My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Sunday, July 26, 2009

New volunteers are here!!

This has been a good week! After relaxing at post for a few days, another TEFL volunteer came to my post for the night, and we headed down to Cotonou together to greet the new volunteers! We waited for what seemed like forever at their training site, and when their busses FINALLY pulled in, we jumped, screamed, banged on the windows... you get the idea :)
There are 56 of them, which is a bit smaller than my group was. Honestly, every single one I have talked to has been really nice, really excited to be here, and outgoing. In TEFL, 5 of the 15 volunteers are men! It's hard to believe, since we only have one in our group. One of them is even from West Bloomfield and went to U of M, and graduated at the same time as me! Small world. The first two nights we spent together, we had tons of fun and danced a lot. I think they are going to be a great group and I am looking forward to this upcoming year!
It was really a huge energy boost to have these new Americans come in. We fed off of their positive evergy, and their constant questions made us feel good about all we have learned about Benin! It was fun showing them around Cotonou and telling them all about what volunteer life is like. Honestly though, I feel like I was in their shoes very recently! Hard to believe I have been here 13 months.
Yesterday was a volunteers birthday, and we went out for ice cream sundaes in Cotonou, complete with whiped cream and sprinkles!
Today I'm headed back to post, and on Wednesday another volunteer will join me there. Then we will head to Lokossa for the national celebration, and then.... I leave two weeks from today! Give me a call and we will make plans! (Getting through has been annoying lately... just try lots of time in a row)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

3 weeks!

Nothing too exciting has happened since my last post... mostly I just wanted to update so I could say THREE WEEKS UNTIL MY TRIP!!
I spent this week at my post mostly catching up on much-needed sleep. I read a lot, made myself some amazing calzones and a white pizza, and walked around Lobogo to greet people after my trip. I also got a movie onto my flash drive last time I was in Cotonou, and enjoyed watching it at post so much that I think I'm going to try and bring back a portable DVD player with me when I go home!
On Saturday I met two of my friends in Possotome, and after hanging out there for a while we came to Lobogo together (on insane zemidjans... my driver rinsed his mouth out with gasoline! What???) and walked around since it was market day. We found a lady selling turkey for dinner! (Rarely do you find meat, especially turkey, let alone a piece that has any meat on it or isn't covered in flies.) We then came back to my house and played Chutes and Ladders (seriously) and cooked an awesome breakfast this morning.
Getting to Cotonou today was a bit of an adventure since we had two different flat tires along the way and a driver that was stubborn and spoke no French whatsoever. But we made it here in one piece! Tomorrow I take Fifa to see the American optometrist again, then we will head back to Lobogo together. I am excited to see her; life in village has been not quite as fun without my two little girls around! I will be back down here on Friday to greet the new volunteers when they arrive here! I am really excited to meet the shiny, clean newbies, but totally weirded out that we will now be the old, seasoned ones.
Final note on calling me: I hear that it has been a bit harder to get though lately than normal. If you don't get through, try immediately calling back again, several times in a row (as opposed to waiting 15 minutes and then trying). You should be able to get through eventually. Also, if possible, call me early in the day your time. The phone networks get busier here as the day goes on. But please call! I haven't been getting many calls lately, probably because I'm coming home soon, but I am going to need them to get me through my second year here!
