My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving! (a.k.a. the weekend from travel hell)

I am STUFFED. And sick of traveling. Here's why:
I left Lobogo on Wednesday to go to Dogbo to celebrate Kristin's birthday. We had a really nice time; we went to a "restaurant" and sat there for a few hours, feasting upon beef, rabbit, and chicken, probably more meat than I have had in my last six months of service. Afterwards, Catherine had us all over to her house where she had decorated with balloons and baked a delicious devil's food birthday cake! That night, when I unfolded Catherine's cot to sleep on, there was a scorpion inside. Honestly, it didn't even phase me. I just brushed it off and went to sleep. My, how Benin has changed me!
On Thursday, we started cooking at 8am. For breakfast, I made monkey bread for everyone, which is what my mom always makes on Thanksgiving morning. Needless to say, it didn't turn out as perfectly as her's always does, but nonetheless, it was impressive for Benin :) There were only three of us who cooked all day, and we divided the tasks pretty well. I made the gravy, corn bread-apple stuffing, and my first ever apple pie (see picture)! (We also had a "pumpkin" pie for dessert, made from unripe papaya.) They all turned out really well. We deep fried our turkey this year, which was much better than I was expecting it to be. For dinner we had eleven people, including four of the new volunteers who transferred from Guinea.
The next morning, Kristin and I got up at 5:30 for the long trip up to Parakou. The first leg of our trip was stress-free and went really smoothly: got right into a taxi for Bohicon and got there plenty early. Arriving at the bus station there, a man who works for a well-known bus company approached us to sell us tickets, but before we bought, we verified with him multiple times that there would be seats for us- often, the busses fill up in Cotonou and there are not seats left by the time they reach Bohicon. He assured us that we would have places, and we sat down to wait. When busses started arriving an hour later, we saw multiple busses from our company, but were always told that "This one is not your bus." Finally, all of the busses had come and gone, and there were about 15 of us left waiting for our bus. Mind you, this is at noon, when we had been promised that our bus would leave between 10 and 10:30; the man who had sold us our tickets kept disappearing and ignoring our questions. Finally, an odd bus (looked like a city bus, not a charter bus) pulled in and we were told to get on. Because there was no storage room under the bus, we each had to keep our luggage with us which was already a pain. We sat on the sweltering bus for an hour, none of us sure what we were waiting for. When we finally tracked down someone who worked on the bus, he said we were waiting for the bus to fill up... even though it was already three hours later than we were supposed to leave. Finally, at 1:30, with only THREE seats left to fill, they decided to cancel the bus, since it wasn't full. Mind you, they didn't even TELL us they were canceling the bus; only after about 30 minutes of noticing people taking their bags and leaving the bus did we realize something was up. We then had to track down the man who was lazing under a tree, and wait in line to get our money back. We were then on our own to get to Parakou. Luckily, we were able to rent a taxi with some of the other passangers, but at this point it was the middle of the afternoon and HOT. So, instead of a nice roomy and air conditioned bus ride, we smushed into a taxi for 4 hours. Oh, Benin...
We got to Parakou at dinner time, and headed out to eat with all of the TEFLers that were there. My parents called and told me about the Christmas tree, which made me sad for home... getting the Christmas tree is one of my favorite days of the whole year, and I can't WAIT to be home for it next year! I crashed at 10pm that night, even though I really wanted to stay up and catch up with my fellow TEFLers... traveling is exhausting! Sleeping in Parakou was blissful, by the way. Harmattan is in full force in the north, and that means that it gets downright COLD overnight. I made sure to get a bed in the outdoor gazeebo and brought along sweatpants and a long sleeved t-shirt to sleep in, and it was amazing. (The picture that looks like fog is actually all the dust in the air.)
We spent all of Saturday cooking. I was in charge of the sweet potato pie, so I headed to the market to buy supplies. Little did I know that Friday/Saturday was Tabaski, a huge muslim holiday, where they kill tons of goats, and that to drive to the market, you have to go directly through the slaughter grounds. Not only did I see such wonders as piles of goat heads and tons of goats lined up for the slaughter, but I was lucky enough to to drive by RIGHT as they were cutting a goat's throat. For as comfortable as I have gotten wth things like this, that still really shook me up. Anyway, I made an awesome sweet potato pie with fresh sliced apples in it, and it was a big hit. We brined some turkey and then cooked it on the grill, and it was delicious. We then played the requisite game of "Cornucopia", reflecting on our service so far, our memories of Kate, and our future plans. That is the beauty of having an (almost) all female group- you can talk abut mushy things like that! And yes, most of us cried at some point during the game :)
Yesterday was a very relaxing day. John Mark and I took the morning to plan our February trip to Ghana: living the hight life in Accra, meeting up with the artisans I developed an exhibit about, visiting some of the old slave forts, and lazing around on the beach. For the rest of the day, I watched THREE movies and ate yummy food (I'm serious, we all ate an absurd amount this weekend).
