My adventures serving in the Peace Corps

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Peace Corps Prom

Leaving for Ghana tomorrow! Since I have a bit of time, I thought I'd do a quick blog on our GAD (gender and development) fundraising weekend, with pictures of course! There is a married couple with Beninese flag themed outfits, the four of us in the Mono region spelling it out our pile of helmets, and yes, that is a hamburger that was made in a waffle iron... oh Benin.
The shuttle ride up in the Peace Corps SUV wasn't nearly as awesome as I had hoped: I was in the back row where the air conditioning didn't hit and we were packed in like sardines, with no leg room. By the time we reached Parakou (after 7 hours) my butt was totally numb. We checked into our hotel, where we were told we had made reservations for the wrong night (we hadn't), and that they didn't have a second bed for us, only a matress for the floor. I guess if we were in America/were not Peace Corps volunteers we would have been enraged by this, but a matress is a matress, right? :)
Dinner Friday night was good. It was in a casual, club-like atmosphere. We had a short talent show and date auction, then people started dancing. The date auction is neat, people auction off things like "an all-American" weekend where you eat pizza and play football, or go hiking through a sacred monkey forest, or a full body massage, etc. So, 100% of the profits go to GAD! Unfortunately, I think I ate some not-so-sanitary street meat earlier in the day, so I left pretty early to go chill in our (air conditioned, thank god) hotel room.
On Saturday I was tired and still not feeling so hot, so I decided to take advantage of our air conditing and just hang out for most of the day. Getting ready with a bunch of girls was really fun- so nice getting cleaned up and pretty for once here! The night was really nice, everyone looked gorgeous and the silent auction was full of goodies, though I didn't bid since I wanted to save my money for Ghana! We had a nice pool-side dinner by candlelight, though instead of beef bourgognone on a bed of homemade noodles like they had promised we got beef stew on a bed of white rice :( People danced the rest of the night away, and there was the requisite throwing of everyone into the pool. All in all two good nights of fundraising, raising about $7000 for GAD small projects here in Benin!
Sunday was a pretty miserable day of travel. It started off with the man who worked at the hotel (and barely spoke a WORD of French) telling us that we needed to pay WAY more than I was told on the phone, and when I refused, he asked me if I would just give it to him as a "present". Then, we had paid for a nice air conditioned bus, and instead got an old bus with no AC, no shades to block out the sun, and no cargo hold, so we had to bring ALL of our baggage on the bus, making it super crowded and hot and uncomfortable. (Of course, no price reduction was offered because of these inconveniences...)When we arrived in Bohicon, the zems absolutely refused to give us the right price so we had to stand around in the baking midday sun waiting for some decent zems. When we finally took off, my zem was stopped by some village crazy where he promptly started yelling at me that I was going to marry him, spitting the soy cheese he was eating all over me, and of course my driver just thought it was funny. We once again had mean zems in Azove, topped off with a mean taxi and another long zem ride back to my village, all on a BAKING hot day. Then, as the icing on that cake of a day, there was no power in my village for the next 48 hours. That meant that none of the water pumps worked (let alone a fan), and since it is the end of the dry season, most of the wells were dry... meaning there was NO WATER in Lobogo. None. I'm serious. Even the Beninese people were starting to freak out. I mean, that is so dangerous! Nevermind all of the incredibly smelly people, we couldn't even drink water on a day where the temperature was easily over 105.
Another great Benin story: today there was a taxi that refused to stop at a police checkpoint (where they usually have to pay a bribe), and so the police shot at the car, making the car burst into flames, and many of the people in the car died. I have been in TONS of taxis that haven't stopped at checkpoints, so that's pretty scary. It's sad because it's not the fault of any of the passengers. I'm telling you, I love Benin, but I will be ready to COS when the time comes (only 4 months! Requested a date of early August today).
Now I'm in Cotonou and we leave early in the morning for GHANA! Ghana, the promised land of West Africa, complete with bowling, sushi, air conditioned taxis... amazing! I will take lots of pictures that should be on my next blog! Have a happy Easter everyone!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I'm back!