That's all for now... let me know if you want to do something when I am home! My schedule is already starting to fill up :)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

4th of July and Camp Kandi

It's been a busy few weeks of travel since I last updated. I left Cotonou the morning of the 2nd and took the bus to John Mark's village. As we were celebrating over a year away from home, we had to laugh because for dinner, we were making... Beninese food. Oh, how much we've changed in a year :) The next day the people from "Unseen Stories" (the American NGO that deals with child trafficking) came to Tchatchou and we helped them give two formations. At the morning showing, not many people showed up, so the school's vice principal had the brilliant idea of going across the street to the primary school where about 700 kids were hanging out and inviting all of them. Picture this: "Hey kids! There are four white people across the street with lots of fancy electronic equipment who want to show you a movie and give you free things!" Needless to say, all hell broke loose and a literal stampede of 700 kids tried to get into the classroom at the same time, ignoring the fact that the room held about 50 people comfortably. Not only was it impossible to quiet a group that size down, and the room stunk to high heaven, but the kids were so anxious to get in that three kids got trampled and had to go to the hospital, and they broke the door. When we tried to hold kids out, they pushed us and stepped on us, too. Also, when we did try to show the movie, the few kids who were listening couldn't understand a word of the movie because they have barely started learning French in school yet. Overall, it was a pretty frustrating experience. It was fun meeting the Americans who were there with the NGO, it turns out that one of the girls' uncles started Phoebe Hospital in Liberia, which my church at home supports. She is actually going there to volunteer for several months after she graduates! John Mark and I made them American spaghetti for lunch, which they were really grateful for after being subjected to Beninese food for so long. After lunch, we had a second formation for the Peul, which are the West African nomads who wear really bright colors, lots of jewelry, have gorgeous scarification and makeup, and speak their own language. They were really receptive to the film and we had a really great discussion about child trafficking afterwards, all through a translator. That night we sat under the stars for a long time before going to bed :) It was great seeing John Mark again, he is in the States now! I leave four weeks from today :)
On the 4th we headed to Parakou where the PCVs had a chili cook-off, both to celebrate the holiday AND our one year anniversary of landing in Benin! For the cook-off, there were five different entries and a blind taste test done by three judges! Then the rest of us got to dig in. We even had beer, corn bread, and sour cream to go with it! A couple of volunteers made a homemade American flag! See picture :) I also spent a good part of the day doing souvenir shopping for home :) I got to talk to alllllll of my family on the 4th, which was awesome. No one could believe that I have been gone for over a year now!
The next day we headed way up north to Kandi. The landscape up there curiously reminded me of southern France. It was really pretty, and the big differences between way up there and down where I live are: no palm trees up there, and TONS of cows everywhere! The peul herd cattle for a living, and they are all over the place. The Kandi workstation was cute and it was a nice place to stay for the week. There were 5 of us TEFL volunteers and then three environment volunteers who worked the camp for the week. We worked together to make 3 big meals throughout the week: spaghetti with tofu, mac n cheese, and a huge salad. The street food in Kandi was good too, there were tons of chick peas! Unfortunately, one day while eating on the street, Nora saw a bus (the buses that blow through town at 50 mph, hoping people get out of their way) hit a dog and take off one of its legs :( She couldn't stop crying for a while after that. (Driving here is truly scary. People pass other cars while going around blind curves or over hills, they drive WAY too fast. I am getting really tired of it.)
The camp was good overall. The kids had English class from 8-10, and then some activity lead by the environment volunteers from 10-12. They did things like kickball, learning about volcanoes and then making them out of baking soda and vinegar, cleaning up the school, how to draw using perspective, flying a kite, etc. Then, in the afternoons, they came back to watch Planet Earth! The kids really loved this at first, but got kind of fidgety by the end of the week. Us volunteers definitely loved it! We usually kept watching it when we got back to the workstation :)
I started the week team teaching the youngest grade with Nora, where we went over basic greetings and then taught them animal/habitat vocab in preparation for Planet Earth. By Wednesday, the class had grown too big and so we split it up and each took a class.I took the kids who will be starting secondary school in the Fall, so we worked on really basic things like the alphabet and spelling, numbers, and introductions. The kids were really young and there were tons of them (one day I had close to 100), so I definitely had some discipline issues. Actually, I made a student cry! I feel about it, but I didn't do anything rash. He was talking out of control while I was teaching, and I tried moving his seat twice, to no avail. I finally sent him to sit outside for ten minutes, and while he was outside the door he was STILL trying to disrupt the class, so I went out to tell him to leave the school. He wouldn't do it, so I finally picked him up and took him to the door... and he started crying and begging for forgiveness! There was no way I could go back at this point, and I didn't do anything undeserved. Comes with the territory, I guess.
