Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ivorian Petits Pois (Ivory Coast Peas)

A quicky I've fallen in love with. . .

1 can of peas
1 large onion
½ cup shopped tomatoes
1 small can of tomato paste
1 cube bullion (or salt)
2 eggs, beaten

Sauté onions and tomatoes in a pan until well cooked. Mix in tomato paste and peas (with juice). Crumble seasoning into the mixture. When well heated, stir in the beaten eggs. Stir constantly for several minutes to ensure that the eggs don’t scramble. Serve over rice or cous cous.

The First Noel. . .

Christmas was different this year. I guess I expected it to be. I made a commitment to myself that I would stay in my village and try to experience how my community celebrates Noel.

Several circumstances made my loneliness not heart-wrenching. First of all, I had already been away from my family on Christmas eve for the last two years, working as a church musician. Secondly, because one sister just had a baby (Congrats Morrows!), and another is a medical professional who has to work some holidays, my family back home didn’t manage to get together for Christmas, so there wasn’t that constant feeling of “missing out.” Finally, I was fortunate to be surrounded by a few dear fellow volunteers. When we were melancholy, we could at least be so en groupe.

Katie and I did some shopping for our Christmas Eve and Day dinner in Parakou on the 24th, and then caught a bush taxi back to my village. That evening we made a bean soup, had baguettes with Vache Qui Rite (Laughing Cow, closest thing to western cheese at a decent price here), and sangria. We watched a few episodes of the first season of Lost on my newly restored computer (thanks Jason and Sarah’s parents!), and then dressed up in our traditional dress for midnight Mass.

My Nigerian friend Emanuel, Katie, Adrien’s brother Martin, and I went to Mass together. The experience is hard to describe. I wouldn’t say that it was magical or wonderful, but I wouldn’t say it was disappointing either. Like so much of the culture here, you take it for what it is.

We were exhausted from the beginning, which is to be expected if one goes to church after one’s bedtime. All three choirs were represented: the Fon, Nagot, and French chorals all sang pieces of the liturgy and sometimes even performed together. The French choir processed in, dancing and singing Siyahamba (which is neither a song specific to the culture here, nor a Christmas song), followed by the servers and priest.

There was no lack for music. The opening rites took a great deal of time – everything sung (a Confiteor, Kyrie, Gloria). The readings were done in typical style, one in Nagot, the second in French, and the Gospel in three languages, followed by a homily in both French and Bariba. The result was multi-cultural Liturgy on speed. It worked.

A rousing song at the Preparation of the Table woke us all up, and brought me my second wind that kept me alive for the rest of the liturgy. Earlier that day, Katie and I had sat on my front porch sorting beans and singing Christmas songs. There was little glimmer of hope that they would sing something I know – a French carol or a popular song translated into a local language. This didn’t happen. All the music, save for Siyahamba, was new to me.

I bought a Chicken first thing on Christmas day (so the vegetarian thing has been a little loose lately). Emmanuel walked out to the Catholic mission, where I bought two fresh for sale chickens (one for the landlord, one for my friends and I), and carried them back into village.

Having tied up the chickens, Katie and I hopped a car to Tchaourou where my postmates Steve and Jaren were preparing a Christmas party for Orphans. I was to be the star guest- Papan de Noël. We spent the morning with the other volunteers including Chris from Parakou and Kendra from the south, ate Christmas brunch, did the “gig,” and Katie, Kendra, and I headed back to slaughter the chicken.

The other day a friend said to me that her favorite part of being with her peace corps friends is the cooking. When two or three of us get together, something spectacular always happens. We struggled a bit to kill the chicken and a spectator Maman quickly became head butcher. Once the chicken was thoroughly dead, we boiled and fried it. The meat was accompanied by mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, cranberry sauce (made with crasins), and peas and carrots. Granted, it wasn’t your typical Christmas flare, but we enjoyed it and ate very well.

The day after Christmas Katie, Kendra, and I traveled south through the northern part of the Collines (large rock hills), to see our friend and my Minnesotan sister, Claire. Claire lives in a village comparable to mine, maybe a little bigger, with a huge market, two schools, and a large Catholic church.

Though we hadn’t planned on it, a large part of the trip involved helping her post-mate Sebastian with a world map project. The idea is to paint a world map on the side of a school building that students and teachers can use it to better understand the make up of our little planet earth. A grid is drawn, and each of us took a square and copied the outline of countries from a guide. After, students helped us to paint the countries and finish the map.

That evening, we cooked another feast. This time, quasi-Mexican, with tortillas, refried beans, Spanish rice, and Ivorian peas. For dessert, we ate funfetti cake, courtesy of Katie’s mom, who is clearly the queen of care packages. We ate well, slept well, and returned home the next day.

Like every holiday here so far, it was memorable. It doesn’t take much for it to be memorable. My life is just so vastly different from the life I led seven months ago. I can’t help but know that I will remember these holidays for the rest of my life.

Getting to know Benin. . .

Three months having past, I’m slowly expanding my own experience of Benin by visiting various friends around the country. The diversity of our experiences is vast; sometimes I’m frightened by their living situations and other times I’m jealous.

I visited Katie in her little village north of Parakou first. When I say little it’s because it is so little that it makes my village look like a city. Where mine has a sparkling, painted highway and street signs, she has a broken potholed goudron. Where I have electricity and easily accessible water, she has candles and a pump a mile away.

Her house is much like mine – one big room, two little rooms, but she has a private space in the back with an outdoors shower. This is a big deficit in my current living situations. I don’t have outside escape from my environment. It causes me too be buried in my house when I want alone time.

As they say in the real estate business, location is everything. In this case her everything is in the middle of a field on the outskirts of town. Its downside is isolation. Its upside – isolation. I can sleep there without being woken by a mosque or highway noise. I could go to the WC without 10 eyes watching my voyage. At the same time, as a single, petite female, the isolation worries her from time to time. It would probably worry me too.

I catch myself thinking that she is real Peace Corps and I am Peace Corps Light. Staying the night in her house presented several firsts. My first outdoors showering experience; my first evening lit by kerosene lamps; my first view of an ox driven cart, the latter being the norm here, though I had not yet seen it.

I might feel a little bit bad for her, if she didn’t have the radio station. It’s a Christian radio station. Walking into the building, one might be easily deceived to think he is in America. Air conditioning, painted walls and tiled floors, and even some white people. Don’t mention the toilets stocked with toilet paper and. . . the high speed internet. That’s right, in exchange for a few English lessons to the Beninese employees, Katie gets access to their satellite linked high speed internet. I’ve been rumored to take advantage of this when visiting. What a joy.

Step back outside the building and you’re soon back in the real world. Her school is reasonably new, but includes two outdoor “payotte” classrooms. There are more mud brick houses and naked big bellied children there too. It’s clear to me that her village is much poorer than mine.

Next Katie and I went to Nora’s village. If Katie’s village makes mine look like a city, then Nora’s makes it look like a bustling metropolis. To get there, I had to go north of Katie’s village to N’dali, and east halfway to the Bariba capitol of Nikki. As a result, her village is in high Bariba country, and except for using French at school, a volunteer might be better off learning the local language rather than French.

Except for her priest. When she arrived au village, her priest, an amusing Indian who speaks wonderful English, invited her over for dinner. He has a cook, and Nora got in the habit of eating with him, eventually paying a monthly contribution for food. So in the middle of remote Africa, I ate wonderful Indian foot with Nora, Katie, and Fr. Jesu, speaking English the whole time.

Nora lives in an old dispensary, which means it is about twice as big as mine and comparable to many American houses. You might think she lucked out, but actually, she only uses about 50% of the space. This is a result of both a lack of furniture and a bat infestation in the rooms without a good ceiling.

Her house is also powered with solar energy, which recharges batteries, giving her lights 24/7, completely uninterrupted. Strangely, this little village has a variety of solar panels to power street lights and different government buildings. Many of them, however, don’t work. It’s just another example of reckless development.

While there, we went to Mass together. It was a different experience for me. The people were singing and clapping (I really don’t see that much here) and the liturgy was entirely in French and Bariba. About halfway through the liturgy, Katie leaned over and said, “You’re sitting on the wrong side.” I had no idea what she meant, then I looked around. The church was completely segregated. House left was all women and house right was all men. I was sitting with the women. Fortunately strangers get away with such atrocities.

