amoebas, but I have TWO other types of parasites living it up in my digestive tract right now. I am lucky I don't have more symptoms than I do (only occasional stomach pain and diarrhea), and am once again on a heavy regimen of antibiotics. Luckily, the doctor was nice to me about it, but I am worried that if I get parasites again, they could threaten me with medical separation or something like that. I am really frustrated that I keep getting sick. I am one of the few volunteers that ALWAYS filters and boils my water (if you saw my well, you would understand) and bleaches/boils my vegetables. I often cook for myself and occasionally eat street food. There are tons of volunteers who eat street food for every meal, yet I seem to get parasites more than they do. The doctors suggested bringing my own plates when I eat street food, since the plates there are often still wet with the far-from-sanitary water they wash them in. This makes me wonder: how many Beninese/developing country citizens have parasites? You don't really develop an immunity to them. I don't even drink the water, and I have already had parasites three times. They don't usually clear away on their own.
This week I proctored exams, and I had a lot of work to do since most of the teachers were still on strike. Many of the exams I proctored were four hours long, which meant four hours of sitting there doing nothing, making sure that the kids weren't cheating. Luckily, I had the oldest classes, so I didn't have to watch them too closely. Nest week are end-of-the-year finals. I got really mad when I saw the English exams for sixiéme and cinquiéme. We didn't get to write the exams together since they were on strike, so the head of the department wrote those exams. What made me so mad was that there was no thought put into vocabulary sophistication (beginning speakers are not going to understand words like “eldest” and “chieftain”) and logic in the text. Beninese curriculum mandates that every exam must be based off of a text, but the texts were so sophisticated and filled with errors that there was no way my beginners could have succeeded. Luckily, I intercepted the department head before these were printed and we edited the exams together. Next year, I am going to run for department head. This will entail me editing the exams that we will write together, and running weekly department meetings (they will actually start on time!)
Other than that, this has been a pretty low-key week. We had our first truly rainy day of the season (it pretty much rained straight from noon to midnight- I slept without a fan again!), and I spent it giving pedicures to the women in my concession and baking peanut butter chocolate chip cookies with Fifa and Mariam. Mariam is MUCH better at French now, so we can actually communicate and have a lot of fun together! I finished The Water is Wide (I still highly recommend this if you want a glimpse into my life as a teacher here, especially the frustrations with other teachers/school philosophy) and have now started Middlesex, which I have been wanting to read for a while.
The downside of the rain: the mud. Remember me saying that it was only a matter of time until I fell in the mud? Well, my time came this week. I had just locked my door and was heading out to wait for the zemidjan to take me to school, when I reallllly wiped out. We're taking a sliding five feet and getting my pants totally muddy. Luckily, only a couple of the women in my concession saw, and, mouths gaping, uttered the requisite “doucement”. So, I had to go back inside, wash off, and change my pants. I was late to school. It could have been a lot worse, though. I could have fallen in the market or, God forbid, at school.
Well, I have to get ready to pick Amanda up!!! I will be back on the internet in a week and half, and this time I should be posting pictures since Amanda is bringing my new digital camera! I will let you know if I get a new phone number.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

May?!

I absolutely can't believe that I have been out of the United States for over ten months now. I know I am starting to sound like a broken record, but my goodness how time flies!
This week has had its share of ups and downs. I taught school for two days this week, and even that was quite a feat. Most of the professors were on strike, so many students didn't show up. (Of course, no one bothered to tell me about the strike ahead of time.) Then, Wednesday, there was a soccer match between Lobogo and the neighboring village of Bopa, and the students all had permission to skip school and go watch the game. Once again, nobody bothered to tell me about this ahead of time, and about 1/3 of my students showed up, even though it was the last class before finals/of the year! Then Thursday and Friday were national holidays, so... I am done teaching for the year...?!?!