We left Kandi Saturday to get back to Parakou, and after four hours in a taxi that stuffed FOUR people in the front and back and getting ripped off for our money, we got to the workstation. We got delicious chicken and fries for dinner, and then I spent the rest of my night discussing Michigan football with a fellow avid fan that I met! We took the bus down to Cotonou today. It was a long trip, and when we stopped for lunch, we all decided we wanted meat, so we went to a vendor with just a huge tray of meat. He cut off several chunks for each of us, and we thought it was delicious. We had to laugh at ourselves: here we were, eating uncovered mystery meat in sub-saharan Africa, dipping it in hot peppers and eating it with raw onions, thoroughly enjoying ourselves :) Tonight we're gonna get some Italian for dinner. Tomorrow I will head back to my post! I really miss my cats! I have been calling my neighbors every few days to check on them, and it sounds like they have refused to go outside while I have been gone. We will need to figure out how to encourage them while I am gone for a month! I am looking forward to relaxing in my village for a while, though I'm sure I'm going to start getting antsy for my trip. The new volunteers come on the 24th, so I will come down to Cotonou to welcome them! Not sure when the next time I will be able to update, though. SEE you all soon!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Camp GLOW!

Here is the blog on Camp GLOW I promised! Before I get into the camp, though, I want to apologize for the lack of pictures here... my BRAND new camera that Amanda brought me in May inexplicably stopped working about a week and a half ago, right before the camp started. Every time I turned the camera on, it would immediately turn itself back off. I thought it had something to do with the batteries, but after trying several different sets of brand new batteries in it, it still wouldn't work. I had several other volunteers take a look at it, and even went on the Kodak website looking for help, but to no avail :( I am really disappointed, not only because the camera is brand new, but also because I know how much everyone was looking forward to seeing photos of the camp. And there were many great photo ops! Luckily, the camera seems to be working sporadically now, so hopefully there will be pictures on my next blog, keep your fingers crossed!
The week of the camp started out poorly. I had asked the girls to meet me at 11am sharp, and only one was there by 11:30. As I started walking towards the middle of the village hoping to spot the other one, I saw her walking towards me... with empty hands. I asked where she had been, and she said she had been waiting elsewhere, who knows why. When I asked her to get her bag so we could go since we were already running late, she informed me it was at her house. Mind you, this is the girl that lives so deep in the jungle that it takes a pair of machetes and 30 minutes to get there, let alone the rain that was falling at this point (of course) making it nearly impossible to drive there. So I flagged down a zem to take her out to her house (since my zem had not shown up), who charged an absurd amount because of the distance and the rain. It took them a full hour to get there and back. I had wanted to take the girls to a nice lunch in Cotonou, but since we no longer had time to do that we grabbed a quick lunch in the Lobogo market. When we were ready to head out, one of our zems informed me that he had a flat tire and had to wait until they replaced it. Thirty minutes later we were finally on the road. Once we got in a taxi, it of course promptly broke down and we had to stop for a while at a mechanic's shop. We finally made it to Cotonou, where we had to change taxis for Porto Novo. We were promptly squished into the back of an extremely small taxi, where there were already two extremely large women and four baskets of tomatoes in the back seat. They didn't bother trying to squish for us, although I don't believe it would have made much of a difference if they had. The girls were sitting on each other's lap, and I was literally sitting sideways. As we started driving, I notices some small pellets hitting my arm that was hanging out the window, and with horror realized (this is too perfect) that I was being pooped on by a goat that was strapped to the top of the taxi. A few minutes later we were lightly rear ended. When we finally got to Porto Novo and got on zems, we were stopped for a half hour in traffic behind a Muslim funeral procession. I'm telling you, everything that could have gone wrong with our travels that day did, but we made it to the camp in one piece nonetheless :)
The camp was held at a Protestant university, and the facilities were nice, especially compared to what these girls are used to. Each girl got their own bed (quite an upgrade from the straw mats they usually sleep on the floor on) equipped with a mosquito net which they got to take home with them at the end of the week. (Unfortunately, there were not enough nets for the volunteers to get them too, and we were consequently eaten alive every night. Thank goodness for malaria prophylaxis) On the first night we showed the girls how to use a toilet and a shower, since most of them hadn't before. (This turned out to be somewhat useless, though, as the water was either cut or had hardly any pressure for the whole week. Luckily the university also had latrines and big reserves of water so we could bucket shower. Truthfully, I think the girls were more comfortable this way.)