When I get together with other volunteers, there is no want of entertainment. We don’t need TV or movies or board games, yet, anyway. We talk for hours about our experiences au village and our lives before Peace Corps. We’ve become close friends in 6 months- there is much catching up to do. My friends and I are all so different that only the Peace Corps could bring us together from such various backgrounds and life experiences.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Jaded Christmas Poetry

Christmas Au Village

Sing carols! Rock the poor to sleep tonight,
chançons of greed and lust put right.
The air, so mixed with dust now falling fast
has sought like now to paint the past.
Preferring options once passé, they sing
the glory of money, the king.
Hot water, cystal drops are floating clean,
any current here is queen.
But scrawny children dance the street to say:
“Our poverty! Shall go away?”
Wassail! Weak children, singing cheer so bright.
With pride, we recognize your plight.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Care Package List

I've done a little work on my care package list:


I haven't received 3 packages, and I wonder if it has to do with them being in padded envelopes. Many people here have successfully received flat rate boxes from the US. Perhaps boxes are a safer mode of transit? Anyway, if I haven't received your package, I'm curious, was it in an envelope or a box?

Friday, December 19, 2008

More pictures. . .

From Untitled Album

As a Christmas present for Adrien, I got us matching tissue boumbas, a popular thing to do among families during the holiday seasons. He insisted on having our picture taken so he could show it to his family when he goes home. Here we are with Sarah.

From Untitled Album

Sarah, the chosen one, th dog who gets to live like an American in Africa.

From Untitled Album

The men slaughtering a ram to celebrate Tabaski.

From Untitled Album

The baby of the concession plays in on of the derelict vans used to transport gas in 40liter vats from Nigeria where it is cheaper.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Thanksgiving and such. . .

From Untitled Album

My new puppy, Sarah at 4 weeks.

I will never forget this Thanksgiving. My fellow volunteers and I took a huge step, leaving our closest friends behind to start a new adventure. Sure there will be new friends- even new family- but those few times a year when our loved ones back home are all together will still be difficult.

Fortunately we TEFL volunteers were freed from our three month long post arrest in order to go to the Personal Strategy Workshop in Parakou. We started planning early in the week. Various people were delegated to various dishes. We ate well:

-turkey legs
-sweet potatoes (white here, and no marshmallows)
-stuffing (this was my job, made with beer)
-mashed potatoes
-salad (cabbage salad, not much lettuce here)
-corn bread
-fruit salad

In the courtyard of the workstation we set up tables with wine bottles serving as candle holders. In my five months here, I’ve yet to feel so at home in Africa. It tasted like America – a ritual meal that my family ate at the same time on the other side of the world. We were entranced by the joy, the sameness – our unique ability to recreate the same feast thousands of miles away from home.

I went home to my village next day, renewed by a week of talking with my friends and working out our common issues in village. My village seemed different. Adrien was one of the first to greet me, and promptly, we decided to go find a dog. I had mentioned to him a few weeks ago, and he already knew of a few people who were selling them. Many of my friends the previous week had spoken of how wonderful their cats and dogs were – there lives seemed better for it.

So we found Sarah. She was far too young to be taken from her mother at three weeks, but at the time I didn’t know any better. Ever since then, I have been cleaning up her excrement 24/7. She sleeps and stays outside on my porch when I’m not home, but that doesn’t stop her from pooping the second she enters my house. I feed her oatmeal or porridge with fish powder. Slowly, she’s forgotten her mother.

I told a maman who was in my concession Sarah was my “baby.” She was alarmed by this, not realizing that I was joking. “C’est pas bon” she said, that’s not good. Then she continued to tell me that I was too old not to be married. People are very direct here. She was baffled when I told her I was 25. Everyone thinks that I am older here. She seemed a little relieved when I explained that it didn’t make sense for me to find a wife for two years here, and then go back to America and leave her here. I said I would find “une femme” when I go back to the states. She seemed satisfied.

The results for the first test are in. For my first year students, the results were pretty good. For my second year students, most failed, and I think my results were probably better than other teachers. The education continues, and I have to plow forward at this point, knowing many of them may never catch up with me. It’s disappointing to be a small minion of the education system here, knowing that there is so much I can’t change.

From Untitled Album

Odd duck. . .

Last night I had a dream that I was trying to photograph a sunset. Beautiful reds and blues dancing in the fat African sun, glowing in the dusty haze. I fiddled with my camera, pressing buttons and testing out settings. Nothing worked, nothing ever does. I want to capture everyday life, put it in a zip file and email it to the world.

Life is so vastly different- so bizarre. I can hardly do it justice in a blog post or a photo. When I first got here, I probably thought “well that’s different,” thirty times a day. Now it’s probably ten or fifteen, but all the same, I’m reminded that despite my integration, I don’t belong here. It’s good to remember that from time to time, so I don’t fool myself into thinking that I am really completely integrated into the life and culture of my village.

Sometimes these moments are as simple as a strange conversation. When you’re away for a short time, people demand gifts. You don’t arrive to “Good to have you back,” but rather “What did you bring me.” Often what I understand of conversations is so strange to me, that I assume that I haven’t understood correctly. Usually I find out later, he really was saying what I thought.

And then there are strange hygiene habits - using razor blades to cut fingernails, blowing noses and wiping mucus on the wall closest wall, or even going to the WC without toilet paper. Often the focus turns to me. They’re disgusted by my use of toilet paper or by my eating with my left hand.

Sometimes I see things that just don’t belong. There are three turkeys that gobble past my house every day. What are they doing in Africa? Who eats them? Continuing with the poultry theme, I often see a set of ducks wandering the village. What are ducks doing in a region with no rain and no standing water to speak of for 8 out of 12 months a year?

I’m about as bizarre here as the ducks, I think. Accepting that has helped me to at least feel comfortable with who I am- the odd duck of the village. The unmarried teacher who cooks for himself and teaches his dog tricks. Six months of twenty six completed, I realize now that the second the sun rises it begins to set. There’s so much that I don’t want to miss.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving . . .

Lately the mornings have been very cold – cold enough to fool me into thinking that the fall is finally coming. Having left the U.S. in July for a tropical country, it’s easy to think that time is stopped here. Even now that the Harmattan is upon us, the days still warm up, the sun is still bright, and my skin gets darker.

I know that today is Thanksgiving, but if I didn’t have a calendar, and I knew I wasn’t going to receive various calls from people I love, I could easily forget about it. As my students sit for their mid-term devoirs (tests) this week in village, I am in Parakou for a week-long “Personal Strategies Workshop” with all the other TEFL volunteers from our training group (I’ll remind you, 13 girls and myself).

Honestly, I was dreading coming here this week, but it has turned out to be refreshing. My friends seem happy and well integrated. We share many of the same issues a post. Talking about them with older volunteers and our fantastic facilitator really helps in the search for solutions.

I was looking forward to the toilet, the shower, the computer and internet, and the full kitchen at the Parakou Peace Corps Workstation. Now that I’m here, I’m realizing it’s not all that great, except for the internet part, of course. It’s not that much more difficult to live the way I do at post then to live the way I would here or in the U.S. It’s just an adjustment – one that I seem to have successfully made.

Besides working on our teaching strategies, we’re also starting to learn about “secondary projects.” Our primary goal is to teach English well, but we are also encouraged (expected) to start secondary projects. These can be as small as an English club or cultural interchanges or as large as building new classrooms. In the next couple weeks I plan to reflect more on what I’d like to do. I want to find creative kids and give them creative outlets – to dance, sing, act, paint. I’m just not sure how to do that. Any suggestions?

After our day of workshop sessions, the girls and I are going to be preparing Thanksgiving Day dinner. Honestly, we’re creative enough that it shouldn’t be too much of a long shot. We bought about 20 turkey legs that we are going to grill. Then we’re divided up in teams. Claire, my Minnesota sister and I. are doing the stuffing. Then there’s the mashed potatoes, salad, sweet potatoes, and fruit salad (it’s papaya and watermelon season!). It wont taste like home, but it will be a uniquely Peace Corps Thanksgiving.

It’s hard to be away from home – my family especially. I’ve never had a thanksgiving without seeing a family member. I went to school in D.C. and sure enough Maria’s husband Jeff’s mother was from Annapolis so she was around all four years. I went to school in Minnesota and all the sudden I was 5 hours from home again.

I miss all the people I love. I wish I could write all your names here so you know that I’m talking about you. I miss my family. I miss my colleagues. I miss my friends. I am so fortunate to have so many wonderful people in my life.

People who speak English in west Africa like to respond to the question “How are you?” with “I thank God.” I like to give them a hard time – “That’s not an answer! – are you good or bad?” But that’s my response for today. I’m here. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I have wonderful people in my life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Marche Day. . .

Marche day is every Sunday. I spend much of the day at my friends' botique. Hamed sells farming knives and mats. It's a good "perch" to watch people pass by and greet friends.
Breast feeding in public is not a crime. The Peul come into village on Sunday to sell and buy goods. They're beautiful people and so uniquely different from every other culture in the area, that I couldn't resist sharing this picture. Their men are even more interesting, wearing girly sunbonnets and earings made out of bone.

Just a view from the goudron.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Settling . . .