So today, I get on the 7am bus to Cotonou looking forward to 7 hours of air conditioned bliss. We made it all the way to the bus stop in Bohicon (yes, the SAME place I wa stuck on my way north), where we ran out of gas. They said it would take them about a half hour to fix this problem, but after two hours of waiting, they decided to- drumroll, please.... cancel the bus. WITHOUT giving anyone refunds or giving us another option for how to get to Cotonou. Once again, they never formally announced this, we all had to kind of figure it out on our own. Needless to say, everyone was furious and frantic to get the few open spots on other busses. Remember me saying how Beninese pople have no concept of a line? Well, ANGRY Beninese people REALLY don't have a concept of a line, and I didn't feel like pushing and shoving and clawing with them, so of course I was one of the last people to be dealt with. The men told me that there were exactly three seats left on the bus arriving from Natitingou, and promised that I could have one of them. When the bus arrived two hours later (even thuogh they had said 30 minutes max), there was only one seat, with four of us vying for it. Somehow, I got it (probably because I am white and was yelling at the driver, haha), and finally got to Cotonou a few hours ago. I'm telling you, travel in this country can be a nightmare and I have been forced to become an infinitely more patient person because of it.
Tomorrow I will head back to Lobogo, hopefully after meeting with some people about my Camp GLOW PCPP- I promise to keep you updated on when you can start donating! Unfortunately, I have to travel again next weekend, but it is only in my region and it is for a youth leadership forum and one of my best friend's birthday, so it should be fun. I am desperately hoping that after that I can just stay at my post until December 23rd when I leave for Mali!! (Please keep your fingers crossed that we will be able to go on that trip... they have had some problems with terrorists and westerners there recently, but luckily Mali is huge and it has all been in a totally different art of the country.) Not sure when I will be able to post next, so have a good start of the holiday season!! December is definitely the hardest month for me to be away, so keep those calls coming :)

Friday, November 20, 2009

I love you all! Now give me your money :)

As promised, here I am in Cotonou working on Camp GLOW yet again. It has been officially decided that we will be doing a PCPP to fund the project, which means that YOU can donate! We are in the process of finalizing the project proposal and budget, and by the time it gets through the bureau here in Cotonou and then the one in Washington DC, we're hoping to have the project on the website by Christmas. Once the project is online, I will definitely post a blog with detailed instructions on how to donate. All donations are tax deductible, and there is no minimum donation! Even $5 helps :)
This week went pretty well. As I said before, it is starting to get HOT. (As in, so hot that I can't take mid-day naps in my house with the fan pointed directly at my face going full speed anymore. So I have to nap outside under the mango tree, and as you can imagine, a sleeping yovo is something to be eagerly gawked at here. Are we really that fascinating, even while we are sleeping??) Harmattan, the wind that blows down from the dusty Sahara for about a month, literally arrived overnight on Wednesday night. This would be happy news in the north of Benin where Harmattan=very chilly weather, especially in the mornings, along with the dust. But us lucky volunteers down south only get the dust, no cold :( It was incredible how dusty I got in my taxi ride down here. The sun is always under a constant haze now, and a layer of dust covers everything in the house, no matter how many times you dust and sweep.
Remember how I was saying how happy I was with my first round of quizzes? Yeah, well, scratch that. My younger students did fairly well, but my older kids, to whom I gave a quiz on verb revision, for the most part failed miserably. Here is what is frustrating about that: 1. These were all verb tenses they had learned over the past two years. There was no new material on the quiz. 2. They were flying through the material on class, and I could tell that they really understood it. 3. Some students just blatently ignored the directions. For instance, in the section labeled "Simple Present" and for which the directions were "conjugate the verbs in simple present", they would conjugate all of the verbs in simple past. Literally, the class average for this quiz was 6 out of 20. Of course the students weren't happy and started begging me for a make-up quiz, and I have yet to decide if I will offer them one or not. It is obvious to me that most students simply didn't study. Some students did really well on the quiz, and I made the quiz MUCH easier than the exercises we had been doing in class, so I know I didn't just give them an unreasonable task. Luckily, we are now starting in on the new curriculum in that class, entitled "Health", and I get to teach fun words like the verb "to vomit", and "chronic diarrhea"!
