My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Friday, February 26, 2010

It's unbelievable

that I'm not on vacation right now. After having to cancel the much-anticipated Ghana trip due to the upcoming Togolese presidential elections (that by the way got pushed back so far that it turns out we could have gone to Ghana), I had planned a 5-day trip to see some places in Benin that I hadn't yet. After no Christmas vacation and then canceling Ghana, I really needed this trip. Well, murphy's law, the day before I'm supposed to leave, I come down with a crazy fever, a rash on my arms and legs, and can't keep any food down. The fact that it's hot season (HOT HOT HOT season) and that we had no power so that I could run my fan really didn't help, so I spent the whole day laying miserable underneath my mango tree. After spending a miserable and sleepless night outside (I was still sweating the whole night, even though I was outside, just to give you an idea of how hot it was), I had to head down to the medical unit the next morning. (In addition to this illness, I have a NASTY heat rash on my neck and on my inner elbows. It must be even hotter this year than it was last.)
I had (and still have) a hunch that it is a parasite, but the tests found nothing. The doctors have no idea what I have/had. Since then, the rash has gone away and so has the fever/headache, but I'm still unable to keep down much in the way of food, and my stomach constantly hurts. I'm going to head back to post tomorrow, so I'm hoping it subsides before then.
Since my last post, I've just been hanging out at post. Wrapping up the semester went fine, though I missed a day of school that week due to some stomach issues, possibly a precursor to this yucky illness I have now :( Our power outages continued, although they seem to be cutting the power during the day more, and giving it starting at around 8:30pm, and the last few nights it stayed on until the morning. One night after a particularly scorching day, the power came on around 8pm and was still on when I went to bed, but went off right before 1am. Since I knew it was too late to see if my neighbors wanted to sleep outside, I stripped down to my underwear and laid flat on my cement floor to sleep and sweat the night away.
I went to a huge funural celebration with my neighbors the other night, which was basically just a bunch of free food and beer (warm beer since the power was not on to keep it cold) and music playing way too loud to have a conversation with anybody. At one point in the night, this large mama made me dance with her, prompting EVERYONE to whip out their cell phones and take a picture of it. Great.
In other news, I finally gave away the other kitten. When we tried to put it in a box for transport, it went absolutely crazy and we were unable to keep it in, so we had to put it in a durable bag instead :( It should be happy in it's new house, though, it's out in the middle of the jungle with plany of snacks to hunt for and trees to climb!
That's really about all for now. After heading back to post tomorrow, I should be there until the 11th or 12th when I head back to Cotonou for Kate's memorial service- can you believe it has been one year? We also have our gender and development funraising weekend in March, and if all goes well (and knowing my luck it probably won't) we should be heading to Ghana on March 30. One last cool snippet of information: just found out that an acquaintence of mine from college, Charlie White, and his partner, won a silver medal for the USA in the Olympics for ice dancing! How cool!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

No more Ghana, thanks to Togo

Yep, you read it right... vacation #2 that's been canceled! At least the first one was my choice. Here's the story: I heard a rumor that Togo's presidential elections were coming up, and that the border might be closed for a day or two around election time, so I called up Peace Corps to ask about it. After (and ONLY after) this inquiry did they tell us that the 2005 Togolese elections went badly and they fear that the same will happen again this year, possibly resulting in violence or civil unrest... so they are forbidding all travel to Togo from February 22 to March 14. (For those of you who are a bit fuzzy on the geography, Togo is a tiny country smushed in between Ghana and Benin, and one that you have to drive through for a grand total of about one hour in order to get to Ghana from here.) So, after having booked all the hotels and scheduling my visit to meet the brasscasters that I studied in college, I had to turn right back around and cancel it all. I have been feeling a bit claustrophobic in Benin lately and was really looking forward to this vacation, but c'est la vie I suppose. The good news is that we are probably able to reschedule our trip for the April school break, right around Easter. I'm still going to make the best out of this week off of school by going up north to visit Boukoumbe and the tata sombas, these cool multi-story houses that a certain ethnic group builds in the mountains. I'm also going to finally visit the palace of Abomey, which is one of the top ten west African tourist attractions and is less than two hours from my village, but for some reason I haven't visited yet. The palace was the seat of the kings of Dahomey, one of the most powerful kingdoms in west Africa for hundreds of years, and one of the kingdoms that willingly sold it's people into slavery. These kings were known for their brutality, and much of the palace is built out of the bones of people that they killed. Should be interesting!