Well, I just arrived in computerland realizing that I forgot my journal at home. What shall I write now? Will it please my audience? Alas! Or as they say in French art song, Helas!

The last time I talked to my dear friend and mentor she said, “I think you’ve settled.” That is a perfect description of my life right now in Benin. I am comfortable. I am used to the difficulties that come hand in hand with living in the developing world, and it is slowly becoming easier for me to accept the way of life here at face value.


School is a constant challenge. I find teaching incredibly fulfilling, but I am constantly seeking ways to reach out to the 50% who clearly don’t understand anything. They aren’t making any attempt to figure it out either. They aren’t lazy, they’re just clueless. I’m not sure that many of them realize what English is – a language like the 2 or 3 they already know.

It is getting them to think that is the struggle. For 5 or 6 years these children have been nurtured by a system that encourages rote memorization, and slowly, a new program more focused on competency and fluency is being integrated into the classroom. Now they get up – they write on the board – they work in groups – all the things that American classrooms started doing 20 years ago. I use visual aids and ask them to draw a word and their heads seem to almost explode. Mom, the education veteran, offers many ideas that I would like to try, but the challenge is always going to be the class size.

I fear the “midterm” test that a week from Monday. Am I on the same page as other professors (all the classes in the grade level take the same midterm)? Is the test too hard? Will I even get to see the revised test? Can I grade it as I see fit?

Home Life

In the US I was always thinking of what I would eat next, but the result was a quick trip to the fridge, or a grocery store, or a food joint. Here I’m constantly asking myself, “What can I make with what I have?” Creativity is a must.

Thus I’ve taken to cooking. Every day is an adventure. What ingredients will find? What do I have left from my weekly shopping trip in Parakou? I find myself attempting to recreate American delicacies. Last night, a creamy tomato sauce using Fulani milk with pasta. Early this week sloppy joes with cheese crumbles used as a sort of tofu. Before that a bean soup with peppers and onions and a heavy dose of cumin. Every now and then I do a little baking, forging a Dutch oven out of a big pan I use for boiling. The results are usually edible, but are far from successful. I need to find measuring cups and real pans for baking. The bottom of a powdered milk can doesn’t cut it.

Adrien, my “domestic help,” is around often. He does more chores then I ever asked him to – the dishes, cleaning the kitchen, bringing in water. I don’t feel too bad. In addition to his tuition I feed him often, almost every day. He showed me his report card from last year, and I saw his failing English grade, so we’ve also begun doing exercises to review the English he never learned in First year. He might actually have a chance at surviving second year. I’m still amazed by his naivety. He pointed to an airplane and asked me if I had ever taken one. He doesn’t realize where America is. He’s never seen the ocean.

My alone time is just enough and it seems like every time I feel isolated Adrien shows up or another friend pops in to chat. People are generous and I need to learn to be the same. People often show up with a pineapple or a bottle of milk. I rarely do anything for them (aside from teaching their children).

My French is becoming more and more functional, but there are still some big holes. Sometimes I sit down and study my French Grammar book. This usually comes hand in hand with several “Ah ha!” moments. I didn’t realize this word meant that, I didn’t realize I was saying this incorrectly.

The Harmattan is coming. The mornings are getting colder and the sun is slowly becoming less vicious in the afternoons. The fat full moon hanging over the village reminds me that time is passing quickly. In December I will have been here a half year, almost ¼ of my service. It passes quickly because in reality it is standstill. It feels like a permanent summer. Any day now fall should be coming, but it won’t.

GMI: #1

Golden Moment of Irony - This is the first of GMIs I intend to start recording as time passes. Ironic might not always be the correct word, but strange – bizarre unsettling.

Listening to white American gospel with my Muslim friend. At least once a day, Hamed, a vendor selling mowing knives and plastic mats, listens to and loves his Jimmy Ray cd.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Celebrating Obama

It was 4 am when Jason called me. He won Ohio and Pennsylvania, he said. About a half an hour later, Les calls, the major networks have declared him the winner. I tried to get back to sleep but I couldn’t. I got out of bed at six and made coffee, a makeshift drip made with a funnel and an old tin can. Not long after, Hamed was at my door, possible more excited then I was.

All smiles he fumbled with my radio to find a station. We sat, drinking coffee, and listening. Its strange being here – so removed from my political life in the US. My constant reading of blogs, gossip, and news on all of the issues, conversations with likeminded individuals – little of that happens here. It’s strange to hear the news I have waited for so anxiously second hand. To click “select” over and over again trying to load American newspapers on my cellphone for just a trickle of news to read.

Here in Africa, they don’t even know John McCain’s name – he is white, and his father didn’t come from Africa. They wish they could vote. With blind, loving naivety, they celebrate Obama. I showed up to teach and was surrounded by my excited colleagues – receiving congratulations as if I myself had won the election. The director even popped in my class while I was teaching to shake my hand.

What is it though? One of the few positive things Bush has done has been to increase aid to Africa. Critics, including myself, will complain about its use, but the truth is – it’s there – and it is more money then any other county is spending on the developing world.

It’s not that Obama is black like them; it’s that he is African like them. Obama represents the multicultural climate that the US ought celebrate. Hamed could go to the US, and he really wants to, have a child there, and that child might have an honest chance at becoming the President of the United States of America. In my opinion, that makes Obama’s election worth celebrating for the entire world. I’m happy for our country. I’m happy for our world.


A classroom at the College d'Enseignement Generale where I teach.

A view of my not so picturesque village.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Pictures. . .

PCV's know how to celebrate holloween. We dressed up, and then went out to a bar. No one had any clue why we were dressed as such. (Katie, Sarah E., Kendra, Clairement)
Times have changed, huh?

A view of the inside of my house. Paul can you help me out?

Da kids.

The New Routine. . .

As the time quickly passes, my new routine is slowly etching its way into my life. The students are numerous, 75 in one class, 60 and 50 in others. In the United States teaching 60 twelve year olds might seem impossible – it would be impossible, but the developing world’s education motto seems to be less “No child left behind,” and more “Try not to leave too many children behind.”

I’m shocked by the level of respect given by the students. Far from the desk throwing and name calling I hear about in the United States. When a teacher walks in the classroom they all stand, saying, Good morning teacher. I respond, good morning class, how are you today. Then, Fine thanks and you. You may sit down, and they sit and I teach.

The respect is not false – it is persistent. Teachers here assume membership in an elite class of professionals. They are success. Their dress and overall comportment shows it. About 20 macho men and two women, everyone knows who the good teachers are, who sleeps with their students, who causes problems. Outside of class, when students see their teacher outside of the classroom, they do a sort of curtsy followed by a formal greeting. I use “curtsy,” for lack of a better word. I suppose it is more like a squat. A friend tells me that when he calls his elders on his cell phone, he bows and does the formal greeting without even thinking.

There are no text books. I tell them they need to buy a copy of the student’s document, but it’s prohibitively expensive. I write everything I want them to learn – grammar charts, vocabulary, exercises, and they hastily copy it into their notebooks.

Students here have to be diligent, which is why so many of them are left be hind. In the US, there’s always extra help, resources – a library, a tutor – but here if you miss a day, you have to be careful or you’ll sink.

School works on the “college”system here. I show up five minutes before class, chit-chat with professors about Barack Obama, and mosey in to my welcoming classroom. There is a siren telling students class is to begin. Sometimes it sounds five minutes early, sometimes 10 minutes late. Sometimes it doesn’t sound at all – the electricity is out or the school officials simply forget.

After class, I head home and relax. Teaching 16 hours a week gives me plenty of time to prepare for class along with time for reading and writing on the side.

Once a week there is a meeting, colorfully named “Animation Pedegogique.” All the English teachers meet and discuss those trying questions that exist in their realm. Today the debate was over how to say the year – two thousand eight or two thousand and eight. The director says there should not be an “and,” but the teachers were all taught differently. Naturally, they defer to me, the native speaker. Also naturally, Mr. John Mark has never contemplated said issue. In the end I sided with the director. I suppose he’s right, and it never hurts to take his side. Teachers want English to have absolutes – fixed rules like French or physics. Often in English there are two answers. It is difficult for them to understand.

The first few weeks of loneliness are far gone. More people talk to me on the street – teachers, students, parents. I’ve made a Nigerian friend who sells bags of water and all kinds of cheap plastic crap. I sit there with him watching people pass, chatting in English. Through him I have found an even better friend from Togo. He visits me often – and we talk for hours about culture – America. He tells me he’s not like Africans, he should move to America. Everyone wants to go to America. I tell them I’m going to rent a plane and send the whole country.

I asked the censeur to help me find a student who can’t afford his tuition. I would pay the contribution, about $25, and he would help with chores around the house – things like laundry and sweeping. He found Adrien. His father is dead and his mother is old. She sent him south to stay with her friend who would pay for him to go to school. Then the patron died. A local Maman has taken him in, but of course, can not afford the contribution for his schooling.

