Sunday, July 27, 2008

Some new pictures

This is a voudon fetish. He is a got of strength and fertility, hense the erection.

Naima had her birthday the day before mine, so we celebrated together.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Lots of Excitement


I received a call from Genevieve this morning at 6:15. We had trouble connecting
yesterday, and decided that she would call right before bed, and in turn, she would wake me up for my day of learning and excitement. It was good talking to her. It’s hard to be in a place where all of your friends are new. I am, though, happy that I am finding friends in my group. I’m actually more comfortable making friends than I ever have been before. My friends here are very similar to me – very motivated, independent, whimsical, and a bit strange. They’re good people to have around.

Yesterday I went to my first African Marché. Talk about commerce to the extreme. Thousands of ramshackle booths were circled by a thousand more vendors, each carrying a booth’s worth of goods on their heads. Head balancing is a trick I would like very much to learn during my time here. They do it with such efficiency and ease!

I bought a few things I had needed- a towel for 1800cfa, a shower scrunchy for 100cfa, some toilet paper for 300f. Of course, I afforded myself a treat, as usual. In this case it was my new favorite – FanMilk, an ice-cream like bar. I chose FanChoco today, which resembles a chocolate shake.

Don’t read this Mom: My final market treat was my first African sunburn (sorry Mom!). Not bad, considering I’ve been here almost 3 weeks. I know it’s the rainy season, but I did expect to burn sooner. I keep intending to wear sunscreen. The problem is that when I leave in the morning, the weather will be rainy and cloudy, and as soon as sun block is inaccessible to me, the sun will come out and dig into my neck. Anyway, Mom, I promise to be more careful about wearing sunblock. Really.

On another note, I haven’t mentioned that I went to my first Mass this past Sunday. This liturgy was at L’Église Catolique Notre Dame du Lourdes. Just like every other building here, the church was built with a sort of beach-shelter-house quality, with a frame of large cinderblocks, wide open and uncovered windows, and bright Immaculate Conception blue tiles for decoration.

This particular church has a statue of Mary above the altar. Below Mary, there is a
movie-theatre-like sign, backlit, saying “AVE MARIA.” On either side of the sign there are two bright headlights pointing straight out into the congregation. Would there be a musical about the Virgin Mary, this would be the billboard design. When I manage to dispel images of the dancing BVM from my head, I can’t help but think that the whole get-up is reminiscent of something a very Catholic trucker would tie to the radiator grill on his Mac truck. The bright headlights definitely help to sell that allusion.

I’m not sure how I felt about the Mass. It was not what I expected – or what I was
looking for from the Church in Africa. Because it was in Fon, I didn’t understand a word (though I eventually learned the word for Amen –nisha! – yay emersion!). Having my degree in Liturgical Music and all, I was able to follow the liturgy throughout.

Anyway – no dancing, no participating – the whole thing was all in all very American. There was a choir up front singing, mostly in unison, and a few people in congregation knew the music, and only a few could even participate in the ordinary acclamations. I’m going to keep searching for a church that meets the magical African ideal of vibrant,singing, dancing liturgy. The kind of Liturgy saturated with culture that liturgists back in the states rave about.

The next week holds much excitement for me. Not only do I turn a ¼ century old, I also find out where I will be posted in Benin. Next Wednesday my director, The principal of the CEG for which I will work, will come to Porto Novo for some training. Following, he or she will take me back to my post for my first post visit. Even more exciting will be my return trip, when I attempt to make it back to chez moi on my own!

I just ate dinner by headlight. This isn’t because the electricity is out, but rather, because the single fixture that lights the living room is broken. Mama has sent for someone to replace it. We are, however, losing electricity more frequently then my first few days here, but still, it has not become a bit problem. N’est pas grave – they would say.

Candle light would have been prettier as far as ambience goes, but I’m not sure it would have been effective, given the fact that dinner was with my host mother, and she was still concerned about my poor performance in my language interview yesterday.

Mama is such a sweetheart. When I told her I did poorly, she proceeded to take full
blame, and even chastised Tanti Marcelle, the aunt from Paris who is visiting, for talking to me in English and finishing my sentences for me in French when I’m trying to work them out in my head..