So last Sunday Brigitte came back to post with me, and chose the striped brownish-greyish kitten to take home with her. The kittens were not at all afraid of her, so that was a good sign. It was sad putting the poor thing in a box, though, as it immediately started freaking out and crying, and it had a long journey ahead of it. I've spoken to her since, and she says that it's doing really well at her post now! I still have the second kitten, which my colleague will take in about a week. Though it's sad to give them away, I think my cats are both already in heat again, so I'm sure I'll have some more kittens before leaving Benin. The kitten that I still have has some intestinal worms (pretty normal for kittens), so I have to take care of that this week.
I guess the biggest news for the week is the continuation of these awful power outages. Sunday night, the power went off just before 7pm and didn't come back on for over 12 hours, so I slept outside with Angele the whole night. I thought that I would not feel at ease and would be uncomfortable sleeping on the cement all night, but it was really fine. Not to mention beautiful under the stars and almost a bit chilly! The same thing happened on Thursday night. The other nights the power would go off from about 7-10, but then would be on for most of the night, so I was able to sleep with a fan. For those of you reading this, don't worry! We lock the gate and my concession has a very high wall, and I feel completely safe doing it. I would never do it alone, either. Another obnoxious thing is that when they cut the electricity, the water pumps stop working too, so water is hard to come by, especially since many of the wells are dry now since it is dry season. It's also difficult to keep my phone and other electronics charged. On top of all of this fun stuff, I found another brown widow spider in my back area, joy. All in all making my life a lot more difficult than it already is and I really hope it ends soon!
Hilarious story about sleeping outside: so Thursday night, I woke up in the middle of the night to feel a warm body pressed up against me, and assumed it was Fifa or Mariam who had moved outside to sleep with us. When I reached out to put my arm around it, I discovered it was a goat! A full grown, hairy goat, literally spooning me. As cute as it was, I'm sure that these goats aren't the cleanest creatures, so I tried to shove it away, and it wouldn't budge! I was literally shaking it with all my might and smacking it hard, and it wouldn't move! I finally got it to move when I hit it over the head with a stick, poor thing. So, wake up and hour later... only to find it is there again, this time with one paw resting on my back! Shoved it away yet again. I woke up two more times during the night and it was STILL there, one time with its face nuzzled right into my shoulder! I finally gave up trying to move it and let it cuddle with me. Now THERE'S a problem that campers in America don't have...
School was fine this week, just gave the kids their grades and put them all in the gradebooks and report cards. Teachers were on strike, so I was one of the only teachers holding class, which I'm sure that my students just loved. I'm also holding class this coming week (the last one of the semester) while most other teachers are just fillng out grade books, so my students must be doubly happy :) We had a small but interesting English department meeting this week, during which the other teachers asked me many questions about American culture, including "How much does a girl cost?" (referring to a dowry), and "Since you are a woman, will you inherit your father's land one day? Surely not?" It was a good discussion, though. After all, that's why I'm here!
As I said, one more week of school, then I'll spend a few days at post before heading off on my mini vacation. Thanks for all the contributions to Camp GLOW, we only need about $1300 still! Good luck surviving the huge dumpings of snow you're getting and pray that my electricity will return to normal!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Waffles and bacon with Mr. Secretary

February! Here's an update on my life for the past week and a half:
Last Friday, the hot season began. You might be saying to yourself, "Hot season?? Isn't the whole year one giant hot season there? You do live in Africa..." Well, you're correct. It's always hot here. Stunningly hot. The kind of hot where you start to worry when there is a five minute period when you are not sweating. However, during the hot season, which lasts roughly February-April, Benin literally lights on fire. I am fairly certain that during this time of year, I live inside an oven. The thermometer inside of my house has not dipped below 90 degrees in the past week or so, and it only drops to 90 in the early morning. In the afternoon, temperatures in my house are in the upper 90s. The icing on the cake is the 100% humidity 100% of the time, making it feel more like a vat of boiling water than an oven.