The girls were divided into five teams of ten girls each, and the teams competed for points throughout the week by doing things like cleaning up the grounds, being polite, etc. They could also lose points, through honestly that hardly ever happened since these girls are the best and brightest of their classes. There were about six “tutrices” at the camp: Beninese women who are leaders in their communities and fields, serving as role models to the girls. Each team had one or two tutrices and a few volunteers assigned to it, and at the end of every day we reflected in teams on what we had learned that day. Each team also had to prepare a skit based on one of the themes we discussed that week to present at the talent show on the last night. My team did a skit about forced marriage and keeping girls in school, and they did a really great job. It broke my heart to see how accurately they portrayed the dominant Beninese male.
The first day, I was in charge of leading games and songs with the girls when there was down time, and it was a lot of fun! I taught them things like the hokey pokey, and in turn they taught me many Beninese games. Breakfast was an hour late on that first day, so I definitely had my work cut out for me! Other volunteers used the morning time to lead the girls in basic calisthenics, which they loved!
Speaking of meals, the caterers were fabulous. They prepared three full meals for the girls every day, with things like turkey, eggs, chicken, crab, rice, and legumes. That is a HUGE upgrade from what most of these girls get to eat at home, and there was always plenty for the girls to get seconds. (They were shy about that at the beginning of the week, but by the end they were ravenous!) For the most part they were always on time, and they even provided one or two snacks we could serve throughout the day. The cost turned out to be about $4 per day per person, which is a great value. I talked to them and they were delighted to hear that I wanted to use them again next year!
The first day, after a brief opening ceremony, we had sessions on women's/children's rights, sexual harassment, and staying in school and study tips. The sessions were led by Beninese women from local NGOs, and they went over really well. The girls were surprised to learn all the rights they had and when they could get the law involved. That night, we projected the movie Bend it like Beckham on a big wall, and treated the girls to a night at the theater! It was a perfect movie since it involved the ubiquitous sport of soccer AND it was girls playing it. Murphy's law, the power cut out about 10 minutes before the end of the film, but they were able to finish it the next night.
On Tuesday a doctor came to talk to the girls about malaria and nutrition. It was really interesting to hear some of the the beliefs that the girls had about how you can catch malaria. In the afternoon we visited a local museum that was basically just a random assortment of artifacts that a colonial family had acquired in their home. That night I was able to visit my host family. Papa is the only one who lives in the house now; mama and her children moved out because of something involving jealousy and someone casting spells on them. Luckily, though, we were able to go and see mama and her kids (and my precious Vivi!) at the sand on the street where she sells oranges.
On Wednesday morning the girls got to visit the National Assembly, the rough equivalent of our congress. I didn't get to go along since I was on desk duty that morning (there always had to be two volunteers at the desk in case something happened, to watch for girls leaving the grounds, to help them out, etc.) I will definitely go along next year! That afternoon we visited Songhai, the eco-friendly/self-sustaining farm complex where we had our last training in February. The girls got to tour the grounds, and then got an hour-long computer lesson, since most of them had never been on one before. They were even introduced to the basics of surfing the web.
