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.