Anyway, the hot season literally began overnight, and I'm really sad because I know it's not going to start getting any cooler until April when it will rain sporadically for two months. It won't start raining regularly until June, when the constant rain makes it almost cold (cold to us at least... temperatures in the 70s). So every time you're shivering on a bitter walk through the snow, think of me, sweating buckets here in Benin. My taxi ride to Dogbo last Friday was miserable because of the heat. Normally taxi rides aren't too bad because there is a constant wind blowing in your face, but now that the wind is blisteringly hot, it doesn't even really help.
When we got to Dogbo, though, we made probably the best meal I've had here in Benin: homemade veggie soup and sandwiches (with real ham and real cheddar cheese and Hellmans mayonnaise), grilled. And on homemade roasted garlic bread! So good! The next day we tried a new restaurant ("restaurant") in Dogbo for lunch which was awesome, complete with couches, ceiling fans, and burgers and fries, albeit the Beninese version of them, with weird toppings like chopped hot dogs (seriously).
After Dogbo, I stopped at the bank in Lokossa on my way home since I literally had the equivalent of $2 left in my pocket. The bank had already closed for the day since it was a Saturday and, surprise surprise, the ATM wasn't working. When I told the guards that I absolutely needed to get money out, they started telling me that they were calling so-and-so and they were in the process of fixing the problem. To make a long story short, it wasn't until three hours of sitting in the burning heat later that they told me that I was out of luck until Monday. To make matter worse, the whole time I was waiting there I was harassed by one of the guards who right off the bat asked me to marry him, and got pissy with me when I simply said no and refused to joke with him about it. He proceeded to spend the rest of the three hours telling me I was racist and how I clearly don't like Beninese people if I'm leaving the country after only two years. It was really disheartening. I try not to let encounters like that phase me any more, but the fact that I had to sit with it for three hours and it was so hot really didn't help. Anyway, I decided that I had JUST enough money to come back on Monday afternoon after class to get my money.
School was really good overall this week. As I mentioned in my last blog, my quatrieme students did really poorly on the semester's final exams, so we took two days going over the rough spots and on Monday they will take a quiz that is almost identical to the exam to see if they have improved. My sixieme (younger) students did pretty well on their exams, not to mention that the highest grade out of both classes was a perfect score achieved by a girl!
On Wednesday, I had one of those awesome days teaching that will stick with me for the rest of my life. The students in my favorite class of the year, who are really good in English and try hard for it, really got the lesson and I don't think I heard a word of French or local language come out of their mouths the whole time. They were even talking amongst each other and making fun of each other in English! One student came to write on on the board still wearing his backpack, to which the class exclaimed, "Hide your bag! Madam, he need to hide the bag!" They were really attentive to the lesson and still had tons of fun with it. I like that they are mature enough that I can joke with them, but then still pull them back into the lesson. At the end of class, we had about ten free minutes, during which I told them to ask me any questions about America. I was surprised by the intellect of the questions they asked, such as "If it is 12:00 here in Benin now, is it also 12:00 in America?" They also asked about my experience at university and for advice on how they can all make it to university, too. All in all, an awesome, feel-good day with my students.
Unfortunately, my high was brought down a bit on my ride home that day because of the conversation that I had with an English colleague of mine. I will preface this story by saying that aside from my work partner, this is probably the most forward-thinking Beninese man I know, who is getting his doctorate, has only one wife, and treats his two daughters like royalty. They were giving free HIV/AIDS testing to anyone who wanted it at my school (it was awesome, about 2/3 of the students had it done!) so to start a conversation, I asked if he had taken the test. He replied "No, I had it done a few years ago. Besides, I try my best to stay faithful to my wife." When I asked what he meant by trying his best, he replied that his friends have told him that when he travels for more than a week, he will be physically incapable of staying faithful. He quickly reassured me that "Don't worry, when the time comes, I will try and use protection." It was just disheartening to hear this from a colleague and friend who I thought to be so progressive. It just goes to show how deeply rooted that aspect of Beninese culture is.