I know I will get by, but should I not – Mama will be by my side to take full blame. This is new to me. I love my real mother more dearly then anything in the world and she’s done an amazing job raising my siblings and I and supporting us through school, along with Dad, of course, but I would never expect Mom to take full blame for my failures as a 24 years old.

“Oh? You got a D on a paper for the first time in your academic career? I must not have held you enough as a child.”

“You failed your jury- surely that’s because you inherited my sense of pitch.”

Yes, it’s amusing, if not a bit enjoyable to have someone to take the blame for me. I think I should milk it for all it’s worth. :)

Today, the day before my Birthday, I found out where I will be posted. I can’t post exact locations on my blog because of various Peace Corps policies, but I can tell you a little bit about it. I’m in the Borgou region, in a town to the south of Parakou. Since I’m on the guidrone (the big paved road), I’ll have easy access to Parakou, Nattingtangou, and Cotonou.

Most people in this area are from the Bariba tribe. The tribe is mostly Muslim now, and speaks their own language.

Yams (iagme, not exactly what Americans think of), frluits, vegetables, are widely
available, especially in harvest season.

The climate has a rainy season, a very short hot season, a 4 month cold dust-storm
season (L’Harmatten), and a very hot season (La Chaleur).

On Wednesday, I’ll depart for my post visit. I’ll have more details then!

Sick of souhaiting. . .

Souhaiter means “to wish” in French. It sounds like “sweat,” which is what I’m doing
right now as I write this. Though I wish I were not – I am sweating, and I do sweat, allthe time. I bike to my class, enjoying the fresh breeze. When I arrive, I promptly begin to drip. I’m not talking about a dripping faucet. I’m talking about rain pouring from my forehead, down my back, and sieving through my jeans. I’ve made the journey to our training site many times now, and still I bike just as hard, and sweat just as hard.

The story doesn’t get any better. It’s bad enough that I induce my own sweating by
pushing too hard on my bike. It’s another thing to wake up in the morning and see the crusty white marks from where my wet head has summoned forth the starch that was
previously dormant in my bed sheets. Or perhaps to begin sweating like a I beast while eating a perfectly normal tasting meal, solely because of the effort you are putting into eating.

I wonder, if perhaps, a cruel committee decided to start the program here in the rainy season. I suppose, they figure if you can handle the 99.9% humidity and the torrential downpours you might be able to deal with Benin for two years. On the worst days, I bike to school in the rain, then the sun comes out – shining bright – a big middle finger, saying “If you had just waited 20 minutes, you could have bike in the beautiful sunny weather." But since you didn’t, you will start sweating too. Your sweat- it wont have anywhere to go because your clothes are already soaked.” Ah yes, a sweaty-wet mess. Welcome to the tropics.

Every morning when I’m deciding what to wear, I take a sniff-sample of my various
business casual polos and button-ups, trying to decide which one stinks the least. Since I’m washing clothes by hand now, I catch myself questioning whether my dirty clothes are really dirty. A little stench? That’s nothing that a clean body, and a heavy application of anti-perspirant can’t fix.

When I come home for my repos (siesta) sweaty, I change into a t-shirt and hang my
business casual to dry. If I’m lucky, after my nap and lunch, my shirt will have dried enough that I won’t be too disgusted to wear it that afternoon.

I’ve also learned that showering before bed is more refreshing that showering in the morning. Now my shower concludes a hot sweaty day, as opposed to a day of sweating. Because it’s the rainy season, it’s often cooler here in the mornings – like 80 degrees, instead of 95.

“High hopes, low expectations,” has become my mantra in life over the last few years. No need to set myself up for disappointment. I do however souhaite that my pathetic American body, might adapt to the temperatures of mighty west-Africa, or at least that I might get posted in a place less humid.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Some photos to share...

These pictures took me forever to upload. Perhaps Jason or Paul could log in and fix them up... yeah that would be great. (Done and done. PZ)

This was the first time the meat eaters were fed fish. A few weeks later. fish head does not even phase me... Thats Jessica by the way. I mentioned her in my last post.