He is around the house often – an opportunity to see how bizarre my world is to the people around me. I’m really strange. My clothes, my technology. He had never even seen a gas stovetop before – just charcoal and wood burning foyers. He stares in awe of all of the pictures in my wall. Ely, the family, snow, it is all new to him – fantastically new. I catch my fatherly instincts kicking in. I make sure he’s eaten and worry about his studies. Knowing how easy it is to get left behind here, I want to be sure that a student under my patronage does good work.

November 4th will mark my 4th month in country. I am happy. So far these are my best days yet. I’m in Parakou right now, celebrating Halloween with my fellow volunteers at the Peace Corps hostel. I love my friends dearly here, but I catch myself wishing I could be back in my village spending time with my new friends and sleeping in my own bed.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ramadan Dinner. . .

This is a narrative I wrote a few weeks ago about the experience of eating with my landlord during the month of Ramadan.

Every night I pull my chair out onto my front porch. I enjoy the evening cool after a hot afternoon sun that shuts me up inside. I read whatever novel I am into, and if I’m lucky, I get a phone call from someone back in the states.
The sun sets at about 730, and not long after, Patron’s five year old daughter brings me three oranges. She calls me Papa – a name here given to anyone over 20, whether they have children, or not. The oranges are sweet here but tough. You chew off a part of the top and suck out all the juice and pulp you can muster. Pretty soon the grounds of the concession are littered with oranges, finished – used and abused.

I exchange greetings with the Patron as he rushes through his orange. He then splashes water over his feet and hands, a ritual washing, and walks to the mosque? 20 minutes later he returns.

Dinner is usually eaten with several of his friends, people he works with, I have come to assume. When he returns from the mosque, the meal and his mat are already laid out on the front porch of his maison. You might not know that a woman labored over a hot coal foyer to get it there, except that if there aren’t enough plates or silverware, she is quick to sweep in with the needed goods.

Tonight we eat rice with a red, spicy sauce. The rice is usually cooked to death, as is the pasta. The sauce has the typical west African peppers floating in it. It is only very spicy if you get to close to the pimant, so I try to avoid them. Sometimes there is chicken in the sauce which I eat around, but tonight there is Wagasi, a soft cheese and a vegetarian’s dream come true.

The men sit in a circle on the floor of the front porch. If I’m not lucky, one of the men will fill my plate, heaping with more rice then I could ever eat. Tonight I dish up my own food and lightly splatter the sauce on top.

The normal drink for dinner here is Buille. Two days before, women boiled dry corn, milled it into a paste, and let it ferment for another day. Today they stirred water in, brought it to a buille and then let it thicken in a thermos before serving. It is acidic, with the consistency and taste of yoghurt. Sugar is added to sweeten the taste. I do not take the buille tonight because my stomach has been bothering me, but the rest of the men pour it into their cheap plastic mugs and enjoy.

Besides the normal greetings and occasional question or jab, the men switch into Beriba quickly, and eat and listen, imagining that in a year I might actually be able to understand what they are saying. I tire and zone out. I look at the stars and flashes of lightening, from the oncoming evening rain, and soon the mosque calls the men from their dinner. They go off to pray, and I go back to my house and read.

The first week...

This is a bit of a rambler, but I just finished reading Angela’s Ashes, and if you’ve read that book, you might understand. I have been finding that my reading has really been affecting my writing. Speaking of books, I would really encourage you to check out Harmattan by Michael di Cinto. It’s a great travel log of the West African Experience. One of the best narratives I’ve read since coming to Benin. As always, there is more on the blog.

A fresh year of school has begun in the village, and the children have arrived . . . with machetes and various other sharp objects. An American like myself might be disturbed by droves of teenagers wielding sharp objects, but here, cleaning the school yard is the first assignment for the students.

They chop tall grass to its death. The rain is slowly ending, and the grass will wither and die and not grow back till next school year. The next day they were responsible for cleaning their classrooms. But how? I just sat there, reading, until another teacher came by and ordered the two students who bothered to show up to “Go find brooms and clean up.” So they went into the brush, made makeshift brooms and brewed a storm of dust, pushing a wave of dirt, sand, bird feces, and trash out the classroom door.

The third day enough students came to class and I was able to teach. The students sat wide-eyed staring at me, not knowing what to think. French is not their first language. They speak Beriba, Fon, Peul, and whatever French they have learned in school. It’s impressive; some of them already speak two or three languages. Do they need English, a 4th or 5th? The second year students struggle to translate common commands from English to French. They know what they mean, I can tell, but the French is the hard part. One of them translates “no talking” as “ont ne doi pas parlé.” I barely speak French, and I can find three mistakes right off. Then they struggle to conjugate “to be” in simple present, the first verb that they learned last year.

The next day I have my first year classes. Many of them tell me this is their second attempt at first year English. They failed last year, so they are repeating. The failure line here is 10 out of 20. So you can understand only 50 percent of the material and still advance to the next year. Many of them do not.
I see a challenge to which I know I can rise. First I have to accept that success might only be three fourths of my class passing with averages like 11 out of 20. I sit in my concrete box, under my fan and go through the teaching materials. I open the student’s workbook and laugh out loud. On the first page there is a vague mumbling of a drawing that coats the paper. At the top you can barely read “Learning Situation Number 1,” at school.

I laugh because it says “Describe what you can see in the pictures,” as if any student, on the first day of English class, even if he could actually see the picture, would actually be able to form clear sentences. In the teacher’s book, suggested answers include, “The teacher is standing in front of the class holding a bag” and “some students are playing football while others play tennis.” Nice simple sentences courtesy of the Republic of Benin for the first-day of school. I suppose the repeat first year students might know a thing or two. I get a piece of brown wrapping paper and draw a picture so the students can actually see the subject matter.

The village, altogether says, “I get it, he’s an English teacher.” And now I don’t have as much time alone. I walked by a Nigerian man on my way to market and I find myself chatting for ten or twenty minutes before I go buy my 150 francs-worth of local bread from my favorite marché maman. It’s delicious, made of deep-fried bean paste, and dipped in a salty spicy sauce. “Ka yoka – good evening” I say to her and how are you and I am fine. Another maman to her right says “Ana coco no” and I understand what she means – come to drink the buille. I am pretty sure its buille that gave me intestinal parasites. After three days of medication and a metallic taste in my mouth, I am more delighted then I ever thought I could be with my regular, solid stools. Two weeks of Amoebas in my stomach is enough for me. I am going to be more careful about my drinking water.

Random people come to my house in the evenings. An English student, not in my classes, needs to know the definition of AIDS in English. A history teacher shows up during my feeble attempt at making crepes. I’m in a tank top and sweating profusely. His brother is here too, they are Nigerian. They want to practice their English. After 10 years in Benin, they are slowly losing it. I say sure but give me a few weeks. Then an Evangelical pastor comes. I’m suspicious, but he is a nice guy. He heard about me and wanted to introduce himself. He’s Fulani . His current work, he says, is translating the bible into the language of his people. They are farmers and are especially known among Peace Corps Volunteers for their Wagasi, a hand made cheese – basically the only cheese you can find in Benin without going to a big city. He says he can hook me up with some raw milk, which excites me a good deal.

He’ll take me to see his village sometime, it is close and I can get a sense for what the Fulani. He leaves and Jason calls. We talk for a good 10 minutes discussing the possibilities for raw milk. Of course, I’ll have to boil it first, but maybe I could make cottage cheese, or yogurt or butter. My mouth is watering until he brings up the roasted duck he’s cooking. My taste buds are no longer amused.

Giant clouds sneak over the hill, chasing the sunset. The wind comes first, slamming my steel door shut. I open it again, and sit on my porch breathing the heavy wind and watching the lightening. The rain starts and I go inside to be serenaded by its ping on the roof while I finish my class preparations for tomorrow. The Patron comes in to chat. He didn’t go to school at all, he says, his father couldn’t afford it. He’s a bit of a miracle I suspect. He leaves and I write and fiddle with my phones and write some more, and go to sleep.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The free time continues...

It’s windy today in the village, but then again, so are most days. The town is situated on the top of a wide hill, and even on the hottest days a decent breeze sweeps through. Sometimes, especially on days like today, it rattles the doors and bounces small drops of rain of the tin roof.

My house is small, but a bit bigger than my one bedroom room apartment in St. Cloud. There’s an indoor shower stall, but it is useless unless I first go outside to draw a bucket of water from the spiget on the side of the house. I have forged a kitchen area out of the big front room using a large table and a butane stove furnished by the Peace Corps. Insects are everywhere here, so I keep all my food in plastic garbage cans.