Another bummer about this week was the major power outages we had, throughout the entire southwest corner of Benin. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the power was out from about 7:30 to 10:30, followed by brief cuts that continued until dawn. Then on Thursday morning, the power was cut at 7am and didn't come back on again all day. At 7pm when it was starting to get quite dark, there was still none, so I lit all my candles. When I asked my neighbors if they knew anything about the cut, they said that they had heard that the power would be cut off for a whole week, possibly up to a month! I honestly don't mind living by candle light, but especially now that it is hot season, I absolutely can not sleep without a fan. I also then have no way or charginf my cell phone or ipod (normally I would name my DVD player too, but that just randomly stopped working this week, so it's joining my computer in the ranks of nice electronics that Benin had managed to destroy.) When the power still wasn't on at 10:00, my neighbors suggested that we lock the gate to our compound and that we all sleep outside together. I thought I would be a bit apprehensive about this after what happened to Kate, but I honestly felt fine about it, and we spread our blankets under the stars to sleep. Just as I was drifting off, however, the power came back, and I was able to bask in the glory of my fan all night. Apparently power cuts become more frequent during the hot season because of a lack of water to run the dams combined with the higher rate of energy consumption. I have also heard rumors that the power cuts have to do with political disagreements in Ghana and the upcoming presidential election in Togo. Who knows... just keep your fingers crossed that they don't continue this badly, so I can get some decent sleep! (Yes, there are volunteers up north who don't have electricity and sleep withut a fan every night... but they're not also dealing with 100% humidity!)
I arrived in Cotonou yesterday morning for a day jam-packed with meetings. Our second Camp GLOW meeting went well, and we have made some progress on getting major things booked such as the venue. When I checked earlier today, we only have about $1600 left to raise for the camp, so THANK YOU so much if you have donated! After a long day of working hard, Michelle and I were craving fruit smoothies for dinner, and after we heard there was a blender in the kitchen, we headed to the supermarket to buy our ingredients. After getting back and putting all the ingredients into the blender... we find out it doesn't work. So sad, especially after having spent the money! I haven't had a fruit smoothie since before joining the Peace Corps. But, waste not want not, we ate the weird, watery concoction anyway.
This morning, I was part of a group selected to have breakfast at the ambassador's residence with the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. It was fantastic! Not only were we the only Peace Corps volunteers on the entire CONTINENT that he met with, we got to eat real bacon and waffles with real butter and maple syrup on bone china plates with the gold-plated state department logo on them! And drink real coffee served to us by waiters wearing all white! It was great chatting with him, and he gave us an impromptu speech at the end that made us feel REALLY good about what we're doing here, saying that "we're the best face of America today." It was a neat opportunity and I'm really glad that I got to participate in it.
Tomorrow I will head back to post with the volunteer who is taking one of my kittens, and she will take it and continue on her way. It's going to be sad to part with the kittens, but they are going to good homes and I obivously can't have four cats in my tiny house. At this point, the cats are totally litter box trained, and eating a fair amount of solid food. They are also SO playful and are starting to climb everything and knock everything in my house over.
Ghana is coming up in less than two weeks now! Many of our reservations are made, and we may even get a ride back from Ghana in a Peace Corps vehicle because of a medical conference in Accra that is taking place at the same time as our trip. (Air conditioned SUV > bush taxi.) One possible hiccup that I just found out about yesterday: Togo, which we have to drive across to get to and from Ghana, is having their presidential election on February 28, a day or two after we are scheduled to pass through Togo on our way back to Benin. Now, all African nations close their borders at election time to prevent corruption, so, depending on how early they decide to close them... we might be stuck in Ghana for a few extra days! I wouldn't complain too much :) Honestly, though... I will be so sad if this messes up my trip somehow. I really need a vacation, especially after my Christmas one was cancelled! Also just happened to hear by word of mouth that you can no longer get Togo visas at the border, which PC wasn't even aware of yet, so now I have to come back down to Cotonou to get that visa. I'm hoping to just come down a day early for my trip and do it then, since I feel like I live in Cotonou lately. It would have really sucked if we got all the way to the border and had to turn back, though. Traveling is so complicated here!
Other than that, school this week should be good, just giving a quiz and then calulating and giving out semester grades, and filling out the official grade books. Other teachers take two full weeks to compute grades with the whole class, whereas I do it at home and invite each individual student to check my math, both to save time and do keep grades more private. (Students knowing each others' grades can cause huge problems... for instance, a girl went home crying from her class the other day. They had gotten their exams back and she had done very well, much better than most of the boys. The boys proceeded to tell her that it was only because she is sleeping with the professor.)
That's all for now. Until next time!