This picture was taken when les enfants were napping on the floor. Children are comfortable sleeping anywhere here. By the way, the picture taking woke up the youngest which resulted in paralyzed terror. That was the first time Bilale had seen a yovo.

This is just a picture of some friends - Nora, Natalie, Nicky, and Jessica at the Bar at the Centre Francaphone where we have bigger sessions on health.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Les chançons

I saw a chicken killed today. I was visiting my friend Jessica. As we were about to depart, her mama d’accueil asked us if we wanted to watch them kill the chicken. I believe that Jessica had expressed interest at an earlier time. Anyway – there I was – the Midwestern vegetarian, watching a semi-humane chicken killing – a show of brute human dominance over creation. A little water down its throat, blood let until quasi-dead, and then chop-chop – off goes the head – the twitching body ready to be plucked, boiled, and eaten.

I have very few situations like this where all of the sudden, my French vocabulary becomes useful – rather the collection of words I learned translating French chançon during my previously unsuccessful career (ha ha) as a singer. I find myself thinking about those songs often, and find that they have supplemented my language learning with three genre of words – morbid, romantic, and Christmas. Note, though, that the romantic songs can be morbid, and likewise for the other genre. So, as a beginner and an awful student of vocabulary (I only manage to commit to memory those words that I can really use), I often find myself falling back to talk of dying lovers and crying lilies (divine lilies, I should note).

“Donnez-moi une phrase,” Abel, my language facilitator requests, after having taught us the simple past tense. “Nous n’avons plus de maison.” is first to come to mind, then “Ils ont brulé l’école et nôtre maître aussi.” He looks at me with a bit of confused fear, wondering why I’m making up sentences involving burning schools and instructors.

My art-song vocabulary prepares me to take on a variety of challenges as I embrace and absorb the new language. For example, from the milieu of French Christmas songs I’ve sung, both at church and in my grad recital, I think I could offer a short dissertation on the French folk theology of the divine incarnation. I was also the only person in my class that knew that né is the past participle for naître which is the verb for “to be born.”

Of course, I can also carry on a conversation about romance. In chançons, the singer is usually living in some sort of liminal state. I don’t want to wake from a dream, because it’s so wonderful to be with my now dead lover. Or wait - was that a malaria dream |see malaria medication|Sometimes I feel like a flower, in love with a butterfly. How wonderful it is to be in love, and how terrible it is not to be loved in return, etc. etc.!

Honestly, I haven’t employed my art-song language much yet, but I think the language of love, death, and Christmas is all together very useful. It reflects life here – where it seems all three are happening simultaneously, all the time. The chicken being killed (hélas!), the host brother dreamily longing for whatever, the loud people praying in the street outside my window. C’est l’amore, c’est la mort, c’est noël.

On education...

Culture is hard to get used to. The first few days I was here, I embraced everything, smelled everything – I soaked in the sounds, even when they woke me up – Africa alive and well, praying or playing in the middle of the night. A week later, I keep ear plugs by my bed.

At first the new culture is strange to me – a work of art. I’m careful not to judge its quality because I don’t know who made it. I don’t know the intention, inspiration, or the skill of the artist. I appreciate the artwork, because it’s in a museum, or on my best friend’s wall, or somewhere important enough that there must not be any problems with it.

Once you get to know the artist, you start to think about the skill and technique she employed in her art. . . I’m a bit disenfranchised tonight after learning about the grave situation of education in Benin. Very few children, especially girls, go to CEG (The junior high/ high school “college” system here. Last year, 4.5% of students who sat for the BEPC (the standardized test given after the first 3 years of CEG), actually passed the test. This is scary to me, and I think to most of the other volunteers. Already, so few children get to CEG, and even fewer pass out of it.

To complicate things even more, there are more than twice as many boys in CEG than girls. The primary goal of TEFL teachers in the Peace Corps is very direct – to teach English, but there is special secondary emphasis on empowering girls to step out of the box, and control and direct their own lives. As a male, I like to think I’m in a special position to work on gender development here in Benin.

To me – empowering girls to lead our world is more important than teaching them English, but I like to think that some English might empower all my students to lead the world. That’s a good thought. I’m captivated by our program director and pre-service learning facilitator. These are two Beninese women who are experts in their field, and have a broad sense of the state of Education in Benin. They know there are problems, but they don’t step away. I think if I were in their shoes, I might relent, give up, and choose another field. Not these women- they keep pushing and their dedication inspires me.