Sorry it's been a while since my last post. The only time I was at a computer since my last post was when I was down in Cotonou for Kate's memorial, and I wasn't much in the mood to spend time on the computer.
That weekend was really nice. Volunteers were housed with expat Americans that live in Cotonou, mostly people who work at the embassy. Myself and two other volunteers were housed with a young couple (and their adorable black lab!) in their beautiful house. Not only did we have a whole house full of airconditioning to ourselves, but we also had internet, satellite TV (read: the Travel channel, CNN, E!, etc.), and free reign over their whole kitchen and pantry, which included any kind of American food you can possibly imagine. They also had a housekeeper contantly making us quiches and other yummy things. So, it was a nice place to go back to and unwind after a few long, emotionally draining days.
The actual service for Kate was quite nice. Several volunteers read excerpts from her blog, and some read a short bio about her. Maria spoke a bit about the memorial that they were holding in Kate's village, and the US ambassador read a message from himself and the current Director of the Peace Corps. A RPCV from Kate's year played some music and our country director read some poems, and the service was capped off by a really nice slideshow. Afterwards, we all wrote in a book to Kate/her parents. Lots of tears were shed, but we laughed a lot too, and overall it was a really good and cathartic experience for all of us. The one picture is of the sort of altar we set up, and the other speaks for itself: things we'd like to say to Kate. (Other pictures are of some of my favorite concession girls, what a roadside boutique looks like, a sign denoting land ownership, how laundry is done here... jealous?, and my colleague in front of his new house.)
Life at post has been going really well. I have actually gotten to spend a decent amount of time at post lately, which has been a nice change of pace for me. School is absolutely flying now that it is second semester- we've already had semester midterms! Speaking of second semester and those midterms, I have been pretty angry with the other English teachers lately. When it came time to submit our proposals for the midterms, we all had to disciss where we were in the curriculum. (Preface to this story: for whatever reason, every class of the same level has to take the same exam, regardless of their teacher.) Now, all of first semester, I was significantly ahead of the other English teachers since I actually showed up to class every day and used time efficiently. Well, Beninese teachers get this syndrome where they panic when second semester hits and decide that it would be best to start covering material RIDICULOUSLY fast, literally cramming four lessons into one, without a care whether the kids are getting the material or not. So, magically, the other teachers are now a decent chunk ahead of me in the curriculum, and were "shocked" that I had "fallen behind". In fact, I was so far behind that I had to write a seperate exam for my students, which the other teachers were NOT happy about. I, on the other hand, was extatic because it meant that I could give my kids a well-written exam based on material that we have thoroughly covered in class. So far I have graded my quatrieme exams, and the kids did wonderfully! While this made me really happy and proud of my kids, the other teachers who saw some of my grades got huffy anf I could tell they thought that meant that my exam was just too easy. I don't care what anyone else says, I am really proud of my kids! They make me so happy this year; it's going to be hard leaving them! (Speaking of my favorite students, I proctored an exam for my favorite class from last year, and they all started cheering when I walked in! They also behaved perfectly during the exam, which was really nice.)
I also typed most of the English exams for this round of testing, and seeing the exams that some of the other teachers submitted was really disheartening. I won't go into details, but the texts were filled with grammatical errors, the questions on the text often barely even related to the texts, and some of the grammar points were so inticate that even I would fail. It's amazing to me that students who can barely greet me in English are asked to write en essay on combatting corruption in modern governments, all in English. When I pointed some of these errors out to my colleagues, they told me that those kind of errors are unavoidable since they don't get proper time to prepare the exams... apparently 2 weeks is not long enough. Hmm. I also noticed that a few nit-picky grammar rules are being taught incorrectly, but when I try to correct them, I am told that "I must not have been taught" that particular rule. No matter I'm a native speaker, right? All that being said, though, there are of course some really bright students and dedicated teachers who don't fall into those categories.
