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 parlĂ©.” 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 marchĂ© 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.