I’m trying, still, not to be judgmental of the culture. I’m trying to see past the numbers – the 10% child mortality rate, the 43% stunted growth rate. Day by day, little by little, it unveils itself to me, and I am reminded that all great artists make mistakes.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Reporting in. . .

roll africa morning
stumble up the hill to meet the sun
call the prayer
twist yourselves through one ear
meet cockadoodledoo in the middle

C’est moi – le yovo.

Well much has happened since I last posted. It’s becoming apparent that I was, perhaps, just a little too reliant on the internet. It seems like ages since the last time I “checked in.” Really it hasn’t even been a week.

So the most exciting part is that we are now in our host families in Porto Novo! Mine is great, although I still haven’t quite figured out who lives here. I spend most of my time with Mama, who is middle aged, and I share a small apartment-ish concession-type building across the courtyard with her son Theadore (25, and Accountant in Cotonou). All the modern conveniences are present – toilet, shower- In fact, we even have a separate kitchen space, which is where I filter and boil my water and store my bike. Theadore’s twin sister, Theadora, has 3 children. They are around a lot too – I think they live here. Obviously, this is the style of African Culture. As a result of the collectivism, there are a lot of people around all the time, and I’m not sure which of them actually sleep here.

As is common for upper-class Beninois, they have a domestique (house-maid) and a chauffeur. The first couple of mornings, I was driven to school, but I’ve recently asserted my independence by walking or riding my bike. The first day I tried to walk there, I got lost, and had to come back. It’s hard to get around here, if you don’t know the city, because they have an aversion to naming streets. It seems like common sense to me – label your streets! I don’t care if they’re paved or not, I can’t get anywhere if you don’t give them names.

I really do like Porto Novo. The difference between this city and Cotonou is night and day. Cotonou was grittier, smoggier, busier, and louder. Porto Novo seems nicer, quieter, and happier. I wasn’t sleeping well in Cotonou, and I tend to sleep better here. In fact, I’m almost to the point that I can sleep through the 5:30 call to prayer coming from the Mosque right outside my window.

I’ve been enjoying trying the local foods too. Our host families are paid to feed us three meals a day. Since I’m vegetarian, my possibilities are a bit limited, but I am still eating very well. Every meal consists of a big salad, some sort of starch (cous cous, rice, pâte rouge), eggs and cheese. The meal is, of course, followed by some of the freshest, most amazing fruits I’ve had in my life – Pineapple, Papaya, Oranges, Bananas (the Bananas are good!), and my favorite so far Canne à sucre. You can probably guess that’s sugar cane. It comes in a celery-like stalk, and you chew on it, suck out all the sugary water, and then spit out the left over fiber. It’s amazing, especially the thicker, juicier pieces. On another bright note here, almost everything here comes deep-fried. It’s like the state fair every day (though nothing is served on a stick). You can buy deep fried dough balls, plantains, patate douce (yes, sweet potato, but not like the sweet potatoes we know in the US), yams, pineapple, etc.

My French is coming along really well. I’m trying to use new words every day with Mama and the family d’accueil. I’m lucky, because my family speaks French very well, and they’re really able to slow down (doucement! doucement!), and enunciate words for me so that I can understand them or add them to my list of words to look up. The 2-4 hours of French I have 5 days a week are helping me too. The PC is very dedicated to making sure that we know the language before we go to the bush.

We have classes 6 days a week. They consist of language, culture, health and safety, bike-training, and technical training (in my case, how to teach). Today our facilitator gave an overview of the educational system. I’m glad they are teaching us about it before they send us out, because it’s very confusing, and I’m not sure I would come to understand how it works otherwise.

Yesterday was my first day off since July 1st, and I enjoyed it by relaxing, reading, and studying. On Saturday, Rosa the domestique, showed me how to wash clothes by hand. It was a bit amusing – she did most of the work. Every now and then I would try to do it myself, and then I would look up at her, and she would be laughing at me. She would take the garment back and do it the right way. It’s a lot of work. I might just pay to have laundry done when I’m at post. C’est le vie.

