My adventures serving in the Peace Corps
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!