Another fun school story this week: we had a staff meeting that consisted of our administration telling us what horrible teachers we all were, based on first semester grades. Apparently, there are some classes in which no students are getting over a 50%. When asked what we could do to improve our teaching, teachers began standing up and proclaiming that they are already doing everything they could possibly do, and that the problem is that the students are stupid and lazy. Needless to say, I lost it and stood up and gave small suggestions for improvement like not writing notes on the board and then going to sleep while the students copy, not taking 30 minute phone calls in the middle of class, etc. Of course, I was just laughed at, but the administration was really happy that I spoke up and I was proud of myself. It really made me realize some key differences between work and motivation philosophy between Beninese and Americans. They are always asking, "what's in it for me?" instead of "what is the stake for the children?" Of course, this meeting lasted a wholly unnecessary 2.5 hours. Sigh.
This week I also finalized my girls for Camp GLOW. My homologue and I went to see the family of the second girl I am taking. It wasn't as magical as the first night ride through the jungle, but still really beautiful. The next day we went back to the family of the first girl because they wanted us to see them during the day. The girl herself wasn't there, and her mother and family were off working in the market. So, it was the grandparents (realllly old, no teeth, insert various National-Geographic-elderly-African-people stereotypes here) and TONS of filthy kids rolling around in the dirt. This group (I say group because I am pretty sure there is more than one wife) of parents has fifteen children between the ages of 1 and 10, all on a farmer's living.
The highlight of the afternoon was the grandpa taking us out to one of his fields, cutting down a palm tree, and showing us how to drain it of its wine. So, we drank fresh palm wine straight out of the tree! It tasted like milky beer that was slightly sweet. He then showed us how he distills the wine to make this horrid moonshine. The water he cools the liquor through looks and smells like it hasn't been changed in twenty years, and the cotton the final product drips through looks like it's alive. Disgusting. Afterwards, Blaise and I went to Bopa to ask the mayor for funding for our transportation to Camp GLOW. He was so impressed that I only asked for the price of transportation and didn't try to get more money out of him that he gave us extra money for the girls to have to spend on themselves at the camp! They are going to be so excited!
As I mentioned earlier, Friday was Labor Day, a huge holiday in Benin. The different groups of laborers in Lobogo (tailors, zemidjan drivers, etc.) got matching fabric, and in the evening, the whole village was out drinking and dancing! I had no idea this holiday was going to be like this, and I had one of those "Peace Corps moments" where I had a few beers and danced to quintessentially West African music and danced Beninese style under the moonlight with other villagers. It was so much fun!
That day I also started a book called "The Water is Wide" by Pat Conroy, and let me tell you- if you are looking for an almost exact portrait of what I'm doing here, this book is it. The author was a volunteer teacher on a small island off the coast of South Carolina circa 1970. The people on the island barely speak English, don't have any concept of the outside world, he has limited resources, etc. I was laughing so hard throughout the whole beginning of the book because it is so spot-on. Please pick up this book!
I am now in Cotonou. Last night was our ex-pat fund raising fiesta, and it was a decent success. We ended up making about $2000 to be used entirely by volunteers doing small gender and development projects. The event was held in the backyard of an ex-pat's home under big tents. We had a live salsa band that was really good, and a catering company provided Mexican food! I worked drinks the whole night, which meant sticking my arms into VERY icy water every minute or two to get people a beer. In true Beninese style, we didn't have a bottle opener until about 30 minutes after the event had started. The crowd we had was an interesting mix: loud Americans, picky ex-pats refusing to drink without straws, etc. Definitely good entertainment! The auction that went along with the dinner was somewhat disappointing- I think the ex-pats were more interested in dinner and dancing. Many beautiful pieces donated by artists and artisans sold for quite a bit under what they should have. Oh well, we still had fun and made some good money!
I will be heading back to Lobogo tomorrow. I think I might have amoebas again :(, so I am going to see the doctors tomorrow morning. Amanda comes a week from today!!!! I am giddy! I am also really excited to get my new camera! This week I will just be proctoring practice exams at the school, so not much work to do. Finally, the cell phone network is STILL down in my village!! Keep trying to call, I am hoping they will fix it ASAP. If they have not fixed it by mid-May, I am going to have to switch providers and get a new phone number- such a pain in the butt. Happy May!