Sloppy green and white stripes play on the wall, my feeble and lazy attempt at giving the room some color. Like a cave man, making his dwelling a tad less dank by etching out some sort of design, I took chalk and drew faces next to the lines. It makes me realize that it really is necessary – to make beautiful our surroundings. A part of human life since the beginning.

Hearing stories of my friends without accessible water or regular electricity, I feel spoiled by various outlets and lights and of course the crown display - the large ceiling mounted fan over my chairs, coffee table, and school desk, the latter, loaned to me in a feeble attempt to make my house look furnished. The other night I was sitting under the fan, working up a sweat reading, when the Censeur stopped to visit in his heavy winter jacket. He doesn’t know what winters are like in Minnesota.

To the east of my house, there is a wall. On the other side, there is a pile of sand. On top of the sand, there is a goat. Goats herd through the concession everyday, scavenging for fodder, and today, they seem relieved. They breathe a sigh of relief today. Unlike their friends, they have survived the celebrations that followed the holy month of fasting – la careme – Ramadan, without meeting their own slaughter and death. I have survived too, and now I can return to my normal sleep schedule. Free at last!

When Patron invited me to join him in celebrating, I was suspicious. “You can come and watch!” I relented and piled in his car, with about 20 children, and we drove a distance that is easily walkable – to a field where all the Muslims joined together to pray and beg pardon as the month ended. It was about as organized as anything I have ever seen in Africa. A section of men dressed to the nines, in neat rows, sitting on their mats, and a section of women doing the same. Expecting to stay on the sidelines, I hung back, but before I knew it, I was sitting on a rug next to
Patron, holding prayer beads and being photographed.

The prayer began and there was no escape. I braced myself for embarrassment and potential heresy. I stood, knelt, put my head to the ground, stood again, and knelt again. My years as a liturgist taught me well. Trying to follow a common posture can take you a long ways. After the prayer, everyone greeted one another. My celebrity status as the only white- probably the first – to ever pray with them awarded me with many salutations of “bon prie!”

With leaving the field, a journey through almost every house in the village ensued. Patron had 100,000 CFA to give away to his poor relatives, and he did so dutifully in 1,000 CFA segments. We visited family members, the Chef de Terre, a sort of king of the village, the person who is responsible for praying for the village, various mamans, siblings and friends.

It was both a show of power and generosity. In his shining, expensive vestments and new leather shoes, he kneeled down in front of each of his elders and exchanged the familiar greeting. “A kpun an do? – did you wake well?” which solicits the respond, “Alafia.- In good health.” This is followed by a serious of grunts representing the serious of questions that were at one time asked, how is your house, your family, your wife, each responded to by a simple “oh,” yes in Beriba. The grunt, oh series continues until one of the two breaks into a normal conversation.

After we made it home, I hid myself in the house and found a place for my nose in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book I am sad to say, I had never read before. If I am anything when I am done here, it will be well read. I read constantly – a mixture of classics like Harper Lee and Hemmingway, and NYT best sellers like Dan Brown. I have never been a reader, I could never silence myself long enough to read anything, but now it is easy. It has become my primary form of entertainment, besides watching the goats in the front yard.

A week after writing about how I’m lonely, I can hardly get alone time with my books. Patron will burst in from time to time, and drag me along with him on various outings. Sometimes people will stop to chat, the Censeur from school, the President of the APE (PTA), the Deacon, or even children from church. When I do get lonely, I hop on my bike and go visit the mission, or wander out into the country.

The school year might start next Monday. It might not, too, depending on a mysterious teachers’ formation that might or might not take place next week. I’m starting to realize this is the style here. No one seems concerned about getting started. A sort of “we’ll get to it” attitude prevails and I have to force myself to relax my efficient American consciousness and enjoy my life. Enjoy the free time, and joy the rainy breeze, both of which will depart in due time.

Letter Number One. . .

I have become involved in a program that asks me to correspond with a class in the United States about my experiences as a PCV. Here is my first letter to them. I am going to be posting my letters on my blog when possible, so that I can load them with pictures, links, and information. I think this might be interesting for the rest of you too, so enjoy!

Dear Class,

I am very excited that I will have the opportunity to share with you my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin. Don't know where Benin is? Well that is one thing you have in common with a lot of Americans. When I told my family that I was going to be serving here, the first response was typically, "Now where is that?" Grab a map and take a look. My little country can be found in West Africa, nestled between Nigeria and Togo.

View Larger Map

Before I tell you a little bit about Benin, your teacher has asked me to tell you a little about myself. I was born and raised in Guthrie Center, Iowa, about 6 hours to the west of you on Interstate 80. I actually spent a lot of holidays in Aurora, because my mothers family comes from the area, so I know Chicago quite well for an outsider. After high school, I went to the Catholic University of America, where I studied for and received my Bachelors in Music in Vocal Performance, or classical singing. After that I returned to the midwest to study two of my greatest loves combined, music and theology. This spring I finished my MA in Liturigcal Music at St John's University in Collegeville MN.

I decided I wanted to join the Peace Corps last October when some Kenyans visited the church I was working for. As they talked about the diffuculties they have with AIDS and poverty, I couldn't help but realize how narrow my world view was. The Peace Corps has given me a chance to reevaluate myself and my life ambitions and to center myself in world that goes far beyond every day life in America. I have been invited here to teach English. I look forward to telling you about the school system here. In short, you are very lucky kids and you have it easy compared to the adversity the students face here.

I am excited that I have been chosen to correspond with a language class. Language is one of my favorite hobbies, and it might surprise you to know that I am as new to French as many of you. In college I studied Italian and German and in High School, I studied Spanish. I started to study French a few months before my July 4th departure date, and now, a half-year later, I am communicating pretty well with the Local people, though there is surely much more to learn! Because you are studying French, as time passes, I will try to share with you little things I have noticed about the French here. Hopefully by the time you are done studying French, you will be able to communicate well in both France AND French West Africa. Here is a start.

I heard once that Inuits have more then 30 words for ice. Since it is so cold up north, you can probably imagine why they might need to classify varieties of what to us is the same thing. It is for the same reason that someone from France might know what l'hiver is, but not know l'harmattan. They experience the winter every year, but there really is no reason that they would need to know about the dry, cold season here in West Africa. Language is really a product of culture, like food, music, dance, and dress. Think about it - why do you dress the way you do? speak the way you do? listen to your favorite music? It is all culture. The French gave West Africans their language, but these people have truly made it their own. In my oppinion, you are very fortunate to be able to learn about how French serves a variety of cultures!

Now about Benin. You might be surprised to know that the United States actually has a very strong tie to Benin. During the slave trade, warring tribes would sell their war prisoners to European slave traders, and they would be exported through ports in the Kingdom of Adome, now known as Benin. As a result, most African Americans can claim to be Beninese, just like I can claim to be German. As another result, one doesn't need to look hard to find similarities between African American and Beninese culture. Benin is considered the birthplace of Voodoo (voudoun in french), which explains why there is such a rich spiritual heritage in seaports in the West Indies and New Orleans. The slaves underwent unimaginable cruelty, but they still did not leave their culture behind. During Preservice Training, we had the opportunity to visit Ouidah, an ancient slave trading port. Check out this essay I wrote shortly after. I hope to share more similarities with you as time goes on.

It has been about a half-decade since the French left Benin. After living for a few decades as a communist society, quite unsuccessfully, they have undergone a very peaceful transition into one of the most successful democracies in West Africa. It has its share of problems and corruption, but you probably don't hear about it in the news much because it really there tend not to be problems with elections, famine, etc.

I have been placed in a village in the Commune of Tcharou, about 24km south of the city of Parakou. The people here are mostly Muslim and come from the Beriba ethnic group which actually comes out of Nigeria. I am slowly learning the Beriba language, which will be very important in Tcharou, because many people do not speak French. That’s another thing about the French here, though it is the language used for school and government functions, many people in Benin do not speak the language. This is usually because their parents could not send them to school and as a result they speak only the local language. There are about 40 cultural groups here, so this can make communication quite the pain! Check out the CIA Fact Book or more info about them.

I live in a little house here. I am lucky enough to have electricty, but water must be brought in from a spiget outside of the house. My living conditions are pretty good compared to many Beninese so I can't really complain. I am happy to rough it for a few years. It is a fair trade for the amazing experience I am absorbing right now.

Anyway, that is enough for now. I am looking forward to all of your questions. Please, ask away, and don't hesitate to check out the past couple months of my blog. You will find out a lot more about me and my experiences so far.

Best wishes for an Amazing School Year!

John Mark


C'est la maison!

The kids roasting the goat. Mmmm.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A lonely beginning . . .