This week the other English teachers came to observe me teach a class. To be quite honest, the experiece wasn't nearly as good as I thought it was going to be. First of all, I had to squeeze a two-hour lesson into one hour, so I didn't get to enforce the material as much as I would have liked. Then, when we gave feedback at the end, in true Beninese style, they tore me a new one. No positive comments (even though I had made it a point to plan a really good lesson, complete with visual aides, acting/role play, group work, and used NO French whatsoever) The feedback they gave me was absurdly nit-picky (though they made it sounds like I had committed a grave error by, say, not underlining the date) and tended to be along the lines of "Why aren't you using the teacher's manual? There are lots of exercises you should use in there!" nevermind that the government text books are FILLED with errors and somewhat vague exercises. I took it all with a grain of salt and did my best to consider the few helpful comments I received. I think that we will be observing some of the other English teachers in the coming weeks, so I will be interested to see how that goes. I think that at our next AP meeting, I will give a presentation on how to give feedback: the person who taught will go first, positive feedback first, constructive criticism only, etc.
At that meeting we also elected the two department heads. It was myself and another teacher up for one of the positions, and they decided to let the two of us talk it out. I could tell how desperately the other teacher wanted it, probably both for the title and the small amount of extra money they receive, so we worked out a system in which he will have the title but mostly I will be in charge of selecting/editing/typing exam papers and running the weekly meetings.
I began tutoring a student (not one of mine) in English this week. His English was very good and I think he has only good intentions asking for my help. He did ask "What can you give me?" and "Can I charge my cell phone at your house?", but I think he is truly just trying to get better at English- his goal is to go to university in America. I hate the fact that I'm even suspicious about things like this, but you kind of have to be in this country.
In other news, my health is still in a good state (knock on wood!), although apparently my toenail is falling off (no idea why, that's just what the doctor said) and I have a fungus on my arm. Exciting! I got a letter in my mailbox with "medically confidential" stamped all over it, and for a fleeting, joyful moment I thought maybe I would get shipped to South Africa for some sort of evaluation (this is warped, I know. But it's South Africa!) Unfortunately, or I guess fortunately, it was just saying that all of my midservice lab tests had come back clear. My cats are fine, although it is now Baby's turn to be in heat, and she literally has a totally different personality than she used to. Luckily from watching Belle go through the same thing and the return to normal, I know it will pass. I think they are both pregnant now!
This coming week I will head to Dogbo to celebrate my friend Kristin's birthday, and then Thanksgiving on Thursday. Some of the new Guinea volunteers will be joining us, so that is nice. Then Kristin and I will head up to Parakou for TEFL Thanksigiving/Ghana trip planning. I will be back in Cotonou on Monday the 30th and will post a blog then. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Just kidding!

Apparently I couldn't stay away from the big city for more than a week! No, I'm down in Cotonou because I wanted to find out if PLAN would fund Camp GLOW this year, and when I FINALLY got a hold of them today, they said that they will not have an answer for us until January. So, I am 99% certain that we will be funding the camp using a PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program), which allows friends and families at home to donate. I will absolutely keep you updated on that and will let you know when you are able to go online and donate, probably starting sometime around Christmas.
School is moving right along. I gave my first quizzes this week, and so far I am quite happy with the results. My sixieme students seem to be doing better than they were last year, and I am moving along much more quickly in the curriculum, which tells me that I am a better teacher the second time around. I am frustrated, however, with my quatrieme (older) students. We spent the first two full weeks of class reviewing verb tenses, and they seemed to be doing really well with that. When I gave them a quiz, which was basically a simplified/watered-down version of what we had been doing in class, many of them were angry about how hard the quiz was. I won't pass any judgements yet since I have not started grading the papers, but it was frustrating hearing them say that, because that tells me that they didn't study.
We did not vote for head of the department this week since many people were absent for the meeting, but supposedly we are doing so next week. During our meeting next week, all of the English teachers are going to observe me teaching a class! I am a bit nervous but mostly excited to show them some new ideas, and that you really don't have to use French in the classroom.
One sad/scary thing happened this week. As I was arriving home from school one day, I noticed that Angele was wearing pants. (An odd way to start a story, I know, but when her husband is around, he does not allow her to wear pants, only skirts.) She greeted me loudly and I could tell that she was in a rather bold mood. As I was walking into my house moments later, I heard a commotion behind me, and saw that Angele and Victoire (the second wife of my proprietor) we having an all out fist fight. We're talking a real fight, not some girly spat. Even with two huge men trying to restrain them, they still managed to get at each other and give each other cuts and bruises. I still do not know what the fight was about, but I assume any small thing would have set them off- as you might imagine, the two wives don't really get along. When all was said and done, Victoire hired a photographer to take pictures of the mess and the damage, obviously with the intention of showing their husband when he returns home on the weekend. I can only hope that he is merciful towards Angele; he has always favored his secnd (and much younger) wife. Honestly, I am afraid that he might kick her out of the house. The whole village is gossiping about it now, and one man even told me I should intervene because they would listen to a stragner/white person, and I respectfully declined. I have no business interfering in a situation like this.