My final headline for the week is that I got a cell phone! Yay! And I get free incoming calls. If you want to chat, e-mail me, and I’ll give you my number!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Notes from le stage. . .

After we got back from the Peace Corps HQ last night we were served dinner. Jessica and I went up to the church here on the compound to see why people were gathering. She talked to a woman selling vigil lamps and I listened. I understood much of the conversation and came to the conclusion that some sort of chaplet or Marian devotion was to be said. I was right, around 19:00 a procession started with a glass encased statue of Mary. There were probably a few hundred people and they left the church, wrapped themselves around the dining hall and returned to the church. We watched them, like fish staring out at aquarium visitors. Fortunately for aquariums, fish don’t have cameras. A few people were snapping ethnographic studies, while I was just amusing myself with the music the procession was singing. I’m used to the clean recordings, the perfect sound, This singing was rich and rugged and deep.

I’ve been spending time with lots of different volunteers, and really enjoy getting to know all of them. They all have their own interesting stories and backgrounds and aspirations.

Yesterday, we went to the Country Director’s house for dinner. The house was quite nice, even by American standards, and we were spoken to by the U.S. Ambassador and her Regional Security Officer.

Today we went back to the PCHQ where we were subjected to various trainings, interviews, and language lessons. The most exciting part was the zemmijahn training. These are motorcycle taxis that most locals use to get around. No one wears helmets here – we’re required to (or they’ll send us home). I’m glad we do have to wear them, but we do look ridiculous, especially since we already look so strange to the locals. They will yell “yovo” when we pass by. It’s the West-African equivalent of Gringo.

Anyway – they taught us to bargain with the drivers. I feel silly dealing over 50 cents; but I guess we have to, to avoid being taken advantage of. The norm for a fair around Cotonou is about 100CFA (440CfA=$1).


John Mark: I Quit . . . for Now

This is the essay I wrote for Pastoral Music as it will (most likely) appear.

When I was eleven, I began to play the piano at Mass. Three years later, when I was fourteen, I discovered NPM, and my life was changed. Not only did I find new depth to my own ministry, but I also found friends and mentors who were there to help me along the sometimes treacherous journey of music making in church. I found myself drawn to the possibility of being a full-time pastoral musician, and my friends encouraged me. I went to The Catholic University of America, where I received my bachelor’s in vocal performance, and then went straight to St. John’s University in Collegeville, where I have just completed my master’s degree in liturgical music.
I’ve had the joy of working in many parishes as a choir director, cantor, pianist, and organist over the past ten years. While studying at St. John’s, I spent two years with the Church of St. Michael community in St. Cloud, Minnesota. After some significant experience, and finally having achieved my goal of working as a director of music and liturgy, I have come face-to-face with a few very difficult issues in the Church.
First, I realize that I may never have a true sense of job security. Especially as a gay man, with the likelihood that a new pastor will be appointed every seven year to any parish I serve, and the probability that I will be working without a contract (or, at least, an enforceable contract), my chances of a stable career are minimal. Second, the hierarchical Church as I have experienced it so far is generally unsupportive of liturgical music and the arts at this period of Church history. This lack of support leads to several additional problems, including poor moral support of liturgical ministers, carelessness in training and education, underpay, and bad benefits. Ultimately, insecurity coupled with lack of support causes burnout in the Church’s lay ministers.

Inspired by Witness

While I was sending out résumés to churches around the country, looking for somewhere I might use by newly “mastered” skills, I received a reminder in the mail that told me “it’s not too late to fill out your Peace Corps application.” This letter arrived only days after a Kenyan delegation had come to our parish, and it inspired me to start thinking about doing more service work. I began to think about joining the Peace Corps, and I began to realize how sad it was that I was worrying about fighting rubrics battles while people around the world were suffering from hunger, dying of AIDS, and living in paralyzing poverty. But it occurred to me that, during my studies at St. John’s and CUA, had seen beautiful examples of vibrant, sung, danced liturgies in many of the African nations that are facing such challenges. Somehow these communities had overcome tremendous adversity to give a roar of loving praise to God.
So inspired by the Peace Corps “calling me” and feeling unwanted by the Church in the United States that I have trying to serve, I filled out the application. The following week I was interviewed, and the week after that I was nominated, and after months of jumping medical clearance hurdles I am now ready to go to Benin in West Africa, where I will teach English and organize AIDS/HIV prevention programs.