Septembert 23rd, Tcharou, Benin
Every morning I am woken up by the wind rattling my house and rain pattering on my tin roof. The rain will end soon and then the Harmattan will come and the children will go back to school. I will begin my shortlived careeer as a teacher. The children look tired. Tired of vacation. Tired of apprentessing their parents. They are ready to go back into the regular routine of learning and memorizing, and being with all of their friends.

These first two weeks have been lonesome. I spent my time here surrounded by people who are fascinated by my existance but not neccesarily interested in who I am. Some people are welcoming, but often the hospitality doesn’t go beyond a handshake and « kah weh ruh ». I don’t take it personally. I am the outsider, and it is my job to get to know the community, and to get them to know me. It is difficult though. They see me as white. The « yovos » from the south couple with the Beriban « baturei ! » and the occasional Nigerian « white man ! » I am close enough to Nigeria here, that occasionally people speak english to me. I find their french far more comprehensible then their Small Small, the nigerian dialect of English.

I go take a few walks everyday. I figure if I really want to belong here, people have to get used to seeing me. They are. I am slowly recognizing people I have already met – the friends of the landlord, teachers, administrators, old men. My house is in a concession, which means it is really 4 or 5 houses set together in a square off the road. The landlord, known by the locals as Patron, lords over the concession and the village. He is taller than me, and young, no more then thirty five, and his ponch belly shows his success as a transporteur. He is clearly a story of rags to riches, made evident by his poor french and casual lifestyle. His new house across from mine has tile floor, a glass chandelier, and large leather chairs pointing towards his sattelite connected television. His gang of friends is omnipresent, especially during the season of Ramadan. They pray and break their fast together after sundown. I eat with them every night, a gift of Patron, and I feel a bit guilty not having fasted as the famished men dig into their starchy yams and drink their fermented porridge.

Its a man’s world here, and that is made clear by the constant work of the women. I’m not sure who is who. I don’t know if the Patron has one wife or two or three, but there are always at least two women around and they are always working. They wake me up, when they are making yam pilet outside my window before sunrise. I try to talk to Maman and I feel like I am in the way. I will ask her how to say something in Beriba, or how much an onion should cost at the marche, and she doesn’t stop her work to answer. She keeps pace, stirring her food and breast feeding the baby at the same time and gives me the information I need to know. Her life is pretty good, I imagine, living with the richest man in the commune, but at the same time, the American in me wonders what she could have been.

A few thousand miles away from the life I led as a church musician, I find myself drawn to the church. There is time for it here, and it is a good starting point, something I have common with the people, and that population is relatively small for the village. After wandering around a few days in a row, I found the mission on the outskirts of town. It has one of the nicest houses I have seen in Benin, and it is joined by a retreat house, an orphanage run by 4 nuns, and a library yet to be open. The mission is led by a priest and a transitional deacon who is perhaps as lonely as I am. He’s an outsider too, from the south, and isn’t part of the local ethnic groups that entrench the area. The things that bother me about the church seem a lot less important here in west-africa, where the weekly collection is a few dollars, and life is slow, and simple. I think deacon is amused, or at least fascinated by the fact that with my education, we are on the same intellectual playing field. He will be ordained in December and I tell him regularly that he ought to go and study at one of my alma maters. He is gentle and caring and I think that might be al you really need to be a good priest.

I have time now, to listen and to experience. My coffee tastes better to me now that I have to hold a funnel in the air over my mug and drip hot water through a filter. Sometimes, I feel like a hermit monk. Like Merton, or one of the other holy men before him, but then I look up from my writing, and see that a crowd of children staring at me intently. I ask them if they are enjoying watching me. They walk into the street, and play and shout and scream. The evening is noisy. The call to prayer rings in my ears. I may be lonely, but I am not alone.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Top ten experiences I have never had before coming to my village

Ten. Woken up by turkeys crowing out side my bedroom window.

Nine. Ate dinner with five african men and I was the only one in traditional african clothing.

Eight. Successfully greeted someone in the local language.

Seven. Eaten dinner on the floor.

Six. Woken by a goat fight.

Five. Been woken by women pounding yams.

Four. Chased children out of my house who randomly decided to enter.

Three. Washed my hands with gas.

Two. Made a savory peanut butter and onion tapioca pudding.

One. Heard a man peeing outside my window.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

I'm Out...

Well friends. Tomorrow I head north to my little village in the commune of Tchaorou. I wont tell you the name of the village for security's sake. But heres the map. Au revoir.

Agrandir le plan

Thursday, September 4, 2008

This is it. . .

In a phone conversation with my sister (theologianmom.com) the other day, I was led to believe that despite my flowery, esoteric writing, you all really have no clue what is going on and what will go on in the next couple days of my life. So, here you go. This is what is up:

Today, Thursday – Today is a shopping day for us. Angelina and I went to the Supermarché to purchase some necessaries, like bleach and cooking oil. After we did a little road side shopping, and I found a large plastic barrel for keeping water in my house and a mirror for staring at myself. Now, we’re at Songhai (songhai.org) for our last two hours of internet before we leave. For me, this will mean fewer blogposts. If at all, monthly as we are not supposed to leave posts for more then 24 hours in the first 3 months. This period is jokingly referred to as <> and is supposed to facilitate good integration.

Tomorrow, Friday – A bus will take all volunteers from Porto-Novo to Cotonou for our swearing in ceremony. The president of Benin will be there. As a reward for strong improvement in language, I will be giving a speech on behalf of the volunteers… in French. Shortly after I will be singing a solo in a song that was written for the occasion… and all of this will be done in a bright fuchsia Bou Bou. All the TEFL volunteers are wearing the same color of 40th anniversary fabric. In the evening, we will be having a dinner with the president. I think I have mentioned before that this is all a big deal because it is also the 40th anniversary of uninterrupted peace corps service in Benin, which is impressive, given all the political unrest many countries have had. Friday night, we will stay at Saint Jean Eude in Cotonou.

Saturday –We will return to Porto Novo. Then packing and the last day with the fam. If I have a spare minute, I might get back to a cyber, but who knows.

Sunday – A taxi will come to my house and take me to my new house up north! I will be sharing the taxi with one other volunteer. It will be packed and the roof will be piled high with mattresses, boxes and such. Fun times.

September – School doesn’t start until October, so I will have time to get used to life au village before it begins. I will need to find a tutor in French and Beriba, and start thinking about how I want to teach.

There is a chance that I will not be able to get to the internet at all in the coming months. I did buy a cell phone which will allow me to check e-mail when the cell phone provider’s internet service actually works. It is also a good way for me to follow news and politics.

More then ever, I will appreciate your calls, so if you feel like it, my numbers are 97956597 and 95829539 . The latter is my internet cell phone, which will be in my house at all times. My former number is no longer in service.

Wish me luck, and now more then ever, keep me in your minds and prayers. These next couple of weeks will likely be the hardest of the Peace Corps experience!

Respect at 3am

A major daily even for me continues to be the call to prayer; now two hours earlier as a result of the arrival of the month of Ramadan. I’ve joked in the past, suggesting that there is a mosque megaphone pointed directly in my bedroom window. This is a small exaggeration, it is actually just across the street.

Mosques seem like a good place to prayer, for some reason this morning, twenty minutes before call to prayer, two men decided to sing… loudly… this time legitimately right outside my window. Perhaps excited by the singing frenzy, the bread lady decided it was an opportune time to begin yelling, “pain chaud!” her hope I believe, to make money off of the starving Muslims before the sun would come up.

That coupled with 200 other mosques beginning call to prayer was enough to make me not like Muslims for the 30 minutes I was awake. As I said to Maman, I have a hard time respecting anything or anyone that wakes me up at three in the morning. I am happy to respect them at 12 noon, but 3am is pushing it.

I grumpily pulled out my ipod and started listening to Saint Saens organ symphony, followed by Verdi’s firey requiem. Comfortable music that helped me to fall fast asleep once again. Though many try to revive the hours in the Catholic Church;, including myself, I can see why they might have faded away. God loves me just as much when I am asleep; and I am pretty sure he would rather I stay that way; then be grumpy with the Mosque outside my window at 3am in the morning.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Almost there...

I had a wonderful moment last night. I woke up at 1:00 a.m. To the sound of excessively loud partying next door. When they party here, their parties are loud, be they a wedding, birthday, or funeral. They bring in tents, and most noticeably, big P.A. Systems from which music is played at top volume for the entire duration of the party.

I woke up angry – It was late – I was tired. I'm often accused of being an old lady like that. They were loud and it made me very grumpy. Then came the rain. The rain is like a pause button here. Life haults. In seconds, the loud speakers were all off, and there was a peace that can only be achieved with a downpour or an electrical outage. I ran outside to pull my clothes off the line, came back in, and fell fast asleep.

In a place like Minnesota, you learn to deal with bad weather. Since it only rains a few months of the year here, it is halting. I get the feeling that it is a chance for everything to stop - to rest. Sort of like a blizzard in the midwest, though honestly, that's not enough to keep Minnesotans from going to the store for milk.