On Thursday a group from an American NGO came in to show a documentary they made about child trafficking in Benin. After that, the girls had a session busting myths about HIV//AIDS, and even got to meet a woman living with HIV. I think that this session was really great, since it turned out that the girls really didn't know much at all about contracting the disease, and they got to see how normal someone living with HIV is. After lunch we had a session on puberty/reproduction/hygiene, and this was a great day to have the session since one of the campers had come to us sobbing in the morning- she had had her first period! We finished the day's sessions with a lesson on how to crochet things out of old plastic sachets. Plastic sachets litter every corner of Benin, and now the girls know how to make bags and wallets out of them to sell for a profit. The best part of the day was the evening, though, when we hired a DJ for two hours and the girls danced their hearts out. I wish I could convey how spectacularly Beninese people dance, they have a rhythm unlike anyone I have ever seen. Of course, they made us dance with them the whole time, and we have never been so aware of our white skin! It was tons of fun, though! The girls were totally uninhibited with no boys there. (That was, indeed, the most refreshing part of the week: no boys/men there to dominate conversations and make the girls shy.)
On Friday there was a good session about gender roles followed by a career panel that included a female mechanic, lawyers, professors, doctors, etc. It was great hearing what the girls wanted to be when they grew up, and these women answered all sorts of questions on how they fought through stereotypes and got where they are today. After lunch the girls learned how to make a budget and save money, and the last session of the day was an artist who came in with her beads and the girls got to make necklaces- they LOVED it! At the end of the night was the talents show where each group presented their skit and several girls sang and danced.
Before we left the next morning we had a brief closing session where we summed up what we had taken from the week and, above all else, wished the girls lots of courage. Every girl got a copy of the official group photo, a bracelet that said Camp GLOW, and a certificate. The last part of the session was the winning team's members each getting a backpack filed with a few basic school supplies and a NICE hardcover French dictionary. I think you can guess what an amazing prize this is, which of course elated the winners. It unfortunately left the camp on a bit of a sour note for the 40 girls who didn't win. Next year I will make sure not to make that the very last thing!
Coming home was a lot easier than going there; Michelle and I were able to rent a direct taxi with our girls, and we didn't have to stop in Cotonou. We sang camp songs the whole way, and then stopped in Ouidah to take the girls out to lunch. It was definitely a great week, but exhausting!
In the few days since then I have just been relaxing and preparing for this next long trip I am on. Sunday was Fifa's tenth birthday, so I made her a cake and had beers with the family. On a whim, Fifa's aunt decided to take her to Nigeria for the summer, such a last minute decision that I didn't even get to say goodbye. I am a bit miffed because she has a doctors appointment on July 20, but her parents say they will try and make sure she makes it for that... we'll see.
It has been gloriously cool outside, starting the week of the camp in Porto Novo. It rained much of the week, which made it very pleasant temperature-wise, although I think may of the girls were cold. The last day of the camp it was even chilly enough to make hot chocolate! (Mind you, when I say “chilly” it is probably in the low to mid seventies, but after living through 100 degree plus weather, it can feel down right cold! Plus the air is damp with rain.) I didn't bring a pagne to use as a blanket and I ended up sleeping in my rain jacket every night! My first night home the power was off all night so I slept without a fan, and even with my sheet on I was shivering! I have been sleeping with the fan since then simply because I like the white noise, but that has almost made it unbearably cold. This weather is wonderful, but it makes me dread when it will get hot(ter) again late in the year!
Now I am in in Cotonou, preparing to head up north tomorrow. I will stay in John Mark's village for two days, then head to Parakou on the 4th of July for a chili cook-off, with official judges and all! I will then be in Kandi, a city in the far north (near Niger) to teach an English camp for a week or so, and then head back home.
I will leave you with this crazy fact: I left Michigan one year ago today! I really can't believe it. My family promised to call me on the 4th of July, and I remember last 4th of July when they called me from the annual cookout. I will be home before you know it- 5.5 weeks! Happy 4th to everyone :)