A Period of Discernment

The next twenty-seven months will be a period of discernment for me. Sadly, I have a strong feeling that I won’t be working for the Catholic Church on my return.
Over the past few years I have seen a shift in attitude in the Church. When I began my ministry as a teenager, I felt a strong sense of community as the Body of Christ, where all really were welcomed. Today, I see a weakened Church, embarrassed by sex abuse scandals and injured by a revival of 1930s-style exalted clericalism.
I leave ecclesial music ministry with sadness, feeling that our Church has been damaged and searching for new ways that I can serve my world family. At the same time, I have faith in the People of God, especially my NPM circle of friends, to continue to work through these problems in the Church and to search out new solutions to improve care for dedicated ministers. Perhaps the time will come when I can come back to Church work, knowing that I will be respected for not just my education and experience but also for the human being that I am.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Zemmijahn Training

I'll post more tomorrow. Today we had Zemmijahn training. They taught us how to bargain with Zemmijahns for the right price, and then how to ride them without getting ourselves hurt. Everyone gets around on these moto-taxis, you get on and hold on to your seat and hope for the best. I hear this is the only Peace Corps Country that allows volunteers to ride them - it's essentially the only way to get around the country. They brought in a bunch of drivers and taught us all the tricks.
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Saturday, July 5, 2008

C'est bon. . .

Never in my life have I ever been somewhere as foreign to me as Benin. I’ve seen pictures. I’ve heard about the roaming rosters and rolling water and power outages. I’ve heard about the sweat and the heat and the cold showers. Now I’m experiencing these things for the first time, and I’m constantly amazed and amused.

Our flights were fine, although in both instances we waited on the ground for a significant time before take off. I’m finding that flying with people, eating with them – spending more than just “hello, what’s your name” time with people is the best way to get to know everyone. I’m still nowhere near knowing all 65 names, but I’m getting closer every day.

Flying into the city, we couldn’t help but notice how dark it is. There were a few fires, a few streetlights, but other than that, you would think the city were asleep. It wasn’t, though. The airport was wild, with all the folks from our big airbus flight struggling to get around one another to retrieve luggage, nagging porters, and a large group of PCVs (peace corps volunteers) and Staff present to greet us. It was a very warm welcome.

We packed into a bus (literally, like sardines), for a 20 minute ride to the location for our first few days of training. We’re at Saint Jaine Eude (sp?), which is a fenced in, guarded compound used, usually I believe, by service groups, coming to benin for small periods of time. We are here for four days, and then we are placed with our families. We’ll stay with our families for about 9 weeks.

So far I’m upbeat and excited, despite some apparent jet lag, and getting used to the sweating! I’ve decided not to get a cell phone for a little while, so e-mail and maybe the occasional phone call will be all I’ll have for the first couple of weeks. They encouraged this and I think it’s right. To really assimilate to the culture, I need to be focused on what I’m not doing, and not “getting away” to phone calls from the states from time to time.

This afternoon we’re in Cotonou for french evals, shots, and bike fitting. I'm almost out of battery, so I don't have any more time to talk.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Peace Corps Staging. . .

Staging is going well! It's kind of crazy to be thrown into a pool of a bunch of people who don't know each other, and to sort of discover with whom I get along/enjoy spending time with. Yesterday we talked about the peace corps, community development, anxiety and aspiration, and personal safety. I learned some fun things:

  • Only 250ish people have died out of about 180,000 volunteers. Pretty good odds, I'll say. Many died because of bad choices like getting out of the car at the safari and getting mauled by an elephant or falling out of a window.
  • About 1/3 of applicants end up being trainees. Not too competitive.
  • The breakdown is about 60/40 women to men.
  • Only about 14% have their Masters degree in something. I would speculate that even a smaller percent have a MA in something that is actually useful for their cluster.
So anyway, that's all I have time for today. Off to staging today, Africa tomorrow!