Let's see, other news from Lobogo... Belle is most definitely pregnant, her nipples are about half an inch long now. One night in my latrine, a cockroach boldly crawled right across my foot. I pulled a tick bigger than a ladybug out of Baby's neck. (The critter stories never stop, do they?) It's getting hotter than hell here; I don't know how I will survive another hot season. Three of my best friends from home called me this week, which was a pleasant surprise!
Tomorrow I will head back to post, but will probably have to come back to Cotonou in a week to work on the Camp GLOW PCPP. Have a nice week!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Halloween and 1st GLOW meeting

Happy weekend! The weekends are beginning to feel precious now that school is back in session- my weeks are crazy! Between teaching 4-6 hours a day, going to the market, lesson planning, and cooking/cleaning, my days are shot. Time is flying, and I am definitely ok with that.
Last weekend, we had our VAC meeting and Halloween party. We had some creative costumes: 2 zemidjan drivers, a Beninese mama, a Beninese mechanic. Kristin's neighbors got a huge kick out of those! The two French volunteers in Dogbo came to the party as Peace Corps volunteers (dirty, tattered t-shirts), so that was pretty funny, too. On a side note, it was lovely to be able to speak real French with them for a night. One of the girls turned out to be from my favorite little town in the Dordogne river valley! We made chili and corn chips for dinner, and made cinnamon rolls in the morning. The picture is of homemade donuts Michelle and I made the night before in Lokossa!
School went well this week. I am really impressed with my quatrieme students- they correctly remembered simple present, present continuous, present perfect, and simple past verb tenses! We have been reviewing all week since it has been my experience that they promptly forget all the English they have learned in a year the moment school is out for summer. (Students here don't take English as seriously as they take math and science.) One of my quatrieme classes only has three girls out of fifty students, so sad. This is one of the reasons that we have decided that the main focus of Camp GLOW this year will be giving girls techniques to stay in school. I am giving my first quizzes this week.
We had our first staff meeting this week, and I am pleased to report that they are much less painful this year with our new director- he doesn't like to hear himself talk as much as our old one did :) Our English department meetings have been going really well so far this year: we ONLY speak English, 8-10 people show up (as opposed to last year's 2-3), and we actually talk about grammar points and lesson strategies. This coming week, I will put myself up for election as head of the department... wish me luck! It will be interesting to see whether or not they will want a woman/outsider in charge.
This week my homologue came over and checked out my electricity counter and fan, to see if we could figure out why I pay about 4 times more than most volunteers for my electicity bill each month. He says that there is no problem with my counter or my fan, and that the problem is I just use my fan too much, and am being charged too much per kilowatt hour. (The part about the fan is bogus, I use my fan as much if not less than other volunteers... I bought a new, smaller fan here in Cotonou yesterday, in hopes that it will use less electricity.) He says that it is too late now to start asking to see the electricity bill so... I will just have to suck it up for the rest of my time here... which is now only nine months!
I am in Cotonou now because yesterday was our first meeting for Camp GLOW. About thirty volunteers showed up, which is wonderful. The only problem which could arise is not being able to allow all of those volunteers to actually stay at the camp for the week... I think we can only take about twenty. We'll see! I'm still waiting to hear if PLAN has decided to fund the camp or not this year.
I have also met the five new volunteers who transferred here from Guinea when their program recently closed due to civil unrest there. I can't imagine how hard it would be at this point in my service to pick up and leave your village/belongings/pets. Anyway, they all seem really nice. The new volunteers coming to my region is from Kalamazoo!
I will head back to post today, and hopefully stay there until the day before Thanksgiving. I have been traveling so much lately, and I am looking forward to a couple of weekends of doing nothing and lazing around Lobogo. The week of Thanksgiving I will take off for almost a week, during which I will have two Thanksgiving dinners and plan my February trip to Ghana! And speaking of trips, our Mali trip is coming up in less than 7 weeks! I am starting to itch for another vacation :) I hope you are all surviving the dropping temperatures. I am bitter because the volunteers in northern Benin are starting to gt Harmattan now, when they have to wear sweatshirts and socks to bed. Send some of the coldness my way- hot/dry season is just beginning :(