I can't imagine what the dry season will be like here – seeing all the green dry up into desert – the dust blowing up with the dry winds. I wonder what will bring peace then, when there is no rain.

Tonight we had a big party with the Maire of the city of Porto Novo. We were treated very well, with a nice meal and significant entertainment, including several music and dancing groups. The downside, no vegetarian food. My entré, rice and cous cous. Honestly, had there been any meet that looked apetizing to me, I would have eaten it, but I can't help but be a bit disgusted by escargo, fish staring back at me, and tough chicken. I am used to seeing sanitary meat eating back in the states. We'll see if I will eventually break down and start eating meat here. . .

The entertainment was good. I especially liked the traditional dancing. I wish there had been a commentator to walk us through all of the dances. They were beautiful - bright costumes, headdresses, and various other props. It doesn't hurt their cause, either, that west-Africans are such beautiful, graceful people.

The music is growing on me. Right now, I struggle to enjoy it as I find it to be a bit heterophonic, if not caucophonic. I'm sure after two years, I will find some rhyme or reason to the rythms and melodies.


On Friday I had my language interview. It was nerve racking. A poor result could have put off my swearing in, but fortunately I passed with flying colors. When I went I first arrived, I was novice intermediate, which is sort of 101 level French. Now, I've gone up 5 levels to advanced low. That is similar, I suppose, to 103 or 104.

I am not going to lie and say I feel really great about my French, or that I really deserve that ranking, but I am confident at this point, that I can communicate with people. It might be crappy French, but I get the job done, and besides, I'm here to teach English, not French.

On a funny note, after receiving the ranking, the facilitator made the announcement that my friend and I would be giving a speech in French at the swearing in, because we had made the most progress. I didn't understand a word of what she said, and I had to ask a friend to translate. So much for advanced low.

Swear in celebrations this year coincide with 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps in Benin. The president of the country will even be there and all of our families are invited. It should be a ruckus.

Yesterday, Peace Corps took us on an excursion to Grand Popo, a resort village on the western atlantic coast of Benin. It gave us 6 hours of uncomfortable bush-taxi riding, and about 3-4 hours to relax on the beach, depending on how long one's bush taxi broke down for (Ours just had a flat tire, another van was set back by an hour because of a radiator belt).

Benin is not a tourist destination, so even the “resort” areas are pretty undeveloped. Fortunately, it's New Jersey. The riptide is so strong on the Benin coast, that one can't swim much here. I waded a little bit, had some good conversations, got a bit of sunburn, and maybe even a cocktail. I get the impression that these areas tend to be visited by diplomats, various volunteers and missionaries, and people visiting diplomats and various volunteers. I might come down to visit my friend Angelina who lives about an hour away, and hit the beach a little bit while I'm at it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Madam Nora and I shared a 6eme class this week.

I think I have explained that for dress here, the norm is to go to the Marche, find fabric you like, take it to the Tailor or Seamstress, and have your outfit made. I am waiting on my first outfit but several of my friends are on their second, third, or 10th. Angelina, Kristen, Naima, Claire, Sarah

Maman et Moi.

End of Stage in sight...

8 – 20 -2008

Life with model school continues. There are really wonderful days and really long tiring days. Sometimes I teach a lesson and think, “that was fantastic,” and sometimes I teach a lesson and want to cry. Fortunately, the latter happens rarely. This week I’m teaching 6eme, which is first year English. My students are 12-16 years old. The class size is a bit smaller because the divided classes so that we would have more time to teach. Right now, I’m with the lovely Nora, and we take turns teaching ever day. Half the days she teachers 2 and I teach 1, and the other days she teaches 1 hours and I teach 2.

It’s funny now, as I habituate to life here, how things that used to seem strange or odd, now seem completely normal. Several times a week, we go to a Buvette (Bar) after class. For me, the goal is usually to find some beignets (fried dough balls) on the street, but I usually end up having a soda, or some days even a beer. I don’t even think twice when the bar maman wipes down the table with gasoline to make the flies go away or when a goat (they call them mutons, but they’re not) wanders through the bar area looking for scraps.

I haven’t figured out the livestock system here. Were I hungry for a slice of goat or chicken, I think it would be quite easy for me to abduct an animal and have him for dinner. They wander around the streets looking for food. I have no idea how they find their way home.

They are apt little animals, especially the goats. I’m convinced that they are more skilled at crossing the streets here than most of the stagiers. They barely need to look both ways and they know when to bolt. I’ve yet to see any muton roadkill, which of course doesn’t mean that there is no such thing here – but really, I’ve always thought goats were smart. They are.

One of the highlights of my week was receiving a small package from Paul, master webdesigner and basso-profundo of the magnificent District of Columbia. Before leaving, we had discussed the possibility of him preparing a monthly volume of NPR podcasts for me. Sure enough, I received the first volume, including The Splendid Table, Wait! Wait!, Bill Moyers, NPR Religion, and Speaking of Faith. I’ve taken to listening to podcasts (and David Sedaris’s new book, thanks Ellen!), before bed. It helps me to fall asleep, not at all unlike my former All Things Considered naps back in the States. The CD came just in time, too, as I had just listened to my last edition of the Splendid Table for the 3rd time the day before they arrived. It’s the little things that make me happy here, really.

On the list of things to which I have become accustomed, I ought to add the five-time-daily call to prayer by the Muslims. This isn’t to say, I can sleep through the 5:30 call to prayer coming from a speaker phone outside my window, but rather that my body knows it is time to go to sleep at 9:30, so that I can wake up at 5:30 with the Muslims. Sometimes I wake up at 4:45 or 5:00 with the first cockcrow. Shortly after, at 5:00 the early-birds start chanting the call to prayer. A sort of rumble starts coming from the city. It grows, gets louder, and explodes with the Mosque outside my window at 5:30. It’s almost like you can hear the sun groaning in an attempt to rise. .

An interesting note for you liturgy dorks – I have several friends who are living with Christian families, catholic and other denominations, who get up at 4:30 every morning to pray together. Why do they do it? My friend’s host-father said, “We want to be first (beat the Muslims) to greet God in the morning.” The delighted cynic in me, can’t help but wonder if this is how the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office, which resulted in the breviary) started. Christians felt that they needed to compete with the Pagans and Jews among them, so they because praying at similar times. The fact that we borrowed practices from both Pagan (Lucernarium at night) and Jewish (benedictus) rituals.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Some Photos

As a teacher, I have rediscovered the joy of drawing chalks, and cartoon goat drawing.

Some local flair. Star and Castel are local beers. Youki is a beninese soda of which I am very fond. They have a flavor called mocha I like a lot. Finally, baignet, fried doughballs, because life is better fried.

See. Life is better fried. Fellow stagiers Lucy, Katie, Claire, Naima; all of the TEFL group.

Monica had a dress made with Immaculate conception fabric.
Angelina and I cooking up a storm. I just cracked a coconut against the wall and dumped the milk into our dish. Mmmm.

Bisous from Benin...


I taught my first two hour class today. It was draining. I am tired and my voice is soar. The class – fantastic. My feedback was stellar and I felt great about it.

There’s a little trick in French where you can use the phrase “Je suis en train due + verb,” which is sort of like present continuous, but translates literally as “I’m on the train of + verb.” Beninese like to shorten it, and sometimes say simply, “Tu est en train!” Which means “You’re doing it!” Really, I am! I’m teaching! I’m on the train. It feels good.

The yovo calling is still frustrating, but I’ve taken to chastising children using the following phrases:

“Il ne faut pas m’appele yovo!”
“Je ne m’apelle yovo!”
etc, etc.

I get a lot of confounded looks when I do this. It’s a shock for them, I think, because they are so ridiculously happy to see me, and they can’t possibly understand why I, a month plus after having arrived, am tired of being called a whitey.

Today Angelina and I shared a zem. We did this on Sunday when we went fabric shopping, but the challenge today was that we both were wearing back packs. Between that and our bulky helmets banging together, a good time was had by all, and my tailbone hurts.

Regarding my teaching, I’ve been having fun throwing in little things that the kids have no chance of getting, including.

1. I had the HRC logo in full color on the chalkboard with my grammar rule for the comparative of equality.

2. I did an exercise where the kids had to write sentences with comparative of inferiority. The exercise had a picture of two stick people, one named George, the other named Barack, and there was a < sign with the word “smart.” The answer was, “George is less smart than Barack.”

3. When talking about adjectives, I made all the girls stand up and I said, “Are you smart?” and all the girls said, “yes!” Then all the boys stood up. I said “Are girls smart?” I didn’t let them sit down until they said “yes.”