Speaking of those dedicated teachers, I did two neat things with one of my colleagues in the last few weeks. First, we went to his class at a different school and just had an open question and answer session, in English. It was fun answering questions like "Why would you LEAVE America to come live in Benin??" The kids asked some really insightful questions and their English was surprisingly advanced. I also participated in the broadcast of a weekly radio show where they translate a popular and meaningful English song into French, and listeners from all around the region can call in with questions and dedications. It was fun hearing some of my students call in! The songs we dealt with were "War" by Bob Marley and "We are the World".
Other than that, nothing major has gone on. I'm pretty sure both of my cats are pregnant again. Power cuts have still been a problem, but not nearly as bad as before. It has still been very hot, but raining a bit, which has cooled it down a little. I have been really busy with school and also Camp GLOW. I have finally received the money for the camp, so we're now in the process of making down payments and ordering things like the camp tshirts. Once again, thank you SO MUCH for all who donated! We also had a youth camp idea sharing session the weekend of Kate's memorial, where all volunteers who are planning camps came together to brainstorm and share ideas and best practices.
What else... oh! one to make your skin crawl: I visited my colleague's new house, which is quite nice but kind of in the middle of nowhere, so it has lots of bugs. He told me that recently, he was wrapping a towel around himself after a shower and hadn't shaken the towel first, and was promptly stung by a scorpion... on his penis! OUCH! He was able to get some injections though, so he was ok. On a total subject change, there is American woman living in a nearby village for a few months, so it's weird running into her periodically at my market- she's only the second white person I have ever seen in my village!
Anyway, tomorrow I'm heading up north for our huge volunteer fundraising weekend, aka "Peace Corps Prom". We all get dressed up and have a charity dinner and silent auction, all to raise money for gender-related projects here in Benin. We also have a date auction. It should be a really fun time! I will get back to post on Sunday, only to turn around and leave again on Wednesday, since one week from today I'm leaving for Ghana!! It's looking like this vacation is actually going to happen (knock on wood) :) We're also going to be able to meet up with those brasscasters I've mentioned for, and hopefully go to church (in English!) on Easter. We're also going to eat real sushi in Accra, go to a slave castle, and spend a few days at a beach resort. Should be amazing! So, my next post will probably be about my awesome trip! Happy Spring and see you 4-5 months...!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Health update

After heaading back to Lobogo on Saturday, I saw absolutely no improvement in my condition. I'll spare you of the nasty details, but I more or less lived in my latrine over the weekend. I felt so-so other than these semi-frequent stomach cramps, during which I literally curled up in a ball and waited for it to pass. The heat, once again, really didn't help. I slept inside the first night, only getting fitful sleep due to the oven-like nature of my house; this is in spite of a fan running full-blast less than a foot away from my face. The next night they cut the power at 9pm, so all of my neighbors and I decided to sleep outside. Normally it is cool enough outside overnight to sleep quite comfortably, maybe even with a pagne thrown over your shoulders. Well, it has been so hot lately that not only could I barely sleep, but neither could all of my Beninese neighbors! We all were awake for a majority of the night, dripping sweat, fanning ourselves, and lamenting this outrageous heat wave. You KNOW it's bad when it's 3am and even a Beninese person is sweating.
I came back down to the med unit on Monday. After an exam and some more tests (still found no parasites), the doctor prescribed me some heavy-duty antibiotics that seem to be kicking in, thank goodness. I've been able to eat a little more, so that's good. I'm seeing the doctor again tomorrow and if all goes well I should be heading back to post. I'm not thrilled about leaving the air conditioning and toilet fortified bureau, but it's always good to go home. I should be there for about a week before heading down for Kate's memorial.
And great news that I forgot to mention in my last blog- Camp GLOW has been completely funded! So, if you've been looking for it on the website, it is no longer up. We're now waiting on the money and a list of donors from headquareters in DC. Thank you so, so much for all of you who donated and got the word out there. We've now booked the venue and the caterer, and are now working on guest speakers and other aspects of the camp. But the most important things are done! Later this week, we are sending official invitations to the US ambassador and some Beninese government officials to the opening and/or closing ceremonies of the camp, so I'm excited about that. I will keep you informed!