I know it’s normal for things to get lost in translation, but sometimes unfortunate things are gained. Today, my facilitator was ordering around classroom sweepers. I said, “A____ you are a slave driver!”

Later in the morning he came up to me, confused and a bit upset. He thought the term was some kind of nasty offense and Kate and I had to explain that it was a cliché – a harmless one at that. That having happened, the word really does sound awful to me, and I imagine it sounded especially awful to a culture victimized by the slave trade.
Today in language class I ended up in an awkward situation where my language facilitator wanted me to talk about my ideal woman. Not wanting to risk losing the respect of the facilitator by coming out (hey, it’s the culture, I’m trying to accept it), this is what I said,
*She must be very strong
*She must do all the house work
*She must be 20-30 years older than me
*She must not have a mustache
*She shouldn’t be intelligent
*She shouldn’t work except for in the home.

“John Mark – tu es bizarre,” was my facilitator’s response.


Every week, we have various cross-cultural sessions. The purpose is, I believe, to help us integrate and adapt. We cook, talk about stereotypes, taboos, and occasionally go on field trips like the one to Ouidah I posted about the other week.

Last week we went on trips to various places of worship, and then reported back to the larger group about the place we visited. With my group, I visited a Tron temple, which is a sort of voudon that comes out of Akra, Ghana.

Outside of the temple, which was no more than a mud hut, we asked questions in French which were tan translated to Fon for the Fetishman (priest). This particular cult has a positive edge. Their goal is to combat sorcery, which is achieved by sacrifice of animals and the offering of cola nuts through fetishes.

The cult is generally polygamist, and one must be married to someone of the same tradition to remain a member. There are also sexual restrictions – one my not have sex on the day he or she enters the temple, those days being usually Friday and Thursday. Yes, he did make sure that none of us had had sex before we entered the temple.

The beliefs of this sect are almost monotheistic. They believe in one great God, and believe in smaller fetishes that help you to communicate with God. The priest claimed to be able to help with fertility, illness, and all kinds of life situations.

The Beninese take their religion seriously here, and I’m really impressed by the peaceful plurality. The milieu of popular religion here includes:

*Voudon (Voodoo) including Tron and Zangbeto (Zangbetto is the cult with the men dressed up in straw that come out at night. If a woman sees one, she will die in three days.

*Christianisme Céleste – This is a very popular form of Christianism with animism. It has an interesting history. They have a series of anointings and baptism, but I don’t’ believe they celebrate the Eucharist.

*Islam & Christianity

*Eckism – My host family is Eckist. They believe in Eck which seems to be the Holy Spirit. It’s based out of Chanhassen, MN. You can imagine what a surprise it was to come into their home and see a large picture of a balding, white, Midwestern Man posted in the parlor. That’s the religion’s leader – the living Eck Master, Harold Kemp.


Today we went to a traditional medicine hospital. A couple of very serious men showed us around and talked to us about the medicine they use. It is all grown and made on sight, and is all originally African medicine (in other words, they don’t borrow from other traditional medicine traditionsd). They claimed to have cures for SIDA (AIDS), cancer, malaria, sickle-cell anemia, and diabetes. Some of my friends were upset by this. I wasn’t sure what to think. My guess is that 1. they probably do have some cures or effective organic drugs, but 2. they probably can’t really diagnose AIDS and various other diseases without doing blood work, which they don’t do so 3. they probably “treat” people for diseases they don’t have. What do you think?

They also offered spiritual consultations, which were sort of like fortune tellings that a few of my fellow stagiers took part in while the rest of us watched. I’m going to put a few pictures up on the blog shortly.


This afternoon we had an “Iron Chef” competition. I’ll be putting up pictures of this as well. The volunteer leaders divided us into three teams. I was with Angelina, Sarah, and Lucy. We were given a variety of useful ingredients and then one ingredient we must use (which was coconut). I’m pretty proud of what we did.

We made a curry stew with peanut butter (pâte d’arachide), potatoes, wagashu cheese (hand made cheese from the Fulani), and coconut milk. This actually turned out really well, but we still only ended up with 2nd place out of three. Alas. Fun was had by all.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Care Package Wish List

By popular demand, I have added a care package wish list.


I have not written lately because I am so busy with training. I am exhausted all the time. Training is intense now that model school has started. This is the “T.A.” part of stage (stage is training). With the offer of “free English classes,” the facilitators have managed to bring in almost 200 students, enough to have 2 classes of year 1 (6eme), and one class of year 2 (5eme) and 3 (4eme).

Every week, we get about 2-3 hours of in-class teaching. We are put into groups of trainees and we share a class for 2 weeks at a time, and then switch to another. Three people teach every day. This, plus language, cross-cultural, and bike training results in 60 hour weeks, and many late evenings. I come home and am ready to go to bed. Being a volunteer and all, there’s no comptime or vacation during stage, you just deal with it.

As an obvious result of it all, I haven’t done much introspection. I talked to Les today and she asked me how I was feeling about everything. I really don’t regret coming here to do this. I still feel good about it. The busy lifestyle helps me to look forward to going to my post, where I will finally be able to kick back and enjoy life au Beninois.

I taught two lessons this week and felt good enough about both of them. It’s funny to think about how nervous I was my first couple times performing in college. Now, for me, getting in front of a room full of people, especially kids, isn’t intimidating at all. I’m comfortable coming in and taking control. So far, I have had all the typical problems that were common with church choirs. Late comers, insufficient supplies, and talking.

Developing-country education has its quirks. Here are a few. How would you deal with them?

*Classrooms are essentially outdoors. They are like picnic shelter houses.
*Their roofs are made of aluminum or tin, so during a downpour, don’t even bother teaching.
*The classrooms might or might not have electricity, and if they do, don’t expect the light fixtures in the room to turn on. On a cloudy day, the kids might not be able to see the board.
*Classes are 60+ in size. Apparently at my post, I could have 80+ students in a single
*There is no textbook. We teach from a photocopy of a very weak curriculum constructed by the Benenise government.
*As a result, we write everything on the board. Every dialogue, every vocabulary list, every reading sample, every exercise, every quiz, the children have to copy into notebooks from the chalkboard. Not only is this inconvenient, it’s a terrible waste of class time.
*Imagine learning a language without the ability to look up a word when you’re at home studying. Imagine learning a language solely from one person. Every misspelled word, every mistake I make, becomes concrete in their studies – it’s in their notebook which becomes their textbook.

Lately I’ve been thinking about “development” – what if a country took all of its resources – all the aid it received from foreign sources, and invested it entirely in education. So that every child went to school for free, had all the text books she needed, and really had the freedom to learn and explore -to exercise her own self-motivation. I think if this were to happen, a country might really develop a strong, well educated populous capable of bringing the country into a new age of independence and success.

Today we had a cooking session. This involved a killing a chicken. In case you’re curious about the Beninois chicken killing processes, here are the steps.
**Killing a Chicken
1. Give the chicken its last drink of water. I’m not sure why they do this. Maybe it’s cultural.
2. Dig a hole in the sand.
3. Pluck feathers from the area of its neck you intend to cut.
3. Hold the chicken’s wings down with your feet. With your hands, hold its head and start cutting through the Chicken’s neck.
4. Allow chicken to bleed into hole in the ground. Give it time finish twitching and dying.
5. Soak in freshly boiled water.
6. Pull feathers out.
7. Gut and cook. Cook guts.

On a side note, a month before I left, I was discussing with Eikon the killing of chickens. The question was posed, "What would I do if someone in my village gave me a chicken. Sure enough, having never seen a chicken killed or plucked or gutted, I was able to tell him the entire process, step by step. I think the chicken killing is part of my inate German farmer identity, eventhough I`m several generations away from the farm folk - it is still there.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll tell you how we cooked it. The chicken was boiled in a pot just with water for a while. Later, a sauce was added. Here’s what was in it. If you want to make it, you can avoid hours of stone-milling by using a food processor. . . Don’t get me wrong, the milling was great, but activities like these make it evident why child labor is so popular here.

Sauce D’arachide (Peanut Sauce) – mill separately and then combine:
*ginger (pealed and diced)
*hot peppers (if you like spice)
*peanut butter (pâte d’arachide) – make sure it’s organic with no salt added.
*chicken flavoring (they add this to everything, I’m not sure it’s needed considering the gigantic chunks of meat)
*salt (they are pretty every with the salt in general)
*Add a can of tomatoe sauce for consistancy. They add tomatoe sauce to everything, I'm not sure its really needed.

I have to say, it’s funny – well, strange – to see my facilitators in the kitchen. These are strong willed professional Beninois who have surpassed many odds to be so successful. And then there we are, in the backyard, bent over stoves with them, - gutting various types of animals. On another cultural note, part of “being a woman” here is being able to touch hot things. They build up calluses and are able to pick up pans that have been quite hot on the stove. Crazy.